tag:artopticon.us,2013:/posts ArtOpticon.us 2022-09-25T20:41:44Z Dewitt Cheng tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1874715 2022-08-30T06:16:07Z 2022-08-30T06:16:07Z "Review of Florian von Donnersmarck's "Never Look Away," a pseudo-biopic of Gerhard Richter (originally published inVisualArtSource.com)

Never Look Away (Work without Author)

A month ago, I listed a number of films about art and artists that I thought worthwhile. Naturally, I forgot or missed some. Recently I watched Maurice Pialat’s 1991 film, ”Van Gogh,” with Jacques Dutronc  in a mesmerizing performance as the artist: quiet and observant—internalized—and very different from Kirk Douglas’s energetic interpretation in Lust for Life (which Dutronc said in an later interview that he liked, as I do). It’s a naturalistic film, verging on cinema verité, unbound by Hollywood script mechanics, and a wonderful recreation of 1880s rural France that might almost have sprung from a Renoir or Lautrec painting. It even refuses to hit the usual hagiographic high notes of Vincent’s wounding or death, which take place offscreen, but is no less affecting for that reticence.

A few days ago, I finally saw Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s new film (only his third), Never Look Away, loosely based on the life of the painter Gerhard Richter, who has intriguingly disavowed the film, as was recounted in a New Yorker profile a few months ago. The story of a young artist’s development in Nazi Germany in the1940s, in Communist East Germany in the 1950s and then in free West Germany in the 1960s sounded, with its interweaving of biography, history and politics, almost too good to be true. It was, slightly, but I still recommend it. The three-hour-long film’s recreation of the past is faultless, and Caleb Deschanel’s photography is gorgeous; in those respects NLA is similar to Mike Leigh’s 2014 Mr. Turner, another mixed success for me, sumptuous, but suffering from a flawed script.

Von Donnersmarck’s first film, The Lives of Others, from 2007, was an astonishing début, comparable to Orson Welles’ 1941 Citizen Kane, and one of the best movies I have ever seen in its integration of art and politics. In it, a leftist playwright, played by Sebastian Koch, in Communist East Germany, is suspected of subversion by a dedicated Stasi agent, played by the late Ulrich Mühe, who spies upon him—and is gradually converted from rigid conformity to a humanist appreciation for beauty and ambiguity; sitting hour after hour, listening through headphones, he’s humanized. We almost feel humanized, watching him. When he helps save the playwright fro prison, he is discovered, and demoted. Ten years later, the playwright, having discovered the facts, dedicates a memoir to his benefactor, who is now sweeping streets; he sees it in a bookstore window. Fade out. That’s an ending worthy of the best Charles Chaplin: sentimental, moving, and profoundly human.

Unfortunately, Never Look Away, for all its plot contrivances (which I won’t spoil for you), and political melodrama and comedy, does not soar into filmic immortality in the same way. Kurt, the young protagonist is a born observer, but powerless and seemingly unaffected when his young ‘artistic’ aunt, given to spells of madness, is seized by the Nazis for sterilization and exterminaton. Members of his family die in the war, and after the war Kurt tells his father, a former teacher reduced after denazification to scrubbing floors, that everything is connected (echoing his aunt’s delusion) and that he need never worry; later, Kurt discovers that his father has hanged himself, a bit stolen from Philip Guston’s life, but not, to my knowledge, Richter’s. Kurt enters art school in East Berlin and soon becomes a star pupil, charged with an important Socialist Realist mural due to his professor’s efforts. Kurt betrays him when he flees to West Berlin shortly before the wall is completed, with his young wife, who has, shall we say, some issues with her gynecologist father (Sebastian Koch again), a former Nazi who has managed to stay undiscovered. We see the mural—and it’s not that great, for Socialist Realism: a bit too lumpish for officialdom, frankly—being whitewashed after the defection, and we’re supposed to feel—what? Genius is too good for this wicked world?

Given this richly tragic story, we might expect a fittingly triumphant ending, but alas, no. Kurt, faced by the artistic liberties of the west, embodied in the Joseph Beuys figure at Dusseldorf Academy, is reduced to creative paralysis, experimenting with meaningless avant-garde trickery (walking on and slashing canvases, which, according to his teacher, are “not you”) before finally sitting immobile at his easel for entire days. Salvation comes when he seizes upon old photos of himself with his doomed aunt in happier times and of his odious Aryan father-in-law (who might be reasonably expected to approve of Kurt’s blond Siegfried poster-boy looks); he grids the photographs and paints them in grisaille, then takes a dry flat brush and smears horizontal streaks across them, simulating the depredations of time and history. When a rich classmate exhibits the work, they are a sensation, and at the end, at the Wuppertal Kunsthalle, Kurt answers questions from the arty audience about his imagery—and lies: they’re nobody in particular, he says; it’s easier when I don’t know the people. As for doing more gray snapshots, no: I am interested in color charts now. It’s an oddly antiheroic, banal conclusion—no matter that it follows Richter’s career, but trivializes it— to what we might have expected; it’s as if there had been no discovery of Rosebud’s identity at the end of Citizen Kane. (There are, however, metaphoric choruses of bus horns, resoundingly linking the 1940s and the 1960s.)

Mine is a minority opinion, so see it for yourself. A lot of it is memorable, even astounding—particularly the recreation of the 1937 Degenerate Art show in Berlin, for which duplicates of lost paintings were made—and I look forward to the director’s next effort, even if, like Welles, or Shyamalan, he should turn out to be a one-hit wonder, which is not such a bad thing, in the big picture. As for including a Monkees-style montage of art-student hijinks, set to Francoise Hardy’s “Le Temps de L’Amour” (I had the album during my francophile phase), well, it was the Sixties, everywhere, and everything is connected.Never Look Away (Work without Author)

A month ago, I listed a number of films about art and artists that I thought worthwhile. Naturally, I forgot or missed some. Recently I watched Maurice Pialat’s 1991 film, ”Van Gogh,” with Jacques Dutronc  in a mesmerizing performance as the artist: quiet and observant—internalized—and very different from Kirk Douglas’s energetic interpretation in Lust for Life (which Dutronc said in an later interview that he liked, as I do). It’s a naturalistic film, verging on cinema verité, unbound by Hollywood script mechanics, and a wonderful recreation of 1880s rural France that might almost have sprung from a Renoir or Lautrec painting. It even refuses to hit the usual hagiographic high notes of Vincent’s wounding or death, which take place offscreen, but is no less affecting for that reticence.

A few days ago, I finally saw Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s new film (only his third), Never Look Away, loosely based on the life of the painter Gerhard Richter, who has intriguingly disavowed the film, as was recounted in a New Yorker profile a few months ago. The story of a young artist’s development in Nazi Germany in the1940s, in Communist East Germany in the 1950s and then in free West Germany in the 1960s sounded, with its interweaving of biography, history and politics, almost too good to be true. It was, slightly, but I still recommend it. The three-hour-long film’s recreation of the past is faultless, and Caleb Deschanel’s photography is gorgeous; in those respects NLA is similar to Mike Leigh’s 2014 Mr. Turner, another mixed success for me, sumptuous, but suffering from a flawed script.

Von Donnersmarck’s first film, The Lives of Others, from 2007, was an astonishing début, comparable to Orson Welles’ 1941 Citizen Kane, and one of the best movies I have ever seen in its integration of art and politics. In it, a leftist playwright, played by Sebastian Koch, in Communist East Germany, is suspected of subversion by a dedicated Stasi agent, played by the late Ulrich Mühe, who spies upon him—and is gradually converted from rigid conformity to a humanist appreciation for beauty and ambiguity; sitting hour after hour, listening through headphones, he’s humanized. We almost feel humanized, watching him. When he helps save the playwright fro prison, he is discovered, and demoted. Ten years later, the playwright, having discovered the facts, dedicates a memoir to his benefactor, who is now sweeping streets; he sees it in a bookstore window. Fade out. That’s an ending worthy of the best Charles Chaplin: sentimental, moving, and profoundly human.

Unfortunately, Never Look Away, for all its plot contrivances (which I won’t spoil for you), and political melodrama and comedy, does not soar into filmic immortality in the same way. Kurt, the young protagonist is a born observer, but powerless and seemingly unaffected when his young ‘artistic’ aunt, given to spells of madness, is seized by the Nazis for sterilization and exterminaton. Members of his family die in the war, and after the war Kurt tells his father, a former teacher reduced after denazification to scrubbing floors, that everything is connected (echoing his aunt’s delusion) and that he need never worry; later, Kurt discovers that his father has hanged himself, a bit stolen from Philip Guston’s life, but not, to my knowledge, Richter’s. Kurt enters art school in East Berlin and soon becomes a star pupil, charged with an important Socialist Realist mural due to his professor’s efforts. Kurt betrays him when he flees to West Berlin shortly before the wall is completed, with his young wife, who has, shall we say, some issues with her gynecologist father (Sebastian Koch again), a former Nazi who has managed to stay undiscovered. We see the mural—and it’s not that great, for Socialist Realism: a bit too lumpish for officialdom, frankly—being whitewashed after the defection, and we’re supposed to feel—what? Genius is too good for this wicked world?

Given this richly tragic story, we might expect a fittingly triumphant ending, but alas, no. Kurt, faced by the artistic liberties of the west, embodied in the Joseph Beuys figure at Dusseldorf Academy, is reduced to creative paralysis, experimenting with meaningless avant-garde trickery (walking on and slashing canvases, which, according to his teacher, are “not you”) before finally sitting immobile at his easel for entire days. Salvation comes when he seizes upon old photos of himself with his doomed aunt in happier times and of his odious Aryan father-in-law (who might be reasonably expected to approve of Kurt’s blond Siegfried poster-boy looks); he grids the photographs and paints them in grisaille, then takes a dry flat brush and smears horizontal streaks across them, simulating the depredations of time and history. When a rich classmate exhibits the work, they are a sensation, and at the end, at the Wuppertal Kunsthalle, Kurt answers questions from the arty audience about his imagery—and lies: they’re nobody in particular, he says; it’s easier when I don’t know the people. As for doing more gray snapshots, no: I am interested in color charts now. It’s an oddly antiheroic, banal conclusion—no matter that it follows Richter’s career, but trivializes it— to what we might have expected; it’s as if there had been no discovery of Rosebud’s identity at the end of Citizen Kane. (There are, however, metaphoric choruses of bus horns, resoundingly linking the 1940s and the 1960s.)

Mine is a minority opinion, so see it for yourself. A lot of it is memorable, even astounding—particularly the recreation of the 1937 Degenerate Art show in Berlin, for which duplicates of lost paintings were made—and I look forward to the director’s next effort, even if, like Welles, or Shyamalan, he should turn out to be a one-hit wonder, which is not such a bad thing, in the big picture. As for including a Monkees-style montage of art-student hijinks, set to Francoise Hardy’s “Le Temps de L’Amour” (I had the album during my francophile phase), well, it was the Sixties, everywhere, and everything is connected.

https://www.visualartsource.com/index.php?page=editorial&pcID=22&aID=5215

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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1863231 2022-08-02T20:32:39Z 2022-08-02T20:32:40Z Diego Rivera's Greater America

An edited version of this appears in TheDemocracyChain.orghttps://www.thedemocracychain.org/dcheng0722


RIVERA’S GREATER AMERICA

My mural which I am painting now—it is about the marriage of the artistic expression of the North and of the South on this continent, that is all. I believe in order to make an American art, a real American art, this will be necessary, this blending of the art of the Indian, the Mexican, the Eskimo, with the kind of urge which makes the machine, the invention in the material side of life, which is also an artistic urge, the same urge primarily but in a different form of expression.
—Diego Rivera, 1940

The January 6 hearings have been a bombshell, exploding the myths of Trump’s patriotism, character, and competence for all to see—and for his MAGA-cult minions to deny with their usual alacrity. The ex-Trumper men and women who are finally coming forward to testify or to write tell-all books are being lauded by the excitable mainstream press as heroes; Adam Kinzinger, Rusty Bowers and Cassidy Hutchinson, braving threats to life and career do merit our respect; while Liz Cheney, William Barr, and a number of other published Trump apostates, however useful their current testimony, may have ulterior motives and should be considered heroes only qualifiedly. So why did it take the mob-and.mobster mayhem of January 6 to awaken these loyalists (some of whom bizarrely assert that they would still vote for Trump again,) who mocked the ‘woke’ liberals for four years, from their dogmatic slumbers?

The truth about Trump has been evident to anyone without rose-colored (or Rose-Garden-colored) lenses for decades. He’s a capitalist embodiment of the old Seven Deadly Sins, after all: Lust, Envy, Glutton, Anger, Sloth, Envy, and —hmmm, that’s six—oh, Greed. If there is one good feature about the horde of evils released by the Pandora of Trumpism, it is the exposure that—to quote Republican political operative Stuart Stevens’ 2020 book characterizing Trumpism as Reagan Republicanism on steroids, It Was All A Lie.

Any reader of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (1980) —which should be required reading for high-schoolers, in an ideal, literate world—could have told us that before Reagan was elected, but the myth of American virtue and exceptionalism persisted in the mass mind and mass-media mind. Horatio Alger’s best-selling up-from-poverty-with-pluck capitalist versions of Dickens survive, despite the ‘concerning’ realities. Tucker Carlson, a day or two ago, touted his own estimable 90-hour-a-week work ethic—not crafting chicken pies for his Swanson-heiress mother, but polishing paternalistic moral tales for keeping the benighted both blessed with progeny and in debt: dependable wage slaves for the Masters of the Universe. Work for nothing, teens; show us your character.

If the United States is to prosper and even survive, mainstream Americans must shake off the toxic lie of Christian capitalist white supremacy. The demographics are on the side of a pluralistic, multicultural America; so are common decency and the real history of an immigrant America, not Hollywood tales of jut-jawed gunmen defending the “sacred American way of life,” to use Dubya’s felicitous term from 2001, against The Other. The last, final existential battle between equal and opposite contending forces/principles— good guys and bad guys—curiously never seems to be the the last, just the penultimate—or the one before that. There’s always a new clash of the titans when historical time (complex reality) gets morphed into mythic time (simplistic fantasy). Epic cosplay adventure time again!

The current exhibition of 150 little-seen artworks by Diego Rivera at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is entitled Diego Rivera’s America. That claim to sovereignty is a corrective to those of the flag-bearing European colonists of the New World that reflects the artist’s own background as a Paris-trained modernist who returned to Mexico to renew his affiliation with his homeland and its mestizo (mixed) culture. America for Rivera was the entire western hemisphere, “the territory included between two ice barriers of the two poles.”  The exhibit resurrects for younger audiences an artistic giant who merged sociopolitical convictions with compelling power and beauty. Rivera is an epic history painter (without the establishmentarian negative connotations of the word); his sprawling, packed murals, collapses and conflate eras and cultures, violating the time and space unities of classical historiography. While the exhibit includes large-scale videos of murals painted elsewhere, Rivera's colossal Pan-American Unity, or, The Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and the South on This Continent, from 1940, on loan at SFMOMA until January from City College of San Francisco, should not be missed, either —as if the ten-panel, multi-ton, 22’ x 74’  panorama, mounted to the wall in the museum’s foyer, could be overlooked.


Take the time to take it in again. Mid-century murals like Rivera’s Pan-American Unity and Victor Arnautoff’s George Washington High School murals, the subject of political controversy in recent years, are artistic/historic time capsules in which San Francisco, liberal and tolerant (most of the time), is blessed—if we resist the desire to ‘cancel’ them for current political sins.  NelsonRockefeller ‘canceled’ Rivera’s 1932 New York City mural for depicting, amid the hordes populating Man at the Crossroads, that antichrist of capitalism and idol of 1930s communists like Rivera, V.I. Lenin. (By 1942,Rivera had concluded, after learning of pogroms and show trials: “Communist revolution has only one outcome: totalitarian dictatorship…. democracy is the only alternative….”)

Rivera’s universal history of the Americas is encyclopedic and maximalist; it’s almost a God’s eye view of the history of the New World. He includes the cultures (indigenous and Anglo-immigrant) and personalities that shaped the New World for centuries and those world-stage actors still important during the 1930s. The nameless weavers, miners, farmers, and other laborers whose contributions go unsung by history are here ennobled and commemorated, without the false pomp of Socialist Realism. Eminent persons of all kinds are included as well: the poet Netzahualcoyotl, king of Texcoco; Helen Crlenkovich, Olympic high diver, and Timothy Pflueger, San Francisco architect and Rivera patron;  the engineers and industrialists Albert Einstein, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, along with Samuel F.B. Morse and Robert Fulton, the last two painters as well as inventors; the political leaders Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln with their Mexican counterparts, Miguel Hidalgo and Jose Maria Morelos; the revolutionists Simòn Bolivar and John Brown; cultural figures like Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Edward G. Robinson, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Frida Káhlo, Emmy Lou Packard (one of Rivera’s assistants) at the easel, now the subject of a retrospective exhibition at Richmond Art Center), Frank Lloyd Wright, Maronio Magaña (sculpting the stone head of the Aztec Feathered Serpent god of sun, wind, air and learning, Quetzalcoatl), and Rivera himself; and even the dictators of the day, Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler—whom Chaplin jokingly chided for having stolen his tLittle Tramp toothbrush mustache and parodied as Adenoid Hynkel in his 1940 film, The Great Dictator. That film begins in satirical buffoonery and concludes with Chaplin’s little Jewish barber, disguised at Hitler in Nazi uniform, pleading across the airwaves for universal tolerance and goodwill. Democracy is the only alternative.

It’s a compendium of his past history, of his European artistic heritage and his love for working class people and his love of indigenous history. You know, I mean, it's all there. And his idea of progress and change, that it's not scary. For him, the idea of change is moving forward all together within this piece. To me, [the forbidding Aztec goddess] Coatlicue [at the center of the mural] is not just the earth. Coatlicue is the cosmos. In all its beauty and humbleness and its scariness, you know, which he does not shy away from. So, it it's really like, it is an exuberant, magnificent, life-affirming piece. — Yolanda López, Chicana artist and activist

Yeah, it is magnificent, it is beautiful. But it’s also really complex because it’s Rivera’s vision of this American continent shaped by similar historical forces, the Indigenous past, colonial history, but also this confidence in innovation and technology. Like a lot of his work, for me, this mural is, it’s just super optimistic: if we emphasize what we share more than what divides us, across ethnic or class or political borders, if we empathize, you know, we might actually achieve greater harmony, greater equality. It’s a utopian idea, of course, but it’s a very powerful one. —James Oles, curator of Diego Rivera’s America






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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1863195 2022-08-02T19:07:03Z 2022-08-02T19:07:03Z Laura Van Duren "Gut Feeling" at Transmission Gallery San Francisco; new curated selection of recycled plastic figures by Jerry Ross Barrish, 7/31/22 ]]> Dewitt Cheng tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1863186 2022-08-02T18:49:37Z 2022-08-02T18:49:37Z Patricia Araujo's "Tomorrowland Today" at Institute for Research in the SocialSciences, Stanford. August-December, 2022 ]]> Dewitt Cheng tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1852048 2022-07-06T23:59:43Z 2022-07-07T18:31:27Z "Moving Pictures: The Photography of Irene Poon" at Fine Arts Gallery at SFSU (https://gallery.sfsu.edu), San Francisco, through July 29. 7/6/22 ]]> Dewitt Cheng tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1850387 2022-07-03T15:43:56Z 2022-07-03T15:43:56Z Carlos Villa at Asian Art Museum, Civic Center, San Francisco, 7/2/22 ]]> Dewitt Cheng tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1850237 2022-07-03T04:24:23Z 2022-07-03T05:21:34Z Carlos Viila at San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery, San Francisco, 7/2/22 ]]> Dewitt Cheng tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1844619 2022-06-21T00:09:24Z 2022-07-28T18:12:05Z Pancho Jimenez, Impressions & Revelations, Jenkins Johnson Gallery, San Francisco, June 4-July 2, 2022 (published by VisualArtSource.com, 6/11/22)
Pancho Jiménez, "Impressions & Revelations"
by DeWitt Cheng
Pancho Jiménez, “Progression #1-5," ceramic, 8" diameter;10" diameter; 10" diameter; (l. to 4.) 12 x 10 x 10"; 10 x 14 x 11"
Jenkins Johnson Gallery, San Francisco, California
Continuing through July 2, 2022
 
With a seemingly endless supply of reports of catastrophes assailing us — freak weather, gun massacres, corporate corruption, and fascist putsches — nervous doomscrolling has become a fact of current American life — at least for those with a strong enough gut not to tune out in defeat. Remember when post-apocalyptic fantasies were innocent fun? I remember seeing the “Warheads” ceramic sculptures of Robert Arneson during the militaristic Reagan 1980s and admiring their combination of politics and aesthetics, Jonathan Swift’s saeva indignatio (fierce indignation) expressed with over-the-top, take-no-prisoners comic ferocity. Tell us what you really think, Bob.
Pancho Jiménez, “Fulfilled,” 2019, ceramic, 23 x 10 x 9”
The ceramic sculptures of Pancho Jiménez in “Impressions & Revelations” continue the Bay Area tradition of ceramic satire, but in a subtler vein, minus Arneson’s larger-than-life polemical brio, but no less meaningfully or effectively. The neutral presentation of Jiménez’s pseudo-artifacts — featuring cute mass-market imagery jumbled together as if caught by fire, flood, earthquake, or lava flow, and covered with a glaze that suggests amber-trapped insects — lets us do the interpretive work rather than accede passively to the artist’s dictates. Post-apocalypse now, if you want it.
 
The ten free-standing pieces placed on pedestals and the nine wall-mounted reliefs in the show could easily be taken by a cursory viewer as brilliantly colored archaeological artifacts. Jiménez uses massive, compressed forms to contain his cultural plasmas, made from commercial molds used for what used to be deemed kitsch — figurines and tchotchkes — at least before A-list artists embraced low-class motifs for high-class patrons. Easy irony is not the point of Jiménez’s cultural critique, however. He conflates the past in the form of tripods, plaques and other ceremonial artifacts; the present with his mass-market decorations; and a hypothetical future in which these transtemporal works (or ruins of works) can be surveyed by a perhaps wiser, gentler race of survivors.
The artist depicts America’s current mass culture of easy fun, historical amnesia, and incessant distraction in the wider context of history: sub specie aeternitatis, under the guise of eternity, in the “eternal present” of art, especially the ancient pre-Columbian art that has long fascinated the artist.
 
The idea of geometric wholes, broken or eroded to reveal their innards, was employed by the Italian sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro. Jiménez revives it — with a pop-culture dimension — to good and timely effect. “Cenotes” is a three-legged glazed ocher sculpture that suggests the bronze tripods of ancient cultures, as well as a giant’s molar, yellowed by time. Where the tooth’s nerves should be, encased in dentine, are deep cavities in which we discern composite mechanical parts thrown together, like rubble encased in Roman concrete. Cenotes are sinkholes in limestone that have been flooded with fresh water that are found in the Yucatán peninsula. A circle of them surrounds the Chicxulub meteor crater. 
Pancho Jiménez, “Nucleus," 2017, ceramic, 26" diameter
Pancho Jiménez, “Gaze," 2022, ceramic, 13 x 13 x 3 1/2"
“Gaze” is a purplish-gray glazed circular wall plaque in low relief, covered by faces cast from molds, their eyes closed, with the boundary between the faces suggestive of a stylized closed eye. The totality resembles the ommatidia-faceted eyes of flies and dragonflies. “Nucleus” is a large reddish-orange sphere covered by impacted tchotchkes that suggests a world overtaken by trash and trivia, while its formal obverse, the five smaller “Progression” sculptures, suggest a sequence of explosions from within as a delicately textured spherical cell sacrifices itself in order to replicate. Jiménez's five bleached-white plaques of internet company logos — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat — posit an archaeology of the ephemeral, and would make for wonderful tiles in some future corporate temple done à la Frank Lloyd Wright.
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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1843609 2022-06-18T14:45:27Z 2022-06-18T14:45:27Z Gale Antokal "Intensity of Silence" at Sanchez Art Center, Pacifica, June 3-26, 2022 Gale Antokal's body of work, on view in the Main Gallery, is aptly titled Intensity of Silence. Intensity is defined as extreme degree of strength, force, energy or feeling. The drawings made with graphite, flour, ash and pastel on paper are forceful in their quietude. The medium addresses the artist's personal iconography, with ash the finite end of all material, while flour is the sustenance of life. Antokal shares that the vulnerability of her materials "serves as a metaphor for the human condition that has potential of being erased and can vanish in a brief moment”.

Her images on the paper appear in a space that is undefined evoking a sense of mystery that invites the viewer to linger trying to discern what's beyond the edges. In Place 6, a solitary rower is centered on the paper in such a way that you think you can hear the quiet gentle rhythm of the oars in the water. One wonders is the background clouds or trees on the shore? Where has the individual come from and where they are going? Are there others?

Inspiration is taken from photographic collections in books and online archives, with figures and transportation conveyances seemingly from another time and a place that once was, though the artist has noted that recent works are motivated by stories of recent war, trauma migration and loss.

Gale Antokal was born in New York, New York, and received her BFA (1980) and MFA from the California College of the Arts in 1984. In 1992 Antokal received a Visual Arts Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She is a Professor Emeritus at San Jose State University in the Department of Art and Art History. Antokal held several visiting artist positions and teaching positions including the San Francisco Art Institute, Instructor of Art History at the Lehrhaus Institute, and the American College in Jerusalem. She was an affiliate faculty member in the JSSItaly program in Civita Castellana, Italy in 2015.

The public is invited to enjoy a conversation between Gale Antokal and Richard Whittaker (founder, Works & Conversations) on Sunday, June 26, 3:30 pm. This talk is presented through Sanchez Art Center's free art education and engagement programming.

Sanchez Art Center is located at 1220 Linda Mar Blvd in Pacifica, about a mile east of Highway 1. Following opening night, the galleries are open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, 1–5 pm, through June 26. For more information, email  info@SanchezArtCenter.org, or call 650.355.1894. 
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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1843587 2022-06-18T14:13:17Z 2022-06-18T14:13:18Z A World Free of Plastic Imagined, curated by Hanna Regev, Ruth's Table, San Francisco

A World Free of Plastic Imagined exhibition aims to call attention to and expand our understanding of the issue of plastic pollution through the lens of Bay Area artists and inspire each of us to consider how we can all engage on this increasingly critical issue to secure the wellbeing of our planet.

In a contemporary culture of consumption, the negative consequences of the excessive use of plastic are real and harmful to the environment and our health. If the current pattern is to continue, it would have damaging effects on our ecosystems and threaten the stability of the ocean life. Imagine if we could reverse and change this pattern. 

The exhibition brings together a group of artists to send a strong message about the damaging impact of plastic pollution our planet through photography, mixed media work, assemblage, installation, and painting. Some works in the exhibition approach the issue creatively by documenting, repurposing, and reusing plastic waste. A number of works bring together arts and science to communicate critical data about plastic pollution, shine light on solutions aimed to mitigate the crisis, and help inspire change.

The result is an impactful visual narrative that aims to educate, raise awareness, and offer a provocative look at the impact we each have on our world, and a reminder that small individual changes can bring about major and necessary change.


Jerry Barrish
Irene Carvajal
DeWitt Cheng
Antonio Cortez
Tess Felix
Michal Gavish
Tanya Knoop
Liz Mamorsky
Federico Panigue
Dianne Platner
Ruth Tabancay

Opening reception was June 9, 2022. Show continues to August 26
Ruth’s Table, 3160 21st Street, San Francisco
Tuesday- Friday  10am-5pm
First Saturdays of Each Month 11am-3pm
or by appointment
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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1826398 2022-05-04T22:36:57Z 2022-05-06T20:35:34Z Duane Michals "Portraits" at Crocker Museum, Sacramento, 2018

Duane Michals: The Portraitist
Crocker Art Museum

It’s an era of celebrity worship—and, with Instagram selfies, of democratic self-aggrandizement—so the timing of this large exhibition of Duane Michals’ photographic portraits of our cultural royalty, with a few commoner friends and relatives thrown in, could not be better timed. “Portraits,” curated by Linda Benedict-Jones, and presented by Curatorial Assistance Traveling Exhibitions, features more than 125 photos—“recently discovered by the artist in his New York apartment,” according to the museum press materials.  Old and young familiar faces—musicians, actors and actresses, artists, writers— appear, but seen in unfamiliar ways: personally, and idiosyncratically interpreted.

Michals, a self-taught photographer, has had a long career photographing for publications, but came to art-world notice in the early 1970s with Sequences, a book of narrative sequences of staged/posed photos that married age-old themes—youth, love, loss, old age, death, transfiguration—with the spare, cool, minimalist aesthetic of that period. These multi-shot mini-stories might be stills from a movie made conjointly by Michelangelo Antonioni and Wim Wenders, preceding by two decades CIndy Sherman’s famous fake-film stills. Influenced by writers as well as artists, including Balthus, William Blake, Lewis Carroll, Thomas Eakins, René Magritte (whose memorable multi-exposure portraits are on view), and Walt Whitman, Michals, who, born in 1932, and an exact contemporary of Andy Warhol (whose portraits are also included) balked at the limitations and superficiality of ‘pure’ photography. (Warhol famously embraced superficiality.) He defiled the sanctity of the pristine photographic objet-d’art by jotting ironic or even at times elegiac inscriptions about the subjects on the prints in a distinctive spidery, ultra-thin handwriting. Michals: “My writing grew out of my frustration with photography. If I took a picture of you ... it would tell me nothing of you as a person.... Sixty percent of my work is photography and the rest is writing.” Like some other celebrated photographers (e.g., Walker Evans, and Andre Kertesz, who appears in Michals’ homage to Hockney), he ventured beyond photography into painting as well, repurposing old tintypes with geometric motifs in oil paint.

It’s extremely difficult to sum up a six-decade career in a few hundred words, but certain themes are present throughout the portraits, which are, like good portrait paintings. as much about the artist as the subject: a respect for individuality; a recognition that life is transient, yet miraculous; and a delight, sometimes whimsical, sometimes ironic, in the power of the imagination and the ambiguities of reality—hence his interest in creative personalities. Michals writes of his subject, the Romanian absurdist playwright, Eugene Ionesco: “Always hovering over his writing is the melancholy of our essential loneliness, and yet he found ways of illuminating this through a filter of humor and satire.” This might be Michals’ credo as well. He annotates another ‘imaginary’ portrait with these octogenarian words of wisdom:

I’m a miracle. We’re walking, talking miracles. You probably gave to be on your death-bed to realize that you’re a miracle, just when it’s too late. But it’s possible to know now, saints know now. If there’s some way that we could understand that being alive is not simply a matter of consuming things and using deodorants. It really is a matter of being a walking, talking, once-in-a-lifetime offer in the universe that’s never going to happen again.

Some noteworthy ‘straight’ portraits—aside from shots of Meryl Streep and Barbara Streisand at the beginnings of their careers—are Veronica Lake, past her glamor-girl peekaboo era in the 1940s, in middle age, laughing at a hotel restaurant where she once worked, while a customer seated behind her booth reacts in surprise; Toshiro Mifune, standing beneath a leafy park canopy of foliage, caught talking, and rather less superhuman than usual, by Michals’ shutter; and a young Carol Burnett, demonstrating the extreme flexibility of her “Freaky Fingers.” Michals examines the human condition in “Self-Portrait as if I Were Dead,” a double-exposure shot of the artist contemplating, with equanimity, his sheeted body on a morgue gurney; and affecionate portraits of departed friends and lovers. Michals’ enjoyment of mirrors, reflections and the theater of self-presentation shines forth in his five-photo sequence of Tilda Swinton as Sibyl, as she progressively removing the veils covering her face; Swinton again, in the Magrittean “Mr. Backwards Forwards,” as an “androgynous phantom” in a man’s suit who rotates her head 180 degrees to look into a handheld mirror, from which she regards us indirectly, like Perseus avoiding Medusa’s gaze; the film director François Truffaut, standing in a darkened hotel room, silhouetted against the window, reflected in two mirrors on adjacent walls; Ludmila Tcherina, the ‘older’ ballerina, Irina, in the 1948 film classic, The Red Shoes, peering at us from a handheld mirror against a rain-streaked view of Paris; a triple view of the artist Ray Johnson and his storefront reflections; Joseph Cornell, reduced by the camera to a Giacomettian wraith;  the author Joan Didion, her features seen through openings in a sheet of cut paper (or is it a photographed photograph?), with her face framed by the shadow of her head and shoulders. Notable for their good-natured kidding are: two images of Chuck Close, seen up close and from afar; two photos, shot years apart, of Sting resembling a young Danny Kaye, and Danny Kaye, an old Sting; and René and Georgette Magritte, holding hands, the clasp unseen behind a tree trunk. Susan Sontag, also photographed here, as a young prodigy, wrote, “All photographs are memento mori,” but some achieve the status of immortal “privileged moment[s]” that join “the image-world that bids to outlast us all.” Some of them are miracles.


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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1808273 2022-03-18T04:01:18Z 2022-03-18T04:04:47Z Minnesota Street Projects, San Francisco, 3/17/22.
A potpourri of art from Minnesota Street Projects, San Francisco, 3/17/22. "Superposition" mixed-media geometric abstractions by Carrie Ann Plank at Themes +Projects; conceptual sculpture (“Tuning the Fork”) by Paul Kos at Anglim Trimble; monochrome landscape paintings by James Chronister (“Only Sunrises”) at Eleanor Harwood; cut-paper assemblages (”A Clear Day”) by Zaida Oenema at Municipal Bonds; “Oil and Clay” at Jack Fischer Gallery, pairing abstractions by Jenny Bloomfield with painted, gilded ceramics  by Dennis O’Leary; and “O, the FinalLetter in the [ :] Alphabet, a group show curated by Isabelle Sorrell, at Anglim Trimble (downstairs).

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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1806741 2022-03-14T01:36:58Z 2022-03-14T01:43:42Z Spiritual Mountains: Wesley Tongson at Berkeley Art Museum




Spiritual Mountains: The Art of Wesley Tongson
Berkeley Art Museum
January 12–June 12, 2022

Originality is the tacitly assumed essence and sine qua non of creative art. Young artists in ultra-individualistic America sometimes avoid looking at older artists for fear of being influenced, or contaminated—to their detriment. Artists of the past learned from the masters by copying and assimilating. Arshile Gorky famously copied Picasso (“If he drips, I drip.”), himself an omnivorous eye; and Ben Shahn praised the artists of the past as friendly ghosts, not obstacles or enemies. Creative talent may be inborn but it has to be developed.

Adding to the confusion in recent years was postmodernist theory. The deaths of the author/artist and of individuality itself were widely accepted in academia. Jorge Luis Borges parodied the death of originality in his prescient 1939 pseudo-article considering the literary achievement of “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote.” ”His admirable ambition,” writes Borges,”was to produce pages which would coincide—word for word and line for line—with those of Miguel de Cervantes.” And then there are the complexities of digital art, with appropriation and plagiarism shading into each other.

The Hong Kong painter Wesley Tongson (1957-2012) exemplifies the synthesis of tradition and innovation. In 2018, the Chinese Cultural Center of San Francisco presented a small but impressive exhibition of his work, entitled The Journey.  Curator Catherine Maudsley noted that Tongson’s ink paintings were grounded in the nature motifs and calligraphy of classical Chinese painting, but enlivened by daring Abstract Expressionist brushstrokes, ink splattering, marbling, resists, decalcomania (pressing painted papers onto the surface and peeling them off), and even brushless painting done with fingers and hands. She cites his training by Gu QIngyao, in Suzhou, and Huang Zhongfang, in Hong Kong, but concludes that “Tongson’s journey was primarily a solitary one.” Hong Kongers will need no introduction to the artist, whose genius was recognized early in his home town, but others seeking background information can look up my review at https://artomity.art/2019/02/04/wesley-tongson.

If I, following Maudsley, saw Tongson’s oeuvre as a spiritual quest through art, it is evident from Spiritual Mountains: The Art of Wesley Tongson, at the Berkeley Art Museum, that he had many teachers and mentors guiding his singular, solitary way. The exhibition features eleven magnificent works recently acquired by the museum, interspersed with paintings by like-minded artists, drawn from the museum’s permanent collection or borrowed from private collections. Thus it celebrates Tongson not as an artistic isolato (though his schizophrenia and reticence make his career mysterious), but belonging to a tribe or secret order, its members separated by time and space but united by a shared vision. This show deliberately eschews a chronological sequence, offering instead, through the erudite wall-label commentary by Julia M. White, Senior Curator for Asian Art, a time-traveler’s tour of a group of Chinese painters, all trained in the way of the brush yet guai (eccentric) enough to infuse personality and even dash into a tradition that, by incorporating change, evades formulaic repetition. (In this context I cannot resist mentioning the artist Arnold Chang, whose wonderfully anachronistic (i.e., outside time) ink painting, Thinking of Spring (2010), is included in the show; in 2006 he wrote: “The response I seek from the viewer is that the work has the look and feel of an old master painting. And yet, one can’t point to any specific image or artist that I am copying.” )

But let’s return to Tongson’s pilgrimage. An untitled mountainscape from 2000 from the Mountains of Heaven series is composed of large irregularly shaped blocks of bright color, painted wet into wet, with a wide brush, without any preliminary black-ink drawing framework. Its loose, soft-edged organic forms, which recall the organic abstraction of Frankenthaler, Louis, Olitski and Dzubas, are given specificity by black ink textures suggestive of rocky scarps and forests. How these effects were achieved remains an enigma, but Tongson’s absolute mastery of technique in realizing an inner vision inspired by Taoist/Buddhist lore could not be clearer. Scudding Clouds, Misty Peaks (1996)  is equally virtuosic, with loosely brushed and splashed ink and color suggesting  microscopic realism without any concession to photographic reality. White in the walls label notes that Tongson wished to splash ink to the point of resembling photographs; here he creates, through seemingly random means, a timeless metaphor: the holy mountain rises as a seeming emanation of art materials governed by a shaping intellect. Slope (1990) and Mountain Range (1993) are equally stunning cosmic landscapes. Hung between these four powerhouse works are two landscapes by Zhang Daqian (1889-1993), one of Tongson’s artist heroes, whose melding of free-form techniques and effects were crucial to the younger artist’s path. An untitled work on the opposite wall, a horizonless landscape, from 2001, carries the proliferation of marks achieving a hallucinatory level.

The works of many other artists—too many to enumerate here, with some dating back to the Ming Dynasty and beyond—show that Tongson’s spiritual and artistic quest was guided by his artistic ancestors. The path forged by the self-styled Mountain Daoist (Shandao Daoren) will guide future metaphysical/poetic explorers.
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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1806403 2022-03-13T07:56:16Z 2022-03-26T17:32:51Z Opening of "Women Rising 2022" at The Drawing Room, 780 Valencia Street, San Francisco ]]> Dewitt Cheng tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1806357 2022-03-13T04:23:02Z 2022-03-13T04:44:42Z "Through the Lens": Photographers Joeann Edmonds-Matthew and Raphael at Far Out Gallery, San Francisco, 3/12/22 ]]> Dewitt Cheng tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1806181 2022-03-12T18:51:37Z 2022-03-12T18:51:37Z Eva Bovenzi, "Present Perfect" reception, Pastine Projects, San Francisco 3/22/11 Hard-edged but lyrical abstractions in acrylic on panel, and collages on Yupo paper mounted on Arches paper at Pastine Projects,360 Langton, San Francisco, until April 23.
Gallery statement:

"I’ve never grown blasé about the fact that a painting can actually summon people to the present moment; it seems like a form of magic”, Eva Bovenzi writes. She titles this exhibition “Present Perfect” in a nod to the capacity of art to bring a viewer to the Now.

Bovenzi’s visual vocabulary is poetic and entirely her own. Her paintings are fresh and original, yet also read as timeless iconic forms. Having studied sources as varied as Spanish manuscript painting, Romanesque and Byzantine frescoes, Tantric images and Native American ceremonial objects, Bovenzi describes herself as “in the tradition of artists who have tried to give visible form to the invisible”. Her work deliberately evades an easy verbal summary, gesturing towards the ineffability of experience.

Alluding to the shapes of shields, sentinels and masks, Bovenzi's images are bold, emphasizing physicality—yet their materiality is countered by luminescent veils of color that seem to expand past the structures that contain them. Constructed with matte, fluorescent and metallic colors, the surfaces of the paintings alternately absorb and reflect light, adding a subtle depth and movement to the work.

Eva Bovenzi’s art simultaneously suggests solid and void, presence and emptiness, stillness and movement. Mysteriously emblematic, the work’s sheer beauty offers the viewer an experience of transcendence, inviting the present to become perfect. — https://www.pastineprojects.com/project-09




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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1804312 2022-03-08T05:49:59Z 2022-03-08T05:49:59Z OСЛАВА УКРАЇНІ, SLAVA UKRAYINI, GLORY TO UKRAINE! (FromThe DemocracyChain.org, 3/6/22)

Motherland Kyiv monument (1981), dedicated to the memory of those who lost their lives in the Second World War. Its base is the Kyiv WWII Museum’s Hall of Glory, inside which one can find the names of over 11,000 soldiers and workers who earned the title of Hero of the Soviet Union or the Hero of Socialist Labor during the war engraved on massive marble slabs. The statue itself is 62 meters tall and is made entirely of stainless steel. For more information: [https://destinations.com.ua/news/big-cities-life/915-the-observation-platform-at-the-motherland-monument-in-kyiv]

For the last five days as this is written, everyone who understands the gravity of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been riveted to the news. Most Americans — with the exception of the insensate, incensed Trumpist right — are rooting for the Ukraine resistance. Fox News wavers between attempts to blame Biden for the situation and, forgetting its decades of anti-green tirades funded by petrodollars, asks why isn’t the US energy-independent? Rhetorical questions based on false premises and predetermined conclusions are, of course, the demagogue Tucker Carlson’s infuriating stock in trade.

The outcome is far too early to predict. A few days ago, the massive advantage of the Russians in troops, material, and high-tech weaponry seemed to be the decisive factor. Now, after a determined, heroic resistance by Ukraine by its menfolk ages 18 to 60, armed with Molotov cocktails, light arms, and Javelin and Stinger missiles, the Russian blitzkrieg has slowed. (The fiercely independent Cossacks apparently survive in the Ukrainian DNA.) 

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivered this message 

on social media: "I need ammunition. I don't need a ride."

Putin has agreed to negotiate with Ukraine without preconditions while simultaneously brandishing nuclear weapons against Ukrainian allies. He retains a single military ally in his vassal state Belarus; it is there that the negotiating teams have now met (let us not get our hopes up for a quick settlement). Contrasting with this bluster is the quiet, determined courage of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the onetime comedian and actor (and Jeremy Renner lookalike) who has rebuffed attempts to spirit him to safety: “I need ammunition. I don’t need a ride.” Already he has been compared in Western media to Winston Churchill standing up to Hitler, and the gladiator Spartacus taking on the slave-holding Roman Empire. Is Putin now playing the nuclear madman (as Nixon thought himself clever to do, once upon a time)? Or is he just engaging in KGB/GRU brinksmanship — being "smart,” in Trump’s words, pulling off this daring coup attempt at the low cost of only a few “two-dollar sanctions?” 

I had originally intended to write a brief précis of Ukrainian history leading to the present crisis, but, silly me, the complexity of the area’s history defies an easy synopsis. Putin’s claims that Ukraine was never a real nation; that it was founded by a diplomatic error on the part of Lenin after The Great War; and that Ukraine was, is and will always be an indissoluble part of Mother Russia and that the Ukrainians and Russia are “one people” are absurd. Why decimate your own people? All national origin stories tend to be vastly over-simplified myths in any case. Both Russians and Americans suffer from propaganda gone viral — from a 24/7 barrage of “fake news“ (Trump) and “alternate facts” (Kelly Anne Conway) — and fear of facticity. The opposition to critical race theory and the censorship of “disturbing” books are arguments for ignorance and serfdom.


Vasily Vereshchagin, “The Apotheosis of War,” 1871. Courtesy of Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, dedicated “to all great conquerors, past, present, and to come.” Pyramids of skulls refer to Mongol “shock-and-awe” practices of 1220. — Wikipedia

Ukraine, a vast, Texas-sized steppe bereft of natural barriers but rich in agricultural soil and industrial resources, has been fought over for centuries by various regional powers. Think of Anselm Kiefer’s painted panoramas of mud occasionally mixed with the blood of indigenes and invading armies. Ukraine entered history with the creation of Kievan Rus (more properly in Ukrainian, Kyivian Rus), a Slavic/Baltic/Finnic empire united by a Norse or Slav Prince Rurik (d. 879). His descendants, the Rurikids, ruled the geographically blessed “small city on a hill” sitting on the Dnieper River astride several trade routes, for approximately four centuries, from the late 9th to the mid-13th century. Russia takes its name from Rus, as does Belarus. Vladimir the Great (r. 980-1015) was the Constantine of the Rurik empire, converting it to Christianity — for aesthetic reasons:

 …when Vladimir had decided to accept a new faith instead of the traditional idol-worship (paganism) of the Slavs, he sent out some of his most valued advisors and warriors as emissaries to different parts of Europe. They visited the Christians of the Latin Rite, the Jews, and the Muslims before finally arriving in Constantinople. They rejected Islam because, among other things, it prohibited the consumption of alcohol, and Judaism because the god of the Jews had permitted his chosen people to be deprived of their country. They found the ceremonies in the Roman church to be dull. But at Constantinople, they were so astounded by the beauty of the cathedral of Hagia Sophia and the liturgical service held there that they made up their minds there and then about the faith they would like to follow. Upon their arrival home, they convinced Vladimir that the faith of the Byzantine Rite was the best choice of all. (Wikipedia)

Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskyy are Vladimir the Great’s current namesakes. Dynastic quarrels (including the 1015 familicide of Syvatopolk the Accursed), the increasing power of clans, and constant warfare weakened the principate, which fragmented into twelve principalities that succumbed to the Mongol (or Tartar) invasions of 1223 and 1237-42, becoming tribute-paying vassals of the Golden Horde. Kyiv was sacked by the Mongols in 1240, ”reduced almost to nothing,” in the words of one witness. It was Mongol rule, however, that created Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Moscow, which threw off the “Mongol yoke” centuries later, in 1480:

Moscow's eventual dominance of northern and eastern Rus' was in large part attributable to the Mongols. After the prince of Tver joined a rebellion against the Mongols in 1327, his rival prince Ivan I of Moscow joined the Mongols in crushing Tver and devastating its lands. By doing so he eliminated his rival, allowed the Russian Orthodox Church to move its headquarters to Moscow, and was granted the title of Grand Prince by the Mongols. As such, the Muscovite prince became the chief intermediary between the Mongol overlords and the Rus' lands, which paid further dividends for Moscow's rulers. (Wikipedia)

After that colorful prelude we fast-forward through centuries of domination by Polish, Lithuanian, Austrian and Russian overlords. Ukrainians who resisted serfdom imposed by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and later the Russian tsar rose in periodic revolts that were eventually suppressed in the late 18th century. 

With the rise of nationalism in the early 19th century, Polish, Russian and Ukrainian intellectuals extolled Ukrainian culture, publishing dictionaries and histories, writing new works in Ukrainian, and advocating the teaching of Ukrainian despite official efforts to suppress ukrainopihila. These had begun earlier, with Catherine the Great (ironically, a Rurikid) in about 1768, when she gained control of Ukraine from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. By that time her youthful fascination with the Enlightenment had yielded to realpolitik. This trend continued under the tsars until the Russian Revolution in 1917. Under the new tsars of Communism,  in the 1930s, Ukraine suffered purges of dissenting intellectuals and the tragic Great Famine, caused by Stalin’s ruthless expropriations of grain, a drought, and a labor force decimated by the Great War and the Russian civil wars. Whether the famine was planned genocide is a matter of contention; its effect, however, was as genocidal as the relocations of Native Americans in this country.


Viktor Vasnetsov, “The Invitation of the Varangians.” Rurik and his

brothers Sineus and Trevor arrive at the lands of the Novgorod Slavs.

Vladimir I of Kiev (c. 958-1015)

The massive protests in Russia against Mr. Putin’s “war of choice,” in President Biden’s words, serious matters to a dictatorship, give us a flicker of hope that Putin’s time may be ending. If Ukraine can stay in the fight, and create another military morass similar to Afghanistan, and the eight (or is it now seven?) oligarchs turn on the Vozhd so as to render him and his imperial fantasies void, then Russia may escape becoming an irrelevant declining power. The future is calling. For the moment, remember that after 9/11, people all over the world claimed to be Americans. Right now, we are all Ukrainians. Glory to Ukraine!

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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1803717 2022-03-07T00:51:09Z 2022-03-07T00:51:10Z Keira Kotler @ Bran Gross contemporary ; Carole Jeung @ Don Soker; and Bruce Katz, Claire Lau and Jenny Wantuch at Inclusions, SanFrancisco., 3.5.22 ]]> Dewitt Cheng tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1803663 2022-03-06T23:59:48Z 2022-03-06T23:59:49Z Wanxin Zhang's "Witness" at Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco,3/5/22 The Chinese-American Bay Area sculptor infuses his AbEx-influenced ceramic sculptures with contemporary political satire.
Also shown: videos by TT Takemotot and paintings by Chester Arnold, currently the subject of a career retrospective at Fresno Art Museum.

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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1799937 2022-02-26T00:26:24Z 2022-02-26T02:14:45Z Ora Clay, "Living My Truth," a fabric art installation at the Institute for Research in the Social Sciences, Stanford 2/23/2 Ora Clay, "Living My Truth," a fabric art installation at the Institute for Research in the Social Sciences, Stanford 2/23/2
Fabric art on racial politics and family ties, at Institute for Research in the Social Sciences (IriSS), 30 Alta Road, near Stanford Golf Course.
Open to public during normal business hours. Show runs probably through June 2022.
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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1799842 2022-02-25T19:27:05Z 2022-02-25T19:27:05Z "When Light Becomes Form" at Fine Arts Gallery, San Francisco State University, to March 31, 2022 "When Light Becomes Form" at Fine Arts Gallery,San Francisco State University, to March 31, 2022.
Alternate-process photography by  Lisa K.Blatt, Rachelle Bussières, Adam Chin, Binh Danh,  Chris Duncan, Amy Elkins, Kija Lucas, Felix Quintana, Ron Moultrie Sanders, Andrew Wilson et al.

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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1794693 2022-02-12T21:51:33Z 2022-02-13T01:08:29Z Stephanie Robison at Marrow Gallery, San Francisco (published in VisualArtSource.com, 2/12/22)
Stephanie Robison
by DeWitt Cheng
Marrow Gallery, San Francisco, California
Continuing through March 5, 2022

Midway through Andrei Konchalovsky’s 2019 anti-heroic film “Sin,” we see the haggard, driven Michelangelo alone in his studio, caressing the marble knee of a draped statue. Pope Julius enters, demanding to see the Moses destined for his tomb, and pulling off the sheet to reveal that only the knee, emerging from the huge white stone block, is finished, he thrashes the artist. It’s actually a humorous take on artistic obsession, and if historically inaccurate, it is indicative of the seductive mystique of marble-made-flesh in classical statuary. That seductiveness has not gone away.

The Oakland sculptor Stephanie Robison juxtaposes polished marble, worked into Arp-like biomorphic shapes, with patches or three-dimensional shapes of colored felt that contrast humorously with the marble, suggesting, variously, fungi, anemones, foliage and even hairpieces. “Close Contact” comprises twenty-odd wall reliefs and a trio of freestanding sculptures set atop custom-made steel bases. The works, to quote her website (which features a photo of the artist happily “hugging rocks”), “synthesize and fuse: organic and geometric, natural and architectural, handmade and the uniform industrial.” The exhibit follows by a year the Portland-born artist’s “Cloud Construction,” a Christo-like wrapping of the interior space of the San Francisco Art Commission’s Grove Street Window Installation Site in white fabric. The effect was to mimic the fog banks that descend from Twin Peaks into Hayes Valley: terrestrial clouds, “seemingly innocent, perhaps even magical” that can “conceal, fog or obscure the world around us.”
Stephanie Robison, “Squeezing Blood from a Turnip,” 
2017, marble from CA on custom steel base, 33 x 13 x 7”
Fortunately, viewers of “Close Contact” can get up close and personal to the work, as they could not with the Grove Street installation, which was visible only through the window due to earthquake-safety regulations. The one-on-one relationship with Robison’s quirky creations, which change and metamorphose as we circumnavigate them, is a joy. Robison’s allusive/elusive imagery never coalesces into a single interpretation or reading.
Stephanie Robison, “Heart of the Matter,” 2022, 
reclaimed Italian marble, wool, 13 x 7 x 3”
Says Robison: “Sculpture for me is about tangibility and transformation … I have always been attracted to forms that are in direct opposition to each other or challenge their final aesthetic/functional appearance: I have intentionally carved stone to appear soft or sewn fabrics to appear rigid and architectural.”

“Heart of the Matter,” for example, appears to be a carved marble knee or elbow, but unaccountably endowed with a pink eye and a gray toupée. Move a bit to the right, however, and it reads as the head of a pensive white carp or beluga whale. “Division,” “Underbelly,” and “Niche” are vertical wall reliefs bisected by a horizontal axis or horizon line, with the felt-wrapped upper parts mirrored below by similar yet inexact ‘reflections’ in marble that anchor the lighter superstructures like ballast in a ship. “Desire” and “Spirit Rack” follow this bipartite structure more loosely, with the former suggesting the claw of a red sloth, and the latter the hybridization between an elongated heart, replete with ventricles, and a benign Edward Gorey creature. Two of the large sculptures, “Yellow Plague” and “Squeezing Blood from a Turnip,” take the form of blocks of white marble masterfully carved into indeterminate organic shapes suggestive of excavated dirt or mud, from which truncated roots or tentacles emerge. The tall “Merger,” with its accordion-bellows feet and cactus-pod head, is more overtly anthropoid, a descendant of de Chirico’s ironic, disquieting muses from a century ago.
Robison’s mastery of materials combined with her impeccably ambiguous humor may be seen as continuations of raucously iconoclastic Bay Area Funk Art, but her vision is generationally distinct, demonstrating anew that fresh, original art is possible even in the often-derivative Crazytown of the digital-era art world.
Stephanie Robison, “Desire,” 2020,
pyrophilite, wool, 12 x 6 x 4”
Stephanie Robison, “Niche,” 2021, Persian 
travertine and wool, 15 x 5 x 4”
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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1786446 2022-01-23T03:40:40Z 2022-01-23T16:29:07Z Ai Wei Wei @ Large at Alcatraz (originally published in Arte magazine)
@ Large: Ai Wei Wei on Alcatraz

By DeWitt Cheng

In the 1950s, the cultural critic Alfred Kazin predicted that art would decline in cultural importance and that it would be regarded art with the same interest as, say, shopping or sports. It would forsake any claim to transcendent meaning.  That prophecy seems in some ways to have been prescient. Contemporary art, democratized and globalized, now enjoys a mass-market prominence undreamt of in Kazin’s day, but the esthetic epiphanies and moral authority of the past were largely jettisoned. 

But not completely. The art of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei demonstrates that conceptually based art can be beautifully crafted, accessible to a large audience, and extraordinarily successful. Even more noteworthy is Ai’s focus on moral and political issues, a stance that links him more appropriately to crusading novelists like Zola and Solzhenitsyn than to the darlings of the international art circuit—or, rather, the other darlings, for Ai is surely a star of the first rank both in spite of and because of his inveterate insubordination.

The son of a prominent Chinese poet who supported the 1949 Communist revolution but later ran afoul of it, Ai grew up in poverty and disgrace—and, literally, a hole in the ground—in remote, freezing Heilongjiang province.  He once said, “I wouldn’t say I’ve become more radical. I was born radical.” As a young artist in post-Mao Beijing, Ai helped to inaugurate change in an art world dominated by party orthodoxy and careerism both before and after his decade in New York City, promulgating the avant-gardist ideas of Duchamp, Warhol and Rauschenberg in capitalist but still undemocratic China. Ai’s impassioned protests over the deaths of five thousand schoolchildren in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (which he attributed to official corruption resulting in “tofu-dregs schoolhouses”) earned the artist a severe beating by police, causing a nearly fatal cerebral hemorrhage and, in 2011, a punitive three-month detention, accompanied with prosecution for tax evasion, bigamy, and spreading pornography. He was also forbidden to travel outside of China, a draconian punishment for this internationally known artist.

His San Francisco gallerist, Cheryl Haines, stepped in at this point, beginning the massive project that became @Large. Haines’s FOR-SITE Foundation had previously partnered with the National Park Service’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy on art installations (including one by Ai) set in other public properties, so when Ai asked for help in getting his work abroad, Haines thought of Alcatraz, the boat-shaped island in San Francisco Bay famed for its Civil War fortress and military prison and, after 1933, an escape-proof federal penitentiary housing infamous criminals like Al Capone. Less known but thematically relevant to @Large are Alcatraz’s detentions of Communists, anarchists, wartime conscientious objectors, and Hopi Indians who challenged government attempts to Americanize and deracinate their children. A picturesquely decrepit tourist attraction since its decommissioning in the 1960s, occupied by American Indian activists from 1969 to 1971, Alcatraz was an inspired choice. With its haunting, grim carceral history, embodied in rusted bars, shattered windows, crumbling concrete, and peeling paint, all contrasting with a breathtaking view of San Francisco Bay, The Rock serves as a poignant backdrop for Ai’s seven installations, all concerned with the issues of freedom, authority and human rights, not just in China, but around the world, i.e., at large—and all planned remotely, from Beijing, and installed by volunteers.

The seven installations are dispersed throughout two buildings on the island: the New Industries Building, a long warehouse built in 1939 where prisoners made clothing and did laundry overseen by guards patrolling an elevated “gun gallery”; and, uphill, at the top and center of Alcatraz, the Cellhouse, the largest concrete structure in the world when it was built in 1912, with artworks in its Dining Hall, Hospital Wing, Psychiatric Observation Rooms, and Cell Block A.

With Wind, Trace and Refraction are installed in New Industries. With Wind is a large group of handmade paper, bamboo and silk kites suspended from the ceiling, in the traditional dragon, bird and hexagon shapes, bearing screenprinted digital designs of flowers and birds, along with the symbols of nations with questionable human rights records; interspersed with the festive stylized patterns on the disk-like ‘vertebrae’ of the hundred-foot-long coiled dragon are quotations about freedom of expression from Edward Snowden, Ai Weiwei and others. Trace is a group of portraits of 175 political dissidents from 31 countries taken from Amnesty International records; the portraits, derived from pixelated photographs and executed in colorful LEGO blocks in Beijing and San Francisco, lie scattered in six clusters or zones, resembling, from a distance, baseball cards or stamps—an honor roll of dissenters accompanied by brief explanations of their offenses in binders at several podiums; included are the anti-Putin protester Andrei Barabanov, the CIA leaker John Kiriakou, the Iranian physicist Omid Kokabee,  the Tibetan singer Lolo, the American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, and the Tibetan Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, named by the Dalai Lama as his successor, who disappeared in 1995 at age six. Refraction is a monumental sculpture composed of curved polished-metal plates or shields, originally manufactured for Tibetan solar cookers, attached to a steel framework; taking the shape of a gigantic wing, the piece—which is not accessible to visitors, and is visible only in glimpses from small shattered windows in the gun gallery above—has a grandly absurdist quality, ponderously earthbound yet glittering and majestic.

The remaining pieces in the Cellblock building are less spectacular as autonomous art objects, deriving some effect from their appalling settings, but they are no less forceful as pieces of engaged political art. Blossom comprises a number of onsite plumbing fixtures that have been filled with scores of intricate handmade porcelain flowers that transform these porcelain sinks, tubs, toilets and urinals into humble memorials. In Illumination, the observation rooms used for mentally ill inmates are filled with recorded chanting by displaced Tibetan Buddhists and deracinated Arizona Hopi Indians, both groups marginalized by dominant majorities. Yours Truly, located in the Dining Hall, is a collection of postcards that have been addressed to political prisoners; visitors may select one or more from the racks and sit down at long writing tables to send messages of condolence or support. Finally, Stay Tuned, in Cell Block A, fills twelve small ground-level cells with the sounds of resistance poetry or music; viewers can sit on a small stool, imagine themselves confined to a 4x8 area for years on end, and listen to the Nigerian Fela Kuti singing Sorrow Tears and Blood (“Police dey come / Army dey come”); to the Iranian Ahmad Shamlu reciting In This Dead-End Street (“Danger! Don’t dare think. These are strange times, my dear.”); to the Chilean Victor Jara singing Manifesto (“My song is of the ladder / We are building to reach the stars.”); or to the New Czech Chamber Orchestra playing, six decades after the composer’s death, Pavel Haas’s Study for String Orchestra (Terezin 1943).

@Large is a collaborative art project that rivals in complexity in ambition two other grandly scaled artworks shown in the Bay Area in the 1970s: Christo’s Running Fence and Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party. Is it time once again for art to aim at social change? Ai would say that it has always been time: “I live in a society where freedom is incredibly precious. We strive for it daily and put forth a great amount of effort, sometimes sacrificing everything to protect this value, to insist on freedom. Freedom for me is not a fixed condition, but a constant struggle.”
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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1761719 2021-11-20T18:28:58Z 2021-12-17T13:58:47Z GARRY KNOX BENNETT: Time, Containment and Bling @ Transmission Gallery, Oakland
GARRY KNOX BENNETT: Illumination: Time, Containment and Bling
Transmission Gallery

Illumination: Time, Containment and Bling is an exhibit of twenty-three table lamps, boxes, clocks by Garry Knox Bennett, the legendary Bay Area artist and craftsman, renowned for chairs, tables, sideboards, desks and jewelry —several pieces of which are installed in a gallery vitrine—that match exquisite craftsmanship with Dadaist/Funk humor and wit. If the Bauhaus, that German academy of modernist style, was originally intended to marry traditional guild-based craftsmanship with modern technology and a machine esthetic, Bennett might be said to embody the Bauhaus beau idéal—that is, if Bennett had studied at the Bauhaus or any of  the postwar American institutions that followed, and if Bennett, who considers himself mostly self-taught (despite a stint at Oakland’s California College of Arts and Crafts). Had there been “Alumni Bauhaus” (or “Alumni Black MountainCollege”) bumper stickers, it is pretty certain that the self-directed artist—who hated high-school academics and preferred the solitude of shop class—would have laughed uproariously at the absurdity of the idea. In an interview, Bennett recounted his entrance into grad school: “I’m generally the biggest guy in any factory, and they’re going to give me all the hard work. And I said, ‘I think I’ll go to art school.’  So I went to Arts and Crafts. And it was the best thing I ever did.” His exit was equally fortuitous: ‘But, yeah, it was good, man. I mean, it was a good environment. They didn’t have any goddamn English classes. When I left, the rumor was they were starting an art history class. I said, “I’m outta here. I’m outta Dodge.’

Bennett’s larger-than-life personality is evident throughout out the lamps, witty sculptures more appropriate for  sculpture pedestals than surrounded by utilitarian iMac bric-a-brac on desks or nightstands. Bennett’s stunning mastery of a variety of materials and methods deserves to be appreciated as art, the expression of a creative sensibility transforming and transcending there purposes as utilitarian objects—and contravening the recently popular (and maybe only partially ironic) notion of art as futilitarian “useless work.”

Five of the lamps seem to me to derive from Surrealist sculpture, wherein various biomorphic characters (personnages) engage in mysterious doings: think of Tanguy, Ernst, Arp and Mirò. “Sergeant Pepper Lamp” (1996) the fanciful psychedelic Art-Nouveau vibe of its Beatles namesake, while “Cloud and Lotus Lamp” (1997), based on stylized motifs from Asian art, resembles a crouching cat or monkey from whose head a golden parasol emerges. “Blowtorch Lamp with 4 Lights” (2013) suggests the non-functional. absurdist human-machine hybrids of Dada,with its coffeepot/torch powering flame-shaped a quartet of Christmas-tree lights; the similar “Three Arm Lamp” (2014) employs the same flame-like bulbs, but here they emerge from the he'd of a simplified human or robot form who stands atop a blocky trident-shaped pedestal.  “Flowers” (2009) is an exotic garden of four or five varied lightbulb flowers—round, flame-shaped, mushroom-shaped, and tubular—that unite botanic with luminous efflorescence.

Other lamps are cleverly subversive variants of traditional lamp forms. “Paper Coffee Cup Lamp (2014) and STDBA #43” (2016) employ a paper coffee cup and a tuna-fish can as substitute reflectors, with hefty bases serving as sculptural pedestals. “Column with Dome Lamp” (2017) and “Post-Memphis Lamp” (2007) are such elegantly idiosyncratic that they might have come from the Memphis Milano design studio of the postmodernist architect Michael Graves. Postmodernist borrowing of architectural motifs for domestic objects and vice versa can be seen in Bennett’s small but monumental boxes and cylinders, which might almost be maquette for colossal monuments.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once noted the there are two types of people: those who divide the world into two types of people, and those who don’t. The apotheosized furniture of Garry Knox Bennett shows that he is clearly with the stubborn resistance.





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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1736817 2021-09-16T21:19:34Z 2021-09-16T21:19:34Z Norman Rockwell: Toward a Democratic History Painting


Published in TheDemocracyChain.com, August 2021



Norman Rockwell: Toward a Democratic History Painting

You are Anglo-Saxons. You are armed and prepared, and you will do your duty. If you find the Negro out voting, tell him to leave the polls, and is he refuses, kill him, shoot him down. We shall win tomorrow if we have to do it with guns. —Alfred Waddell

If the name of Alfred Waddell does not ring a bell, his sentiments certainly do. Waddell and his fellow white-supremacist Red Shirts initiated the massacre of blacks and a political coup d’etat in Wilmington, North Carolina, in August,1898. Brandishing a White Declaration of Independence, they stormed and destroyed a black-owned progressive newspaper; murdered perhaps three hundred blacks; and invaded City Hall, threatening elected officials there with summary execution, and leading them to the train station with nooses tied around their necks and promises of certain death if they returned. They even threatened the governor with lynching, forcing him to hide in a train baggage car. A local historian praised the new Waddell administration:  “The men who took down their shotguns and cleared the Negroes out of office … were men of property, intelligence, culture …. clergymen, lawyers, bankers, merchants. They are not a mob. They are revolutionists asserting a sacred privilege and a right.” State officials appalled by the massacre tried to prevent a recurrence—by further disenfranchising the black vote.

The dark side of white supremacy that shocked the nation on January 6 is no longer hidden, no longer rationalized away as excess zeal by “good people” upset with bad economics or the theatrical she toys promulgated by right-wing think tanks: fake news, enemies of the people, caravans, the China virus, the ‘stolen’ election, critical race theory, etc. The demographic change now under way, the browning of America, has brought to light the fraud and corruption of those benefiting from America’s systemic racism and classism, and the lawless violence from those already exploited, fearful and angry, who are cleverly misdirected to seek out scapegoats. Current attempts by Republican-controlled state legislatures to roll back voting rights for minorities replay the measures taken by the Democratic South after Reconstruction to preserve white dominance and dominion from the egalitarian reforms promulgated by the Party of Lincoln. We are repeating the sad history of the late nineteenth history, with the parties’ roles reversed, and many Republican voters ignorant of the great polarity change in the late 1960s.

The Republican Party, for a century the party of Lincoln and Emancipation, reversed course in the tumultuous year of 1968, wooing the southern white vote that had deserted Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats after passage of the Voting Rights Act (1965). That bipartisan legislation, which passed with the votes of moderate and liberal Republicans, attempted to restore the minority-voting protections instituted after the Civil War, that had ben sadly eroded over time by state government houses, a complaisant judiciary, and the KKK—not a mob, of course. Now, two generations after Nixon’s Southern Strategy, the GOP has chosen to pursue and retain power without the ideological-cover code words employed by Nixon, and later Reagan.
Reagan, you may remember, began his 1980 campaign in Oxford, Mississippi, near the Philadelphia site of the infamous 1964 murder and mutilation of three civil-rights workers, with a speech championing states’ rights, the Confederacy’s genteel euphemism for its “peculiar institution” of slavery. The historically ignorant Trump has cynically returned us to the 1850s, and, to paraphrase The Great Emancipator, now we are again engaged in a great civil war, testing whether our democratic nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

What has this tragic and unfinished history got to do with Norman Rockwell, the artist-illustrator of homey Americana whose name was a mass-audience byword for half a century, and a joke for art-world sophisticates? Rockwell’s art has become associated with the glorification of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture, partly fairly, because his myth of a benign and gentle small-town America proved so endearing to tens of millions, for decades, a gently humorous Dickensian prettification of the less attractive realities; and partly unfairly, because the artist was liberal in his personal convictions, although he did not always make them public, preferring to be considered an independent, and largely eschewing politics. “I was born a white Protestant with some prejudices which I am continuously trying to eradicate,” he said. “I am angry at unjust prejudices in other people or myself.” He voted in 1948 for Socialist Norman Thomas—Thomas’s platform sounds a lot like Bernie Sanders’—and preached through his paintings the New England virtues of tolerance and humor, avoiding the dark side of things because of his own predilection for the healthy and happy moments of daily llfe, and the dictates of George Lorimer, his longtime editor at The Saturday Evening Post, a self-made man who promoted individual self-reliance to an audience eager to believe in the American dream.



Over his long career, Rockwell produced 4000 images, including 800 magazine covers and paintings for 150 corporate ad campaigns. His laborious process involved creating a narrative idea and then outfitting it with props and posed, paid models—“real people” whom he scouted out among family, friends and even strangers on the street, who were happy to pose for the famous artist. He amassed props and costumes as had the illustrators he adored in his youth; when his studio burned down in 1943, he consoled himself for the lost art and artifacts with a characteristically wry sketch, impeccably rendered. Rockwell worked seven days a week and always had a considerable backlog; this seems to have been necessitated by his financial situation and his psychological conviction that unless he worked ceaselessly he would revert to the graceless, awkward ‘lump’ he had been as a child. 

All I had was the ability to draw…. I began to make it my whole life.I drew all the time. Gradually my narrow shoulders, long neck, and pigeon toes became less important to me. My feelings no longer paralyzed me. I drew and drew and drew.

A friend joked that “Rockwell’s hobbies are work and work.” Rockwell took pride in his hard-won fame and success as America’s supreme mythographer, succeeding his idols, Howard Pyle (whose work Rockwell would have selected for potential desert-island exile,along with a couple of Rembrandts); and his friend and colleague, Joseph C. Leydendecker, to whom he paid understated tribute: “Apart from my admiration for his technique, his painting, his character and his diligence, he didn’t have that much impact upon my work.” But while Rockwell's artistic superpowers and stamina granted him rewards, he never took success for granted, conscious of illustrator colleagues who had committed suicide when their work lost popularity; a younger colleague even telephoned his idol Rockwell after he had shot his family, only to shoot himself later despite the older artist’s pleading. So Rockwell took commissions that may appear to us unworthy of his developing talents, and always felt overworked and harried by deadlines (though he took a perverse New Englander’s pleasure in frugally not charging corporate clients what they thought he was worth).


Rockwell was often restless in what he saw as the subservient role of illustrator, even as he lent his magic touch to Hallmark cards, Boy Scout calendars, Sun-Maid raisins and McDonald’s hamburgers. He occasionally hankered for art-world respectability even though painting had long since eliminated drawing, which he saw as the touchstone of art, a dilemma which he neatly captured in a 1962 work, Art Connoisseur, with its well-dressed bourgeois viewer, his back to us, like the figures in a German Romantic landscape painting, contemplating Rockwell’s well-executed pastiche of Jackson Pollock. He also played with ideas about representation that artists and art critics might have accepted had they been less middlebrow and folksy and more ironic, as in Framed (1946), with its portly museum guard carrying an empty picture frame, and being framed by it; or Triple Self Portrait (1960), a reps of an earlier painting, Artist Facing Blank Canvas (Deadline) (1938), with the artist at his easel. Here, seen from behind, he contemplates his reflection, while his charcoal sketch avatar regards us quizzically, all three Rockwells equipped with painted pipes. If Rockwell considered himself primarily an illustrator, he occasionally referred to himself as an artist, or, more specifically, a genre artist; “that’s spelled g-e-n-r-e,” he explained to an interviewer. Critics have pointed out his stylistic ties to Dutch genre painters, especially the humorous ones, and to the realists painters of Germany and the Scandinavian countries. That humor and realism became taboo after World War II explains some of the disdain by the art world for Rockwell. Classism and snobbery may be a factor as well for some of the scorn and vituperation that they unleashed (“Gee-gosh-shucksism”) on the people’s-choice painter. Another factor is Rockwell’s determination that his works speak to the viewer immediately, without the need for intermediaries. The historian Paul Johnson speculates: “Critics dismissed Rockwell for the usual trade union reasons. They have nothing to say about pictures which explain themselves. Rockwell gave them no intermediary function.” Rockwell’s summation of his position: “I paint storytelling pictures which are quite popular but unfashionable.”

But occasionally Rockwell was able to escape the confining bonhomie of Pleasantville (Dave Hickey’s term, I believe) and his own desire to gratify his audience and employers. He painted the portraits of four presidents: Ike, JFK, LBJ and Nixon. His stunning painting of John F. Kennedy exemplifies the energy and promise of the 1960s, as well at Kennedy’s cool intelligence; while his Nixon portrait, which he conceded was “no Rembrandt,” probably reflects Rockwell’s distaste for the candidate whom he had observed wheedling votes from two maids in a hotel hallway. Rockwell's hankering to tackle “big ideas”—like paintings a black man for the cover of The Saturday Evening Post—usually met with objections from his immovable editor, but World War II provided challenges to the illustrator’s ambition. Rosie the Riveter (1943) celebrates the heroism and character of American working women on the homefront who helped win the war of attrition against totalitarianism;  its mixture of admiration and humor—and Michelangelo—make this an icon of democratic and feminist pluck and determination. The Four Freedoms (1942) paintings illustrating President Roosevelt's 1941 State of the Union goals, i.e. freedom of speech, of worship, from want, and from fear, were printed as Post covers, with accompanying texts by eminent magazine authors, and then went on to be republished as postage stamps in 1943, 1946, and 1994, Rockwell’s centenary; to aid the wartime effort,  they were published as posters, raising $133M in war bond sales. The most familiar of the four is Freedom From Want, its multigenerational-family Thanksgiving dinner so optimistic even in the dark years of the war, and so enduring — when we are in a hopeful frame of mind. Almost as well known is Freedom of Speech, with its young Lincolnesque worker, standing up to voice his opinion at a town hall meeting, with his neighbors neighbors respectfully hearing him out; all the models, by the way, were Rockwell’s neighbors. In the 1960s, as Rockwell was entering his seventies, he started working for LOOK magazine, which afforded him more creative latitude. In 1954, the Supreme Court mandated the desegregation of public schools; in 1960, Louisiana was compelled to comply by federal marshals, who escorted the six-year-old Ruby Bridges to class at Willam Frantz Public School in new Orleans; in Rockwell’s 1963 painting. published in 1964, she is shown dressed in white, toting pencils, books and a ruler surrounded by burly men wearing armbands, none of whose faces is visible; behind them is a wall defaced by a racist epithet and a smashed tomato. Bridges was the only student at the school for a time, the white students having been kept at home in protest. The painting was exhibited in the White House during the Obama administration. A year later, in 1965, Rockwell painted Southern Justice (Mississippi Murder), a passionate denunciation of Mississippi Burning murders by white supremacists of the young civil right workers Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney, whose bodies were buried in an earthen dam by a mob sworn to secrecy on pains of murder for informers. Rockwell. who had often disclaimed his inability to paint “evil sorts of subjects,” channeled his rage into the tragic yet heroic depiction of the secular martyrs’ last moments. Andrew Goodman stands, illuminated by car headlights, facing the mob, which is invisible but for metonymic shadows and sticks, while a wounded James Chaney sags to his knees; the dead Michael Schwerner lies at their feet. Goya’s nocturnal execution scene Third of May, with its dramatic lighting and its angrily expressionistic paint handling is an obvious influence on this stark and nearly monochromatic image from which every trace of ingratiating humor has been banished; it’s a worthy successor to Goya’s masterpiece, and superior in its strong feeling to Picasso’s Massacre in Korea (1951), painted a decade earlier. (Rockwell, incidentally admired Picasso.)




If this conjunction of the current political crisis confronting american democracy and the career of Norman Rockwell seem an odd match, they are arguably related. Rockwell’s nostalgic vision of small-town innocents was originally useful as a sort of creation myth for our polyglot country: a promise that the melting pot might result in an open,tolerant society open to all. Today, with the browning of America, we are all to aware of the dark, violent, exploitative side of WASP white supremacy, but we are also in need of a new sustaining myth to encompass the new realities rather than sugarcoat the electorate with the old fantasies of American exceptionalism. Late in his career, when he could, Rockwell moved beyond the sentimental but good-natured straitjacket that he had himself created decades ago. It is interesting to wonder what would have happened had he adjusted his aim higher earlier in his career, say, during the Red Scare of the 1950s. Ultimately, however, we can’t condemn him for not fulfilling the role of our beau idéal given his immense talents in popular storytelling—for ‘’democratic history painting,” to cite Dave Hickey’s term. Can anyone alive talk sense to the Trump mob? Rockwell, thou shouldst be living at this hour.

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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1719971 2021-08-02T21:11:37Z 2021-08-02T22:06:32Z Rich SIlverstein's "I Read the News Today Oh Boy" at Minnesota Street Projects
Rich Silverstein: I Read the News Today Oh Boy
Minnesota Street Project, San Francisco

What did you do during the pandemic? This is what I did. —Rich Silverstein


Aside from Ward Schumacher’s political word paintings at Jack Fischer Gallery, and some low-profile shows at nonprofit spaces, the Bay Area, famed (and disparaged) for its liberal “San Francisco Values,” has mostly failed to address the Trump Follies. It’s a sleepy town in some ways. Rich SIlverstein’s recently concluded show at Minnesota Street Projects, I Read the News Today Oh Boy, came as a pleasant surprise, then, when I ran across it unawares in July. If that title rings a bell, it’s from the Beatles’ epic collage/montage, “A Day in the LIfe,” from the Sergeant Pepper album; in its range of references and associations, it’s a psychedelic updating of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” an elegy to tragicomic contemporary life.

If the name of the artist also rings a bell, Silverstein is an award-winning ad executive who went at art school at Parsons and during his career served as art director of the countercultural San Francisco rock publication of record, Rolling Stone. Silverstein was not heretofore known as a fine artist (although he did a series on the Dubya administration, which was published online). He was inspired by the first Trump impeachment to create a large series of photographic collages, nondigital, it should be noted, of New York Times banner headlines that captured not only the events of the day, but the tenor of the times (no pun intended). The dispassionate, objective sentences, the typography, the off-white newsprint color, and the torn, deckled edges of each quote, individually enlarged and framed in black, like an obituary notice, become blunt, striking metonyms and metaphors for our long worse-than-Nixonian national nightmare.


85 Days, a sprawling installation of these excerpts, displayed salon-style on the gallery floor, covers the process of the first impeachment, beginning on November 25, 2019, and ending with 45’s supposed complete exoneration. The pieces are nonsequenced, so they can be arranged in any order; the random element suggests the collage-and-chance techniques of Dadaist collages and William Burroughs’ cut-up writing process  (which, incidentally, influenced Lennon and Macartney). Twitter Presidency, Gut Punch, Crazy Nancy, Sleepy Joe, Little Adam Schitt, No-Nads Nadler, Human Scum, I Would Like you To Do Us a Favor—a whole disgraceful era is encapsulated in a few pithy, pissy phrases. What’s in a few ill-considered words?


After the impeachment, SIlverstein continued creating larger-scale headline pieces as well as blowups of historically significant photographs, covering the 2020 election, the stop-the-steal warning signals from December, and the January insurrection. I Read the News Today Oh Boy, for example, mordantly juxtaposes the Beatles’ mundane record of facts (“Woke up, fell out of bed. Dragged a comb across my head.”) with the Commander-in-Chief’s blithe incomprehension of the facts of nuclear weaponry (“super-duper missiles”).  


Several untitled photographic diptychs—single photos individually framed but displayed together— achieve their effect by contrasting political ideality (what we expect) and reality (what we accept). In one diptych, we see the Trumps about to step into Marine One, dressed as the affluent Manhattanites they used to be; at right, in contrast,we see the covid-masked, post-Inauguration  Bidens embrace in the cold at the White House front door, which,despite the color guard flanking the First Couple, seems to have been unaccountably left locked.


In a second diptych, we see armored, helmeted SWAT teams at a Portland or Minneapolis BLM protest, backed up by an ominous LRAD (Long Range Acoustic Device) sonic cannon for additional crowd control and dominating the battlefield; on the right, Officer Eugene Freeman, of the Capitol Police, covid-masked, leads the January 6 insurrectionists away from their intended targets in a cell-phone shot taken by someone in the mob—and undoubtedly immediately posted to Twitter.


In a third diptych, we see, on the left, John Trumbull’s 1818 painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, for which he assiduously tracked down, over two decades, 36 of the 47 signatories,whom he painted from life; on the right, Trump exults in his escape from impeachment before an eager, jubilant White House audience of Republican allies.


In a brief interview at the gallery, Silverstein expressed hope that the show might someday be presented at—where else?—The New York Time offices. While that would certainly be fitting and poetically right, there is a better venue…. which, unfortunately, does not yet exist. In American Visions: A History Art in America, Robert Hughes describes the plight of JohnTrumbull, the artist obsessed with depicting the American revolution. By the 1820s, America no longer cared about its history, hits energies devoted to the economic development of the continent—and at the nominal spreading of civilization and liberty. John Adams, who disapproved of art as frivolous, took a pessimistic view of Trumbull’s patriotic enterprise:

I see no disposition to celebrate or remember or even Curiosity to enquire into the Characters Actions or Events of the Revolution, I am therefore more inclined to despair, than to hope for your success in Congress.

Adams was wrong, however, and Trumbull was commissioned by Congress to do four paintings, which were installed in the Capitol Rotunda in 1826, the same year that Adams and Jefferson died (both famously on July 4, fifty years after the signing of the Declaration). Ironically and shamefully, they became mute witnesses to 2021’s barbarian invasion.

The historical amnesia of American culture is now at a level probably undreamed of by the Founding Fathers—although a debased version of it, in the form of white supremacy, is defended nowadays as if divinely ordained. America needs an independent museum of political art that could present work such as Silverstein’s—as well as the toppled statues of Confederate generals, and cartoons and videos by our wittiest, smartest commentators—in a historically thoughtful context; it needs a People’s Museum of History dedicated to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth: warts and all, all the news that’s fit to print and illustrate. Whether the people and their representatives, or some of the billionaires with money currently burning holes in their pockets have the honesty and intellectual courage to face our national inconvenient truths and save the great experiment of self-rule remains to be seen. 

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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1717734 2021-07-26T22:59:43Z 2021-07-26T22:59:43Z Art Films (reprinted fromVisualArtSource.com)

Art Films

“Velvet Buzzsaw,” the new artworld satire and /horror film, seems the film for the moment, given how nutty, if not quite murderous, the art world seems, at times. I have not seen it yet, so I can’t pass judgment, even if the online and print chatter so far has been mixed.

As the topic of art-world films has come up, however, I thought I would recommend a few films worth watching, films that I have chosen to see more than once. I do not make this statement lightly, as I consider many films worth watching once, but not twice or more. And some films are interesting in some ways—the subject or plot, especially if reality-based, and even the special effects—but annoying in others, e.g., glacially slow pacing, painfully bad dialogue or acting, and nonsensical storylines. I am sure that many of you watch, as I do, prepared to Fast Forward, in the immortal words of the Colonel Sanders character in Mel Brooks’s Spaceballs. There aren’t enough good satires on the art world, alas, so I am including some biopics and documentaries. Some of these are available online.

Best satire:

—Untitled (2009), a spritely, buoyant satire of the New York art scene, manages to be both wryly amusing about the vagaries of artistic and commercial survival, about The Work We Have Chosen (to quote Hyman Roth in Goidfather 2), and, curiously, warm-hearted about its cast of artistic characters, including artists, gallerists, and collectors, perhaps because its writer/director, Jonathan Parker, had previously been active in the contemporary music scene. I had the good fortune to attend its premiere in San Francisco in an art audience that loved the jokes, especially its sendups of the more twee variety of conceptual art.

 Best artists-only nonfiction-based dramas:

—Final Portrait, director Stanley Tucci’s valentine to the so-called existentialist sculptor/painter Alberto Giacometti, traces the laborious making (and Sisyphean unmaking) of a portrait of an American critic James Lord, whose book detailing the ordeal-by-sitting was the basis of the screenplay. Art civilians may find the film as tedious as watching paint dry, as one innocent film critic complained, but art cognoscenti will find Geoffrey Rush’s comic-anguish turn close to perfect, and the film’s recreation of the famous dusty Avenue Hipployte-Flandrin studio is remarkable, and even museum-worthy on its own. I reviewed the movie for VAS (use search box); it’s also reprinted at https://artopticon.us (scroll down to April 2018).

—Edvard Munch is Peter Watkins’ 1974 portrait of the Norwegian Expressionist artist as a young man adrift in the fin-de-siècle bohemian circles of Christiania (Oslo). This sober examination will be slow going, indeed, for many viewers, and depressing to some, with its flashbacks to scene of family trauma that were depicted in now-famous paintings, but it’s a fascinating look at how the free-love counterculture made (and maybe unmade, partially) the young, sensitive “doomed” painter—who went on to live an improbably long and productive life.

—Vincent: The life and Death of Van Gogh (1987), written and directed by Paul Cox, takes (if I remember aright) a first-person-camera look at the life of the Dutch visionary, with a voiceover narration taken from the artist’s letters to his supportive art-dealer brother, Theo, read by the actor John Hurt, whose gravel-and-velvet voice seems just right. (The camera-as-protagonist idea has been used before, to my knowledge: once in a Dick Powell noir, and once at the beguiling beginning of Fredric March’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.) Also check out Andy Serkis’s spooky-mad Vincent—almost horror-movie-worthy— in Simon Schama’s series, The Power of Art. (Alan Corduner’s Mark Rothko in that series is also a bravura performance.)

 Best general-audience documentaries:

—The Universe of Keith Haring (2008) by Christina Clausen makes terrific use of videotaped footage of the young graffiti artist, entrepreneur and gay activist, finding his way in New York in his teens and twenties, before the scourge of AIDS. I found it extremely touching, and its use of found footage extraordinary; if only large VHS cameras had been around to record, say the painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Charlton Heston as Michelangelo in The Agony and The Ecstasy, however, still serves us —as does that other masscult biopic, Lust for Life, with Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh.

 —Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film (2006) is a six-hour, A-to-Z documentary made for PBS’s American Masters series by Ric Burns on the bewigged icon of affectless cool and prophet of media-based art. The artist’s ascent from small-town Pennsylvania to a career in commercial illustration and later to the heights of New York’s art world is fascinating, even if it was the filmmaker Emile de’Antonio who persuaded the artist to paint Coke bottles and other consumer products of desire in a flat, uninflected style, not in juicy, romantic Abstract Expressionese.

 —The Cool School (2008), Morgan Neville’s enthralling look at the origins of the Los Angeles contemporary art scene in the 1960s, focusing on the radical Ferus Gallery, and featuring interviews with many of the artists, critics, and dealers, including Edward Kienholz, Billy Al Bengston, Craig Kauffman, Walter Hopps, and Irving Blum, with his limos, yachts, and eye-candy escorts.

 I am certain that I have unintentionally omitted some good movies, even some I may have watched twice (but not three times). Ed Harris as Pollock, Charles Laughton as Rembrandt, Timothy Spall as Turner come to mind for Honorable Mentions. And then there are the fictional artists: Alec Guinness’s and Robert Newton’s obsessed eccentrics in The Horse’s Mouth and Odd Man Out, respectively. Art is long, and life is short.

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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1713572 2021-07-14T21:09:58Z 2021-07-24T20:31:26Z David Edwards: Biomorphic at Avenue 12 Gallery

BIOMORPHIC

David Edwards: Metal Drawings, Paintings and Sculpture

Avenue 12 Gallery, San Francisco

The word ‘biomorphic,’ in art-history-speak, means organically shaped, not geometric. The term originates in the Surrealism of the 1920s and 1930s, which advocated ambiguous, organic forms deriving from the unfiltered subconscious. The Surrealists’ interest in bypassing conscious intent with its limitations in search of le merveilleux produced art as well as literature (automatic writing) that exploited chance and instinct; the unpremeditated painterly gesture was one of Surrealism’s legacies to Abstract Expressionism.

David Edwards’ exhibition comprises four bodies of work: 1) abstract calligraphic paintings on paper and plaster, made with ink and tools fabricated by the artist, resembling manuscripts written in some archaic, unknown language; 2) metal drawings, enlarging these pictograms into wall reliefs in steel, cut with a plasma cutter, and painted in brown and black acrylic; 3) sculptures similarly based on the pictograms, but built into three dimensional bas-reliefs with styrofoam, Bondo car-body filler, epoxy and wax; and 4) botanical-looking structures resembling stems bedecked with seed pods, made from, of all things, black trash bags made of LDPE (low-density polyethylene) transformed with heat and, one would suspect, skillful manipulations like a glassblower’s.

Painting #2 and Painting #4 display Edwards’ asemic (nonliteral) writing in square blocks of characters that suggest simplified human figures (as in cave paintings), sometimes seemingly in costume, flowers, eyes, fruit seeds, and even microscopic flora and fauna.  Edwards began drawing with a wooden rod dipped into India ink, then moved with a cast-glass dip pen before finding a more flexible solution by casting his own dip pen in another, slightly more flexible material—perhaps silicone, if memory serves.

The Metal Drawings, made from painted, cut steel, isolate and enlarge the characters. Edwards used a slide projector, decidedly old-school, to transfer his ink sketches to the steel, after which he employs the high-tech plasma cutter. The dialogue between the artist’s materials and the impulses controlling his hand—the ch’i,tor life force, in Chinese calligraphy—yields images of unpredictable yet compelling poetry. Fossilized primitive life—egg cases, tentacles, seed pods—though not expressly invoked by the artist, will certainly come to mind in these untitled ‘drawings’ that are reminiscent of the indeterminate living shapes in the paintings of Joan Mirò and the sculptures of Jean Arp.

More three-dimensional are Edwards’ wall reliefs and sculptures, built up and out into the viewer’s space, but still fundamentally conceived of as wall-hung objects, like trophy tools or weapons of unknown purpose. These mysterious artifacts mighjt populate a Parisian ethnographic museum, along with 1930s Surrealist works by Giacometti with whom they share esthetic DNA. Edwards’ Plastic Formssculptures, again wall-mounted, are symmetrical structures suggestive of seed pods, spines, thistles, and egg cases, technical tours de force that have been magically or alchemically wrought from lowly garbage bags, a battery of specialized tools (tubes, spray bottles, misters), and practice, practice, practice. The artist, who has a degree in Plastics Technology: “I always want to try out new things.”

David Edwards has always gravitated to abstract art made from compulsion and necessity, and ad-libbed, rather than preplanned: he likes to “not have any idea what [he] was doing; to just dive in and make marks.” At the same time he has a love of materials and their specific properties, from the thick oil paint used by Van Gogh, admired when he was beginning his career, to WInsor Newton India ink, which combines intense pigment with just the right viscosity, a choice that he made after considerable experimentation. His work combines an artist’s interest in instinct and gesture with a scientist’s curiosity about materials to create “drawings from the subconscious come to life,” “living shapes,” and darkly mysterious artifacts suggestive of amulets, charms, fetishes, fossils, weapons and tools. 

 

 

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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1700560 2021-06-08T05:46:24Z 2021-06-08T05:50:50Z Fwd: Field of Words: John Patrick McKenzie and Ward Schumacher, Jack Fischer Gallery, San Francisco
VisualArtSource.com, June 5, 2021


JOHN PATRICK McKENZIE and WARD SCHUMACHER

A Field of Words

Jack Fischer Gallery

Visual art employing words walks a tightrope between the visual and verbal realms once thought to be apportioned to the right and left, or intuitive and logical, sides of the brain. This theory is nicely traced in Leonard Shlain’s 1996 The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, which interprets human history in terms of male linear logic (the alphabet) and female intuition/imagination (the goddess), and remains readable and fascinating, even if the science has proven to be more complicated.

In looking at word art, similarly, we may regard them in two mutually exclusive ways: as pattern or calligraphy, or, even asemic (non-literal) faux writing, in the Dada mode, beautiful-nonsense graphomania with a hint of satire about the limits of speech and writing;  or we can imbibe the word or text, relegating the painting to a mere placard or sign, with the visual element insignificant: Hamlet’s “Words, words, words.” In A Field of Words, John Patrick McKenzie and Ward Schumacher demonstrate that word art can be both verbally and visually evocative, with the viewer’s activated eye and mind engaging multiple points of view. The field-of-words metaphor suggests both the cascades of glowing, scrolling text, the Matrix coding beneath sensorial, blue-pill reality; the featureless color mists of 1950s-1960s Color Field Painting; and the orderly inscription of the soil with parallel furrows for agriculture, and thus culture.

McKenzie’s marker drawings on a variety of objects—paper, scavenged window frames, and glass bricks—have a graffiti energy reminiscent of Basquiat, but without that painter’s figurative imagery. The irregular rows of hand-printed phrases and sentences suggest the magical charging of objects by spells and invocations. In a drawing from 2008-9, 1980, the artist writes simple subtraction problems that seemingly solve for unknown people’s ages: 1980 - 950 = 30, 1974 - 1962 = 12, etc.  The artist’s tall, narrow numerals suggest op-art stripe patterns, with the blackened closed loops of certain numbers (0, 6, 8, 9) evoking computer-countable ballots and tests. Joyce DeWitt likes pink high heels, in white marker on black paper, suggesting a schoolroom blackboard, records banal or obvious celebrity information on actresses (Joyce DeWitt, Susanne Somers, Florence Henderson, Sarah Purcell) and musicians (Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney), including whether they are “still alive.” (Why not 2014 - 1933 = 81, for On Kawara, creator of the 1978 painting, I Am Still Alive?)  Equally cryptic are the random, stream-of-consciousness inscriptions on five wooden and aluminum window frames and glass panes and on three glass bricks, where the writing is so profuse, complicated with shadows and reflections,  as to be almost illegible. Words emerge here and there—e.g., radio, toilet, Swoosie Kurtz, taco shell, future generations—but the staccato markings suggest syncopated music scores or player-piano scrolls rather than script, an urgent profusion of mystifying words and phrases: Dada glossolalia.
If McKenzie employs writing less for literal meaning than to claim esthetic territory from non-art reality, Schumacher builds densely layered acrylic paintings on canvas of text, stenciled in black capital letters over gray and ocher backgrounds. The lettering is not clean and crisp, however, but deliberately imperfect, with blotches where the painting leaked under the stencil, and the texts layered in different colors, out of register, like Warhol screenprints, creating shadows or ghost images. The bleeding effect of the ’ink’  recurs in Schumacher’s works on paper, made on paint thickened with wheat paste, and bound in  books, several of which are on display by request. The lengthy texts recount the artist’s dreams and memories, “some fact and some fiction,” so the paintings serve as a kind of diary — perhaps of a fictional avatar escaped from an Eric Fischl painting. Russian Consonants (2020) is a stream-of-consciousness monologue on the fascinating oddments of Russian language and history, including Tsarskoe Selo, skoptski, Bolsheviki, and the lecherous mad monk, Rasputin. Horse, With Peonies (2020) recounts (with blocks of text reversed to white on black, as if poorly redacted) a dream of Freudian and Oedipal horror mixed with humor that is concluded by a mysterious equine visitor. Drawing Dirty (2021) introduces two young sisters who tempt the boy narrator with glimpses of nakedness and of dirty drawings for which he is unjustly condemned. Last but not least is I Need Do Nothing (2005), an eight-panel painting two feet tall by sixteen wide, with the walking-meditation mantra repeated endlessly, like “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” in The Shining, but with more rewarding results. Peruse the sides of these eight panels—there were originally ten—and you will note that the writing continues perfectly along the sides — although, presumably, not the back. Remember Jasper Johns’ stenciled words going off one edge of the canvas and continuing on the other side, as if the painting had been peeled from a cylinder. Schumaker’s love of ‘overall’ abstract painting, i.e., without traditional figure or ground, as practiced by Pollock, Rothko and Kline, combines with his dreams, memories and reflections in these humorous, mysterious, semi-fictional artifacts, or manuscripts, or handmade faded newspaper clippings.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1694908 2021-05-25T06:16:28Z 2022-09-25T20:41:44Z Holly Wong: Phoenix, Slate Contemporary, Oakland
HOLLY WONG
Phoenix
Slate Contemporary

The recent election of the reality-based Biden administration, replacing the disgraced faith-based follies of the Trump court, gives us a glimmer of hope as a respite from the dark madness of the past four years.

With much of the populace newly vaccinated, art venues are beginning to reopen; this is a relief to art aficionados suffering from esthetic withdrawal for which Zoom calls were a poor placebo. The melancholy isolation necessitated by the pandemic and the emerging general sense of a social reawakening (except for the cultists who are just now considering masks—to protect themselves from the vaccinated!) are the subtext (though not the subject) of Holly Wong’s solo show, Phoenix. That immortal bird of Egyptian mythology (and later Greek and Roman mythology) when aged, builds a bonfire, immolates itself, and rises, reborn, from the ashes; hope is “the thing with feathers,” as Emily Dickinson writes. Wong’s phoenix is composed of graphite drawings on mylar pieces that have been stitched together, forming an eleven-foot tall/wide free-form work suspended mid-air by monofilament. Swirling tapered forms covered with both organic (bubbles, droplets, tendrils) and geometric patterns (grids, nets, pixels) rise like tongues of flame, or feathers borne aloft by heat; the bird and the bonfire merge into a baroque-abstract symbol of destruction, purification and renewal. Wong is interested in Eastern lore, as well, citing Buddha’s Fire Sermon (as T.S. Eliot did, in The Waste Land), words of perennial (and perennially necessary) wisdom praising detachment from the ever-attractive “fire of lust, … fire of hate, … [and] fire of delusion.” 



Accompanying Phoenix are eleven small to medium-sized framed pieces reminiscent of nests or thickets, also made of sewn-together graphite drawings on mylar. The titles derive from classical mythology: Aurora, the goddess of Dawn, symbolizing rebirth; Arachne, the seamstress whose hubris led Athena to transform her (mercifully, as she had hanged herself) into a spider, a fitting spirit animal for the seamstress artist; Persephone, carried into the underworld to marry its king, Hades, but allowed to return to the surface each spring; Bia, the Greek goddess of force, who helped Zeus defeat the Titans and chained Prometheus to the rock for stealing fire; and Calypso, the nymph abandoned by Odysseus (another textile artist) after a seven-year dalliance. Six works are dedicated to Fellini’s betrayed yet resilient (and spiritually adept) housewife, played by Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina, from 1965 movie Juliet of the Spirits: art correcting life.






Wong’s interests in feminism, myth, and the power of the imagination are certainly relevant in the current cultural moment, since women voters played a decisive role in de-platforming our hubristic baby tyrant, but the artworks carry their subtexts lightly, subliminally. Wong begins with spontaneous, unplanned drawings of tangled skeins of swirling tendril and banner forms. She adds colored pencil and gouache paint, and softens the forms with atmospheric candle smoke (Surrealist fumage) to create shadow and depth to her interwoven, interlaced traceries. Because mylar drafting film is tough and translucent, she can cut it and reassemble the pieces with sewing machine, as well as draw on both sides. Wong’s take-off point from the subconscious and her immersion in craft and process and the slow emergence and evolution of the image push these works beyond postmodernist polemics into the beauty of complexity of art, a PIcassean lie that tells the truth and sometimes a Brechtian hammer with which to shape the world.
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Dewitt Cheng