by David M. Roth
After almost 60 years of collaboration with some of the world’s most esteemed artists, is there any subject Crown Point Press cannot authoritatively address? I doubt that there is. Water: A Group Exhibition, the gallery’s current show, is a case in point. It arrives at a juncture when water worries loom large across California and the globe. The exhibition dwells more on the poetic aspects of water than on the political, although Ed Ruscha’s Rain Gain (2014) might well serve as a poster for rationing should Governor Newsome enact more stringent conservation measures. Its elongated and foreshortened typography form a steep canyon at the center, issuing both a plea for precipitation and a warning should none be forthcoming.
In the main, Water derives its power from the myriad ways the exhibition’s 15 artists handle the material challenges of printmaking. Treatments range from loose and brushy (Mary Heilmann) to phantasmagorical (Laura Owens), and from epic (Pat Steir) to highly reductive (John Zurier and Anne Appleby). And while most of the artists operate true-to-form, some deliver surprises. The biggest comes from Owens, a polymorphous conceptual painter who combines art-historical styles to comedic and sometimes eerie effect, as when she hid voice-emitting speakers inside wall-sized abstract paintings at CCA. That same spirit of subterfuge haunts Untitled (LO272), a small etching in which whales frolic amid waves drawn to look like crop rows, plied at one side by clipper ships. Look closely and you’ll see dark veils of smoke in the background that upend that cheery first impression, calling to mind news photos of Kuwaiti oil fires set by retreating Iraqi forces in 1991.
Chris Ofili, the UK-born Caribbean painter, summons the spirit world by placing a figure — half-tribal goddess, half-animal – on a cone-shaped mountain. Drenched at the sides by a purple-gold rain, it offers a regal, spellbinding vision of water as purifying conduit to someplace else. Drifting (2016), a geometric abstraction by
John Zurier, arose from his travels in Iceland. Its luminous, frosty blues, representing ice in various stages, fully evoke the region and its climate. Ann Appleby’s River (2012), a depiction of two channels running side-by-side is even more reductive, consisting of twin rectangles filled with barely modulated shades of gray-blue and algae-green.
When it comes to depicting water, Pat Steir has no peer. Working from the realization that gravity rules most everything, she decided decades ago to harness it and make it her signature, letting paint do what it does naturally: drip. Two prints, Long Horizontal (1991) and Waterfall Monoprint #8 (1988), the latter one of 37 the artist hand-painted, read as blurred, time-lapse snapshots of geological events. To view them in the context of our current predicament is to distance oneself from the political melee surrounding it, humbled by the knowledge that nature, for better or worse, will follow its own logic.
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Haines Gallery is another San Francisco institution that has proven itself capable of mounting successful shows on any topic it chooses. A group exhibition called Blaze Across the Firmament presents the work of six eminent artists.
For five years starting in 1995, photographer Linda Connor made visits to Lick Observatory to photograph glass-plate negatives dating to the mid-19th and early 20th centuries. In doing so, she pulled into the present, celestial views of antiquity as seen by the astronomers who made them. Such views, it’s worth noting, were already eons old by the time they reached Earth. To that boggling proposition, Conner added another: Onto a photo of a glass plate cleaved by diagonal fractures, she drew the wind god, Zephyr, using the cracks to make it look as if it’s exhaling across the sky. The scene occupies one panel of a center-hinged triptych called Sea of Stars (2020), an example of human myth meeting cosmological fact.
Photographer Chris McCaw trains the lens of his custom-built cameras on contemporary landscapes, making exposures of up to 24 hours. The results are unique records of events not visible to the naked eye. Sunburned GSP #824 (Strait of Juan De Fuca), 2014, a panorama spanning four 8 x 10 paper negatives, shows the sun’s path, marked by an arc burned into the paper, leaving faint remnants of the landscape visible below — a feat given the exceedingly long exposure. The incisions carved may remind you of similar cuts inflicted on canvas by the Italian painter Lucio Fontana, as well as early experiments in time-lapse photography by the medium’s inventor, Nicéphore Niépce.
By far, the brightest evocation of the heavens comes from Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian (1922-2019), the undisputed master of mirrored glass mosaic. In Untitled (Heptagon 2), 2016, cut shards form geometric patterns that unfold kaleidoscopically as flowers, stars and snowflakes. Their ricocheting reflections render all attempts to focus on any of them about as effective as calculating pi or grasping infinity.
Within this realm, knowledgeable viewers may wonder how Mike Henderson fits into the show. An abstract painter best known for thickly layered accretions of oil paint mixed wet-on-wet, Henderson seems an unlikely choice. However, there are sides to Henderson unknown to many of us, myself included. Cloud Nine (1977), a collage-cum-assemblage, represents one of them. Composed of painted and burned canvas strips, a length of gingham, a quote from Yves Tanguy, a photo of a Black astronaut, a googly eyed man-in-the-moon, and a swatch of raw canvas in the shape of a cow’s head, it shows Henderson in a decidedly Afro-Futurist mood, contemplating his own history, Black history and where both might (or might not) be headed.
Cloud Nine’s appearance in the exhibition can be traced, at least in part, to the title itself; it dates to the 1896 discovery of the cumulonimbus, said to be “the greatest, tallest cloud in the world,” a designation that would later lead to it becoming a synonym for elation. Then came the 1968 psychedelic soul hit of the same name by the Temptations, a tune about drug abuse that Henderson, a professional bluesman,
surely knew and likely sought to invoke as a double entendre. With its freighted symbols, textures, and loaded title, the piece, part of his Space Modules series, points backward, to the artist’s rural beginnings, and forward to his aspirations.
In the immediate future, it points to a career retrospective next year at the Manetti Shrem Museum in Davis, an event that promises to put Henderson’s achievements in perspective, and the artist, now 77, on a bona fide cloud of his own design.
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“Water: A Group Exhibition” @ Crown Point Press through October 29, 2021. The exhibition also includes Christopher Brown, April Gornik, Alex Katz, Tom Marioni, Markus Raetz, Ed Wilson Shieh, Wayne Thiebaud, and David True.
“Blaze Across the Firmament” @ Haines Gallery through October 30, 2021. The exhibition also includes works by Ala Ebtekar and Binh Danh.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.