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.
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
HAROLD TERRY LINDAHL
SPIRITUALITY IN ART
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.
HAROLD TERRY LINDAHL
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.
AN OBJECTIVE ART
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:
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
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 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.
“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
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.