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
















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

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




Haroon Mirza's "The Night Journey" at Asian Art Museum, San Francisco (reprinted from KQED blog)

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

Asian Art Museum, September 7-December 9, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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




Matthew Wetschler Reception, 9.9.18, San Francisco

Matthew Wetschler: The Space of Uncertainty

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

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

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

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

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