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2014: The Year in Review

Ai Wei Wei:  With Wind, 2014 @ Alcatraz through April 14
Editor's Note: The following selections represent just a fraction of the many outstanding exhibits that came and went during 2014.  Below, we reflect on a handful that stand in memory. 
Ai Wei Wei @ Alcatraz
Ai is clearly one of the most tenacious artists on earth.  Jailed and harassed by the Chinese government and forbidden to travel, what does he do?  He commandeers (with help from Cheryl Haines’ FORE-SITE Foundation), a one-time federal prison and stages a human rights exhibition/protest that draws international attention.  All of it organized remotely via Skype and executed at epic scale.  It features the faces of imprisoned activists drawn in Legos, huge avian paper kites, and, most affectingly, the voices and songs of political dissidents.  Our review of the show – up through April 26 — is forthcoming. 
Haring: Untitled (Apartheid), 1984, acrylic on canvas, 117 3/8 x 143 ¾”
For a decade beginning in 1980, Keith Haring (1958-90) blazed a swath across the art world.  Emerging out of nowhere — and energized by hip-hop, graffiti and the anarchic freedom that prevailed in the years following New York’s rescue from-bankruptcy — Haring attained quick celebrity by propagating an instantly recognizable iconography in public places. The Political Line, a retrospective, represents him well by focusing on two significant aspects: his politics and the electric/hyperkinetic line. Haring’s politics are well understood.  The bigger story embedded in The Political Line has to do with the degree to which the artist continuously reformulated his visual vocabulary to express his views. 
Maggi: Motherboard, 2014, pencil on aluminum
At a distance, you could have mistaken the Uruguayan artist’s drawings for framed vapor. Which is to say nothing at all.  But, when you moved in close you saw aerial views of imaginary cities drawn in a hand so small and precise you wished for a magnifying glass, all the while wondering: what kind of savant/fiend created this stuff?  With works executed on tin foil, graphite and clayboard, and diorama-like paper cutouts encased in 35mm slide mounts, Maggi sought nothing less than to concretize the ever-widening gap between knowledge and knowingness.   
Ever since the painter moved from pigment to pixels, she’s drawn criticism from purists who wish she’d never abandoned the brush.  In point of fact, she never did, but the notion that she had done so persists, often overshadowing the brilliant conceptual framework undergirding everything she’s done over the past two decades.  Milk Made, a suite of hybrid paintings dealing with her life on a dairy farm, should lay to rest any doubts about the validity of her methods.  Her fluid combination of digital photo shredding and analog brushwork amplified the strengths of both approaches, making the point, in this exhibition, that when it comes to raising animals for food, beauty and brutality exist side-by-side.  It viscerally affirmed Oropallo’s status as one of the Bay Area’s preeminent artists. 
Pastine: Blue Orange 3-S4848 (Deep Blue)
Turning the human sensory apparatus into a tuning fork has long been a goal, if not a hallmark, of Light and Space art.  It most typically relies on synthetic and industrial materials to achieve bodily impact.  Ruth Pastine does the equivalent with oil paint.  With colors applied in seamless gradients onto beveled canvases that stand out from the wall, her paintings concentrate chromatic energy in a way that approximates the hypnotic states induced by minimalist music.  They set the mind thrumming.  
In handmade paintings based on an ever-expanding library of digital images, she showed the man-machine link to be an extension of bodily instincts and neural impulses: realizations ofa quest to develop forms that the artist said, "confront “the enormity of contemporary virtual experience” while asserting “the humanness of painting.” The results – seen in a 650-square-foot mural occupying two walls, an array of 1,700 objects cast in encaustic, and an eight-panel diptych – struck the nervous system like an electric jolt, blurring the line between the virtual and the real. 
Ellingson (Detail): Variation Apparent Reflectional Symmetry
Imagine unmooring the globe’s landmasses and suspending them in air from strings like a cosmic puppeteer.  That, essentially, is what Val Britton did in a room-sized installation of cut paper, pushing her estimable 2-D visions of terrestrial reality into three-dimensional space.  She also expanded her imaginary 2-D paper topographies. These she razor-cut into delicate, multi-layered skeins that abstractly depict highways and air routes sprawling above and across prairies, deserts, riverbeds and mountain ranges.  The effect was of movement and stillness, human time and geologic time, collapsed.  Of the many artists engaged in “mapping” Britton continues to be one of the most engaging.
Roy Lichtenstein, Study for Studio International Cover, 1967"
Drawing arguably remains the oldest and most constant thing in art.  How drawings are made, and the reasons for making them are as diverse as the artists represented in this museum-quality exhibition of mostly blue-chip names.  It emphasized work made from a place of intimacy — direct mark making, evidence of hand and the calibration of touch, with knockout works from the likes of Richard Serra, Roy Lichtenstein, Chuck Close, Sam Messenger, Tom Friedman and many others.  
With her penchant for stylistic shifts and lexicon of visual moves, the German-born painter is nothing if not flexible — cancelling and subtracting intuitive moves, constructing unstable, open-ended formal juxtapositions in befuddling works that remain in a constant state of flux.  In this suite of etchings we glimpse something almost recognizable before it dissolves into lyrical passages of swooning paint, only to be stopped dead by a flat-footed block of pigment shoring up tumorous appendages.  Collectively, the works on view showed an artist operating at the highest level, working against type, style and knowing. 
Anderson: Tom Selleck, 2014, a/c + collage on paper
The rich materiality of Anderson’s work on paper builds presence through accumulated acts: screen or woodblock printing, cutting, slicing, gluing, folding and painting.  He has great formal facility.  But in permitting “mistakes,” he creates pentimento, and that gives his work a visceral charge, suggesting that he doesn’t want to know what his next move will be – and, that he embeds himself within the making of the work.  His unbridled odes to beauty, ceremonial ritual and craft echo artisanal concerns that are now the subjects of museum shows across the U.S. 
This exceptional show of paintings and oil stick drawings answered complaints in the blogosphere about the sorry state of abstract painting.  Crosby’s modestly scaled, loose-limbed paintings create elegant, seemingly effortless tablets of paint tracks, trails, blots, and drools.  It is impossible to encounter this work withoutthinking about the physical tasks of painting, such as achieving a perfect symbiosis between surface and pigment, measuring how much or how little paint to load on the brush and how lightly or firmly to grip its handle.  Crosby’s apparent off-hand ease with these calibrations shows us the type of experience that only painting can provide. 
This 50-year retrospective, drawn from California collections, took the measure of one of Abstract Expressionism’s true giants, representing him at every important phase of his career.  From the Art Informel-influenced paintings of the early 1950s to the hard-edge/minimalist “Edge” paintings done in the mid-1970s and to the splattered, warped-grid paintings done at monumental scale in the 1980s, Francis emerged as the consummate explorer.  In a documentary screened at the show’s opening, Francis stated: “The artist is not the creator; he just stands at the hole of creation.”   Out of it came a volcanic energy.  

Maychack: Set Up, 2014, epoxy clay, pigment, wood, 18 x 18 x 12"
Confusing surface and support, freedom and containment, Maychack’s pigment-infused epoxy clay sculptures bounce our attention between the elasticity of the media and their wood “support” structures. Do the “frames” support the clay or is it the other way around?  Maychack, by skewering old modernist ideas about how painting and sculpture should to behave, renders the question null and void.  Like the shaped canvases of Frank Stella and Elizabeth Murray, at a vastly smaller scale, challenge assumptions, encouraging close examination of their nooks and crannies where the marvelous details of their creation are best savored.  
She painted on wildly shaped, multi-part canvases, and onto them she emptied the detritus of her life, creating a messy, autobiographical record of her life, which ended in 2007.  She was 66..  This exhibit, which included several monumentally scaled paintings, was mainly devoted to her two- and three-dimensional prints.  They demonstrated that she could do with paper what she did with canvas, which was to make it sculptural.  The images on view — some the product of as many as 90 press runs and involving collaging, layering, weaving and hand-tinting — displayed Murray’s formidable skills at an intimate scale.   
Newman: Jean Dubuffet, 1956
He wheedled, cajoled, sweet-talked, bullied, threatened, flattered, and, when necessary, pulled levers of power to gain access to people and places he needed to photograph.  By the time Arnold Newman died in 2006 at age 88, he had amassed as many images of 20th century icons as any photographer who ever lived. Masterclass, a stunning retrospective on view through Feb. 1, makes clear that Newman was the master of the environmental portrait.  He didn’t invent it, but he vastly elevated the concept by injecting into it the compositional mannerisms of mid-century Modernism.  The results were indisputably great.  
Subverting a part of art history long denounced by feminists for its incitement of the “male gaze” does not, by itself, qualify it as subversive.  What makes it so for Sherwood — and for us — is the way the artist recasts notions of female beauty in her own image, re-vamping famous odalisques by Goya, Giorgione, Ingres and others.  Overtop faces that once issued come-hither looks, Sherwood superimposed images of the human brain. Result: Her paintings return your gaze with a wizened glare that is as inscrutable as the workings of the mind itself.  The format of these was also unusual:  They were executed on the backs of reproductions of Old Masters which the artist spliced together, creating the effect of billowing tarps.  The show further cemented Sherwood's reputation as one of the Bay Area’s finest painters.  
Sherwood: After Ingres, 2014, mixed media on found linen, 78 x 84"
They were two guys from Van Nuys – guys for whom freeways, malls, subdivisions and Hollywood billboards formed the backdrop to their youth.  They were not, by their own estimation, likely candidates for cultural monkey wrenching.  But when Larry Sultan (1945-2009) met Mike Mandel at SFAI in 1973, they teamed up for some extraordinary collaborations, the most amazing of which was Evidence: 89 photos culled from a survey of two million images taken from corporate and military archives.  Pulled out of context and displayed without captions or wall text, they confound utterly and completely, opening up speculation as to what was actually happening in the strange and often bizarre scenes pictured. The effort, a predecessor to the digital image mining of artists like Doug Rickard, stands as a lodestone of Conceptualism. Sadly, it was also one of the last exhibitions for a landmark gallery that closed in 2014 and whose contributions will be sorely missed. 
Wetzl: Worldly Beings Viewing their Inner and Outer Universe 
A widely shared expectation for artists is that they reflect the historical moment they inhabit.  Wetzl accepts that notion, but also believes that vestiges of every stage of human evolution exist in the present.  To represent that idea, the artist creates “integrative maps” of human consciousness.  They show reason, faith, philosophy, genetic memory and biological imperatives colliding in a sea of historic, pop cultural and technological effluvia.  An unsung star, with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of visual and stylistic inventions, Wetzl is an artist whose own moment is long overdue.

Guy Overfelt isn’t the first to see automobiles as art.  During Phil Linhares’ tenure as curator at the Oakland Museum, art cars figured prominently — just as they do today at the di Rosa Preserve. You might also recall Renny Pritkins’ groundbreaking exhibition of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth at New Langton Arts. With that as the historical backdrop, gallerist and SFAQ publisher, Andrew McClintock, pulled off a great coup by shoehorning Overfelt’s hand-built racecar into his storefront gallery and installing it on a hydraulic lift so that visitors could inspect the handiwork.  The stunt did two things at once: It thrilled the part of us that remains permanently locked into the mindset of speed-crazed teenager, while awakening the adult part that understands all too well the hideous consequences of our addiction to fossil fuels. 
Handspring Puppet Company, still from Or You Could Just Kiss Me, 2010
In this text- and photo-heavy exhibit, South Africa, 20 years after the triumph of democracy, seemed to be having a conversation with itself, wanting to reclaim the hope of 1994 before utopian promises were broken, and before it was obvious how unrealistic those hopes were to begin with.  Among the many highlights was a video by the Handspring Puppet Company.  Its amazingly life-like prosthetic figures were paraded across a stage, enacting parables of youth, memory, old age, dependence and dereliction that, in context, seemed to sum up the nation’s continuing predicament. 
Matt Lipps @ Jessica Silverman Back in the film era, Time-Life issued an instructional series for would-be photographers.  It contained iconic images drawn from news events, fashion, scientific inquiry and the history of fine art photography.  Lipps used it as source material, excising images from the books, mounting them on cardboard and setting them on shelves before backdrops that he created from old negatives.  The set-ups, when photographed, appeared as theatrically lit wunderkammers.  They reminded us how strange and theatrical a photo inherently is and how easily it replaces a memory, or becomes one itself.

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