by David M. Roth
Disclosure: This is not a review. Or, at least not a review as we know it. The coronavirus saw to that. It kept me grounded, which narrowed my options: write nothing or say something based on what I could gather from pictures. I chose the latter even though it violates the rules of engagement by which we critics typically operate. Whether that’s a good or a bad idea, I’m not sure. Like so much else these days, this is an experiment. What follows, then, is a virtual view of highlights from a now-closed exhibition of works by 23 SF State art faculty members and staff. Like most such shows, this one, curated by Kevin B. Chen and Sharon E. Bliss, comes without a theme; its sole purpose is to showcase the department’s strengths.
It is, if nothing else, diverse, and not just in terms of ethnicity, gender and attitude. Works on view span painting, installation, drawing, textiles, sculpture, ceramics, video, photography, the internet and various hybrid forms. Collectively, they address a wide range of issues.
One of the exhibition’s most innovative works, The Wall – The World, comes from Paula Levine. Conceived initially as a website using Google Earth, this split-screen video allows users to visually transport the West Bank wall to any city in the world, with predictable results. In Manhattan and Berlin, for example, the wall
slices through neighborhoods and even buildings; in San Francisco, it meanders across the Bay, behaving a bit like Cristo’s Running Fence, but without any apparent purpose. When changes to Google’s app rendered the piece inoperable, Levine harvested the footage and recast it as a “drone-view symphony” with an eerie soundtrack by the cellist Frances-Marie Uitti. The remake, portions of which I was able to view, demonstrates the impact of propagating dumb ideas (i.e., border walls) on a global scale.
At the opposite end of the technological spectrum, we have book art, which in recent years has undergone something of a renaissance. Mario Laplante, a paper artist with a wide-ranging practice, may be one of its unheralded stars. He’s flattened nine bibles into disks that resemble cross-sections of trees, a transmutation that suggests recuperation. While portions of the original text can be read in each of these compressed books, it’s the ecological notion of returning man-made objects to their origins that resonates strongest. Kara Maria’s cartoony painting of endangered species, Every Murmur Becomes a Wave (gray wolf), addresses similar concerns. The animal, painted with Audubon-like fidelity, is overwhelmed by a “habitat” that looks more like a fireworks display painted by Peter Max than anything you’d call a landscape. It’s Pop Surrealism at its most garish. How better to portray the anguish of birds and animals facing extinction?
A common myth about photography is that it is somehow analogous to seeing. If so, why do landscape photos so often disappoint? Answer: Perceptions, unlike snapshots, aren’t discrete, split-second events; they’re composites built from a multitude of sensory impressions gathered over time and synthesized by the mind. Veteran conceptual artist Lewis deSoto explores this phenomenon by taking 40 to 100 shots of a scene, which he combines digitally and prints large. It’s impossible to gauge whether his photo of a field in Sonoma County works as intended without comparing the print to the scene pictured. Nevertheless, his data-based approach poses a question worth pondering: at what point can memory and the reproduction of it in photographs become near-equivalents?
Keith Secola, drawing on his Native American (Ute, Chippewa) heritage, creates multi-media installations in which photos of his relatives are superimposed onto shapes associated with pop culture — in this case skateboard decks adorned with geometric patterns. The piece exhibited is titled Cesspooch Family, and what gives it bite is an accompanying drawing executed directly on the wall of a kneeling warrior about to be scalped. The juxtaposition encapsulates the tensions that both elevate and undermine Native American life.
Heavy Duty, a collection of hand tools made of fabric by Lizzy Blasingame, explores gender-based notions of labor. Each implement (mallet, hammer, wrench, clipper, drill) is made of pink-tinged cloth and mounted on a white pegboard. Whether this treatment represents acquiescence to gender-based marketing, a protest against it, or an attempt to embrace (and thereby feminize it) is unclear, but the transition, from hard to soft, certainly represents a challenge to the way male power is embedded in design. Kevin B. Chen, long recognized for his exquisitely detailed graphite drawings and curatorial activities, submits two accordion books that depict skylines composed of buildings rendered in different architectural styles. Seamlessly combining Western, Asian and Middle Eastern motifs, these oddly truncated drawings of imaginary cities stand as monochromatic analogs to the color-drenched model cities created by the visionary Congolese sculptor Bodys Isek Kingelez.
Lisa Solomon probes her Japanese ancestry by practicing what might be termed “extreme mending.” My first encounter with it came in a group exhibition at the Monterey Museum of Art in which Solomon covered a wall with 1,000 fist-size knots dipped in red dye — a tribute to WWII-era Japanese women who made
sashes as talismans for pilots. Here, she shifts attention to the opposite side of the Pacific, to Executive Order 9066: the 1942 decree by which Japanese-Americans were stripped of their rights as citizens and forced into internment camps. The embroidery, which realistically duplicates the original document, would be unremarkable were it not for all the loose threads hanging off the surface. They remind us of how fear, amplified by racism, unraveled entire communities across California and the West.
Michael Arcega, best known for clever wordplay and “de-colonialist” performances involving sailing ships, examines the housing crisis by bringing into the gallery some of the rudimentary building materials (tarps, ropes, tent poles) seen in homeless camps. By fashioning them into a structure that only vaguely resembles a shelter, he skewers the oft-repeated cliché spouted by architects about “bringing the outside indoors.”
Kimberley Acebo Arteche’s photos examine her Filipino-American past. Hiya, a photo of a split-level house taken from the vantage of a stairwell, looks to have been inspired by the graphic style of Barbara Kruger. It shows, barely visible at the far left, furnishings that suggest a comfortable middle-class existence. Words
superimposed on the right side of the picture belie that impression; they tell of the shame the artist’s parents felt when they immigrated to the U.S. The source of that shame goes unstated, but we can easily guess based on what’s known about the discrimination Filipinos faced when they arrived on these shores.
Susan Belau’s etchings depict odd and sometimes harsh intersections between nature and the built environment. By placing mundane items such as window lattices, barricades and metal gates against expanses of muted color, the artist invests them with far greater emotional weight than they’d otherwise command. Libby Black, who paints, sculpts, draws and creates installations, has long explored her seemingly conflicted relationship with consumerism. One of her better-known works, Spirit, a full-scale rowboat, is on view here – stuffed with faux luxury goods made by the artist when she turned 40: a response, she says, to the cliché of a “convertible purchased in a mid-life crisis.” Jeff Downing, who heads up SFU’s ceramics program, submits three totem-like clay sculptures that reflect his youth on Long Island Sound, fishing, boating and learning nautical survival skills from his father. He calls them Aquametric Markers. With their black-and-white bands and pointy tips, they can be read variously, as buoys, water depth gauges or spirit guides doubling as weapons.
Sweatermother by Johanna Friedman, a shot-through garment littered with more breast-like shapes than is anatomically possible, succinctly represents a condition faced by working mothers everywhere: the persistence of more demands than can be physically and emotionally accommodated. Hence, the surfeit of breasts and gaping holes.
Speaking of conditions: I hope virtual “reviews” like this won’t become the norm, but I fear they will. With everything in lockdown and more and more galleries announcing online “viewing rooms,” screens have now become the only portals through we which we can see art without risking our lives.
Until that changes, expect more of the same.
# # #
“SF State School of Art Faculty and Staff Exhibition” @ Fine Arts Gallery, San Francisco State University closed March 13, 2020. The exhibition also included works by Ilana Crispi, Victor De La Rosa, Bronwyn Dexter, Chris Finley, Johanna Friedman, Steven Garen, Jeannie Ichimura, Gaelan McKeown, Sean McFarland and Lori Schafer and publications from Gwen Allen, Paige Bardolph, Nick Gamso, Lissette Jiménez, Mark D. Johnson, Santhi Kavuri-Bauer, Edward Luby, Danny Smith, Deborah Stein, Ann Tartsinis, and Kathy Zarur.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.