by David M. Roth
When two of the nation’s most prestigious galleries, Pace and Gagosian, recently announced their departure from the Bay Area, the news elicited a little more than a collective shrug. Their failure to pry gold from the notoriously tight pockets of tech moguls was a foregone conclusion. It surprised no one.
The same will not be said of Brian Gross, whose eponymous gallery leaves San Francisco for Santa Fe with no such deficits. A fixture on the scene since 1990, its current roster includes luminaries ranging from internationally known artists like Ed Moses and Peter Alexander to local legends of equal stature (Robert Arneson, Roy De Forest, Robert Hudson and Leo Valledor). Upon learning of Gross’ relocation, his entire stable pledged — “no matter where or in what format” –to remain on board. How many art dealers command that kind of loyalty? Few, I suspect.
When the gallery’s pair of interconnected exhibitions (GESTURE/COLOR/FORM and Framed 2) close on November 5, Gross will continue operating online for reasons that have little to do with events a recent New York Times article erroneously cited as harbingers of an impending exodus from San Francisco. “We’ve had a very good year,” Gross said of the gallery’s 2022 receipts. However, since half came from online sales, Gross, like many gallerists these days, began questioning his commitment to curating physical exhibitions. In pondering the future, his attention turned to Santa Fe, a place he knows well from having worked as a curator fellow at Tamarind Institute at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, and as a cataloguer of photography for the famed photo historian and museum director, Van Deren Coke, at the UNM Art Museum in the 1970s. He’s since maintained close ties with the region’s art community.
A native of Pittsburgh, Pa., Gross, 69, earned a degree in art history from Oberlin College. After an internship in the drawings department at MoMA and a fellowship in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Study Program, he worked for Fendrick Gallery in Washington DC, where he learned all aspects of gallery work. Gross moved to San Francisco in 1981, and after two years as the curator of a large private collection, he joined Fuller Goldeen, then considered the city’s top venue. Several years later, he became Diana Fuller’s final partner in Fuller Gross Gallery. By the time he launched Brian Gross Fine Art in 1990, he’d developed a well-honed aesthetic sensibility, the character of which can be gleaned from two concurrent exhibitions featuring 41 works by 35 artists.
Key examples – drawn from Minimalism, hard-edge geometric abstraction, Light and Space, Bay Area Funk and the visions of several category-defying artists — are on view. Highlights? Start by considering some of the exhibitions’ conceptual and aesthetic linchpins. A monumentally scaled (108 x 144-inch) tri-part canvas by Leo Valledor (1936-1989) called Big Chief (1974), consisting of two horizontally stacked rectangles appended to a giant orange wedge, all but overwhelms. In a different context, its close-value colors (umber against two shades of orange) might be seen as an attempt to bridge the gap between music and visual art, a possibility Valledor, a jazz enthusiast, entertained. (The title, as it happens, comes from a tune composed by Earl King in 1964 that has since become a New Orleans Mardi Gras standard.) That association falls away under the sheer mass of an object that calls to mind Frank Stella’s oft-quoted line, “What you see is what you see.”
Dana Hart-Stone upends that dictum in a photo collage titled Squeeze Box (2022), another musical reference. From a distance, the tondo shape resembles a mandala. Up-close, which is the only way to identify telling details, we see, arrayed in concentric circles, hand-colored vintage photos depicting accordion players, Victorian houses and a grandmotherly figure backed by trees laden with, of all things, fish. Dadaist Americana? Call it what you will. Strange “fruit” such as these are part of what marks the twin poles of BGFA: high Modernism at one end and eccentric art that skirts categorization at the other. Both, in this show, get roughly equal play, along with tantalizing detours into process-based abstraction, evidenced in two knockout paintings, one by Ed Moses, the other by Donald Feasel.
Moses (1926-2018), who cycled through many different phases during a half-century career and kept his MO a closely guarded secret, beguiles with a work called Who-Bart from 2008. It appears to be an exercise in gestural abstraction, but of what sort? Those made by human hands? If so, it’s hard to imagine how and with what tools. The markings approximate giant snail trails etched in coal dust – evidence, perhaps, of how the artist, a firm believer in chance, routinely transformed “accidents” into working methods. The origins of Feasel’s Blue Ascent (2022) are also opaque. Over the years, the artist has employed various strategies to conceal his handiwork, including agitating canvases placed inside paint-filled tubes. The appearance of this one falls somewhere between that of tie-dyed fabric and a snapshot of a Buddhist sand mandala being blown away in the breeze.
Challenges to perception are, perhaps, the exhibitions’ most persistent, most persuasive through line. Ruth Pastine turns the human body into a tuning fork with Depths, Red 3 and Depths Blue 3 (both 2020). That sensation arises from seamless color gradients applied to canvases in radiant, saturated hues that dissolve imperceptibly into each other. Keira Kotler’s anamorphic four-part photo montage, Navy (Grid) (2021), simulates a moving cloud formation; only instead of wind doing the work, your own side-to-side movements activate the illusion. Untitled #3 (1983), a collection of patterned papers and newspaper clippings set on a burgundy surface by Paul Sarkisian, proffers an illusion of a different sort. It reads as a collage but is really a masterful trompe l’oeil painting – something you wouldn’t know unless told. Mary
Ijichi’s works, which, at first glance, look like minimalist grid paintings, show points of light emanating from indeterminate depths. They shine through layers of frosted mylar to which the artist applies acrylic paint and beads. Catching these effects and sorting out how they operate takes concentrated energy on account of how the grid structures (and the colors buried within) continuously shift before your eyes.
Drilling deeper yields more treasures. Marco Casentini’s plexiglas-and-paint evocation of Mediterranean light (Just a Mirror for the Sun, 2013); Robert Hudson’s kinetic-looking sculpture composed of metal detritus; (Untitled, 1985); Robert Arneson’s unsparing self-portrait (Untitled Drawing #4, 1981); Teo Gonzalez’s obsessive repetition of cellular forms in Untitled #641 (2012); Peter Alexander’s light-emitting urethane sculpture (7/7/15 Flo Lemon Yellow Wedge); and Linda Fleming’s wall-mounted steel sculpture (Tumult, 2022), evoking a wind-blown patch of tumbleweed, are among the exhibition’s other standouts. To that group, I’d also add Mokha Laget’s Construction No. 1 (2020), a bronze sculpture that could pass for an architectural model collaboratively designed by Georges Braque, Oscar Niemeyer and Daniel Libeskind.
Each represents an inflection point in the history of a venerable San Francisco gallery whose physical presence will be sorely missed.
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“GESTURE/COLOR/FORM ” and “Framed 2” @ Brian Gross Fine Art through November 5, 2022.
About the author: David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.