Monday, February 23, 2009

Solo, So Very Fine

I ducked in out of the rain and into the Jonathan Solo show at Catharine Clark Gallery, SF.

Like walking into a white cloud, not exactly diversity-heaven, but diversity dream, an alternate dream world where anything is possible.

I say white cloud because these precious, precise, hand-drawn images are placed in vast vacant spaces of cream paper—a lot of light and space around these extraordinary drawings, even more so hanging in this white and bright gallery space. With the background context blanked out, there's nothing to do but contemplate the particulars carried on the face, on the body of the subject. A picture says a thousand words goes the adage. This is just how it feels when you are a man in a dress. "All anybody notices is my nails," says my tranny friend.

I say extraordinary drawings because Solo's subjects are more-than-ordinary, meaning not-commonplace as well as extra special. That they are sometimes (always?) composite portraits first composed of diverse elements on the computer before rendered in fine-line pencil is just part of the story. The other part is the singular, unconventional, gender-variant embodiment and presentation that certain individuals carry—sometimes secretly, sometimes out loud.

Solo's portraits point to the tension inherent in being out of the ordinary. This is What's Your Secret?, 2008, graphite & cut paper. Perhaps if you look closely you'll see the string which ties these genitals to the ring.

And then, like this, he points, reflexively, to the mixed reception cross or mixed gender presentation can get. This is stoggaF, 2008, graphite & cut paper.

Like the title of the boy-in-dress drawing above, I Keep Trying, Solo keeps trying to put the pieces together, like a puzzle, working out the equation to explain himself/herself/the self that is sometimes disjointed by one person's definition, but is always unique and deserving of a place in the universe.

In the alternate reality of his universe, there's a lot of mixing and matching, but unlike your usual cut and paste collage, in these drawings, it is hard to determine where one thing begins and another leaves off. The result, though, is quietly disarming. The subjects, composite or not, are exposed in an intimacy so rarely seen—and as you take in these signifiers of precarious difference, you notice, they stare, blankly, back at you. What are you going to make of it? Very powerful, very fine work.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Under the Milky Way

I've been thinking about this show I saw at Queen's Nails, every time I hear some song from the 80s... Thinking about what it means to feel sentimental about a song, about sentiment in music, about conditioning experience.

As part of the extended reach of the 2008 California Biennial, Queen's Nails Projects hosted D'nell Larson an LA based artist who works with video, performance, installation. There was a performance for this show, Under the Milky Way, which I did not see, but the video, Close Your Eyes and Think of Me, I suspect represents the experience of being there.

Sometimes when this place gets kind of empty
Sound of their breath fades with the light
I think about the loveless fascination
Under the Milky Way tonight

In this show, Larson is concerned with differentiating her identity from the milieu of her upbringing—the parental and collective culture—specifically in regards to music and musical memories. She wonders "what is inherent in one's own emotional response separate from the rest of the world?" The rest of the world, in her case, includes parents who are wedding singers. Not everyone is rooted in such an atmosphere of popular romanticism. Wedding singers, like lounge acts, sing to set a sentimental mood, to elicit a certain saccharine response that befits an occasion of romance. Well-known, popular songs are stripped of their defining characteristics and synthesized into a cliché of the original. What is retained is the core melody and the lyrics. Ah, the lyrics. The lyrics which are often banal, usually maudlin, certainly evocative. Everyone can sing along, for the performance triggers the memory of the band, the era, the album, the track, and all the associated memories of time and place.

So what did Larson do? She filmed, simply and without embellishment, her parents, Dennis and Arlene Larson, singing a selection of personally meaningful songs, in their studio. They are dressed casually; the camera is set for a middle distance shot. They sing versions of songs by The Cure, Nirvana, Interpol, to drum machine, synthesizer & tambourine. The video lasts 17 minutes and then it loops again.

Love, love will tear us apart again...

When I was there, I watched the screen for a bit, then turned and watched the street through the window, cars and buses passing, people strolling by, with Joy Division the audio track for the scene. Will I associate that stretch of Mission Street with that plaintive harmony from now on? For sure it is now wedded to the memories of driving to the album in Southern California, memories embedded in the emotional-response-portion of my mind.

But even more interesting to me is the way that these songs can reach in and elicit such feelings of longing, tenderness, dismay. The heart seems particularly susceptible to this kind of sentiment, across these musical lines, despite how they are delivered. After I adjusted to what I was seeing and hearing, especially after I looked away from the screen, I was reconnected to the original songs and their emotive effect. Powerful stuff.

In a second untitled video, Larson created a a moving image from hundreds of still shots of birds flying over water. While mesmerized by the halting image which wavers and repeats, and somehow curiously replicates looking overboard at undulating water—meanwhile, through earphones came the sound of Larson singing The Killing Moon by Echo and the Bunnymen.

Up against your will
Through the thick and thin
He will wait until
You give yourself to him

The film is a reconstructed memory, with feeling tone and meaning supplied, I suppose, by the song—which is sung à la familia. It is a beautiful piece in itself, but it also serves as a self-portrait. Here she works with the parental vocation, reconditioning songs, recreating associations, at the same time as reconstructing/constructing something of her own experience.

Wish I knew what you are looking for
Might have known what you would find
Under the Milky Way tonight

Larson, searching for her own singularity, found it interwoven, indistinguishably, with her world, culture, era, upbringing. Even memory of a particular moment carries all these associations. But the truth is, there is no I there in identity—or better said, I, as I experience I, is an amalgam of all that I am, I being a composite figure.

And all this because of a song.
What was it Walt Whitman said?

I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
Leaves of Grass, Song of Myself

Insects and Artists

Sometimes I wonder about the timing of things. Insects for instance. Butterflies here, crickets there. Not exactly the same, and to a different purpose. But still.

What I am on about is two very different shows that connected yet bounced off each other in a very... unsatisfying way.

The Haines Gallery, SF, is showing new work by Binh Danh including three of his signature leaf-portraits and a series of daguerreotypes. The series is called In the Eclipse of Angkor: Tuol Sleng, Choeung Ek, and Khmer Temples. There are photos of temple ruins, of young monks, of the museum displays in the killing grounds of the Khmer Rouge. These works reflect Danh's ongoing exploration into a period of time when a shadow passed over a culture. His work is an unearthing in a way, bringing to light a dark period, but in a delicate soft light as befits a memorial gesture.

In Cambodia, in the 70s, the Khmer Rouge regime killed some two million people in the span of a few years. Tuol Sleng prison and the area of mass graves in Choeung Ek are now memorial sites Danh visited and photographed. He makes a leap into the deep past by also photographing Angkor Wat, a huge, ancient temple site situated in the same region the Khmer Rouge originated. In Angkor, carvings depict Rahu, the dragon snake who periodically attempts to eat the sun and moon throwing the earth into a dangerous period of darkness.

Eclipse is just the right word for these works: in the daguerreotype the image is only seen when one passes before it. You see the ghost image in the shadow of your own reflection. These pics below do not do the objects justice, for until you stand in front of them, they appear as pearl-like, moon-like mirrors.

This is Ghost of Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum #1, 2008.

This the Killing tree against which executioners beat children, 2008.

The daguerreotype itself, as a medium, serves perfectly—as vague as memories, unclear, wavering in the changing reflection of the viewer's breathing. I found the experience of standing in front of them profoundly moving—the image of the dead, or the torture site, clarifying only against my own living body.

And then I turned and caught sight of the butterflies. In three frames, each with a leaf-portrait—faces are brought forward out of the shadows of anonymous history and printed on fallen leaves—and a butterfly, a sacrifice to the dead.

Iridescence of life #6, 2008, chlorophyll print, butterfly specimen & resin.

Walking, reflecting on the weighty experience of Binh Danh's transformative work, I go a few doors down the street and check in at the Marx & Zavattero Gallery. Boy howdy, an insect of another color. Just goes to show you it takes all kinds.

Paul Paiement paints insect-gadget hybrids with scientific precision in watercolor and egg tempera. Paiement is a popular-with-the-press painter, but not one to get on the band wagon, I gotta say I found a serious lack of oxygen in the room like when you fly too high. Pop! oh shucks, the balloon burst and here I am on the ground again.
Paiement is interested in imaging life forms in context of the technological which is to say he is interested in cyborgs, the fusion of the organic and inorganic. The Marx & Zavattero press release says these paintings provide optical amusement as well. Hmm. About as much amusement as synthetic sugar. Far too laboratorial for me.

This is Hybrids H - Hyalophora Xboxcontrolerae watercolor on paper, with attached bits ( “Ben Day dot/half tone patterns”), approximately 20 inches all around.