tag:artopticon.us,2013:/posts ArtOpticon.us 2019-03-10T00:44:13Z Dewitt Cheng tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1383657 2019-03-10T00:44:13Z 2019-03-10T00:44:13Z 2014 review of Jeffrey Beauchamp shao at McLaughlin Gallery. Artist is currently showing (thru mid=April 2019) at Maybaum Gallery, San Francisco. JEFFREY BEAUCHAMP: Freefall
By DeWitt Cheng

From the Renaissance to the middle of the nineteenth century, artists believed in the power of the visual image to comment on the world. Painters were taught to create skillful depictions of observable reality. With the modernist revolution of roughly1860 to 1960, artists asserted their independence from what was characterized as the slavish imitation of reality; this revolt was in part a response to the advent of photography. With the postmodernist revolution—by this term I include Pop art, land art, minimalism, conceptualism, and social-relations art—that began in 1960 and is now five decades old, the notion of the art object as personal expression came into question and under attack. In today’s pluralistic, anything-goes ferment, no central organizing principle predominates; there is indeed no consensus about what art is or does, since the anti-art ideas of Duchamp and others, promulgated through academically oriented art schools, define current practice for many. With the rising popularity of what has been “crowd-sourced curating,” i.e., interactive art situations, described recently by Ellen Gamerman in The Wall Street Journal (“Everybody’s an Art Curator”), it appears that art museums, too, are stepping away from the idea of personal expression toward what might be seen by old-school lovers of aesthetic visual experience as audience-friendly, risk-free group play. 

The title of Jeffrey Beauchamp’s painting exhibition, Freefall, could plausibly be misinterpreted as a commentary on this current atomization of culture, but for this Bay Area painter it represents the condition of art-making, and even, more broadly, living: there are no guarantees (or recipes or formulas); everyone is free-falling from birth toward (spoiler alert!) the ground. (If you don’t believe me, see Dino Buzzati’s story “The Falling Girl” or Max Beckmann’s painting, “The Falling Man.”) Beauchamp’s goal, he says, referring to the Buzz Lightyear character in the Toy Story movies, is “to fall with style.” Contemporary artists who believe that only the new is significant deny themselves both aesthetic pleasure and a broader perspective if they fail to see the great works of the past as imaginative flights that never end—that transport viewers, century after century. Beauchamp is a consummate painter who was cautioned many times in art school, the San Francisco Art Institute, with “the F word,” i.e., facility, a bugaboo of the Abstract Expressionist generation, but who, suitably ‘inoculated’ against art fashion, uses his skill in the service of an eclectic mind, restless imagination, trust in instinct—and playful sense of humor. Beauchamp: “I go with the flow and follow my impulses and assess as I go. I try to bring both sides of my brain into play and get a good balance.” 

In 2012 I wrote in Art Ltd magazine:

A skilled realist, he [Beauchamp] became dissatisfied some years ago … and loosened up his style with what he has described as "busting out" brushwork and a "caveman dance" process, of making gestures guided by intuition and improvisation, in the abstract expressionist style. His turbulent landscapes all but fly apart through sheer bravura, but somehow remain legible and coherent, due, no doubt, to his apprenticeship in realism in the late 1980s, when nothing could have seemed more demodé.
It was a self-guided study, of course. Beauchamp ensconced himself in the school library, studying Turner, Monet and Lorrain, emerging only to explore northern California's "amazing garden," hiking and painting with a friend. His work thus derives from both tradition and nature, and oscillates between realism and abstraction, but in an odd way: the modes are not fused, as in Cézanne or the Bay Area Figurative painters, nor are they confined to separate bodies of work, as in Gerhard Richter (whose soft-focus realism Beauchamp explored for a period). Rather, they are presented simultaneously in parallel, in the same paintings, as double images. As we change focus from depth to flatness and back, the hazy, golden-hued landscapes dissolve into energetic calligraphy, and vice versa, with each aspect canceling and superseding the other, like the complementary but incompatible partners in optical illusions: duck and rabbit or goblet and profile. Despite their humorous, absurd, enigmatic titles (some bearing excruciating puns), Beauchamp's small landscapes … reward serious, sustained looking.

The dozen-plus paintings in Freefall reward slow looking, too, their opulent color and brushwork complemented here and there by the artist’s philosophic humor (exemplified in a series made several years ago of carved, painted books — perfect for bibliophiles and bibliophobes alike). All the Good Little Californias appears to be a traditional landscape in the grand, turbulent, Romantic style of Turner, though loosely set down in quick strokes, as if by Manet, but it’s a conceptual work as well, an imagined landscape synopsizing the state’s geographical features. Bridge Out, Race On and I Hear Voices in My Head and Only Just Realized They’re All Actually Mel Blanc (referring to the voice of many Warner Brothers cartoon characters) are similarly faithful to the Romantic landscape tradition—in its own way, commenting both on the natural subject and the ways in which culture presents it for vicarious consumption. Cocotron the Chocolate Robot depicts a massive oak tree, hyperreal in its high-contrast modeling and implied anthopomorphism, rooted, like the boulder-like group of trees in the background, amid rolling hills that are delineated with expressionist brushstrokes—a crashing surf of vivid color. Familiar Balance of the Hasty Glacier and Landscape When Her Bread Machine Went Awry add figures to the landscapes; in the former, a small girl playing with a hula hoop between art books on Degas and DeKooning, two consummate draftsmen whose styles are represented here by the realistically rendered girl and the fluid, calligraphic landscape’ in the latter, a small girl, her back toward us, approaches a pile of burning leaves taller than she is—a miniature volcano. Longest Truce Ever and Proper & Common —Some of My Best Friends Are Nouns also play with traditional genres: the medieval city as depicted before artists mastered perspective, with its jumbles of masonry, and the bucolic forest scene, here contemplated by two inquisitive but hardly decorative crows. Birth of the Audubon Venus is a nude figure study of stunning realism and sensuality, but also an allegorical figure in the nineteenth-century style: woman as force of nature. Frida Be You and Me riffs on the title of the 1972 feminist book encouraging kids to question restrictive gender role models, and may incidentally refer to Frida Kahlo, who challenged stereotypes in her semi-autobiographical work; in Beauchamp’s painting, a solemn-looking teenaged girl sits on the floor or ground, kneading her hands, enlarged because they are extended toward the viewer, with strings of red and white paint squeezed from between her fingers; it can be interpreted as premonitory or symbolic, like Renaissance depictions of baby Jesus playing with toy crosses and flails, or as a metaphor for artistic creation derived from profound feeling, in the Van Gogh/Munch/Pollock mold. The two Resolution de Fleur paintings depict the same model, wearing a floral-print dress, seated, and dramatically lit in a dark interior, the first loosely rendered, with the face actually ‘out of focus,’ and the second, more ‘finished’—a nice conflation of the styles of, say, John Singer Sargent and Gerhard Richter. Two more related paintings, these depicting traditional bedroom suites, Blue Four-Poster and Red Four-Poster, lack the stylistic playfulness of the other works, offering instead the plaisir promulgated by Matisse a century ago with his ideal of paintings that would be as restful as armchairs for tired businessmen, not the sordid contemporary delights of real beds with real stained sheets. Those who love painting’s traditional pleasures and also enjoy intellectual provocations in the contemporary mode will find much to peruse and consider in Beauchamp’s generous, lively, irreverent painted world.]]>
Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1378618 2019-02-25T20:46:30Z 2019-02-26T05:07:48Z Richard Shaw and Wanxin Zhang at Sonoma Valley Museum of Art


RICHARD SHAW AND WANXIN ZHANG

Sonoma Valley Museum of Art

January 19 - April 7, 2019

The popularity of new media and conceptual art, as well as American’s obsession with the new, in every sphere, including the arts, tends to obscure the work of artists working in traditional media, as well as the very notion of lifelong commitment to one medium. Ceramics, of course, has been accorded the full status of an art material only in the past half-century, largely as a result of doggedly individualistic Bay Area artists like Robert Arneson, Clayton Bailey, Stephen DeStaebler, Viola Frey, and Peter Voulkos, who infused wit, subversive humor, pathos and delight into that ancient and earthy (therefore humble) medium, with its tactile, shape-shifting expressiveness, suited to both Abstract Expressionist gesture and polished, geometric perfection—and its traditional Christian connection with the human body.

Two of the Bay Area’s undisputed masters of art ceramics are united in a show at Sonoma Valley Museum of Art (until April 7). The show originated at the gallery in Santa Clara University’s Edward Dowd Art and Art History Building Art, initiated by by SCU ceramicist and Gallery Manager Pancho Jimènez, and curated by San Francisco State University Art Professor Mark Dean Johnson and SVMA Executive Director Linda Keaton. The show, untitled but for the artists’ names, is modestly-sized, with only about a dozen works by each artist, but it’s large in spirit and ambition: vigorous, assertive and pointedly funny, when so much contemporary art looks forced and voulu, willed and affectless, and overly reliant on being oh-so subversive, but only that. The works of Shan and Zhang score some sociopolitical points, but with beauty and wit.

Shaw and Zhang, friends and colleagues from different generations (born in 1941 and 1961, respectively), are deeply personal artists who, along with being invested in clay, are interested in cultural critique of a personal sort. Shaw’s trompe-l’oeil assemblages of faux oddments, sometimes conjoined into humanoid figures, play with the conventions of mimesis and traditional realism, but in the playful mode of the Mannerist painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, who contrived portraits made of fishes, book, and fire; and in the melancholy mode of the Metaphysical painter, Giorgio di Chirico, whose mute mannequins reflected the modernist disbelief in classical heroes—though not without nostalgia; they’re junk-pile ruins that are analogous to T.S. Eliot’s verbal collage in “The Waste Land.” Mark Dean Johnson in his informative and readable catalog essay also cites those usual suspects, the trompe-l’oeil American painters, Peto and Harnett, as well as the virtuosic decorative porcelains of the Frenchman Bernard Palissy in the sixteenth century. (To digress slightly, Chris Anteman’s 2017 Forbidden Fruit show at the Crocker Art Museum was inspired by the eighteenth-century German, Johann Joachim Kändler). Zhang, who emigrated to the US from China in 1992, and soon made his mark with life-six=zed ceramic figures akin to the Xi’an warriors guarding the tomb of the First Emperor, but done in a, expressive, loose style that to my eye melds Rodin and Bay Area Figuration; there are also sly notes of satire and humor in the anachronistic modern accessories—boom boxes, shades, skateboards— that these stolid, stoic, heavy, timeworn warriors bear with such fortitude and resolve. Johnson also points out that the two artists share a biculturalism that disproves Kipling’s old adage that East and West never meet: Zhang uses the formidable academic sculpture skills that he honed at LuXun Academy of Fine Arts, but he modifies it with the free, intuitive expressionism that he absorbed in the Bay Area; Shaw’s still-life assemblages draw on the history of Chinese porcelain, which he imitates in his parodies/homages, with seeming effortlessness.

Among the outstanding pieces of this very strong show I have space for only a few. Shaw’s 2014 “Canton Lady” is a composite figure composed of a paint-can head (labeled “100% Pure Paint”), paintbrush fingers, a cigar-box hips, baseball-bat limbs, and a blue-and-white ‘Cantonware” vase for a torso, all made in clay and colored with decals or hand-painting; his 2012  “House of Cards with Pearlware House and Fence Motif,” a seemingly precariously balanced arrangement of objects anchored by a heavy textbook (Psychoanalysis in Modern Art) atop which are stacked an inverted Ming-style teapot, another book, and then a pyramid of playing cards. Zhang’s 2008 “Untitled Warrior,” a life-sized columnar figure of daunting power and weight, protected by jade-plate armor—and a white-snouted respirator mask of the sort that Bay Areans used for protection in last year’s wildfires (or goggled, equine-looking Great War soldiers, against mustard gas); his 2018 “Shifting Mountain” is a similar courtly figure, this one bearing wrapped gifts, but surmounted by a tower-like encrustation of rock akin to the intricately eroded scholar stones collected by Chinese connoisseurs for centuries; his 2013 “Fish Dinner Box” replicates a takeout Chinese-food container, replete with faux grease stains and the injunctions,  “Microwave Safe ... Enjoy... Call Again.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1371708 2019-02-07T23:47:06Z 2019-02-12T13:39:53Z Wesley Tongson at Chinese Cultural Center, San Francisco (reprinted from Artomity magazine, January 2019)

Wesley Tongson’s Paintings Depict His Spiritual Journey

by DeWitt Cheng

The idea that life is a spiritual journey was once common in European and American religious culture: Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan’s 1678 allegorical adventure of a Christian soul, was once required reading—after the Bible.  Spirituality has largely fallen by the wayside, however, with modern materialism. In developed countries now we focus on scientific and economic progress, and largely neglect the spiritual aspect of life, still part of the social menu of traditional cultures, which patronizing contemporary standards adjudge as backward.

The spiritual aspect remains, however. The new film by painter and director Julian Schnabel, At Eternity’s Gate, dramatizes the struggle of Vincent van Gogh, the son of a Protestant preacher, possessed in his youth by a fervent religious worldview, and then dismissed as a lay minister in a Belgian mining town for what his superiors deemed unbecoming zealotry.  He found his way to art , everyone knows, and transferred his hopes of heaven into a ten-year pantheistic ministry of art—and heart.

The paintings of Hong Kong artist Wesley Tongson (1957-2012), or Tang Jiawei), shown in The Journey, at San Francisco’s Chinese Cultural Center through March 9, 2019, constitute a spiritual pilgrimage as well.  Curated by Catherine Maudsley, and featuring biographical notes by Cynthia Tseng, the artist’s sister—who, she reveals, did her brother’s art homework when he was a child, before his interest in art surfaced in adolescence—the show reveals a talented hand, both disciplined and intuitive, at the service of a restless, relentless creative drive.

Tongson, who grew up in a Chinese Christian family in Hong Kong, was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age fifteen, in the spring of 1973. Shortly afterward, at age seventeen, he declared an interest in studying traditional Chinese painting, and began taking lessons, encouraged by his family and teachers. Cynthia Tseng: “Due to his illness, Wesley could not do anything else. Art was the only thing he could do. He was good at it and it was what made him happy, so my parents were supportive and encouraged him to continue. Wesley was a lonely person.... Later[[,]... when he retreated into his own world, he disconnected with friends and family. Art was his life; it gave him purpose and the courage to go on: his constant ‘companion.’ He found solace in his art.... He was able to cope with his illness”—with the side effects of his medication, and with his paranoia. “Without his art, I honestly don’t know how he would have survived all those years.”

Not only did Tongson survive; he thrived, visibly, in his art. The paintings on board and paper, framed or mounted onto wooden strainers, respectively, are artfully laid out in the venues three small galleries, with pairs of large colored landscapes flanked by monochromatic calligraphic paintings, facing each other: landscape and calligraphy, the twin poles of traditional Chinese painting, recapitulated and reinterpreted with modernist verve and dash. The American AbEx painters, who were, after all, influenced by Asian art  (despite LIFE magazine’s influential presentation of Jackson Pollock as cowboy), would surely understand and appreciate. Along the adjacent hallway are smaller works that show the evolution of Tongson’s famous splashed landscapes, accompanied by writing by the somewhat reticent artist and his sister, a talented keeper of the flame.

While I would have preferred a chronological arrangement, in order to trace the artist’s development, the space dictated the current arrangement, but attentive viewers can puzzle out the progression through various styles.  In any case, the works of various styles speak to each other anyway. While still in high school in Hong Kong, Tongson studied traditional Chinese painting styles and themes—pine trees, plum blossoms, bamboo, etc., with their symbolic and homophonic associations to longevity, perseverance and congratulation, respectively; with incessant practice, he became a young latter-day guoha painter in the retired-Confucian-scholar mode before graduating in 1977. At Ontario College of Art, 1977-81, he studied western painting, especially the metamorphic Picasso, and began experimenting with splashing ink, probably influenced by the example of Jackson Pollock, “Jack the Dripper, and certainly influenced by Zhang Daqian (1899-1893), the versatile modernist master (and virtuoso mimic/forger of older masters) who sported an antiquarian long beard and flowing robes, and developed a late splashed-paint style, pocai, which came, as Tongson writes in a letter, directly from his heart. Tongson returned to Hong Kong in 1981, studying with Gu Qingyao and Huang Zhongfang, and he continued experimenting with and perfecting various non-brush ink application techniques, instructed by the Taiwanese painter Liu Guosong in ink staining, rubbing, dyeing, and marbling (floating ink on the surface of water and dipping the paper into it, capturing the swirling, cosmic patterns used for the psychedelic end papers of deluxe books). These masterly landscapes, combinations of time-honored themes and new techniques, garnered praise from critics and collectors, museums and galleries in Hong Kong, Beijing, Suzhou, London; and the artist, who called these richly textured works, improvised yet impossibly perfect, his Zen Mountains of Heaven paintings, his visions originating in Mahayana Buddhism’s Western Paradise, referred to himself at the time, with irony and pride, as Shandou Laoshi (Mountainscape Teacher). Finally come Tongson’s late, monumental landscape paintings, done with his hands, fingers and fingernails, completely without tools, direct from-the-heart indexical transcriptions of the painter’s nervous system, like Pollock’s loops and skeins of liquid paint flung from a stick — just so. Art and nature combine in ink, the life force of qi flowing through Shandou Daoren (Mountain Taoist).

San Francisco is fortunate indeed to have even this modest sample of Tongson’s prodigious output of work, the latest of a series of exhibitions assembled by the Tongson family, which can take pride in the achievement of its prodigiously talented, hard-working, solitary son. Hong Kong, too, which recognized Tongson’s talents early, deserves praise for its aesthetic judgment. I must single out a few extraordinary works: the three 1992 calligraphic splash paintings, “The Light,” “Blessed Rain,” and “God’s Light,” pictograms that seems to be both carved and liquid, monumental yet evanescent; “Red Plums Over the Earth,” from 1993, a traditional bucolic motif given explosive energy, with the plums represented by perfectly sized and placed drops of vermilion ink; “Plum 5,”from 2011, with the fruit-laden trees dissolving into what appears a dance diagram or a musical score; “Mountain 1” from 1995, and “Misty Mountains,” from 1993, small, magical miracles of evocation: paradise, regained.

 

 

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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1371707 2019-02-07T23:41:44Z 2019-02-12T13:41:00Z Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World at SFMOMA (reprinted from The SpaceByTheBay.com

A Panoramic Exhibition Traces Chinese Contemporary Art

by DeWitt Cheng

In 221BC, the self-styled first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang (259-201BCE) declared his reign the beginning of history, and enforcing the decree by pre-empting dissent: burning the books and burying the scholars possessed of other ideas about antecedents. Jorge Luis Borges, in “The Emperor and the Books,” an essay about this alternate-facts regime, concludes that Qin’s radical rewriting of history was doomed to fail (as it did, with Emperor Two), by the conservative character of “the most traditional of peoples.”

Given the strongly Confucian, hierarchical bent of Chinese culture, that characterization has some truth. However, it ignores the social, political and economic revolutions of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (as well as various failed revolutions: the Boxer and Taiping Rebellion, etc.). Cultures do not attain the ripe old age of five thousand by being inflexible and dogmatic—by building mental walls, and forsaking rationality and reality. The historian Will Durant rnoted that China’s foreign conquerors and rulers—the Mongols of the Yuan Dynasty and the Manchus of the Qing Dynasty—ended up mastered and colonized, themselves. “Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind,” observed the sage, Bruce Lee.

The lessons of history, including cultural syncretism are much in evidence in the wide-ranging survey now at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World (through February 24), assembled by the Guggenheim Museum. Comprising over a hundred objects—in painting, drawing, photography, video, sculpture, installation, and conceptual art—from sixty-odd individual artists and collectives, the show is an ambitious retelling of the development of contemporary art, especially conceptual art, from the quashing of democratic dissent at Tiananmen Square in 1989 to China’s ascent to the world stage as an economic equal with its hosting of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a spectacle that enlisted the talents of famous artists Ai Weiwei, who designed the Bird’s Nest stadium, and Cai Guo-Qiang, who designed the fireworks extravaganza.

 The title of the show is revealing: Art and China. The development of contemporary art is on display, but there’s little or none of the Cynical Realism that first registered with western audiences, a kind of ironic commentary on Chinese culture that seemed made for export: Pop Art (not socialism) with Chinese characteristics, to misquote Deng Xiaoping. With multiple curators, the show is expansive, with much of the work seemingly chosen as much for historical (or art-historical) reasons as for pure aesthetic appeal (which contemporary art mavens sometimes disparage as counterrevolutionary bourgeois hedonism). Can we dub Chinese conceptual art, then Sino Realism?

 The show is organized in six topics, each one occupying a gallery or two on the museum’s seventh floor.

1. No U-Turn: 1989 revisits the China/Avant-Garde Art show that opened in the National Art Gallery in Beijing, in February, 1989, containing work made during the previous decade after the liberal reform policies of the late 1970s. Unfortunately, the forward-looking, no-retreat thrust of that show was blunted by the events of June 4, which prompted both an exodus of talent and dampened the \ spirits of those who remained. The most prominent work in this gallery is the large pair of sculpture installations by Huang Yong Ping, “Theater of the World” and “The Bridge,” which update traditional Chinese animal symbolism with live snakes, lizards and insects, confined to zoomorphic (snake- and turtle-shaped) cages. Installed at the Guggenheim, the piece aroused the ire of animal rights activists; SFMOMA has chosen to exhibit the work emptied of prisoners, and thus without creaturely carnage. More traditionally palatable is Gu Dexin’s “Plastic Pieces—287,” a swarm of multicolored plastic tangles, melted into organic forms suggesting android viscera, and more interesting to peruse in its bizarre details than to behold in toto as a large wall installation. My favorite piece in the entire show is Qiu Zhije’s panoramic six-panel map of China, “Map of Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World,” a fanciful yet sobering depiction of mountains, river and plains bedecked by historical and cultural inscriptions in English and Chinese: e.g., Valley of Reform Era, No U Turn, Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, Struggle Against Bourgeois Liberalization, etc. It’s a world contained in an artifact, like the Bronze-Age Greece contained in Achilles’ shield in The Iliad, or Bruegel’s living-folklore painting of Dutch villagers enacting 16th-century Dproverbs. Alas, this encyclopedic masterpiece linking traditional Chinese landscape painting with history, politics and aesthetics, belongs to the Guggenheim, which commissioned it; at least it will be available in New York.

2. New Measurement: Analyzing the Situation follows the development of conceptual art in Hangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai, using “mechanistic processes, documentary sensibilities, and minimalist means that slyly mimic the very systems the artists sought to subvert”—I quote the show’s wall label—by eliminating individuality and embracing absurdity. Wang Guangyi’s oil painting Mao Zedong: Red Grid No.2, is a grisaille rendering of the Great Helmsman, almost official-looking in its neoclassical perfection, but crisscrossed by red stripes suggestive of cages. Geng Gianyi’s Misprinted Books are bound volumes of gibberish Chinese characters, a Borgesian idea, converted to Hanzi. Qiu Zhije’s “Assignment No.1: Copying the Orchid Pavilion Preface 1000 Times” both embraces and mocks China’s reverence for tradition and rote learning: the artist copied a famous fourth-century poem until it became an illegible, inscrutable block of ink fashioned and canceled by innumerable repetitions.

3. Five Hours: Capitalism, Urbanism, Realism examines the return to social realism in Beijing and Guangzhou. Hung Liu painted “Avant-Garde,” a shaped-canvas self-portrait as a rifle-bearing soldier in the People’s Army, in 1993-4, after emigrating to California; it’s monumental and dignified, a testimonial to the value of traditional art training, once disparaged by the avant-garde West as Soviet Realism—and a reminder that ‘avant-garde’ was originally a military term. Zeng Fanzhi’s oil painting,”Meat,” shows stoic slaughterhouse workers changing into their work clothes, while surrounded by hanging carcasses that are nearly indistinguishable from the men’s bodies.  Liu Zheng’s documentary photos of coal miners and actors and Wang Jianwei’s “Living Elsewhere” video of hardscrabble country life—at the edge of a superhighway, no less—remind us that ‘crazy rich Asians’ are the stuff of global fantasy—mostly. (The film flopped in China, incidentally.)

 4. Uncertain Pleasures: Acts of Sensation examines both the accent of Chinese contemporary painting to the international market, and the reaction to that financial success among the artists of Beijing and Hangzhou. Ai Weiwei:”Always distrust authority, be suspicious of centralist theories, doubt your alleged cultural influences.” Yu Youhan’s collage, “Just What Is It That Makes To day’s Homes, So Modern, So Appealing?” pays homage to Pop Art with its title, taken from Richard Hamilton’s iconic collage; but instead of a California bodybuilder with a giant lollipop as protagonist, we have a middle-aged Mao enjoying the midcentury-modern lifestyle. Lin Tianmiao’s sculpture, “Sewing,” looks at the Chinese fashion industry through the lens of surrealism, with its sewing machine wrapped—mummified—in cotton thread, and a ghostly pair of hands busy at work via digital video projection. Chen Zhen’s suspended sculpture, “Lumière Innocente,” a child’s bed bedecked with otherworldly lights, is a magical object even without a social subtext. Song Dong, by finding and throwing stones, and painting on them a record of his interactions, creates faux-archaic artifacts endowed with narratives in “Throwing a Stone—documentation.” Ai Weiwei’s famous photos of the artist dropping a Han Dynasty urn are here, as is a Han vase decorated with a Coca-Cola logo, and an unpretentious photo of an insouciant young woman (the future Mrs. Ai, I believe) lifting her skirt and flashing her panties for the camera at The Forbidden City.

5. Otherwhere: Travels Through the In-Between focuses on the increased contact with the international art market as well as the transformations in consciousness wrought by digital media. Song Don’s “Stamping the Water” is a series of color photographs documenting an hour spent stamping the water of the Khasa River with a large carved woodblock bearing the ideogram for water, an exercise in poetic transcendence—or bureaucratic absurdity. Zhan Wang’s video, “Empty Soul /   ”The Mao Suit,” documents the mass-grave burial of a number of coffins, each bearing an empty Mao suit, in a parody of the massive Qian burial site of the First Emperor, with his armies of ceramic warriors. Liu Xiaodong’s four full-length oil portraits of soldiers,  “Battlefield Realism: The Eighteen Arhats,” are painted in a simplified realistic style recalling both commercial illustration and Egon Schiele, a style appropriately ambivalent for warrior-saints.

6. Whose Utopia: Activism and Alternatives Circa 2008 examines the art produced as the Beijing Olympics (motto: One World, One Dream) drew near, promising renewed international acceptance and enhanced national prestige. Various groups of artists abstained from the official rites and ceremonies, creating utopias of their own outside the object-trading commercial system, and in stark contrast with the dazzling pyrotechnics that highlighted the Olympics opening ceremonies, shown in a video. Gu Dexin’s “2009-05-02,” a series of painted ideograms in official fonts and colors, reproduces disturbing text from Lu Xun’s dystopic novel of 1918, Diary of a Madman. Ai Weiwei’s “4851” covers the walls of a small gallery with lists of the names of children killed in (I believe) the Sichuan earthquake, a topic he covered several years ago in a dragon sculpture composed of small backpacks. The dragon, associated with water and benevolence, is also the subject of Chen Zhen’s “Precipitous Parturition,” an 85-foot long dragon with a sinuous body made of bicycle inner tubes, and a head fashioned from bicycle wheel rims, hanging in SFMOMA’s old main entrance, on Third Street. The hasty birth of a mobile, industrialized nation—with its benefits and costs—is the subject here, and one which resonates through the rest of this mammoth exhibition on which I have barely touched here. It’s a must-see aesthetic spectacle—with sociopolitical characteristics.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1371706 2019-02-07T23:41:20Z 2019-02-12T13:41:19Z Ward Schumaker at Jack Fischer Gallery, San Francisco (reprinted from TheSpaceByTheBay.com)

San Francisco Artist Turns Trump’s Words Against Him 

Unless you have been in a cave for two years, and/or watching Fox News, you know that Donald Trump is a con man, provocateur and prevaricator nonpareil, logging nearly ten lies a day, according to the latest count, with a grand total in the thousands. He is aided and abetted by his staff, by friendly media like Fox and Sinclair, and, all too often, by a supine mainstream corporate media: shitstorms sell, after all.  On the other side, we have great satirists and comedians telling truth fearlessly and hilariously to power (and the powerless); the late-night talk-show hosts, I think, deserve particular credit in pointing out the emperor’s new clothes. 

The art world, which skews decidedly liberal, has been active as well (although major galleries and museums are timid, as usual, as afraid of their wealthy base as the Republican Party is of its). A notable exception is Ward Schumaker’s painting show, currently on view until Election Day at Jack Fischer Gallery, in Minnesota Street Projects, in the Dogpatch neighborhood. (Kudos to Fischer for standing up on behalf the blue Bay Area against Agent Orange.) Schumaker is a veteran illustrator and longtime San Franciscan who made a stunning debut as a fine artist at the same gallery, with a show entitled Years of Pretty, in September, 2013, following a June show at Dominican College in San Rafael. (There were earlier shows in San Francisco (at the nonprofit Meridian Gallery), Los Angeles, New York, Nashville and Shanghai, but I am always the last to know....) About Schumaker’s breathtakingly beautiful painting albums, Kenneth Baker wrote, in the San Francisco Chronicle: 

Seldom will you encounter contemporary art in any medium of such relaxed, fearless [painterly] confidence... Here and there he takes on the additional challenge of incorporating words into the books. Surprisingly, for the most part, the text does not interfere, nor does it disappear by settling down into obvious meaning. Very rarely does a critic encounter new work that immediately rewards a lifetime of learning to look.

I was similarly enthusiastic, reviewing for ArtLtd.

Recurrent reports of the death of painting are greatly exaggerated, of course, as are related rumors about the death of the individual and the death of art in the hurry-hurry postmodern age. Ward Schumaker's generous display of painterly bravura at the newly relocated Jack Fischer Gallery makes the case for subjectivity and colored mud [artist Philip Guston’s ironic description of oil paints] yet again. Schumaker's work clearly derives from modernist precedents--savory Abstract Expressionism foremost, with notes of Minimalism and Conceptualism--but his synthesis is personal rather than programmatic or theoretical....  "Years of Pretty," a large show of work from the last decade, stunningly confirms that impression, managing to avoid the twin traps of conventional prettiness and conventional iconoclasm... With two highly regarded recent shows, this has been Schumaker's well-deserved year of plenty.

What a delight, then, to see such artistic chops standing up to Trump’s shameless mendacity! Trump Papers (hoisted by his own petard) is a group of thirty-nine of Schumaker’s mixed-media paintings on heavy, textured Stonehenge print paper, mounted casually on the gallery walls, like wheat-pasted event posters, depicting Trump’s provocations, insults and word salads. The title, from Shakespeare, means, to be blown up with one’s own bomb (not pierced by one’s sword); Hamlet, betrayed by his spying college chums, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, dispatches them on a diplomatic mission to England, with a lettre de cachet commanding their execution: royal dispatches, indeed. (The Pentagon Papers of the Vietnam War, the internal Defense department memos leaked by Daniel Ellsberg, may be another allusion implicit  in the show title.) Schumaker turns our king’s diatribes and jests against him, by painting them without editorializing, but with stunning effect, with the slurred stenciled letters serving as metaphors for Trump’s slippery-slope verbigerations. The painted words have two natures: as beautiful, expressive aesthetic objects of mysterious power and meaning; and as symbols of vacuous, benighted speech and thought; and they never quite settle into one or the other, remaining visual and verbal contradictions, in unsettling but bracing opposition.

But what glorious paintings they are, responding—with deadpan irony—to our perilous political situation! When I visited the gallery, on Halloween Day, Schumaker told me that he had never made political work before, but that he simply had to make the works, painting around the clock starting right after “the night of horror,” as he puts it, in November, 2016. Three bodies of work have emerged from the Trump debacle.  First, the album Hate is What We Need, sold to a private collector, I understand, but published in a reduced-sale facsimile edition by Chronicle Books. Then, because, Schumaker writes, “to paraphrase Mitch McConnell, the man persisted,” a second album, The Administration of Cruelty and Stupidity, emerged. Finally, just in time for election season, Schumaker created the current set of Trump Papers broadsides, improbable meldings of Trumpist blather and visual delight. The paintings are hung unframed, and often overlapping each other, like advertising posters jockeying for wall space. Each painting is accompanied by a short explanation of its context, printed on a handout sheet. Return with us now to those glorious days of yesteryear: Omarosa Manigault’s threat that Trump critics would have to “bow down to the President” (PBS, 9/23/16); Staffer Kelly Sadler’s dismissal of GOP critic John McCain as ”dying anyway” (5/11/18); Trump’s preference, stated before an Iowa audience, for “heroes ...who weren’t captured” (7/18/15); Giuliani’s mystagogic declaration that “Truth isn’t truth” (8/19/18); and Trump’s advice to Missouri veterans that “What you see isn’t really happening” (7/24/18); Trump’s invitation on live TV for electoral interference by Russian trolls (7/21/16); and Trump’s Twitter declaration that “your favorite president did nothing wrong (7/21/18).” Historians of the future—assuming that we have a future, despite the shenanigans now going on— will be astonished and dismayed by what Americans countenanced in this era. Lincoln addressed his Republican Congress in 1862: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise—with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.... We—even we here—hold the power, and bear the responsibility.... We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1371700 2019-02-07T23:31:28Z 2019-02-12T13:42:01Z Editorial for VisualArtSource.com before midterm elections, November 6, 2018

Editorial

The midterm elections are a week away, and, according to the latest news, Trump and his minions are running scared, speaking of a possible “massacre” or “slaughter.” Make it so, please; this is our last chance. “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth,” to quote the first, best Republican president.

 In keeping with the current perilous Zeitgeist, on Halloween day, I headed over to Jack Fischer Gallery, in Minnesota Street Projects, in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood, where a particularly relevant and important show is hung right now (but ending—with a bang, not a whimper, we hope—on election day): Ward Schumaker’s Trump Papers; Hoisted by His Own Petard. Close readers of Hamlet will recognize the Shakepearean reference to being blown up by one’s one bomb: Hamlet engineers the deaths (via lettre de cachet) of two college friends who spied on him for his murderous, treacherous uncle. Trump is of course decidedly un-Shakespearean (although the gleefully wicked Richard III comes close), but Schumaker, one of the Bay Area’s most talented and original abstract painters, delivers a ringing condemnation of Trumpism by simply turning his own egregious words against him. Schumaker paints them, in a variety of fonts and colors—in a brilliantly surprising palette anchored by cadmium orange—the lies, insults, brags, and threats that characterize this low era. These beguiling word paintings, with their irregularly stenciled letters invoking Warhol’s silkscreened printer’s ‘holidays,’ or mistakes, present quotations from Chairman Donald and his henchpersons : “I alone can fix it,” “I’m President and you’re not,” “The truth isn’t the truth,” and ”Bow down to President Trump.” Both stentorian and stuttering, these slurred and curiously beautiful paintings are perfectly in synch with our fake-news-based Crazytown-on-the Potomac; they also provide a refresher course in Trumpiana for those who have tuned out, or never tuned in. (If you miss the show, a similar body of work, Hate is What We Need, is available in book form as well, the perfect gift for a Trumpist relative endowed with a sense of humor.)

This is not a review of the Schumaker show (although it certainly merits many), so much as a reflection on art’s place in the general culture, and, more specifically, on political art’s standing within the diverse universe of art.  Contemporary art includes almost innumerable galaxies and solar systems, to continue the astronomical metaphor, serving every possible taste or aesthetic inclination; this is why it is impossible to formulate a grand unified theory of art, as previous cultures did, lacking our instant access to information. Read the art criticism of two hundred, or a hundred, or even fifty years ago, and the worldview of a different time and place become readily apparent; whether those values are dated or not is up to you. What those cultures had, however, which we lack nowadays, was a sense of absolute values and of man’s place in the cosmos: misguided or not, they had faith, or optimism, for lack of better terms. Sir Kenneth Clark in Civilsation, his BBC survey of the art of western civilization, mentions several times that belief in one’s culture is crucial to creativity. (These days, we might also include a presumption that the world is not going to hell. Many artists confess to difficulty in focusing on work. Even Ward Schumaker, for example, with whom I talked, at the gallery, said he longed for getting back to making art—although I would consider his artistic confrontation with Trumpery, which he deprecates as therapy, as exemplary artmaking in crisis.) Art is recent years has become overly dissociated from reality, and perhaps even, in its elitism and removal from the concerns of the common, complicit with the global capitalists (no matter what French philosophers we invoke, reverentially). When Andy Warhol said that making art was just a job, in the 1960s, it was refreshingly provocative and down-to-earth; fifty years later, we know that extremism in the defense of aesthetic freedom (to paraphrase Barry Goldwater) can degenerate into artistic sin. Art today embraces everything, but too often stands for nothing but itself.

 There are, of course, many artists who focus on political issues, and I am not for a nanosecond contending that all artists need to be polemicists or propagandists. But such artists find themselves sidelined by the art world, shunted into university galleries or small art centers. Art is big business these days, and galleries and major museums for the most part are leery of alienating the patron class. When the history of this lamentable, disgraceful era is written (assuming that we survive Trump’s Déluge), how many art institutions will be able to  answer—except with retrospective sanctimony—Pete Seeger’s question from the Depression years, “Which Side Are You On”?  Remember the shaming military-recruitment poster from England, a century ago: “Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?” Stand up for your right.— DeWitt Cheng

 

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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1371694 2019-02-07T23:22:57Z 2019-02-12T13:49:19Z Catherine Wagner at Anglim Gilbert Gallery, San Francisco, September 5- October 6, 2018


Catherine Wagner: Selections, Anglim Gilbert Gallery (Reprinted from VIsualArtSource.com)

 

Catherine Wagner is one of a select group of Bay Area photographers—including Richard Misrach, Michael Light, and David Maisel—who use photography to examine the contemporary world and the social forces and institutions shaping it, combining social-document factuality with art photography’s formalist rigor. Unlike her peers, however, Wagner does not focus on the anthropogenic natural landscape, but the indoor, manmade landscape; with some exceptions, she depicts scientific and cultural artifacts, savoring their beauty, while remaining at least ostensibly neutral in tone, befitting photography’s once-vaunted mechanical objectivity. Charlotte Cotton in The Photograph as Contemporary Art coined the term, “”the deadpan aesthetic.” Wagner lets us draw our own conclusions from image and title, without editorializing.

 

Selections constitutes a mini-retrospective, drawing from various bodies of work in the artist’s forty-year career, in both black and white and color. It serves as a good introduction to her work, possibly to be followed up with a visit to Archaeology in Reverse, an installation examining the museum building at Mills College in Oakland, where Wagner teaches. The richly diverse Anglim Gilbert show includes works from Early California Landscapes (1974-8), semi-abstract views of construction sites; The Moscone Site (1978-81), documenting the construction of Moscone Center (named after the late mayor) and Yerba Buena Center, which replaced the old working-class neighborhood south of Market Street, presaging today’s dot-com gentrification; The Architecture of Reassurance (1995), depicting the infantilized dream world of Disney parks; American Classroom (1985-6), depicting empty classrooms across the country, with their uniform desks and blackboards; Art & Science: Investigating Matter (1995), a study of scientific samples and collections and their storage facilities, based on Wagner’s interest in the Human Genome Project; Museum Pieces: Trilogy: Reflections on Frankenstein, the Arctic Circle and the History of Science (2003), juxtaposing Arctic landscapes of Romantic desolation and grandeur with 1950s scientific models and the foil-wrapped Frankenstein-monster devices (actually vacuum chambers) used at Stanford National Accelerator Laboratories; Reclassifying History (2005), focusing on the ‘backstage’ practices of art curators and technicians at San Francisco’s deYoung Museum during its move from the old neoclassical building to its contemporary quarters; A Narrative History of the Lightbulb (2006), a typology of lightbulb evolution (which includes an homage to Yves Klein’s International Klein Blue); trans-literate (2012-3), a study of Braille books, closed and open, in diptych form; and Rome Works (2014), a study of how classical artworks are maintained and presented, made during the artist’s Rome Prize Fellowship.

 

That’s a huge range of subjects, and it does not even cover everything: her 2015 photographs documenting the rehabbing of the 1275 Minnesota Street building for art galleries were not represented; nor were her considerable public artworks; nor were her color-gel photographs of objects from painter Giorgio Morandi’s studio, made during a two-year residency at 2-year residency at Museo Morandi and Casa Morandi in Bologna, and a summer home in Grizzana. (A dirty job, to be sure, but I suspect that Wagner could have made interesting photographs of even her lunch, that selfie cliche, had she wanted to.) Wagner’s photography, like the best art, is both the portrait of a temperament and a window on the world. Viewers may want to read the new monograph, Catherine Wagner: Place, History and the Archive, with an interview by Stephen Shore; or the Archaeology in reverse catalog, with an essay by SFMOMA’s Rudolf Frieling, Curator of Media Arts.


 

In the meantime, don’t miss these works, listed chronologically, at Anglim Gilbert: “Double X Construction (Early California Landscape),” with the witty rhyming of X forms in 2”x4” bracing repeated in the taped glass of the windows behind; “Arch Construction IV (Moscone Site),” with its wide-angle view of a roller-coaster-like incline and scaffold anchored by an L-shaped section of densely packed, almost solid rebar; “Emerson College, Southwick Hall, Boston MA (American Classroom),” with its empty, laminated-plywood writing desks faced by a trio of blackboards, one of which bears a large, scrawled inscription: I DON’T KNOW”; “Columbus, Penelope, Delilah (Re-Classifying History),” a trio of marble statues of historical and mythological figures resting on pallets or in crates, silhouetted against a black curtain; and “Artemis/Diana (Rome Works),” a headless, legless marble torso set atop a pedestal and lashed into place by nylon strapping that matches in color the enameled steel of a portable scaffold that frames the view of the goddess like a theater’s proscenium arch. —DEWITT CHENG

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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1334347 2018-10-20T20:20:13Z 2018-12-09T04:53:48Z Edward Burtynsky at Robert Koch Gallery(from VisualArtSource.com)

EDWARD BURTYNSKY: Anthropocene

Robert Koch Gallery

 

If you haven’t been paying close attention to the Crazytown news, the White House has finally acknowledged that environmental damage is due climate change, after forty years of GOP stonewalling and denial—while now stating that it’s too late to do anything about it. What, US worry? If Americans are finally ready to grow up and stand up on this issue after Hurricane Michael, it will be in some measure thanks to the efforts of photographer Edward Burtynsky, who has documented, in his spectacular, large-scale color photographs, the effects of human development—i.e., rock quarries in New England and Italy, Chinese megafactories, Asian boat dismantlers—on the natural landscape. (His career is nicely captured in Jennifer Baichwal’s 2016 documentary film, Manufactured Landscapes.) In Anthropocene, which takes its title from the designation for our current human-dominated paleontological epoch, Burtynsky continues to boggle the eye and needle the moral conscience.

Photographed over the course of five years, the twelve images of Anthropocene provide the viewer a god’s-eye view of the human-altered landscape, with stunning compositions and a preternatural focus, with heavy machinery, rendered by the panoramic scope the size of ants. The viewer feels alternately proud and abashed by the human ingenuity so magnificently revealed here. Nine of the photos are shot from so high up that no horizon lines appear, and the works seem abstract. “Phosphor Tailings” resembles a detail shot of a heavily-impastoed painting—but with the white furrows of ‘paint’ pushed by a tiny tractor; a second photo of the same site, taken from a higher altitude, contracts the immense operation into a kind of microorganism. “Tyrone Mine 3” contrasts the Escher maze of meandering ridgetop roads with the violent striations of exposed geology. “Uralkali Potash Mine 6, Berezniki, Russia” depicts a series of concentric circles resembling a chandelier ceiling sconce, possibly fossilized—as well as the annular mating nests recently discovered on sandy ocean floors, created by male puffer fish. Apologies to Guy Debord (and Peter Schjeldahl of The New Yorker, who recently turned up his nose at Delacroix’s dramatic flair), but spectacle is not always superficial.——DEWITT CHENG

 

 

 

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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1323596 2018-09-20T14:20:50Z 2018-09-20T14:20:50Z Haroon Mirza's "The Night Journey" at Asian Art Museum, San Francisco (reprinted from KQED blog)



Haroon Mirza Translates Islamic Image into Light and Sound
The Night Journey

Asian Art Museum, September 7-December 9, 2018

San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum has had until recent years a somewhat stodgy reputation as a traditional showplace for precious jades, exquisite porcelains and lyrical scroll paintings. There’s nothing wrong with old-school museums, of course, to those of us who like looking at beautiful, silent artifacts, in relative silence, but AAM has seen the demographic tea leaves, as many have, and has been showing contemporary art for several years. It present work by contemporary Asian artists—or Asian-descent artists, and, if I remember, the occasional ‘barbarian’ dealing with Asian themes—in a manner respectful to the permanent collection: not interspersed with the traditional work, higgledy-piggledy, but in a separate gallery, located on the ground floor. (There was one exception, but it was sensitively installed.)

The museum’s latest contemporary art exhibit is Haroon Mirza’s “The Night Journey” (2017-8), an immersive light and sound installation that is based on an early nineteenth-century Indian miniature painting in the museum’s collection, depicting the Night Journey of Muhammad. According to the Quran and other sources, in 620 or 621 CE, The Prophet, accompanied by the angel Gabriel, ascended from Mecca, while mounted on the winged, human-headed steed Buraq (meaning ‘riding beast’), to “the farthest mosque,” in Jerusalem, where he discoursed and prayed with his prophetic forebears. This journey is called the Isra. In a second phase of the journey, the Mi’raj, Muhammad ventured on, to heaven and hell, and to the Lotus of the Utmost Boundary, where he received a revelation about the rituals he should share with his followers in Mecca. This one-night journey, commencing with Muhammad’s awakening by Gabriel, has been interpreted both literally and symbolically—as a physical and spiritual quest.

Mirza, a Pakistani now living in London, is interested in electronic music, concrete poetry, psychic states, psychedelia, and trance music —as well as meditation and Sufi mysticism. For “The Night Journey,” which was curated by Asian Art Museum Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art, Dr. Karin Oen, he has scanned and digitized the painting—which, by the way, is not featured in the exhibit, although a couple of related works are. The result is a sound palette based on the eight colors analyzed by software, transformed into digital sound. (Think of perforated player-piano tapes.) Mirza: “Everything is music; music is latent in everyday life. What you’re listening to is light; it’s the sound of electricity being made audible.”

Visitors to “The Night Journey” find themselves in a small, darkened gallery outfitted with acoustic panels (which may suggest Islamic mosaic patterns to some). Around the room on the floor sits a Stonehenge-like circular array of vintage Marshall cabinet speakers, black and square, emitting buzzing, grinding and droning notes that invoke both electronic sampling and electrical discharges The speakers are outfitted with linear LED light displays, reminiscent of graphic equalizer displays, that switch on and off with the sound, and brighten with volume, casting dancing shadows on the gallery walls. Both light and sound are controlled by a computer that is mounted high on the wall in a corner.

Amid this almost nightclub-like techno-modernity, mystical journeys do not spring immediately to mind. The artist is interested less in the particulars of the Journey story and more with how psychic states derive from physical stimuli. Another factor is the well-known Islamic proscription of images of The Prophet, nicely illustrated by a small Indian painting from 1720, “The Prophet Muhammad in the cave of Hira,” with the face—apparently sketched in by the artist—covered by a white veil, in keeping with tradition. Mirza notes that music, too, is sometimes forbidden. Abstraction may thus be said to be a part of religious tradition—as well as of contemporary secularism—a point that Mirza’s mixed-media painting, “Score for The Night Journey,” an inkjet print on handmade Wasli paper, with natural stone pigments and copper tape, made from the digitized score, not the museum’s Indian painting, makes. Mirza, describing his interest in digital culture’s ubiquity, as well as the use of pixelation and Photoshopping for veiling or distorting the facts: “By pixelating the image, I am drawing up questions around censorship.” Mirza has not modernized a religious painting; he has created an audiovisual examination—not amenable, perhaps, to impatient unbelievers—of how aesthetic and spiritual transport—art and religion—function within the taboos and other constraints of the wider culture.

A shorter version of this piece: https://www.kqed.org/arts/13841146/asian-art-museum-haroon-mirza-the-night-journey)

 

 

 

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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1320369 2018-09-10T16:15:50Z 2018-09-10T16:40:10Z Matthew Wetschler Reception, 9.9.18, San Francisco


Matthew Wetschler: The Space of Uncertainty

In the past hundred years, visual art has become more than strictly visual. It has followed the conceptual and intellectual direction outlined by Marcel Duchamp in his provocative artworks of the early twentieth century, the most influential of these being Fountain (1917), the notorious urinal that Duchamp—or, some attest, his friend, the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven—purchased from a plumbing supply house and signed, ironically, with the comic pseudonym, R. Mutt. Artists who took their aesthetic cues from Duchamp (or Freytag) discarded the traditional idea of the handmade object, combining beauty and self-expression, and viewer-directed, adopting a new model or paradigm: the object or experience (as in performance or installation) shaped by the interplay of processes and ideas, with the artist no longer the maker/presenter of objects but the enactor of situations/rituals. Notable examples of such adventurously subversive, experimental work include Robert Rauschenberg’s erased de Kooning drawing from 1953; Chris Burden’s photo documentation of his 1972 TV Hijack hostage-taking project; Tom Marioni’s drum-brush drawings from the 1970s on; and the wall scuff marks preserved beneath SFMOMA’s oculus, made during Drawing Restraint 14, a 2006 athletic performance by Matthew Barney.

The abstract paintings of the San Franciscan Matthew Wetschler, with their furrows of gouged white paint, appear to belong to two modernist painting traditions: the coolly minimalist monochrome abstractions of the American Robert Ryman; and the gestural mixed-media works of the German expressionist performance artist Hermann Nitsch. Wetschler’s handsome works, however, should not be seen strictly as aesthetic objects. They are the responses of an artistic temperament to disaster; the work is born in physical tragedy—and moral/aesthetic triumph. Wetschler, a Stanford-trained emergency-room physician, nearly died in a 2017 body-surfing accident at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. Slammed by a wave into the beach, he floated in the surf for ten minutes with a broke neck and no pulse before being spotted and rescued by a surgeon and a nurse who happened on the scene. After undergoing pioneering neurotrauma treatment at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and therapy at Valley Medical Center in Santa Clara, Wetschler is recovering from his spinal injuries and may eventually return to medicine—with a deep appreciation for his miraculous rescue.

Before the accident, Wetschler had already returned to artmaking—his major in college, along with philosophy—in response to the demands of a medical residency. Since the accident, he has learned to compensate for his injuries—weakness on his right side and a loss of fine-motor coordination in his hands—by framing them as defining limits—and stimuli to his creativity and imagination. Wetschler: “My current process draws on the limitations of my body. Either through positioning, stress, or duration I'm constantly seeking a point of failure - and then a space beyond failure. The ultimate shape of line or an object isn't dictated only by my ability but also my limits and the relationship I have with those limits.”

The paintings are thus records of a physical struggle. After Wetschler covers the canvas with a uniform coat of white paint, modified with acrylic medium to a desired viscosity, he attaches various weights to his disabled right arm—2.5, 5.0 or 7.5 pounds—and uses various brushes to push the paint around, not in pursuit of aesthetic effect, but in carrying out the process with focus and concentration: “I repeat the motion until my body fails and I capture that on canvas. It’s a commitment to either completion of failure.” This interest in “engaging with a threshold or an edge or a limit, pushing it into a void or the unknown” is related to the artist’s interest in athletic performance—he was an avid skier, rower, and Iron Man competitor in his teens and twenties—and in various philosophies, ranging from the pre-Socratics to the Stoics and the Existentialists. (Heidegger’s concept of poiesis, “ποίησις, the activity in which a person brings something into being that did not exist before," was the subject of his college thesis.) While it is tempting to see the works as analogous to Jackson Pollock’s action-painting investigations of the subconscious through his dance with fluid paint and gravity, Wetschler denies an interest in Abstract Expressionism, or even self-expression: “I am exploring self-nihilation, more comparable to states of ego death found through meditation or the concept of nothingness in Zen philosophy, rather than the distilled automatism of Pollock. In my work, there is no intuition; intuition is silenced and swallowed by a greater nothingness. I am doing this through an embodied action-oriented process echoing the Gutai movement or Matthew Barney.” (Gutai was the radical performance group in postwar Japan that extolled physical embodiment (as expressed in gu, tool or way, plus tai, body), creative community, and the beauty of imperfection).

Wetschler, dying in the Pacific surf, had no tunnel-of-light near-death experience; for him, “the movie” of consciousness simply stopped and restarted. In his seemingly artless, i.e., non-volitional, art, he explores the unpleasant fact of human vulnerability, pushing freedom of action as far as possible in the space of uncertainty that we all inhabit. —DeWitt Cheng

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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1320347 2018-09-10T15:43:22Z 2018-09-10T15:43:22Z The Rio de Janeiro Museum Fire and Cultural Global Warming (reprinted from VisualArtSource.com) VisualArtSource.com
Editorial 9.8.18

The September 2 fire that gutted the two-century-old National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro destroyed an estimated 18 million artistic, historical and scientific artifacts, ninety percent of the total holdings. The lost treasures include: the oldest human skeleton found in the New World, the Paleolithic “Luzi,” or Luzia Woman, 11,500 years old; fossils of Angaturama limai, a Cretaceous crocodilian with a sail-like spinal fin; and relics from Pompeii, Egypt, and the pre-Columbian Inca and Nazca cultures, some now extinct, including a Chilean mummy at least 3500 years old. Brazil’s president lamented, “Two hundred years of work, research and knowledge were lost.” One scholar compared the disaster to the burning of the Greek Library in Alexandria, Egypt, in 48BCE, still lamented by classicists; another called it “a lobotomy on the Brazilian memory.” While the cause of the Rio fire remains unknown for the moment, it is clear that inadequate funding for the building’s security was a major factor. Fire hydrants and smoke detectors failed, and despite heroic measures by museum staffers and local firefighters, all but a fraction of the collection was destroyed—and, although irreplaceable, uninsured. The government, which after years of neglect (in favor of other projects, in a recession), despite repeated warnings, and had recently—and in retrospect, ironically—allocated funds for upgrading the infrastructure, has promised to rebuild the museum “from ashes,” housed since 1818 in the former Imperial Palace.

 While some norteamericanos in our current odious political climate might be tempted to dismiss this story on racist grounds—as if they cared about culture, that is—museum failures happen in Ronald Reagan’s metaphorical “city on a hill” as well. Just a few months ago, the Pasadena Museum of California Art announced its closure in October, due, not to fire, but probably managerial and financial factors. Executive Director Susana Smith Bautista (in Los Angeles Times):  “The museum has had a lot of internal challenges for many years — governance, legal issues as far as the building goes, operational challenges and funding,” Bautista said. “We don’t own the building. We rent it from the museum’s founders, Bob and Arlene Oltman, who still live on the third floor of the building and ... sit on the board.” While the Los Angeles area is hardly lacking in art museums, PMCA’s focus was different and specific, and the loss of a museum concentrating on regional art and art history is particularly egregious at a time when both areas are underserved by corporate-dominated blockbuster-oriented museums; both types of institution are necessary for a vital, diverse art ecosystem, so art stands to lose from a curatorial monoculture, even if it is ostensibly global. (I will leave a discussion of art museums parochial conformity for another day.)

 As I was reading about the Rio fire, and formulating my own thoughts, I ran across an article online by Skip Colwell, lecturer on anthropology at the University of Denver, “Lesson from Brazil: Museums are not Forever (TheConversation.com/us). Colwell beat warns us about the fragility of cultural institutions, pointing out that museums face perils every day, despite their imposing architecture and air of authority. “The museum aspires to be a fortress against time. The reality is that time is inescapable and relentless. Museums are locked in a constant struggle against decay and an almost absurdly wide-ranging array of natural and human threats.” These threats include collateral damage from war and opportunistic looting; theft for the black market; ideological cleansing; and environmental change. And even absent such dramatic catastrophes as the 1865 fire that devastated the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, there are always the ravages of climate and time, and the war against those depredations is not cheap. The indifference (and sometimes ignorance) of officialdom comes at a price, as Rio demonstrates. The Trump administration, no friend of education or culture, according to Colwell, seeks to eliminate funding in 2019 for the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, which are already financially stressed. Educated, intelligent people have thus yet another reason to bestir themselves to vote in the millions in November; no partisan replays of 2016, please. As the apostate fireman, Montag (the successful ‘woke’ rebel, a bookend to Orwell’s broken bureaucrat, Winston Smith) discovers, in Fahrenheit 451, you don’t miss your water till your well runs dry.


 

 

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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1310778 2018-08-10T14:05:58Z 2018-08-10T14:05:58Z Julie Huang and James Su at SLAC. August 9 reception.



JULIE HUANG: Connections

JAMES SU: Spring Outings

Contemporary Paintings by Asian-American Artists

SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory is proud to announce an exhibit of works by the couple of Julie Huang and James Su, who were trained in art in mainland China and now work at their Twin Peaks Studio in San Francisco (www.art-su.com, wjsart@live.com). In a joint artist statement, Huang and Su write: 

... our paintings reference something real found in nature. The paintings are not direct references to what we see, but subtle....  such as the air surrounding a mountain or water passing through a volcano.....  Abstraction reflects the feelings in the heart that are all mixed together in the interior.  We feel that our ideas flow through when we paint abstractly.... Our paintings demonstrate a variety of natural expressions of life ...  marine animals, microorganisms, flesh, cells, and organs.  We do not pursue the likeness of any particular creature; instead, our aim is to evoke the spiritual, sensory, and overall mystique of life.  Our Earth is so unique: its ... intricate and complex system ... supports all of life. Plants, animals, microorganisms ... are [an] interdependent organic system.... Humans are but a link in this chain; we must live together and as part of nature in order to survive. ... As an ancient Chinese saying goes, "Wisdom loves water, benevolence loves mountains".... From the Chinese tradition, we embody the concepts of "Ch'i" and "Yun", energy and harmony. The flow of "Ch'i" is captured in the white, formless spaces of the paintings. The balance and rhythm of "Ch'i" leads to "Yun", or harmony.

 

After Julie Huang graduated from Shanghai’s Tongji University, she worked as a teaching assistant in the university’s Architecture Department, earning a master’s degree in 1986, before earning another master’s degree in 1989 from Washington State University. In the 1990s, she worked as a designer and marketing manager before founding her own engineering company, designing buildings, bridges, and public facilities. Now a professional painter and art professor, she creates poetic and compelling abstract paintings that mix color, form and texture in fresh and surprising ways that look at the same time inevitable. Connected, the work for which her show takes its name, depicts a ring-shaped form that hovers ambiguously between tangible object and dematerialized energy; it is set against a background that suggest both patterns found in nature and calligraphy. That same meshing of culture and nature is the subject of Inscription, with its mountainside manuscript, and Mountain Clouds, with the mountains from collaged classical paintings set amid the water that Huang loosely improvises.

 

James Su studied painting and illustration at the Shanghai Art Institute and worked as a freelance illustrator for a publishing company, with his work featured in many books and magazines.  In 1985, he emigrated to the United States, where he obtained a PhD degree in engineering. Su’s interest in traditional painting, abstract expressionism (which, it is now acknowledged, shares many features with Chinese painting) and digital technology come together in a recent project: a computer program that creates stunning paintings and animations. A full-time artist, Su is equally adept at traditional landscape painting, figurative work, and abstract paintings that mix Eastern and Western sensibilities. An art professor at three universities, Su has shown widely in the US and China. The two large oils on canvas in this show depict the theme of aristocratic ladies enjoying springtime country outings, a theme explored by the 8th century Tang Dynasty court painter Xuan Zhang, who in Lady Guo Guo's Spring Outing in the Beijing Palace Museum) depicted the favorite concubine of the emperor Xuanzong and her retinue, mounted on horseback, dazzling the peasantry with their luxurious splendor. Su’s versions update this theme to the mechanized, global-economy, present day, with lighthearted irony 

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 acdcmr@earthlink.netArtopticon.us is the successor program to Stanford Art Spaces.

 

 

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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1298752 2018-07-01T15:28:20Z 2018-07-01T15:28:21Z "Divine Bodies: Sacred Imagery in Asian Art," at Asian Art Museum, San Francisco “Divine Bodies: Sacred Imagery in Asian Art”
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, California

Continuing through July 29, 2018

“Divine Bodies: Sacred Imagery in Asian Art” is a carefully considered, beautifully displayed presentation of works both traditional and contemporary dealing with religion and spirituality. By focusing on four major categories — Transience and Transcendence; Embodying the Sacred; Aspects of Divinity; and Divine Metamorphosis — curators Qamar Adamjee, Jeffrey Durham and Karin G. Oen have created a harmonious framework for presenting work originating from various countries and different religions. The viewer is guided by an informative booklet through what would otherwise have been a bewildering pantheon of Buddhist and Hindu sages and gods with their manifold aspects and attributes. A wealth of information is available to the curious, while the distraction of word-heavy walls is obviated. There are a few apposite quotations from the Bible, William Blake, Black Elk, Kahlil Gibran and others, with introductory text for each theme.



The first theme, Transience and Transcendence, examines the mysteries of birth and death, earthly mortality and spiritual immortality. Introducing the theme is a wooden “Crucified Christ” from the Philippines, carved and painted between 1650 and 1750, a sensitive portrayal, both elegant and stark, of the Redeemer, eyes closed in death. Separated by a wall lies his Eastern analogue, a contemporaneous bronze “Reclining Buddha” from Thailand, depicting the moment of Shakyamuni’s death, or attainment of parinirvana, with (I quote from the curatorial booklet) “the Buddha’s impermanent physical components — atom-like elements called dharmas — dissolved back into the natural world.” The Buddha’s teachings are also called Dharma, so the idea here is that his vanished physical being is transubstantiated into enduring moral exempla. Think of a nice twist on the Christian concept of communion. However, as an eighteenth-century Tibetan painting and two reliquaries (in the form of miniature stupas, from Pakistan and China, separated by 1600 years) attest, the remains of the teacher, now divine, would be preserved and venerated. Gauri Gill, a contemporary Indian photographer, explores our impermanence (anityatva, in Sanskrit) in high-contrast black and white photos of traditional-culture birth and burial in the untitled, numbered works of her “Birth and Traces” series.



The theme of Embodying the Sacred is handled by showing how Asian artists infused the ”infinite divine” into seven portrait heads of the Buddha, whose features were unknown and thus could be imagined according to local customs and culture, producing regional stylistic variations. At the same time, the figures possess iconographic commonalities that transcend cultural borders: an enigmatic, gentle smile denoting compassion; downcast, inward-looking eyes, and am urna circle between the eyebrows, denoting spiritual vision; elongated earlobes, reminders of the former prince’s heavy earrings; and a topknot of hair, or ushnisha, signifying understanding and wisdom. Whether fashioned from solidly carved stone (Indonesia, China, Thailand) or cast in elegant brass or bronze with gilding and inlays (India, Thailand), all feature, according to the curators’ wall didactics, the “standardized outward marks (lakshana in Sanskrit) ... eyes downcast in meditation; a gentle smile of compassion; a circle between the eyebrows (urna), denoting ability to see beyond the physical; a protrusion on the crown of his head (ushnisha), depicted as a topknot of hair and signaling enhanced wisdom; and elongated earlobes (stretched by heavy earrings from his former life as a prince) signifying his renunciation of the visible world.”






The third theme, Aspects of Divinity, is subdivided into four sub-themes. The Beautiful is represented by Hindu statues of the elegant Shiva and his beautiful consort, Parvati. The Sensuous is represented by an enticing nature goddess figure leaning against a tree trunk, symbolizing female fecundity; by the Vajrayana Buddhist deity Guhyasamaja (Hidden Union); and by a conjoined couple symbolizing the reconciliation of polarities. The Fierce is represented by a Japanese wood sculpture of the Buddhist deity Ragaraja, or Aizen, whose fanged mouth and furrowed brow are complemented by a glaring third eye, for spiritual penetration of the world of illusion; and by stone sculptures of the Hindu deities Chamunda and Shiva, with fangs and staring eyes, and bearing various parts of corpses. The Gentle is embodied in the Chinese porcelain of  Budai Heshang, “the friendly one,” a plump, jolly Maitreya, or Buddha of the future.








"Divine Metamorphosis” is represented by two Indian statues. A granite statue of Shiva is revealed in the linga, a merger of traditional Hindu male and female symbols. A sandstone statue of the deities Shiva and Parvati combined into the hermaphroditic figure of Ardhanarishvara, “he lord who is half female.” Dayanita Singh’s work over nearly thirty years worth of books of letters, photographs and a video, documents the life of Mona Ahmed (1935-2017), a hijira, a woman born into a man’s body, bringing the imaginings of traditional mythology to reality.

Reprinted from VisualArtSource.com, June 2018

 
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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1287428 2018-05-25T17:04:06Z 2018-05-25T17:04:07Z Black Artists Examine Private and Public Realms at Bedford Gallery (reprinted from East Bay Monthly, June 2018 issue)  


Black Artists Examine Private and Public Realms at Bedford Gallery

The San Francisco Bay Area is known for its political liberalism and tolerance, two qualities that would seem beyond reproach, but not, unfortunately, in today’s political climate. The cynical scapegoating of various minorities by Fox News and its friends and allies in the White House is bad enough; what seems to be a clandestine targeting of black men by police forces, designed to punish and intimidate, is, it seems, Trumpian America’s equivalent of the mysterious Russian-journalist purge. Berkeley’s Paulson Fontaine Press, a respected and established publisher of art prints, represents some of the best artists in the country—some of whom happen to be black—about whom Rhea Fontaine writes: “These are the people who are taking risks that others aren’t willing to take, saying things that other people aren’t willing to say, seeing things that other people are not seeing.”

The group exhibition, Personal to Political: Celebrating to African-American Artists of Paulson Fontaine Press, was assembled by the Bedford, and will travel around the country for the next four years, so others will see (if they choose to). Wide-ranging in its focus, it combines the graphic work—as well as paintings, sculptures and quilts—of Edgar Arceneaux, Radcliffe Bailey, McArthur Binion, the Gee's Bend Quilters (Louisiana and Mary Lee Bendolph, Loretta Bennett, and Loretta Pettway) of rural Alabama, Lonnie Holley, David Huffman, Samuel Levi Jones, Kerry James Marshall, Martin Puryear, Gary Simmons, and Lava Thomas.

 The works combine aesthetic form with sociopolitical content in varying degrees. Martin Puryear’s elegant etching, depicting one of his minimalist sculptures, “Untitled (State II)” (2004) and Loretta Petway’s bold, resonant color etching, “Remember Me” (2007), replicating one of her quilts, are on the abstract side. Radcliffe Bailey’s “In the Garden” (2003), Gary Simmons’ “Starlite Theatre” (2012), Kerry James Marshall’s “Untitled (Handsome Young Man” (2010), David Huffman’s “Basketball Pyramid” (2007) and Lava Thomas’s “Fictitious Self-Portrait” (2006) examine and extol black culture and history. A catalogue is available. Personal to Political runs through June 24, 2018; Bedford Gallery, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek, 925/295-1417; BedfordGallery.org. —DeWitt Cheng

 

 

 

 

 
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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1285545 2018-05-20T13:35:27Z 2018-05-20T13:35:28Z Julian Schnabel at legion of Honor, San Francisco (reprinted from VisualArtSource.com)






Editors' Roundtable
by DeWitt Cheng

San Francisco's Legion of Honor is again juxtaposing contemporary art with its Old Masters collection and its neoclassical architecture. The temple of art on a hill overlooking scenic San Francisco Bay exudes tradition, and, in our era of sociological art analysis, Eurocentric white privilege: racism, colonialism, imperialism, sexism and so on. Who better to shake things up with the living white males than — of all people — the swaggering neo-expressionist Julian Schnabel? His operatic paintings of the 1980s, with their cracked crockery, antlers, velvet, boxing-ring tarps, and, above all, their gargantuan sizes, exuded machismo worthy of Hemingway or Picasso. Indeed, the art critic Robert Hughes mocked Schnabel's youthful bravado and careerism: "Schnabel's work is to painting what Stallone's is to acting: a lurching display of oily pectorals." 

It was, of course, the now-embarrassing 1980s. In the intervening decades, Schnabel has established himself as a notable film director ("Basquiat," "Before Night Falls," "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," and an upcoming film about Van Gogh). His return to San Francisco thirty years after his 1988 SFMOMA exhibition is thus an event of cultural interest, particularly when considered as part of the Legion's and deYoung's partial rebooting as venues for contemporary art (which has been partially successful; see my previous VAS editorials on the Legion's Urs Fischer and Sarah Lucas shows in late 2017.) 

Schnabel's "Symbols of Actual Life" comprises fourteen large paintings from four different bodies of work, and three huge sculptures. Nicely installed in the Legion's colonnaded courtyard (the site of innumerable wedding photo shoots and selfies taken with Rodin's "The Thinker") are six 24 by 24 foot untitled paintings, cable-tied to the Ionic columns, three on either side, and exactly as tall as the balustrade above. The paintings, mounted on NASA-worthy aluminum stretchers, are made on strips of lightweight tarp that the artist stitched together. The horizontal bands or registers in harmonized purple and gray recall abstractions by artists such as Paul Klee and Sean Scully, while the superimposed splotches of white gesso that arc and curve across their expanses suggest the go-for-broke flung paint that Francis Bacon occasionally favored or the ectoplasmic exudations of spiritualists a century ago. Those worthy antecedents aside, I don't find the images — which the artist explains, "epitomize much of what are the essential characteristics of the smallest and most nascent proposals of how imagery, drawing and material could be called a painting" — particularly moving or memorable. The size and the Court-of-Honor context lend them what impact they have, as does the conceit that over the next four months they are to be weathered, oxidized and aged, without the preservationist fretfulness normally accorded to luxury objets d'art. Take that, treasure-house fetishists! 

Accompanying the six paintings are three large sculptures from early in the artist's career in plaster over burlap, set atop sturdy steel frames, also presumably meant to decay in San Francisco's fog. Schnabel's crudely fashioned sculptures, spindle- or urn-shaped and humanoid, sprouting tree branches from their heads, are endowed with titles invoking the classical past and its metamorphoses in later Romantic art. "Helen of Troy" needs no introduction. "Gradiva" is based on a walking-woman bas-relief from Greek art (a copy of which was owned by Freud) that inspired both a 1902 romantic-fantasy novel and a 1970 movie starring the lovestruck lead actor from Alain Resnais' "Last Year at Marienbad." "Balzac" might be Schnabel's tribute to both the larger-than-life novelist and the outsized sculptor who portrayed him as a craggy mountain, or force of nature, Rodin. 

The paintings installed inside the three Rodin galleries are less impactful, which is actually a welcome relief, given the previous Fischer and Lucas stage-wink shows. An irregularly shaped 1990 series based on triangular Egyptian sailcloths pays abstract homage to the actress-singer Jane Birkin. She becomes an object of veneration for Schnabel much as Camille Claudel was for Rodin, whose portrait of her, atypically delicate, resides in the central gallery. A series of works done on tarpaulins scavenged from Mexican open-air markets pays homage to the ideas of emotion and transcendence exemplified by Rodin, though in minimalist, abstract form, with the ghostly white shapes registering as spiritual forces or presences. Less successful within this context are Schnabel's "Goat" paintings. Begun in 2012 to commemorate the life and death of artist Mike Kelley, it digitally combines the photograph of a taxidermied goat owned by the artist upon which someone had placed a child's stuffed rabbit ("I accepted that as an image."), and a landscape excerpted from an 1850 wallpaper depiction of George Washington accepting the sword of the surrendering British general Charles Cornwallis. One cannot help but wonder what Joan of Arc, El Cid, Laocoon and his sons, or The Thinker, all represented by statuary nearby, would think — but art is an awfully big adventure, n'est-ce pas?

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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1280061 2018-05-03T20:22:13Z 2018-05-03T21:25:00Z Interview with artist Robert Haemmerling, Peninsula Museum of Art, Burlingame CA, 4/22/18



ROBERT HAEMMERLING: Transfigurations

Artist Robert Haemmerling Talks with Curator DeWitt Cheng, April 22, 2018
Peninsula Museum of Art, Burlingame, CA.

Curator Beth Beisecker: Thank you for coming to the Museum Complex. So glad that you are here. Curator DeWitt Cheng is going to be in conversation with Robert. You all obviously know Robert, about his process and about this exhibit, Transfigurations, which will be here at the museum through Sunday, May 6th. DeWitt, I will have you take it from there and introduce Robert.

DeWitt: Thank you again all of you for coming, I know we have a lot of competition today with Open Studios over at Hunter’s Point and people having their 4/20 hangovers. I am happy to be here with Robert, whose work is wonderful and should be better known, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to show his work: the sculptures for which he is known, plus the collages which have never been shown before. We’ve had a great response to them and, fortunately—tell all your friends—the show has been extended until May 6, so they have a couple more weeks to get down here and soak in the Haemmerling Race, the Haemmerling culture.

Robert: My people...

Dewitt: Let me as an introduction read the statement that I wrote about this, and then we can quiz Robert about what I call his origin story and stories

Robert: Perfect.

DeWitt: It’s called Transfigurations. The human figure has been the primary subject of art for as long as human beings and art (which, some say, defines humanity) have existed, or coexisted. The modernist revolt of a century ago against realism was not the end of a millennia-long tradition, as it seemed at the time, but a renewal of it, providing other visual, intellectual psychological ways to perceive and interpret the human drama (or comedy, or tragicomedy). The artist writes: “My works consist of many different images of people compiled into one unique figure. I strive for something which has a universal quality to it, something that is recognizable. The found objects and materials I use help me to be open to the idea of accident and chance. Adding and removing materials throughout the process also allows the piece to emerge as something new and unexpected. It is through this process that I have learned to trust my intuition. If I am lucky, I will be surprised. And if I am surprised, I stay interested. For several years my work has focused on the human figure as well as the occasional dog or two. With each figure I feel I am attempting to create something that has a universal feel to it. A familiar turn of the head or a hand gesture can be the catalyst that starts it all off. As I move forward in the process the individual figures will take on a much more specific role, complete with names and histories. Taking discarded pieces of wood, metal and cloth out of their original context and combining them in new ways brings out the essence of their previous lives. It is the combination of these found materials that is compelling, because it is open to so many levels of interpretation. I feel I am making order out of chaos, and never sure about how each piece will turn out. The evolution my artwork goes through is what I find surprising and exciting.”

Robert: Sounds a lot better when you read it.

DeWitt: Sounds like you know what you are doing. So, tell us about how you got started as an artist. You grew up in Belmont?

Robert: Yes partially. We moved to the Bay Area in 1968. We had lived previously in eastern Washington about 75 miles outside of Spokane, in a tiny little town. We lived in San Mateo for a while, Hayward for a while, and then we finally moved to Belmont about ’71, so I pretty much grew up there from age 11 on. As far as doing art, I’ve done it my whole life so I don’t know anything different. I was one of those kids who could draw in class and would get pulled out for special projects—like the Psychedelic Room in 1971, where I was given a room to decorate, black light, that kind of stuff, two assistants—and I am 11 years old. So that happened a lot, growing up, and it got me out of all kinds of normal stuff like math, which was great. I always got to do that; it was just something I did. It wasn’t until I was about 20 years old that I decided to give art a shot. I was finishing up on a psychology thing up at CSM—I went to the College of San Mateo up there —and decided I didn’t want to do that. I almost got the AA with that but started all over with art. And then, two years later, I transferred up to S.F. State, where I got my Bachelor’s in painting and printmaking. Sculpture was always something I kind of did for myself. I was primarily a painter making big abstract paintings that I couldn’t sell— and they are in storage still. After going through that, I found that I really liked working with stuff that was recognizable, something more figurative, as well as using every piece of material and let’s just say, junk and sawdust and tile grout and everything in the paint that I could mix in, as well as found sculptural elements.

DeWitt: You were going to go into psychology. Do you find that interest in psychology is in your art? I think it is.

Robert: I don’t know. I don’t really think about that. You know, when I start out the sculpted pieces, I am thinking about, well, the pragmatic stuff in the beginning: how do I get this thing to stand, that’s the main thing; and then, is it going to be a life-size figure, is it going to be male or female; and that can switch back and forth throughout the process. You know something that starts out a guy turns into a woman, turns back into a guy.

DeWitt: The psychology of the pieces —they are not portraits of people.

Robert: No.

DeWitt. They have that kind of individuality.

Robert: That comes through the process; that comes with the time. In the beginning, I don’t know, like I said, I have those vague notions in the beginning, but I also have other ideas that I am playing around with. As an example, I will use Patty back there and she has a mate (Carl) that I made at the same time. Their sexes were changed in the beginning. I was thinking (because I made those when I was about forty-eight or forty-nine) about middle age, and I was thinking about the fears that people have. With him, he has a bald spot in the back, his butt is all flat, his gut is hanging out—and that is the third version of the gut. If I were to make it now, it would be hanging out really big-time. The woman, she was more about someone in her mid-forties, possibly wearing a dress that is maybe too short (showing off a bit too much), and go-go boots. I was also thinking about those female East German swimmers from the Olympics in the mid-70s. Do you remember those women? They were gigantic, colossal. Then, you find out later on they were all on steroids. Well, those were some of the ideas I was thinking about with those two. It doesn’t happen with every piece, but sometimes there are ideas like that I am playing around with.


DeWitt: Let’s talk about those two. You said that at least one of them changed sex during the process. How do you start working on one? You have all of these pieces; how do you choose which pieces to use? How do you know what size it is going to be? It is intuitive, I am sure, but you are interested in certain things so then you decide you are going to do a life-size figure.

Robert: Those two started off as just heads with a bust, and I was going to go in a new direction {away from large works]. Well, I figured, I won’t have to carry these big heavy things around anymore; I will be able to sell smaller things a lot easier; it will go great! Well, I can’t help myself. I was looking at them and I was going, “No, they need to be figures and they need to be life-size, not the half-size ones like that (Bill).” So that’s what I was thinking. I also think in terms of couples. So, if I make a male, those two were done at the same time (Patty and Carl). That’s usually not the case; it is usually one at a time—because they used to take six to nine months to make, I would just take my time; I let them simmer for a long time. They will tell me what needs to be done and I don’t want to rush things. And, I can either choose to accept what it is saying or I can reject it, and you never know how it is going to come out. Those guys, I was thinking of a couple, and I wanted them to play off each other.

DeWitt: They are kind of a modern version of Adam and Eve for our times: secular and far from noble. They are noble in their own way.

Robert: I think so.



DeWitt: This is one of your first figures. (Dave).

Robert: That is the first figure I made. I did do some sculpting at San Francisco State. I had great teachers like Stephen DeStaebler, Don Rich, and Seymour Lock. This one, the pieces were collected in1985. I had them in milk crates in the studio, but I was too busy working on gigantic paintings that no one cared about. Then, around 1990, I said, “I am going to go with this thing.” This one is much more in the spirit of assemblage where you are taking found objects, found materials, and sticking them together, and not doing a whole lot of sculptural work. The head is the one exception on that piece where I am trying to shape that; the rest of the stuff is pretty much found objects. And then I went from there. Every year I would produce at least one, as well as doing the painting, and doing the printmaking, and everything else.

DeWitt: Patty and Carl and this is Dave. We need to know their names. They seem to be much more realistic and he is clearly an artificial figure that comes out of collage, cubism, Dadaism..

Robert: I was also thinking about the Bay Area artists [the sculptor] Richard Shaw and [the painter] Gordon Cook, especially his later paintings of found blocks of wood with sticks coming out. They were figures, but the paintings were incredibly beautiful, and very, very simple. I was thinking of that, and I was also thinking of Michelangelo’s David—and that’s why he’s Dave. In 2003 it was down at the Convention Center in Santa Clara, and I don’t know if you remember the wilding in the late ‘80s in New York, just herds of young men running around doing bad things. Well, that happened at the Santa Clara Convention Center in 2003. They just went through that place and wrecked as much art as they possibly could. Dave came back in pieces. Luckily insurance took care of it. He was for five years on the studio floor, because it is not that easy to go back into work you’ve done before and feel the same way about it, and I couldn’t repair him the same way because things were broken. So, instead of that arm going across like that like Michelangelo’s David it went like that way now. There was a change in it; it doesn’t bother me; it is kind of the part of the evolution of the piece. They all get nicks and marks on them and it doesn’t bother me that much.

DeWitt: His left arm, his left hand is composed of a guitar....

Robert: Yes. A fret board from a guitar, with drumsticks, paintbrushes, parts of an ottoman for his knees, and part of a table. I shaped the pieces of wood, the legs and the other stuff with Elmer’s glue. That’s how a lot of those other pieces are.

Audience: That’s glue in between?

Robert: Elmer’s Wood glue. Well, in between the cracks on those guys (Patty and Carl) there is wood putty.

DeWitt: You smooth it as well as you can and you back later and polish it?

Robert: Well, it depends on if I want to change it. Like his gut (Carl), I said that’s the third version of that because I was never happy with it. I always felt it should be bigger and bigger. But, there’s two other ones that are fully finished underneath that look great, but it just wasn’t enough. I can constantly come back into it and change it that way.

DeWitt: If we x-rayed it we would see those other bellies.

Robert: You would see a lot of stuff if you x-rayed it.

DeWitt: Fascinating.

Robert: A lot of metal pieces, a lot of things that hold it all together.

DeWitt: Do you ever use Bondo?

Robert: I have. I don’t like the smell of it. It kind of bothers me and I did use it for several pieces..

DeWitt: It is used for bodywork on cars.

Robert: Right. The smell is really strong and it just bothered me too much.



DeWitt: Let’s talk about what I call Gudea of Lagash. Anyone who’s taken art history will recognize as this ancient Middle Eastern priest figure. Your name for him is?

Robert: Ralph. I have regular-people names for my pieces because, oh, I don’t know, when I was in the first, second and third grade, we didn’t have any Dakotas or Tiffanys or Brittanys or Dylans or any of those names. They were all Mike, Bob, Sue, Larry, those kinds of names. I felt like I will just use all those kinds of names: they are not specific to anybody or anything; it’s just I like them—and I think they are funny. Back to that piece, that is actually two chairs. The figure is made out of a chair and the other chair is one that I scavenged on the same day in Potrero Hill out of a debris box. I used to do a lot of dumpster-diving. I wanted to use that chair, but make a figure out of it and yet still keep kind of its chairness and use the other one with just found objects on top of it, like the tin boxes that I collect; I break them apart, flatten them out, cut them to size I want, and divide them by colors. So, when I am working with the tin it is kind of like I am painting and I am grabbing stuff and working with colors or collage, but I am just using tin. That stuff can get really sharp; you have to watch it. Same method with that (Burt) and the Altoids thing (Rex).



DeWitt: You are using nails? You are not using any kind of air hammer or anything?

Robert: The last ten years it’s all been hand tools except for a rare occasion where I will pull out a circular saw; the dust is kept down to a minimum, and I am in no rush; and besides, with the power tools, things tend to look more abstracted. You can see the work of hands in the stuff that I do with hand tools. I guess that’s a little about the process that I use in these pieces. That one is found objects, it has hammer handles, and ax hatchet handles, the tin and then just layered construction material: plywood, two by fours, that kind of stuff. Again, everything has been found. It is either from the street or when people find out you use junk in your work, all of the sudden they want to come to your garage. I stopped collecting about ten years ago because I feel like I have enough now to last me at least another twenty or thirty years and at that point, who knows what I will be doing? If I am eighty, still doing this stuff, great.

DeWitt: You work at SCRAP, which is an art and material recycling.

Robert: It is. Scroungers for Reusable Art Parts. We are a nonprofit that is geared towards artists and teachers. We’ve been in existence since about 1976. It was started by Ruth Asawa and Anne Marie Theilan, who is still alive, eighty-five years old and still running the front desk on Friday and Saturdays. I don’t know if you guys know the story about it, but we are there, we are safe, we are good for now as far as we know.

DeWitt: Good.

Robert: We just need to have more people coming in, because everyone thinks we are closed. That’s all due to the whole Ghost Ship thing with the City cracking down on warehouses. We have our space in a warehouse that the school district owns. It is a large space, but it is fenced in. We don’t pay rent, which is very, very kind of them. We’ve been there for twenty years, but there are some issues with the Fire Marshall in terms of exits and entrances, and ,unfortunately, we had a bunch of extension cords with lamps. That’s all been changed. We’ve made a lot of changes, and at this point ,it looks like we are okay.

Audience: Where is SCRAP?

Robert: It is in San Francisco in the Bayview District. It is basically a thrift store geared towards artists and teachers. We have a free teacher giveaway every month, where we give away, not limitless amounts to every teacher who can prove they are a San Francisco teacher, but a certain amount: brand-new paper pads, pens, pencils, art supplies, books. You name it, we give it away. I think we are coming up to our last one; it is during the school year. We are a nonprofit and we have an art supply section, office supply section, a whole section dedicated to metal, wood. We stopped with the plastic because people just weren’t buying it and it was costing us money to go to the dump to just get rid of it.

DeWitt: And, you accept donations because when we moved a few years ago I had to clear a bunch of stuff and I was happy to give it to SCRAP. It is a great resource.

Robert: I see a lot of artists from town coming in and buying their supplies. I work there and I try not to take too much from there because my whole thing lately is to clear out my studio as much as possible. I make actually more donations. The only section I can’t stay away from is the free section: we have all the old calendars in there, and a big part of my collage work comes from the calendars, postcards, and junk mail, plus stuff I find on the street. I’ve had these materials in bags on shelves in my studio for the last twenty or thirty years. When I get ready to make collages, I pull out all these things and I just sit at a table and pick out things that are interesting: colors or faces; a whole calendar of the Beatles; a whole calendar dedicated to trout; another one dedicated to birds; or all the Old Masters, and I cut them up. I love art history and I get a big kick out of cutting up the masters: Picasso, Botticelli, Michelangelo, all of them.

DeWitt: Do you have them sorted in any way? I am thinking of photos that I have seen of Joseph Cornell’s studio in his garage where he had shoeboxes labeled with butterflies...

Robert: No. They are just big Ziploc bags, and whatever grabs my fancy, it’s all based on instinct. If I think about it too much, I won’t want to keep it. I figure it this grabs me for whatever reason, I put it into a bag and worry about it later. All those bags get filled up and they get put on a shelf. When I am ready to do collage work, I start grabbing stuff not knowing what’s in there, and I just look through stuff for what grabs my attention.




DeWitt: How long does each collage take to make, because they all seem so beautifully worked out. You do a lot of trial and error, or do you have a good sense in advance for what you are looking for?

Robert: Well, I know I am going to be dealing with portraiture. I am going to be dealing with the human face. It’s going to be a single shot. I am thinking about mug shots, school pictures, Kodak instamatic pictures, that kind of stuff; some kind of straight-ahead thing like that. I will just grab pieces that look similar or I will cut eyeballs; I like switching eyeballs a lot! I slowly trim these things down and play them against certain backgrounds. I only do the collage stuff for about two to three weeks—ten or fifteen pieces—and then I go back to sculpture. I am only doing the collage stuff because the sculpture is driving me nuts and I need to do something different, to change gears. I treat it all like a job; I go in every day and even when I don’t feel like doing it, I am going to work because time is limited.

DeWitt: I really like them and you started doing them a few years ago?

Robert: No, I actually started doing them in 1985; I just never showed anybody. I have books in my studio filled with them, and those are harder to show. About ten years ago, I started putting them on single pieces of paper and putting those in plastic boxes when they are done. It is easier: you just scan them and put them out online.

DeWitt: I think they are wonderful.

Robert: I am putting together puzzles where I don’t know what the image is. I am just trusting that it will work out and not all of them do.

DeWitt: Do you work on just one at a time or do you have several going?

Robert: Several. I will start it up and maybe finish two or three in the first day, but they won’t be completed, and the next day I will add a couple more but then come back to the first two. I will slowly add to it but throughout the whole process work on all of them till I feel like they are done.

DeWitt: Are there any particular collagists that you admire? You are using the same scissors-and-glue technique that has been around in art for 100 years, but your things have this definite sense of individuality and presence that is in your sculpture too.

Robert: Yeah, and I am hoping that they do connect in some way. That’s the kind of thing I am going for throughout everything, even the paintings. I am doing portraiture now, and I feel they all connect and they all feed off of each other. I will do a painting of a sculpture and then make a collage of the painting that’s of the sculpture, and then I will just play around with all that stuff. Each one doesn’t have to be specifically like that thing I that am copying; it is a jumping-off place for me, and then I will go somewhere else with it and make it look slightly different.

DeWitt: I want to open it up for audience questions in a little bit, but there was something else I wanted to ask: tell us about the dogs.

Robert: I just couldn’t help it. The figures were just crying for it. I like dogs. I have had two or three over the last thirty, forty years, and they are just fun to make. And, again, it is like I am escaping something when it just starts bothering me and I just want to do something else: I don’t want to do a full figure this time, I’ll do a dog. And, they go quicker— like two or three months, tops. I am getting better with all this stuff. With the large figure back in the corner (Oscar) my last one I did that one in four and a half months’ that’s a record for me.

DeWitt: The one right in the corner there?


Robert: Yes, the bald-headed guy. The one who is bothering Ruth (a volunteer),Oscar.

Audience: Did you know he was going to be totally clothed or does he have (inaudible) under...

Robert: I wanted to make a suit again.

Audience: So, that should make it quicker you know you are not going to need all this (referring to Carl)...

Robert: Right. I am covering up a bunch of stuff. There are gaps underneath. It is not finished all nicely, but with that one I was basically thinking of Mr. Clean, in he commercials when we were kids. He was one of the only bald-headed guys we saw other than Yul Brynner; now you see them everywhere. And, I wanted to deal with the idea of a JFK suit, whether I got that with that one, I don’t know. I wanted to do those two things and I wanted to use up that sheet metal.

DeWitt: The name Oscar refers to refers to Hollywood...?

Robert: No. He was Otto for the longest amount of time. Then, I was not feeling right about Otto and I thought he looked more like an Oscar and I went for it. With these names, they have to feel right for me. A lot of them will have certain kinds of names for the longest amount of time through the process and then at the end it will just switch.

Beth: We had a small discussion in the process of setting this up about possibly bringing something in progress, and you said you didn’t have anything currently in progress so what’s next for you?

Robert: I just finished another dog, which is dealing more with found objects, but it is from a tree that I just cut down on my property, so I am using my own lumber. That one is done, and now the new one that I am working on, because I am painting as well; I have my painting studio back because these guys are all gone. What I am working on now is another one that’s in the early 90s I was experimenting with: trying to do a bonsai tree. I did horrible experiments to this nice little pine tree outside of my studio; then I moved to San Francisco and planted it in the ground and the whole thing grew up with a big old bend in it. I cut that one down and I cut the bend in half and I know that those are going to be legs. They are going to be legs for a female piece and they are going to be bent. How I get that to stand, I don’t know; that’s one of the problems I am dealing with now. So, I sidestepped the issue and thought, “Well, let’s sculpt some feet for it.” So, that’s where I am now. I have some feet and some legs and I don’t know where it is going from there.

Audience: Pardon me. I came in late and you may have mentioned this but what is your day job?

Robert: I work at SCRAP. I do that three days a week so I have a few two days dedicated to art.

DeWitt: Are there certain materials that come through SCRAP that you cannot get anywhere else that you react to?

Robert: No, not really.

DeWitt: After all this time, you know pretty much know what your materials are.

Robert: We don’t accept construction material, so that’s why, and I do a lot of pickups. I am the guy who drives around town and who picks up all the donations. I do a lot of pickups with architectural houses and we will get a lot of examples of hardwood with ornate designs on them or relics or lumber along that kind of line. I am not grabbing anything any more. I have enough furniture pieces in my studio from coffee tables, chairs, and baby cribs. You saw it. It is just a wall of wood. I have enough to last me.

DeWitt: When you were starting out as an artist where you much influenced by Dada and Surrealism?

Robert: Yes. I love all art history even minimalism. I love it all.

DeWitt: Any people in particular? I think of de Chirico, in some of your pieces. I think of Louise Nevelson in terms of using the wood.

Robert: Definitely Louise Nevelson, and I have some pieces that aren’t here where I was doing the Louise Nevelson where part of the body was all these ornate different found parts of furniture unified by paint. That is like really powerful once you unify it by paint: it is all light and shadow after that. Yeah, her, and Picasso, especially with his found object things; the bicycle handle bars with the seat and all of that stuff. I love all of it; that’s why I love cutting them up so much.

Audience: Is there any type of armature in any of these are you just start at the head and sometimes they go from the shoulders and they turn into a body thing...

Robert: Running through it, let’s say the torso, I build them in pieces now. I will build the torso piece; the head piece will be separate; and then the legs and then everything all separate; and put them together at the end of the day. I just look how it is going and I go from there. So, in the middle is a two-by-four running down, and I leave some space because I am trying to cut weight but I want the strength. It is kind of like building a house: stud work, and then connect that with plywood, and then sheathing on top of that, and then I build up from there. I do the whole back-and-forth thing. I will connect the pieces with cut-up steel bars about an inch thick, and I will go in four inches one way and four inches the other way using liquid nails, and come in with lag screws the next day, and then some of it gets covered up with tin, some with leather, and some with sheet metal.

DeWitt: You are not naïve, but you seem like you are operating like a naïve artist who also happens to know art history and is sophisticated about materials and processes. Psychologically, you are a garage tinkerer.

Robert: Yeah kind of like an outsider artist, a folk artist. I can see all of those things happening. Yeah, I went to art school at San Jose State, graduate studies, not four years, two years. I learned all the stuff. And, when I try specifically to get away from that and get it to look more like something I sculpted, a little bit cooler, they all end up looking kind of goofy after a while. I can’t help it. It’s just the way they are.

DeWitt: I recently wrote a thing about the new Giacometti movie [Final Portrait] and it reminded me of a story that the artist told about his sculpture of a dog. “I saw this wretched forlorn dog in the rain and I was that dog.” Do you have any sort of sense of identity with your characters or are they your children, your brainchildren?

Robert: When they are done, I lose connection with them even though I am living around them the whole time. They take up a whole wall of my studio. I am sorry, what was the question?

DeWitt: Do you feel that you are investing yourself in them or to use another term you are assisting or attending their birth in a way?

Robert: The second part. A lot of times I feel I am kind of just there for the ride. It makes it sound all really easy, like I don’t play a part in it but I don’t want these things to be just a result of my emotions and my intellect. I spend a lot of time looking at them every night. I spend a lot of time laughing at them and saying stuff like, “How old are you Robert? And, why are you still doing this?” I do it because I love doing it. If somebody took my studio time away, I would be a very angry person. I love being in my studio. I guess there is part of me in there and stuff I can’t help, but I don’t totally see them as completely separate from me either.

Audience: Do you ever do any sketches of what you want your figures to look like or you just start...?

Robert: I jump in. Unless it is like some problem I am trying to solve in terms of how do I get this thing to stand, then I will draw really quick stuff just notes for me. I just jump in. The same holds true for the collage work and everything, the painting and everything. I jump right in and I trust that it’s just going to work, and if it doesn’t, big deal! You come back the next day.

DeWitt: You fix it. You add two more bellies on top [as with Carl].

Robert: You got it.

Audience: I really like what you said that you let the work talk to you and tell you what to do, and you don’t know ahead of time what it is going to look like.

Robert: Would be boring wouldn’t it? Otherwise? It is exciting this way: I don’t know what’s happening

DeWitt: When you were in school at San Francisco State and later San Jose State were there any teachers that served as role models for you or taught you things that were really important?

Robert: Oh, God yeah. Paul Pratchenko in painting; he was my hero when I was twenty-four. Then, there is Stephen De Staebler; I thought he was great. I didn’t know who he was but he just came one day and he was wonderful to me; he was so helpful. And Don Rich and Seymour Locks, a much older man, and Ralph Putzker. At the Beach Chalet, he worked on those murals way back when. He showed up as a 17-year old and said, “Hey, I am an artist,” and they hired him.

DeWitt: Anybody at San Jose State?

Robert: I was in painting courses with Leigh Hyams. I was doing a lot of printmaking down there, etching and lithography. Surgalski was very helpful and Leigh Hymans and Rupert Garcia; I did all the advanced painting stuff with him and he was very helpful as well. That’s about it in terms of what I remember. You know this was a long time ago.

DeWitt: You were there before the whole postmodernist thing cranked in and we had to do everything with video.

Robert: Yeah.

DeWitt: It was all done by hand in those days.

Robert: Yep. Yep.

Audience: His face seems very specific. Is that a person or?

Robert: No. No. Just came out. That’s the way it happened. Yes. I also try to keep away from all the stuff you add on, other than glasses I like putting glasses on some of the figures and one time I put a hat one, but that’s about it. I don’t want them to have a lot of whole lot of stuff that people carry and everything. I just want them to be people who stand.

Audience: And, their teeth.

Robert: Well, like I said, when somebody finds out you are an artist who uses junk, they want to give you everything. So, the dentist found out that I am an artist and he gave them to me. He kept a box in his office for three months of all the plaster casts of the people that he... Unfortunately, he had them marked with names, and I knew some of those people. Man, there are some people with gnarly teeth, I will tell you! I have been using them and I use hot glue and I don’t use full sets, I will break them up and reconnect them together in different kinds of ways. Some of my dogs have some of those teeth.



DeWitt: What about this figure in the blue shirt [Bill]? Who is he with his white belt?

Robert: What’s his name? His name is Bill. It is getting to the point where I don’t remember all their names any more. Bill is a 70s kind of guy. The white belt, the black pants, and that shirt. I don’t know if you remember those kind of poly, those plastic shirts and so with the suit. I wanted to make a half-figure guy and use up leather. The shoes are made out of a notebook that came from a L. A. cop. That’s something that came through SCRAP. It was just kind of a leather satchel and it’s all ornate with Mexican figures and everything on it. And I thought, “Oh, I have to use this.” His shoes are made out of that completely.

Audience: That’s wonderful.

DeWitt: But you know, his white belt and his shoes don’t match. He’s not Herb Caen’s infamous “full Cleveland.”

Robert: It is all about the white belt look!

DeWitt: And, what about these two ladies over here?

Robert: She’s (Susan) made out of skateboards. My son, when he was younger, was a skateboarder. And, I asked him every time, “Hey, listen when you break these skateboards, which are costing a fortune, they are like $70-$80 dollars apiece. Give me the broken pieces. I’d stack them up in my studio knowing one day I would use them. I wanted to make a dress out of them. This one has ten skateboards in it; based on the skateboards alone, it is worth about seven to eight hundred bucks which I am starting to use branches and tree parts more because they lend themselves so well to the human figure. Adding bits and pieces like those guys, but setting it back a little bit with paint now so one thing doesn’t come out so strong, it is more of a balance kind of thing.

DeWitt: Do you use oil paints or?

Robert: I use acrylics. Acrylic washes. I will come in and sand and then work it again.

DeWitt: They are very textured and layered.

Robert: The acrylics are much quicker. That’s why.

DeWitt: And, what about Lisa?

Robert: Lisa was sort of, she came before Oscar and she was going to be a mate for Oscar, but I don’t think that’s going to work out. I knew I wanted more of a collagey kind of tin thing with this one, but also really paying attention to color and with her (laughing). Most of the pieces have flat butts and I wanted to make sure hers wasn’t all that flat. So, it is kind of the same thing with his belly (Carl): I was working on that one underneath trying to get the shape just right.

DeWitt: Is a flat butt a sociological or satirical comment?

Robert: It is just an easier way to get done with it. I figured they are going to be up against a wall or something anyway.

DeWitt: They will lie down in your truck better.

Robert: Got to.




DeWitt: You’ve got Coca Cola here (Lisa). You’ve got Altoids on the dog here (Rex). Is this Cheerios? What metal is this? Cigarettes.

Robert: Cigarettes and mustard on that one (Burt).

DeWitt: I presume there is no deep anti-corporate statement here. It is just about color and material?

Robert: It is strictly about color on those guys. I love making new life. That’s a big part of it and I see it in its original context and I see what it can be and that’s what kind of sparks me on these pieces. I want to see what I can change it into. When text comes into it, and that’s not a good example of what I am about to say, I will try to turn the text upside down so it will read more like an image as opposed to a word, because once you see the word, that becomes an idea and I then that becomes maybe too important and I don’t like that, I want to set it back a little bit.

Audience: How do you move those around? How heavy is that?

Robert: About 100 pounds. I have a dolly. I pick them up straight and put them on the thing and roll them and tip them. I have learned to do that stuff. But, I will tell you, it was easier ten years ago. It is getting a little bit harder.

DeWitt: So when are you going to show us your paintings? Do you have enough?

Robert: I hid them from you when you came. They were in process, that’s why.

DeWitt: Show me whenever you are ready.

Robert: Yeah yeah. Not a problem.

Audience: You told me that you weren’t just doing collages; you are actually doing painting now right? Do you paint with oils or acrylic?

Robert: Both. I use house paint too.

Audience: On the same canvas?

Robert: Yes, but usually oil goes on top of the acrylic because it doesn’t work the other way. And, when it is the oil it is going to be wash, washes on top of the acrylic and house paint. Actually, I’ve become much more traditional in the last couple of years. I used to put tile grout and saw dust and come at them with belt sanders and everything. It’s just paint now on canvas and I feel really old fashioned and traditional like I said.

Audience: It gives you great pleasure.

Robert: Oh yeah. I love it. I love it. I like doing all of it. I have always been a painter. Sculpting and collage work has taken over because people, they react to them and so I get to show them more and to me it is like, “Nobody cares about the paintings any more.” You know that might be true, I don’t know, who cares, I will still be painting and that’s what I am doing now because I have all this room in my studio with these guys gone. I’d like to show all, I did it a little bit at Sue Steel’s gallery [Mythos, in Berkeley] about six months ago where she showed a painting, a couple of collage pieces and sculpture as well. It was kind of cool seeing them all together. I like that. Because I do feel that they all connect.

Audience: When they come back to your studio will you tell them how they cramp your painting style?

Robert: I don’t know what I am going to do. I don’t know where I am going to put all this stuff.

DeWitt: You just need to do the Picasso thing. You just fill up one villa and buy another.

Robert: Buy a chateau and just fill them up. That’s what I’d do. 



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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1278788 2018-04-30T18:13:13Z 2018-04-30T18:13:14Z Peter Bogardus "Going to Gansu" mixed-media photos at Corden/Potts (reprinted from VisualArtSource.com)


Peter Bogardus
Corden/Potts Gallery, San Francisco, California  
Recommendation by DeWitt Cheng  
Continuing through May 12, 2018

A century ago modernist art was regarded as a possible means of redeeming European culture, corrupted by kings, priests, and generals. The artist was seen as akin to an Old Testament prophet, and art-making as a kind of spiritual quest. Much of that utopian idealism came crashing down following the Great War and the purges of 1930s, but some of us in an art world corrupted by market values hunger for a return to spirituality and transcendence in art — sans art-profiteer executions. The work of Peter Bogardus would seem to be motivated by just such an interest in the spiritual and historical. 

Over the last two decades he has created seven fine-art books, from “The Great Mystery” (1996) to “Places of Reverence” (2017). Each documents his travels to religious sites. Documenting is not really the right term: Bogardus’s monochromatic photos, generally shot on 4x5 film and printed with the labor-intensive medium of photogravure, are the by-products of an artistic quest.

In ‘’Going to Gansu,” curated by Kate Contakos, Bogardus presents monochromatic photogravures from square-format Rolleiflex photos he took during a two-day train ride east-west to Gansu, at the western edge of the Gobi Desert in northern China, in 1992. Presumably his destination for that trip was the Mogao Buddhist caves at Dunhuang, created between the 4th and 14th centuries. But this body of work details the journey itself, with thirteen untitled misty landscapes that invoke mystery of an ecumenical sort.  The photogravures, which are photo-based aquatint etchings, hand-printed, with their soft focus and technical imperfections of scratches and areas of unprinted paper, resemble old daguerreotypes, while recalling in spirit the poetic landscapes of Asian painting. Printed on Kodohadamashi (“cloud surface”) hemp/mulberry paper, generally employed for painting, with traditional oyster-shell priming and mineral pigments (including woodblock-printed gray and beige background tones), these unpeopled works, glimpses from a speeding window twenty-six years ago, look back in time and history — and, to the meditatively inclined viewer, within.

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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1278769 2018-04-30T17:07:51Z 2018-04-30T17:07:53Z Agony in Effigy: Art, Truth, Pain and the Body at Berkeley Art Museum (reprinted from East Bay Monthly, May 2018)  

Suffering for Art in Historical Prints
Agony in Effigy: Art, Truth, Pain and the Body at Berkeley Art Museum 

The Keatsian notion that “'beauty is truth, truth beauty,' – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know" has been a cultural imperative for almost two hundred years now, and it still shapes the thinking of many people when it comes to the visual arts; vide Matisse’s notion of a painting as a comfortable armchair for a tired businessman. But beauty is not the only truth we need to know, any more than “happy talk” is all the local TV news we can use. There is room in the capacious planet of art for many truths, including the inconvenient or upsetting ones. Goya’s etching, “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” reveals the flipside of Keatsian aestheticism: that turning a blind eye to the darker side of life—say, being amused by sinister buffoons—allows the rot to spread. Susan Sontag, in Regarding the Pain of Others, indicts the willful ignorance of the comfortably insulated: “Someone who is permanently surprised that depravity exists ... has not reached moral or psychological adulthood.”

Agony in Effigy: Art, Truth, Pain, and the Body explores (despite its punning title, recalling The Agony and the Ecstasy) the fraught aesthetic territory of depictions of pain, with its various messy complications, in prints from its permanent collection.  In devotional illustrations of Christian martyrdoms, death and suffering are horrific yet inspiring, as in works by Ribera and Baldung Grien depicting, respectively, the tribulations of St. Jerome and Christ.  (Jean de Gourmont’s depiction of the Flagellation reveals as much interest in architectural perspective and multiple views of motion as in the Passion.) Works by Jacques Callot in the seventeenth century and Goya in the nineteenth depict violence without the religious gilding, in tragic, secular terms more aligned with our contemporary worldview, expressed by

W.H. Auden, in “Musée des Beaux-Arts,” inspired by a Breughel painting, “About suffering they were never wrong, The old Masters: how well they understood. Its human position: how it takes place. While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” Agony in Effigy: Art, Truth, Pain and The Body runs through June 17, 2018; Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, 2120 Oxford Street, Berkeley, 510/642-0808; bampfa.org. —DeWitt Cheng

 

 

 

 

 
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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1276068 2018-04-23T15:08:55Z 2018-04-23T15:13:46Z Chester Arnold's "Borderline" paintings, Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco (reprinted from VisualArtSource.com)

Chester Arnold: “Borderline"
Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco, California  
Review by DeWitt Cheng  
Continuing through May 5, 2018

Jorge Luis Borges, in his essay, “The Wall and the Books,” imagined the mentality of China’s First Emperor, who ordered the Great Wall built and the Great Books — histories of the Middle Kingdom’s previous three thousand years — burned. Americans used to consider such despotism to be ancient history, but the walls now encroaching on our city on a hill and on our minds could be seen as punishment for our hubris. Twenty years ago, we had the luxury of considering “the end of history” as the triumph of global capitalism — and, we thought, liberal democracy. Today, unfortunately, we have to wonder about civilization’s future.

In “Borderline,” Chester Arnold, whose epic-scale landscapes have often borne ecological messages, takes aim at our current plight. The oil paintings, small and large, are both detail-packed and cosmic, like the world landscapes of Pieter “the Droll” Bruegel the Elder, who combined a wealth of lovingly rendered detail with a tragicomic moral vision. “Borderline” refers to the Mexican border wall beloved of home-grown and unschooled xenophobes. Arnold’s landscapes of crumbling ruins of concrete and brick, defaced with graffiti, and maintained by small, faceless, lumpen workers, are absurd and sad, yet strangely beautiful; indeed, they’re Bruegelian. Think of the antlike figures clambering over the ramps, cranes and scaffolds in the 1583 painting, “The Tower of Babel,” warning of pride and failure; the tower, sporting Colosseum-style columns, invokes both fallen, decadent Rome and its often imperious, unholy successor, the Roman Catholic Church. Arnold writes, “The architectural expression of the will to contain or separate one group from another became the formal structure of many of these works.” So the armored, contested border in his paintings — which we view from above, as if from a high tower, with eagle-sharp vision, in an even, cool northern light — is an obstacle and prison, but one that the human hive chooses to build and repair. In Louis Malle’s 1981 prescient satirical film, “My Dinner with André,” André Gregory described New Yorkers who fantasize about leaving town, but never do, as prisoners in love with their prisons.

Literal and philosphical considerations of containment, enclosure and sequestration are the themes of nearly all of these thirty-one paintings. The numerous walls, towers, ladders, escape openings, ladders and scaffolds suggest both entrapment and a desire for escape which is never quite achieved — or rarely.
“Beyond This” is a large, square-format canvas depicting a brick wall, seen close up, with each brick captured in preternatural detail. At the center is a large, jagged circular hole, allowing a view through the wall, into what looks like Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, with a pair of hikers, parent and child, ascending a rocky hillside. Two small studies for this painting, “Opening” and “Passage,” are accompanied by a trio of other escape paintings, “Leaving Arizona,” “A Hole in the Wall,” and the punningly titled “By Extension,” all of which include the motif of a blue aluminum ladder crudely extended with a four-step wooden splint that leans against a concrete wall that has been heightened with a wooden fence or stockade surmounted by barbed wire. Arnold depicts the ramshackle surroundings with their random detritus with such odd tenderness that they become beautiful. His brick and concrete surfaces are sumptuous. 
The titular “Borderline” is a large painting, also in square format, depicting a scarred, graffitied section of wall, seen obliquely, with rootlike stubs of black steel rebar sprouting from the broken top edge. Junkyard miscellanea — a sheet of plywood with odd cutouts, a broken refrigerator, a half-buried traffic sign, a five-gallon bucket, bald car tires — abut its bottom edge. A young man, having spray-painted the politically charged word “Resist,” pauses, lost in thought, ignoring a tattered Trump banner and the scrawled words ‘Imagine’ and ‘No.’ The diagonal-wall motif appears in half a dozen smaller paintings, with the gray-blue median strip running from top left to bottom right, separating ground planes of pale ocher which appear to be at different levels, suggesting stressed retaining walls or levees that are on the verge of collapse. The torn white Trump banner reappears in “The Great, Big, Beautiful Wall,” “Mending Wall” and “The Jerkoff.” Ravens or crows—another Bruegel reference, ominously perched atop gallows and Catherine’s wheels — fly by in “Vagrants” and “Carrion Crows.” 
Arnold comments as well on the plight of refugees and displaced persons, presenting in “Detention” and the ironically named “Scenes from the Land of Milk and Honey” aerial views of their makeshift housing: white tenting and blue tarps atop tan-colored dirt. The crude, ruined brick tower of “Empire’s End (study for The Stonebreaker),” and the straw/clay relic (mountainous in close-up) in “Slave-Made Brick, New Orleans 1860” serve as poignant bookends to this exemplary show of contemporary history painting, Old-Master style.

DVD EXTRAS.
RAW (unedited) file:
CHESTER ARNOLD: Borderline
Catharine Clark Gallery

Jorge Luis Borges, in his essay, “The Wall and the Books,” imagined the mentality of China’s First Emperor, who ordered the Great Wall built and the Great Books—histories of the Middle Kingdom’s previous three thousand years—burned. Americans used to consider such despotism to be ancient history, but the walls now encroaching on our city on a hill and on our minds could be seen as punishment for our hubris. Twenty years ago, we had the luxury of considering “the end of history” as the triumph of global capitalism—and maybe liberal democracy; today, unfortunately, we have to wonder about civilization’s future.

In Borderline, the painter Chester Arnold, whose epic-scale landscapes have often borne ecological messages, takes aim at our current plight. The oil paintings, small and large, made in 2017 and 2018, are both detail-packed and cosmic, like the world landscapes of Pieter “the Droll” Bruegel, who combined a wealth of lovingly rendered detail with a tragicomic moral vision. ‘Borderline’ refers, of course, to the Mexican border wall beloved of home-grown and -unschooled xenophobes. Arnold’s landscapes of crumbling ruins of concrete and brick, defaced with graffiti, and maintained by small, faceless, lumpen workers, are absurd and sad, yet strangely beautiful; they’re Bruegelian. Think of the antlike figures clambering over the ramps, cranes and scaffolds in the 1583 painting,  “The Tower of Babel,” warning of pride and failure; the tower, sporting Colosseum-style columns, invokes both fallen, decadent Rome and its often imperious, unholy successor, the Roman Catholic Church. Arnold writes, “The architectural expression of the will to contain or separate one group from another became the formal structure of many of these works,” so the armored, contested border in his paintings—which we view from above, as if from a high tower, with eagle-sharp vision, in an even, cool northern light—is an obstacle and prison, but one that the human hive choosea to build and repair. In Louis Malle’s 1981 prescient satirical film, My Dinner with André, André Gregory described New Yorkers who fantasize about leaving town, but never do, as prisoners in love with their prisons.

Containment, enclosure and sequestration are the themes of nearly all of the thirty-one paintings in oil on canvas, linen and linen panel. The numerous walls, towers, ladders, escape openings, ladders and scaffolds suggest both entrapment and a desire for escape which is never quite achieved—or rarely.

 “Beyond This” is a large, square-format canvas depicting a brick wall, seen close up, with each brick captured in preternatural detail—individualized; at the center is a large, jagged circular hole, allowing a view through the wall, beyond, into what looks like Arizona’s Sonoran Desert (or is it Sonora’s?), with a pair of hikers, parent and child, ascending a rocky hillside. Two small studies for this painting, “Opening” and “Passage,” are accompanied by a trio of other escape paintings, “Leaving Arizona,” “A Hole in the Wall,” and the punningly entitled “By Extension,” all of which include the motif of a blue aluminum ladder crudely extended with a four-step wooden splint, leaned against a concrete wall that has been heightened with a wooden fence or stockade surmounted by barbed wire. Arnold depicts the ramshackle surroundings with their random detritus with such odd tenderness that they become beautiful; his brick and concrete surfaces are sumptuous.

 “Borderline” is a large painting, again in square format, depicting a scarred, graffitied section of wall, seen obliquely, with rootlike stubs of black steel rebar sprouting from the broken top edge, and junkyard miscellanea—a sheet of plywood with odd cutouts, a broken refrigerator, a half-buried traffic sign, a five-gallon bucket, bald car tires—abutting its bottom edge. A young man, having spray-painted the word “Resist,” pauses, lost in thought, ignoring a tattered Trump banner and the scrawled words ‘Imagine’ and “No.” The diagonal-wall motif appears in half a dozen smaller paintings, with the gray-blue median strip running from top left to bottom right, separating ground planes of pale ocher which appear to be at different levels, suggesting stressed retaining walls or levees, and collapse. The torn white Trump banner reappears in “The Great, Big, Beautiful Wall,” “”Mending Wall” and “The Jerkoff,” while ravens or crows—which Bruegel painted several times, ominously perched atop gallows and Catherine’s wheels)—fly by in ‘Vagrants” and “Carrion Crows.”

 Arnold comments as well on the plight of refugees and displaced persons, presenting in “Detention” and rhe ironically named “Scenes from the Land of Milk and Honey” aerial views (as if from a drone or satelllte) of their makeshift housing, i.e., white tenting and blue tarps atop tan-colored dirt. The crude, ruined brick tower of “Empire’s End (study for The Stonebreaker)” and the straw/clay relic, mountainous in close-up, in “Slave-Made Brick, New Orleans 1860” serve as poignant bookends to this exemplary show of contemporary history painting, Old-Master style.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1274094 2018-04-18T02:31:27Z 2018-04-18T02:31:28Z Political Art: Fire and Furor (reprinted from VisualArtSource.com, May 2017)



In case you have been on a media fast for the past week, the big news in the little art world has been the heated controversy over the painting by Dana Schutz, shown in the current Whitney Biennial, called “Open Casket.” (If you are already heartily sick of this subject, after wave upon wave of angry rhetoric crashing over your screen, please surf on.) The painting is a semi-abstract depiction of the black teenager Emmett Till, savagely murdered and mutilated in 1955 by bigots enraged by his alleged whistling at a white woman — a fabrication, the supposed victim has now admitted. Till’s mother demanded that his coffin be open so that viewers could “see what I have seen,” in all its graphic glory. Schutz used the photo as a starting point for managing, in paint, her own emotions of fear and insecurity as a mother, she pointed out, in these nasty times of snapping and snarling.

 

What could be more important than to educate complacent, ignorant Americans about this stain on our national history and honor? Alas, nothing is ever simple in the art world. The painting aroused fierce opposition from the left, nicely described by Roberta Smith in her New York Times article, “Should Art That Angers Remain on View?” [https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/27/arts/design/emmett-till-whitney-biennial-schutz.html] (March 27, 2017). Two black artists took extreme umbrage at what Smith wittily characterized as Schuz’s possibly “inappropriate appropriation.” Parker Bright stood in front of the painting, blocking the view to other museum goers, while wearing a T-shirt imprinted “Black Death Spectacle.” Hannah Black denounced Schuz’s exploitation of “black subject matter ... for profit and fun.” Many in my social media feed denounced the work as typical white hubris that, however sympathetic a veneer, perpetuates the idea of black victimhood. Also raised has been that in spite of its opting for abstraction rather than realism, the work somehow whitewashes the realities of black history through aesthetic distancing.

 

Race relations in the U.S. are a mess. The interlude of liberal rationality that Obama hoped to inaugurate clearly failed, a victim to white working class economic rage exacerbated by eight years of right-wing animus, sensationalism and alternate facts. If no Alex Jones and Bill O’Reilly types failed to fan the flames of Schutzgate, it’s only because they were distracted by quips about a James Brown wig and the premature announcement of the end of Obamacare.

 

But let us return to the artwork, which is successful on its own terms. Not as a political statement — an interpretation which the artist never claimed, yet one which its detractors opted to emphasize. Smith adduces, in defense of creative freedom of speech, several powerful art-historical precedents: Ben Shahn’s moving tribute to the unjustly executed Sacco and Vanzetti (despite the artist being Jewish and the victims Italian); Abel Meeropol’s song about race lynchings in the South, “Strange Fruit” (again by a Jewish person, and not just any, but one who adopted the orphaned sons of the executed Ethel and Julius Rosenberg); and the white William Styron’s brilliantly complex 1967 novel “The Confessions of Nat Turner," the less-than-exemplary or heroic leader of the 1831 black slave revolt in rural Virginia. 

 

One could cite many other examples of the depiction of inflicted suffering as noted by sympathetic cultural or racial outsiders: Delacroix’s "Massacre at Chios," about Turkish atrocities; Dorothea Lange’s "Migrant Mother," about the Depression tribulations of displaced Okies; or Matthias Grunewald’s "Isenheim Altarpiece," still shocking today, five centuries after its creation, with its painfully mortal King of the Jews. Any crucifixion painting, in fact, rebuts the racial exclusivity idea. 

 

Kara Walker, who explores the horrors of slavery culture in her silhouette drawings, concurs in opposing the censorship and destruction of the painting sought by some. Smith: “[Walker] concluded that an artwork can be generative regardless of how it offends or falls short, giving ‘rise to deeper inquiries and better art. It can only do this when it is seen.’” Another artist, Clifford Owens, similarly declared his opposition to what is in effect a politically correct iconoclasm: “I don’t know anything about Hannah Black, or the artists who’ve co-signed her breezy and bitter letter, but I’m not down with artists who censor artists.”

 

Why so much furor from the art world left then? The painting is unobjectionable in itself — but for its provocative title. The black artist Henry Taylor, in the same Whitney show, depicted, with a greater degree of realism than Schutz employs, the police murder of Philando Castile, and aroused no animosity. It is my belief that certain ideas that were almost universally taught in universities in the 1980s and 90s — identity art, postmodern relativism —  have hardened into dogma, and can become exaggerated and counter-productive. Making, seeing and ‘using’ art primarily or solely as tendenzkunst, as propaganda, as the hypostatization or reification of sacred truths, is bad for the country and bad for art. Let creative people make their work, and let a thousand exegetical flowers bloom.; but let’s not become cultural commissars. Artists and citizens should be truth-seekers, not avoiders of trigger issues. We have serious challenges; one painting in one biennial — and it’s not as if all blacks are furious about it, as some imply — is a molehill, if that. Let’s keep our eyes on the prize, not minor distractions.

http://www.visualartsource.com/index.php?page=editorial&aID=4029

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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1272748 2018-04-14T20:39:22Z 2018-04-14T20:39:22Z Stanley Tucci's peculiar paean to Giacometti in "Final Portrait"

Piece below was written for VisualArtSource.com, April 14, 2018. It is not online yet.
The longer, unedited version follows.

Editors' Roundtable
by DeWitt Cheng

"Why does one paint or sculpt? Nobody knows the reason … One does it out of madness, out of obsession, out of a more automatic than conscious need... I have always failed. — If only I could draw! — I can't. That's why I keep on drawing…"  — Alberto Giacometti 

Traditional biopics of artists tend to be both entertaining and pompous, allowing middle-class audiences the vicarious pleasures of Bohemian excess; of shaking our heads at the benighted art audience of the past; and of ascending with the art-martyr (Vincent, Frida, Jackson) into cultural immortality. I like them, in general, and think they help build the case for an artist's serious work. 

The new film "Final Portrait," written and directed by Stanley Tucci, wisely takes the path of simplification and compression. This was aided by its source material, "A Giacometti Portrait," the 68-page memoir (written for a magazine, but published in book form in 1980), by James Lord. Lord was a then young American writer who became friends with the Swiss-Italian sculptor and painter in Paris and consented to pose for him. Fortunately for us, what was intended to have been a simple oil sketch that would require, in Lord's words, "but an hour or two, an afternoon at most" grew into a project that consumed the eccentric genius artist, ultimately requiring eighteen sessions from September 12, 1964, to September 29, before Lord's deadline date, his return to New York having been postponed several times. 

His reward was not just a valuable painting and token of his friendship with the famous artist, but also, through his covert note-taking, a day-by-day journal of the vicissitudes of the creative process. Alternating between Giacometti's ferocious drive to work and the creative destructions which he felt powerless to control, the artist's mood was marked by interludes of despair and self-doubt. He at times "exuded gloom." Having just reread the book, I now see what an ideal collaborator Lord was for Giacometti: both curious and extraordinarily patient, especially for a "youngish" (his term) man. Others might not have endured the dramatics: in 1935, when Giacometti despaired of being able to paint or sculpt a head, André Breton said, with the exasperation one would not have expected from the Pope of Surrealism, "Everybody knows perfectly well what a head is." 

Well, not everybody. Matti Megged, in "Dialogue in the Void: Beckett & Giacometti," summarizes a story that the young Giacometti wrote about the feelings of dislocation and panic that sometimes afflicted him. Objects appeared to him to have lost their normal roles in the universe, and become infused with mystery; in Giacometti's words, "both living and dead at the same time," and "suspended in a dreadful silence." 

Art historian Peter Selz verified that this sense of alienation persisted: "Everyone before him in the whole history of art had always represented the figure as it is; his task now was to break down tradition and come to grips with the optical phenomenon of reality. What is the relationship of the figure to the enveloping space, of man to the void, even of being to nothingness?" 

In "A Giacometti Portrait" Lord describes with admirable composure what might have driven many to despair, the heroic but foredoomed grasp for the unattainable. Giacometti paints (in black and white with fine pointed sable brushes) and unpaints (in gray, which, for him, contained all colors, with a medium-sized round brush) Lord's portrait innumerable times over the eighteen-day process. Giacometti's wife and sometimes model, Annette stoically advised: "You'll get used to it." 

As Lord's last day of modeling approaches, he devises a stratagem to forestall yet another collapse of his portrait into entropy: 

"…after a time he began to use the large brush with white, painting the area around the head and shoulders and finally part of the face, too. This led me to infer that little by little he was painting out what he had previously done, undoing it, as he said. Presently he took one of the fine brushes again and began to paint with black, concentrating on the head. He was constructing it all over again from nothing, … when the moment I had foreseen came, I said, "I'm very tired. Do you mind if I have a little rest?… I stood up, went behind him, and looked at the painting. It was superb. The awkward vagueness of 45 minutes before had completely disappeared. I said, "It looks fine. Why not leave it as it is now?"… He's sighed… "Well," he said, "we've gone far. We could have gone further still, but we have gone far. It's only the beginning of what it could be. But that's something, anyway."

I have gone on in some detail about the Giacometti-Lord collaboration because Tucci's movie adheres so faithfully to the book, and therefore evinces both its virtues and faults. The acting, lead by Geoffrey Rush as Giacometti and Armie Hammer at Lord is superlative, even if the characters are not given much to do, plot-wise. Tucci's command of tone and pacing are all that could be desired with what is essentially a two-man play. James Merifield's set, which replicates Giacometti's famous, much-photographed studio at 46 rue Hippolyte-Maindron, becomes itself another character: dusty and disheveled, black, gray and earthen colored, it's an exudation of its chain-smoking, muttering tenant from 1928 to 1965, a nest shaped by its odd bird. The music, by Evan Lurie, is sprightly, insouciant, and French, comme il faut

When Giacometti asks on Day 6 if the process was "getting on your nerves," Lord protests that "the entire experience was an exhilarating one." By day 15, as the project wound down, Lord "tried to tell him what a wonderful experience posing for him had been and how much I had appreciated his letting me do it." Replies the artist, "Are you completely nuts?" For the knowledgable viewer "Final Portrait" is light-hearted and drily humorous, but deeply respectful, emotionally moving and exhilarating. If you are instead a casual artster you may, echoing Giacometti, come away feeling that the film was just nuts.




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Final Portrait: Lord by Giacometti and vice versa, by Tucci

Why does one paint or sculpt? Nobody knows the reason. Nobody decides: now I am going to make sculptures, or now I am going to paint. One just does it. One does it out of madness, out of obsession, out of a more automatic than conscious need... I have always failed.—If only I could draw!—I can’t. That’s why I keep on drawing...

 
Anyway, this is what I deserve for 35 years of dishonesty. ... All these years I’ve exhibited things that weren’t finished and never even should have been started. But on the other hand, if I hadn’t exhibited at all, it would have seemed cowardly, as though I didn’t dare to show what l’d done, which was not true. So I was caught between the frying pan and the fire.

 Traditional biopics of artists are both entertaining and pompous, allowing middle-class audiences the vicarious pleasures of Bohemian excess; of shaking our heads at the benighted art audiences of the past; and of ascending with the art-martyr (Vincent, Frida, Jackson) into cultural immortality. I like them, in general, and think they help build the case for an artist’s serious work, but sometimes they verge on the formulaic in attempting to reach a mass audience. Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life and Ed Harris’s Pollock, both very good movies present the creative life as a kind of holy melodrama, hitting the marks of the various Stations of the Creative Cross. For my taste, Peter Watkin’s Edvard Munch, concentrating on the painter’s youth in the sexually liberated but fraught artistic circles of 1880s Christiania/Oslo, immerses us in the culture and engages our sympathy without falling into aesthetic hagiography. (Julie Taymor’s Frida was also relatively free of sentimental gravy, despite the melodramatic life of the artist, perhaps because of its fantasy interludes with puppets — its Brechtian distance from illusionism.) The carefully selected episode of an artistic life can serve as a microcosm or metonym that informs and illuminates the whole life and career. Less is more.

The new film Final Portrait, by the actor-director Stanley Tucci, wisely takes the path of simplification and compression, aided by its source material, A Giacometti Portrait, the 68-page memoir (written for a magazine, but published in book form in 1980), by James Lord, a young American who became friends with the Swiss-Italian sculptor and painter in Paris and consented to pose for him. Fortunately for us, what was intended to have been a simple oil sketch that would require, in Lord’s words, “but an hour or two, an afternoon at most” grew into a project that consumed the eccentric and stably unstable (or unstably stable) genius artist, requiring eighteen session, from September 12, 1964, to September 29, before Lord’s deadline date, his return to New York having been postponed several times.

His reward was not just a valuable painting and token of his friendship with the famous artist, but also, through his covert note-taking, a day-by-day journal of the vicissitudes of the creative process, alternating between Giacometti’s ferocious drive to work and the creative destructions which he felt powerless to control, marked by interludes of despair and self-doubt. (Lord writes that “Giacometti sometimes “exuded gloom.”) Having just reread the book, I now see what an ideal collaborator Lord was for Giacometti: both curious and almost inhumanly patient, especially for a “youngish” (his term) man. Others might not have endured the dramatics: in 1935, when Giacometti despaired of being able to paint or sculpt a head (as he did repeatedly in the book), André Breton said, with the exasperation one would not have expected from the pope of Surrealism, “Everybody knows perfectly well what a head is.”

 Well, not everybody. Matti Megged, in Dialogue in the Void: Beckett & Giacometti1, summarizes a story that the young Giacometti wrote, about the feelings of dislocation and panic that sometimes afflicted him, with objects appearing to have lost their normal roles in the universe, and infused with mystery; in Giacometti’s words, “both living and dead at the same time,” and “suspended in a dreadful silence”:

...the story is that of a painter or sculptor or who has to get hold of reality through its essentials. Objects and memories flee, change, disappear, lose their relation to time and space, both the artist may catch them, give them proper space and shape. And the way to do that this is “not to take a hold of the outline, but of the center. All that is there is a hard core closed with a suggestion of mass dissolving into space.

 The art historian Peter Selz, who curated the 1965 Museum of Modern Art exhibition of Giacometti’s work, verified that this sense of alienation persisted forty-five years later:

“To render what the eye really sees is impossible,” Giacometti repeated one evening as we were seated at dinner in the inn at Stampa [Switzerland, Giacometti’s birthplace]. He explained that he could not really see me as I sat next to him—I was a conglomeration of vague and disconnected details —but that each member of the family sitting across the room from him was clearly visible though diminutive, thin, surrounded by enormous slices of space. Everyone before him in the whole history of heart, he continued, had always represented the figure as it is; his task now was to break down tradition and come to grips with the optical phenomenon of reality. What is the relationship of the figure to the enveloping space, of man to the void, even of being to nothingness?

 
Lord describes with admirable grace and sang-froid what might have driven many of us to imprecations and theatrical gestures of despair and despondency like the artist’s, as in his heroic but foredoomed grasp for the unattainable, he paints (in black and white with fine pointed sable brushes) and unpaints (in gray, which, for him, contained all colors, with a medium-sized round brush) Lord’s portrait innumerable times over the eighteen-day process. (Giacometti’s wife, Annette, and brother, Diego, were sympathetic, but as experienced models, themselves, phlegmatic in the Galliuc mode. Annette: “You’ll get used to it.”) It should be noted that Giacometti admired Cézanne’s perception-based method, his commitment to interpreting reality, and his lack of finish, without reservation: “He was the greatest of the nineteenth century. He was one of the greatest of all time.” For his part Cézanne had a similar existentialist (avant la lettre) role model, identifying himself, according to Rilke, with Frenhofer, a fictional artist invented by Balzac, who works in secret on a mysterious masterpiece, but kills himself, leaving behind an immense canvas of inchoate paint, a pictorial mist from which only a woman’s foot emerges. As Lord’s last day of modeling approaches, he devises a stratagem to forestall yet another collapse of his portrait into entropy2:

 ...after a time he began to use the large brush with white, painting the area around the head and shoulders and finally part of the face, too. This led me to infer that little by little he was painting out what he had previously done, undoing it, as he said. Presently he took one of the fine brushes again and began to paint with black, concentrating on the head. He was constructing it all over again from nothing, And for the hundredth time at least..... I meant to try to stop him.... I observed him with painstaking attention, and when the moment I had foreseen came, I said, ”I’m very tired. Do you mind if I have a little rest?.... I stood up, went behind him, and looked at the painting. It was superb. The awkward vagueness of 45 minutes before had completely disappeared. Never before had the picture looked just as it did then, and it has never looked better. I said, “It looks fine. Why not leave it as it is now?”.... He’s sighed.... “Well,” he said, “we’ve gone far. We could have gone further still, but we have gone far. It’s only the beginning of what it could be. But that’s something, anyway.” “I think it’s admirable,” I said. “That’s another matter,” he replied.

I have gone on in some detail about the Giacometti-Lord collaboration because Tucci’s movie, which has received criticism from some film critics for its apparent lack of plot and lack of character development—for being, as one wrote, tantamount to watching paint dry—adheres so faithfully to the book, and therefore evinces both its virtues and faults. Tucci is a fine actor and director, and in my opinion, the creator of the best Woody Allen comedy in the early, funny style (appreciated by the aliens of Stardust Memories) ever made by a non-Allen director (though Allen performs a small role as a small-fry stage director), The Impostors, with Tucci and Oliver Platt as a pair of picaresque actors on the lam. I was therefore thrilled to hear that Tucci was taking on this project with a fabulous cast including Geoffrey Rush as Giacometti; Armie Hammer as James Lord; Tony Shalhoub as Diego, the artist’s brother, and an artist himself; Sylvie Testud, as Giacometti’s Swiss wife, Annette; and Clémence Poesy as Giacometti’s young model and mistress, Caroline. The acting is superlative, even if the ‘characters’ are not given much to do, plotwise, and Tucci’s command of tone and pacing are all that could be desired with what is essentially a two-man play (with the painting as the MacGuffin). James Merifield’s set, which replicates Giacometti’s famous, much-photographed studio at 46 rue Hippolyte-Maindron, becomes almost another character: dusty and disheveled, black, gray and earthen colored, it’s an exudation of its chain-smoking, muttering tenant from 1928 to 1965, a nest shaped by its odd bird. The music, by Evan Lurie, is sprightly, insouciant, and French, comme il faut.

 Since I have just seen the movie and reread the book, I can’t help but mention some of the slight differences, none of them substantive: Caroline and her BMW do not appear in the book; the comical money-hiding and pimp-paying scenes are transposed from Lord’s later biography (I think, not having read it recently); Yanaihara, implicitly depicted as Annette's lover, is barely mentioned in the book except as a sympathetic friend and model; Alberto comments on the beauty of the trees not from his studio, while convalescing, but while walking down Rue d'Alesia afterward; and his criticism of Picasso is also taken from the biography in all probabiity; and it was Alberto who read LeCarré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and who thoughtfully analyzed its plot and characters, not Shalhoub’s drolly laconic Diego; finally, there’s a hint in the movie at Lord’s homosexuality which is not in the book. Noteworthy on the other side of the balance sheet is its accurate depiction of Giacometti’s habitual lunch at the rue Didot cafe-tabac: ham, hard-boiled eggs, two glasses of wine, and two cups of espresso.

 When Giacometti asked on Day 6 if the process was “getting on your nerves,” Lord protested that “the entire experience was an exhilarating one.” On day 15, as the project wound down. Lord “tried to tell him what a wonderful experience posing for him had been and how much I had appreciated is letting me do it. “Are you completely nuts?” he said. If you are a Giacometti fan, you will feel that the filmed book on seeing and depicting, Lord by Giacometti and vice versa, by Tucci, was light-hearted and drily humorous but deeply respectful—strangely moving and exhilarating. (If you are instead a casual artster, you may mutter, stamping your foot, that the film was nuts.)

Giacometti died a year later, of cancer, in 1965, before Lord could make a return visit. Lord, who wrote Giacometti: A Portrait, in 1985, died in Paris of a heart attack in 2009. In 2015, Portrait of James Lord, 1964, oil on canvas, 45-5/8”x31-3/4”, was valued at twenty to thirty million dollars—about what Jeff Koon’s Play-Doh sculpture is expected to fetch.

I have always been sensitive to the fragility of the living beings, as if it took an incredible amount of energy just for them to stay on their feet ... I shall never succeed in showing in a portrait all of the force there is in a head. Just staying alive demands so much will power, so much energy.

 1 I was fortunate enough to have taken a seminar class from the figurative sculptor Stephen deStaebler (whose work bears some resemblance to Giacometti’s) in the late 1980s. Megged was a scheduled guest, so I looked up his book, which compares the existentialist/absurdist sculptor and playwright.

 2 Giacometti, who cared more about process than product, as exemplified by his destruction of some twenty-five or thirty drawings made on defective litho transfer paper, depicted in the film. He showed no work between 1937 and 1945, as he transitioned from Surrealist sculptures depicting juxtapositions of real objects to his mature style, based on observation of the model and his interior vision. The figures that he made kept shrinking, almost to nothingness. Charles Juliet recounts, in Giacometti (1986):

 On the eve of Giacometti’s return to Paris, Albert [Skira, the art-book publisher] asked him what arrangements he had made for shipping his sculptures. “But I’m bringing them with me,” he replied. “They were packed,” ... Skira was surprised to note, “in a matchbox a little bit bigger than the ordinary ones.”

 

 

 

 

 

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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1271375 2018-04-11T13:36:08Z 2018-04-11T13:36:09Z 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; http://www.traywick.com. —DeWitt Cheng



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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1271370 2018-04-11T13:28:11Z 2018-04-11T13:28:11Z The Obama portraits (reprinted from VisualArtSource.com)_


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 http://npg.si.edu/portraits/collection-highlights/presidential-portraits). 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.

 

 

 

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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1264560 2018-03-23T19:45:01Z 2018-03-27T04:43:29Z Three Powerful Solo Shows at Fresno Art Museum STRENGTH IN DIVERSITY
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.






MARCOS DORADO: Immigrant Me
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.
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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1264521 2018-03-23T17:34:47Z 2018-03-23T17:34:47Z 2017 interview with painters Kim Frohsin and Sandy Ostrau and art historian Paul Karlstrom at Thomas Reynolds Gallery, SF

Art consultant Thomas Reynolds attended the Kim Frohsin talk at Peninsula Museum of Art on March 18 and sent me this link from a 2017 event.

https://trgtalk.wordpress.com/2017/04/24/artists-and-influences/

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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1262093 2018-03-16T17:46:08Z 2018-03-16T17:46:08Z EQUILIBRIUM: DONNA FENSTERMAKER, CAROL LADEWIG AND KIM THOMAN at Olive Hyde Gallery, Fremont CA
   


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.


 

DONNA FENSTERMAKER
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.



 
CAROL LADEWIG
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.



KIM THOMAN
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. 
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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1246171 2018-02-11T22:12:32Z 2018-02-11T22:12:33Z 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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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1243396 2018-02-05T21:38:16Z 2018-02-06T20:07:51Z 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

 








 

 

 

 
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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1235702 2018-01-21T22:28:25Z 2018-01-21T22:28:25Z 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.

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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1235657 2018-01-21T20:55:24Z 2018-01-21T20:55:24Z 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.”]]>
Dewitt Cheng