Vanessa Woods and Ken Graves, “Somewhere Between Here and There,” Jack Fischer Gallery, San Francisco


Vanessa Woods
Jack Fischer Gallery, San Francisco, California  
Recommendation by DeWitt Cheng  
Continuing through March 3, 2018

The great Dadaist and Surrealist Max Ernst developed the technique of collage in 1919, employing engravings from books and photographs from newspapers and magazines. Cutting up the source material and recombining it imaginatively intensified his already substantial “visionary faculties” and led him “beyond painting” (or at least the limits of painting at the time) to create strange worlds that reflected, with anarchic, absurdist humor, his and his colleagues’ disgust with conventional morality. His collage novel, “La Femme Cent Têtes (The Hundred-Headed Woman)” — Surrealists were fond of puns and wordplay — was described by André Breton as “veritable sllts in time, space, customs and even beliefs.” The collage technique was employed (with and without assistance from other media) with equally disturbing/satisfying results by kindred independent spirits like Joseph Cornell, Bruce Conner, Wilfried Sätty and Lawrence Jordan. If collage is taught and studied today more as method than madness, the subversive strain of collage — melding leftist politics with visionary poetry — thankfully survives in today’s mad, mad Moloch world. Which brings us to Vanessa Woods.

Woods' show, “Somewhere Between Here and There,” features twenty-five new collages that are small but fierce. They continue her investigations of recent years, including a dialogue with Ernst, as well as with her friend and mentor, the photographer/collagist Ken Graves, eleven of whose collages are included here [See Cheng’s review of Graves’ 2013 show at Gallery Paule Anglim, now Anglim-Gilbert Gallery: http://visualartsource.com/index.php?page=editorial&aID=1815. — Ed.] When Graves died in 2016, he bequeathed Woods his collection of materials, so it is no surprise that Woods’ new works are meant as an homage, and are also revealing of Graves’ influence. 

As Maria Porges points out in her catalogue essay, the new works create implied narratives, as the figures are surrounded by theatrical environments rather than isolated against blank backgrounds. Indeed, Woods seems to move toward painting, literature and theater — and a bit away from abstraction. If her previous work featured contorted and sculptural bodies (sometimes headless) in isolation, these are placed in a dark, deep, cinematic space. No fewer than sixteen of the works feature standing protagonists, their features obscured by cloth hoods (or real feathers), standing as if for inspection. The source images are perhaps bureaucratic or medical. Wood’s places them in mysterious indoor/outdoor, real/simulated surroundings reminiscent of Joseph Cornell’s assemblage boxes or Giorgio di Chirico’s vertiginous plazas. Few artists these days celebrate a commonality of style and temperament that cuts across generations, given exaggerated notions of individuality and progress in art, but Woods clearly embraces such antecedents. Work of this caliber make these affinities interesting and empower the as a living tradition (albeit a subversive one). Collage may have been naughty art a century ago, but nowadays, done with commitment, it’s the real deal.

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Elisabeth Ajtay's "Variations" @ Don Soker Contemporary Art



ELISABETH AJTAY: Variations
Don Soker Contemporary Art

If you have ever mistaken discarded umbrellas on rainy sidewalks for crumpled bats—it happens with wet glasses at times—you will enjoy the metamorphosen series of sculptures by Elisabeth Ajtay. Over a four-year period, the artist salvaged these fallen creatures, removed their black nylon membranes, and transformed the twisted skeletons, with loops of wire and other additions, into insectile robots. Mosquitos and dragonfly larvae come to mind, as well the newly photographed bacteriophage, or spider virus, but these nine strange and witty bricolaged lures, clinging to the gallery walls as if daring to be swatted, have no specific models: as the gallery press release states, “Ajtay has invented a typology of a non-existent species.”

 Also shown are five inkjet prints of the bots (which, incidentally, have names evoking scientific nomenclature, e.g., “RI-1617-11”), photographed against seamless white backgrounds, and four drawings in tonal reversal, white ink on black backgrounds, evoking photograms, with the silhouetted flattened forms suggesting fossils. Also shown is a sound installation entitled “babel,” with the gallery’s stairwell, covered with cloudlike quilt batting, standing in for the mythic tower blasphemously built to reach heaven; recorded voices repeat, in sixteen languages, including the lingua franca of English, Kant’s categorical imperative, “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law,” a philosophical restatement of the reciprocal-altruism Golden Rule embraced, at least nominally, by all religions. —DeWitt Cheng

 








 

 

 

 

Lew Carson: Secret Maps of the Body, Far Out Gallery, San Francisco


LEW CARSON: SECRET MAPS OF THE BODY
January 6-28, 2018

 Far Out Gallery
3004 Taraval Street (at 40th Avenue), San Francisco CA
http://www.faroutgallery.com

The human body was the central focus of western art for some six centuries, from the Renaissance, when anatomical studies began (at some risk to venturesome artists like Leonardo), until the advent of Modernism, when artists rejected academic style and the idea of man as semi-divine. Delacroix’s“admirable poem, that human body from which I am learning to read” had declined into, in essence, debased doggerel. With Dada and Surrealism, artists sought to portray the complexities of modern consciousness, not the dogmas of received wisdom from Greco-Roman and Christian culture.

 The East Bay painter Lew Carson draws on the Dadaist/Surrealist  collage tradition for his poetic imaginary landscapes (or, to use Roberto Matta’s term, ‘inscapes;) Inspired by anatomical diagrams, including the famous 1858 classic text, Gray’s Anatomy (still being published!), which he he found “familiar, complex and mysterious”—Carson layers his anatomical contour drawings atop printed maps mounted to wooden panels. Since the topography remains legible beneath Carson’s translucent glazes, he combines, in Secret Maps of the Body, the inner world and the outer, the self and the world. “Ascension,” “A Narrative of Longing,” “Bone Scape,” “Sequence/Consequence,” and “Luminous Entity” depict the body as a microcosm of the universe. All accounts of mystical experiences note the loss of self and ego—or, rather, their incorporation into the fabric of the cosmos. Carson sees art as a potential vehicle for “transport[ing] us from the ordinary to the ecstatic, a heightened state of clarity and bliss,” and these lyrical semi-abstract paintings, with their glowing, stained-glass palettes and biomorphic forms, show that art can be, despite the aesthetic cynicism of recent years, transcendent, merging the personal with the universal.

Julian Barnes' "Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art" (reprinted from VisualArtSource.com, Jan. 18, 2018)


Eyes Only: Julian Barnes' "Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art"

I used to read fiction, but in recent years have found nonfiction about art, history and politics more relevant and interesting. Nevertheless, I found the novelist Julian Barnes’ 2015 collection of essays, Keeping an Eye Open: Essays of Art, enthralling, combining a fluent, almost conversational style with thoughtful commentary backed with a fair amount of what Herman Melville called swimming though libraries. Barnes never studied art formally, but clearly did his homework—no Great-Writer vaporizing!—while preparing his “one go” reviews of painters from Géricault to Hodgkin: reading Anita Brookner on Delacroix and Baudelaire; Alex Tanchev on Cézanne; and Redon on Redon, among, undoubtedly, many others. Barnes’ judgments are sound, based on his sympathy with other creative artists, and expressed in a “companionable and untheoretical” (as he declared in an interview with The New Yorker) manner that is both colorful and readable—and sometimes memorably pungent. It is impossible not to provide a few tasty excerpts.

On the massive ego and inveterate self-promotion of the Realist Gustave Courbet:

 “Shout loud and walk straight” was apparently a Courbet family maxim, and throughout his life—in person, in paint and in letters—he shouted loud and listened delightedly to the echo. In 1853, he called himself “the proudest and most arrogant man in France.”... By 1867, [he declared] “I have astounded the whole world ... I triumph not only over the moderns but over the old masters as well.” ... He also wanted to accept and refuse ... [official recognition]. He needed the public offer of a declaration so that he could be publicly offended by it. ... [The artist Honoré] Daumier, ... had been offered the Legion d’Honneur earlier that year, [had] refused it discreetly. When Courbet upbraided him, Daumier, ever the quiet republican [anti-monarchist], replied, “I have done what I thought I ought to do. I did, but that is no business of the public.” Courbet shrugged his shoulders and commented, “We’ll never make anything of Daumier.  He’s a dreamer.”

On the anomalous, almost-Michelangelesque musculature of the dying shipwreck victims in Géricault’s massively researched 1819 painting The Raft of the Medusa:

 ...but why does everyone—even the corpses—look so muscled, so… healthy? Where are the wounds, the scars, the haggardness, the disease? These are men who have drunk their own urine, gnawed the leather from their hats, consumed their own comrades. ... [F]or all its subject matter, Scene of the Shipwreck [the original title] is full of muscle and dynamism. The figures on the raft are like the waves: beneath them, yet also through them, surges the energy of the ocean. ... It is because the figures are sturdy enough to transmit such power that the canvas looses in us deeper, submarinous emotions, can shift us through currents of hope and despair, elation, panic and resignation. ... We don’t just imagine the ferocious miseries ... They become us. .... How hopelessly we signal; how dark the sky; how big the waves. We are all lost at sea, washed between hope and despair, hailing something [the rescue ship Argus, in the distance, which failed to see the raft at first] that may never come to our rescue.

 And finally, on a more cheerful note, here’s Barnes on the philistinism of the chic:

 In Amsterdam I was halted in front of the late and leering Cyclops [by the visionary Odilon Redon], uncertain what to make of it, when a party of Frenchwomen came past exuding that breezy yet proprietorial manner which somehow only the French are confident enough to affect in art galleries. The first woman donated to the painting a glance and crisply announced, as if art were merely life, “Ah, quelle horreur!” This ... caused her to companions to pause briefly and tame the portrait of the one-eyed giant. ”C’est une dorade,” suggested one, “Non, c’est un turbot,” replied the other; and having thus despatched Redon to the fishmonger’s stall, they passed on to the flowers. “Ça, c’est beau.”

There is No Alas Where I Live, Jenkins-Johnson Gallery, San Francisco (reprinted from VisualArtSource.com)


“There is No Alas Where I Live”
Jenkins-Johnson Gallery, San Francisco, California  
Review by DeWitt Cheng  
Continuing through January 27, 2018

The title of this show of nine contemporary Bay Area photographers, “There is No Alas Where I Live,” is taken from Theodore Roethke’s 1951 poem, “I Need, I Need”: “Whisper me over, / Why don’t you, begonia, / There’s no alas / Where I live.” The independent curator Ann Jastrab, formerly director of San Francisco’s now-closed RayKo Photo Center, was fascinated by the idea of a photo exhibition based on Roethke’s words, and accordingly chose some eighty images by nine contemporary Bay Area photographers: Wesaam Al-Badry, Johanna Case-Hofmeister, Hiroyo Kaneko, Kathya Landeros, Eva Lipman, Paccarik Orue, Mimi Plumb, Josh Smith, and Lewis Watts. 

Jastrab writes: “… life ... can be so magnificent and challenging simultaneously. Photographs are documents of ... this dichotomy, and photographers are witnesses, participant-observers, lovers of life, those who rage over unfairness, and those who present truths. Beauty and truth. There is no alas where I live. There may be grief and there may be concern, but there is no pity. Really, there’s not. Because you can’t be alive, truly alive and use that word alas. It is a word akin to regret or being forced to accept those things that you don’t want to choose.”

In our age of assertive victimhood, the denial of ‘pity’ may sound as heartless as the victim-blaming delivered regularly by our debased capitalist Christians, but that would be to misread Roethke, who was emotionally sensitive but morally tough. It would similarly misconstrue these photographers, who document life in tough times with understanding and empathy but without polemics or political comment. Indeed, the photos could be interpreted as embodiments of Nietzsche’s concept of Amor fati, the acceptance of the totality of one’s life: “That one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backwards, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it ... but love it.” It’s a mystical concept, and not in tune with materialist American culture with its cult of bootstrap individualism. One picks oneself up and starts all over again.

Jastrab again: “A lot of [the] work is documentary based. Some of it is romantic, some of it is street photography, some of it is social documentary. But what brings it all together is that the places featured in the work have hit hard times.” Americans facing the prospect of hard times now or in the future should find these images of daily life in different cultures and places resonant.

Al-Badry’s documentary photos diptychs of the Deep South — the Mississippi River Delta, to be specific — capture the cultural strength of the black community. The two conjoined panels of “Wedding Party” show, respectively, a guest arriving for the ceremony and two young men, posing — presumably groom and best man. The pictures are formally linked by a stripe of red tile on the wall. Moving north, Case-Hofmeister’s two large photos depict young white girls swimming, idyllic images of summertime leisure given an odd, contemporary twist through the camera’s random disjunctions. “Ariel in the Quarry” might almost be a Degas woman bathing but for the striped bikini bottom, the inner tube, the reflections of trees and clouds in the calm, Bermuda-blue water, and Ariel’s hidden head. The traditional theme of people enjoying the outdoors in different seasons informs Kaneko’s “New Memories” series, depicting the seasonal activities of his hometown of Aomori, Japan — picnicking and bathing for spring and summer, harvesting for fall, and snow shoveling for winter — but with contemporary notes. “Bathing #10” shows a pale blue sea seen from beneath evergreen branches, but the bathers, two young couples in matching magenta T-shirts, sit in a square in the sand, we imagine conversing, picnicking or playing instruments, and flanked by a striped tent pavilion, a changing room rendered peek-proof with plywood sheathing.  

Landeros explores the Latino culture of the Central Valley (where she grew up) and of rural eastern Washington in her examination of Mexican immigrants in the West, finding beauty amid what we urbanites (sometimes not so urbane) consider flyover county. The posed but informal group portrait, “Juan’s Family, Eastern Washington,” conveys pride and dignity that even strangers can perceive and appreciate, while her “Main Street Laundromat, Eastern Washington” captures the humble, Hopperesque beauty of a laundromat at dusk, just after sunset, set against a curtain of dark hills. Lipman, a documentarian, captures the rituals of male adolescence and adulthood in the beautifully composed snapshots of her “The Making of Men” series. “Boy Scout Jamboree, Virginia” examines the male-pack phenomenon of scouting, while “School for the Humanities High School, Prom. N.Y.C.,” depicts the telling detail of young women, close-dancing with boys, holding reassuring hands with each other. Orue depicts the world of mining in Peru’s central highland in his “El Muqui” project (named after an asphyxiating goblin in Peruvian lore).  “Cruz de Paragsha, niños, cometas y desmonte” (Paragsha cross, children, kites and forest) depicts a rocky hilltop dotted with scrub, with villagers hiking past a huge concrete cross without observing it, and a small boy, the only one facing us, flying a kite that visually echoes the cross.

Plumb mines her images in the American West, both indoors, with flash photos of solo night-clubbers; and outdoors, with panoramic landscapes that belie their modest size, like the brooding and desolate “Mt. St. Helen,” or the bizarrely burned tree stumps and loping canine in silhouette of “Palm Desert.” Smith documents family life with two young sons in his “The First Years” series, balancing paternal tenderness with a sharp eye for ironic and humorous compositions; “Boys on Top of Vanessa in the Grass” is a wonderful hurly-burly of tangled limbs that probably lasted two seconds, while “Wyatt’s Hand From Under the Blanket” wittily conveys both the child’s wonder and wondrousness. Watts, the ninth in our alphabetical listing, has documented the unique African-American culture of New Orleans for more than two decades. His “Brass Band on Claiborne Ave. in the Tremé After Playing for a Funeral” (2008), shot three years after Hurricane Katrina, expresses the pride of its six young musicians, inheritors and eventual transmitters of a culture and tradition. “Raising the Casket, Funeral Procession in the Tremé,” perhaps shot on the same day, likewise acknowledges, with his white-gloved pallbearers supporting the deceased, the transience of life and the continuity of generations.