tag:artopticon.us,2013:/posts ArtOpticon.us 2018-05-25T17:04:07Z 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





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?

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. 

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.

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





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.

RAW (unedited) file:
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.








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.


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.

 Description: Macintosh HD:Users:dewitttien-weicheng:Desktop:FINAL PORTRAIT:Screen Shot 2018-04-01 at 10.49.14 PM.png


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.”






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

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.




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.

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.
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.


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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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

January 6-28, 2018

 Far Out Gallery
3004 Taraval Street (at 40th Avenue), San Francisco CA

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.

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
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1231693 2018-01-14T01:47:14Z 2018-01-14T01:47:14Z There is No Alas Where I Live, Jenkins-Johnson Gallery, San Francisco (reprinted from VisualArtSource.com)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1228736 2018-01-08T21:55:54Z 2018-01-09T17:03:31Z The Walking Cure: Nature/Culture Photos by DeWitt Cheng, Avenue 25 Gallery, 32 West 25th Avenue near El Camino, 2nd floor, San Mateo (M-F 8:30-5)

Nature/Culture Photographs by DeWitt Cheng
January 13-March 9, 2018
Reception Saturday January 13, 2018, 1:00-4:30

 I never before saw a plant so full of life, so perfectly spiritual. It seemed pure enough for the throne of its Creator. I felt as if I were in the presence of superior beings who loved me and beckoned me to come. I sat down beside them and wept for joy. Could angels in their better land show us a more beautiful plant?  — John Muir
Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long. — Walker Evans1
 In March, 2011, I reviewed an exhibition on the life and work of the northern California naturalist John Muir: “A tireless champion for a wilderness that he believed to be divinely created, spiritually redemptive, and worthy of protection from Gilded Age laissez-faire industrial expansion, Muir saw getting back to the land at least occasionally as balm for "thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people" — a judgment shared by contemporary visitors to the Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks seeking their own "mountain baptism."2

 While I as a longtime San Francisco resident, an art critic and curator, am anything but a rugged outdoorsman in the Muir mold, and largely confine my jaunts to urban and suburban fastnesses, I have found myself more and more interested in photography during the past decade or so. While I bought my first digital camera—a 4MP Canon A530—in order to make visual notes for reviewing gallery and museum shows, I found that I was seeing the everyday world more and more through eyes trained by art studies. Scenes reminiscent of Romantic landscape paintings, architectural photography, and mixed-media modernist abstractions seemed to appear with increasing regularity. Nowadays, I walk nearly every day, partly from visual curiosity, and partly for exercise, or cheap therapy: the ‘walking cure’ title is a joke version of Freud’s talking cure, which I recycled for a piece on the great photographer, Walker Evans2. I shoot several hundred shots a week, many of which I post on Facebook (after editing and some minimal tweaking). Everyone loves San Francisco, and I am happy to share my interpretations of its scenic splendors as well as its absurd or gritty side, especially these days, as the city is changing so radically: ‘refreshing’ and reinventing itself as the Digital Oz.

 My thanks to Gallery 25 Curator Charles Anselmo, whom I met, years ago, at Stanford Art Spaces, with whom I journeyed on photo safari to Havana in 2012, and with whom I serve as art juror for UC San Francisco’s Art for Aids annual auction. His interest in the images and his superlative printing skills are responsible for this show, my first foray back into the art world as a visual artist since taking up the camera of the itinerant, flâneur and pilgrim.



Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1227323 2018-01-06T00:46:01Z 2018-01-06T00:46:02Z Way Bay at Berkeley Art Museum (reprinted from East Bay Monthly January 2018)  

The Bay Area as Creative Center at BAM

Our local art museums have been on a roll lately, with exhibitions of Edvard Munch, Claude Monet, Walker Evans, Joan Brown, Charles Howard, Robert Rauschenberg, Martin Wong, and Gustav Klimt. Berkeley Art Museum continues the hot streak with an ambitious survey of two hundred-odd works— with film, performance, poetry, and ephemera as well as traditional paintings, drawings, and prints—from the past three centuries, including works by Joan Brown, Bruce Conner, Jay DeFeo, Richard Diebenkorn, Sargent Johnson, Chiura Obata, Charles Howard and Rosie Lee Tompkins. Several dozen of the works are new acquisitions made specifically for Way Bay, with sizeable representations of emerging women and minority artists. Complementing BAMPFA’s collections are artifacts borrowed from UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library and Hearst Museum of Anthropology.

Besides celebrating the area’s rich legacy of art, the show examines the influence of the place on its widely disparate artists, who range from precolonial Ohlone Indians and nineteenth-century settlers through postwar modernists educated on the GI Bill and today’s postmodernist, global-culture explorers of mixed media and sociopolitical commentary. Historical and documentary films will play, uninterrupted, with recordings of Bay Area artists and performances bringing the locale’s creative past to life and celebrating the continuity of artistic expression. Lawrence Rinder, BAMPFA Director and Chef Curator, who created the show along with Film Curator Kathy Geritz and Engagement Associate David Wilson, asserts the show’s goal:  “... not a conventional historical survey but rather an open-ended and provocative attempt to reveal hidden currents and connections among works from disparate times, cultures, and communities.”

Among the works to be shown are: Sara Arledge’s 1940s pioneering glass slide abstract paintings; one of Erica Deeman’s Brown series of photographic portraits of black men, “Marvin” (2015); Richard Diebenkorn’s Berkeley period (1953-66) painting, “Studio Wall” (1966); Joanne Leonard’s sensitive photographs of 1950s West Oakland neighborhoods; Gordon Onslow Ford’s Surrealist oil, “Painter and the Muse” (1943); and Xara Thustra’s monumental 9/11 memorial painting. Way Bay runs through May 6, 2018; Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, 2120 Oxford Street, Berkeley, 510/642-0808; bampfa.org. DeWitt Cheng

Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1227209 2018-01-05T20:41:56Z 2018-01-05T20:41:56Z "Car Culture" at Peninsula Museum of Art, in Daily Journal


Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1211081 2017-12-04T06:07:36Z 2017-12-04T22:51:31Z Gods and Heroes in Color, Legion of Honor, San Francisco (reprinted from VisualArtSource.com, 12/2/17)
Editors' Roundtable
by DeWitt Cheng

"But not yet have we solved the incantation of this whiteness, and learned why it appeals with such power to the soul. .,, Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows — a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink? And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues — every stately or lovely emblazoning — the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtle deceits, not actually inherent in substances …"
— Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, Chapter XLII, 'The Whiteness of the Whale" 

After my recent dissatisfaction with the new, hip programming at San Francisco's Legion of Honor — which, in my opinion, trashed the institution's own collection of Rodins, not to mention the tragic humanist tradition of western art — it is a pleasure to see the balance between old and new restored. A pairing of Rodin sculptures with contemporaneous paintings by Gustav Klimt sheds light on the erotic dimension of these two late nineteenth-century greats; and the exhibition "Gods in Color: Polychromy in the Ancient World" presents a strong, if long standing case that the Greco-Roman tradition that we have come to associated with pure, if blanched idealized form, wrought with dazzling skill in Pentelic marble from quarries north of Athens, is a cultural myth. I'll focus on the latter in this column. 

The statues that we grew up regarding as pure, visually chaste (even when depicting the sexual harassments of Zeus/Jupiter), and (to cite Nietzsche) Apollonian, rational, intellectual and enlightened, as opposed to Dionysian, emotional and ecstatic to the point of violence, were painted, apparently rather gaudily. On my first visit, somewhat appalled by the busy patterning and bright colors, I was reminded of Marlene Dietrich's [actually Greta Garbo's] comment at the premiere of Jean Cocteau's film, "La Belle et la Bête," on seeing the tortured, mysterious Beast magically transformed into the pretty, perfumed prince (both played by the painfully handsome Jean Marais): "But give me back my poor Beast!" Even if historically inaccurate, I found myself missing the clarity of pure marble. On my second visit, I looked at the scientific and historical evidence and found it convincing, even if some of the restorations still seemed overly assertive in a way that the brightened colors of the cleaned Sistine Chapel frescos never were, a generation ago, after the removal of five centuries of candle smoke and soot. 

The exhibit's core works are painted reproductions of works held by the sculpture collection, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung in Frankfurt and other institutions, produced by Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann using up-to-date technology, including ultraviolet scanning (for more info go to buntegoetter.liebieghaus.de/en). When classical sculptures were excavated during the Renaissance, they were denuded by time and erosion of the paint they once wore, with the faint traces of pigment either nearly invisible, or, after neoclassical theorists had exalted their shining purity of form, scrubbed white. The exhibition makes clear that Johann Joachim Wincklemann (1717-1768), whose "History of Art in Antiquity" (1764) was to prove so foundational, acknowledged that classical statuary was indeed polychromed. Nevertheless, his championing of idealized classical form — which may owe something to his homosexuality — carried the day, perhaps answering to a cultural counter-reaction to the frivolity of the fading Rococo style. 

Even the best and brightest can be wrong, of course. A group of painted figures, laid out in Rosekrans Court, beneath the Legion's pyramidal skylight, reconstructs sculptures made for the Doric Aphaia Temple, built on the island of Aegina, east of mainland Greece, about 480 BC, and excavated in the first decade of the nineteenth century. Aphaia was a mother goddess, and this particular temple was a favorite subject for artists of the time, including Turner. The figures that were made for the temple's western pediment treated the Trojan war, so the supposition that the two kneeling archer figures represented, respectively, the Greek warrior Teucer, brother of Ajax, and the Trojan prince Paris, seems plausible, even if the flat egg-tempera painting and bright color, so reminiscent of dolls and plastic action figures, destroy any sense of Homer's "strong force of fate." Teucer is dressed in a white tunic soberly decorated with blue bands and a horsehair-crested war helmet; while Paris, in multicolored diamond patterned tights, is as gaily turned out as a, well, bridegroom — or, as the didactic wall labels suggest, a decadently feminized Asiatic. A trio of warrior heads nearby provokes the same response from this viewer: the unpainted one, in synthetic marble, roughly carved, with eyes blank, has a poetic mystery that is entirely absent from the two finely carved, painted heads on adjoining pedestals, which look fanciful and slightly absurd to my 21st century eye. It is like 2D comic-book characters popped into 3D space, which has thoroughly different pictorial standards that of course have nothing to do with 5th century BC visual intentions. 

The whiteness of marble, unpainted by time, lends a melancholy and even stoic dignity to the figures, which the painting, however skillfully done, removes. A case in point is how the Temple of Aphiaia figures are joined by other painted reconstructions, sometimes featuring gilding, metal or stone details, that share their visual impact: a pair of life-sized warriors, majestically martial, metallic, and nude but for helmets, shields and weapons, from the island of Riace; a mounted horseman from the Acropolis, wearlng leggings akin to Paris'; the Amazon princess Antiope holding the Greek hero/cad Theseus, the plaster cast painted only minimally; and a cast of a relief from the Parthenon, showing a boy and horseman, which through the magic of digital projection is alternately 'painted' and unpainted. 

Accompanying the painted reconstructions are classical and neoclassical (Canova, Cellini, Maillol) sculptures from the Fine Arts Museums and other collections, including two wonderful casts from the University of California, Berkeley: a monumental a caryatid (woman-as-column) made from the original at the Acropolis, in Athens, and a fragmentary horse and rider from the Acropolis Museum. Watercolor paintings made onsite at the excavations in the early nineteenth century by the antiquarian Edward Dodwell and the artist Simone Pomardi with the help of a camera obscura further enrich our understanding of how and why art is made and lost, rediscovered, appropriated, interpreted, misinterpreted and reinterpreted. I have merely touched on a few aspects of this important and revelatory show. In our age of enraged thersitical (a word that deserves revival) partisanship and Dionysian excess, it's also a call for scientific, historical, reality-based attention and analysis. 

"My life and fortunes are a monstrosity, partly because of Hera, partly because of my beauty. If [only] I could shed my beauty and assume an uglier aspect the way you would wipe color off a statue."
— Helen of Troy in Euripides' play, Helen,
5th century BC

Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1211077 2017-12-04T05:58:33Z 2017-12-04T05:58:34Z Connie Goldman and Mikey Kelly, Chandra Cerrito Contemporary (reprinted from VisualArtSource.com)

Connie Goldman: GENEA and Mikey Kelly: VIBRATE
Chandra Cerrito Contemporary

 Hybridity, changing demographics and scandal are back in the news. A purportedly racially insensitive or even racist painting was shown at the Whitney Biennial to some liberal consternation; statues of Confederate generals were assailed by liberals and defended by conservatives in the wake of the shameful neo-nazi march in Charlotte NC; and sexual hanky-panky on a colossal scale has emerged, seemingly everywhere—including
the hushed precincts of influential art magazines. Some artworlders may have now come to believe, given the political correctness inculcated in colleges in recent years, that shouts and alarums are the goals of good art. They can be, especially in our tumultuous times, but we also need to consider, for aesthetic balance, the beauty and complexity afforded by art without sociopolitical overt agendas, art made because the artists were inner-driven and self-directed.

The dual solo shows by Bay Area artists Connie Goldman and Mikey Kelly—her second and his first at this Oakland gallery—make a compelling argument for the best kind of formalist practice: work of museum quality—both artists have been collected at that level—that explores pure painting creatively and, indeed, notwithstanding the crisp, immaculate facture—no painterly blobs and drips here—passionately. The dogma of 1960s hard-edge formalism deserved its ridicule by Tom Wolfe in The Painted Word, with critics supposedly squinting slantwise across the canvas surface looking for suspicious painterly bumps, but the geometric abstraction tradition was always bigger than even Clement Greenberg; and the best reductivist or minimalist work—Mondrian, Reinhardt, Rothko, Newman, Stella et al.—was always about more than paint on canvas stretched over wood.

Goldman’s show takes its title Genea, from the Greek word for becoming or emerging, as in ‘genealogy’ or ‘generate.’  The artist cites her interest in the “tenuous equilibrium” in which people and the world exist (always, and not just post-Trump). Goldman: “Life is constant change. From one nanosecond to the next, from a minute to a decade, from a millimeter to a mile, there’s no chance of escaping the push and pull of time, nature, and volition.”  Connie Goldman’s eight painted MDF (a fine-grained pressed wood) relief sculptures, with their irregular polygonal shapes, ‘split-level’ planes, and vibrant color palettes, are meticulously constructed puzzles, with double meanings and perceptual ambiguities. Some planes seem folded over, like origami, or read as the shadows of other planes; some planes in these reliefs are elevated or recessed, suggesting geological or architectural models. The multiple perspectives, overlapping forms, illusory folds, painted edges, and contradictory color and form make works like “Genea VI,” “Genea X” and “Genea XI,” my favorite pieces, vibrate with contradiction; distillations of imagination and experimentation that defy logic, but achieve a hard-won but effortless-seeming perfection.

 Speaking of vibration and vibrancy, Mikey Kelly’s six overlapping-stripe acrylic paintings in Vibrate marry Op Art—Bridget Riley and Jesus Rafael Soto come to mind— with a compositional process involving algorithms, with the goal of what he calls ‘spirituality hacking.’  I am not clear on how the words that Kelly picks as titles are transformed or encoded by algorithms into these dazzling yet delicate ‘woven’ arrays of stripes—made with an automobile paint striper and straightedge, by the way—which seem to change from afar with the viewer’s movements, and, close up, suggest complex crystalline or architectural structures. Be Love Now V1.0 and Be Love Now V2.0, sixty-inch-diameter tondos, suggest both the yarn-string projects that many of us made as children, and the scanned images of planets, simplified by pixelation. Affirmations, a series of five twenty-four-inch square panels, carries a similar hidden spiritual message in its title, with the colored lines changing color according to the viewer’s angle of view and distance, as with the pointillist Divisionism of Seurat and Signac. Seven Names of God Prayer V2.0 with its vertical adjoining panels suggests (incorrectly) a prismatic version of the ROYGBIV rainbow color chart—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet—or an abstract, meditative, New Age version, perhaps, of Monet’s sun-kissed Rouen Cathedral. The sun is god, as Turner said.—DeWitt Cheng



Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1202778 2017-11-02T14:58:43Z 2017-11-02T14:58:43Z Joan Schulze: Celebrating 80 at Fresno Art Museum (though January 8)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1201976 2017-10-30T15:53:39Z 2017-10-30T15:53:40Z Martin Wong Retrospective at Berkeley Art Museum (reprinted from East Bay Monthly, November 2017)

Martin Wong Paintings Revisit 1980s New York

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

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

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

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

Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1198321 2017-10-14T23:02:33Z 2017-10-14T23:02:34Z Walker Evans at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (reprinted from VisualArtSource.com, 10/13/17)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1197577 2017-10-11T14:06:36Z 2017-10-11T14:06:36Z Kirk Crippens: California Plates at SLAC

Documentary Photographs by KIRK CRIPPENS at SLAC Building 52

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

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

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.net.  Artopticon.us is the successor program to Stanford Art Spaces.

Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1197180 2017-10-10T01:34:56Z 2017-10-10T02:02:05Z LAINA TERPSTRA and TAMA HOCHBAUM @ George Lawson GGallery

George Lawson Gallery

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

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




Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1195027 2017-09-30T22:19:41Z 2017-09-30T22:19:42Z Gay Outlaw: Ozone at Anglim Gilbert Gallery, San Francisco (reprinted from VisualArtSource.com, 9/29/17)

Anglim Gilbert Gallery

 The Bay Area conceptual artist Gay Outlaw infuses her inquiries into epistemology—what makes something a work of art, or not—and the properties of varied materials, some unusual, like the caramelized sugar of a few years ago, with craftsmanship and wit. Her current show, entitled Ozone—a reference to the damage wrought by global-climate change?—comprises work in bronze, clay, wood, aluminum, encaustic, digital photography, cast glass, and pâte de verre, or glass paste, made from firing colored pigmented glass powders in a mold. While the works explore different ideas, and do not obviously come from the same artist, a spirit of experimentation and discovery pervades all. (By the way, everything is officially untitled, but the pieces are given humorous parenthetical designations.)

 The stars of the show were the eleven pâte de verre Meatloafsunset sculptures, life-sized renditions of those familiar ingots of mystery meat, arrayed on a tabletop, as if posed for a Wayne Thiebaud painting. Each is given a glazing or topping of an unusual color e.g., teal, cyan, yellow, pink, amber, etc., suggestive of sweets rather than savories. A pair of abstract folded-metal sculptures adorned with paint—Kitchen Sink and Bent Box—and a quartet of bronze or glass sculptures, idiosyncratically evoking vessels, modelmaking and hats, are dispersed throughout the gallery. Outlaw’s strangely funny, memorable mixed-media wall pieces pair color photos of street photography with blobs or ‘flows’ of colored glass paste, as if someone had flung colored mud onto the picture-frame glass, and the artist had found the desecrations to be  mprovements (as Francis Bacon sometimes flung oil paint onto canvases that he wanted to save or improve, gambling with destruction). The glass blobs, or lava flows, also recall the free-form poured urethane sculptures of Lynda Benglis. Outlaw’s titles are as droll as the idea of the works playfully tantalizing the viewer (or spy), but, like Hamlet, pointedly retaining their mystery: Untitled (Spring Green Flow with Artist Hair), Untitled (Orange Flow with Waders), and Untitled (Navy Flow with Wistful Poodle).— DeWitt Cheng




Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1194856 2017-09-29T18:39:04Z 2017-09-29T18:39:04Z Joan Brown Works on Paper at Richmond Art cobbler (from East Bay Monthly, October 2017)

RAC Exhibits Works on Paper by Painter Joan Brown

In 1958, the twenty-year-old Joan Beatty, about to marry, was ill and bedridden; art books provided by her fiancé, the painter Bill H. Brown, changed her life. She later recalled: "I'd never seen any of this stuff”—i.e., on Rembrandt, Goya, and Velasquez—“and I felt this tremendous surge of energy.” Enrolling at the California School of Fine Art, she was encouraged by her mentor, the painter Elmer Bischoff (later a colleague at UC Berkeley), to find her own artistic way, and she worked through Bay Area Figuration, beat and funk toward her mature style, which combines a refined lyricism with the kind of eccentric-outsider outlook which the Bay Area nurtures.

In San Francisco galleries in the 1970s and 1980s, Brown was, if not ubiquitous, at least highly visible; some of us young know-it-alls found her simplified drawing, flat modeling and bright colors a bit too easy to like, Matisse for the masses; and the autobiographical element too sweetly northern California and even New Age, Kahlo without the angst. However, when the painter died in 1990 at age fifty-two in an art-installation accident in India—she was a follower of Sathya Sai Baba—her thirty-four year long creative life assumed a retrospective gravitas that had always been in the work, just not foregrounded. You can see the depth of her emotion in the early Abstract Expressionist works of the late 1950s, caked and crusted with oil paint. The artist Wally Hedrick said of her: "There was the innocent child, sort of flowing through time, and there was the mature artist, and they just happened to be in the same body at different times." He also remembered Bischoff’s non-judgmental judgment: “I have this extraordinary student. She's either a genius or very simple.”

Is that a false dichotomy? The art world is quick to move on to the eternal new, so fans of Brown as well as those unfamiliar with her work are well served by Joan Brown: In Living Color, a selection of works on paper borrowed from private collections. Through November 18. Richmond Art Center, 2540 Barrett Street, Richmond; (510) 620-6772; www.therac.org. —DeWitt Cheng

Dewitt Cheng