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.

Friday, July 17, 2009

17 words

TED, the wonderful Technology, Entertainment, Design conference people hosted Daniel Libeskind in February. His talk, online here, is a lot like his designs, exploding with enthusiasms, stretching sometimes to keep with the theme.

So although I might quibble with his list of 17 words which inspire his architectural dreams, I came away, yet again appreciating the expression of his vision.

Expression is one of his favorite words. Risky, political, pointed and unexpected are some of the others that match the look of his work.

He tries to offer alternative experiences of space. Yes, does that.

He wants to be more memorable than forgettable. Okay.

"Cantilevered like its never been done before." Yep.

Communicative with what's present or past. Communicating like an argument, for sure.

But more raw than refined? Real not simulated? He says he tries to design from the heart more than the head, and values his hand more than his computer. I would have never said that. His towers look pretty heady to me. Rough, textured, tactile—? I wouldn't have used those terms, not for his buildings, all slick and shiny, glass and titanium. So maybe it's a matter of language. Maybe he's not a writer.
Visionary. Check.
Architect. Yes.

TED's slogan is Ideas Worth Sharing. So I'm sharing. Watch this talk. Be inspired.

Images of Royal Ontario Museum, Denver Museum, Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco, and the Brescia Tower, Italy, courtesy of Libeskind website.
More on the CJM here.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Second Life

Dry Thirst of Honor is one of the photos in a show that has surprised me with its staying power, some two weeks after I saw it. The work is by Chris Gentile. The show is at Gregory Lind Gallery, SF, and the title is Reincarnation Blues.

This is St John. I'm not sure if the image here conveys the photograph there, but that, curiously enough, is part of what the work is about.

Start at the beginning. These photos are of sculptural/installation works created in the studio/lab, but the photo is the finished presentation piece, it is the documentation from which you experience the work.
Thus the image here online is a picture of the work which is the photo, which itself is once-removed.
Hence the title—Reincarnation: re-invention, re-birth, return to life—a second life as a photograph.

Now about the work. The Work. It is an opus, for sure, and his studio an alchemical laboratory where pieces are worked up to create a semblance from which you, the viewer, might glimpse a greater truth—or feel the stirring of a feeling, or some such other movement of soul.

Saint John, I have to assume it is the head of John the Baptist for it looks like the shaggy severed head of the Forerunner. Or it could be John of the Cross, Saint of the Dark Night of the Soul, otherwise known as Despair & Depression. Or, it might be my projection upon the black mass, the massa confusa signifying the start of the Great Work of integrating the opposites represented by the alchemists as the white of spirit and the red of body.

Here in Saint John: Tide of Regret you see the black mass hung on the wall and then, by degrees, slide, fall, coagulate on the blood red floor.

Now we get to the other half of the title, Reincarnation Blues. The blues: in a black mood, down in the dumps, feeling low. Melancholy. After-the-party let-down, heavy and sad, blues.

Red, red, red river, bloody ocean of sorrowful memories/ Carry me to the deep blue sea, I hear you calling me.
Who will lift the fog of bitterness, pull aside the tide of regret?/ Who will avoid the undertow of sentimental drift?

Ocean Life by John Cale & Bob Neuwirth

This is Human Nature. It's my favorite. Gentile constructed a nearly nine foot tall conical white structure covered in hooks upon which he impaled, straight from the vat, Maraschino cherries, their syrup dripping to a pool on the floor. Photo one, the Red. Photo two, the White, skeletal, stripped bare of the fleshy sweet fruit.

Why is it my favorite? Besides for the wonderful allegorical display, this work shows precisely the magic power of image. The abstractness of the image as metaphorical concept unfolds intellectually. And, something else happens—imagination takes hold and the thing is experienced in the round, so to speak, in its wholeness. You imagine it in the room: nine feet of cherries, sticky, dripping, the smell of it. Such is the power of suggestion.

First Edition, 1964.

This reminds me of Yoko Ono's Instructional Pieces published in Grapefruit.

Light a match and watch till it goes out.

y.o. 1955 autumn

Go on transforming a square canvas
in your head until it becomes a circle.
Pick out any shape in the
process and pin up or place on the
canvas an object, a smell, a sound
or a colour that came to your mind
in association with the shape.

y.o. 1962 Spring

Drill two holes into a canvas.
Hang it where you can see the sky.

(Change the place of hanging.
Try both the front and rear
windows, to see if the skies are

y.o. 1961 summer

The reader can make or not make the works.
Gentile makes the work, but you don't see it. You see the representation and re-imagine it.
Integrating and re-animating the image—that's the essential alchemical task and its accomplishment is powerful, transformative magic. The artist and viewer share the real and literal power to create. Great stuff. Great work.

Grapefruit image courtesy of Wikipedia and ©Yoko Ono

Thursday, July 2, 2009

To Different Purpose

Today I learned the derivation of the name Buffalo chicken wings. I had always imagined buffalo, as in bison, but no, it is Buffalo, as in upstate New York, place of the original stingy hot sauce with blue cheese dressing on the side.

Buffalo is in the Rust Belt which means as a city, it has been in decline along with other massive-industry centers like Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Detroit, steel and coal and cars all going the way of dinosaurs.

Buffalo (Bison bison), on the other hand, are not on the endangered species list even though the Great Bison Belt which sustained them is long gone. They are, however, "near threatened" which is bad enough. What bison and Buffalo have in common is hard living in the snow. What Buffalo and Detroit have in common is living on the cheap. Poorest city in America: Detroit. Next poorest: Buffalo.

Photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre have been spending time in the ruins of Detroit, skulking around giant hulking buildings still showing the bones of great design despite wreck and rust like after a great calamity.

Theirs is not the only series on the subject I've seen. (Scott Hocking, for instance, lives in Detroit. I wrote about his work here.)

But what really caught my eye in Marchand & Meffre's portfolio of ruin is this:

A water tower in former East Germany. Looks like, but is so unlike the work of Bernd & Hilla Becher. Comparisons are odious (they say) and yet comparisons are illuminating.

Becher's water tower in Crailsheim, Germany.

Fraenkel Gallery, SF is just closing a survey show of their work, 1972 to 2006, the year of Bernd's death. When talking of the work, work being timeless, it is always in the present (tense) even if the subject of the work is things slipping into the past, out of production, into a stylistic oblivion.

The Bechers' work is so rigorous. Their delimiting technique (nicely explained here in an essay by Lynne Cooke for DIA) results in documentations that, as a body, create a survey of form. It is as if the subject (e.g. water tower) and object (photo of said tower) share an architecture—form, design, structure.

Their display grid (a framework) holds the images which are created within a framework that allows difference in structure to become apparent. Even though they document buildings and mechanisms in decline or near extinction, and collect evidence of a lost vital world, the work itself is devoid of sentiment. Their love is the love of form. Nostalgia or grief, social commentary of any kind, is extrinsic to their vision. The essence of their opus—which you really get when it is seen in contrast to another's—is form: shape, type, pattern, presentation.

The hand of the artist is very much at work here, and yet, conversely, in the work itself the artist is not at all present. Because the point of view doesn't change, you don't get a point of view. There's not a whiff of narrative, even though, in the end, the collection of images is a didactic display, a veritable textbook, anthology, typology. Like any work of strong character—Pinter, say, or Beckett—so much is said in the not-saying.

So different than the arresting, astonishing photos the other pair (Marchand & Meffre) capture. Here there's so much that's evocative: loss, decay, retribution—or whatever else one might associate with the rotten cavity of an abandoned dentist's chair.

How I went from Buffalo wings to dental decay—well, one thing leads to another. For sure.