Erica Deeman's black portraiture at Berkeley Art Museum (reprinted from East Bay Monthly, May 2017)

Erica Deeman Shoots Timeless Profiles

 The recent flap over the Whitney Museum Biennial’s inclusion of a semi-abstract painting of Emmitt Till—the young black boy murdered and mutilated by southern racists—shows what a tangled web artists and viewers negotiate with inflammatory material like American race relations. Black artists seem to be able to explore the theme, understandably, with more discrimination, than some white artists, who can easily be accused of ideological carpetbagging, scandal being one of the major options in the careerist’s toolkit, as the controversies of the 1980s prove.

 Erica Deeman, a black photographer born in England and now living in San Francisco, steps into this minefield with a series of photographs of anonymous black women that is stylistically conservative (and thus mildly subversive) but no less compelling for it. She shoots large color photographs of her backlit subjects in profile, or cameo, with the white background subtly modeling the women’s features, creating depth and dimensionality, possibly a metaphor for how people see others initially by skin color, and only later, with more exposure, come to see them as unique individuals. While the series in entitled Silhouettes, with a nod to Kara Walker’s cut-paper depictions of the racial crimes of the past—unbearable if depicted realistically (like the photo of Till in his coffin)—Deeman’s images are more correctly profiles, or cameos, a form far older than silhouettes, which take their eponym from Etienne de Silhouette, the 18th-century French minister of finance forced to impose economic austerities on the French people, lending his name, by metaphorical extension, to the ‘cheap’ cut-paper portraits popular at the time. (I do not believe that Kaspar Lavater’s physiognomic theories about race are relevant to a discussion of silhouettes.) The art-historically-minded will remember that cameos and silhouettes appear in ancient art in coins and medallions, and in early Renaissance portraits of the nobility, modeled after antiquity. Deeman’s contemporary photographs thus resurrect an ancient style in order to lend the weight and dignity of art history to her subjects; while stylistically unspectacular, their quiet authority and beauty will stand the test of time. Silhouettes runs through June 11; Berkeley Art Museum, 2155 Center Street, Berkeley (510) 642-0808; —DeWitt Cheng













Andreina Davila, Ytaelena Lopez and /eE.l.os/ (their collaboration name) at Secession Art & Design

Two Venezuelan artists are showing their individual paintings, plus works done in collaboration. at Secession Art & Design, 3235 Mission Street (not far from Cesar Chavez), San Francisco. 
I wrote about ?eE.l.os? a few months ago: 


or Threads, a creative partnership between Bay Area painters

Andreina Davila and Ytaelena Lopez

/eE.l/os/ highlights the potential harmony existing between the environment and human beings. Our goal is to incorporate the Greek concept of Kalos Kagathos, or beauty with purpose. The possibility of two artists working together toward an unforeseen yet beautiful outcome inspires hope and maybe encourages others to explore themselves and their connection with the world around them. /eE.l.os/ aims to connect and at the same time blur the lines between the work of the two artists. One plus one equals many.—Andreina Davila and Ytaelena Lopez 

We in the art world are accustomed to consider artmaking primarily a solitary activity, and artwork as reflecting a single sensibility. In general, that is the case, so we normally scant the idea of artistic collaborations. In the Renaissance, painters learned their craft in workshops headed by master artists. Remember, for example, Andrea del Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ (1470-5 or so), with its radiant angel, the contribution of a young Leonardo da Vinci. The creative marriage —or mountain-climbing expedition, depending on which metaphor you find more striking—of Picasso and Georges Braque during the early years of Analytic Cubism is another creative collaboration, producing paintings that, although painted separately, were indistinguishable even to their creators. Picasso also maintained a serious rivalry with Matisse, each painter challenging the other—as Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael had, five centuries earlier: collaboration as parallel evolution. 

The Venezuelan painters Andreina Davila and Ytaelena Lopez, who met in the Bay Area, entered, in February, 2015, into an artistic partnership, entitled /eE.l.os/. The word, a typographical variation of hilos, threads in Spanish, reflects their interest in the question of identity and its malleable relationship to place, natural concerns to immigrants in this multicultural time in this diverse place. The threads also serve, according to the artists’ joint statement, as connectors between people and nature, bridging realms usually considered separate; in visual terms, they connect and unify Lopez’s portraits and animals and Davila’s painterly abstractions, synthesizing drawing and color, opposing aesthetic camps in the early nineteenth century painting, but now, in the twenty-first century, partners. While the paintings, which the artists pass back and forth, sometimes over long periods, have resemblances to their individual works, it’s clear that the partnership creates, in effect, a third artist, and that this tertiary work feeds their solo works as much as they in turn nourish /eE.l.os/. 

The product of a long discussion between friends during a long drive, and subsequent brainstorming, the artists’ FAUNA series examines animals’ ability to adapt to changes in their environment, a lesson in flexibility and realism easily extrapolated to humans now facing environmental challenges. /eE.l..os/’s artist statement:

The subject of this series is the process of transformation where the individual, depicted as an animal, becomes one with the place. The animal becomes the place and the place becomes the animal. For the artists, as native Spanish speakers, the verb “TO BE” can have two meanings: the state of being in a place (‘estar’) and a definition of who we are (“ser”). This duality is central to the dialog that takes place between the environment and the animal. They interact with each other, developing a joint identity, much as it happens in life, where our actions help define and shape us and the environment around us…. Each painting starts with the abstraction of a place. Andreina gives, color, texture and form to the idea of an open, yet inviting environment. Then, Ytaelena imagines who could inhabit here, and, line by line, an animal form comes to life. Last, we weave this interaction between the two different forms: fauna and place become one… In a time when our relation to what we call “home” is questioned by issues like climate change, immigration and gentrification, Fauna represents a break, a moment to breathe and imagine what would be possible. (From website,

The mixed-media works on panel depict wild animals in natural environments, but they are far from naturalistic, or, at least, merely naturalistic. Ytaelena Lopez’s freely but incisively sketched animals are recognizable, but her meandering black line (which recalls Egon Schiele’s)—complemented by white lines and shades of ink wash—follows realism only loosely, even playfully, carving the picture space into animal form, or perhaps spirit-animal form: the animals are often left white, suggesting absences, or rendered as semi-transparent, with the background coming through. Deer, coyotes, foxes, lions, capybaras, chimpanzees, chameleons, whales — each species is memorialized and commemorated, the living individual being transformed into a representative of its species, perhaps endangered or already extinct. A century ago, the German Expressionist painter Franz Marc depicted animals—spiritual blue horses and yellow cows, famously—as embodiments of purity and instinct, sometimes in harmony with their surroundings, sometimes threatened by invisible forces. (Marc was killed at the Somme, in 1916.) Frederick S. Levine, in his study of Marc, described expressionism as

…a socially involved art, an art that sought to communicate the depths of its involvement with and concern for mankind….Expressionism sought to reach out beyond the confines of the individual selk and to establish contact with the broad mass of humanity. Indeed, Expressionism reflected an anguished longing for community which, when carried to its extreme, represented an attempt to establish a unified and harmonious relationship between the mortal isolated individual and the eternity and universality of the cosmos.1

I see the innocent animals of /eE.l.os/ as performing a similar service for our endangered and not-so-innocent anthropogenic era. If this sounds overly serious to viewers who resist what George Grosz called Tendenzkunst, tendentious art, or sociopolitical art, the works, like Marc’s and unlike Grosz’s, are visually complex and surprising, and quite beautiful.  Ytaelena Lopez’s stylized, semi-abstract backgrounds—large patches of pure color modulated by tones and organic textures to suggest natural habitats, phenomena and processes—offer aesthetic delight and even mystical transport that transcend the current realities of politics and business. The abstract and the figurative merge, just as the artists’ individual personalities merge into the creative partnership, creating a visionary, spiritualized world reminiscent of the peaceable kingdom paintings of the nineteenth-century Quaker artist, Edward Hicks.

The supposed conflict between beauty and seriousness in art that we take for granted nowadays is incorrect: art need not choose between being either eye candy, superficial or sublime, or politically correct propaganda, bitter, but good for you, or, that egregious synthesis of vapidity harnessed to pretentiousness. The art critic and philosopher Arthur Danto wrote, about what he calls our kalliphobia, our fear and hatred of beauty, as inherited from the Dadaists, disgusted by the hypocrisy and waste of the Great War. Unfortunately, the desire to shock and disgust, “to make people scream,”2 in Max Ernst’s words, has now become the established practice taught in art schools; it has been co-opted by the market.

Davila and Lopez cite in their artist statement the ancient Greek term kalokagathos, or kalo k’agathos, “beautiful on the outside and noble on the inside.”3 Carried to extremes, it is a dubious equation, of course; the execution of the homely seventy-year-old gadfly, Socrates, by gym-toned Athenians (considered middle-aged at thirty) ought to make us wary of superficial judgments based on appearance. However, given the current enslavement of contemporary art to market forces, perhaps it is time to acknowledge again, with Keats, that truth can be beauty, and vice versa, and reconsider artworks like those created by that third person, /eE.l.os/, that function as beautiful and wise kaloi k’agathoi.

1 Frederick S. Levine, The Apocalyptic Vision: The Art of Franz Marc as German Expressionism, p.5

2 Arthur Danto, “Kalliphobia in Contemporary Art; Or, What Ever Happened to Beauty?” reprinted in Unnattural Wonders: Essays from the Gap Between Art and Life (2005), p. 323

3 Bettany Hughes, The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life, p. 234


Alt-Left: Local Heroes @ Berkeley Art Center. 1275 Walnut S. Reception May 29,. Artist talk May 20, 2:30pm. Show runs to June 17.

Alt-Left: Local Treasures

The term Alt-Right, a recent coinage, is shorthand journalese for the belief system of Donald Trump’s supporters, those white working class (WWC) populists whom Hilary Clinton, in an accurate but politically maladroit moment, called a “basket of deplorables.” Alt-right combines various strands of contemporary radical conservative thinking: nationalism,white supremacism, racism, religious bigotry, sexism, and nativism, flavored by a dash of populism. While the desertion of the WWC by both major political parties is now, weeks after election-day apocalypse, generally conceded. It has not yet become clear to Al-t-Righters that their interests will very likely be ignored as before by the new corporate oligarchy serving the ultra-rich: meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Our social safety net and even our social contract are now, in the Age of Trump, ‘negotiable.’

 San Francisco is perhaps the most politically and culturally liberal region in the country, its reputation for tolerance and progressive politics probably second to none. (Conservative political strategists play the “San Francisco liberal’ card with some regularity, in fact, mocking Political Correctness as a kind of mind control, not simply human decency transposed to the political realm. Bay Area artists have accordingly been among the most outspoken critics of mainstream, status-quo politics. The Berkeley art historian Peter Selz—who as a young man visited Hitler’s Degenerate Art (Entartete Kunst) show in Munich in 1937— writes, in Art of Engagement: Visual Politics and California and Beyond:

 Some critics and artists have argued “if it is political, it is not art,” while others stipulate that ‘if it is art, it is not political.” My contention is that not only can artists comment significantly on politics in their work, but political engagement in specific situations can produce authentic art. 

 Two years ago, I wrote about a show of contemporary artists fusing political content with an imaginative, even surrealist style:

 Artists have often served as cultural critics in the past, even, via satire, as moralists, in a bizarre way, and some continue to do so, even if people no longer look to art for education or moral edification. Paradoxically, artists employing traditional realism—creating windows into alternate or superior realities— most cogently point out the flawed unreal core of consensus reality…. [They] leaven their cultural critique with irony, imagination and humor, and exemplary craftsmanship. Through satire, they help us deal (square ourselves) with things as they are, illustrating what a long, strange trip it’s always been, as their spiritual predecessors Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel knew only too well.

 Alt-Left: Local Treasures is a Bay Area art response to the Alt-Right. It features work by three painters, Mark Bryan, Michael Kerbow and Ariel Parkinson; two collagists, John Hundt and Vanessa Woods; and a sculptor, Francisco Jimenez, who comment on history, politics and psychology with both deep feeling and a mordant, absurdist humor.  Viewers may laugh; viewers may cry. The present political moment calls for engaging with reality and abandoning  the cargo-cult consumerism that have dominated political discourse for three decades. To oppose and outlast the depredations of the immoderate minority, ‘the “radical rich” (David Frum),  the moderate majority, i.e., we the 99%, will require “radical hope” (Jonathan Lear), unremitting opposition, and eyes-on-the-prize determination. —DeWitt Cheng



The Legacy of David Park: An Invitational and Juried Painting show @ the Edward M. Dowd Art and Art History Building Gallery, Santa Clara University, April 3-28, 2017

Art professor and critic John Seed assembled this large group show with Santa Clara University art professor Kelly Detweiler. Below, the show/s premise, a celebration of the Bay Area Figurative painter David Park, whose commitment to self-expression through painting and depicting the everyday world —magically— make him an exemplary figure for painters today.  Park’s daughter, Helen Park Bigelow, was on hand for the panel discussion, which included Seed, Detweiler, painter Jennifer Pochinski, and myself (summoned from taking pictures from the balcony). A graceful tribute to Park by painter Kyle Staver, who could not attend, began the discussion. Thirty-seven national and international artists’ work, a glorious new venue (with a new Linda Fleming painted steel sculpture outside and a Dale Chihuly glass sculpture inside), a comprehensive catalog (available online), support from the Sam Francis Foundation and Harry and Margaret Anderson, three cash prizes, and an enthusiastic reception — congratulations to all!

The artists:
Jennifer Pochinski and Kyle Staver (both invited); 
Alex Bailey
James Bland
Marie Cameron
Linda Christensen
Ashley Norwood Cooper
Melinda Cootsona
Kim Frohsin
Sonia Gill
Phyllis Gorsen
Cynthia Grilli
Nancy Gruskin
Mark Hanson
Irene Cuadrado Hernandez
Mitchell Johnson
Betsy Kendall
Rachel Kline
Sue Ellen R. Leys
Kathy Liao
Fred Lower
Janet Norris
Gage Opdenbrouw
David Iacovazzi-Pau
Jill Madden
Nicholas Mancini
Sandy Ostrau
Catherine Prescott
Jose Luis Cena Ruiz
William Rushton
Francis Sills
Kurt Solmssen
David Tomb
Christina Renfer Vogel
Martin Webb
John Weber
William Wray

This exhibition is intended to pay homage to the art and values of artist David Park (1911-1960), the founder of the tradition of Bay Area Figurative painting. It does not include Park’s own works, but instead features the works of two invited artists and 35 artists chosen by a panel of four jurors. 
David Park’s figurative works are characterized by humanity, candor and bold painterly brushwork. The goal of the exhibition jurors was not to select art that mimics David Park’s style, but rather to select paintings that honor the legacy of Park’s artistic independence and integrity, and also his interest in painting people and places that held personal meanings for him. 

—John Seed is a professor of art and art history at Mt. San Jacinto College. He is also an arts writer and blogger whose writing has ap- peared in Harvard Magazine, Art Ltd. the HuffingtonPost and Hyperallergic. Seed wrote the catalog essay that accompanied the 2015 exhibition Interiors and Places': David Park, Richard Diebenkorn and Elmer Bischoff at Hackett Mill Gallery in San Francisco. 
—DeWitt Cheng is an artist, collector, freelance art writer, educator, and curator based in San Francisco. He has served as the director of Stanford Art Spaces and writes for numerous art publications including Art Ltd Magazine and Visual Art Source. 
—Andrea Pappas is an Associate Professor of Art History at Santa Clara University, specializing in American and Contemporary Art, Gender and Visual Arts. She holds a BA in Fine Arts from the University of California at Berkeley, and both an M.A. and PhD in Art History from the University of Southern California. 
—Jessica Phillips is the Director of Hackett|Mill Gallery, San Francisco, which represents the Estate of David Park. She holds a B.A. in English Literature and Art History and an M.A. in Contemporary Art from Sotheby’s Institute of Art, London. 

Global Studies: Portraits by Susan Matthews at IRiSS

Global Studies: Portraits by Susan Matthews

Institute for Research in the Social Sciences (IRiSS)

30 Alta Road, Stanford CA 94305

February 2017-February 2018


The Institute for Research in the Social Sciences is proud to announce an exhibit of paintings by the Oakland artist Susan Matthews. Global Studies features seventeen acrylic paintings on canvas that depict people whom the artist encountered while traveling in Cuba and Africa (as well as at home in the exotic Bay Area). Vibrantly colored, and drawn with a sure eye for characterization, the paintings are both depictions of sympathetic individuals and, implicitly, a plea for the broader perspectives that come with travel and personal engagement. They oppose the notion of tourism as the taking of photographic trophies: capturing picturesque subalterns before the inevitable ‘spoiling’ of westernization.


The majority of the works come from Matthews’ The African Icons series, made during a visit to Niger, in west Africa.  By combining metallic foils with acrylic paint, the artist creates secular, contemporary versions of the saints’ portraits common in Christian art since the third century, with the reflective sheen suggesting both preciousness (not preciosity) and immutability: W.B. Yeats’s “sages standing in … the artifice of eternity,” to quote his famous poem, “Sailing to Byzantium.” The Hausa text incorporated into some of the paintings is explained in notes in the wall labels that include details about the portrait subjects and the circumstances under which the paintings were made. “Drinking Water,” for example, is “ a portrait of a young girl carrying water in a plastic basin. Children are always at work. There is no other way to live. Each person in Niger gets an average of one gallon of water per day. Most people bathe and wash clothes in a nearby river.” “Garaya” is “a portrait of a young man who made up his own song and was playing it to the accompaniment of his garaya, a gourd with a few strings. The sound is beautiful. The text reads, ‘See, I really can sing.’”  Some of the proceeds from sales of these paintings and from related archival prints goes to support a village grain bank in Niger.


The large painting hung in the foyer,  “Rumba Taller Grafica,” depicts the outdoor performance of the Cuban folkloric dance, the rumba; at the Taller Grafica, Havana’s renowned printmaking workshop.  The series from which this comes, Secrets Under the Skin, is an examination of the links between African and Cuban cultures due to the slave trade’s involuntary emigration; made in collaboration with Jill Flanders Crosby of the University of Alaska Anchorage, the series debuted in Havana and has been exhibited in Anchorage, San Francisco and other venues, most recently in Dakar, Senegal, at the Dak’Art Biennale.


IRiSS is open to the public 9-5 M-F. For more information, please contact Curator DeWitt Cheng at 415-412-8499 and is the successor program to Stanford Art Spaces; it will also serve, when it goes online in March 2017, as a blog and art magazine focusing on the Bay Area.