Joan Schulze: Celebrating 80 at Fresno Art Museum (though January 8)

Joan Schulze: Celebrating 80 
Curated by Michele Ellis Pracy and Kristina Hornback
Fresno Art Museum

The object of painting a picture is not to make a picture—however unreasonable this may sound. The picture, if a picture results, is a by-product and may be useful, valuable, interesting as a sign of what has past. The object, which is back of every true work of art, is the attainment of a state of being, a state of high functioning, a more than ordinary moment of existence. In such moments activity is inevitable, and whether this activity is with brush, pen, chisel, or tongue its result is but a by-product of the state, a trace, the footprint of the state. —Robert Henri1
At the heart of my work, whether it be quilts, collages or books, is the transformation of fabric and paper in layered constructions. Improvising during the painting, image-transfer processes and collaging of materials while chasing an idea at hand creates adventure in the studio—Thoughts are made visible. —Joan Schulze, 1999
Collage has declared to be the predominant aesthetic strategy of the modernist art of the twentieth century. (A slightly broader term, juxtaposition, might also be claimed for the postmodernist art of recent decades.) A century ago, the Cubists combined drawing and painting with glued printed images in order to depict, with ambiguous wit, modern life’s  new fast pace, jumbling images and sounds.. A decade later, the Dadaists and Surrealists employed collage to create nonsensical or dreamlike tableaux that excoriated the ostensibly rational leaders responsible for the Great War. In America, after the second world war, collage was employed similarly by the Abstract Expressionists and Pop Artists:  in Ab Ex, colors and shapes were combined with painted forms, echoing Cubist formalism; in Pop, real-world elements were painted or printed, or literally incorporated into artworks to both commemorate and satirize mass-culture daily life.

Joan Schulze, the eminent California quilt artist, has made collage the basis of her practice. She “embraces,” says art critic Peter Frank,  “the disjunctive quality of modern life and seeks to discover coherence and harmony within such disjunction. This is no mere demonstration of virtuosity; it is an ongoing display of discretion, a constant matching of medium to material, content to context.”2  It is a compositional method that reflects her creative philosophy of openness, improvisation and experimentation. A lyrical poet as well as an artist, Schulze is a careful observer of things, and, of her reactions to them, both visual and verbal.  Sarah E. Tucker describes Schulze’s “fascination with changing light, the effects of time and weather on the walls of buildings, the passing of time, and laundry (and to travel with Joan is to be ever alert to the cry, Stop! Look at that laundry! And yes, to stop and take photographs at regular intervals along the route.)”3  These photographs, transformed and  combined, make their way into the artist’s beautiful, poetic artworks. Tucker likens Schulze’s compulsive image-gathering to the writing method favored by the eighth-century Chinese poet and calligrapher Li Po (who drowned, apocryphal legend has it, while drunkenly trying to embrace the moon’s reflection), as well as the twentieth-century Beat writer William Burroughs, who labeled his method ‘cut ups’.

Li Po would ride out each morning, his servant walking by his side. Each time a thought came to him, he would write it down and drop the slip of paper and text into the black embroidered bag hjs servant carried. Returning home Po would spend each evening working these scraps of text into a poem.4
Method alone does not, however, guarantee the divine madness of art: imagination must be balanced with discrimination —Peter Frank’s ‘discretion’. The sense of form as well as a strong creative drive cannot be taught; they are inborn, as the painter Robert Henri writes (in The Art Spirit).  Schulze is a self-taught artist, an ‘outlier,’ to use her term, who never attended art school, but always apparently had a prodigious commitment to the art life. She remembers visiting Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on the Grande Jatte” at the Art Institute of Chicago, alone, at age seven, pretending to be part of a group in order to evade scrutiny.

…I grasped their patterns
Made by dots,
Those Morse Code messages
That reached out to me…
—From Morse Code, by Joan Schulze

Shulze waited until her late thirties, after becoming an accomplished poet and photographer, to focus on art quilt-making, or, to use the more exact and inclusive term, fiber art.  In the 1970s, she learned embroidery at a local stitchery guild; in the 1980s she explored traditional quilting materials and formats (though not traditional imagery); from the 1990s to the present she has expanded her scope to include nontraditional methods and materials (glue transfer, acrylic paint, Velcro, plastic fabric, monotype, cyanotype, creative photocopying, reverse printing, layering, metal foils, machine and hand stitching, mass-market printed imagery) and unusual formats (double-sided quilts; scrolls; and sequences of images either sewn together or affixed to wide strips of tape,  resembling filmstrips or contact sheets). Tucker sees this experimentation—which includes transforming old works into new ones— as akin to improvisation in jazz, one of the artist’s enthusiasms, demanding both technical virtuosity and perfect visual ‘pitch’5. Schulze also ventures at times from the lyrical into sociopolitical commentary with a feminist slant, proving that art engagé can combine visual beauty and even a wry sense of humor.  Schulze’s fashion-themed collages (Tango, Fast…Faster) celebrate youth, beauty and glamor, while hinting, with their distressed, faded surfaces, at the flip side of fabulousness, evanescence. Schulze’s affinity for wabi sabi, the Japanese appreciation of imperfect beauty. i.e., marked by weathering or age, or ‘living a life.,”7  is captured in four works depicting Japanese tea bowls, which the artist collects. These works collate multiple views of each cup at various sizes and seen from different angles, cubistically; some of the cup portraits are distorted by photocopy-machine manipulation; others recall photographic negatives, with their light and dark values reversed. Three of the collages—a long time ago, not so long ago, and the unknowable future—are accompanied by poems that ponder the mystery and miracle of enduring artworks “made to last through time.”

once upon a time, not so long ago
this bowl, this precious object
cared for, used, and admired
passed from one to another
then given as a gift
to one who received it
with delight and surprise
—Joan Schulze, not so long ago, 2017

Schulze’s restricted, delicate palettes, her elegant drawing in thread, her use of written or printed characters as semi-abstract visual forms, and her airy, open compositions suggest the nature philosophy of Asian art. In several recent works, however, Schulze confronts the racial divide in American culture in tape-strip collages that suggest the pervasive imagery of the digital era. Interior Lives and Vertical Daydreams suggest private reveries, while Opus: White and Opus: Black and Brown, subtly show how skin color is still unfortunately the filter through which we perceive each other.

While previous writers have focused on Schulze as the creator of extraordinary art quilts, it is a disservice to her art to relegate it to the craft domain. Schulze’s vernacular, everyday images taken from a variety of sources, mysteriously and miraculously synthesized through color and composition into compelling, hypnotic works—that, in Whitman’s words, “contain contradictions”—are fine-art collages comparable to any. Schulze acknowledges the assemblagist Robert Rauschenberg as a kindred spirit whose work influenced her, and both artists combine curiosity about the world and a passion for materials and experimentation. For both, the process and the experience are of equal importance with the resulting product, or ‘by-product,’ to use Robert Henri’s 1923 term. Fortunately for us viewers, both are consummate artists who magically and intuitively transform the diaristic stuff of daily life into universal visual experience; Schulze calls this quality that lifts a work beyond design and composition ‘the sixth dimension.’ 6 Henri, again: “It beats all the things that wealth can give and everything else in the world to say the things one believes, to put them into form, to pass them on to anyone who may care to take them up.”8

1 Robert Henri, The Art Spirit (1923), p. 159
2 Peter Frank, “The Collage Aesthetic,” in Deborah Corsini’s Poetic License: The Art of Joan Schulze (1999), p.113
3 Sarah E. Tucker, “Schulze: The Artist Who Dances,” in Joan Schulze’s Quilts (2005), p.9
4 Sarah E. Tucker, “A Poetics of Cloth, Paper, Stitch and Line,” in Deborah Corsini’s Poetic License: The Art of Joan Schulze (2009), p.85
5 Sarah E. Tucker, “A Poetics of Cloth, Paper, Stitch and Line,” in Deborah Corsini’s Poetic License: The Art of Joan Schulze (2009), p.90
6 Schulze, quoted in Dyana Curreri, “ A Life Without Limitation,” in The Art of Joan Schulze (1999), p.58.
7 Schulze, quoted in Jette Clover, “Looking for Beauty,” in The Art of Joan Schulze (1999), p.110.
8 Robert Henri, The Art Spirit (1923), p. 142




Martin Wong Retrospective at Berkeley Art Museum (reprinted from East Bay Monthly, November 2017)

Martin Wong Paintings Revisit 1980s New York

In 1985, three years before his death, the Puerto Rican playwright and actor, Miguel Piñero, wrote “Lower East Side Poem”:  Just once before I die / I want to climb up on a / tenement sky / to dream my lungs out till / I cry / then scatter my ashes thru / the Lower East Side....  That tragic lyricism also characterizes the paintings of Martin Wong (1946-1999), Piñero’s friend and lover, who moved from San Francisco to New York in 1978 to pursue his art career. Trained in ceramics, Wong taught himself to paint while living in a rundown hotel, where he worked a night watchman, and later in an area blighted by heroin dealers and addicts, while working in a museum bookstore. Wong: “Everything I paint is within four blocks of where I live and the people are the people I know and see all the time."

Wong’s urban landscape paintings (pointedly devoid of greenery) document the graffiti and hip-hop era, now generally associated with Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf and others. They combine gritty reality— brown and gray building facades, the brickwork and graffiti meticulously rendered in somber reds, grays and ochers—with the Romantic excess of gay street culture in all its outrageously colorful theatricality. The cowboy-hatted Chinese-American artist from San Francisco who had once earned his living as the Human Instamatic, making $7.50 portraits at art fairs (with a personal record of twenty-seven fairs in one day!), and designing sets for the hippie-radical street-theater commune, The Angels of Light, found the subject that combined his various interests—gay culture, graffiti, an updated social realism, and even autobiography of sorts—in the vibrant, polyglot, multiracial bohemia of Loisaida.

A roundtable discussion on Wong’s New York work will take place 1pm, Saturday, November 11; a talk on Wong’s use of American Sign Language will take place 3:30pm, Saturday December 9. Martin Wong: Human Instamatic runs through December 10; Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, 2120 Oxford Street, Berkeley, 510/642-0808; —DeWitt Cheng

Note: Not all the jpegs posted here may be included in the show. Will revise after I’ve seen the show. The piece was written in mid-September


Walker Evans at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (reprinted from, 10/13/17)


Editors' Roundtable
DeWitt Cheng
"The secret of photography is, the camera takes on the character and personality of the handler." —Walker Evans 

The painter (and Depression-era photographer) Ben Shahn wrote, "Style is the form of content," meaning that in the best art, the visual and conceptual (including political) elements reinforce and amplify each other. To the degree that there exists a schism between the optical/sensuous and conceptual/intellectual realms is, in my view, attributable to doctrinaire neophilia, love of the new, accompanied by art-historical amnesia about Dead White European Males. The heartlessness of much contemporary art, with cerebral PC propaganda on one end of the spectrum and escapist eye candy on the other, reflects the lack of an ethical center in American culture. 

Today's political situation has, however, awakened many to the spiritual crisis engulfing us. It is heartening, amid all the doom and gloom, to note that the social documentarian photography of the Depression is once again on our minds. The images of Dorothea Lange — her "Migrant Mother" never lost its power or relevance — resonated with viewers at the Oakland Museum's retrospective a few months ago. Across the bay, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has just opened a large exhibition of Walker Evans which promises to inform and elevate today's huddled masses. 

Evans is best known for his photographs for the Farm Security Administration of the rural South during the Depression. I have always gravitated to that work for its acute observation of the small-town American scene; its sympathy with the people portrayed (without sentimentality; and its elegant, sometimes witty compositions. Evans idolized French writers like Baudelaire and Zola, dating to his 1926 stay in Paris, and adopted the modernist detachment of the flaneur, or stroller; his curiosity about social reality is thus never strident or programmatic. One writer described his work as "stoic, reserved and minimal." Evans, who saw himself as an "untethered eye" and a "social historian," aspired to make images that would be "literate, authoritative, transcendent." 

Evans and FSA colleagues like Lange and Shahn inherited the earlier progressive documentarian tradition from Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, and developed it according to the new social conditions, technological capabilities, and even career opportunities for photographers. Evans, for example, was the first photographer accorded an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art; he was also active in publishing books: "American Photographs" in 1938, and "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" in 1941. He worked for Fortune magazine as an independent editor/photographer from 1945 to 1965, before leaving to teach at Yale. 

But back to the photographs. In contradistinction to contemporary art, which generally declaims its timeliness, Evans's photos of the 1930s, are immersed in the past, saturated by memory, documenting the gradual disappearance of small-town America as mass culture penetrated even the lowly shanties of Appalachia. And so he preserved it, photographically. One critic, noting Evans's debt to Eugene Atget (transmitted by Atget enthusiast and Evans's friend, Berenice Abbott), characterized his work as "social fact[s], suspended in time." Lloyd Fonvielle, in one of two Aperture magazine monographs on Evans, wrote: 

"He appropriated the potent, head-on style of naïve vernacular photography and transformed it into an instrument of conscious elegance … The visual incongruities of the American landscape — rusted auto bodies in a pastoral farmyard, rows of factory workers' houses built up next two rows of tombstones, crude hand lettered signs tacked on to gracious (and crumbling) old buildings … This particular evidence of American innocence might almost be said to constitute the core of Evans's vision; it's certainly accounts for the disquieting, melancholy aura of his best images …" 

In the second monograph, David Campany cited Evans's interest in 

"… the poetry of the street, vernacular architecture and design, the way the past persists in the present, and the anonymity of modern citizens … He was on the side of the genuinely popular, but against the populist (and often patronizing) manipulations of the mass media, with its love of product turnover, consumerism, easy stories, and celebrity.” 

These two writers sum up, with their evocative descriptions of the photos, Evans' enduring appeal as both fine-art photographer and social documentarian: as an artist who perfectly merges style and content, and bringing to life the vanished past. The claims implicitly made by these photographs — for connection with the world; for high standards; for aesthetic independence; for cultural curiosity; for transcending mere artiness — seem to me to be a necessary correction to an art world too awash in a false sense of the new. I concude with a couple additional quotations: first Evans' translation of "Mad," an essay by the French poet Blaise Cendrars, which might almost serve as the photographer's credo, echoing William Carlos Williams: "no ideas but in things," and is included in the SFMOMA show; and second, Evans's Dutch-uncle exhortation to fellow artists: 

"About this time, I was taken with a violent passion for objects, for inanimate things. I do not mean the utensils and the art objects with which the palace was stuffed, and which, by a sort of intellectual or sentimental exaltation, invoke, suggest, recall an old civiilization, some period of the past, some faded historic or family scene; objects which charm you and captivate you by their distorted shapes, their baroque lines, their obsolete refinement, by all that places them and dates them, names, and so curiously reveals the stamp of the mode which imagined them; no; my fancy was for unaesthetic objects exclusively; unfashioned objects of coarse and elementary material. I surrounded myself with the most uncouth things. A biscuit tin, an ostrich egg, a sewing machine, a piece of quartz, a bar of lead, a stovepipe. I spent my days handling and fingering and smelling these things. I rearranged them a thousand times a day. They were my amusement and my distraction; they were to make me forget the emotional experiences which had so tired me out. This was a great lesson to me." 

Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.

Kirk Crippens: California Plates at SLAC

Documentary Photographs by KIRK CRIPPENS at SLAC Building 52

SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory is proud to announce an exhibit of works by the acclaimed Bay Area photographer, KIRK CRIPPENS. California Plates features large-scale color photographs taken from several separate bodies of work shot in northern California over the past nine years.

Documentary photography began at the turn of the 19th century with Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis, recorders of the grim lives of the American working class in the Gilded Age. It received further impetus in the 1930s, during the Depression, when government agencies hired young photographers to capture the plight of migrant laborers and tenant farmers in the American South in order to generate support for New Deal programs. Two of the photographers associated with New Deal agencies—the Farm Services Administration and the Resettlement Agency—were Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, who have been given recent retrospectives in the Bay Area, at the Oakland Museum of California and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, respectively. While these photographers were given subject assignments by their bosses, the works vary with the artists’ personalities. Lange was more polemical and political than the reserved Evans, for example. The works of both succeeded, however, because of their striking aesthetic form (informed by abstract painting and sculpture) and powerful, dramatic storytelling, qualities that make them succeed with contemporary viewers experiencing a renewed empathy for the “forgotten man” of eighty years ago.
Kirk Crippens’ work derives from the documentary tradition, but it operates as well as pure photography, as form and color orchestrated into memorable, even inevitable configurations. Understated elegance and an occasional bemused, dry humor are “the general note,” to use a phrase of Walker Evans, as is interest in the people who agree to pose for the photographer; indeed, Crippens has much in common with Evans, who lived with his subjects and was accepted by them almost as family. The nine landscape-format photographs shown here come from Crippens’ The Great Recession series, depicting hard times in the San Fernando Valley town of Stockton, due to its foreclosure crisis; from the Mary Elizabeth Moves series, beautiful domestic-interior slices of life; and from The Point series , with a semi-bucolic view of “CIty Goats” through a grid of cyclone fencing and an arabesque of dead vines.  Seven portrait-format photographs come from Crippens’ 2011-12 The Point series: formal, posed views of San Franciscans from the Bayview-Hunters Point area. Crippens: “My life changed that Sunday morning.  I was adopted by the congregation of Providence [Baptist Church].... The Point is a collaboration with and celebration of ... the kings and queens of Bayview-Hunters Point.”

SLAC’s Building 52 is not open to the public except during receptions by reservation. For more information, please contact Curator DeWitt Cheng at 415-412-8499 and is the successor program to Stanford Art Spaces.


George Lawson Gallery

Two artists look at the great mystery, time, through painting and photography in this provocative curatorial matchup. Laina Terpstra’s small to mid-sized oils on canvas at first appear to be elegant., curvilinear abstractions in muted palettes of brown, ocher, black and white, but it soon become clear that they represent the motions of absent actors, like the blurs in long-exposure photographs. Motion became a subject for artistic interpretation at the dawn of modernism with the influence of photography. The most famous example would be Duchamp’s 1912 “Nude Descending a Staircase,” but also in the running would be the lesser-known but equally memorable contemporaneous oil by the Futurist Giacomo Balla, “Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash,” with lady and pet dachshund endowed with a panoply of rotating legs, as if photographed under strobe lighting. Terpstra joins this witty tradition by making works—all visually satisfying by themselves—as variants or homages to Old Master paintings by Pieter de Hooch, Jan Steen, Jacques Louis David, and, the master of chiaroscuro and tenebrism, Caravaggio. If the monochromatic “Room of Resistance” suggests, with its ectoplasmic white veils floating in darkness, Max Ernst’s grattages set into a Redon noir, “From Caravaggio’s Seven Acts of Mercy” seems to depict the swirling Baroque draperies of that painting minus the actors of the sacred drama, Raptured to a better place? Don’t miss the small and large versions of “From Pieter de Hooch’s Man With Dead Birds and Other Figures in a Stable,” compelling mashups of Old-Master gravitas and modernist abstraction: postmodernism worth its salt—and, wonderful to relate—such contrapuntal pairings can be done!—worth hanging with the originals.

In the smaller gallery are four nocturnal-landscape photo mosaics by Tama Hochbaum, a former painter and printmaker, who now uses a camera to depict “an unfolding of time, a story told.” Shown here are four 48”x48” squares composed of eight 16”x16” prints, with the center squares absent. Hochbaum’s centerless square polyptychs, featuring shots of the night sky in various locations, and shot presumably forty-five degrees apart, are based, I am told by gallerist George Lawson (thanks for the memories!), on the neolithic jade bi, a carved circular disc with a circular hole at the center, representing heaven. —DeWitt Cheng