Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Year in Video

The sun is setting on the last day of this difficult calendar year. For days I have been trying to wrap my head around the year's art events, searching out some way of framing what I saw and what I liked. What I really feel is relief it is over.

But in sifting memories, notes, postcards and brochures, something emerged. This was a good year for video. (and film. Video and film. I lump it all together: art video, super-8, 16mm, the big screen, the tiny screen—moving picture art.)

In the Spring SFMOMA put on In Collaboration: Early Works from the Media Arts Collection. SFMOMA can pride itself as a leading institution in regards to video and its new curator of Media Arts, Rudolf Frieling, trotted out 30-year-old gems from the collection including my personal favorite, Transformer by Katharina Sieverding which is actually a multiple slide projection, but hey, the image appears to move. (I wrote about my love of her work here, so I won't go on about it but it was the highlight.) Also on view was a work by Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson, a walk in the park as it were, which I liked, and a Joan Jonas and Vito Acconci, among other things. It was altogether a good show.

As part of the exhibition, Frieling did a screening of funny/not so funny 70s art films (read this), things rarely seen.

John Baldessari, Teaching a Plant the Alphabet, 1972, 18 min (which can seem forever when teaching a plant).

Meanwhile, across the bay, a recent work by Joan Jonas was at the Berkeley Art Museum. The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things (2004-05) is a multimedia installation which incorporates footage of a live performance which itself includes actors, objects, music, multiple video and audio layers. It is at once rough and clumsy, and poetic, lyrical, beautiful. This was by far one of the most resonant works—resonant in a dream-like way—that I saw all year.

Coyote watching the unfolding drama. Coyote "floating' through the landscape.

Also in the Spring there was California Video at the Getty. It was an overload—an incredible array of video art. From the early days: Bruce Nauman!—Target Video Punk Performances—Alan Ackroff, Cornceptual Art (Art all the time when you have a conceptual mind)—Paul McCarthy, Stomach of the Squirrel, to recent big complex works: Jim Campbell, Home Movies—Bill Viola—Lynn Marie Kirby—Diana Thater, to name a few—what I mean by overload.

The great Bill Viola who is clearly at the head of his class was represented by two older works in the show and another, Emergence, in another part of the museum. This stunning slow motion, undulating, unfolding, timeless scene plays out the rebirth of a man from a (watery) grave mid-wived by two women at first sorrowful, then astonished. Besides the christian-Renaissance inflected content, this piece demonstrates exactly how far video art has come.

Video art is a challenge to present especially when there is more than one piece. At the Getty it was dark rooms filled with buzzing screens. The first hall had station after station of monitors (or vintage TVs) with earphones and little benches. The second space held larger works in small rooms, or simultaneously projected upon adjacent walls. The best though, was in between: the video study room lined with benches and touch computer screens showing the entire assortment of works. 62 pieces were included in the show plus extras shown in screenings inside and out in the garden. All too good, but too far away to see it all.

The Puppet Show at the Santa Monica Museum (which I wrote about here) included some great video art in it's survey of art-puppets and puppet-art. The clever curators there built video booths out of plywood. This worked nicely, little video stations.

Later in the Spring, CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts hosted the wonderful set-piece 8 by Ulla von Brandenberg as part of their series Passengers.

The eighth show of the series, 8 is 16-mm film, black and white, and silent, that runs for 9 minutes during which time the camera roves in a single tracking shot through rooms of a 17th century castle. Each room is a dreamlike tableaux of contemporary person(s), furniture, and objects, posed and static. Riveting and beautiful, the film, beginning where it ends, traverses the rooms and encounters a woman looking out a window, a sleeping man, a dead man and mourners, a cane leaning on a wall. Von Brandenberg is working here with theatrical tension, creating an emotional vocabulary which plays, scene by scene, over and over again.

[Reader, please note how often I've used the word Spring. This all happened in the Spring like someone said Video is the new Spring fashion.]

Altogether now, In the Spring...
In February, Pacific Film Archive screened James Bennings' silent 16 mm film casting a glance.

Over the course of 80 minutes and broken into 16 parts, like chapters, this landscape film, moving/barely moving, tracks Robert Smithson's earth work Spiral Jetty through seasons and years of change. It is not so much a glance as a visitation, certainly an homage, almost like being there.

Summer & Fall

A video of a different color (pink), Soft Sculpture Sunset, by Takehito Koganezawa both mesmerized and irritated me. It stands as a highlight of the year, seeing as how I can still bring it to mind, the two pair of hands, pink, yellow, white latex clad, squeezing and molding clay while a curtain waves and waggles in the breeze... well you gotta see it. Which you can here on the Christopher Grimes Gallery website. It is 5 minutes long and silent.

Astral Fields/Antepartum the video installation of face-to-face videos by mother and son Mary Kelly and Kelly Barrie shown as part of the CA Biennial at Queen's Nails Projects is a project that bridges many things, early art film and digital video being the most mundane connection. I enthused about it here.

The video art that wins my 2008 cakewalk is (drum roll) the set of videos by Richard T. Walker shown this Fall at that consistently interesting gallery, David Cunningham Projects, SF. I've tried to come to terms with—find the right words for—these works which traverse a literary territory so out of the ordinary, certainly out of the American contemporary, that I'm not sure I can do it now, even after discussing the very thing with Walker himself. Perhaps I could just be plainspoken. Or perhaps I can let someone else speak.
Here. Read this by Tom Keogh:

He combines a Woody Allenesque obsession regarding the complex language of relational psychology with images of breathtakingly beautiful landscapes and buccolic scenes. Art, personal relations as we try to understand them, and complex (often kitsch) notions of beauty and the sublime merge seamlessly in his work to create thoughtful and affecting ruminations on the fickle nature of the human emotional and cognitive processes. The direct, seemingly naive, gaze and the presence of the artist himself in many of the pieces allows the viewer a direct connection with these concerns as we stare out into the void, not of sublime transcendence, but of the failed connections and broken promises of a world created to help us rediscover our happiness.

I couldn't have said it better myself.
Well, alright, I wouldn't have put in the last bit—I'm not sure if the world was created to help us rediscover our happiness, whatever that means, but for sure happiness and the longing for it through relationship is one of the matters on which Walker ruminates.

tamed through the sculpture of past experience: letters from a valley to a mountain and from a mountain to a valley. 2008, digital video, 9 min 26 sec.

Dialog, at turns witty, but always going a narrow path between ironic (which would be insincere) and sentimental (which would be something other than sincere as well), is the vehicle here that makes these works un-American, and I say this fondly. Walker's ear for inner dialog, for the twists and turns of relational exchange, for the subtleties of literary and social conventions is so sharp that it is natural. (But far too literate and philosophical to be American.) That the words are spoken, as it were, by a valley to mountain, or about the feelings a tree might have about, say, a taller tree, well, that takes us into other territory altogether. (Yes, a pun.) The territory of which I speak is the land, or rightly written the Land. Land and the relationship to Land (the concept) and land (the place) is a central theme. All these notions lie in the background, behind our eyes, as we gaze out on the view. Land, landscape, nature, the ground of being and the idea of Natural, Eden, Paradise Lost (perhaps that is the created world Keogh refers to, the created map of Paradise for which there is no ground.) There's such a complex web of associations and inferences, projection and anthropomorphizing, through which we hope to have an experience of—for lack of better word—nature. And with a song or simple gesture—a wave—Walker cuts right through to the heart of the matter.

A favorite moment: applauding the landscape in outside the democracy of circumstance, 2008, digital video, 6 min 44 sec.

There is much more to be said, much more to be learned from these slight yet penetrating works. Like slim volumes on a shelf, I want to go back, again and again, to dip into and delight in the words and the grand view.

So Richard T. Walker takes the cake.

It was after all a good year. I saw video (which I love) like I haven't seen video before (lots) but I have to confess my one miss was somehow entirely missing out on seeing the West Coast Premiere of The Rape of the Sabine Women, the video musical by Eve Sussman that I anticipated with, well, not bated breath perhaps, but interest and excitement. But it was here, in San Francisco, and I could have seen it, so I add it to round out the list.

Well. That's that.
Happy New Year. May it be bright.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Kline Pages

I can't tell you, I was so excited to read in the SF Bay Guardian that the Paul Thiebaud Gallery was showing a set of paint sketches by Franz Kline. Oh my.

By far my favorite painter of the American mid-century scene, I am always happy to see his work, but here an opportunity to see something personal as well. Sketches are like that, personal, because they are the precursor to finished work, done behind closed doors in the intimate incubation of maybe.

The story is that Kline was stuck, trying to find the way to produce what he had in mind, sketching about. De Kooning said, Try this: take your sketches, project them on a wall, blow them up, see what that looks like. What they looked like was big and powerful; the lines had depth and impact; the brush strokes stood on their own as entities in themselves.

Entities in themselves.

The other story is that Wayne Thiebaud was visiting Kline in his studio. The studio floor was littered with pages out of the telephone book. Each page had a painted sketch. Kline said each was a study in preparation for a painting. Every painting was worked out before hand on these throw-away pages. Thiebaud asked if he could take some to show his students. Even though Kline thought it was wrong to teach art, he said, sure, only don't sell them.

This was instantly my favorite.

I know the phone book paper was cheap and handy, but it has an archival quality and invokes the combine/collage of the era. Nonetheless, the images pop right out of the print, they're such strong statements. Entities.

Seeing his sketches adds a completely new dimension to his paintings which are revealed to be built upon these fleeting expressions of momentary awareness. The paintings are not so much in the moment as built upon—like painting after a snapshot. The remarkable thing is that the paintings retain the expressive energy of the initial gesture, if not more so. When enlarged, the expression is distilled, refined, more powerful even. Like a full sentence. Or an edifice constructed from a few brief lines.

Kline in his 14th Street studio, 1961, by Fred McDarrah.

Further elucidation.

When I look out the window—I've always lived in the city—I don't see trees in bloom or mountain laurel. What I do see—or rather, not what I see but the feelings aroused in me by that looking—is what I paint.

Using expressive gestures, he paints feelings experienced while looking—or remembering, like this one called, Chief, the name of a locomotive remembered from his youth, which doesn't so much look like the thing, but the way it feels. This is really a high level of discrimination—of experience and expression.

I paint the white as well as the black and the white is just as important.

This seems very important to get. The white is as important as the black and is painted on too, not an absence of color.

And just because I can, let me add these two paintings. The first, Zinc Door, shows the beginnings of color. I like it, the force of the two squares and the blush of color above.

And this, a gouache and pastel sketch on paper, fantastic for it's messy urgency like writing something furiously in the night so as not to forget. These sketchy moments—capturing something elusive, a thought, a feeling—oh yes, don't forget—said in paint. Love it.

Photos courtesy of
City Review,
Stephen Foster Fine Arts,
Walker Art Center.
Thank you Johnny Ray Huston for the alert.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Time Based Homage

24 Hour Clock
Nam June Paik

120 seconds for 24 pictures. Playing with time, shuffling along.

—at the de Young Museum, SF.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

New Photographers

New to me any way.

In the new* Humble Arts Foundation group show, there's a portrait of potted plants.

Intrigued, I learned more about the artist. Peter Happel Christian explores the nexus of landscape, representation, perception and history through conceptually driven photographs that include elements of sculpture and performance art. What does that look like exactly? Like this:

Site in Sight

In Person 3. (The nylon net is as tall as me and as wide as my arms stretched out.)

These two photos are part of a larger ongoing work called, Near the Point of Beginning. The Point of the Beginning refers to a marker erected in 1785 which designated the boundary of new lands west of Ohio surveyed, mapped, and opened for colonization.

The area of the Americas West of the Point of Beginning.**

Make Believe (Birds)

He says there's a "synchronized mutation drifting between a descriptive reality and a constructed reality that resonates" within his work. This is true for Point of Beginning where the land and landscape (as understood by geographers and surveyors who grid the space) are interacted with, imagined, and documented. He approaches the subject(ive) place from a variety of angles, including the interaction of unseen others who have left their mark. (He calls these Pictures of an anonymous happening that I've missed.)

A synchronization of referent description and in-house construction also describes his installation, Dead Reckoning where his subject, water, is referenced (in photographs) within a space in which he highlights the resident controlled source (pipes).

The conception and control of nature are two themes recurring in Happel Christian's work. Familiar Ground: Front Yard Topography, 2003, is a series of 20 line drawings, portraits of rocks in his Tucson AZ home. Nothing else, just the outline of specific rocks, no other coordinates or landmarks. Singled out from the crowd, as it were, he lays eyes on the individuals, they are drawn, made familiar. Just like in his current work in Ohio, he was getting to know the ground he lived on. Yet these drawings are not the territory any more than a map or a photograph would be, but a familiarization with it in a signifying process much like naming, which is also a claiming process. My drawing of the rock.

I like what he is doing, taking this calculated approach to understanding and experiencing the world, extending the photograph's (and the map's) claim to representation to whimsical lengths. "Dressed up to look official; secretly stitched together," is how he puts it.

Hot Shot
John Mann is another new-to-me photographer discovered on Jen Bekman's online juried show, Hey, Hot Shot!
Like Happel Christian, Mann is a photographer interested in relationships to the land. He is also a map-maker, a map-manipulator in an even more direct way. These constructions are Folded in Place.

An exploration of his website is an exploration of the woods. The Cut Path is a series of exquisite black and white photos focused on some centrally vertical line emerging from the midst of trees or out of the mist.

I like this one especially.

Often overwhelmed by the plethora of images on the ether waves, I am so grateful for these online venues which conscientiously sift and cull for me. There's a certain stylistic consistency to their choices as you can see, say, by looking over the Humble cover shots of past group shows.

But that in itself is saying something about the current language of photography—something I think I will only really understand after some time passes. For now I am just pleased as pie when I discover something good, something I like, somebody new.

[*This post is late to be published—the Humble show to look for is #27]
[**You know I like maps and I'm interested in the designations of what's West and what's Midwest, etc. For other recently noted artist maps look here.]