Northern Light Caught in Finnish Landscape Photos (reprinted from East Bay Monthly, April 2018)


Northern Light Caught in Finnish Landscape Photos

The landscape tradition in painting now seems dated to many of us, too classical and aristocratic in the 17th and 18th century (Claude Lorrain), and too capitalistic/imperialistic in the 19th (Albert Bierstadt). That attitude may be attributable to the speed of contemporary life; we simply can no longer absorb such works; the world (and too many worldly diversions) beckons, and we dutifully hike on after—according to one study—a median time of 27.2 seconds, with 17 seconds the minimum, and 3:48 the maximum. Before us, and after, the deluge of images!

The New York-based (but San Francisco-educated) photographer and writer Amanda Marchand presents in True North, her third show at Traywick, nineteen medium-format color photographs of the stark boreal landscape of subarctic Finland, taken during a residency there in January 2015, when temperatures are generally subzero. The bare expanses of snow-covered fields and cloudless skies are captured in images of minimal, even iconic compositions—two stacked rectangles (à la Rothko), occasionally revealing tiny distant buildings and other structures—and desaturated boreal palettes. These are hushed, meditative images (which Californians can enjoy in cozy comfort) that demand slow looking and offer a respite from the cultural gerbil wheel of getting and spending.

The works are evenly divided between single square-format images and multi-image sets, primarily diptychs and triptychs. Some of the single-image photos, like “Axis,” with its central power-pole spire, “Untitled (Blue),” with its tiny fence pole, and “Near to the Wild,” with its triangular aura or aurora, are symmetrical, and suggest frozen time; others, like “Island” and “Divining Rod,” with their intricately detailed trees and foliage, set against blank skies, suggest scientific typologies of the Bernd and Hilla Becher school. The multi-panel works, like “Double Helix” and “Roots,” invite comparison, and suggest narrative and change—and the attentive but divided gaze of the avid observer. The show also includes a site-specific installation linking the abstracted landscape, with its slow fluctuations, with language. Baudelaire: “Nature is a temple in which living pillars sometimes give voice to confused words; Man passes there through forests of symbols.” True North runs through May 19, Th-Sat 10-4 or by appointment, Traywick Gallery, 895 Colusa Avenue, Berkeley 510-527-1214; —DeWitt Cheng

The Obama portraits (reprinted from

Hail to the Chief

The unveiling of the portraits of the Obamas for the National Portrait Gallery—Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley and Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald—elicited the expected reactions from various sectors of the electorate. Unstinting praise from liberals, in general, swayed by affection for our exemplary First Couple, with art-world approbation for the deviation from the old-fashioned stodginess that we associate with presidential portraits. While I share that afffection for the Obama,s and appreciate their interest in supporting young black artists, I can’t help but feel that the paintings do not commemorate this historic administration. The styles are inappropriate. (In my opinion, more realistic artists would have been a better choice. To name two: Philipe Previl is a young black artist painting in contemporary mode based on Cèzannian ‘patch’ close observation; Margaret Bowland, a white woman, explores issues of power and race in her realistic works.)

Wiley’s Schiele-like magnification of head and hands may please those who make fun of 45’s small hands, but it seems to be slightly disprespectful to ‘fix’ 44’s hands, and the hedge of symbolic flowers (which suggested to various commentators both Homer SImpson and Sean Spicer) seems to me a rationale for the artist’s love of what resemble wallpaper patterns. Sherald’s likeness of FLOTUS is not great, with the drawing of her famous arms particularly boneless (the precedent of Ingres’s “Odalisque” does not really apply here), and whatever political convictions may be implicitly read into the dress, modway between quilting and Carnaby Street Pop, the subject gets rather lost in it. The intelligence, charm, dignity and humor of the Obamas is swallowed up in artist signature styles and retroactively applied political symbolism, i.e. allegory.

That said, I thought it might be interesting to look at and critique other works in the National Portrait Gallery (follow along at Contrary to popular belief and the current fashionable rejection of dead-white-male art and culture, there are many quite good works in the collection; lots of mediocre ones; and a few that are downright bad.

By good, I mean fundamentally realistic, with just enough idealization and theater for the intended audience of voters in a democratic republic: POTUS as primus inter pares, as was said of Washington, first among equals. Note that I do not evaluate the portraits based on my politics: a good painter can make a bad president look great (George Peter Alexander Healy’s James Buchanan), and vice versa (Robert Edge Pine’s George Washington). Evaluating artworks based on politics or morality is a bad habit inculcated by postmodernist education—vide the inflated scandals over Dana Schutz, Balthus, etc.—that we in the art community need to outgrow. Ask the bad boys—Caravaggio, Bernini, Picasso, and Freud—or any premodern artist who used his gifts to serve ideology and power not to our liking. (For that matter, the notion that realist painting is tainted by its servitude to imperialism and colonialism and that it is superseded by photography are additional fashionable absurdities long past their use-by dates.) Among the good to great NPG portraits I would list these fifteen, in chronological order:

1.     John Trumbull’s 1793 John Adams
2.     Gilbert Stuart’s unfinished 1796 George Washington
3.     Gilbert Stuart’s almost Impressionist 1805/21 Thomas Jefferson
4.     John Vanderlyn’s 1816 James Monroe
5.     Albert Gallatin Hoit’s 1840 William Henry Harrison
6.     James Reid Lambdin’s 1848 Zachary Taylor
7.     George Caleb Bingham’s 1850 John Quincy Adams
8.     George Peter Alexander Healy’s 1853 Franklin Pierce
9.     George Peter Alexander Healy’s 1859 James Buchanan
10.   Matthew Wilson’s 1883 Chester Arthur
11.   Thomas Le Clear’s 1880 Ulysses S. Grant
12.   Ole Peter Hansen Balling’s 1906 James Garfield
13.   Bernard Safran’s 1960 Richard Nixon
14.   Ronald N Sherr’s 1994-5 George Bush
15.   Robert A. Anderson’s 2008 George W. Bush

By mediocre, I mean works that fail, for a variety of reasons: incompetent painting or drawing; too much realism for comfort’s sake; kowtowing to fashion; and egregious falsification, i.e. propaganda of the lowest sort. Probably the worst executed of the portrait paintings is  Robert Edge Pine’s 1790 George Washington, an embarrassment; the most tasteless is Michael O’Brien’s 1989 magazine-cover-style photo of Donald Trump tossing an apple. The most banal are the blandly generic, overgeneralized waxwork figures depicting McKinley, Wilson, Coolidge, Hoover, Truman, Ford and Reagan, the epitome of which is Robert Clark Templeton’s 1980 Jimmy Carter, a stick figure lost in space. At the opposite end of the spectrum are those paintings that are too warts-and-all realistic, Too Much Information, including Rembrandt Peale’s unsparing 1795 look at a tired George Washington; August Benziger’s gangsterish 1897 WIlliam McKinley; William Valentine Schevill’s 1910 William Howard Taft and Anders Zorn’s 1899 Grover Cleveland, depicting those two worthies as—at least by current standards— uncomfortably stout; and Peter Hurd’s 1967 Lyndon Johnson, no oil painting himself, despite his civil-rights record, which we of a certain age remember as, in his words, “The ugliest thing I ever saw.” Competently painted, but either too stylishly rendered or false in their representations—the Chinese selfie app Meitu, loosely translated as Beauty Face (wang hong lian, Internet-celebrity face), comes to mind— are: Charles Bird King’s 1836 copy of a Gilbert Stuart 1826 profile of Thomas Jefferson in Roman-medallion style; Margaret Lindsay Williams’ 1923 Warren G. Harding, the handsome Chief Executive as fashion plate; and Norman Rockwell’s 1968 Richard Nixon, pensive and benigh, with a rubber arm four feet long, all the better to bring us together after the sibversive tumult of the Chicago Democrats’ convention, to peace with honor. Oops, there I go again, brainwashed by George Soros.




Three Powerful Solo Shows at Fresno Art Museum

Three Powerhouse Solo Exhibits at Fresno Art Museum
January 27- June 10, 2018

Photos by Randy Vaughn-Dotta for FAM and by the writer

During the postmodernist era, art came under criticism for its support of the political and economic status quo—including capitalism and colonialism. It is certainly a valid argument: art has served historically to dignify and legitimize power (and undoubtedly always will); but the theory went too far, as theories always do, conflating the modernist cultural rebels of the 19th and 20th centuries (in a broad-brush polemical sweep) with the academic artists who crafted beautiful but mediocre art in tune with bourgeois tastes. The great American realist Winslow Homer, for example, once declared that he would not cross the street to look at a Bouguereau painting, slickly painted and sentimentally contrived.

Today, now that the cultural ideas of postmodernism have gained ascendancy, for better or worse, and we are deluged by the contradictions of a political regime without any mooring in ideology, or even reality, i.e., open-ended and up for subjective interpretations, it’s time to stop seeing art reflexively as complicit with the establishment; to beware of the distorting lenses of political correctness and aesthetic fashion. Respect for the artistic impulse is the basis of three solo shows at the Fresno Art Museum—by David Tomb, Marcus Dorado and Holly Lane — that explore contemporary issues without falling into the trap of choosing content over style, or vice versa. The best art combines the two polarities into memorable objects that serve the eye, head and—be seated, sophisticates—soul.

DAVID TOMB: Rockfowl and Other Wonders
The abstract expressionist painter Barnett Newman once derided theoretically-minded artists (despite his own predilection for dogmatism) in a famous aphorism: “Aesthetics is for painting as Ornithology is for the birds.” It’s the biological-imperative theory of culture: artists just do mating calls and dances; no need to overthink our programming! The Bay area painter David Tomb, who has combined his birder interest with his painter’s skills and an environmentalist’s concern in preserving habitat, is surely familiar with Newman’s joke, but he doesn’t underthink it. Tomb’s paintings balance the aesthetic and the ornithological; the striking beauty carries an urgent underlying agenda. Tomb: "Making artwork of birds is a way to connect and personalize my experience of seeing birds. The ultimate goal is to have people think: That animal is incredible... we need to save them!" Tomb’s three mixed-media/collage installations in “Rockfowl and Other Wonders,” accompanied by medium-sized paintings as well as sketches of “bird skins,” feathered-mummy museum-collection specimens, make a forceful case for our avian kin, the metaphorical canaries in the planet’s coal mine. The show’s curator, Michelle Ellis Pracy, who has known Tomb for thirty years, writes:

Tomb’s immense compositions are constructed so that we are placed in various habitats where rare and endangered birds reside. For instance, we are up in the canopy of trees with the Philippine Eagle; and in Rock and Rockfowl, we stand in knee-high jungle foliage with a deep forest stretching before us with the Picathertes perched on a vine before our very eyes.

Rock and Rockfowl (2013-16): The African picathertes (pica for magpie; thertes for vulture) or yellow-headed rockfowl, with its distinctive ‘naked’ unfeathered head and black and white plumage, is a striking bird, “something like a cross between a road runner and a crow,” in Tomb’s description.  As viewers confront the huge watercolor and mixed-media collage painting, eleven feet high by twenty-seven feet wide, they may feel as overwhelmed as the artist did while seeking a glimpse of the elusive birds in Ghana; fortunately one rockfowl popped up right in front of the artist, so we are spared his hours of humid rainforest vigil. 

Great Philippine Eagle (2012): The national bird of the Philippines, Pithecophaga jefferyi, is also known as the monkey-eating eagle (pithecus, money; phagus, eater), although it also eats snakes, civets, hornbills (two of which are shown in the painting) and even monitor lizards and flying lemurs.  Now endangered by deforestation, it is, with its 3-foot length and 6- to 7-foot wingspan, the largest of eagles, and, with a lifespan of 30 to 60 years, one of the longest-lived. Blake Matheson, a friend of the artist, recalls sighting one, memorably:  “...the Philippine Eagle glided past, at eye level, perhaps 50 yards out over the valley. We were close enough to see  ... the creature’s expression with our naked eyes. The gray-blue bill cere seemed almost electric, and its long tawny and cocoa crest lay on its back in repose like an archer’s hood.... It glowed white like a window into the infinite. I have never been so inspired by such a vision of tremendous power, mass and martial strength... I will always be grateful.”

King Tides and Elusive Rails (2016): The third of Tomb’s installations depicts, rather than a specific endangered bird, the effect of king tides in California in December and January each year. The extremely low and high tides expose normally hidden mice and small birds like rails to predation by hawks, falcons, herons and foxes. Tomb’s painted wooden cutouts, mounted on bases, seem to have left two-dimensional space in order to forage through the gallery, enveloping the viewer in nature’s struggle for survival in the marshlands.

Also shown are wall-mounted paintings and sketches of museum specimens that supplement Tomb’s field studies from life, revealing the artist’s ability to fuse scientific accuracy and vivid aesthetic form.

If David Tomb seeks to preserve natural life from human indifference and exploitation, the Fresno artist Marcos Dorado, a Mexican immigrant seeks to preserve the cultural life of America’s new immigrants and to show them the respect he missed as a child, mocked by other Mexican-American schoolmates for his handmade clothes and his ethnic lunches of burritos and tacos. "My goal,” he writes, “is to convey their struggle, which is my own. I want to put the spotlight on the positive contributions of immigrants that are here." While the recently unveiled Barack and Michelle Obama portraits by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald drew praise for their stylish departures from a tradition associated with racist/sexist domination, Dorado has chosen the most painstaking realism for his graphite drawings, which require poses of up to thirty hours. Each of the twenty drawings comprising the show is thus a major commitment in time and energy in a consumerist culture that prizes the slick, the quick and the disposable. The dramatically lighted, sculptural depictions of the artist’s friends and colleagues, e.g., Martin Nuñez, Calixte Aholu, Scott Kiche, Ani Chamichian, Bill Wolffmann, Gloria Dorado, Octavio and others—not limited to Latinos, by the way—are accompanied by the subjects’ responses to Dorado’s questions about how immigration and Americanization have affected their lives.

HOLLY LANE: Indwelling Nature
While Tomb and Dorado champion nature and culture, the San Jose artist Holly Lane explores in Indwelling Nature how culture may present nature in the artwork or artifact, e.g., in eclectic versions of old-school ornately carved pictures frames and pedestals. Executed in dark wood, they are reminiscent of Biedermeier furniture and Victorian gingerbread architecture; when gilded, they suggest the exuberance of Baroque decorative excess. It’s hard to tell whether these frames,or altarpieces, armored bulwarks protecting sacred images, and closed most of the year, are parodies or homages—or both. The exhibition curator Sarah Vargas writes, about Lane’s merger of picture and frame, inspired by illuminated (i.e., illustrated) manuscripts:

 Lane views pictorial space as an extension of mind space; to experience the painting we project our mind into the image. The spatial qualities of sculpture exist in our own physical space; we walk around it and proportion our bodies to it.
In addition to subverting the idea of art as an autonomous object of contemplation for disembodied viewers of the Clement Greenberg persuasion, Lane embraces historical modes of aesthetic discourse—namely myth and allegory, though given a contemporary, environmental twist. She envisions the canopy and tassels of The Leafy Earth Rests as healing, and carves plant motifs connected with ancient medicinal containers; the apothecary jars appear again in Gentle Muse, an homage to medicinal botany, accompanied by udder-like forms symbolizing “the milk of kindness—the nurture of trees.” Lane writes:

 “We indwell nature and nature indwells us.... if we look at photos of the earth from space, we can see that our cities are nestled within nature. Furthermore, our bodies are subject to natural forces—sometimes delightfully so and sometimes not so delightfully. In my work, architecture is a metaphor for human consciousness and human achievement. In this piece [Indwelling] nature [as depicted in a small landscape painting of a deer seen at dusk before a dark forest] can be seen through the architectural frame, showing nature is behind human achievement, or it can be viewed as nature being held within the frame, protected.
In days of yore, it was thought that the king and the land are one. These days, we need to realize that  we are linked with the planet and with each other, and time is running out.



EQUILIBRIUM: Donna Fenstermaker, Carol Ladewig and Kim Thoman
Olive Hyde Gallery, 123 Washington Blvd., Fremont CA

Until recently, technology seemed to have enabled mankind to triumph over physical limitations, in effect abolishing time and space. Culture finally vanquished nature; we replaced reality — with the internet, video games and cell phones. While we who live in advanced countries can still appreciate human ingenuity, and the longer life spans and higher standards of living it has enabled, the fact remains that we are now and always have been a part of nature (which occasionally reminds us of that fact); and we are now clearly in a state of disharmony with the planet. Until the twentieth century, the natural world was seen as divine. In the mostly secular twenty-first century, we have (most of us) been liberated from the threat of eternal damnation, but not the spiritual vacuum fed by capitalist culture gone toxic. We are in need of some new form of sacralization of the world; we need to stop seeing nature as dead matter, only good if converted into money.

In her 1991 book, The Re-Enchantment of Art, Suzi Gablik writes: “I suspect we are at the end of something —a hypermasculinized modern culture whose social projects have become increasingly unecological and nonsustainable.” She quotes David Feinstein’s Personal Mythology: “we need new myths; we need them urgently and desperately.... Times are changing so fast that we cannot afford to stay set in our ways. We need to become exquisitely skilled engineers of change in our mythologies.” She argues that artists and art have a role, even a duty, in changing society. Gablik: “The world has about forty years, according to ... the Worldwatch Institute, an independent Washington-based, environmental research group, to achieve an environmentally sustainable economy or descend into a long economic and physical decline.” Twenty-seven years later, much of the world has heeded the message, even if America is stuck in its blind faith in the invisible, omniscient hand of The Market.

Equilibrium is a group show of three midcareer Bay Area painters—Donna Fenstermaker, Carol Ladewig and Kim Thoman—who explore a range of approaches and styles but share an interest in art’s traditional double nature: as a vehicle for both private aesthetic inquiry, and public enjoyment, edification and persuasion. Installed in separate side galleries, except for one omnibus triple-threat front gallery, the works by these established midcareer Bay Area artists are beautiful objects that argue implicitly for more nature-consciousness and a wider perspective beyond the quarterly dividend. After a generation of art that focused on media culture—is ‘selfie art’ a fair description?—it’s a message that is timely and urgent.


The paintings of Donna Fenstermaker begin with close observation of the natural world, but depict the essences of that experience, the mood or atmosphere, rather than the specifics that a photograph would capture readily. These subjective interpretations that depict moments of heightened perception belong philosophically to the modernist tradition of conveying the experience of the observer rather than replicating reality. Fenstermaker—whose semi-anglicized name means window-maker, if my German is reliable—creates views of the northern California landscape that look inward as well as outward. She writes: “My images slide between abstraction and realism. I ... struggle to find and remember what first struck me when I wanted to paint the painting.”

That dialogic struggle between observed fact and memory, along with the changes that inevitably occur during the creative process—due to the constraints of the medium, as well as happy accident—energizes the four oils on canvas and the dozen watercolors on paper shown here. Fenstermaker’s love of pattern and color comes across most clearly in her close-up views of foliage: the tall-format oils, Benicia Palms and Berkeley Bamboo; the single-page watercolors of floral mists: the red-orange Gingko, the deep salmon of Liquid Amber and Gingko, and the sprays of harmonized red, yellow and dark green of Rockridge BART. Sometimes the artist works in series, as with the three Birch (or Birches From Window) watercolors, in a Chinese-scroll vertical format, with the autumnal yellow leaves, seemingly threaded on pendant linear branches like beads or pearls on a necklace, set against a blue sky. Sometimes she works in a diptych format, with the two halves coalescing into one image, as in the watercolor Sleeping Trees, with its bare-branched forest, a pattern of dark cracks set against a soft, misty background of foliage and clouds; Davis Rainy Day, with its central sidewalk, receding into distance while reflecting the otherwise unseen moody sky, surrounded by yellow streetlamps atop spindly poles, like mechanical daffodils; and Sparkle, a diptych of deep blue bisected by a jagged yellow zip of a lightning strike crossed with an oscilloscope or seismograph recording, inspired by a car-window glimpse of sunlight striking San Pablo Bay: nature abstracted into near-mysticism.

If Fenstermaker’s work is a painterly synthesis of observation and memory, Ladewig’s geometric abstractions follow a decidedly more abstract, conceptual route to representing the natural world and the passage of time, interpreting the calendar and astronomy through matrices of colored blocks. In graduate school, the artist was prompted by a painting teacher to create one painting a day. Making work systematically and regularly suited Ladewig, so that when she became interested, seven years ago, in the counter-intuitive (even quixotic) project of capturing change in the static medium of paint, she turned to a format of a diary/calendar based on squares and grids, with the painting evolving as an accretion of daily samples. Ladewig: “Rectangles and squares are the only shapes that seem truly abstract to me and that we live in and are surrounded by.... The grid is a metaphor for the frames of reference that we utilize to organize and understand perceptions. The frame of reference is neutral and yet it clearly shapes what is received into it. The grid sets up relationships between related and disparate elements.”

Ladewig’s interest in depicting “psychic space,” another difficult intangible, also fed into her breakthrough Year paintings of 2011 and 2012, two of which are shown here: 2012 Lunar Phases: Weeks 46-47 and 2012 Lunar Phases: Weeks 31, 32 & 33. The vertical-format acrylic paintings, brightly colored horizontal bars arrayed atop a black background, resemble, superficially, the hard-edged color abstractions of Frank Stella or Kenneth Noland, but they encode the hours of darkness (black) and moonlight (colors, chosen arbitrarily, subjectively, based on “the day’s unique experiences, activities and moods”) during the November and August study intervals. The later Year in Color paintings for August and September 2013 use the monthly calendar page format, with four or five registers of seven rectangular blocks, with August’s varicolored daily samples beginning on Friday and ending on Saturday, and September’s beginning on Sunday, ending on Monday. The painted blocks vary slightly in elevation, so that they appear syncopated, like player-piano keys, frozen by the camera: the music of time, encompassing the lunar and the terrestrial, is recorded in a kind of score. A larger piece, the striking Winter 2016: Year in Color, composed of some 90 separate squares, circles and triangles, all individually painted, and linked by a meandering (‘boustrephedonic’ in art-historianese) line, suggests a gameboard or flow chart of unknown purpose. Time Lapse, a two-panel painting in oil and resin on canvas, suggests a dialogue of opposites: white and blue for day and night,r espectively, with a matrix of squares on each, darkened or illuminated, like lighting arrays or keyboards, or videos, pixelated into abstraction.

From Ladewig’s subjective astronomy we move to Thoman’s expressionist botanical forms, visual metaphors for growth, change and decay. The grand cycles of cultures and civilizations were the theme of Romantics like J.M.W. Turner and Thomas Cole, who depicted the ruined glories of the classical world as allegories and warnings, but where those artists saw human frailty, moral failure, and “the strong force of fate,” Thoman sees instead, in nature, the irresistible biological imperative. Her powerful gestural drawing and her rejection of illusionism invoke and evoke the strong forces of nature. Thoman’s philosophical conviction that “duality exists in everything” informs and energizes her pastel and mixed-media digital drawings and sculptural works. The art critic Peter Frank wrote: “...every phenomenon is a balance of opposites, a dialectical resolution of contradictions that reveals hidden harmonies between supposedly antagonistic forces.”

Shown here are four recent mixed-media pieces from Thoman’s They series of 2017, numbers 1, 2, 5 and 6, which feature square painted panels that serve as the torsos of Bauhaus-style geometrized human figures fabricated in painted steel. (The anthropomorphism here continues the human icon concept from Thoman’s earlier Gray Matters series, patterned on Crucifixion triptychs.) The limbs are sharply pointed triangles; the heads are coils of wire, or spoon-shaped metal projections. The sculptural and the painted elements are siimilar, suggesting vitality that is barely contained, or overflowing its banks. Each of these four androgynous personnages (to employ the Surrealist term for such ambiguous humanoid beings) stands alone, wall-mounted; yet all are related, sharing the same visual DNA. Also shown are three mixed-media Shortstop Tangle digital drawings, preparatory sketches for the They figures, which show the artist trying out different configurations and palettes.

Our current political situation leads some of us in our exhaustion and dismay to see art as unworthy of our attention. While we need to stay informed and combative, we also need the aesthetic freedom and even healing that serious art can provide. Equilibrium to me signifies a balanced, long-term perspective: viability, in effect, in a destabilized environment. Art is an equilibrating as well as a liberating influence; it is also potentially a Brechtian hammer for shaping reality and a Picassean weapon with which to attack it.