Bruce Conner (1933-2008) was arguably the greatest American artist of the post-WWII era, and his long-awaited retrospective, It’s all True, surpassed expectations by featuring prime examples of everything he was known for: paintings, macabre assemblages, conceptual pranks, photography, head-spinningly complex drawings and collages, and, most all, films. Verve, imagination and material invention are seen at every turn, but the knockout punch comes at the end of the exhibition in Three-Screen Ray (2006), a film that unites the themes that animated his career: “death, dissolution and pornographic eroticism, sometimes showing themselves to be one-and-the-same things,” wrote Mark Van Proyen. MVP's must-read essay on Conner takes the measure of the man whom he called “San Francisco’s quintessential artist.” On view through Jan. 22
Conner's show was preceded by an even bigger event: the reopening in May of the museum itself, vastly expanded to accommodate a gift of 600 objects from the Fisher collection, 260 of which are displayed in the museum’s fourth, fifth and sixth floors. “Those assets,” wrote Van Proyen, “are pretty impressive, including clusters of several works each by Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer, Alexander Calder, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Bruce Nauman, Philip Guston, Cy Twombly, Georg Baselitz, John Baldessari, Chuck Close, Ed Ruscha, Thomas Struth, Bernd and Hilla Becher and a slickly-chosen mini retrospective of Ellsworth Kelly that, a few months after the artist passed away, serves as a worthy memorial to his career as well as proof that the Fishers knew the difference between collecting the work of a favored artist versus merely accumulating it.” And that was just one piece of the opening festivities.
The museum’s photography collection got a vastly expanded new home on the structure's third floor, while new acquisitions – some 600 of 3,000 promised gifts – were interspersed across several floors of the permanent collection galleries. In his review of the opening event, Van Proyen praised these gifts, but worried about the increasing role played by big money in determining what’s seen in contemporary art museums, and, in particular, what the shift in cultural authority, away from curators to collectors and donors, might portend. It's a legitimate concern. But in this case, when you look what Doris and Donald Fisher bequeathed there’s no disputing that theirs was money well spent, as was the money spent to give their collection a worthy public home. Ultimately, proof of money’s influence, for good or for ill, rests with programming, and on that score we’re optimistic based on what we've seen to date — and, on what's ahead. Watch these pages for MPV’s review of SFMOMA’s upcoming Diane Arbus show.
For the opening exhibition of the all-new UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Curator and Director Larry Rinder pulled out all the stops. He organized a show that sought to make tangible the structures that undergird all life forms and life expressions, be they snowflakes, radiolarians, human habitations, distant stars, Venetian lace, mandalas or religious beliefs. The show cast a wide net, taking in everything from 2nd century Buddhist sculpture to Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s early 20th century diagrams of the human brain to sculptures made by insects, courtesy of the artist Thomás Saraceno. By dispensing with conventional curatorial distinctions and by presenting 262 artworks from many cultures spanning millennia, the show demonstrated how architecture could serve as framework for thinking about everything. Rinder’s goal, of using the museum as showcase for cross-disciplinary inquiry, was magnificently realized. As Meredith Tromble put it: "Architecture of Life shows that art doesn’t need protection from other forms of image making; it holds its own in active relationship with all the forms and histories of culture around us."
“Over more than three decades,” wrote Jeff Kelley, “Ireland reinvented his house according to
his experiences of living in it. Like most significant artists, he created the context for his own work. His house was the physical setting for that context, filled as it was/is with work, with works, and with the workings of his mind. In this he is likened to Marcel Duchamp, the patron
saint of 500 Capp Street, photographs of whom appear several times in the house. Duchamp’s famous indifference, though, in which he would “appoint” everyday objects to the status of art from an intellectual distance, is a bit dandyish when compared with Ireland’s hands-on interest in making something from nothing. Neither is Ireland shamanistic or utopian in the manner of German artist Joseph Beuys, with whom he is also compared. What he broadly shares with these luminaries is an interest in blurring the boundaries between art and life…Settling in the Bay Area after travelling the world as a younger man, Ireland recognized that the best metaphors emerge not from art, but from the process of living. What he added to the local brand of Conceptualism with which he remains associated – which draws upon cross-disciplinary combinations of eastern mysticism, funky irreverence, art school, and alternative space – is a strain of materialism he converts (over time) into magic. San Francisco has always been small enough to allow village elders to show the way. Magic still has currency here.” [The 500 Capp St. exhibit was accompanied by two other Ireland shows, one at Anglim Gilbert, the other at SFAI, both of which were reviewed in these pages. SC also published a remembrance from Ireland's friend, Amy Trachtenberg.]
Known in the popular imagination for making painting sculptural and sculpture painterly, Stella, for more than five decades, has parsed space, color and geometry in ways previously unseen
. Mark Van Proyen called him “the last of the great late-modernist painters…He was the first and only artist to transform the esthetics of modernist painting into something that approximated a global brand, and in so doing he became a kind of Pop modernist, and from that position he then became the leading exemplar of a neo-modernist counter-reformation directed at upholding and transforming the church of Modernism in response to the post-modernist reformation of signs and sign systems.” This retrospective traces the fantastic arcs of that journey, concluding with “sculpture that makes innovate sport with inventive CNC-cut aluminum forms set like clouds of frozen (albeit convoluted) smoke set in Calder-esque space.” On view through February 26.
Hawkinson, you could say, is the Harry Houdini of the art world. He creates problems from which he engineers escape, leaving behind baffling sleights of hand that encourage viewers
to question what it means to be alive. In his first solo show in this space, Hawkinson portrayed himself and his body parts variously: as a wood screw; a series of grotesquely distorted “masks” made of molded foam core; a microscope with multiple lenses built from impressions of his shaved head and buttocks; a giant quilt, the patterns of which are from the soles of his feet; and a planet-like orb, made from impressions of his lips. He also cast himself in the role of Leonardo's da Vinci's Vitruvian Man (1490). The original represented ideal human proportions. Hawkinson’s remake, Vitruvian Man Averaged, upended that notion by wrapping photos of his body around identical plastic bottles. Granted, there’s a fun-house-mirror aspect to a lot of what Hawkinson does, but there’s no discounting the seriousness of his intentions.
“Around 3 a.m. on July 20, 1969,” recalled Lawrence Gipe, “my parents woke me up to watch television. I was six years old. I remember the sensation of my sleep being interrupted, then sitting between my parents as we watched Neil Armstrong descend the ladder onto the Moon. After a few minutes we had hot chocolate and they tucked me back in. It was a good night for humanity.” What triggered these pangs of nostalgia? “Over the last decade or so, Gipe
continued, “Sachs has made an extraordinary pivot from glib one-liners to visionary maturity. It arrives in the form of the artist’s “personal Space Race,” the centerpiece of which is a full-scale replica of an Apollo Landing Excursion Module. That, along with 73 other NASA-inspired gewgaws, lovingly crafted from components straight out of Home Depot, form Space Program Europa, a museum-sized fantasy with no detail left unattended. It exudes, says Gipe, “a twisted optimism that, through our scrappiness, humanity will prevail and continue to explore.” On view through January 15, 2017.
“They rejected the commodification of art and, frequently, the capitalist system that engendered it,” wrote Marcia Tanner of the conceptual artists who were the subject of this meticulously documented survey, organized by Adjunct Curator Constance M. Lewallen.
“Their goal was to democratize art: to make work that would catalyze transformative experiences, expand consciousness and incite reflection, not simply create objects of desire. They wanted to render art anti-elitist, inexpensive and accessible to all.” Paradoxically, despite its massive influence on today’s art, “conceptual art, she concluded, “remains largely incomprehensible and alien to a general audience.” All the more reason to applaud a show that few museums these days would dare undertake.
Wither painting? For decades pundits have announced its demise — wrongly. Yet ghosts of past masters can be seen haunting art fairs. Those belonging to certain individuals, however, continue to animate discussion and actual art production. One of them is Jackson Pollock. I imagine him whispering in Amy Ellingson’s ear: “Use a computer.” This she does, creating hybrid shapes which she archives in a library of recursive forms that, when hand-painted and
arrayed in layers, dazzle and disorient, recalling things you know (or think you know) without ever establishing recognition. Stare long enough at these intensely tactile, color-saturated paintings and you’ll feel fresh neural pathways being formed; they are the byproducts of a labor-intensive, digital/analog process that effectively moves the century-old idea of nonobjective painting into the digital future, where obsession and distraction play tug-o-war, and where vestiges of the physical world and artifacts of the virtual seamlessly intermingle.
Arneson maintained that his re-creation (in clay) of Jackson Pollock’s pre-drip painting, Guardians of the Secret, was his “masterpiece.” Of this there’s no doubt. It may be the only instance in history in which a sculptor faithfully replicated a painting. The seven-by-10-by-two-foot sculpture shows Arneson at his peak, his penchant for self-satire and twisted caricature at its roaring best. The front of it gives few clues – it hews closely to the painting; but the backside
is a wunderkammer-cum-memorial to Arneson’s own life and impending mortality. There, unencumbered by Pollock’s painting, Arneson took liberties, the biggest being a reliquary/coffin containing replicas of Pollock’s head, erect penis and a single boot, along with visual quotes from Munch, Bosch and Picasso – all pointing to the artist’s demise. Art historians with a psychoanalytic bent could have a field day comparing the lives of the two artists. The unanswered question looming over this exhibition is: Why hasn’t SFMOMA acquired this piece and placed it on permanent view next to Pollock’s original which it already owns and displays prominently?
The two-carat diamond that artist Jill Magid had manufactured from the cremated remains of the Mexican architect Luis Barragán (1902-1988) aren’t much to look at. The stone is about as lustrous as a gumball machine trinket, its crude setting akin to something an eighth grader might make in metal shop. The story behind it, however, is as beguiling and compelling as any to have emerged from conceptual art in the last 40 years, involving, art world machinations, international property rights, copyright law, authorship, a love triangle and, most of all, a Brooklyn artist whose specialty is challenging institutional power. Her actions set for a new standard for performance-based activism: one in which empathy, scholarship, legal savvy and moral suasion replace mere acts of transgression.
David Maisel's environmental activism is subtle. His photos don’t issue direct appeals to conscience; they instead depict industrial ruins at a distance, seen from the vantage of airplanes. In this regard his work is akin that of Edward Burtynsky. The difference is that
Maisel’s work has always hewed a lot closer to abstract painting than to the conventions of documentary photography, and that distance between his true subject and the facts depicted on the ground is key how his pictures operate. That subtlety was even more pronounced in this show, Fall. Where prior series read as open wounds, this exhibition represented “healed-over scars” of agricultural landscapes, “evidence of the Earth quietly reasserting itself,” wrote Mikko Lautamo. “A century ago," Lautamo continued, “Malevich noted the relationship between aerial landscapes and abstraction; Maisel hones this notion to a fine point, reorienting land to reliably convey an alien beauty.”
Pace’s opening of a pair of galleries, one in Palo Alto, the other in Menlo Park, nearly got swamped by the simultaneous opening of SFMOMA. Nevertheless, its debut double bill – of James Turrell in Palo Alto and teamLab, at its tech-oriented outlet in Menlo Park – caught the eye of Robert Atkins. At the latter, room-sized digital projections “enticed viewers to reach out to grasp the image or abstraction before them — or what they think they see before them. In both cases, this is the old-fashioned magic of mimesis turned on its head: it is less the creation of the illusion of reality than the production of the unreal, which paradoxically demands convincing references to reality for its effectiveness. Is the hazy light emanating from the space real? Or is it an illusion derived from the reflective character of paint or glass?” teamLab’s work, Atkins concluded, pushes past “an experiential tipping point, transforming momentary dazzle into genuine and expansive engagement.”
Marcia Tanner called Piccinini “the troubled maternal conscience of the Anthropocene, an artist whose hypothetical, hybrid creatures are deliberately situated in a zone of unease…Verging on the monstrous, the grotesque, they’re also sensually and emotionally engaging, even sexy and
cute. They may look like botched experiments by irresponsible scientists…but here they are among us, sharing our space with emphatic vitality: emblems of “the whole gamut of [local] industries dedicated to blurring the distinctions among human, animal, plant, machine, electronic and digital forms of existence.”
For more than 54 years, Crown Point’s founder, Kathan Brown, has selected outstanding artists to produce editions from plates made in her SF studio. “One of the signature characteristics of CCP’s prints,” writes Maria Porges, “is a mixture of intellectual rigor and conceptual brio, often encapsulated in an austere beauty.” To delve this history, Valerie Wade, CCP's director, asked Ed Rusha to curate. The result was a “museum-quality show” whose “exquisite composition and presentation suggests a meticulous and thorough process, poetically cataloging the range of marks and methods,” executed by the likes of Vito Acconci, Joan Jonas, William T. Wiley, Terry Fox, Wayne Thiebaud, Julie Mehretru and others.
Field paintings from the Sistine Chapel? To the uninitiated, Sagerman’s monochromatic canvases could easily be viewed nothing more than accretions of deeply scalloped paint strokes. “But
the play of light on the works' surface creates undulating, gradient changes that trick the eye,” wrote Lawrence Gipe. “The artist begins each piece with a non-hierarchical pattern – a sketch loosely derived from passages in a Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco, God Separates Light from Darkness – and from these he created vortex-like swirls that approximate those of the original fresco…They move the eye kinetically (and hypnotically) across the canvases via shapes whose contours could only be traced to their 16th century origins by a Renaissance savant."
They scared the bejesus out of the white power structure and gave hope and assistance to people of color fighting institutionalized racism. As such, the arrival of this show — which mixes original documents, artifacts, publications, interviews with party members, FBI files and film footage of rallies — couldn’t be more timely, given that the forces sweeping America today are the same as those wrenching Oakland in the 1960s. The Black Panther Party, writes Robert Atkins, “existed for only 16 years, until 1982. But its immediate influence came quickly after its inception, and was illustrated by its meteoric growth: By the end of 1968 the party had grown to more than 5,000 members, in 38 chapters throughout the US…Kathleen Cleaver, a lawyer, former Panther and widow of Eldridge Clever, author of Soul on Ice, succinctly observed: ‘The Black Panther Party appeared like a comet and it reverberates still.’” Atkins’ review of the show, which runs to February 12, will be published shortly.
Measuring the shape and character of the universe is a mind-bending proposition even for those who claim to understand it. Crotty, an artist who is as comfortable conversing with astrophysicists as he is creating work about dark energy and black holes, brings together the disparate worlds of art and science in an ambitious exhibit called Look Back in Time. The title piece is an installation built of sheets of scrim that suspend resinous blobs and veiny skeins. It’s Crotty’s visualization of cosmic events from the Big Bang to the present. In keeping with the
largely theoretical nature of our understanding of such things, the artist takes fantastic liberties, mixing elements of Pop, Abstract Expressionism and Funk to build a semi-transparent, walk-through environment whose comic character reflects the absurdity of trying to understand events that are, at least to most of us, incomprehensible. More concrete, and just as engaging, is the companion exhibit of antique spectrographs, photos, logbooks, telescopes and other measurement devices organized by Lick Observatory. That is where Crotty spent a year in residence, performing the research that fuels this truly synergistic, cross-disciplinary, collaborative exhibition. (A review of the exhibition, on view through February 26, is forthcoming.)
Beyond Sculpture — a small exhibition indexing the restless experimentation of an artist inspired by nature and drawn to interrogations of structure and movement, line and play – sought to reestablish Claire Falkenstein’s once-vaunted position in 20th century American art. “Like Bruce Connor, she was both recognized and overlooked during her lifetime,” wrote Julia Couzens. “She won the patronage of Peggy Guggenheim and helped define Los Angeles as the center of contemporary art on the West Coast in the 1960s; but at her death, Falkenstein
(1908-1997) had faded to obscurity. This exhibition, curated by Jay Belloli, interim director of the Pasadena Museum of California Art, focused on the diverse materials and methods Falkenstein used to produce paintings, prints, jewelry, architectural commissions and sculptures. Sculpture, though, was the territory that Falkenstein’s art most substantially enlarged. Along with such artists as Eva Hesse, Lynda Benglis, Jackie Windsor and Lee Bontecou, Falkenstein expanded the methodology of sculpture to include strategies of accretion, imperfection and open-handed play. She infused every scrap of material she touched with intuitive, organic expression.”
Gawky, totemic, retina-tingling and multi-layered, Tom Burckhardt’s paintings don’t just split the difference between representation and abstraction; they render the distinction null and void. The eleven works that comprised City Slang mixed the tribal-influenced abstract painting of Steve Wheeler, the comic figuration of Philip Guston and the Surrealism of the Hairy Who painters, Jim Nutt and Karl Wirsum. One can also detect traces of Carol Dunham and even stronger hints of the Brazilian landscape architect/painter, Roberto Burle-Marx. Burckhardt, without appearing derivative, works these influences into collisions that suggest body parts and landscapes. While we’re conditioned to think that painting should be one thing or the other, representational or abstract, Burckhardt refuses to submit to any singular approach or orthodoxy. Instead, he operates from the position that doubt and ambiguity are central to his working process.
These paintings on steel and fabric of dusky sunsets and shimmering moonrises turn what are normally (at least in painting) static events into animate fields whose reflective and refractive surfaces issue a kaleidoscopic montage of shifting colors. They mimic the way the sun changes the “temperature” of light, obscuring the true color of everything it strikes. By synthesizing that phenomenon, Ando enables us to enact it at our own pace, transforming what begins as a mere visual sensation into something approximating a ontological quest.
In this collaboration between the photographer Richard Misrach and the sound/sculpture artist, Guillermo Galindo, you could practically feel the concept of the U.S.-Mexico border wall crumbling. Misrach’s panoramic pigment prints, the bedrock of this compelling collaboration, show the border as a “desolate, scarred and often sublime” place, wrote Patricia Albers. “Various barriers start and stop, graphically cresting hills, bisecting towns, or backstopping homesteads before petering out in the Pacific. Here, the beautiful and the incongruous mix with the tragic and the inscrutable.”
Like Sol Lewitt and Mel Bochner, artists who created famous drawings by assessing and responding to the space at hand, Wagner, with a single assistant, builds her installations without
benefit of prior sketches. Her site-specific sculptures, made of chicken wire and bright plastic strips of disposable tablecloths, “recall Frank Stella’s sculptures and prints, particularly those inspired by Melville’s Moby-Dick, as well as his color-complex series Imaginary Places,” said Frank Cebulski. This exhibition, Flux, “justly placed Wagner in this rarefied but deserved company.”
This photo-heavy look at America’s past struck a succession of bullseye hits. The concerns it raised – about poverty, race, inequality, privacy and political violence – resonated eerily with events we’re witnessing today. The roster of artists — just in the opening montage — read like an abbreviated Who’s Who of 20th century American photography, dividing chronologically between those whose careers began before WWII (Lewis Hine, Helen Levitt and Aaron Siskind) those who came after (Lee Friedlander, Henry Wessel and Danny Lyon). Accordingly, their subjects roamed from the streets of New York to the desolate and developing West, and from the Great Depression to the present: the latter represented by Doug Hall, Lava Thomas and Tracey Snelling. Together they proved Faulkner’s assertion, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”
No contemporary artist offers a more biting critique of Latin America’s colonial past than Chagoya. The satirist’s preferred cudgel is “reverse anthropology” — his term for the practice of turning weapons of cultural invasion against the invaders. His works, which span multiple media and borrow from fashion plates, ethnographic illustration, political cartooning, comic
books, Posada engravings, Mondrian, corporate logos, Toltec masks, Day of the Dead iconography and Catholicism, seek to “unmask triumphal narratives of European and Euro-American hegemony,” said Tirza True Latimer in a review of the show. Chagoya’s art proves “that wars are never won once and for all. For every history written by the winners there are others waiting to be written by the vanquished, poised to re-emerge transformed in unpredictable ways.”
Like Andy Warhol, Ai uses appropriation to examine the politics of culture and the forces that determine what is and what isn’t art. His touring exhibition of monumentally scaled, bronze-cast animal zodiac heads was a strong case point. The backstory dates to the 1856-60, when British and French forces sacked the summer palace of Emperor Qianlong and made off with a set of similarly shaped animal heads that once served as water clocks. When several turned up at auction in the early 2000s, a firestorm erupted in China. It stemmed from the belief that the invasion was a national disgrace, and that the repatriation of those heads would, at least in part, right that wrong. Ai scoffed. The originals, he pointed out, were designed by an Italian and made by a Frenchman for an emperor whose forebears invaded China. “So if we talk about national treasure,” Ai asked, “what nation are we talking about?” While these issues may have flown over the heads of viewers, the visual impact of the installation certainly did not. Overrated,
a companion AWW exhibit at Haines, addressed these same issues in equally powerful terms, with exquisitely detailed porcelain sculptures made by Ai’s own team of artisans, wallpaper depicting gilded surveillance cameras, and remakes of two of his most famous bodies of work: Study of Perspective (1995-2014) and Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), all of which allude to China’s hollowed-out political culture and the mechanisms that keep it in place. Says Ai: “Duchamp had the bicycle wheel, Warhol had the image of Mao. I have a totalitarian regime. It is my readymade.”
Discenza’s show, A Novel, was literary hoax wrapped in the guise of an art exhibition. There were objects scattered around the gallery that, to some extent, pertained to the text. But their importance was overshadowed by the text itself: a meta-fictional story about a struggling artist that appeared as opened-out book pages, printed large and mounted on the gallery’s
walls. With nods to Jorge Luis Borges and Roberto Bollaño, this send-up of postmodern literary criticism (a story-within-a-story replete with a mock New Yorker review anticipating a lukewarm critical response) showed Discenza to be nonpareil fabulist. Reading it was marvelously addictive and funny — a perfect addition to a body of work that’s included mock horror stories, fake street signs, phony docent tours, scrambled videos and invented art-historical personages.
With the deluge of images now assaulting us through multiple apps and channels, one might reasonably fear for photography’s future. This show of mostly young Japanese artists temporarily allayed those concerns. Employing methods ranging from old-fashioned photochemical monkey wrenching (Daisuke Yokota) to assemblage/collage (Naohiro Utagawa), and from computer-based animation (Kenta Cobayashi) to autobiographical set-up photography (Fumiko Imano), these artists displayed a strong sense of material invention, collectively forming what was, hands-down, the most exciting photo show to hit SF in 2016.
Tony May belongs to that rarest of breeds: the conceptualist who makes things that can be admired as much for how they’re built as for what they say. His exquisitely crafted wood sculptures – oddball creations that veer between the practical, the absurd and the pointedly critical — call forth an archetype that once defined a certain strain of the national character: the backyard tinker/inventor. There are many versions of it. The one I think of in relation to May is Steve Jobs, a man who demanded aesthetic perfection at every turn. That sensibility extends across the full range of May’s output: scale models for gallery-sized pieces of architecture known as T Houses; dioramas populated by tools; decorative objects fashioned out of cat whiskers; Dada-influenced sculptures; photorealistic paintings, and, most notably, art exhibits that collapse into a suitcase.
“At a time when most abstract painting seems all too predictable, Goldstein offers a rigorous but open-ended approach, occupying an ambiguous middle ground between Constructivism and painterly abstraction,” wrote Elwyn Palmerton. “Willem de Kooning comes to mind, but so does Al Held, in particular his early black-and-white works. These artists took cubist space, scaled it up, and accentuated its spatial paradoxes. Goldstein’s works, which include tabletop sculptures, synthesize these approaches.
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David M. Roth, Squarecylinder’s editor and publisher, compiled this year-end roundup from reviews written by: Mark Van Proyen, Maria Porges, Robert Atkins, Jeff Kelley, Patricia Albers, Marcia Tanner, Julia Couzens, Mikko Lautamo, Lawrence Gipe, Tirza True Latimer, Frank Cebulski, Meredith Tromble and…himself. Thanks to all those above and to the many donors and advertisers who, in the past year, helped make Squarecylinder possible. If you like what you read there's a way to support it: