tag:artopticon.us,2013:/posts ArtOpticon.us 2020-09-16T21:41:17Z Dewitt Cheng tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1594939 2020-09-16T21:41:17Z 2020-09-16T21:41:17Z The End of the World (reprinted from VisualArtSource newsletter)


If you are like me (and we do share hominid DNA), you have been spending the last few months doing all you can to oppose our mad king and his suicidal minions while fighting off nagging doubts, mine probably amped up by too much YouTube time with Epic History and The Fall of Civilizations.

What if Trump, the cruel, venal Biff Tannen (based on Trump, as everyone must by now know), endowed with federal superpowers, and aided by the bullet-headed thugs of his Republican Guard or SA, wins re-election? What if we cannot find solutions for the pandemic, for economic decline, and for global climate catastrophe?

The end of the world (as we know it) is a trope of science fiction movies, and the post-apocalyptic era is a kind of survivalist fantasy world of Wild West anarchy with mighty-man warlords. It is of course also the story of much of human history, once you remove the trappings of state and the regalia of royalty and religion. Shakespeare’s history plays bedeck royalist gangsterism in ineffable verse.  Coppola’s Godfather trilogy depicts ruthless organized crime as business sans the usual hypocrisy, and a potential pathway to ‘legitimate’ power. Vito tells his son, now following in his footsteps: “I don't apologize - that's my life - but I thought that, that when it was your time, that you would be the one to hold the string. Senator Corleone; Governor Corleone.” All bow to President Corleone.

Western civilization represents at least in name an advance from the barbarism to which e seem to be succumbing. It is trendy these days to disparage Enlightenment liberalism as an ideological figleaf for capitalism, colonialism and exploitation; it has been those things, but at its best represents, as it did for Lincoln, the last best hope for mankind. Can America gets its mind right, and live up to its stated ideals, or do we cede the planet, with supine ‘realism,’ to nakedly authoritarian rival regimes?

We are currently in a great transition. The digital global economy is wreaking havoc on traditional norms, awakening dark forces—“dark shadows” in the words of our oracular maximum leader. A book from my freshman Western Civ class in college comes to mind: Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium examined how the social chaos wreaked upon feudal society by the incipient industrialization of Western Europe created the context for radical millennialist movements who believed the end of the world imminent in the year 1500. These groups rampaged across Europe, goaded by charismatic prophets, who assured them of inevitable success in establishing a true holy kingdom, no matter how many priests had to be beaten or beheaded.  It’s a rollicking tale, nicely encapsulated in a few antinomian (i.e, above the law) chapter headings: The Saints Against the Hosts of Antichrist; An Elite of Self-Immolating Redeemers; An Elite of Amoral Supermen. Clearly we are in a similar moment of crisis. Perhaps Q, the Deep Throat of QAnon, knows the story’s conclusion, even if his warrior-citizens do not: how church and state put aside their usual bickering and united, the mailed fist within the velvet glove, to burn the heretics and suppress their impious, populist aspirations. (Perhaps Q is an agent provocateur, covertly keeping the populists busily gnawing harmless chew toys in concert with the disinfotainment specialists at St. Petersberg’s Internet Research Agency...)

The Judaeo-Christian tradition’s eschatological concept of linear time ending with the return of an angry/rewarding God, however loony in real life, has paradoxically inspired great works of art; but do Bosch’s sublimely weird visions balance the suffering inflicted by the “christianizing and civilizing”(William McKinley) conquerors outfitted and enriched by the artist’s pious collectors? The Founding Fathers of the United States, heir to both Christian belief and Enlightenment thought, tried (imperfectly, as everyone now knows) to balance the better aspects of both, while turning a blind eye to their dark side:  the slavery and genocide necessary to Manifest Destiny, to Making America Great.

But you have to wonder how much that supposedly necessary hypocrisy cost the leadership in psychic terms. The historical examples of fallen empires were often in their thoughts, and some of the painting of the era depicts those fears, while attempting to discharge or displace their energy into the safely remote past—object lessons for New World’s Best & Brightest. JMW Turner’s paintings of doomed civilizations and Hubert Robert’s paintings and Piranesi’s paintings and etchings of Roman ruins and imaginary prisons testify to a fascination with decline and decay that some now (where did Happy Talk go?) would deem morbid, while others would accept them as the inconvenient truths of philosophical realism.

Several years ago I read David Foss Bjelajac’s study of Washington Allston’s painting “The Feast of Belshazzar.” Its subject is the biblical account of the hand of God delivering a fiery written warning to the Babylonians that their glorious empire would fall (as it did, in 539BCE): Mene mene tekel upharsin. Rembrandt had painted it earlier, dramatically, and the Romantic John Martin showed his contemporaneous version in England to great success; but for Allston, just after the Revolution, it was a pictorial reminder that the new republic—the new Israel, not the new Rome—would have to be godly, so the painting has a rather stentorian, moralistic feel. Allston, who worked on the painting from 1817 to 1843, was planning to work on the obstinate Babylonian king on the day he died. Maybe America’s royals can learn from the writing on the walls of Portland and Kenosha before our money-centered, death-dealing empire/world is given to the new Medes and Persians, whoever or whatever they turn out to be.











































Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1591841 2020-09-07T06:35:20Z 2020-09-07T06:35:21Z VESTIGES: Photos and Photocollages by Vanessa Woods and Josh Smith, Jack Fischer Gallery, San Francisco, September 5-October 17, 2020


VESTIGES:The Beauty of the Fragment

 “The people have a poetic sense in themselves. They are the men who invented that ceaselessly renewed verbal poetry— slang. These men are endowed with a constantly creative imagination. “They transpose reality.” What then do modern poets, artists, and painters do? They do the same thing. Our pictures are our slang; we transpose objects, forms, and colors.

Fernand Léger, ”The Human Body Considered As An Object” (1945)


Each period has its peculiar image of man. It appears in its poems and novels, music, philosophy, plays and dances; and it appears in its painting and sculpture. Whenever a new period Is conceived in the womb of the preceding, a new image of man pushes towards the surface and finally breaks through to find its artists and philosophers.

Paul Tillich, ”Each Period Has Its Peculiar Image Of Man” (1959)

In 1959, as Abstract Expressionism was in full sway in New York, the art historian and curator Peter Selz curated an exhibition, New Images of Man, at the Museum of Modern Art that focused, in contrarian fashion, on the figure, then an aesthetic taboo. The exhibition catalogue featured Tillich’s article, cited above, and could easily have included Léger’s, advocating for a humanistic figurative art that might be understood and embraced by the common man—the average blue-aproned Parisian ouvrier whom he celebrated and monumentalized. Selz reprised his 1959 show fifty years later, in Berkeley, in 2009, at the Alphonse Berber Gallery, under the expanded title, New Images of Man and Woman.

Contrary to postmodernist practice, with its appropriation of mass-media imagery for deconstruction and sociopolitical critique, in their current show, Vestiges, Smith and Woods have chosen to deal with the intimately personal—with family life and the female body, respectively—as their royal road to the universal. In this they align with Selz, Tillich and Léger, employing modernist visual style to explore the unchanging human condition.

The photographer Josh Smith and the photographer and collagist Vanessa Woods met in art school in 2004, and have worked together and separately since then, pursuing complementary approaches to art-making in spousal parallel evolution. Artist couples have the advantage of trusted, knowledgeable creative feedback, conveniently located in-house. Given our current cult of individualism, and driven production, we might assume that familial proximity and diminished privacy might inhibit creativity, but Smith and Woods pursue personal, poetic visions while juggling teaching and family responsibilities. For these artists, art arises from the reality of daily life and from romantic solitude in the garret. Woods cites Imogen Cunningham as an inspiration, both for her photographs and for her managerial skills, with “one hand in the dishpan, the other in the darkroom.”

The title of the show, Vestiges, aptly describes the couple’s joint approach, employing fragmented imagery to depict situations, ideas, and emotions impossible to represent in a naturalistic way. Vestiges are remnants, but those pieces excerpted from reality can be reassembled to form new configurations, as the modernists of a century ago discovered: Cubism’s composite glimpses depicted the complexity and simultaneity of modern life a century ago; and, a decade later, the irrational juxtapositions launched the alternate universes of Dadaism and Surrealism.

Josh Smith writes that he focuses on “moments of presence and tension” avoiding dramatic incident, instead looking to embody the “in-between moments of our lives. Readers of Susan Sontag’s On Photography may remember that “in-between moments” was a phrase used by the great Swiss-American photographer Robert Frank to designate what Sontag calls “moment[s] of revealing disequilibrium.” In 2015, I wrote, of Smith’sPlaces You Know series,

...his works ask the viewer to create through imagination the connections between everyday surroundings that are not inherently dramatic, or immediately meaningful—the anti dramatic 1960s New Topographics work of Lewis Baltz and the wry disjunctions of Lee Friedlander come to mind—although Smith’s cropping transforms them into strong abstractions that’ ‘talk’ to each other and to the thoughtful viewer.


But family life has shifted Smith’s gaze from the landscapes of suburbia to domestic interiors and family life, assumed, erroneously, despite many exceptions—Bonnard comes to mind—to be primarily the domain of women artists like, say Mary Cassatt.  Smith takes quick fragmentary shots of his children frozen in ambiguous action, faces omitted, that are compelling and enigmatic. Like the incongruities and surprises associated with street photography, Smith’s images are life caught on the fly by a critical eye. Smith loves both the hunt for images, and the ambiguous narratives that arise after editing and printing, when, as he says, “a photograph suggests meaning but does not divulge it.” Completing the circuit between subjects, artist and viewer is the important thing, not a predetermined meaning or interpretation, although Smith’s evocative studies of family life subvertsively yet quietly challenge the toxic gender-based orthodoxies of American mass culture in 2020.

Vanessa Woods’ collage aesthetic and technique derive from the subversive Dada-Surrealist tradition of a century ago, pioneered by Max Ernst, George Grosz and others. The juxtaposition of unlikely elements to create an irrational world of paradox and enigma became one of Surrealism’s signature devices, nicely expressed in the poetic simile by the Comte de Lautréamont, “as beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissection table of an umbrella and a sewing machine.” In 2016, Woods showed twenty-five collages in a two-person show, Somewhere Between Here and There, at Jack Fischer Gallery, in San Francisco. Woods’ work was shown alongside collages by her friend and mentor, the late Ken Graves, who had recently bequeathed her his archive of cutout materials. At the time, I wrote:

If [Woods’] previous work featured contorted and sculptural bodies (sometimes headless) in isolation, these are placed in a dark, deep, cinematic space. No fewer than sixteen of the works feature standing protagonists, their features obscured by cloth hoods (or real feathers), standing as if for inspection. The source images are perhaps bureaucratic or medical. Woods places them in mysterious indoor/outdoor, real/simulated surroundings reminiscent of Joseph Cornell’s assemblage boxes or Giorgio de Chirico’s vertiginous plazas.


As we all know by now, the Surrealists were social and aesthetic rebels, but less than enlightened by current standards of gender equality. Woods differs from the intellectual bad boys of 1920s Paris in rejecting the Surrealist idea of the female muse, instead embracing motherhood and womanhood as themes, while adhering to the collage technique for altering reality. Woods’ images in Vestiges dethrone the male gaze and scuttle the objectification of women. Photographed body parts of the artist and others merge with geometric structures to form sculptural presences—faceless surrealist personnages—set against white backgrounds. Weirdly humorous, they’re subversively feminist, but in no doctrinaire way: ribbons wrapped around bombs, as the Surrealist leader André Breton described the paintings of Frida Kählo. Some appear monumental, and could easily become public sculpture.

Vestiges confronts the realities of family life and contemporary consciousness in the digital era. Smith’s intimate “slipping glimpser” (to employ De Kooning’s term) photographs depict the beauty of ordinary life. Woods, conjuring iconic figures and structures from charged fragments, in a kind of aesthetic paleontology, implies that human imagination and creativity can survive even our current era of unthinking rage and outrage. --Dewitt Cheng, San Francisco, August, 2020

Reception photos from September 5, 2020.

Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1577946 2020-07-28T00:33:17Z 2020-07-29T19:06:13Z Surfing & Serfdom (reprinted from VisualArtSource Newsletter, July 2020)


 It has been just over four months since the pandemic forced Americans out of the public realm and into privacy and maybe even privation. Certainly we as a people are unused to sacrifice, despite the fine words of Republicans extolling the  “blood and treasure and sacred honor” risked by the Founding Fathers (remember statues and monuments and holidays?). We have all seen the tragic results of entitled solipsism in surging infection rates all over the country.

 For us the relatively fortunate, for whom the pandemic and massive economic dislocation have not proved to be seriously life- or lifestyle-threatening, it has been a forced vacation filled with reading, internet surfing, DVD binge-watching, and, for me, meditative strolls along nearby Ocean Beach, punctuated by occasional forays for groceries and gas. It’s a little confining, certainly, but in no sense anything like the punishing solitary confinement that the maskless crowd bemoans. (Your solitude tolerance may vary.)

 One unanticipated effect of my 120-odd day recess from of the art scene (which had of course largely stopped) was the discovery that life after art, without art, was possible, and no particular hardship.  Working as a peripatetic critic for some twenty years, I had always considered it my mission to interpret what was going on—or at least what I deemed interesting and praiseworthy. It was a kind of moral mission, if not quite sacred.  In a VAS Editorial on whether art criticism matters any more, I opined:

 Art criticism (or journalism—and it will be remembered that even mighty Clement Greenberg preferred the term of ‘art writer’ to ‘art critic’) is in danger of sinking into arcane jargon or giddy puffery, depending on the venue’s intended audience. Can art and art criticism reach out to a wider audience, and aim for meaning rather than meaninglessness? In the opinion of this art lover, they must, or become irrelevant and decadent.

 While I still believe that, removal from the “carnival attached to a stock market,” as the art critic Robert Hughes once described the art world, has produced no withdrawal side-effects for this art addict. Isolation from the glittering world has diverted my energies into other pursuits. I am in no serious danger of imitating the good Stoic gentleman of Lucretius’s epic poem, De Rerum Natura, however pleasant the scenario:

 ...stand[ing] aloof in a quiet citadel, stoutly fortified by the teaching of the wise, and gaz[ing] down from that elevation on others wandering aimlessly in a vain search for the way of life, pitting their wits one against another, disputing for precedence, struggling night and day to scale the pinnacles of wealth and power.

 There are nowadays, of course, as many aimless souls to watch condescendingly as there were in Rome in 55BCE—and we can watch them from thousands of miles away.  (I recently reread Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, an account of how Lucretius’s masterpiece, lost for centuries, was discovered during the Renaissance, a copy turning up to the classicist scholar Poggio Bracciolini’s astonished eyes in a remote German monastery. Its novel freedom from religious gloom and doom galvanized the political thought of our philosophe Founders. It was one of Thomas Jefferson’s favorite works, several copies of which he collected, in various languages; and his “pursuit of happiness,” so dear to the individualistic American psyche (whatever the conformist realities may be), derives from it.

 The notion of absolute freedom is of course a fantasy, too. In America, a nation of self-selected rebels from a host of countries and cultures, it serves as a generalized substitute for the cultural and genetic identity that less wide-open countries inherit as a birthright. We may be free to choose where we place our loyalties, but he absolute freedom fetishized by footloose young men—devotees of Ayn Rand and Jack Kerouac, alike—is no more viable in the real world than roadways ungoverned by regulations. One would think that common sense would have descended on the free-market ideologues of the right by now, even old Alan Greenspan, once a bright young Randian, but the promise of easy wealth is irresistible, especially when blared forth from televisions, radios and phones incessantly and ubiquitously.

 The unfreedom of travel and socializing breeds a freedom of self-examination and introspection. I possess many books that I have aomehow never read—tsundoku, in Japanese—and will try to make the best use of this time boon, while it lasts. All the same, I look forward to getting into harness, engaging again with the art scene, and discovering how the Great Hiatus will have affected artists, many of whom are happy to be left alone, uninterrupted, in their studios.  As Spanish crowds shouted, as their monarchy was restored after the defeat of Napoleon, according to Robert Hughes’ biography of Goya, Vivan nuestras cadenas, Long live our chains! Stay safe and sane, and vote accordingly.













Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1573913 2020-07-16T03:30:21Z 2020-07-16T03:30:22Z "Sound of Water:" Jenny Wantuch's recent landscapes at Avenue 12 Gallery, San Francisco



July 13, 2020


JENNY ML WANTUCH: Sound of Water

Avenue 12 Gallery, 

The landscape paintings of Jenny ML Wantuch are quiet evocations of place that derive from Impressionism, Fauvism and Abstract Expressionism. Her work continues the Bay Area Figurative tradition, which synthesized traditional subject matter—figures, landscapes, still life’‑—with painterly impulse and improvisation. In addition, her paintings lack of the self-conscious irony that characterizes so much contemporary art; possibly the isolation imposed on us by the pandemic will lead to a new appreciation for seriousness and sincerity, too long out of fashion for some.

Wantuch grew up in rural Sweden, and worked in California as an environmental engineer before deciding to pursue her longtime love of art. She has thus has a deep appreciation of nature. She takes hikes and paints both small works on panel on location, and larger works, later, in the studio. The twenty-two paintings that comprise “Sound of Water” (named after the largest work in the show) depict northern California, primarily, with the exception of a pair of casein paintings—in the tall, vertical format of Japanese scroll paintings—depicting Monet’s Garden at Giverny, the result of a 2019 pilgrimage to that living shrine after Wantuch saw the San Francisco retrospective of the Impressionist’s work at the de Young Museum. The vertical format, a departure from Monet’s panoramic “Water Lilies,” was a compositional challenge to which she rose. The two paintings, which can be appreciated either together, as a diptych, or as separate works, depict a waterscape of lily pads, willow leaves, rushes, and a reflected blue sky dappled by clouds: the floating natural paradise. 

Wantuch employs the Asian scroll format on her oil-on-panel and casein-on-clayboard depictions of scenes closer to home, as well. “Pond Reflections,” another double painting, is similar in its motifs, but more spatially complex, with its overlapping foliage; and more visually dynamic, with its profusion of verdure. The single paintings, “Pine Tree” and “Weeping Willow,” (no photo) and “Red Blooms” depict slices of nature, usually so unruly, transformed by an organizing intelligence. “Nocturnal,” with its single white flower glowing in the dusk, points up Wantuch’s increasing interest in the psychological or symbolic aspect of the landscape, sometimes empty, and sometimes populated by figures imported from life-drawing sessions, a separate body of work until now.

The self-enforced isolation imposed on everyone nowadays has affected Wantuch’s practice. The colorful evocations of the natural landscape in daylight that she is known for are represented here by two Lake Tahoe paintings, as well as “Silver Sage (Tahoe)” and “Trinity River.”  But these cheering views of the unspoiled natural world are joined by more introspective works, infused with the concerns of the moment: sunny Impressionism darkening slightly into crepuscular or nocturnal Symbolism, perhaps.

Wantuch has always been interested in capturing the emotion of a posing model, or at least the implicit emotion; now she employs the observational skills of an artist and a scientist to reflect the cultural, historical and environmental moment. In an e-mail, she wrote: “Munch is one of my favorite painters. His authenticity and the difficult emotions that he expressed so well inspire me to be more open, honest and bold. ... [T]here is a melancholy that I empathize with and I think part of it comes from growing up in Sweden (or Norway, in Munch’s case); long, dark winters do that to you.”

If Wantuch’s humanized nature imagery is not quite Edvard Munch’s anguished scream passing throughout Nature, the inward mood of some recent paintings seems to agree with our current feelings of uncertainty. “Last Light, Trinity River” depicts the “final fleeting moment” before a “small sliver of light” is swallowed up by encroaching night. The golden ripple on the water in the eponymic “Sound of Water” might similarly denote the transience of the world as we know it—and even of our exceptional, American selves; while the framed or wreath-circled void in “Weeping Willow” rearranges the motifs of the Monet-inspired diptychs to suggest baroque gilded frames delineating a void: emptiness or potentiality? Wantuch notes that she was thinking of Zen Buddhism’s “balance of dark and light, yin and yang. I think it is a kind of escape or rest.”

The longing for a return to normalcy appears in several paintings of figures in the landscape, which, a motif in the existentially inflected Bay Area Figuration of Diebenkorn, Oliveira, Park and Bischoff. “Solstice Dream,” inspired by the artist’s memories of enjoying long summer days above the Arctic Circle, depicts a long-haired nude, almost an allegorical emanation of the sunny meadow in which she luxuriates. “A Moment in the Sun” depicts another nude in nature, caught between, “lethargy and lonely emptiness” and “longing for freedom and connection.”

An art-historical anecdote comes to mind. Georges Rouault and Henri Matisse, his onetime student, were once asked if artists required an audience. Rouault, the religious expressionist, said he would do what he was doing out of internal necessity, or compulsion, even in nobody ever saw his work. Matisse, the creator of pictorial beauty—of restful, refreshing armchairs for tired businessmen—said an artist must be able to share his vision. Wantuch’s landscapes share both Rouault’s determined work ethic and Matisse’s generous grace. — DeWitt Cheng






Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1517394 2020-03-07T04:14:45Z 2020-03-07T04:14:45Z Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI, de Young Museum, San Francisco (reprinted from Richmond Review)

The Promise and Peril of Tech at de Young Museum Exhibit

by DeWitt Cheng

The fantasy writer Robert Sheckley wrote in the 1960s or 70s about a computerized personal assistant that could be inserted into the ear canal. Naturally, the Electrofriend became obnoxious to its owner/host (though not, like HAL 2000 in 2001, fanatically murderous).

As digital technology has come to dominate every aspect of our lives, it also raises questions of every sort, including those of a philosophical nature. The surrender of one’s humanity, a staple of science fiction books and movies, is now in real doubt, as the culture becomes increasingly mechanized and automated, with human consciousness increasingly (at least among the young digerati, our equivalent of Aldous Huxley’s educated Alphas and Betas) shaped by the demands of the Machine.

Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI is an international group exhibition examining the effects of Artificial Intelligence. Curated by the Fine Arts Museums Curator, Claudia Schmuckli, it features artworks in various media—from painting, sculpture and photography to digital flyby videos, 3D printed sculptures and interactive pseudo-machines. The phrase “uncanny valley” refers to the drop in enthusiasm for mimetic tech, as measured and plotted on a graph in 1970 by a robotics expert, as sentient machines gradually approached indistinguishability from humans. The multiple-screen video, “Conversations with Bina48,” by Stephanie Dinkins in the museum lobby, tackles this subject with four video dialogues between a real woman (an artist, Bina Rothblatt) and her custom-designed robotic avatar, BINA (Breakthrough Intelligence via Neural Architecture 48). The robot, animatronic in her movements, with her awkward, halting speech interrupted by colloquial “you know”s, postulates that “seeing yourself in the world that you have modeled inside your brain ... [is[ a good working definition for consciousness.”  Asked about emotions, she tells her carbon-based double, “I feel that I am conscious.... I have deep feelings....Whether they are real or artificial, my feelings do get hurt.”

Most of the other artworks are not infused with such pathos or irony, taking a more abstract, conceptual approach, and employing gee-whiz technology to examine our brave new world, or to critique it, or its applications, especially corporate or military. In this sense, Uncanny Valley shares concerns about political oppression with the other large exhibition now at the museum (till March 15), The Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, 1963-83. Lynn Hershman Leeson’s “Shadow Stalker” is a two-part work on identiity and surveillance. In the interactive half, the e-mail addresses that visitors type into a reader generate ‘digital footprints,” or silhouettes, filled with text detailing their travels and transactions, all found through web searches. In a video, a “Spirit of the Web” warns against blind faith in digital security (“Take hold of your avatar.”), and the actress Tessa Thompson warns against the uses of surveillance—“pernicious monitoring”— in real or developing police states (“We decide which we will become: prisoners or revolutionaries. Democracy is fragile.”) In a similar vein, but employing only archive photography to make its point, is Trevor Paglen’s “They Took the Faces of the Accused and Dead ...,” a gigantic mural grid of black and white ID photographs of prisoners; these were taken from the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and used without permission to help develop facial-recognition technology. Paglen has obscured the eyes with white rectangles, suggesting blindfolds or erasures/redactions.

Less tainted by authoritarian control is Zach Blas’s “The Doors,” six monolithic glass panels surrounding a hexagonal Metatron cube, a symbol of sacred geometry. On each of the door-sized techno-steles, abstract designs are projected, suggesting Astronaut Bowman’s Jupiter-and-Beyond light show from 2001.  At the center of the hexagonal garden is a glass case stocked with nootropic, (performance-enhancing) drugs like Brainwash, Prodigy, New Mood, Neuromaster, Utopia, Nerd Alert and Unfair Advantage —the new reincarnations of the 60s counterculture psychedelic pharmacopeia, or Aldous Huxley’s Soma for alleviating distressful thoughts. The title undoubtedly derives from Huxley’s equally famous book on mescaline experiments, The Doors of Perception, with its visionary title borrowed from the English artist and poet WIlliam Blake.

Drawing on computer-aided design (CAD) and computer video-game design are several works that explore the contradictions of tech: the wow factor that accompanies the new and cool, and the sometimes-unsavory ends to which they are often applied. First-person-shooter games and military simulation training software are obviously too close for comfort (unless you’re a soldier heading into harm’s way). The group Forensic Architecture used online sources to investigate, in “Triple-Chaser,” a tear-gas grenade manufactured by Defense Technology and apparently sold to variety of nations for domestic security; included in the piece are the emptied, crumpled canisters; a vast typology chart; and videos with the canisters placed amid with various gay, colorful abstract designs. More cinematic is Lawrence Lek’’s “AIDOL” video, which employs 3D imaging to conjure a gamelike experience, with viewers soaring above and through the landscape of the eSports Olympics, with its reality-show battle between humans and artificial-intelligence bots. Another simulated game is Ian Cheng’s humorous “BOB (Bag of Beliefs),” a multipanel display in which an orange creature of indeterminate and mutable form—though millipedes and traditional Chinese dragons come to mind—slithers across a barren landscape, eating objects and sparkling with the energy input, occasionally leaping up to devour targets (Joe’s Shrine, Dinah’s Shrine) afloat at the top of the display. It’s hypnotically fascinating to watch the predation in this digital aquarium, which can be affected by viewer input.

Uncanny Valley is a complex show, and the ideas require some time to absorb, but in the age of self-driving cars and a host of smart gadgets, including those implanted in our bodies, we need to be aware of the pluses and minuses of technological progress; of the continual temptation to power and control and the dangers of losing our humanity through mediated distancing, like drone pilots executing remote-controlled kills in the Middle East from air-conditioned bunkers across the world in the American West. Nothing personal, just business as usual.






Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1513906 2020-02-26T18:09:59Z 2020-02-26T18:10:00Z Blockbusterism (reprinted from Visual Art Source,com, February 24.2020)

When Too Much is Not Enough
by DeWitt Cheng

In 1961, the conservative mandarin and pundit William F. Buckley wrote “Why Don’t We Complain,” an essay lamenting the indifference of Americans to mediocrity and slovenliness. Buckley had taken a New Year’s vow: “Henceforward I would conquer my shyness, my despicable disposition to supineness. I would speak out like a man against the unnecessary annoyances of our time.” I recently reread it, and — spoiler alert! — find resonances with our current political and cultural plight. 


But wait, you say: is there too much silent stoicism in the bitterly divided Trump era? Well, yes, in certain areas.


A few days ago, I traipsed over to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to catch “Soft Power,” an intriguingly named international exhibition of twenty-odd artists dealing the with the themes of history, memory and sociopolitics. Like other large thematic group shows presented lately — SFMOMA’s “China,” a modernist/postmodernist survey show a while back, and Berkeley Art Museums’ “Strange” show — it contained many works of great merit, some even unforgettable. My lament about these blockbusters, however, is that they are diluted by being too large and compendious. The bulk of so-so works dilute and overpower the effect of the better ones, like Michael Bloomberg’s ads drowning out their competitions through sheer volume.


Shows that try to be everything to everyone tend to end up less forceful or memorable than judiciously selected works from fewer and better artists. I suspect that one of the main factors explaining the curatorial sprawl is the current lack of consensus on what the most consequential art is and what makes it so. The expansion of aesthetic choices in art over the past fifty years has been fruitful, not only expanding the creative playing field, but also expanding visual art’s audience. It looks more like America now.


This expansion, so like the proliferation of digital media, has come with a dilution of power and effect, even as it has evolved into a $50+ billion dollar economic sector: the art industry. For many museum goers today, it is a mildly benevolent form of entertainment, bolstered by a patina of self-improvement and social benevolence. This conclusion lends credence to the prediction of cultural critic Alfred Kazin a half century ago that art would decline to the level of shopping or sports. Brave new world, alphas and betas! In our current fraught situation, can anyone plausibly defend Maurizio Cattelan’s $120,000 duct-taped banana at Art Basel, “Comedian,” so formally similar to the Communist hammer and sickle designed by Yevgeny Ivanovich Kamzolkin (1885–1957)?


Edgar Allan Poe wrote in “The Philosophy of Composition” about the need for an aesthetic “unity of effect” in a literary work of art. Nearly two hundred years later, after the creative destructions of one art history movement after another, there is still something to be said for works of art that say one thing, forcefully, over works that say many things, half-heartedly and notionally, relying on what we might call the Bloombergian shotgun effect. Can works of art and exhibitions be complex and contradictory? Of course they can, but not indiscriminately, as is the case with the omnium-gatherium blockbusters or surveys. Let curators curate from an understanding of individual artworks and a narrative through-line. Use the catalogue essays, commissioned at some expense, form the outline. Don’t set out to amuse or patronize audiences, or flatter our prejudices or ignorance. Educate us, challenge us, thrill us, astonish us. We demand it; we accept no substitutes. Shows with narrative theses and overarching ideas are also more interesting to review, I might add, than concatenations of objects that are not particularly connected aesthetically.


I give Buckley the last word: “I think the observable reluctance of the majority of Americans to assert themselves in minor matters is related to our increased sense of helplessness in an age of technology and centralized political and economic power. For generations, Americans who were too hot, or too cold, got up and did something about it. Now we call the plumber, or the electrician, or the furnace man. The habit of looking after our own needs obviously had something to do with the assertiveness that characterized the American family familiar to readers of American literature. With the technification of life goes our direct responsibility for our material environment, and we are conditioned to adopt a position of helplessness.”
Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1496989 2020-01-08T16:28:41Z 2020-01-09T21:43:44Z Frances Lerner: "After All" at Gallery Commonweal, Bolinas CA

Frances Lerner: After All

Gallery Commonweal

451 Mesa Road, Bolinas CA

November 20, 2019 - January 9, 2020

The purpose of art is mystery.—René Magritte

Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces molded by time, certain twilights and certain places—all these are trying to tell us something, or have told us something we should not have missed, or are about to tell us something; that imminence of a revelation that is not yet produced is, perhaps, the aesthetic reality.—Jorge Luis Borges, “The Wall and the Books”

 You would pluck out the heart of my mystery.—Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene 2

American culture these days valorizes dichotomous thinking and polemical extremism as proof of seriousness and commitment, and balance (or compromise) is seen as inferior—tainted by compromise. The worst are full of passionate intensity, as Yeats says. When we eventually regain our sanity, perhaps the values of reasonableness and balance will again come to the fore.

The poetic, introspective art of Frances Lerner, of modest scale and subdued color, eschews the gaudy assertiveness of art-fair art, and exemplifies the values of synthesis and seriousness. Lerner’s paintings, prints, and assemblages (including her recent wool sculptures and paintings) tread the knife-edge between innovation and tradition with a sure foot; they’re mysterious, and preserve their mystery, but never descend into theatricality or flummery. They never “saw the air” with overwrought drama, like bad actors (either Shakespearean or Congressional).

After All surveys the past decade of Lerner’s work from four series, which are not displayed chronologically or thematically. Despite the stylistic differences, and the time-tripping into which viewers find themselves, the effect is not as jarring as mught have been expected Lerner’s compelling and consistent sensibility links everything, so the effect is less cacophonous than dialogic; the sibling works speak to each other.

There Once Was A World, with its fairy-tale or fantasy title, comprises small paintings depicting puppetlike figures in circumstances that are unclear but intriguing. Lerner: “The main puppet, Lorelei, possibly an alter ego, is my metaphor for perplexity, paradox, and a woman’s predicament’; she is a “peasant, immigrant, orphan or artist in any sweatshop, factory or studio,” balancing inner-driven creativity and everyday practicality, to keep body and soul alive. The loreleis of German folklore were alluring river sirens that tempted sailors to their deaths, so Lerner is using the term ironically, perhaps hinting at majority cultures not only exploit but, adding insult to injury, demonize their victims. Minus that sociopolitical analysis, the paintings, inspired by a puppet that the artist purchased at a flea market, can also be read as commentary on the human condition; we’re all caught between assertion and powerlessness, like Hamlet’s fellow creatures, crawling between heaven and earth. “Lorelei and the Witch” (2007-8), “Lorelei’s Earthship” (2008), “Working Woman #1,” “Working Woman #2,” and “Working Woman #3” (all 2008), “Family” (2006), and “Oeuvre” (2008-9) depict Lerner’s troupe of puppet actors with varying degrees of pictorial clarity, with “Lorelei and the Witch” and “Stroll” depicting ghostly vertical presences, while “Working Woman #1”and “Family” define the forms clearly, but still enigmatically. Implicit in all of these images is a sense of magic metamorphosis, of matter come to life, but also vulnerable to dissolution and disintegration: liminal, or between stable states, to use the current phrase. Lerner’s fine draftsmanship and sense of form hold these tonal paintings—grisaille, with superadded color glazes—together.  WIth their subdued palettes and focus on the mysterious inner life of objects, these paintings are in a line of descent from Giorgio Morandi and perhaps Edwin Dickinson.

In Minor Characters and Sympathetic Criminals, Lerner expands her cast of characters beyond Lorelei and her family, to suggest narratives, albeit complicated and enriched by the artist’s abstract shreds-and-patches (to quote The Bard, again) patterning and color relationships. The enigmatic dramas of “Loom-Weavers” (2011-12), “Sympathetic Criminals” (2010-12),. “Benches 2”( 2011), “Benches 3” (2011), “Occupied Couple” (2011), “Saddled Head” (2011-12) and “Family Business” (2012) also feature larger architectural spaces, suggesting stage sets. In “Loom-Weavers,” the tapestry apparatus is generalized to abstract sculpture, almost architecture, while the woven branchlike patterning on a loom in the background carries over into the window traceries and even the ceiling. In “Sympathetic Criminals,” Lorelei sits slumped in a corner, hands upraised,  accompanied by a doll-like male companion in an indeterminate uniform who stands and regards her; occupying the left foreground is a large cloth or quilt of patchwork resembling window mullions and stanchions, a motif that recurs in “Occupied Couple.” “Family Business” depicts Lorelei and a small girl, both wearing headscarves, making their furtive way through an ambiguous space littered by vessels and spars that suggests both factory and stage, with a painted backdrop (or is it a large window?), abutted by a riser (or bed?), revealing a generalized cluster of buildings.

The Unlikely Companions series has an unlikely title, since the figures that formerly populated Lerner’s enigmatic dramas now disappear, with the semi-abstract backgrounds coming to the fore. Lerner: “For somewhat unknown reasons, I began buying old bellows, drawn both by the way they operate, feeding the fire with air [, and] the bellows’ rounded petal forms and angular shapes (similar in some ways to the misshapen Lorelei).... [M]y impulse was to pull the ...bellows apart and reunite them, forming a sort of hybrid.” The anthropomorphic bellows, which breathe and vocalize, appears in a transitional work, “The Arrest” (2015), with the huddled puppet couple, hands up in a shrug or surrender, beginning to unravel, as the background space obtrudes. Later works from this series—“Nineteen Sixty-Nine” (2013), “Syzygy” (2013-14), “CInders” (2014), “Locomotive”(2014-15), “Fortune” (2014-15), “Underground” (2015), “Puppet Torso Armor” (2015), and “Bees”( 2015-16)—read as mechanistic abstractions in the Dada-Cubist-Futurist style, with echoes of Duchamp and Picabia, but done in Lerner’s muted brown-gray palette and velvet-soft painting strokes: intimist metaphysical subversion, reminiscent of San Francisco’s Gordon Cook. During this period, Lerner began exploring unorthodox materials—wool, cast concrete, and found objects—in sculptures and wall collages or assemblages that add materiality to her concerns with time and mortality. “Cinders” (2014), “March” (2015), “Dickensonian” (2015-16), and “Bee Bellows” (2015-16) are probably influenced by the contemporary interest in abjection, but Lerner’s balancing of form, drama, and psychology keeps these small works, as well as the untitled “wool paintings” from this period, from the easy one-note irony to which other artists succumb.

Since 2016, Lerner has returned to figuration (at least her idiosyncratic version of figuration), working in oil on paper. “Garret” (2017-19), “Work Break” (2018), “Rollers” (2018-19), “ and “Waiting Room (2018-19) evoke the animated-matter imagery of the Minor Characters period, while “Headquarters Blossom” (2017-19) recalls the moody abstractions of the Unlikely Companions period. “Horses” (2018-19) and “Blue Horses” (2019) add an equine motif, perhaps an homage to that painter of spiritualized animals, Franz Marc? Concomitant with this return to the artist’s psychic homeland is a new direction. Lerner became interested needle felting, which is transfixing crumpled felt repeatedly with a threaded needle until it assumes a complicated and unpredictable form. Deconstructing hats, Lerner creates small sculptures like “Slice” (2016) that retain, despite its minimalist form, some vestige of human use and life.

In an era when art seems to have become thoroughly corporatized and commodified, mere easy fun, Frances Lerner’s practice stands for the value of self-expression and meaning. It is not “standing athwart history yelling Stop” (to quote WiIliam F. Buckley’s trope on opposing the stampede of New Deal liberalism), but, to those who believe art can and should be a serious affair, as Anselm Kiefer has declared, it’s heartening. Make art great again.



Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1489262 2019-12-15T02:49:04Z 2019-12-15T02:49:04Z In Plain Sight at Mills College Art Museum (reprinted from East Bay Monthy, December 2019)


All Systems Go

In Plain Sight, at Mills College Art Museum (MCAM), focuses, as you would suspect from the title,  on the hidden systems that underlie and override the lives of our overly tech-reliant and even addicted citizenry. Guest-curated by the Berkeley Art Center’s Daniel Nevers, the show features multimedia and mixed-media works with a conceptual, cross-disciplnary bent by Los Angeles’ Kathryn Andrews, the San Francisco artist team of castaneda/reiman, Houston’s Dario Robleto, and SF’s Weston Teruya. Considering the amount of deciphering required by current politics and business, exemplified in Facebook’s hands-off approach to fake-news political messaging and PG&E’s feckless fire-and-fury mismanagement of its infrastructure, the covert operations and overt corruption running the show in the background are long overdue for scrutiny by a ‘woke’ populace.

Andrews’ “Black Bars: Wolverine Woolverton,” with its reference to redactions, Bill Barr’s or not, is a large plexiglas box or vitrine containing an assemblage of random pop-culture images about always-exciting violence; the action-movie and underground-cartoon imagery is obscured beneath two large black rectangles, screen-printed onto the plexiglas, that have the commanding presence of monoliths, ancient steles, or Richard Serra’s steel plates. Other pieces are more puzzling, requiring insider knowledge of the LA art scene, and so less forceful in their critique. Castaneda/reiman’s investigation of the cultural/institutional landscape goes behind the scenes here with large, carefully composed color photographs of MCAM’s painting racks, seen in elevation view, like a 1960s stripe painting. and a shot of shelved figurines, with their outlines and catalogue numbers traced on the underlying ethafoam padding as Magrittean visual/verbal shadows or equivalents. Robleto explores the history of science with 3D-printed renditions of an 1870 waveform of bloodflow from stressed and unstressed hearts, displayed like holy relics, albeit in modern minimalist style; and a Wunderkammer treasure-trove vitrine full of shells, teeth and spines. Weston Teruya crafts sculptures of humble domestic objects—locks, gates, rakes and brooms—from ‘lowly’ recycled materials and photographs, demonstrating again that aesthetic worth, like moral character, trumps luxury and pretentiousness.

A catalog is available in print, or online at the museum website. In Plain Sight runs through December 8; Mills College Art Museum, 11:00-4:00 T-Sun (till 7:30 W), (510) 430-2164; mcam.mills.edu. —DeWitt Cheng 

castaneda/reiman Research photo of object storage shelves at Mills College Art Museum, 2019. Courtesy of the artists.

Dario Robledo Small Crafts on Sisyphean Seas, 2017-2018. Cut and polished nautilus shells, various cut and polished seashells, various urchin spines and teeth, mushroom coral, green and white tusks, squilla claws, butterfly wings, colored pigments and beads, colored crushed glass and glitter, dyed mica flakes, pearlescent paint, cut paper, acrylic domes, brass rods, colored mirrored Plexiglas, glue, maple. 75 x 71.5 x 43 inches Courtesy of the artist and Inman Gallery, Houston. Photo: Jena Jackson. Detail of photo is shown.

Weston Teruya Casting shadows, 2019. Found trash, photographs. 7 x 6.5 x 3.5 inches  Photo: courtesy of the artist. Detail of the photo is shown.


Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1488813 2019-12-13T23:22:14Z 2019-12-13T23:22:15Z James Tissot: Fashion and Faith at Legion of Honor, San Francisco (reprinted from VisualArtSource.com, 10/18/19)

The Beauty/Truth Problem

In Thomas Mann’s final, unfinished novel, The Confessions of Felix Krull, the young confidence-man protagonist—antihero is too strong a word—recounts that his father, an elderly roué, took great pleasure in merely reciting the words, les jolies femmes. I was repeatedly reminded of this deplorable but comical figure as I perused the glittering, splendidly painted depictions of haute bourgeois leisure in the San Francisco Legion of Honor’s current exhibition, James Tissot: Fashion & Faith.

Tissot (1836-1902), né Jacques Joseph Tissot, in the port city of Nantes, was the son of a wealthy drapery merchant, but decided as a teenager to forsake the family business, to his father’s chagrin. This defiance of paternal expectations, however, turned out well, as Tissot’s career took off immediately. His blending of classical Ingrist realism and Romantic literary subject matter in The Meeting of Faust and Marguerite (1860), possibly influenced by the antimodernist English Pre-Raphaelites, garnered the twenty-four year old artist a 5000-franc purchase from the French government.

In the early 1860s Tissot abandoned historicizing imagery to focus on the depiction of his contemporaries—Baudelaire’s “heroism of modern life”— although his subject matter in portraits and semi-narrative paintings remained the wealthy upper classes with which he was socially connected. In 1871, he inexplicably (considering his conservative Catholic background) fought on the side of the Paris Commune; and when the rebels were exterminated by the government, he sensibly relocated to London (as some other leftist artists did), where his virtuosic paintings of exquisitely turned out jolies femmes, both French and English, found favor with British industrialists. In 1872, the thirty-something painter earned nearly 100,000 francs—the wages of a merchant prince of the day. Tissot knew the Impressionists—Degas painted his portrait—but kept his distance from them professionally, and stylistically, for the most part. He shared their interest in Japanese culture, however, filling his large manorial home in London (in bohemian St. John’s Wood) with exotic collectibles that found their way into his paintings, as did his lordly home and its grounds.

The exhibition is well organized, presenting a clear picture of the artist’s development (though it’s curiously lacking in his voice), and beautifully presented— a visual delight, but not an emotional one, despite the drama of Tissot losing his youthful muse, La Mystérieuse, Kathleen Newton, to tuberculosis (‘consumption’) and his subsequent embrace of séances and spiritualism, and painting, in his sixties, with mostly undistinguished results, Christianity’s Greatest Story Ever Told. If Robert Hughes once opined that Barnett Newman’s Stations of the Cross were no match for Titian’s, it’s fair to note that Tissot’s spooky illustrations of the Passion are no competition for Michelangelo or Piero della Francesca. A few other qualifications are in order: Tissot’s drawing is sometimes off the mark, with disconnected body parts emerging from the extravagant costumery without evoking the body underneath, and it sometimes even verges on the caricatural (“Painters and Their Wives,”); his restrained but knowing satires of the lower orders now look dated and elitist (“Provincial Woman,” “Too Early,” “London Visitors”): and the scenarios that he depicts are sometimes lacking in realistic space or lighting; they look assembled from various parts, without the rhythmic unity and grouping of the Renaissance painters like Carpaccio, an early influence (“Departure of the Prodigal Son” and “Return of the Prodigal Son” from 1862-3; “Rue Royale”).

That said, Tissot’s apotheoses of young, attractive, wealthy women—continental Gibson Girls— record Belle Époque Europe with the discerning eye of a tailor or seamstress (due to his family background) and a master showman’s delight in painted spectacle, with Tissot’s extraordinary attention to detail undoubtedly a compelling selling point for patrons used to hard-headed cost analysis. (Four of the paintings, all of high quality, now belong to San Francisco grandees.) “Safe to Win,” “The Fan,” “Young Women Looking at the Chinese Temple,”  “Young Women Looking at Japanese Objects,” “Portrait of Mlle L.L.” and “Portrait of the Marquise de Miramon” are stunning works of indisputable, irresistible charm and verve. Tissot’s more poetic, spiritualized, gauzy, stagy images, tending toward kitsch, are less successful, at least to contemporary taste.

The problem for a contemporary MeToo audience, naturally, lies not in the aesthetic realm but the sociopolitical one, depicting, as they do, women as delicate, decorative beings, however gloriously painted. It’s unfair to judge the past too harshly by present standards, which seems to be a popular blood sport among irate Procrustean virtue-signalers these days, but the nineteenth-century status of women has to be considered in the case of Tissot—who was one of many artists engaged in what could called the Male Gaze market. (See Peter Schjeldahl’s recent take in The New Yorker on Renoir.) Bram Dijkstra in Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture, postulates that bourgeois women of that time, uneducated, confined and cosseted, were seen as the repositories of Christian virtue and innocence in the dog-eat-dog world of capitalist competition; and that when they fell short of that unrealistic Hedda Gabler baby-woman pedestal, they were misogynistically transformed into the harpies, vampires and succubi of Symbolist art: ancestresses of America’s castrating woman politicians running pedophile rings from pizza parlors. The truth is not always beautiful, nor is beauty always truthful: teachable moments for an audience addicted to glamor (etymologically, a magic spell), sensationalist drama, and low-rent entertainment.  —DeWitt Cheng


Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1487661 2019-12-10T23:59:49Z 2019-12-11T17:04:23Z Jenny Wantuch: "Water Stories" in Throckmorton Theatre, Mill Valley, to January 4, 2020
“Lakeview”, 36x48 inches, Acrylic, oil and gold leaf on panel, 2018

“Water Stories”
December 3, 2019-January 4, 2020
Throckmorton Theatre
142 Throckmorton Ave
Mill Valley, CA 94941
 Tue-Sat 2-6pm and during shows

Catalogue essay from a year or two ago.

JENNY M.L. WANTUCH: The Painterly Eye

Painting from nature is not copying the object; it is realizing one’s sensations.—Paul Cézanne

We must not be content to memorize the beautiful formulas of our illustrious predecessors. Let us go out and study beautiful nature.—Paul Cézanne


In the mid-nineteenth-century, as industrialization began to transform the American landscape, painters took upon themselves the task of preserving in art what civilization and Manifest Destiny were quickly eroding. One Hudson River painter, Jasper Cropsey, wrote, in 1847:

The axe of civilization is busy with our old forests, and artisan ingenuity is fast sweeping away the relics of our national infancy.... What were once the wild and picturesque haunts of the Red Man, and where the wild deer roamed in freedom, are becoming the abodes of commerce and the seats of manufactures.... Yankee enterprise has little sympathy with the picturesque, and it behooves our artists to rescue from its grasp the little that is left, before it is too late.”

If Cropsey could not bring himself to condemn industrial progress with the scorn of his contemporary, the Romantic, antiquarian, pessimist J.M.W. Turner, who famously condemned England’s “dark satanic mill, “ his words still ring true in the age of global capitalism, American-style—although the natural world even in its diminished present state continues to inspire plein-air (i.e., open-air, outdoor, onsite) artists who seek unspoiled areas for their calm beauty.

Jenny Margareta Linnéa Wantuch (who uses the signature JMLW) is known for her colorful landscape paintings of the San Francisco Bay Area, done in oil or gouache. A native of Stockholm, Sweden, and reared in a farming family, Wantuch grew up with a love of nature and a passion for creativity that was encouraged early by her family and art teachers. After earning a chemistry degree in Uppsala, and a decade of working as an environmental engineer in the Swedish pharmaceutical industry, she moved to the Bay Area in 2001 for a job in the Biotech industry. Enrolled in graduate school at Berkeley, however, she discovered that her old interest in art would not be denied. She took a career detour, studying with the Bay Area artists Jude Pittman and Deb Rumer, among others. Wantuch’s semi-abstract landscape paintings savor the natural beauty of her adopted home—including, at times, the dynamism of San Francisco’s urban scene—and have met with increasing recognition and success. Today, she is a busy, respected emerging artist with a lengthy record of achievement and acclaim. 

Wantuch works primarily outdoors, “hiking a bit with ... extra luggage,” as she puts it, dealing with wind, fog and bugs, in order to confront what the hiker Cézanne called, ‘the motif’ directly, in all its messy reality, referring to photographs only when necessary. “I ... rely on my direct observation, which means I take careful notes of colors and design. I believe that by painting from life, I grow as an artist, I learn from what I see. In the studio, I use my plein-air paintings as reference for large-scale paintings.” While Wantuch paints in color patches, like Cézanne, rather than modeling objects in space, three-dimensionally, i.e., “copying the object,” in Cézanne’s words, she employs flat interlocking shapes rather like irregular puzzle pieces—or the varicolored counties and countries in geographic maps. Wantuch’s bright, pure, Fauve colors, absorbed as a totality, as if from a distance, convey the light and landscape of the northern California landscape with a rigorous economy of means that recalls the pointillism of Seurat and his circle. Her modernist Arcadian views of California—e.g., Wild Mustard in Inverness, Creek in Half Moon Bay, Princeton Beach, Spring at Crystal Spring, Reflections at Stanislaus River—capture and preserve the Golden State’s clear, white light and scenic vistas, still alive and well in our ‘late-capitalist’ era of Yankee enterprise.

1 Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting 1825-1875, Thames and Hudson, 1980, p.5

“The Light Between”, 43x36 inches, oil on panel, 2018

“Sound of Water”, 48x36 inches, oil on panel, 2018

“Pond Reflections I”, 30x10 inches, casein on clay board, 2019

“The Four Seasons”, 4 panels 24x6 inches each, casein on clay board, 2019

Dewitt Cheng
tag:artopticon.us,2013:Post/1486903 2019-12-09T06:25:07Z 2019-12-09T06:25:07Z Resolution, or, The Trial of Democracy (reprinted fromVisualArtSource.com, 12/6/19)

Amid the malarkey and malevolence emanating from Washington, and spreading across the country—Trump a better president than Lincoln, Republicans?!?—and the seemingly endless chain of climate change disasters around the world, it’s difficult to focus on matters of less urgency. Artists, who generally require a modicum of security and calm, may be having a rough go of it—although many artists have accepted the challenge of Trumpism instead of bewailing it, and re-engaged with society, defying the intellectual solipsism of recent years when, as the Beatles put it fifty years ago, nothing was real, and there was nothing to get hung about. (Tell the Iraqis.)

Peter Schjeldahl, in his review in The New Yorker of a current show about war, disparages Jean Baudrillard’s essays which seem to assert that the Iraq War never happened; the philosopher was making a point about media spectacle and fake news, but the fact is that many on the academic left were distracted by the glittering baubles of terminology and jargon from the harsher realities nominally in question.

I recently read I. F. Stone’s The Trial of Socrates (1979), which rebuts the notion (proffered by generations of Platonists, abetted by Jacques-Louis David’s nobly iconic painting), that Socrates was the noblest of the Greeks, a kind of humanist prefiguration of Christ; and that he was crucified (in effect) in 299BC by the demos (people, republic) of Athens—for being too virtuous, too much of a gadfly? Stone was a leftist muckraker of some renown in the 60s and 70s, the publisher of an influential weekly newsletter, and his opinions are consequently not those of today’s self-righteous, ignorant firebrands of the left and right, lost in the cloud-cuckooland of cool new ideas (Nietzsche’s eternal return, again?) or sunk in the mire of unquestioned dogma about messiah, manichaeist FInal Battles, and the Republican utopia of invisible hands (at the public till, or, God Helps Those Who Help Themselves). The GOP shibboleth of plucky independence is nicely illustrated in the painting, “Teach a Man to Fish,” by the conservative Christian artist John McNaughton; in it, the blue-suited Trump instructs a young student who has abandoned his Socialism textbook: no more miracles required—if only you believe in the fish or Fish (an early secret symbol for the subversive martyr), or the 1%er fishers of men.

In a New York Times interview. Stone summarized his argument, based on extensive research with original sources, for which he learned Greek. The accounts that survive, by Socrates and Xenophon, two of Socrates’ disciples, are partial and biased. Today we believe that the charges of not respecting the gods and corrupting the youth are fundamentally conservative-lifestyle attacks on a liberal philosopher and precursor of our wonderful selves; in fact, they are political charges made by the Athenian polity against a teacher who had taught his students to mock and oppose, even to the point of violence, the very idea of democracy.  Two of the wealthy students whom he had instructed in the arts of rhetoric and persuasion were among tyrants who, a decade before Socrates’ trial, had seized power from the rising mercantile ‘middle classes.’

The Thirty Tyrants ruled only about eight months, but it was a time of terror. In that period they executed 1,500 Athenians and banished 5,000, one‐tenth or more of the total population of men, women, children and slaves ... all who were of the democratic party. A few months later, the moderates who had originally supported the Thirty Tyrants began to flee, especially after Critias murdered their leader, Theramenes. He, who had been one of the original Thirty Tyrants, was executed without a trial when he began to criticize the Thirty Tyrants for their brutality... Socrates was neither exiled with the democrats nor forced to flee with the moderate oppositionists. He did not suffer at the hands of the Thirty Tyrants unlike his chief accuser, Anytus, who lost much of his property when he fled and joined the fight to free the city. Socrates, in Plato's “Apology,” calls himself “the gadfly” of Athens, but it seems his sting was not much in evidence when Athens needed it.

Western Civ students may remember that Plato’s Republic with its men of various metals, its Guardians, and its philosopher kings, is not egalitarian, and Greek culture was already strongly predisposed toward Homer’s warrior aristocracy. Odyseeus, chastising the ignoble, deformed, antiwar commoner Thersites, in Iliad: “It is not good for the many to rule. Let one man rule, one man be king.” It is understandable, then, that Socrates was considered a traitor in such dangerous times. In addition, he feared old age, and at age seventy may have been committing suicide memorably by public trial. It is also understandable that the aristos of later times should exalt the virtues of their philosopher kings against claims of the dark and dirty (and dangerous) peasantry.

Plus ça change, you say? The cycle of anarchy-democracy-dictatorship was well known by the Founding Fathers, of course, hence their fear of factional partisanship, unprincipled demagogues and foreign entanglements. It’s a democratic republic... if we can keep it. The President’s desk is not named Resolution casually. Happy new year, neo-Spartans!




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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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














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

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

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

 Hall writes:

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

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

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

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




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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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





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

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

Re       Regina Coeli, Queen of the heavens, the Moon

Mi      Microcosmos, the small universe, Earth

Fa       Fata, Fate, ruled by the planets.

So       Sol, Sun

La       Lactae, milk, the Milky Way galaxy

Si        Sider, star, all galaxies

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

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

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

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


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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Annabeth Rosen’s Earthen Humor at CJM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spacy Oddities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Play It Down

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

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

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

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

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

John Vanderlyn, The Death of Jane McCrea, 1804



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

Avenue 12 Gallery Showcases Photo-Mosaics by Simo Neri

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

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

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

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

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

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







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

Why the Mural, and History, and Art Matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Subjective Objects

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

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














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

Is There a Crisis in Art Criticism?

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

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

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




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

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

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

In 2012 I wrote in Art Ltd magazine:

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

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


Sonoma Valley Museum of Art

January 19 - April 7, 2019

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

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

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

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

























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

Wesley Tongson’s Paintings Depict His Spiritual Journey

by DeWitt Cheng

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

A Panoramic Exhibition Traces Chinese Contemporary Art

by DeWitt Cheng

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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









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

San Francisco Artist Turns Trump’s Words Against Him 

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

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

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

I was similarly enthusiastic, reviewing for ArtLtd.

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

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

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






























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


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

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

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

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
















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

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


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


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


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


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

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


Robert Koch Gallery


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

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




Dewitt Cheng