Monday, June 30, 2008

Barnes & Bollinger, By Golly

I had to ask. Are they real?

Yes. These large-scale photos in the back room of the Hosfelt Gallery, SF, were real, of starlings swarming over Rome.

See what I mean?

I've seen footage of masses of birds swirling, undulating across some spring lake on the Serengeti, but something about these grainy black and white images struck me as surreal in a different, dark dream-like way. I fell into the atmospheric mood Richard Barnes creates in these particular, not-technicolor, images of bird clouds—like dust clouds, ominous and otherworldly.

What a find—and not even the main show, just a coupla photos in the back room. The main show is a group show, Summer Reading: Artists Interpret Literature with word & book works, cut-outs by British artist Su Blackwell especially endearing.

Barnes does work in color and in previous years, Hosfelt has shown a wonderful series taken in the back rooms of Natural History Museums. How I would like to see this work. Imagine this, Smithsonian (Zebra) in person at 48 x 60 inches large.

It recalls the series Richard Ross did in the 80s called Museology. This is light-boxed rhino is at the Field Museum, Chicago, 1986.

And then there's the great Thomas Struth gazing at glassy-eyed museum grazers.

Barely hanging on, weighted by the heavy load of culture (what else could it be?), these onlookers are at the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg. In contradistinction, Hanging Cherry Branch, N 70, Düsseldorf is heavy with life: fecund multi-petaled blossom, light glinting off. This one of his exquisite flower photos.

Which leads me to tell of another happy find.

First, I found Richard Barnes tucked in the back room of a group show and then, downtown at Rena Bransten Gallery, Rebeca Bollinger represented by one photo in a group show called Dreamscapes.

These circles of light and blur are The End and The Beginning. Certainly the Alpha and Omega to me, the just-so, Above and Below, primordial first light (or last), full circle. Awe-some.

Like Barnes, Bollinger creates an atmosphere with abstraction and indistinction. Is it real? This is Left Hemisphere—the right brain approach: enter the flow of it, the presence of light flickerings, glimmerings. Quite extraordinary. See more here.

New find—new favorite.

Struth pics from ArtNet.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Bent's the Best

Great little 3 minute film by British director Jules Nurrish screened yesterday in the Transtastic selection of shorts about, by, featuring trans persons in Frameline, the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival.
Transtastic, it was.

Bend It is an art performance homage to Gilbert & George. Breast-bound artists Anat Ben David and Heather Cassils do the "bend it" trans dance atop pedestals. It's the song G&G danced to, in their own way when they began their life as art. It's a tight n sexy dance; they're buff n sexy androgynes. Oh yeah, "show me you're liking it." Bend it any which way you can.

Gilbert & George returned (backwards-like) to bending it and you can see a wonderful drippy dippy video on YouTube.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Big Buildings for Bad Guys

Here are the best bits of an article in today's NYTimes that addresses the slippery slide of working for money, power, fame. And likewise, whether money, power, fame can effect change for the good.

Bear in mind that semantics are not addressed, e.g., in my previous sentence, what determines "the good" ? In the context of this article: good is humane treatment of workers, environmental responsibility, protection of human rights and equality.

Four months ago the architect Daniel Libeskind declared publicly that architects should think long and hard before working in China, adding, “I won’t work for totalitarian regimes.”

Since then, Mr. Libeskind’s speech, delivered at a real estate and planning event in Belfast, Northern Ireland, has reanimated a decades-old debate among architects over the ethics of working in countries with repressive leaders or shaky records on human right.

With a growing number of prominent architects designing buildings in places like China, Iran, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, where development has exploded as civic freedoms or exploitation of migrant labor have come under greater scrutiny, the issue has inched back into the spotlight.

One lightning rod in the debate is Rem Koolhaas’s mammoth headquarters for China’s state broadcast authority, CCTV, a minicity in itself in a capital where cranes dot the skylines and nearly every famous foreign architect has a project on the boards. Mr. Koolhaas suggested at the outset of the project, which he was assigned in 2002, that by the time his tower — a hulking hollowed-out trapezoid — was completed, China’s censorship of the airwaves might well have changed. (The building is almost finished.)

Mr. Koolhaas is known for arguing that market forces have in any case supplanted ideology. Some interpret that stance as a way of avoiding the harder questions and a not-so-subtle reminder that money drives the most ambitious projects in the West.

Robert A. M. Stern, who is also Yale’s architecture dean, drew some criticism last year when he accepted an assignment to design a planned George W. Bush Library in Dallas.

Mr. Stern shrugged off the sniping. “I’m an architect,” he said. “I’m not a politician.”

“I’m a guy who has on my wall a picture of the guy in front of the tank,” said Eric Owen Moss, a Los Angeles architect, referring to the famous photograph from the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. “But I’ve never turned down a project in Russia and China.”

Mr. Moss has designed the Guangdong Museum and Opera House in China as well as a ceremonial plaza, Republic Square, in Almaty, Kazakhstan, which has been ruled by the same autocratic leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, since the 1980s.

William Menking, the founder and editor of Architect’s Newspaper, wrote recently, “To suggest that providing high-quality design justifies working” in China “is slippery ethics.”

“Albert Speer designing for Hitler might have said the same thing. His building itself is not political, but the act of building it, for a regime like that, is a political act.”

Mies van der Rohe designed a competition entry for the German pavilion at the Brussels Expo of 1934 that included swastika flags and Nazi eagles. Le Corbusier aggressively courted Mussolini and the Vichy administration in France to try to get their business. Apart from his notorious Nazi sympathies, the architect Philip Johnson was known for boasting that he would readily design for Stalin if the price were right. Some 600 architects from around the world — including Peter and Alison Smithson — vied for the commission to build the Pahlavi state library for the shah of Iran in the late 1970s; architects including Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown entered Saddam Hussein’s competition in the 1980s to design a mosque in Baghdad.

Bernard Tschumi, former dean of Columbia’s architecture school, said, “Some of the most amazing places were built because of dictators.”

“Architecture is always related to power and related to large interests, whether financial or political,” he said. Yet “there is a moment when the buildings are conceived as an expression of a political regime, he added. “Then it becomes a problem.

Mr. Sudjic of the Design Museum of London: “Now architects are careful about making emotional political stands about anything. That can seem like sophistication, or it can seem like evasion.

From I'm the Designer. My Client's the Autocrat. by Robin Pogrebin, NYTimes, June 22, 2008.

Read the full article here.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

New Jew Mew

I've been waiting for the fence to come down and the new Contemporary Jewish Museum to open. The blue cube has been peaking over the fence for months, winking.
The blue cube is the Yud portion of the extension, designed by Daniel Libeskind, enlarging the original 1907 brick power substation refurbished as museum. Another portion, the Chet, runs down the middle. Together, yud and chet spell L'Chaim, to life. New life from old energy (building).

The blue cube is set akimbo to the rectilinear factory building, jumping out of it like alive with energy.

The blue cube is 3000 blue steel panels, shade-shifting, glimmering and set with 36 diamond windows.

Wow. Wowwowwow, what a beautiful building.

Inside too.

The Yud room, center of the cube, is spacious, spacey. Presently it houses a sound installation: music by various artists commissioned by John Zorn to compose works inspired by letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The work by Erik Friedlander was playing; Lou Reed came next.

Inside and out, the building, the works, the whole shebang reflects back on a heritage, ancient and multivalent.

It's not what I expected. I don't know what I expected. The shards of light gather here. No secular museum space this: spirituality worn on the sleeve, woven throughout.

The inaugural exhibition is In The Beginning: Artists Respond to Genesis. The show includes a wide range—newly commissioned works, installations, illustrations, and an exquisite illuminated Haggadah from the 14th century. The biblical presence was strong here, as everything dealt in some way with "In the beginning..." In case you've forgotten, it goes like this:
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

My money's on Matthew Ritchie for Best in Show. His installation was one of the works commissioned for this exhibit. It is multilayered, so bear with me as I try to capture it. Across two walls is a squiggly black line drawing (magic marker) with six empty centers. Colored animations are projected onto these spaces to the accompaniment of various overlapping audio tracks, music and spoken voice. The animations depict swirling universes, formless and forming, tumbleweed worlds, fire balls, storms and clouds of birds, surging oceans, molecules, under sea whorls: universes all, great and small. From where I sat, the violin was more prominent than the texts piped from other speakers, but I caught these words: "unrest, confusion, misery." Then there was, "reversal, defeat, failure." That wasn't the whole of it, but that was the message in that moment of unfolding. The worlds turning, tumbling, transforming were mesmerizing what with the hypnotic music and stories heard but not heard. A great experiential depiction of the notion that there are universes within and beyond this universe which we barely know the top or bottom of.

Another commissioned work I really liked was a wall painting by Kay Rosen. Her response to the creation of the world is Do Not Disturb (with the hidden refrain, It Is So.)
The words are painted on one side of the wall, like this:

Like any good scriptural mystery, on the other side of the wall, are the reverse of the letters, revealing shadow numbers, 0, 1, 2 stacked in columns of three. Their sum is the title of the work: 063 signifying the Void, 0; the Perfect Work, 6; the Work by half, the imperfect world we inhabit, 3. Perhaps, she suggests, if we humans could refrain from meddling, the world could revert to its original (natural) perfection.
Perhaps. It's also possible that perfection wasn't in the original design. Perhaps that hermetic, sealed and still perfection isn't what creation is about, but it is more like Ritchie's worlds within worlds, always changing, unfolding, unstable, tenuous. The shake-up always right around the corner. The big bang.

The sound of which (the Big Bang) was a part of Ben Rubin's wonderful stainless steel sound sculpture. Modeled on the Horn Antenna built by Bell Labs in 1959, the piece also recalled the logo of the Gramophone Company... His Master's Voice.

Sounds picked up by the antenna were identified by scientists Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson in 1965 as background radiation, the remnant sounds still floating around space, of the explosion that was The Big Bang Beginning. Recordings of these sounds emanate from the sculpture, and right there, in the museum, you're hearing echos of creation. Awe-some.

If the Horn Antenna is like a giant earpiece, then a telescope is a giant eyepiece seeing deeply into the vast distances of the space that holds the mysterious sounds of the universe. Space also holds man-made mysteries and Trevor Paglen has been tracking them.

Paglen is a geographer-artist who hit my radar when he exposed the flight patterns to and from CIA secret prisons overseas. His work, photographs mostly, centers on the black world, the hidden network of clandestine governmental operations. At the Berkeley Art Museum he's showing new work tracing secret reconnaissance satellites. The Other Night Sky is an installation that projects on a large-scale globe an animation of the 189 satellites currently orbiting the earth.

Reconnaissance technologies today can locate individuals anywhere on the ground, record conversations, monitor and photograph activities everywhere and anywhere—defying borders and freely crossing the lines between public and private, legal and illegal. In his photographs, faint lines in the clouds, or between stars, are faint evidence: satellite trails, but the vast amount of information gathered by them is kept secret in the nearly impenetrable black world.

Science opened up the heavens. Galileo's telescope reframed how we understood the galaxy and our place in it. This revelation was the eventual undoing of scriptural authority, but that took some time—first Galileo was imprisoned. Paglen's photographs point to a networked authority wielding secret knowledge in a political inquisition. The parallels with the 16th century are uncanny. The issues of power, truth, secrecy recycle and the answers seem to still be in the stars, in the books, in the images.

Back at the CJM, there was a Barnett Newman painting, Onement II. It doesn't translate well as a picture, but trust me, it is beautiful, still, deep. Originally called Atonement in reference to Yom Kippur, Newman later changed the name of the series to Onement. Asking and receiving forgiveness for sins is the theme of Yom Kippur. Newman saw that his centered, balanced, still paintings weren't about getting right with god, but about being one with, being one, being whole. These are the ultimate global paintings, one without the other, without distinction, one, before the division of day and night, light and dark. From one all things are possible. Before one is a mystery. After one is possibility. But one. It's the place to be.

Onement takes the cake.

CJM exhibition photos courtesy of the museum; building photos are mine.
Paglen pics from
Horn Antenna from

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Mountains of My Mind

There was something familiar about these paintings and it wasn't that I'd seen Griff Williams work before. Nor was it the overlaid stencils, that technique of adding patterns onto narrative paintings to give the requisite look of deconstruction. (Yes there is an academe and they're all producing stencils.) No, it was the paint-by-numbers segmentation. I could almost smell the paints, in their little numbered quarter-sized pots. Very familiar this.

But wow. My paintings were never like this. These landscapes soar.

The show is Nothing Exists in Itself, paintings by Griff Williams at Stephen Wirtz Gallery, one of my top-five galleries in SF.

Like David Maxim, Griff Williams works with magnificent mountain landscape—the image of which has so been worked from Bierstadt to Adams, and then commodified with every picture postcard sold in every National Park to every travel brochure to become our image of "nature." Williams works in a very sophisticated way with this loaded landscape and manages to retain the whiff of mountain air.

The paintings are complex. First there's the mountain image which he splits and butterflies—bifurcates—so there's a Rorschach Inkblot effect. Hmmm, what does this remind you of? The inkblot mountain should take you somewhere. The image is broken down into areas of color and painted with his own paint-by-numbers paints, specially mixed to replicate the ones in the boxed sets of the 50s. Then there's the stenciled images: plants, insects, shapes and filigree—taken from various sources like the sketchbooks of Charles Darwin, for instance—these float on the surface and into the image. Layers of paint, resin, paint create an image that is at once flat, slick, graphic and deep, moving, luminescent.

They're really quite extraordinary, masterful and engaging. I used the word soaring. That's the effect of the stencils—as well as the size: 48" x 80", 57" x 57" —large. Williams comes from Big Sky Country. I have a feeling he's got a love of the land and an appreciation for how the image of it, The Land, The West, is just that, an image, managed, manufactured, kept in the consumer's fantasy to keep 'em coming back for more. The title of the one painting is apt: To Perceive the Object it Must be Frozen, in the mind's eye for, as the title of the show says, Nothing Exists in Itself.

But wait.

There's more.

In the side gallery, Stephen Wirtz is showing another artist upgrading childhood arts & craft. Remember sprinkling sparkles on Elmer's glue? Maybe from grade school? Laurie Reid uses this technique—to great effect I might add—to create whimsical gestural drawings of glass. The sparkly stuff she applies is crushed mirrored glass, gritty yet glimmering, shimmering diamond-like.


Friday, June 6, 2008

Outlaw Kisses

As if right on cue, after I write about the Berlin Memorial to the Homosexual Victims of the Nazi Era, the news has it that lesbian kissing is unacceptable in Seattle sports arenas. So there you have it—homophobia rears its ugly family-friendly head (just one of this many-headed monster's lip-smacking, fire-breathing faces) and screams: "Oooo, girl-kissing is icky!"

Right on. You know the drill. It's time to KISS OUT LOUD!

So maybe, after all, the dead, who cannot speak, might say, "Remember me." And then again, maybe they might say, "Kiss for me, my lips are cold."

Seattle Pride kiss from Lindes.
Chilean group kiss by Santiago Llanquin from Daily Life.
Tienanmen Square kiss courtesy of BoingBoing.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Dead Can't Kiss

In 2003 the German Parliament (finally) approved the motion to build a monument in Berlin to memorialize the homosexual victims of the Third Reich; Michael Elmgreen and Imgar Dragset won the design competition which was unveiled May 27. Their design lifts an element from the vast, solemn, monumental Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe created by Peter Eisenmann. It is one massive block (there are 2,711 in the larger memorial) and made specific by the inclusion of a video loop showing two men kissing.

[Because there were complaints that homosexual victims of the Nazi era included more than just men, the video (directed by Thomas Vinterberg) will alternate on odd years with films of other queer intimate encounters.]

I'm sort of reeling from the idea of the video monitor set into the concrete block.

There's something so ... crass about it. In your face. Posturing. Political statement. Wait, isn't that what this is -?

... no ... this is a memorial.

I know Elmgreen & Dragset for their Powerless Structures, a series of replica galleries set sinking into the ground or cut in half or floating suspended from large inflated balloons. These white cubes questioned the mechanism that makes institutionalized, white-washed, art containers work. What does the whiteness of the space say? Who controls what is visible in the cube? Is it objective space? etc. In 2005 E&G created a (circa 1980s vintage) subway platform downstairs at the Bohen Foundation, NYC complete with tracks, tilework, graffiti, and Tab cans; and a Prada store free-standing in the desert in Marfa, TX. Most of the time their work is site-specific: the subway unearthed the history of the neighborhood; Prada points to high-end consumption on the art-tour-trail.

Talking about the subway piece in an interview with E & D say:

Well, like a lot of our previous projects this installation is also about public space and how public space is laid out and in what ways we as citizens interact with it - how its design reflects certain power structures which influence our behavioral patterns. We don't do the same things in public as we do in private - or at least most of us don't.

We were once taking the subway towards downtown and got rather surprised (as the uptight Northern Europeans we are) by a female passenger suddenly starting to cut her toe nails inside the train car - something you would never experience in a German U-bahn.

Their internalized conventions were jangled by the "private" act in the "public" car. This made me think about kissing, and the uptight constraints in "polite" society against public displays of affection. PDAs are upsetting for some—especially when it's boys kissing boys. So we march in the street, hold hands in public, wear our skirts up high—whatever to break the rules—We're Here, We're Queer, Get Over It!

But... on a memorial?

In an article about the unveiling in Der Spiegel I read that just building a monument was controversial all along. The Nazi laws prosecuting homosexuality weren't taken off the German books until 1969. German queer acceptance has a long way to go.

Dragset and Elmgreen told Zitty that Neumann, the federal commissioner for culture, refused to allow an image from the video of the two men kissing to be put on the official invitation to the monument's opening. "(The decision) not to print the kiss shows that we still have a problem," Dragset said. "As long as people feel repulsed when they see homosexuals kissing, then something is missing," added Elmgreen, who called the kiss "the basis of the monument."

Gay PDAs are still dangerous, can land you in jail in some parts of the world. Something is still missing from human conscience.

But... this is a memorial.

It is a great art piece. It is provocative. Makes the private public. Addresses the issue. Reflects off other works. etc. etc. But what about the 50,000 tagged—the men and women and transgendered who wore the pink triangle? What about the 15,000 gassed?

This piece says, Never again. Turning away=silence=death. Never again. Not then, not now.

But there is something missing. There is somehow, with the inclusion of animated, live, contemporary persons kissing a loss of the presence of the lost ones, the dead ones, the murdered and de-famed ones.

Well, it is a small complaint. Better an imperfect memorial than nothing. Berlin is a city of memorials, some more effective than others. At the unveiling, commissioner Neumann said, "The experience of war and Holocaust, state terror and tyranny, puts on us Germans a special responsibility to protect freedom and human rights.

"We stand stunned before the brutality with which the Nazis threatened, persecuted and destroyed all those who did not correspond to their inhuman ideology."



*E&D installation photos courtesy of Nicolai Wallner Gallery.
E&D memorial photos courtesy of Der Spiegel.
The not-so-great pics of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe are mine.