Wednesday, March 2, 2011

di Suvero wins!

Today President Obama awarded the National Medal for the Arts to Mark di Suvero.

In a stiff and awkward ceremony, Obama made an absolutely painful speech trying to justify the arts and humanities. One can only hope that the Ford mentality which demands efficient and practical purpose for all things would loosen its grip on the American sensibility, but I suppose it is what makes us Americans... and "making things better" is the refrain of politicians everywhere.

Nonetheless, some wise one somewhere made the recommendation and the award was given and a great artist honored. Hooray! Massive soaring art wins!

di Suvero was in good company - Philip Roth, Wendell Berry, Sonny Rollins also received medals (and some 16 others too.)

Photo of The Calling courtesy of Milwaukee, WI City Data.

Thursday, February 24, 2011


This month was about meat.

From the series My Funny Valentine, 2010 by Anja Tanner.

The continuing carnation of Victoria Reynolds, Couchon Verni, 2010, showing at Richard Heller Gallery, Santa Monica, CA.

And out of the past but ever powerful, a series of eighteen photos of Suzanne Lacy with beef parts in a complex and amazing show about the body at Jancar Gallery in Los Angeles.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Eva Hesse

Heart of the Matter

Let me say this:
Eva Hesse was a formidable artist. Powerful, intense, capable. And even though people didn't always understand what she was up to, they sensed the boldness in her work, and at a time when women were barely given a nod she held sway, made her mark. By 1963 she had had her first one-woman show; by 1968 she had gallery representation. Two years after her death in 1970, the Guggenheim Museum held a retrospective of her work, the first such exhibition organized around a woman.

Just closed at the Hammer Eva Hesse: Spectres 1960, a show of paintings — yes, Hesse painted. Small, muddy self-portraits/self-expressions, a series created just out of art school, in which she is pushing the limits of paint, pushing beyond what she was taught, being as intensely, privately spontaneous as possible.

“Looking inwardly and outwardly and with paint as her guide, she began to paint herself out and away and ahead… The procession of paintings under examination here represents a rupture that, once completed (not as a formal solution but rather as a psychological denouement), settled back into solving the problems presented in abstraction, eventually evolving into the constructions that Hesse is lauded for.”

So said E. Luanne McKinnon, the show's organizer and Director of the University of New Mexico Art Museum. Nicely put. The denouement, final act out of school, a deep delving into the heart of the matter — the matter being identity and self expression — the last chapter: a small series of ghostly paintings, figures wrestled out of the murky gelatinous materiality of paint, stick-figures, notations quickly done. That said, that done, she went on to put her hands more literally into the matter, into matter, substance, stuff — tactile and plastic.

Latex, papier-mâché, glue, fiberglass, polyester resin, vinyl, ropes and rubber, wire-mesh, sculp-metal, wax and cheesecloth, found objects, bits and pieces, wood and balloons — this the stuff Hesse got her hands on and worked with.

If her paintings seem intimate, revealing, private expressions of anxiety and dread... then likewise the small objects that comprise a current show at the Berkeley Art Museum are intimately revealing of her touch, her hands making manifest.

Left in her studio at the time of her death, clustered on the coffee table, sold or given to friends during her lifetime, these objects are little experiments, test pieces, templates, and small hand-made pieces that stand in contrast to the large, fabricated works that she's known for.

Laid out on table-height platforms or grouped in glass cases, these "studio-works" are wonderful: diverse materials, sundry shapes, they sit there like a jumble of thoughts, sometimes imprecise and other times fully articulated in a short fashion.

It is a delightful show. There is so much liveliness in these pieces, even as the materials change color, harden, disintegrate. It is Hesse's own vitality in them — and that is the mystery of the matter, that the art object carries the animate intensity of its maker. Between these two shows, Eva Hesse is present, revealed, accounted for.

Sculpture images courtesy of Hauser & Wirth Gallery.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Beams of Light 2009

Close the door on 2009, but before it is forgotten I remember these moments of brightness.

1. The year began and ended with really fine group shows at David Cunningham Projects, SF. Trying to Cope with Things that Aren't Human(Part One) I wrote about here. Jigsawmentalama was just as good, a kitchen-sink (as in everything but) of a show turning on the idea of transformation, mutation, things being not what they seem. Best-in-show had to go to the prolific Skye Thorstenson whose Entheogen films (a set of six) were candy-colored, candy-coated, in a word ravolicious.

Packaged in Neo-Shaman Medicine Bundles of sequins and beads, these are light-dances of the New (techno) Age. A blessing indeed.

2. The video and installation, A Self Made House, by Lydia Greer, in the Master of Fine Arts Graduate Exhibition, UC Berkeley.

"A kaleidoscope telling, dismembering, and retelling of a strange American folk tale" which includes narrative, puppetry, and lots of wonderfully inventive stop-motion. I loved it so much. You can see it here.

3. Black and white. Good and evil. Right and wrong. Did I say black and white? The pen and ink drawings of D Young V at Gallery Three, SF just about knocked me out.

From some fantasy of the world made different after socio-economic collapse,
militaristic images are re-created, localized...

and the children take over. We'll see where this goes...

4. Odd One Out, the videos and painting installation, by Julia Oschatz at Haines Gallery, SF was so intriguing I had to see it twice.

The video in a box of her alter-ego, the gray eyeless dog-mouse, sawing off its ears to paint from the wounds is part Paul McCarthy, part Fischli & Weiss, but mostly other-worldly and I don't mean just because it's jumping off Venus, or maybe because it is.

This animal-soul-KA is often depicted way out in vast landscapes, a speck in the great unknown, lonely and completely endearing.

5. Speaking of endearing... The twenty-five screens of ordinary people simultaneously singing tribute to John Lennon (Working Class Hero: A Portrait of John Lennon, 2005) was just that, endearing. This was one of two video installations by the brilliant Candice Breitz showing at SFMOMA.

The other could have been called Mommie Dearest, but was simply Mother and I loved every thing about it — the pacing, the repeated small gestures, the overlapping dialog, how it conjured myself, my mother, and every melt-down I've been witness to. Fantastic.

She had great material to work with (no ordinary performers these, Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton, Faye Dunnaway...) but the edit worked the diabolical charm. In a perfect world, its matching pair, Father, another 6-channel installation (with Harvey Keitel), would have been playing in the next room.

6. In the Art of Two Germanys exhibit at LACMA, along with the best of the West, the art-gods Beuys, Keifer, Richter, Baselitz, there was a table-top display of the constructions of a GDR artist, Hermann Glöckner.

Cardboard box, cut in two. A teapot torn asunder.

Heidegger said when an object fails to function as it is, we catch a glimpse of ourselves. What I catch is a glimpse of a world upended and remade all in a simple gesture.

7. The Franz West retrospective, To Build a House You Start with the Roof, also at LACMA, was fantastic.

This one you wear.

This one is huge.

The materiality: plaster, cardboard, paint and glue. The best is paper and flour about which he says, "I have been working in papier-mâché for many years. I came to this material because it's cheap and easy to use. You can make it at home without too many complications. It doesn't bleed. It doesn't stink. And you can live with it without being afraid."*

8. Little art hidden in a bigger show. Called Stowaways there was, among others, a line of graphite low on a wall (by Zachary Royer Scholz), a soundscape in the elevator (Carolina Caycedo), and grease, bar of soap, banana on the floor (Wilfredo Pietro).

The bigger show was The Exhibition Formerly Known as Passengers at CCA Wattis Institute. Small, but certainly beams of light. Huh. Funny, nobody did that.

9. Meeting the bright light Mark Di Suvero himself at his show of small sculptures at John Berggruen Gallery, SF — I was completely charmed.

His whirligig steel and stainless sculptures were mighty fine too.

10. But the kicker, the all time high of the year was repeated viewings of the compelling, impressive work of William Kentridge at SFMOMA.

This is work that does not translate to text — especially this exhibition which included mechanical puppet-film theaters, full-wall 8-channel videos, projections, reflections, etchings, sculptures, animations... I had no idea how involved I would be in the fantastic theatrics of his world. Youtube has a sampling (animation and small theater) that gives some flavor of it, but only a taste of the immensity of his achievement. His work is as awesome, moving, and meaningful as art can get.

Weighing and Watching is a beautiful, evocative film and a perfect example of how he dissolves the boundaries between the personal and political, dream and reality. He says, "I think that one draws knowing what they are, and one has a tendency to be predictable. And a lot of the artwork is trying to find strategies to avoid that predictability, to surprise oneself."** The man is full of surprises. He is a powerhouse.

William Kentridge takes the cake.

*From the catalog, Franz West, To Build a House You Start with the Roof: Work, 1972-2008.
**From a short by Associação Cultural Videobrasil.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


Texturizing is not a word. But it sounds like tenderizing and tantalizing, and yet points to texture, so why not? Texture is what I liked best about a wonderful show of black, white, and spare work at Jancar Jones Gallery, SF.

Sean Talley creates works that look like prints, but are drawings—no, sculptures, really, made with very fine graphite dust. They look like this:

The edges are precise and the graphite reflective, dense, and deep. A wonder to behold, seeing into is nearly like looking into a still lake, a mirror and a depth both. That's the texture and it isn't actually deep—a thin layer, a millimeter, perhaps, of particles pressed into, onto the paper, yet, like space, deep and resonant.

He's made shapes and grids, but for this show the stand-outs are one-corner-missing pieces in graphite and plaster.

Anyone who's worked with plaster knows that, like graphite, plaster too is a fine dust. The gypsum packed tight in the drying process, remains powdery though, to the touch. How curious that the white plaster is dull and the black graphite reflective, the reverse of what we think of as the properties of light and dark.

Using "unassuming materials and refined processes" is such an apt way to describe his work. Subtle and pure—and I am tempted to touch them, which, of course, would spoil the whole effect.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Portrait of an Artist

Lately this is how I've been feeling...

But then I went to David Cunningham Projects, SF, and I felt better all over. Talking to yourself is very important is the title of an installation by Pawel Kruk. Talking to yourself is very important especially if you know who's who in the conversation.

Kruk has previously created videos in which he impersonates famous persons. Larger Than Life, for instance, is a interview with basketball star Michael Jordan, in which Kruk himself speaks for Jordan, mouthing sentences lifted from the autobiography Rare Air: Michael on Michael. He's also assumed the role of Bruce Lee and the amazing Olympic swimmer Dara Torres. Who we root for, we identify with. Projection or introjection: a bit of them in us, us in them.

This time he's taken on the persona of... the artist. Being an artist and playing an artist, which is it? Both I suppose. A crafted piece, the video that is one half of the installation, has the feel of an autobiographical confession, the young artist pondering his craft.

The Video

A black and white film projected upon the wall of the rear gallery: an enigmatic space, work tables, monitor, work lamps glaring in what seems to be an old gymnasium. Sure. A gymnasium, an indoor basketball court. Enter the artist, Kruk himself as himself. He walks the court lines painted on the floor, sits at the table, takes up a pen. There are profile shots, shots from behind, shots of the pen poised but making no mark. The artist speaks from a text appropriated from a novel, Hear the Wind Sing by Haruki Murakami. Murakami was inspired to write, to become a novelist, while watching a baseball game. The text is about the dilemma of making art. Despite the title, What's So Bad About Feeling Good? the tone is self-conscious; the feeling is guilt. There's some business about looking to the Greeks and how art then was made while the slaves worked. At one point, after Matthew Barney has been invoked, the artist gets down on the floor and performs push-ups. Barney is all about resistance. Resistance, tension, meeting the challenge. Barney also started out an athlete, that goes without saying I suppose, and did his first works in a gym.

This is a portrait of the artist as a young man. A youthful portrait of Barney is taped with painter's tape to the monitor. The monitor shows a rocking figure, face taped to disfigurement Douglas Gordon-like. Gordon is another athletic artist, wrestling as it were, with himself, persona and identity.

By the end of the film, even though Kruk has a degree in drawing, the pen he holds has yet to make a mark. Drawing Restraint is evoked.


The Installation

... in the fore-gallery, the furnishings of the studio are set up as in the film and if he is not otherwise occupied, the artist, Pawel Kruk himself, sits at the table tracing a limited edition of hand-drawn business cards: Pawel Kruk, a young artist. This is not an "Open Studio," Kruk points out. No. This studio is a construct. This is a performance and the issue is the work of art. Work as a verb. Is it an elite preoccupation or slavish, painstaking effort? Is it justifiable? Does it need to be? And what about fate?

Joyce grappled with these concerns in his Portrait of an Artist. Murakami too. It is par for the course for a künstlerroman. Barney climbed the walls testing his athletic-artistic metal, and then proceeded to enlarge upon his own particular concerns and obsessions until a whole personal mythology of interconnected narratives, signs and symbols emerged and like fecund sheep bred and multiplied.

Fate shows up in the content of a painting and a small projected work lurking like a footnote (its title in parentheses) near the floor. The story is this: on September, 1, 1939 a flock of sheep in Utah were hit by lightening. 835 out of 850 died. The shepherd and 15 ewes were knocked out but survived. Now that's a stroke of fate. September 1, 1939 was also the day, across on the other side of the globe, the Nazis invaded Poland. I can't do the math, but given the millions killed in the war, the ratio of survivors—certainly Jewish survivors—is comparable to 15 out 850. Did I mention Kruk is Polish?

This curious story of a decimated flock is inscribed onto canvas, pockmarked with paint blots as if by burn marks. It is a painting.

We have a studio, we have a painting, we have business cards. We have an artist constructing his own mythology out of history, infatuations, and weird twists of fate. The world responds with synchronous happenings. This show marks the second year anniversary of the gallery on the 70th anniversary of the invasion. The work for the show was created in a studio in a gymnasium while the artist is living in the city where Matthew Barney was born. If the show were extended a day, it would close on the birthday of Douglas Gordon.

It all comes together—and it is art. Performance. Construct. A self-portrait that is complex, thought-provoking, interesting. The map is not the territory, but it points to something. And that something is and is not the thing represented. At least, that's what it got me thinking. My point exactly: thought-provoking indeed.

Tim Ulrichs' photo courtesy of Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Say Yes!

Oh I missed the show! I wish I could have been there—Susan O'Malley at Ping Pong Gallery, SF. But such is life. And, evidently, not being there was just where I needed to be.

Being here now, I can tell you it made me happy (Be Happy Now) to discover someone else out there thinks these pithy, optimistic statements are worthy of re-casting as Art On The Walls. I would have loved to have been there feeling the vibe, like euphoria, bouncing off the walls and across the room, but online is the Next Best Thing!

An artist out of San Jose, Susan O'Malley's work is whimsical and wry, a bit like Miranda July who she's worked with, so the connection is deeper than name-dropping. She likes these inspirational statements for the effectiveness of their direct command and how succinctly they boost the spirits. These slogans are the avant guard of a positivist, aggressively optimistic can-do attitude that is distinctly American. Have A Nice Day and that's an order.
Don't get me wrong, the work is completely sincere as is, most likely, the wish behind every off-hand, Take Care!

O'Malley's posters are a direct descendant of Yoko Ono and John Lennon's peace works. Social engagement through art. Lifting our sights to a higher order. Anything is possible with the right attitude. I believe it. I know it. Art Saves.

These affirmations recall Barbara Kruger's work, but they come with less bite. It may be a generational thing. This is the Obama era after all.

There's something absolutely reassuring to be held by the authority of conviction that stands behind these words. Don't worry. We're All In This Together.

Togetherness is a running theme in her work—literally, running around her neighborhood, and also engaging with her audience, or extending an art-hand to the community. O'Malley takes a gentle, fanciful approach to social engagement. In conjunction with these limited edition inspirational posters, she's got buttons for sale or barter. You can wear your art/slogan on your lapel—right next to your Imagine peace button.

Yes, yes we can.

Also on her website, I highly recommend seeing her interact with her neighborhood in this low-key video, A few yards in San Jose. With simple gestures she makes the mundane a lot more interesting. For further inspiration and instruction there's also her how-to video, Ways to be an artist in residence. Believe me—It Will Be More Beautiful Than You Could Ever Imagine.

Kruger image courtesy of Mary Boone Gallery.