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

The Rio de Janeiro Museum Fire and Cultural Global Warming (reprinted from
Editorial 9.8.18

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

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

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



Julie Huang and James Su at SLAC. August 9 reception.

JULIE HUANG: Connections

JAMES SU: Spring Outings

Contemporary Paintings by Asian-American Artists

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

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


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


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

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



"Divine Bodies: Sacred Imagery in Asian Art," at Asian Art Museum, San Francisco

“Divine Bodies: Sacred Imagery in Asian Art”
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, California

Continuing through July 29, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Reprinted from, June 2018


Black Artists Examine Private and Public Realms at Bedford Gallery (reprinted from East Bay Monthly, June 2018 issue)


Black Artists Examine Private and Public Realms at Bedford Gallery

The San Francisco Bay Area is known for its political liberalism and tolerance, two qualities that would seem beyond reproach, but not, unfortunately, in today’s political climate. The cynical scapegoating of various minorities by Fox News and its friends and allies in the White House is bad enough; what seems to be a clandestine targeting of black men by police forces, designed to punish and intimidate, is, it seems, Trumpian America’s equivalent of the mysterious Russian-journalist purge. Berkeley’s Paulson Fontaine Press, a respected and established publisher of art prints, represents some of the best artists in the country—some of whom happen to be black—about whom Rhea Fontaine writes: “These are the people who are taking risks that others aren’t willing to take, saying things that other people aren’t willing to say, seeing things that other people are not seeing.”

The group exhibition, Personal to Political: Celebrating to African-American Artists of Paulson Fontaine Press, was assembled by the Bedford, and will travel around the country for the next four years, so others will see (if they choose to). Wide-ranging in its focus, it combines the graphic work—as well as paintings, sculptures and quilts—of Edgar Arceneaux, Radcliffe Bailey, McArthur Binion, the Gee's Bend Quilters (Louisiana and Mary Lee Bendolph, Loretta Bennett, and Loretta Pettway) of rural Alabama, Lonnie Holley, David Huffman, Samuel Levi Jones, Kerry James Marshall, Martin Puryear, Gary Simmons, and Lava Thomas.

 The works combine aesthetic form with sociopolitical content in varying degrees. Martin Puryear’s elegant etching, depicting one of his minimalist sculptures, “Untitled (State II)” (2004) and Loretta Petway’s bold, resonant color etching, “Remember Me” (2007), replicating one of her quilts, are on the abstract side. Radcliffe Bailey’s “In the Garden” (2003), Gary Simmons’ “Starlite Theatre” (2012), Kerry James Marshall’s “Untitled (Handsome Young Man” (2010), David Huffman’s “Basketball Pyramid” (2007) and Lava Thomas’s “Fictitious Self-Portrait” (2006) examine and extol black culture and history. A catalogue is available. Personal to Political runs through June 24, 2018; Bedford Gallery, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek, 925/295-1417; —DeWitt Cheng