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






Julian Schnabel at legion of Honor, San Francisco (reprinted from

Editors' Roundtable
by DeWitt Cheng

San Francisco's Legion of Honor is again juxtaposing contemporary art with its Old Masters collection and its neoclassical architecture. The temple of art on a hill overlooking scenic San Francisco Bay exudes tradition, and, in our era of sociological art analysis, Eurocentric white privilege: racism, colonialism, imperialism, sexism and so on. Who better to shake things up with the living white males than — of all people — the swaggering neo-expressionist Julian Schnabel? His operatic paintings of the 1980s, with their cracked crockery, antlers, velvet, boxing-ring tarps, and, above all, their gargantuan sizes, exuded machismo worthy of Hemingway or Picasso. Indeed, the art critic Robert Hughes mocked Schnabel's youthful bravado and careerism: "Schnabel's work is to painting what Stallone's is to acting: a lurching display of oily pectorals." 

It was, of course, the now-embarrassing 1980s. In the intervening decades, Schnabel has established himself as a notable film director ("Basquiat," "Before Night Falls," "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," and an upcoming film about Van Gogh). His return to San Francisco thirty years after his 1988 SFMOMA exhibition is thus an event of cultural interest, particularly when considered as part of the Legion's and deYoung's partial rebooting as venues for contemporary art (which has been partially successful; see my previous VAS editorials on the Legion's Urs Fischer and Sarah Lucas shows in late 2017.) 

Schnabel's "Symbols of Actual Life" comprises fourteen large paintings from four different bodies of work, and three huge sculptures. Nicely installed in the Legion's colonnaded courtyard (the site of innumerable wedding photo shoots and selfies taken with Rodin's "The Thinker") are six 24 by 24 foot untitled paintings, cable-tied to the Ionic columns, three on either side, and exactly as tall as the balustrade above. The paintings, mounted on NASA-worthy aluminum stretchers, are made on strips of lightweight tarp that the artist stitched together. The horizontal bands or registers in harmonized purple and gray recall abstractions by artists such as Paul Klee and Sean Scully, while the superimposed splotches of white gesso that arc and curve across their expanses suggest the go-for-broke flung paint that Francis Bacon occasionally favored or the ectoplasmic exudations of spiritualists a century ago. Those worthy antecedents aside, I don't find the images — which the artist explains, "epitomize much of what are the essential characteristics of the smallest and most nascent proposals of how imagery, drawing and material could be called a painting" — particularly moving or memorable. The size and the Court-of-Honor context lend them what impact they have, as does the conceit that over the next four months they are to be weathered, oxidized and aged, without the preservationist fretfulness normally accorded to luxury objets d'art. Take that, treasure-house fetishists! 

Accompanying the six paintings are three large sculptures from early in the artist's career in plaster over burlap, set atop sturdy steel frames, also presumably meant to decay in San Francisco's fog. Schnabel's crudely fashioned sculptures, spindle- or urn-shaped and humanoid, sprouting tree branches from their heads, are endowed with titles invoking the classical past and its metamorphoses in later Romantic art. "Helen of Troy" needs no introduction. "Gradiva" is based on a walking-woman bas-relief from Greek art (a copy of which was owned by Freud) that inspired both a 1902 romantic-fantasy novel and a 1970 movie starring the lovestruck lead actor from Alain Resnais' "Last Year at Marienbad." "Balzac" might be Schnabel's tribute to both the larger-than-life novelist and the outsized sculptor who portrayed him as a craggy mountain, or force of nature, Rodin. 

The paintings installed inside the three Rodin galleries are less impactful, which is actually a welcome relief, given the previous Fischer and Lucas stage-wink shows. An irregularly shaped 1990 series based on triangular Egyptian sailcloths pays abstract homage to the actress-singer Jane Birkin. She becomes an object of veneration for Schnabel much as Camille Claudel was for Rodin, whose portrait of her, atypically delicate, resides in the central gallery. A series of works done on tarpaulins scavenged from Mexican open-air markets pays homage to the ideas of emotion and transcendence exemplified by Rodin, though in minimalist, abstract form, with the ghostly white shapes registering as spiritual forces or presences. Less successful within this context are Schnabel's "Goat" paintings. Begun in 2012 to commemorate the life and death of artist Mike Kelley, it digitally combines the photograph of a taxidermied goat owned by the artist upon which someone had placed a child's stuffed rabbit ("I accepted that as an image."), and a landscape excerpted from an 1850 wallpaper depiction of George Washington accepting the sword of the surrendering British general Charles Cornwallis. One cannot help but wonder what Joan of Arc, El Cid, Laocoon and his sons, or The Thinker, all represented by statuary nearby, would think — but art is an awfully big adventure, n'est-ce pas?