Morris Hirshfield @ Cantor Arts Center. During his life (1872-1946), this self-taught artist was simultaneously hailed as a visionary and denounced as an unworthy interloper in the high temples of Modernism. Recent scholarship paints a more nuanced picture: that of a unique virtuoso who skillfully bypassed physical truth in favor of exceedingly eccentric views of people, animals and landscapes. Through January 21, 2024.
Rose B. Simpson @ Jessica Silverman. This collection of ceramic figures, arrayed across an elegant Chinatown space, made for one of the year’s most majestic – and most potent – exhibitions. Drawing on her Native American/Latinx heritage, Simpson adorned life-size figures with cultural signifiers and pictographic markings that cast a spell — one that if heeded, allows you to find “your place on Earth and your position in the cosmological scheme of things – here and in the hereafter,” wrote Renny Pritikin. Through December 23, 2023.
Wolfgang Tillmans @ SFMOMA. Tillmans draws no distinctions or hierarchies when making and displaying photographs. What passes before his lens becomes fodder for an ever-expanding oeuvre that roams seemingly everywhere, from snapshots of friends and lovers to banal pictures of half-eaten meals, and from large-scale abstractions and piles of dirty laundry to a full-on study of architecture: a compendium of the artist’s obsessions and a wide-angle view of photographic seeing. Through March 3, 2024.
Richard Mosse @ Minnesota Street Foundation and Altman Siegel. The physical and existential horror of the Amazon’s destruction would seem too vast a subject for any artist to tackle. Brushing obstacles aside, Mosse, in a 74-minute, four-channel video called Broken Spectre, Mosse examined perpetrators (miners,
loggers, ranchers, politicians) and victims (indigenous communities, ecosystems) from every conceivable angle using a variety of cinematic techniques. In so doing, he defused a longstanding criticism, that efforts of this sort aestheticize disaster.
LOT-EK @ Hosfelt. Homes from shipping containers? Unlikely as the idea may sound, one NYC architectural firm, LOT-EK, has turned it into a global phenomena and an art form, the artifacts of which comprise a dazzling exhibition called Spill/from 1 to 29. It shows, among many things, how utility can be wrested from cast-off junk and how the exercise of blowtorch-powered imagination can transform abundant waste into low-cost, resource-efficient housing whose simplicity and raw, minimalist beauty stand in sharp opposition to the pretensions of high-end architecture. Through January 27, 2024.
Fletcher Benton @ Crocker. In the early 1960s, sculpture in the popular imagination consisted mainly of immense steel objects manufactured by men in industrial settings. Benton, unlike the era’s other stars, exercised a sly, sense of humor, crafting visual puns from a recursive library of geometric shapes that, when sliced up and recombined, rewarded sustained viewing with cascades of small epiphanies. ABC-123: Fletcher Benton’s
Sculptural Alphabet, a compact, brilliantly installed exhibition comprised of steel shapes based on the 26 letters of the alphabet and the numbers one through 9, shows the ingenuity he brought to object-making and the engineering feats he devised to realize his visions.
Amalia Mesa-Bains @ BAMPFA. To probe pre-Columbian folklore, Catholicism, feminism, sexuality, and her artistic influences, Mesa-Bains, a Mexican-American artist, filled the space with theater-like set pieces, wunderkammers, prints, books, photos, sculptures, and altars. Her “most important contribution,” wrote Renny Pritikin, “is the assertion that an artist can celebrate, even be haunted by, the people in her past and simultaneously demonstrate how those lives embody a timely deconstruction of the colonial record.”
Mike Henderson @ Manetti Shrem and Haines. History painter would not be a label most observers would apply to Mike Henderson. For decades, the East Bay artist’s work has centered on luxuriant, richly hued abstract paintings. These two exhibitions enlarged our view by showing him to be not only one of the hardest-hitting protest artists and experimental filmmakers of the 1960s and 1970s but also a remarkable collagist whose creations hinted at Afro-Futurism.
Frank Bowling @ SFMOMA. Can abstract painting deliver political content and aesthetic value without compromising either? Bowling, a native of Guyana who spent significant time in New York during the 1960s, demonstrates the myriad ways he did it, satisfying both his needs for continuous formal invention and the demands placed on him by colonial history.
Remedios Varo @ Wendi Norris. Some of the most haunting surrealist paintings ever made emerged from the palette of Remedios Varo (1908-1963), a native of Catalonia. Like so many of her peers, she fled Europe to escape the Nazis, building a reputation in Mexico, where memories of her troubled, peripatetic youth found their way onto canvases populated by fantastical images like the one seen here.
Blind Photography @ Bedford. It sounds like an oxymoron. After all, if photography is primarily about seeing, what sort of photographs can blind or severely sight-impaired people possibly make? And further, why would they want to? The exhibition, organized by Douglas McCulloh, chief curator at the California Museum of Photography at UC Riverside, delivered head-spinning images and shattered preconceived notions about what blind artists can and cannot achieve.
Kim Abeles @ Sac State. The past two decades have seen a lot environmentally oriented art, much of it made to spark awareness and drive policy changes. Few compare in scope and singularity of purpose to Kim Abeles’ Smog Catchers. The title wasn’t a metaphor; it referred to the artist’s practice of collecting airborne particulate matter and deploying it across various media to demonstrate its hazards to human health.
Arleene Correa Valencia @ Catharine Clark. Having been separated from her parents while being smuggled across the US-Mexico border, the artist came to know a thing or two about the trauma of immigration. During the pandemic she began sewing and came to understand how it connected to her heritage and culture. It subsquently became the medium through which she told her family’s history and the stories of immigrants. “Stitch-by-stitch,” wrote Gabrielle Selz, “Correa Valencia’s art translates the personal into the political and the universal.”
TP Chronicles @ Chung 24. The show’s premise, hatched during the pandemic, was to use toilet paper (cardboard tubes, rolls and tissue) to re-create historic photos. While that might seem like an unlikely peg on which to hang a show, it worked spectacularly, demonstrating what skilled photographers (Christy McDonald, Colleen Mullins, Jenny Sampson and Nicole White) can do with the simplest of props and a deep understanding of the medium and its history.
Mary Ann Kluth @ SF City College. The aspirations of Thomas Moran and Walt Disney might seem wildly at odds until you realize that both trafficked in myths that supported Manifest Destiny and westward expansion. In recognition of that strange confluence, Kluth, in a room-sized diorama, combined Hudson River School imagery with the artifice of Disney, demonstrating how fictions promulgated by both continue to shape our collective identity.
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