tag:artopticon.us,2013:/posts ArtOpticon.us 2019-12-02T17:15:29Z Dewitt Cheng tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1484683 2019-12-02T17:15:28Z 2019-12-02T17:15:29Z Kate Kretz at Jen Tough, San Francissco


Jen Tough Gallery, Popup show, 1599 Tennessee Street, San Francisco, August 2-4, 2019

“It can’t happen here” used to be Americans’ complacent response when confronted by reports of political upheaval and revolution in Third-World countries. It was a comforting thought, but an illusion, that we were somehow able to sustain despite many warnings in books, movies and popular culture. Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here, portrayed the rise of a fascist demagogue. Jack London’s 1908 novel, The Iron Heel, had treated the theme two generations earlier.  1984 and Brave New World were universally read by high-school students, and cited as bywords. In addition, repressive inhuman states have been a staple of realistic films like The Black Legion (1937) and A Face in the Crowd (1957) as well as the various dystopian iterations of Star Wars, The Matrix, and the hyperactive Marvel Universe. Were we not entertained? The increasingly corrupt, bullying, incompetent and destructive acts of the Trump administration teach us that history is not to be mocked or ignored; nor, considering the weather reports, Sharpie-enhanced or not, is it nice to fool Mother Nature, either

Artists are making a stand against humanity’s slide into catastrophe. The Maryland-based artist Kate Kretz employs a mixed-media, conceptualist approach to examining the burning issues of the day, and Jen Tough Gallery scheduled a solo show at its location in Benicia CA, an hour’s drive north and east of San Francisco, liberal Ground Zero. Unfortunately, some of the good people on the extreme nationalist side found out about Kretz’s creation of “Hate Hat,” a Ku Klux Klan hood fashioned from red MAGA caps, and began harassing her online. Their complaints about her ostensible violations of “community standards” resulted to Facebook’s temporary suspension of her account; and  phoned-in threat to the gallery was taken seriously in this era of random partisan violence.

Jen Tough found an unused gallery location in San Francisco and kept its location secret until just before the weekend of August 2-4, when interested parties who had signed up online were informed via e-mail. As it turned out, the location, near the Minnesota Street Project in San Francisco’s gentrifying Dogpatch area, was inspired, and the exhibition, monitored by a trio of young security guards, was well attended and proved to be incident-free. San Francisco liberals could take pride in having stood up to the numskulls and yahoos who were in reality, like the Proud Boys in April, less than formidable, despite their bluster.

Kretz’s work takes such diverse forms that it is quote possible to attribute them to several artists.  Her themes are, besides the racist terrorism of the extreme nationalists, which dates back four centuries, American society’s current wave of sexism, misogyny, religious fundamentalism and its de-facto guns and rape cultures pervading not just the rural south, but, shamefully and cynically, the corridors of power and prestige.

The artist deconstructs the symbols of fear and hatred by combining them with real-world objects, and humble, homemade fabrication methods.  She creates a red Nazi armband from unsewn MAGA caps in “Only the Terrorized Own the Right to Name Symbols of Terror” (2019), and embroiders a swastika inscribed, “Make America Great Again,” a phrase used by both Reagan-Bush in 1980 and by the insurgent Republican Pat Buchanan in his infamous red-meat fascist-rally speech to the GOP convention in 1992. Likewise, “Eminent Domain for Unwilling Vessels” (2019) transforms the inner parts of MAGA caps into the white bonnets worn by the breeder-stock class of women, the offered Offreds, in The Handmaid’s Tale.

White-male privilege and power in all its brutal stupidity comes under attack in both deconstructed works, like those just cited, and in traditional paintings on canvas or board and drawings on paper. “Readymade: Brass, with Lock” (2014) recasts one of those commercially available bumper scrotums (TruckNutz—I am not kidding), made of silicone, in brass, with its connotations of shameless ostentation, and outfits it with a lock and chain: a chauvinist male chastity belt for the immature-ejaculation community. “V.I.P (Very Important Penis)” (2018) is a gold-plated erect member‑—‘ithyphallic’ is the art-historical term—bearing a “VIP All Access” dogtag. Continuing the theme of threatened-male ultra-violence is “Rupture” (2018), a simulated but embroidered bullethole in glass with an aureole of radiating cracks fashioned from the gray hair of people (crowd-sourced) who have suffered devastating loss.

Kretz’s representational skills are evident in several drawings and paintings satirizing the misogyny and cruelty of gun/phallus culture.  “Appetites of Oligarchs” (2018) is a large, dramatic painting on canvas depicting a man, dressed only in an unbuttoned white shirt, faceless and pot-bellied, boldly masturbating in front of a nocturnal industrial landscape. “Gunlicker I” through “Gunlicker IV” (all 2015) are 16”x20” oval-format paintings depicting engrossed young men passionately fellating firearms. “Testosterone,” Kretz’s portrait of a snarling bulldog with the word inscribed in cursive text beneath, reminiscent of Magritte’s word paintings, and a glittering frame worthy of a pop icon, mock-extols the current notion of manhood as aggressive dominance in our capitalist-winner-take-all society.  “Democracy Detox” (2019) is a colored pencil rendering of a limousine in up in flames, with JUSTICE 4 ALL spray painted on the door. Finally, “Futile Fantasy:  A Glimmer of Self-Awareness, & The Subsequent Remorse”  (2017) is a portrait of our self0styled favorite president, ‘woke’ at last to his wasted life: tearful, despondent, and repentant, like a baroque sinner finally turning saintly: wishful thinking for those of us who are totting up the damage costs of this disastrous and depraved regime which Kretz has depicted with saeva indignatio, ferocity and rage. — DeWitt Cheng














Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1483505 2019-11-29T17:48:58Z 2019-11-29T18:27:42Z Fwd: Anthony Kyle Hall's "Tensions" at Avenue 12 Gallery, San Francisco     ANTHONY KYLE HALL: Tensions
    Avenue 12 Gallery, San Francisco

One of the Surrealists, probably André Breton, declared that everything is connected by invisible lines, a dictum that we ubercapitalist extraction-miners might do well to reaffirm as disaster stalks the planet. Many contemporary artists are making the case for sociopolitical engagement—and implying that art should be judged by its politics. The opposite point of view holds that art is pure expression, and should be judged only in its visual merits. Neither argument seems indisputable, yet much art explores this tension between style and content, the visual and the implied verbal, to great effect.

The paintings and drawings of Anthony Kyle Hall in Tensions are abstract expressionist in general affect, with calligraphy and neuromuscular shapes/gestures set atop white grounds, recalling Frans Kline, Adolph Gottlieb and others, including the graffiti-influenced expressionist Jean-Michel Basquiat. But Hall includes little fragments of reality, as the Cubists occasionally did: drawn renderings of objects and persons, and even strips of paper bearing text: scholarly footnotes, clipped memoranda, or cookie fortunes. We view the compositions holistically, but the fragments assert themselves, causing a push-pull between modes of perception and interpretation.

 Hall writes:

At the center of my work is documenting my personal narratives in response to current cultural and social climates. Through exploring the gap between existing and perceived spaces of existence, reality vs. channels of distorted information - the goal is to highlight substance in the human experience at large. Themes and subject matter dictate the visual aesthetics and materials used, and over time this is to be the vehicle for visual ideas to deepen and evolve.

Each work is thus a constellation or miniature world of his concerns and interests, including jazz and improvisation, and painterly impulses and improvisations. Three 36-inch square paintings constitute a kind of triptych. “Preservation,” a mixed-media collage, is a collection of disparate sketches and painted shapes, some recognizable, like a black luchador (?) mask, with others abstract, aligned on two sides of a vertical black line, probably, an inch thick; we ten to interpret this as the sketches a painter would have on his studio wall—random, but visually held together by Hall’s eye for balance and contrast: preserved in a painting. “Embrace (Moonlight)” depicts a cluster of boldly drawn black and white circles, probably traced around a receptacle; their spatial interaction, supplemented by the smudged areas where they are concentrated, lends the abstract image drama and density; and is that a drawing table depicted on the far right? “Three Tensions” repeats the circular cluster motif, with the spheres here contained by two slim diagonal lines. “Room” preserves the mask motif (possibly a surrogate for the artist and/or viewer), with colored geometric bars and free-form shapes to depict the artist’s state of consciousness, his mental furniture. In “I Repeat," “Wild” and “Uncharted Overhaul,”Hall adds cutout text, word by word, in the style of aleatory Surrealist word games, and William Burroughs’ cut-up technique, to harness chance: e.g., 

growth is free and “The price of delay is steep.

Everything may be connected only tenuously in real life, but disparate things can be brought together and decisively connected in art through intuition and application.




Avenue 12 Gallery, 1101 Lake Street, San Francisco CA 94118 Tel (415) 750-9955

@avenue12gallery   https://avenue12gallery.com   avenue12gallery@icloud.com  

Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1469652 2019-10-24T14:12:00Z 2019-10-24T14:12:00Z Harold Terry Lindahl Open Studio at 312 Connecticut Street, October 26-7, 2019; opening Friday Oct 25
HAROLD TERRY LINDAHL is an architect, philosopher and painter, as well as a former gallerist during the San Francisco Beat Era. He creates intricate, elegant ink drawings demonstrating the principles of his philosophical researches; abstract paintings based on those drawings that marry evocative form with color, recalling the works of Kandinsky, Klee and others; and large, totem-like structures related to Constructivism, expressing his views of the human condition at this moment in evolutionary history.  www.haroldterrylindahl.com


Ontologically, over billions of years, evolutionary processes have produced a three-brained biped species whose experience ... includes, beyond hunger and reproduction, awe, yearning, and aspiration. From Lascaux to Falling Water, Democritus to Einstein, and from Pagan rites to Psyvolutionary self-examination, we humans conduct and express anagogical [mystical] pressures through the lenses of Science, Art, and Religion. Sensorially we’re in awe. Emotionally we yearn. Intellectually we aspire. —Harold Terry Lindahl, Signals from the Vagus Gyre, 2010, p.3


The art world often seems caught between the Scylla of pointless shock and awe and the Charybdis of status consumerism. Art and life have converged, unpleasantly, in the art-as-business (and entertainment and fashion) era. We take heart, however, at the Guggenheim Museum’s exhibition, Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future of the Swedish mystic artist.

A polymath and visionary who supported herself making traditional botanical drawings and painted landscape and portrait paintings during a six-decade career, af Klint (1862-1944) worked, in secret, on abstract paintings that are, a century later, garnering amazed interest. She left twelve hundred works, including one hundred ninety-three paintings. The seventy-six paintings in the Guggenheim show are both huge and ambitious: in scale, they are unmatched until the Abstract Expressionist era, fifty years later; and in their cosmic/philosophical themes, embodied in geometrized organic forms and singing color harmonies, they are far from the safe decoration of domesticated rote abstraction. Indeed, Peter Schjeldahl of The New Yorker abandoned critical understatement and called the show nothing less than ‘flabbergasting.’

As important as the works’ visual impact is their new place in art history: begun in 1906, they precede by some five years the abstractions of af Klint’s generational contemporaries who had been heretofore accorded discoverers’ honors: Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), Frantisek Kupka (1871-1957), Konstantin Malevich (1879-1935), and Piet Mondrian (1872-1944). This is not to diminish the men’s work, or to cite yet another ‘obstacle race’ (to employ Germaine Greer’s term) that women artists have always faced.

Af Klint made no effort to compete with the boys, and worked in virtual seclusion, known only to four women friends who studied the Theosophy, Rosicrucianism, and other esoteric Spiritualist practices—New Age avant la lettre— that flourished at the turn of the century. The Five (as they dubbed themselves), who even held séances, were far from unique: William James and Arthur Conan Doyle studied the spirit world; Mondrian studied Theosophy; and utopianism was in the air. Af Klint, however, took such a dim (or realistic) view of the art audience of a century ago that she stipulated in her will that her work not be shown until twenty years after her death, for a presumably more enlightened audience. It is gratifying to report that both her work found her audience and received its overdue accolades, if only posthumously. It is also refreshing that af Klint’s art is free of the fashionable irony and cynical commercialism of current art fashion. Her major series, The Paintings for the Temple, (1906-15) was created at the behest of Amaliel, a “High Master” spirit guide, and was intended for a circular Temple, never built, which would have centered on a spiral, like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum. The poetic justice of af Klint’s show appearing—like an apport, a substance materialized at a séance by a medium—in Wright’s cultural “temple of the spirit” (his words), almost suggests supernatural connivance.



The art of San Francisco architect and painter Harold Terry Lindahl, like af Klint’s, transcends artistic zeitgeist, and is both deeply personal and universal, offering beauty and meaning to viewers of both aesthetic and philosophic bents. Like her, he worked in solitude, “carried along by a persistent Scandinavian/Scots hermeticism.”

Lindahl, now in his late eighties, worked fin Bay Area or nearly five decades as a modernist architect, in the Frank Lloyd Wright tradition of Organic Architecture, before turning to painting full-time in 2008, in order to express his views about humanity and its evolution. Studying at the University of Oklahoma in the 1950s with Bruce Goff, who was influenced by Wright, Lindahl became fascinated with geometric order and metamorphic form-generation through systematic variations and modulations. After discovering the teachings of George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, the Greek-Armenian philosopher and gnostic, he studied with the Gurdjieffian, Lord Pentland, in New York and San Francisco from the late 1960s to the 1980s, when he would eventually found the Intropy=Entropy Institute, housed on Potrero Hill in a building that had housed San Francisco’s first silent movie theater. The theater has been transformed into a kind of red-brick temple, partly modernist and partly Greco-Roman, replete with cast-concrete columns. It’s a fitting display space for Lindahl’s artwork, living quarters, office and workshop. (‘Intropy,’ incidentally, is a neologism coined to express the opposite of ‘entropy’: an increase in energy, potential and organization; a reduction in random.)

Gurdjieff posits the coexistence of three brains in human beings: the ancient, primitive lizard brain, controlling our bodily functions; the more evolved mammal brain, with emotional functioning; and the neocortical human brain, endowed with logic, emotion and imagination: ”coherent conscience and reason, in Lindahl’s words. These ‘internecine’ brains have different functions, and too often the lower, atavistic brains rule us when coherent conscience and objective reason are required. So do the habits and institutions from previous eras.

Lindahl discerns a spiritual crisis in contemporary culture. In 2010, in an art-exhibit catalog Signals from the Vagus Gyre, he wrote (p.2): “Traditional religions are and logical speculation moot. Yet we’re in awe, we yearn for meaning, and aspire to realize our psychological potential.” Like the visionary English Romantic, William Blake, Lindahl sees a mystical marriage between competing modes of perception as the cure for our rootless anomie. In Lindahl’s cosmology and philosophy, ancient lore (Parmenides, Lucretius, and Gnosticism) and contemporary science (Darwin, Einstein, Schrödinger) converge. The synthesis of these normally antagonistic worldviews and modes knowledge results in “an Objective Religion and an Objective Art that informs science of religion and religion of science, ” or, alternatively, “Objectivity in Art and Religion and Morality in Science.” Such an integration of our fragmented consciousness sounds appealing, of course; even without any explication of the underlying philosophy, Lindahl’s complexly beautiful works stands on their own, but a brief introduction to this hermetic polymath’s drawings, paintings and sculptures may be helpful.





Gestation History and Potential of Man (2018) is a suite of forty-nine India-ink drawings, each15-1/2” high by11-1/4” wide, on Arches watercolor paper, and mounted on 8-ply museum board, which is them mounted to 24”x84” sheets of polished copper, seven to a panel.  They represent the potential for human evolution, with evolved cortices overlaid atop earlier cortices, from ‘post-simian’ man (endowed with a Paleozoic reptilian brain) into a true Homo sapiens, worthy of  the name (endowed with a Mesozoic mammalian brain).  There are seven levels of development: School Man, Transition Man, Psyolving Man (i.e., psychologically and psychically progressing), 3-Brained Gestation Man, Native Virtue Man, Indulgent Man, and Searching Man. Each developmental level is represented by an octave of variations, eight tones as in music, do re mi fa so la ti (or si) do, or rather seven, since the first tone and the last are the same note. In Lindahl’s schema, these tones have mystical resonances:

Do      Dominus, the process of creation and the natural cycle of growth and decay

Re       Regina Coeli, Queen of the heavens, the Moon

Mi      Microcosmos, the small universe, Earth

Fa       Fata, Fate, ruled by the planets.

So       Sol, Sun

La       Lactae, milk, the Milky Way galaxy

Si        Sider, star, all galaxies

Do      Dominus, Lord
Replacing the tonal scale’s full-stop keyboard intervals —i.e., the black keys—are geometric variations or progressions of form modulation: acute (re), rectified (mi), obtuse (fa), circular/arc (so), oval (la), spiral (si) and mobile (do). Likewise, colors, chords, geometric figures and behavioral characteristics are linked in a nine-part color circle in a chart entitled The Harmonics of Planetary Ergodicity; 1 lies tonally between C Major and D Minor (Cadmium Orange Light, Rational); 9, lies between B Diminished and C Major (Light Yellow-Green, Irrational).

The Harmonics of Unity (2017) is an array of forty-two small, vivid watercolor paintings, 9” tall by 7” wide, accompanied by an explanatory treatise.  These abstractions give full range to Lindahl’s technical talent, and are accessible as independent artworks to those unfamiliar with their theoretical foundations; with their stylistic affinities to Cubism, Surrealism, and even Abstract Expressionism and Symbolism, they would complement with the best modernist art of the first half of the twentieth century.

Displayed on a long wall, as they are at the Intropy=Entropy Institute, they’re imposing en masse, arranged in fourteen vertical rows in three bands or registers, which are to be read vertically, bottom to top, as 1) Involutionary Formation; 2) Evolutionary Transformation; and 3) Psyvolutionary Transformation; or, again from bottom to top, the Lizard Brain of physical survival, the Lithosphere; the Mammalian Brain of consciousness, the Atmosphere; and,at the top, the Higher Brain of an evolved humanity, the Cognosphere. “Objective art,” writes Lindahl, ...arises from the psychologically “vertical” or existential dynamics of aspiration; it functions to illuminate the relations between biological place and psychological purpose; it awakens one’s consciousness to the otherwise subconscious potential latent in ... our manifold of being-brains.”

Lindahl also associates geometric forms with various personality traits: acute angles, for example, denote a shrewd and ardent character, while obtuse angles denote a mundane and credulous one, and mobile, random lines denote a desultory, chaotic one. Whether or not you accept Lindahl’s existential vision, linking geometry with psychology, his formidable gift for orchestrating and modulating color and form to suggest evolution makes one a believer at the very least in the artist’s conviction and aesthetic vision, a marriage of systematic process—“Geometry is the alphabet and vocabulary of artistic expression”—and artistic intuition.


Pensive and Vigilant (2016) are stunning abstract sculptures that depict the relationship between the sympathetic and parasympathetic functions of the Autonomic Nervous System. The ANS, Lindahl writes (The Harmonics of Unity, p.24), is “a semiotic medium through which assessments and assignments of energy to fight, flight, or freeze reactions, or to the innervation of the vital organs, are processed.” If you imagine the spine as a bodily tree trunk, then the vagus nerve, enclosed by spinal vertebrae, is a communicative lattice, processing incoming signals from nerve receptors, evaluating them, and commanding the appropriate responses from muscles and organs. In Lindahl’s sculptures, triple layers of laminated glass and colored plexiglass are cut into wing forms surmounted by volutes that suggest bowed, intently focused heads, in simplified form. With the wing forms radiating from the cylindrical aluminum cores, or spines, and illuminated by colored LED lighting, the sculptures suggest both organs or embryos, self-contained and self-monitoring, and futuristic guardians or messengers, both avian and angelic.

While it is natural these days to wonder if we clever primates can manage not to exterminate ourselves, the model of intellectual evolution presented by Lindahl’s brilliant, Beardsleyesque draftsmanship and his surrealist/abstract metamorphic bipeds (Reptilian Man, Neo-Mammal, Impartial Conscience, et al., including Catholicism’s Seven Deadly Sins) is compelling and ingenious. As with religious art and even aesthetic art, we need not necessarily subscribe to the program—Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescos, for the profane? Duchamp’s Large Glass, for the uninitiated?—to appreciate the art on its own visual terms. We may even be able to absorb, osmotically, a bit of the content. Even in our skeptical age, we must renew our faith in the human adventure, and the power of reason. The New Man, that dream of modernist artists, a century ago, may prove to be, in the words of long ago and far away, our last hope.



Lindahl, H.T., Post-Simian Pre-Homo Sapiens Conundrum, 2019, I=E Institute San Francisco, California, www.intropy-entropy-institute.org

Lindahl, H.T., Gestation History and Potential Of Mankind, 2018, I=E Institute San Francisco, California, www.intropy-entropy-institute.org

Lindahl, H.T., The Harmonics of Unity, 2017, Trioctave Editions, San Francisco, California. www.intropy-entropy-institute.org

Lindahl, H.T., Signals From The Vagus Gyre: Studies toward Objectivity in Art, 2010,Trioctave Editions, San Francisco, California https://www.haroldterrylindahl.com/publications/

Selz, P.; Lindahl, H.T.; Hays, S.: Harmonics of Unity: An Interview with Art Historian Dr. Peter Selz, 2011; Trioctave Editions, San Francisco, California https://www.haroldterrylindahl.com/publications/

Moan, Rebekah, “Gurdjieff Society Mounts Exhibitions on Harmonics,” The Potrero View, April 2015

Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1466917 2019-10-17T05:22:54Z 2019-10-17T05:22:55Z Annabeth Rosen at Contemporary Jewish Museum (reprinted from KQED Art Blog10/)

Annabeth Rosen’s Earthen Humor at CJM

Annabeth Rosen: Fired, Broken, Gathered, Heaped at Contemporary Jewish Museum, Jul 25, 2019–Jan 19, 2020

Annabeth Rosen’s extraordinary exhibit of clay sculptures—resembling serving vessels, table settings, and standing figures—is a virtuosic display of craftsmanship, but also of experimentation. Subtitled Fired, Broken, Gathered, Heaped, this retrospective features thousands of ceramic fragments assembled into modestly-sized but visually and emotionally powerful composites. Rosen, the Robert Arneson Professor of Ceramics at UC Davis, shares some of that Funk artist’s outré sense of humor, but she also takes from the ceramic abstract expressionist Peter Voulkos, one of her teachers, a love of clay’s versatility, physicality and malleability. I suspect also that Stephen de Staebler’s use of broken and normally discarded pieces from the kiln nay have influenced her, and can easily imagine her reconstructed potsherd vessels in curatorial dialogue with his tragic, broken archaic figures. Tracing these possible genealogies takes nothing from Rosen’s achievement, however. We overvalue what appears unique and novel in our era of insecure individuality and compensatory braggadocio; we should acknowledge that art transcends generations, and that the best art is voraciously informed, not wilfully ignorant.

The show’s arrangement—clusters of related works separated by long risers festooned small vessel-like sculptures— suggests a festive gathering. The banquet analogy may suggest both Judy Chicago’s powerful The Dinner Party, with its place settings commemorating women short-changed by male-dominated history; and the more playful 1971 sculpture,  “Smorgi-Bob, The Cook,” by Arneson, with its forced-perspective table of serving dishes leading to a vanishing point occupied not by Leonardo’s serene Jesus, but the young artist (his first self-portrait), the master of ceramic gastronomy.

Nancy Princenthal, in her catalogue essay, “Annabeth Rosen: Shape-Shifter,” describes the effect, both oddly disturbing and hilarious, of Rosen’s aesthetic balancing act: 

... the slope-shouldered new sculptures seem to have neither fixed contours nor stable shape; even their scale appears to shift as you look. Some hint at volcanoes, others at featureless heads. Not so much covered with as compounded of hundreds of writhing, snakelike elements, they are variously volcanic, beastly, catastrophic, and unnervingly funny, suggesting ... granite, bone, molten lava, cascading water, and substances less noble: cake frosting, lanky hair ... dirty snow. Many are blackened in their recesses, as if soiled with age.

The exhibition is exciting and exhilarating, with the 120 or so works impeccably displayed. But because of the absence of labeling, it’s also somewhat difficult to absorb and navigate. The pertinent information—titles, dates, etc.—is available in binders that one can carry around, but it’s cumbersome and time-consuming. I understand the argument that labels get in the way of aesthetic engagement, and agree, to some extent, that some viewers judge work only by brand names; but let’s leave it to the viewers to decide if they want to follow the artist’s progress. Also, Rosen’s witty titles, some of which are probably invented words, are not to be missed. That quibble aside, here’s a brief verbal tour of the show, with the five bodies of work listed in chronological order.

Section 1 includes works from the 1990s upon her arrival in California from New York, with substructures resembling plates and tiles supporting dense encrustations of animal and plant life, but the geometry nearly disappears beneath the imagery, like Hindu temples swarming with statuary. Sample (1999), a grid of squirming, tentacular yellow froms reminiscent of noodles, kelp bulbs and split avocados, suggests a gigantic lasagna, albeit one the size of a bed or car; it is easy to spot at the rear of the gallery.

Section 2 comprises ten “mashup” works that abandon the pedestal format in favor of looser compositions. Rosen fabricates hundreds of ceramic forms and then combines them into surprisingly anthropomorphic structures that are perched atop steel structures that are outfitted with casters, like bizarre kitchen carts or work stations. With their ungainly, bulbous, bowling-pin forms and striped patterning, Nella, Rool, and Talley are wonderfully absurd and exuberant.

Section 3 features “mound” structures composed of hundred of pieces fired and refired “until failure and fatigue sets in,” to quote the museum notes, and then tied together with steel baling wire, which is sometimes covered with clay and sometimes left visible. The twelve small mound sculptures like “Atlas,” Block,” and “Fray, set on a low, round pedestal, suggest miniature landscapes, or Chinese scholar stones— as well as the odd confections that might have been crafted by Chef Philip Guston (in an alternate universe).

Section 4 is composed of six “bundle” sculptures, with the component pieces constrained by rubber straps (inner tubes?) rather than steel wire.

Section 5 comprises 28 works in acrylic, ink and gouache on paper that are related to the sculptures, since some are studies, but stand as independent abstract artworks.

This twenty-year retrospective, Rosen’s first in a Bay Area museum, is both fun and funny, as well as an object lesson in creative variety within aesthetic consistency. We get to follow the progress of sensibility that is combines humor, both wacky and a little mordant, with a fearless, restless creative drive. This thrilling exhibit is a visual banquet, an embarras de richesses, and should not to be missed. The Bay Area has another ceramic master to add to its pantheon.

Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1460921 2019-09-29T19:34:11Z 2019-10-01T04:43:03Z "Strange" at Berkeley Art Museum (reprinted from East Bay Monthly, October 2019)

Spacy Oddities

 “The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.” Strange, a vast exhibition that draws on the Berkeley Art Museum’s extensive collection, ratifies biologist JBS Haldane’s aperçu, while extolling creative subjectivity and the artistic imagination, both disparaged in recent years as, respectively, illusory (since individuality is a myth) and compromised by its ostensible service to power. Postmodernist groupthink had a good run—until it collided with the iceberg of global capitalism and climate change. (Welcome to surrealist hell, eggheads.)

Surrealism, long considered by formalist critics a deplorable aesthetic misadventure, has regained credibility in our stranger-than-fiction, mad-Tea-Party times. Strange postulates that the surrealist impulse predates and postdates the movement’s glory years from approximately 1920 to 1940; that the human psyche’s embrace of the mythic, fantastic, and dreamlike—le merveilleux, in Surrealist terminology—even the nightmarish, is eternal.

Two Berkeley artists set the tone. A bronze sculpture by Stephen De Staebler evokes an excavated archaeological find, barely recognizable as a winged human, symbolizing the soul’s freedom, broken but unbowed. De Staebler exemplifies the “tragic humanism” that BAM’s founding director, the late Peter Selz, championed in the late 1950s. A haunted melting landscape by Ariel Parkinson, “The Inner Wilderness‑Shaman (Forest)” depicts the subconscious mind as a riot of tendrils and creepers, with life finding a way. (Sara Kathryn Arledge’s “Stellar Garden” might almost be a pendant.)

 Divided into thematically organized galleries—Myth and Magic, Inside/Outside, Dreams and Visions, etc.—the show’s very size causes it to lose focus when it considers contemporary artists, some of whom prioritize sociopolitical aims and/or artistic eccentricity over personal vision. (I take issue issue with some of the curatorial editorializing, too.) But the museum’s vaults treasures more than compensate for a few aesthetic divagations. Don’t miss, amid the embarras of celebrity-artist richesses (Arneson, Bellmer, Blake, Bourgeois, Conner, Cornell, Doig, Dürer, Goya, Hesse, Hogarth, Magritte), works by Lesley Dill, Sylvia Fein, Ernst Fuchs, Robert Gonzales, Nancy Grossman, Higgs and Ranson, Anton Lehmden, and Jill Sylvia.

 Strange runs through January 5, 2020; Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, 2155 Center Street, Berkeley, 510/642-0808; bampfa.org. —DeWitt Cheng

Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1445863 2019-08-17T23:02:45Z 2019-08-22T04:04:25Z Why The Arnautoff Compromise is Right for Right Now (reprinted from VisualArtSource.com, 8/16/19). Sequel to previous piece in July 31 East Bay Express (scroll down)..

Victor Arnautoff, Self-Portrait, 1950 or 1951 (location unknown). HR 9490 was Cold War internal-security act.

Play It Down

The recent controversy over Victor Arnautoff’s Depression-era murals at George Washington High School has attracted national attention. The progressive artist’s dignified depiction of black slaves and the now-infamous “dead Indian” (cited by generations of ‘unwoke’ GWHS white kids) excited criticism from minority kids, parents, and activists who feel that the murals demean them and glorify patriarchy and genocide. Their arguments swayed the school board into its unanimous decision to whitewash the murals—to “paint it down” in the words of the iconoclasts, prompting writers from Time to National Review to opine on the curious, only-in-SF case. A similar controversy that erupted in the late 1960s was settled by a compromise: the creation of a pro-minority mural by the young artist Dewey Crumpler, who supported the Arnautoff mural then and still does, now.

The seemingly peremptory decision to delete the mural galvanized massive support from art-lovers and historians, who signed petitions and decried the folly of uninformed censorship. The preservationists argue that the murals should become a central part of the teaching of history and culture. Almost all GWHS alumni support the mural, including actor Danny Glover and Crumpler. After reading Robert W. Cherny’s excellent biography of Arnautoff, I wrote “The Shame of the Mural Censors: Why Art and History Matter” (East Bay Express, July 31, 2019, now online).

In the face of this widespread opposition (75% of San Franciscans oppose censorship), the school board moderated its decision, and now proposes, to its credit, covering up the offensive parts, non-destructively. While I support the preservationist argument for using the murals for education, I believe that this compromise is the best possible solution to what seems a perpetually thorny issue. When I attended the latest school board meeting, on August 13, the passion of the POC kids and parents was emotional and palpable, and surprisingly affecting (despite some dramatic posturing). Many of the anti-muralists asked, with only slight rhetorical exaggeration, “Why do we have to fight this again? We ‘ve been fighting it for fifty years,” echoing Jennifer Wilson’s article, “Black People Don’t Need Murals to Remember Injustice,” in The Nation. That the mural opponents consider the mural advocates—largely older, and white, but with many exceptions—to be patronizing and even patriarchal is unfortunate, but understandable, given the centuries of abuse, exploitation and marginalization that continue today with abhorrent racial attacks, verbal and physical, by whites fearful of losing power and status. With further demographic change (i.e., the browning of America and the political ascendancy of non-racist millennials), might the whole issue eventually lose its toxic charge, making the mural safe to regard as a historical document? Stay tuned. But in the meantime, mural proponents should be wary of overplaying their (our) hand, demanding ‘informed’ acquiescence from the mural opponents, which can seem too much like enforcing silent prayer in the Church of Great White Father One.

The compromise of temporarily covering the painful parts resolves the difficulty for now. Neither side gets a total victory; neither gets a total defeat. I now believe, after observing its proceedings, that the school board, which I had earlier mocked for truckling to PC fashion, made its ill-informed decision in good faith. It has learned not to make snap judgments. The mural opponents and advocates have learned that art and history are complicated and fraught, and that simple solutions are illusory, and, the more radical, the more imperfect and flawed. The controversy, which made San Francisco look ridiculous in the national media for several months, has proven that dialogue and compromise, the touchstones of democracy can work, even in an era dominated by tribal passions and prejudices; by the ‘fake news” president’s assertions that “What you see isn’t happening” and his lawyer’s Zen maxim, “The truth isn’t truth”; the degradation of politics into spectacle and theater driven by distractions and disinfotainment (disinformation plus entertainment); and the historical and cultural amnesia of much of the electorate. It has been, in the words of one constitutional scholar and community activist, a “teachable moment.” 

That we are now an anti-intelllectual culture does not bode well for the future. I refer the intellectually curious to Greg Lukianoff’s and Jonathan Haidt’s article from The Atlantic, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” from September 2015, its title probably alluding to Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987), which advanced a similar thesis: that doctrinaire political correctness is no substitute for engagement with history, and that critical thinking skills are not just being unthinkingly critical of the professoriate’s designated bogeymen and -women. Democracy is a process as well as an ideal. If the American experiment in self-governance is to survive, if the human world is to continue, we must get informed, choose our battles wisely, and eschew whenever possible ideological showboating, however holy and eternal the cause. Play it down, people.

John Vanderlyn, The Death of Jane McCrea, 1804



Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1440741 2019-08-03T18:18:48Z 2019-08-03T18:18:48Z Simon Neri at Avenue 12 Gallery An edited version was published in Richmond Review, August, 2019

Avenue 12 Gallery Showcases Photo-Mosaics by Simo Neri

 If traditional matted and framed photographs that depict one instant in time from one viewpoint—“the decisive moment,” in the phrase erroneously attributed to the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson—seem somehow old hat in the everything-right-now digital era, the current show at Avenue 12 Gallery may be what you’re looking for.

 Urban Rhythms features a variety of photographic collages or mosaics by Simo Neri, shot in Paris, Rome and New York, before her recent return to San Francisco, and printed on cotton canvas and silk. Presenting multiple views of places and events that capture the complexity and simultaneity of contemporary life, they may remind you of the multiple views in Picasso’s cubism and the ironic photo arrays in Warhol’s Pop, a century ago and fifty years ago, respectively. The show opened June 26 and reopens, after a hiatus, on July 31, continuing until August 17.

 If you are unfamiliar with Avenue 12 Gallery, it’s a gem of a space located at the corner of 12th Avenue and Lake Street in the Richmond, across the street from Mountain Lake Park. Formerly a convenience store, the light-filled storefront was converted to a showroom for Japanese furniture and artifacts under the name TableAsia in 2005. Vince Meyer, who with his wife Rachel Murray Meyer owns the gallery, grew up in the Richmond District, and learned metal work from his father, the proprietor of Metal Mending, on Clement Street, between 12th and Funston, across from the Christian Science Reading Room. VInce took over the business from his retired father, and operated it until 1988. In the mid-1980s, a client brought him a tansu, an antique Japanese storage chest of exquisite craftsmanship, requesting that he fashion a steel base suitable for displaying the piece in a western home: raising it about eight inches to table height; protecting it from kicks and scuffs; and bestowing on it the formal presentation worthy of a museum piece.

 Vince: “I fell in love with the whole Japanese aesthetic, the art, the culture; I started reading about Buddhism and Zen, and watching Kurosawa movies—the whole deal.” Devising a strong but minimalist powder-coated black steel structure, he was discovered by other antiques clients as well as a few artists, and Table Asia continues today with in the gallery, discreetly subordinated to the contemporary art, and online (tableasia.com), with custom contemporary furniture fashioned from beautifully carved and gilded windows, doors and ranma, and wooden transom screens, as well as hanging painted silk scrolls and framed katagami, the intricately cut paper stencils used in block-printing fabric for kimonos.

 Several years ago, the Meyers decided to hang the artwork of several painter friends and local artists in the gallery. Rachel: “We thought it was just going to be one show at that point. But it was exciting to see new work on the walls and the artists were so happy to see their work on the walls.” VInce: “We started meeting new people, and it expanded. We always thought of it as an expansion rather than a change.” Rachel has been an art collector since college, buying a painting at the Smith College Art Gallery in installments from her waitressing job (“I have to have this. I want to live with this.”). A professional artist and photographer herself (as well as an industrial engineer), she also had prior experience selling photographs, both hers and those of William Giles and Ruth Bernhard; she was also involved in an art auction benefiting the Dalai Lama. “Sharing the space” with artists and the art community is a priority with the Meyers, who are active participants in the Bay Area art scene as well as members of the San Francisco Art Dealers Association.

In her July 20 talk at the gallery, SImo Neri displayed the passion and intellectual curiosity that mark all of this gallery’s exhibitions. She distinguished between theoretical or project-based artists, who work from a premise, and artists who “go out and hunt and capture visual opportunities ... opportunistic photographers,” with whom she feels a closer affinity. She also identifies as a “serial photographer: “One image does not tell the whole story. Combine enough single images, and patterns and rhythms emerge.” Indeed, for Neri, rhythm is more than a compositional device: it’s her view of the structure of life on earth, visible in the of her patchwork quilt of her earthen-hued photos, “Mura Romane II (Roman Walls); the herringbone pattern of alternating diagonal architectural vistas in “Paris Perspective” and “NYC Perspective”; the architectural treasures of Korea, copied from old books and colorized in Prussian blue in “Door and Windows” and “Roofs”; and collages of Paris garbage (“Trash’), Brooklyn graffiti (“Talking Walls II”) and protest-march signs (”Signs of the Times”). Each Urban Rhythm photocollage is composed of Cartier-Bresson images à la sauvette, to use the French term, taken on the sly rather than planned and pre-visualized: each assemblage of grab shots, to use contemporary American photo parlance, is elevated to the level of art.







Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1440737 2019-08-03T18:11:45Z 2019-08-03T18:11:46Z Why the Mural, and History, and Art Matter An edited version of this appeared in East Bay Express, 7/31/19: https://www.eastbayexpress.com/oakland/the-shame-of-the-mural-censors-why-art-and-history-matter/Content?oid=27198706

Why the Mural, and History, and Art Matter

  Our affairs are critical, and we must be dispassionate and wise.—POC Alexander Hamilton, getting better known these days

If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter. —George Washington, whitewashed blackguard

  The current controversy over the murals depicting The Life of George Washington at George Washington High School, in San Francisco’s Richmond District, has called into question yet again the role of public art in culture and politics. Victor Arnautoff (1896-1979), a Russian-born WPA muralist who worked with Diego Rivera in Mexico, and, in San Francisco supervised the creation of the Coit Tower’s murals, was asked in 1934 to paint a mural for the newly built high school celebrating its namesake. The 1600-square foot mural has come under attack recently for, to put it bluntly, political incorrectness, or a least insufficient political correctness for our enlightened, finicky times.

 It’s unfair. Arnautoff carefully researched “this famous man, a committed defender of freedom” but did not shrink from depicting, albeit relatively subtly (in my opinion), ”the spirit of Washington’s time,” with its mistreatment of blacks and American Indians, abuses that customarily were glossed over by the myth-besotted patriots, and, indeed, just about everyone, eighty years ago. The current thinking holds that Washington was a slaveholder and hypocrite, and thus no liberator; a champion of Manifest Destiny (though the term did not exist until Madison’s presidency); and that this tarnished history is too damaging to high-school students of color—and maybe sensitive white kids, too? Several passionately intense protesters, clad in black, naturally, at the July 15 panel discussion on the murals at the ILWU labor hall in San Francisco even raised placards and repeatedly shouted “Genocide!” Theirs is an intemperate position, ill-suited to a general noted for his air of command and self-control; he was described by one contemporary as “no harum-scarum, ranting, swearing fellow, but sober, steady, and calm.” Nor does it befit an artist who harbored strong leftist convictions, but politically astute, who knew how far it was possible to go when.across the continent, Nelson Rockefeller painted out Diego Rivera’s mural because of a portait of Lenin that the artist radamantly efused to remove. He had just the previous year counseled Bernard Zakheim, a prankish Coit Tower artist, not to include in his mural a sickle and hammer, in vain. “Freedom in America is understood in a special way.”Zakheim, later: “You were right, Mr. Arnautoff. I teased the bulls too much.”

 Nevertheless, the San Francisco School Board decided on June 28, unanimously, on the nearly-unanimous advice of a thirteen-person advisory group, the Reflection and Action Working Group (RAWG), to have the murals “painted down,” erased, at an as-yet unknown cost, but probably requiring a $500,000 environmental-impact study, just for starters. Merely covering the mural with panels would cost an estimated $600,000 to $845,000. Another writer lists the panel cost at $825,000, with curtains costing up to $375,000; in either case, it’s way too much, and totally unnecessary. Arnautoff’s mural, says the board,  “glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, Manifest Destiny, white supremacy, oppression, etc. The mural doesn’t represent SFUSD values of social justice, diversity, united, student-centered. It’s not student-centered if it’s focused on the legacy of artists, rather than the experience of the students.” “The majority of the group expressed that the main reason to keep the mural up at the school is focused on the legacy of the artist, rather than experience of the students, according to RAWG (I believe). “It’s reparations,” concluded one of the board members, perhaps as dazzled by the astronomical sum as any GOP lobbyist similarly working for a better, freer world. Those postmodernist-victim shopping lists and breathless condemnations, with the broadly inclusive, comical  ‘etc.’ and poor syntax, constitute in no way a reparation; they constitute a sop to symbolic retribution, and the punitive eradication of a liberal statement irom the past is a colossal waste of money. (Can we impeach?) Columnists ranging from the San Francisco Chronicle’s art critic Charles Desmarais to —strange bedfellows in here!—art historian Brian T. Allen in National Review have weighed in for freedom of speech, the latter quite pointedly, outing by name all seven ‘brainiacs,’ ‘bohemian yahoos’ and ‘anti-art fools’ (whose identities I shall leave discreetly curtained, for now, noting that one of them proposed renaming the school, such was his scornful disregard for “the great George Washington,” to quote our ‘favorite president.’ Many of the school’s alumni and teachers along with hundreds of artists and educators oppose this artistic censorship, counseling either leaving the murals intact, and using them as educational tools (which is my position); or, if the anti-muralists insist on their pound of flesh, covering them (or the offending parts) with panels, at a much lower cost, and thus doing nothing irreversibly shameful, ignorant, and hypocritical, heaping national ignominy on the liberal, socialist shithole of San Francisco.  Lope Yap. Jr., the sole RAWG dissenter, and vice president of the GWHS alumni association, as well as a progressive filmmaker and person of color, has pledged to fight to save the murals. Lawsuits and injunctions are probably in the offing. Stay tuned.

 I have opposed political censorship before, as in the teapot tempest over Dana Schutz’s Emmitet Till painting (www.visualartsource.com/index.php?page=editorial&aID=4029), and I try to be independent from art-world groupthink. L‘Affaire Arnautoff contains so many delicious absurdities that slipping into my Henry Fonda Man-of-Reason costume became mandatory. There are three salient points to make about this imbroglio.

 First, let’s dismiss the notion that art should be judged on its politics (what it says or enjoins) instead of its aesthetics (how it looks, makes us feel). This is the old style-versus-content conundrum, which always seems to suggest that we have to make a choice between saving the world and savoring it; we don’t. Art is often enlisted in the service of power, as all good postmodernist children know: and some of the best art ever made was commissioned by plutocrats and/or scoundrels—the Medici, the Hanoverians, the Bourbons, the cardinals and popes, the dynasties, etc.—to enhance their power and prestige. Nowadays we enjoy the splendor of that art while ignoring the imperial or imperialist unpleasantnesses that paid the artists, and we absolutely should revere the art, despite the complexities of history and patronage. If you look at the Sistine Chapel and see only the massacred Indians of the New World, blood transmogrified into aesthetic gold and silver, you deprive yourself of “the greatest thing that’s ever been done,” in de Kooning’s humorously worshipful words; but if you don’t know the sordid history behind the wealth, or ignore it, you’re not a morallly sentient adult. (Michelangelo’s High Renaissance frescos, let it be noted, have survived even the Reformation addition of fig leaves by poor Daniele da Volterra, Il Braghettone, The Breeches-Maker.)

 Much other art sidesteps current affairs—like Abstract Expressionism, with its focus on pure expression (and its contempt for the leftist propagandist art of the1930s: ”poor art for poor people,” in Arshile Gorky’s memorably dismissive aphorism), its cult of the heroic individual, easily co-opted to serve as propaganda for American-Way capitalism and consumerism. Rampant individualism vs creeping collectivism worked in the Cold War; expect a reprise (not a reprieve) again in 2020, bigly. Some artists manage to bestride both worlds: Philip Guston abandoned the elegant shimmering abstractions he made in the 1950s, loosely based on Monet, during the Vietnam-era 1960s and 1970s, in order to revisit the dark Klansman social commentary that he made in the 1930s. His stylistic epiphany and conversion from heavenly formalism—from “adjusting a red to a blue,” as he put it, later, wryly—to sinister/comic narratives like his excoriating drawings of scowling, scrotal Tricky Dick—evoked passionate reactions in the art congregation; he was assailed as a traitor by some, and as a visionary by others. Politically engaged art and fine art are both valid;  and both produce good and bad art: propaganda on the one hand, decoration on the other.

 As to actual treason, remember that, in the late 1940s, before Life magazine discovered Pollock the Cowboy, AbEx was seen not as red-blooded he-man stuff, but as the decadent, effete art of communists, eggheads, and other bearded, bereted subversives, who might be—who knows?—hiding military secrets in those blobs and squiggles. The McCarthyite Republican senator from Michigan, George Dondero, deserves exhumation:

 "Cubism aims to destroy by designed disorder... Dadaism aims to destroy by ridicule... Abstractionism aims to destroy by the creation of brainstorms". In 1952, Dondero went on to tell Congress that modern art was, in fact, a conspiracy by Moscow to spread communism in the United States. This speech won him the International Fine Arts Council's Gold Medal of Honor for "dedicated service to American Art." When art critic Emily Genauer (future winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism) interviewed Dondero in the mid-1950s he stated "modern art is Communistic because it is distorted and ugly, because it does not glorify our beautiful country, our cheerful and smiling people, our material progress. Art which does not glorify our beautiful country in plain simple terms that everyone can understand breeds dissatisfaction. It is therefore opposed to our government and those who promote it are our enemies." When Genauer pointed out the resemblance between his views and those of the Stalinist Communists he despised, Dondero was so enraged that he arranged to have her fired from her job at the New York Herald Tribune. (Wikipedia)

 Second, the mural is an excellent subject for education about art, culture, and politics. While some see Arnautoff’s “Life of George Washington” as a counter-myth or corrective to the semi-divine man-of-all-seasons status accorded Washington for two and a half centuries by ordinary Americans (as well as the Confederacy and American Bund fascists), I see it as a calculated correction by an artist who had learned to be discreet and modulated. Arnautoff was persona non grata in the USSR for decades because of his having fought on the White side of the Russian civil war; conversely, after his conversion to communism in the 1930s, during the San Francisco General Strike, he was investigated by the FBI for his links with Russia and his associations with visiting cultural figures and more ‘out’ communist artists like Diego Rivera,and other intellectuals in early 1930s Mexico City, all professed communists (as much as artists can be, anyway). Arnautoff’s biographer, Robert W. Cherny, repeatedly emphasized during his hotly disrupted ILWU slide talk that Arnautoff’s murals were in no way disrespectful to blacks and American Indians. On the Washington mural, he writes:

 At a time when the popular portrayal of California Indians sometime still depicted them as ”diggers”– the most primitive and degraded of North American tribes–Arnautoff treated them with dignity, presenting the complex artistry of a woman’s basketry and the man’s fox-skin quiver. He also depicted the meeting of Indians and Spanish authorities as a meeting of equals, a sharp contrast to the depiction of that event in the citiy’s “Pioneer Monument” (1894), which shows an Indian groveling at the feet of a ranchero and priest. (p.103)

 That monument was recently removed from Civic Center by the City of San Francisco, and deservedly so. Cherney continues:

Arnautoff said nothing, then or later, about his murals’ counter-narrative to that thenstandard high school treatment of the founding fathers and Western expansion. Washington dominates five of the six smaller murals but the centers of the four largest barrels are held by native Americans, working-class revolutionaries, and enslaved African Americans. In depicting Washington’s early life, Arnautoff centered the mural on native Americans in war paint, surrounded by British, colonial, and French troops and British colonists. In the facing mural, on the American Revolution, the center belongs to five men in working-class clothing raising the flagpole. VA’s portrayal of Mount Vernon puts Washington near the left margin in places enslaved African Americans at the center, More prominent the several white artisans on the right side of the mural.… Arnautoff’s’s mural makes clear that slave labor provided the plantations’ economic basis. On the facing wall Arnautoff was even more direct: the procession of spectral future pioneers moves west over the body of a dead Indian, challenging the prevailing narrative that westward expansion had been into largely vacant territory waiting for white pioneers to develop its full potential. For Arnautoff,”the spirit of Washington’s time” included not only the struggle for liberty and the founding of a new nation but also chattel slavery and the slaughter of Native Americans. (p.108)

The murals are indictments of America’s failings; they are not as dramatic or tragic as the Mexico City and Cuernavaca murals that Arnautoff helped Diego Rivera paint, full of armored, mounted conquistadores battling hand-to-hand with jaguar-costumed Aztecs wielding obsidian knives, or tortured, lashed Indians at the missions, and thus, they are more ambiguous in their sympathies to the casual viewer, unversed in art. They are on the side of the oppressed, however, while simultaneously giving Washington his due without sanctimoniously demonizing him for being of his time, not ours. As for the sentiment that Arnautoff’s rather soberly painted D.I., Dead Indian, has been traumatizing and triggering GWHS kids for eight decades, I would say that the very nickname is evidence to the contrary. (By the way, the Arnautoffs lived nearby, on 37th Avenue, and the two sons attended the school, as did a granddaughter who wanted to be near the murals.)

 Thirdly and finally, the notion that adolescents are excessively delicate and need protection from reality and history in this way is deeply repugnant and patronizing. I shall not quote the anti-muralists, but even the most temperate of them seem to assume that Americans are not able to handle the inconvenient truth that people do bad things to other people in the names of God, justice and empire—or mere self-interest. Life is violent, you say? Take a look at American culture; Arnautoff’s stately mural, even with its hints of America’s dirty hands, is no rival for the breathless farrago of mass shootings and hypocritical, abusive drivel that bombards us, 24/7. Remember H.G. Wells’ bestial morlocks and elfin eloi in 802,701 AD The Time Machine? Given the challenges that we face today, we cannot afford a younger generation trained to accept virtuous passivity; we need revolutionaries with smarts and moxie, and considerable skill at critical thinking—not just being unthinkingly critical as instructed at the Two-minute Hate du jour.






Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1420881 2019-06-17T02:30:16Z 2019-06-17T02:30:17Z Lagomorphs


 The incessant insanity from Washington may have gradually raised Americans’ threshold of tolerance for nonsense, like the proverbial lobster luxuriating in the slowly warming pot, but sometimes one has to take a stand against even the banal and pointless (saving the truly criminal and murderous for another day). I refer, of course, to the $90,075,000 sale of the not-latest but apparently greatest (at least as determined by the group-mind wisdom of the art market) of Jeff Koons’s balloon-animal sculptures, “Rabbit (1986).” Made in stainless steel, the 41-inch-tall bunny, modeled after a swimming-pool toy, is one of an edition of three, supplemented with one artist’s proof, according to Andrea K. Scott in The New Yorker. It has a curious provenance as well. The painter Terry Winters bought it from Sonnabend Gallery in 1986 for $40,000, selling it a few years later to S.I. Newhouse, owner of Condé Nast (publisher of The New Yorker), for a cool million, for a $960,000 profit. Newhouse’s heirs have just reaped an enormously larger windfall, earning a return on investment of $89,075,000, give or take (minus commissions). Even more piquant in this tale of financial greatness are the players: the broker was Robert Mnuchin, an art collector himself, and the father of Steven Mnuchin, our current Treasury Secretary; the buyer, it has been revealed, is the hedge-fund billionaire, art collector and philanthropist, Steven A. Cohen, whose modernist and contemporary “trophy” pieces may someday furnish a private museum, probably in his home state of Connecticut.

The staggering amounts of money being invested by the 1% in this story cannot fail to appall and aggrieve those of us who see Koons as a kind of huckster in the Trumpian vein; as well as a descendant of the Pop artist Andy Warhol—now the subject of a large retrospective at San Francisco Museum of Art—and, before him, the New York Dadaist and proto-conceptualist Marcel Duchamp. Their joint legacy that art can be, respectively, whatever sells and whatever the artist decides have had a liberating effect on artists, but not one without the downside of making the market values (and public relations, fashion, and advertising) the drivers of the art world, not aesthetic quality. Que sera sera, we might sing, in honor of the late Doris Day.

My low opinion of Koons falls decidedly into the grumpy-codger Robert Hughes vein. Scott quotes him: “He has the slimy assurance of a blow-dried Baptist selling swamp acres in Florida... [Y]ou can’t imagine America’s singularly depraved culture with out him.” Yet she concludes that he is both expensive and great. Kirk Varnedoe, the art historian and MOMA curator, wrote in Artforum in 2003 (again, cited by Scott): “It seemed to me instantly, by involuntary reflex—and it still does by long reflection—that this bunny is one of those very rare hits at the exact center of the target.” Scott continues: “It became an icon of eighties excess (and thus, of white male privilege): fuck like bunnies, make more money, the one with the most toys wins.” It sounds a bit like Arthur Danto’s for-me dubious epiphany of The Brillo Boxes, frankly. Alexander Rotter, a Christie’s executive, went “even a step further.” Here he is, quoted in a Japan Times Culture/Entertainment article:

 Rotter said the sculpture is the antithesis of “the perfect man,” Michelangelo’s “David,” which was “carved by one of the greatest artists of all time with a chisel, out of one block of the purest white marble.’ “It’s the end of sculpture. It’s the anti-‘David,’ as I call it,” he said, referring to Michelangelo’s masterpiece. “You can’t go any further away from ‘David,’ still being figurative and a traditional sculpture.”

 It’s a telling comment, clever in its false-equivalency logic: Koons = Michelangelo, just with the polarities reversed. It does, however, reveal something about our anitheroic, cynical, even subservient era, when even young idealists have been socialized by postmodernism into bitter knowingness and impotence. Sir Kenneth Clark, in his BBC series Civilisation, remarked that great art like that of the Florentine Renaissance comes from periods of cultural confidence. The postmodernist riposte to this would be a catalogue of the crimes of all civilizations, including the moribund American empire, with its dirty laundry now triumphantly aired by the liberal professoriate. There’s no question but that the western liberal democracies have sinned, and often faltered, but can art and civilization be saved from the alternative to humanism, the brain-dead worship of money and might, wedded to theocratic fantasies, before the world ends with a nuclear bang or an environmental-collapse whimper? Is our late-capitalist decadence still amusing, really? I used to mock the phrase ‘late capitalist,’ in the simpler times of the triumphalist post-USSR 1990s, when we thought it safe to fantasize.—DeWitt Cheng

Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1410499 2019-05-19T16:07:39Z 2019-05-19T16:18:03Z Stas Orlovksi at Traywick Contemporary

Subjective Objects

Stas Orlovski is a Los Angeles artist who employs subtle palettes to produce effects far beyond the relatively modest size of his works. He assembles wind, wave and water patterns from Japanese woodcuts; flora and fauna from Victorian books; and abstracted geometric figures from Russian Suprematism to create small theaters or filmscreens replete with birds, butterflies, moons, forests, and fragmented statues, (especially balloon-shaped featureless heads). Comparisons with Paul Klee and Joseph Cornell come to mind, but also with Dadaist/Surrealist collagists like Max Ernst, Bruce Conner and Lawrence Jordan. With the current show, обjект, the artist continues to expand beyond drawing, painting, printmaking and collage into animations projected onto his sculptures, continuing the cinematic turn of his earlier work, Troika, in 2016; like William Kentridge and Tony Oursler, he enlists 21st century technology to pursue his vision, transforming an “iconography of nostalgia” into compelling “dream-like objects.”

 обjект is a hybridized English-Cyrillic spelling of ‘object,’ and hybridization is the theme here, with drawings and ‘illuminated’ sculptures, sometimes of the same motif, engaged in dialogue. “Feet With Flags” is a sepia-toned ink drawing of two mannequin feet set atop a shelf or pedestal and outfitted with blank flags, one rectangular, one triangular, both blown forward, as if by a tailwind. A sculpture of the same feet probably predates the drawing; amplifying the absurdity of these obedient marching metonyms is the fluttering cloth projected on the flags. The antique mannequin torso of “Figure with Suprematist Composition” has a hollowed-out abdomen in which we see jostling geometric forms, like the battling Whites and Reds of revolutionary Russia as represented abstractly, briefly, in contemporaneous political posters. Also shown are four of Orlovsky’s Arp-like heads, two painted and two sculpted and enriched with projections; and a half-dozen landscapes of the artist’s inner world projected on the outer. A large Orlovski installation is coming to San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art in November. обjект runs through May 25; Traywick Contemporary, Berkeley, Thu-Sat 10--4  and by appointment (510) 527-1214; traywick.com. —DeWitt Cheng














Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1410136 2019-05-18T15:08:12Z 2019-05-18T15:08:13Z The Crisis in Art Criticism (reprinted from VisualArtSource.com)

Is There a Crisis in Art Criticism?

Last December the art critic Irving Sandler posed (www.brooklynrail.org) fourteen broadly philosophical questions to fellow art critics who are trying to understand where art is going. Today, the third question, Q3: Is there a crisis in art criticism?

Well, yes, sort of. But first a trip down Memory Lane. In 1925, the Dadaist/Expressionist George Grosz and the publisher Wieland Herzfelde (brother of the photomontage artist John Heartfield) published a diatribe against the avant-garde art of the time (which they considered out of touch), and a defense of Dadaist sociopolitical iconoclasm, entitled “Art is in Danger,” referring to the alarums of “foes of Dada.” It’s a pithy, funny rant, and extremely partisan, excoriating the “the head-in-the-clouds tendency of so-called holy art, whose disciples brooded over …the ‘really’ revolutionary problems of form, color, and style” “while the generals were painting in blood.” If we, a century after The Great War, now oscillate between holy art and aesthetic iconoclasm, and often confuse the two, well, there’s nothing new under the global capitalist sun, maybe. Grosz and Herzfelde: “Formal revolution lost its shock effect a long time ago. The modern citizen digests everything . . . [I]ce-cold, aloof, he hangs the most radical things in his apartment. . . . Rash and unhesitating acceptance so as not to be “born yesterday” is the password. . . . [C]ool, . . . skeptical, without illusions, . . . he understands only his merchandise [read ‘business’]. . .for all culture, there are specialists who determine the fashion. . . . Even the formal revolutionaries . . . do fairly well, for, underneath, they are related to those gentlemen, and have . . . the same indifferent, arrogant view of life.” (That Grosz later repudiated, or at least depicted his earlier radicalism with irony, does not invalidate the 1925 analysis.)

The worldview of the consumer/flâneur, of course, pervades the art world, and it’s no good pining for “holy” art again, in either its realist or abstract incarnations. But to the extent that art exercises an influence on us, even shapes us, we need to be conscious of the values that it embodies, and what pleasure (or pain) centers in our brains it stimulates. If there is a crisis in art criticism—and I think there is—its cause is the present crisis in art, which is due to its plurality and diffuseness. There is no consensus about art’s purpose or function; indeed, at the top rungs of the art world, it often seems devoid of aesthetic value or human emotion, devolved into mere markers of social status. The reason so much art criticism divides into the extremes of formalist exposition/description (without analysis) or politically correct tendentious tract is that meaning has been leached from art in the name of total creative freedom. Today we are conditioned to invest blind faith in the artist and the art world, at the risk of seeming culturally retrograde. The last domain of free thought that many of us once discerned in art once has gradually become (or is becoming, or is in danger of becoming) an entertainment for the fashionable conformist: the popular game in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Centrifugal Bumble Puppy. The crisis in art, reflected in the crisis in art crit, is a reflection of contemporary society. In my opinion—and take it as misguided or alarmist if you will—is that we cannot afford to remain arrogant and indifferent to—and perpetually distracted from—the critically important larger crises at our doorstep. Art can be part of the solution; it should not exult in being part of the problem, or cover-up. —DeWitt Cheng




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

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

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

In 2012 I wrote in Art Ltd magazine:

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

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


Sonoma Valley Museum of Art

January 19 - April 7, 2019

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

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

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

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

























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

Wesley Tongson’s Paintings Depict His Spiritual Journey

by DeWitt Cheng

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

A Panoramic Exhibition Traces Chinese Contemporary Art

by DeWitt Cheng

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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









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

San Francisco Artist Turns Trump’s Words Against Him 

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

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

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

I was similarly enthusiastic, reviewing for ArtLtd.

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

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

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






























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


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

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

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

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
















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

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


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


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


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


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

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


Robert Koch Gallery


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

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




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

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

Asian Art Museum, September 7-December 9, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

Matthew Wetschler: The Space of Uncertainty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

JULIE HUANG: Connections

JAMES SU: Spring Outings

Contemporary Paintings by Asian-American Artists

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

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


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


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

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



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

Continuing through July 29, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Reprinted from VisualArtSource.com, June 2018

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