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?

Interview with artist Robert Haemmerling, Peninsula Museum of Art, Burlingame CA, 4/22/18

ROBERT HAEMMERLING: Transfigurations

Artist Robert Haemmerling Talks with Curator DeWitt Cheng, April 22, 2018
Peninsula Museum of Art, Burlingame, CA.

Curator Beth Beisecker: Thank you for coming to the Museum Complex. So glad that you are here. Curator DeWitt Cheng is going to be in conversation with Robert. You all obviously know Robert, about his process and about this exhibit, Transfigurations, which will be here at the museum through Sunday, May 6th. DeWitt, I will have you take it from there and introduce Robert.

DeWitt: Thank you again all of you for coming, I know we have a lot of competition today with Open Studios over at Hunter’s Point and people having their 4/20 hangovers. I am happy to be here with Robert, whose work is wonderful and should be better known, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to show his work: the sculptures for which he is known, plus the collages which have never been shown before. We’ve had a great response to them and, fortunately—tell all your friends—the show has been extended until May 6, so they have a couple more weeks to get down here and soak in the Haemmerling Race, the Haemmerling culture.

Robert: My people...

Dewitt: Let me as an introduction read the statement that I wrote about this, and then we can quiz Robert about what I call his origin story and stories

Robert: Perfect.

DeWitt: It’s called Transfigurations. The human figure has been the primary subject of art for as long as human beings and art (which, some say, defines humanity) have existed, or coexisted. The modernist revolt of a century ago against realism was not the end of a millennia-long tradition, as it seemed at the time, but a renewal of it, providing other visual, intellectual psychological ways to perceive and interpret the human drama (or comedy, or tragicomedy). The artist writes: “My works consist of many different images of people compiled into one unique figure. I strive for something which has a universal quality to it, something that is recognizable. The found objects and materials I use help me to be open to the idea of accident and chance. Adding and removing materials throughout the process also allows the piece to emerge as something new and unexpected. It is through this process that I have learned to trust my intuition. If I am lucky, I will be surprised. And if I am surprised, I stay interested. For several years my work has focused on the human figure as well as the occasional dog or two. With each figure I feel I am attempting to create something that has a universal feel to it. A familiar turn of the head or a hand gesture can be the catalyst that starts it all off. As I move forward in the process the individual figures will take on a much more specific role, complete with names and histories. Taking discarded pieces of wood, metal and cloth out of their original context and combining them in new ways brings out the essence of their previous lives. It is the combination of these found materials that is compelling, because it is open to so many levels of interpretation. I feel I am making order out of chaos, and never sure about how each piece will turn out. The evolution my artwork goes through is what I find surprising and exciting.”

Robert: Sounds a lot better when you read it.

DeWitt: Sounds like you know what you are doing. So, tell us about how you got started as an artist. You grew up in Belmont?

Robert: Yes partially. We moved to the Bay Area in 1968. We had lived previously in eastern Washington about 75 miles outside of Spokane, in a tiny little town. We lived in San Mateo for a while, Hayward for a while, and then we finally moved to Belmont about ’71, so I pretty much grew up there from age 11 on. As far as doing art, I’ve done it my whole life so I don’t know anything different. I was one of those kids who could draw in class and would get pulled out for special projects—like the Psychedelic Room in 1971, where I was given a room to decorate, black light, that kind of stuff, two assistants—and I am 11 years old. So that happened a lot, growing up, and it got me out of all kinds of normal stuff like math, which was great. I always got to do that; it was just something I did. It wasn’t until I was about 20 years old that I decided to give art a shot. I was finishing up on a psychology thing up at CSM—I went to the College of San Mateo up there —and decided I didn’t want to do that. I almost got the AA with that but started all over with art. And then, two years later, I transferred up to S.F. State, where I got my Bachelor’s in painting and printmaking. Sculpture was always something I kind of did for myself. I was primarily a painter making big abstract paintings that I couldn’t sell— and they are in storage still. After going through that, I found that I really liked working with stuff that was recognizable, something more figurative, as well as using every piece of material and let’s just say, junk and sawdust and tile grout and everything in the paint that I could mix in, as well as found sculptural elements.

DeWitt: You were going to go into psychology. Do you find that interest in psychology is in your art? I think it is.

Robert: I don’t know. I don’t really think about that. You know, when I start out the sculpted pieces, I am thinking about, well, the pragmatic stuff in the beginning: how do I get this thing to stand, that’s the main thing; and then, is it going to be a life-size figure, is it going to be male or female; and that can switch back and forth throughout the process. You know something that starts out a guy turns into a woman, turns back into a guy.

DeWitt: The psychology of the pieces —they are not portraits of people.

Robert: No.

DeWitt. They have that kind of individuality.

Robert: That comes through the process; that comes with the time. In the beginning, I don’t know, like I said, I have those vague notions in the beginning, but I also have other ideas that I am playing around with. As an example, I will use Patty back there and she has a mate (Carl) that I made at the same time. Their sexes were changed in the beginning. I was thinking (because I made those when I was about forty-eight or forty-nine) about middle age, and I was thinking about the fears that people have. With him, he has a bald spot in the back, his butt is all flat, his gut is hanging out—and that is the third version of the gut. If I were to make it now, it would be hanging out really big-time. The woman, she was more about someone in her mid-forties, possibly wearing a dress that is maybe too short (showing off a bit too much), and go-go boots. I was also thinking about those female East German swimmers from the Olympics in the mid-70s. Do you remember those women? They were gigantic, colossal. Then, you find out later on they were all on steroids. Well, those were some of the ideas I was thinking about with those two. It doesn’t happen with every piece, but sometimes there are ideas like that I am playing around with.

DeWitt: Let’s talk about those two. You said that at least one of them changed sex during the process. How do you start working on one? You have all of these pieces; how do you choose which pieces to use? How do you know what size it is going to be? It is intuitive, I am sure, but you are interested in certain things so then you decide you are going to do a life-size figure.

Robert: Those two started off as just heads with a bust, and I was going to go in a new direction {away from large works]. Well, I figured, I won’t have to carry these big heavy things around anymore; I will be able to sell smaller things a lot easier; it will go great! Well, I can’t help myself. I was looking at them and I was going, “No, they need to be figures and they need to be life-size, not the half-size ones like that (Bill).” So that’s what I was thinking. I also think in terms of couples. So, if I make a male, those two were done at the same time (Patty and Carl). That’s usually not the case; it is usually one at a time—because they used to take six to nine months to make, I would just take my time; I let them simmer for a long time. They will tell me what needs to be done and I don’t want to rush things. And, I can either choose to accept what it is saying or I can reject it, and you never know how it is going to come out. Those guys, I was thinking of a couple, and I wanted them to play off each other.

DeWitt: They are kind of a modern version of Adam and Eve for our times: secular and far from noble. They are noble in their own way.

Robert: I think so.

DeWitt: This is one of your first figures. (Dave).

Robert: That is the first figure I made. I did do some sculpting at San Francisco State. I had great teachers like Stephen DeStaebler, Don Rich, and Seymour Lock. This one, the pieces were collected in1985. I had them in milk crates in the studio, but I was too busy working on gigantic paintings that no one cared about. Then, around 1990, I said, “I am going to go with this thing.” This one is much more in the spirit of assemblage where you are taking found objects, found materials, and sticking them together, and not doing a whole lot of sculptural work. The head is the one exception on that piece where I am trying to shape that; the rest of the stuff is pretty much found objects. And then I went from there. Every year I would produce at least one, as well as doing the painting, and doing the printmaking, and everything else.

DeWitt: Patty and Carl and this is Dave. We need to know their names. They seem to be much more realistic and he is clearly an artificial figure that comes out of collage, cubism, Dadaism..

Robert: I was also thinking about the Bay Area artists [the sculptor] Richard Shaw and [the painter] Gordon Cook, especially his later paintings of found blocks of wood with sticks coming out. They were figures, but the paintings were incredibly beautiful, and very, very simple. I was thinking of that, and I was also thinking of Michelangelo’s David—and that’s why he’s Dave. In 2003 it was down at the Convention Center in Santa Clara, and I don’t know if you remember the wilding in the late ‘80s in New York, just herds of young men running around doing bad things. Well, that happened at the Santa Clara Convention Center in 2003. They just went through that place and wrecked as much art as they possibly could. Dave came back in pieces. Luckily insurance took care of it. He was for five years on the studio floor, because it is not that easy to go back into work you’ve done before and feel the same way about it, and I couldn’t repair him the same way because things were broken. So, instead of that arm going across like that like Michelangelo’s David it went like that way now. There was a change in it; it doesn’t bother me; it is kind of the part of the evolution of the piece. They all get nicks and marks on them and it doesn’t bother me that much.

DeWitt: His left arm, his left hand is composed of a guitar....

Robert: Yes. A fret board from a guitar, with drumsticks, paintbrushes, parts of an ottoman for his knees, and part of a table. I shaped the pieces of wood, the legs and the other stuff with Elmer’s glue. That’s how a lot of those other pieces are.

Audience: That’s glue in between?

Robert: Elmer’s Wood glue. Well, in between the cracks on those guys (Patty and Carl) there is wood putty.

DeWitt: You smooth it as well as you can and you back later and polish it?

Robert: Well, it depends on if I want to change it. Like his gut (Carl), I said that’s the third version of that because I was never happy with it. I always felt it should be bigger and bigger. But, there’s two other ones that are fully finished underneath that look great, but it just wasn’t enough. I can constantly come back into it and change it that way.

DeWitt: If we x-rayed it we would see those other bellies.

Robert: You would see a lot of stuff if you x-rayed it.

DeWitt: Fascinating.

Robert: A lot of metal pieces, a lot of things that hold it all together.

DeWitt: Do you ever use Bondo?

Robert: I have. I don’t like the smell of it. It kind of bothers me and I did use it for several pieces..

DeWitt: It is used for bodywork on cars.

Robert: Right. The smell is really strong and it just bothered me too much.

DeWitt: Let’s talk about what I call Gudea of Lagash. Anyone who’s taken art history will recognize as this ancient Middle Eastern priest figure. Your name for him is?

Robert: Ralph. I have regular-people names for my pieces because, oh, I don’t know, when I was in the first, second and third grade, we didn’t have any Dakotas or Tiffanys or Brittanys or Dylans or any of those names. They were all Mike, Bob, Sue, Larry, those kinds of names. I felt like I will just use all those kinds of names: they are not specific to anybody or anything; it’s just I like them—and I think they are funny. Back to that piece, that is actually two chairs. The figure is made out of a chair and the other chair is one that I scavenged on the same day in Potrero Hill out of a debris box. I used to do a lot of dumpster-diving. I wanted to use that chair, but make a figure out of it and yet still keep kind of its chairness and use the other one with just found objects on top of it, like the tin boxes that I collect; I break them apart, flatten them out, cut them to size I want, and divide them by colors. So, when I am working with the tin it is kind of like I am painting and I am grabbing stuff and working with colors or collage, but I am just using tin. That stuff can get really sharp; you have to watch it. Same method with that (Burt) and the Altoids thing (Rex).

DeWitt: You are using nails? You are not using any kind of air hammer or anything?

Robert: The last ten years it’s all been hand tools except for a rare occasion where I will pull out a circular saw; the dust is kept down to a minimum, and I am in no rush; and besides, with the power tools, things tend to look more abstracted. You can see the work of hands in the stuff that I do with hand tools. I guess that’s a little about the process that I use in these pieces. That one is found objects, it has hammer handles, and ax hatchet handles, the tin and then just layered construction material: plywood, two by fours, that kind of stuff. Again, everything has been found. It is either from the street or when people find out you use junk in your work, all of the sudden they want to come to your garage. I stopped collecting about ten years ago because I feel like I have enough now to last me at least another twenty or thirty years and at that point, who knows what I will be doing? If I am eighty, still doing this stuff, great.

DeWitt: You work at SCRAP, which is an art and material recycling.

Robert: It is. Scroungers for Reusable Art Parts. We are a nonprofit that is geared towards artists and teachers. We’ve been in existence since about 1976. It was started by Ruth Asawa and Anne Marie Theilan, who is still alive, eighty-five years old and still running the front desk on Friday and Saturdays. I don’t know if you guys know the story about it, but we are there, we are safe, we are good for now as far as we know.

DeWitt: Good.

Robert: We just need to have more people coming in, because everyone thinks we are closed. That’s all due to the whole Ghost Ship thing with the City cracking down on warehouses. We have our space in a warehouse that the school district owns. It is a large space, but it is fenced in. We don’t pay rent, which is very, very kind of them. We’ve been there for twenty years, but there are some issues with the Fire Marshall in terms of exits and entrances, and ,unfortunately, we had a bunch of extension cords with lamps. That’s all been changed. We’ve made a lot of changes, and at this point ,it looks like we are okay.

Audience: Where is SCRAP?

Robert: It is in San Francisco in the Bayview District. It is basically a thrift store geared towards artists and teachers. We have a free teacher giveaway every month, where we give away, not limitless amounts to every teacher who can prove they are a San Francisco teacher, but a certain amount: brand-new paper pads, pens, pencils, art supplies, books. You name it, we give it away. I think we are coming up to our last one; it is during the school year. We are a nonprofit and we have an art supply section, office supply section, a whole section dedicated to metal, wood. We stopped with the plastic because people just weren’t buying it and it was costing us money to go to the dump to just get rid of it.

DeWitt: And, you accept donations because when we moved a few years ago I had to clear a bunch of stuff and I was happy to give it to SCRAP. It is a great resource.

Robert: I see a lot of artists from town coming in and buying their supplies. I work there and I try not to take too much from there because my whole thing lately is to clear out my studio as much as possible. I make actually more donations. The only section I can’t stay away from is the free section: we have all the old calendars in there, and a big part of my collage work comes from the calendars, postcards, and junk mail, plus stuff I find on the street. I’ve had these materials in bags on shelves in my studio for the last twenty or thirty years. When I get ready to make collages, I pull out all these things and I just sit at a table and pick out things that are interesting: colors or faces; a whole calendar of the Beatles; a whole calendar dedicated to trout; another one dedicated to birds; or all the Old Masters, and I cut them up. I love art history and I get a big kick out of cutting up the masters: Picasso, Botticelli, Michelangelo, all of them.

DeWitt: Do you have them sorted in any way? I am thinking of photos that I have seen of Joseph Cornell’s studio in his garage where he had shoeboxes labeled with butterflies...

Robert: No. They are just big Ziploc bags, and whatever grabs my fancy, it’s all based on instinct. If I think about it too much, I won’t want to keep it. I figure it this grabs me for whatever reason, I put it into a bag and worry about it later. All those bags get filled up and they get put on a shelf. When I am ready to do collage work, I start grabbing stuff not knowing what’s in there, and I just look through stuff for what grabs my attention.

DeWitt: How long does each collage take to make, because they all seem so beautifully worked out. You do a lot of trial and error, or do you have a good sense in advance for what you are looking for?

Robert: Well, I know I am going to be dealing with portraiture. I am going to be dealing with the human face. It’s going to be a single shot. I am thinking about mug shots, school pictures, Kodak instamatic pictures, that kind of stuff; some kind of straight-ahead thing like that. I will just grab pieces that look similar or I will cut eyeballs; I like switching eyeballs a lot! I slowly trim these things down and play them against certain backgrounds. I only do the collage stuff for about two to three weeks—ten or fifteen pieces—and then I go back to sculpture. I am only doing the collage stuff because the sculpture is driving me nuts and I need to do something different, to change gears. I treat it all like a job; I go in every day and even when I don’t feel like doing it, I am going to work because time is limited.

DeWitt: I really like them and you started doing them a few years ago?

Robert: No, I actually started doing them in 1985; I just never showed anybody. I have books in my studio filled with them, and those are harder to show. About ten years ago, I started putting them on single pieces of paper and putting those in plastic boxes when they are done. It is easier: you just scan them and put them out online.

DeWitt: I think they are wonderful.

Robert: I am putting together puzzles where I don’t know what the image is. I am just trusting that it will work out and not all of them do.

DeWitt: Do you work on just one at a time or do you have several going?

Robert: Several. I will start it up and maybe finish two or three in the first day, but they won’t be completed, and the next day I will add a couple more but then come back to the first two. I will slowly add to it but throughout the whole process work on all of them till I feel like they are done.

DeWitt: Are there any particular collagists that you admire? You are using the same scissors-and-glue technique that has been around in art for 100 years, but your things have this definite sense of individuality and presence that is in your sculpture too.

Robert: Yeah, and I am hoping that they do connect in some way. That’s the kind of thing I am going for throughout everything, even the paintings. I am doing portraiture now, and I feel they all connect and they all feed off of each other. I will do a painting of a sculpture and then make a collage of the painting that’s of the sculpture, and then I will just play around with all that stuff. Each one doesn’t have to be specifically like that thing I that am copying; it is a jumping-off place for me, and then I will go somewhere else with it and make it look slightly different.

DeWitt: I want to open it up for audience questions in a little bit, but there was something else I wanted to ask: tell us about the dogs.

Robert: I just couldn’t help it. The figures were just crying for it. I like dogs. I have had two or three over the last thirty, forty years, and they are just fun to make. And, again, it is like I am escaping something when it just starts bothering me and I just want to do something else: I don’t want to do a full figure this time, I’ll do a dog. And, they go quicker— like two or three months, tops. I am getting better with all this stuff. With the large figure back in the corner (Oscar) my last one I did that one in four and a half months’ that’s a record for me.

DeWitt: The one right in the corner there?

Robert: Yes, the bald-headed guy. The one who is bothering Ruth (a volunteer),Oscar.

Audience: Did you know he was going to be totally clothed or does he have (inaudible) under...

Robert: I wanted to make a suit again.

Audience: So, that should make it quicker you know you are not going to need all this (referring to Carl)...

Robert: Right. I am covering up a bunch of stuff. There are gaps underneath. It is not finished all nicely, but with that one I was basically thinking of Mr. Clean, in he commercials when we were kids. He was one of the only bald-headed guys we saw other than Yul Brynner; now you see them everywhere. And, I wanted to deal with the idea of a JFK suit, whether I got that with that one, I don’t know. I wanted to do those two things and I wanted to use up that sheet metal.

DeWitt: The name Oscar refers to refers to Hollywood...?

Robert: No. He was Otto for the longest amount of time. Then, I was not feeling right about Otto and I thought he looked more like an Oscar and I went for it. With these names, they have to feel right for me. A lot of them will have certain kinds of names for the longest amount of time through the process and then at the end it will just switch.

Beth: We had a small discussion in the process of setting this up about possibly bringing something in progress, and you said you didn’t have anything currently in progress so what’s next for you?

Robert: I just finished another dog, which is dealing more with found objects, but it is from a tree that I just cut down on my property, so I am using my own lumber. That one is done, and now the new one that I am working on, because I am painting as well; I have my painting studio back because these guys are all gone. What I am working on now is another one that’s in the early 90s I was experimenting with: trying to do a bonsai tree. I did horrible experiments to this nice little pine tree outside of my studio; then I moved to San Francisco and planted it in the ground and the whole thing grew up with a big old bend in it. I cut that one down and I cut the bend in half and I know that those are going to be legs. They are going to be legs for a female piece and they are going to be bent. How I get that to stand, I don’t know; that’s one of the problems I am dealing with now. So, I sidestepped the issue and thought, “Well, let’s sculpt some feet for it.” So, that’s where I am now. I have some feet and some legs and I don’t know where it is going from there.

Audience: Pardon me. I came in late and you may have mentioned this but what is your day job?

Robert: I work at SCRAP. I do that three days a week so I have a few two days dedicated to art.

DeWitt: Are there certain materials that come through SCRAP that you cannot get anywhere else that you react to?

Robert: No, not really.

DeWitt: After all this time, you know pretty much know what your materials are.

Robert: We don’t accept construction material, so that’s why, and I do a lot of pickups. I am the guy who drives around town and who picks up all the donations. I do a lot of pickups with architectural houses and we will get a lot of examples of hardwood with ornate designs on them or relics or lumber along that kind of line. I am not grabbing anything any more. I have enough furniture pieces in my studio from coffee tables, chairs, and baby cribs. You saw it. It is just a wall of wood. I have enough to last me.

DeWitt: When you were starting out as an artist where you much influenced by Dada and Surrealism?

Robert: Yes. I love all art history even minimalism. I love it all.

DeWitt: Any people in particular? I think of de Chirico, in some of your pieces. I think of Louise Nevelson in terms of using the wood.

Robert: Definitely Louise Nevelson, and I have some pieces that aren’t here where I was doing the Louise Nevelson where part of the body was all these ornate different found parts of furniture unified by paint. That is like really powerful once you unify it by paint: it is all light and shadow after that. Yeah, her, and Picasso, especially with his found object things; the bicycle handle bars with the seat and all of that stuff. I love all of it; that’s why I love cutting them up so much.

Audience: Is there any type of armature in any of these are you just start at the head and sometimes they go from the shoulders and they turn into a body thing...

Robert: Running through it, let’s say the torso, I build them in pieces now. I will build the torso piece; the head piece will be separate; and then the legs and then everything all separate; and put them together at the end of the day. I just look how it is going and I go from there. So, in the middle is a two-by-four running down, and I leave some space because I am trying to cut weight but I want the strength. It is kind of like building a house: stud work, and then connect that with plywood, and then sheathing on top of that, and then I build up from there. I do the whole back-and-forth thing. I will connect the pieces with cut-up steel bars about an inch thick, and I will go in four inches one way and four inches the other way using liquid nails, and come in with lag screws the next day, and then some of it gets covered up with tin, some with leather, and some with sheet metal.

DeWitt: You are not naïve, but you seem like you are operating like a naïve artist who also happens to know art history and is sophisticated about materials and processes. Psychologically, you are a garage tinkerer.

Robert: Yeah kind of like an outsider artist, a folk artist. I can see all of those things happening. Yeah, I went to art school at San Jose State, graduate studies, not four years, two years. I learned all the stuff. And, when I try specifically to get away from that and get it to look more like something I sculpted, a little bit cooler, they all end up looking kind of goofy after a while. I can’t help it. It’s just the way they are.

DeWitt: I recently wrote a thing about the new Giacometti movie [Final Portrait] and it reminded me of a story that the artist told about his sculpture of a dog. “I saw this wretched forlorn dog in the rain and I was that dog.” Do you have any sort of sense of identity with your characters or are they your children, your brainchildren?

Robert: When they are done, I lose connection with them even though I am living around them the whole time. They take up a whole wall of my studio. I am sorry, what was the question?

DeWitt: Do you feel that you are investing yourself in them or to use another term you are assisting or attending their birth in a way?

Robert: The second part. A lot of times I feel I am kind of just there for the ride. It makes it sound all really easy, like I don’t play a part in it but I don’t want these things to be just a result of my emotions and my intellect. I spend a lot of time looking at them every night. I spend a lot of time laughing at them and saying stuff like, “How old are you Robert? And, why are you still doing this?” I do it because I love doing it. If somebody took my studio time away, I would be a very angry person. I love being in my studio. I guess there is part of me in there and stuff I can’t help, but I don’t totally see them as completely separate from me either.

Audience: Do you ever do any sketches of what you want your figures to look like or you just start...?

Robert: I jump in. Unless it is like some problem I am trying to solve in terms of how do I get this thing to stand, then I will draw really quick stuff just notes for me. I just jump in. The same holds true for the collage work and everything, the painting and everything. I jump right in and I trust that it’s just going to work, and if it doesn’t, big deal! You come back the next day.

DeWitt: You fix it. You add two more bellies on top [as with Carl].

Robert: You got it.

Audience: I really like what you said that you let the work talk to you and tell you what to do, and you don’t know ahead of time what it is going to look like.

Robert: Would be boring wouldn’t it? Otherwise? It is exciting this way: I don’t know what’s happening

DeWitt: When you were in school at San Francisco State and later San Jose State were there any teachers that served as role models for you or taught you things that were really important?

Robert: Oh, God yeah. Paul Pratchenko in painting; he was my hero when I was twenty-four. Then, there is Stephen De Staebler; I thought he was great. I didn’t know who he was but he just came one day and he was wonderful to me; he was so helpful. And Don Rich and Seymour Locks, a much older man, and Ralph Putzker. At the Beach Chalet, he worked on those murals way back when. He showed up as a 17-year old and said, “Hey, I am an artist,” and they hired him.

DeWitt: Anybody at San Jose State?

Robert: I was in painting courses with Leigh Hyams. I was doing a lot of printmaking down there, etching and lithography. Surgalski was very helpful and Leigh Hymans and Rupert Garcia; I did all the advanced painting stuff with him and he was very helpful as well. That’s about it in terms of what I remember. You know this was a long time ago.

DeWitt: You were there before the whole postmodernist thing cranked in and we had to do everything with video.

Robert: Yeah.

DeWitt: It was all done by hand in those days.

Robert: Yep. Yep.

Audience: His face seems very specific. Is that a person or?

Robert: No. No. Just came out. That’s the way it happened. Yes. I also try to keep away from all the stuff you add on, other than glasses I like putting glasses on some of the figures and one time I put a hat one, but that’s about it. I don’t want them to have a lot of whole lot of stuff that people carry and everything. I just want them to be people who stand.

Audience: And, their teeth.

Robert: Well, like I said, when somebody finds out you are an artist who uses junk, they want to give you everything. So, the dentist found out that I am an artist and he gave them to me. He kept a box in his office for three months of all the plaster casts of the people that he... Unfortunately, he had them marked with names, and I knew some of those people. Man, there are some people with gnarly teeth, I will tell you! I have been using them and I use hot glue and I don’t use full sets, I will break them up and reconnect them together in different kinds of ways. Some of my dogs have some of those teeth.

DeWitt: What about this figure in the blue shirt [Bill]? Who is he with his white belt?

Robert: What’s his name? His name is Bill. It is getting to the point where I don’t remember all their names any more. Bill is a 70s kind of guy. The white belt, the black pants, and that shirt. I don’t know if you remember those kind of poly, those plastic shirts and so with the suit. I wanted to make a half-figure guy and use up leather. The shoes are made out of a notebook that came from a L. A. cop. That’s something that came through SCRAP. It was just kind of a leather satchel and it’s all ornate with Mexican figures and everything on it. And I thought, “Oh, I have to use this.” His shoes are made out of that completely.

Audience: That’s wonderful.

DeWitt: But you know, his white belt and his shoes don’t match. He’s not Herb Caen’s infamous “full Cleveland.”

Robert: It is all about the white belt look!

DeWitt: And, what about these two ladies over here?

Robert: She’s (Susan) made out of skateboards. My son, when he was younger, was a skateboarder. And, I asked him every time, “Hey, listen when you break these skateboards, which are costing a fortune, they are like $70-$80 dollars apiece. Give me the broken pieces. I’d stack them up in my studio knowing one day I would use them. I wanted to make a dress out of them. This one has ten skateboards in it; based on the skateboards alone, it is worth about seven to eight hundred bucks which I am starting to use branches and tree parts more because they lend themselves so well to the human figure. Adding bits and pieces like those guys, but setting it back a little bit with paint now so one thing doesn’t come out so strong, it is more of a balance kind of thing.

DeWitt: Do you use oil paints or?

Robert: I use acrylics. Acrylic washes. I will come in and sand and then work it again.

DeWitt: They are very textured and layered.

Robert: The acrylics are much quicker. That’s why.

DeWitt: And, what about Lisa?

Robert: Lisa was sort of, she came before Oscar and she was going to be a mate for Oscar, but I don’t think that’s going to work out. I knew I wanted more of a collagey kind of tin thing with this one, but also really paying attention to color and with her (laughing). Most of the pieces have flat butts and I wanted to make sure hers wasn’t all that flat. So, it is kind of the same thing with his belly (Carl): I was working on that one underneath trying to get the shape just right.

DeWitt: Is a flat butt a sociological or satirical comment?

Robert: It is just an easier way to get done with it. I figured they are going to be up against a wall or something anyway.

DeWitt: They will lie down in your truck better.

Robert: Got to.

DeWitt: You’ve got Coca Cola here (Lisa). You’ve got Altoids on the dog here (Rex). Is this Cheerios? What metal is this? Cigarettes.

Robert: Cigarettes and mustard on that one (Burt).

DeWitt: I presume there is no deep anti-corporate statement here. It is just about color and material?

Robert: It is strictly about color on those guys. I love making new life. That’s a big part of it and I see it in its original context and I see what it can be and that’s what kind of sparks me on these pieces. I want to see what I can change it into. When text comes into it, and that’s not a good example of what I am about to say, I will try to turn the text upside down so it will read more like an image as opposed to a word, because once you see the word, that becomes an idea and I then that becomes maybe too important and I don’t like that, I want to set it back a little bit.

Audience: How do you move those around? How heavy is that?

Robert: About 100 pounds. I have a dolly. I pick them up straight and put them on the thing and roll them and tip them. I have learned to do that stuff. But, I will tell you, it was easier ten years ago. It is getting a little bit harder.

DeWitt: So when are you going to show us your paintings? Do you have enough?

Robert: I hid them from you when you came. They were in process, that’s why.

DeWitt: Show me whenever you are ready.

Robert: Yeah yeah. Not a problem.

Audience: You told me that you weren’t just doing collages; you are actually doing painting now right? Do you paint with oils or acrylic?

Robert: Both. I use house paint too.

Audience: On the same canvas?

Robert: Yes, but usually oil goes on top of the acrylic because it doesn’t work the other way. And, when it is the oil it is going to be wash, washes on top of the acrylic and house paint. Actually, I’ve become much more traditional in the last couple of years. I used to put tile grout and saw dust and come at them with belt sanders and everything. It’s just paint now on canvas and I feel really old fashioned and traditional like I said.

Audience: It gives you great pleasure.

Robert: Oh yeah. I love it. I love it. I like doing all of it. I have always been a painter. Sculpting and collage work has taken over because people, they react to them and so I get to show them more and to me it is like, “Nobody cares about the paintings any more.” You know that might be true, I don’t know, who cares, I will still be painting and that’s what I am doing now because I have all this room in my studio with these guys gone. I’d like to show all, I did it a little bit at Sue Steel’s gallery [Mythos, in Berkeley] about six months ago where she showed a painting, a couple of collage pieces and sculpture as well. It was kind of cool seeing them all together. I like that. Because I do feel that they all connect.

Audience: When they come back to your studio will you tell them how they cramp your painting style?

Robert: I don’t know what I am going to do. I don’t know where I am going to put all this stuff.

DeWitt: You just need to do the Picasso thing. You just fill up one villa and buy another.

Robert: Buy a chateau and just fill them up. That’s what I’d do. 

Peter Bogardus "Going to Gansu" mixed-media photos at Corden/Potts (reprinted from

Peter Bogardus
Corden/Potts Gallery, San Francisco, California  
Recommendation by DeWitt Cheng  
Continuing through May 12, 2018

A century ago modernist art was regarded as a possible means of redeeming European culture, corrupted by kings, priests, and generals. The artist was seen as akin to an Old Testament prophet, and art-making as a kind of spiritual quest. Much of that utopian idealism came crashing down following the Great War and the purges of 1930s, but some of us in an art world corrupted by market values hunger for a return to spirituality and transcendence in art — sans art-profiteer executions. The work of Peter Bogardus would seem to be motivated by just such an interest in the spiritual and historical. 

Over the last two decades he has created seven fine-art books, from “The Great Mystery” (1996) to “Places of Reverence” (2017). Each documents his travels to religious sites. Documenting is not really the right term: Bogardus’s monochromatic photos, generally shot on 4x5 film and printed with the labor-intensive medium of photogravure, are the by-products of an artistic quest.

In ‘’Going to Gansu,” curated by Kate Contakos, Bogardus presents monochromatic photogravures from square-format Rolleiflex photos he took during a two-day train ride east-west to Gansu, at the western edge of the Gobi Desert in northern China, in 1992. Presumably his destination for that trip was the Mogao Buddhist caves at Dunhuang, created between the 4th and 14th centuries. But this body of work details the journey itself, with thirteen untitled misty landscapes that invoke mystery of an ecumenical sort.  The photogravures, which are photo-based aquatint etchings, hand-printed, with their soft focus and technical imperfections of scratches and areas of unprinted paper, resemble old daguerreotypes, while recalling in spirit the poetic landscapes of Asian painting. Printed on Kodohadamashi (“cloud surface”) hemp/mulberry paper, generally employed for painting, with traditional oyster-shell priming and mineral pigments (including woodblock-printed gray and beige background tones), these unpeopled works, glimpses from a speeding window twenty-six years ago, look back in time and history — and, to the meditatively inclined viewer, within.

Agony in Effigy: Art, Truth, Pain and the Body at Berkeley Art Museum (reprinted from East Bay Monthly, May 2018)


Suffering for Art in Historical Prints
Agony in Effigy: Art, Truth, Pain and the Body at Berkeley Art Museum 

The Keatsian notion that “'beauty is truth, truth beauty,' – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know" has been a cultural imperative for almost two hundred years now, and it still shapes the thinking of many people when it comes to the visual arts; vide Matisse’s notion of a painting as a comfortable armchair for a tired businessman. But beauty is not the only truth we need to know, any more than “happy talk” is all the local TV news we can use. There is room in the capacious planet of art for many truths, including the inconvenient or upsetting ones. Goya’s etching, “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” reveals the flipside of Keatsian aestheticism: that turning a blind eye to the darker side of life—say, being amused by sinister buffoons—allows the rot to spread. Susan Sontag, in Regarding the Pain of Others, indicts the willful ignorance of the comfortably insulated: “Someone who is permanently surprised that depravity exists ... has not reached moral or psychological adulthood.”

Agony in Effigy: Art, Truth, Pain, and the Body explores (despite its punning title, recalling The Agony and the Ecstasy) the fraught aesthetic territory of depictions of pain, with its various messy complications, in prints from its permanent collection.  In devotional illustrations of Christian martyrdoms, death and suffering are horrific yet inspiring, as in works by Ribera and Baldung Grien depicting, respectively, the tribulations of St. Jerome and Christ.  (Jean de Gourmont’s depiction of the Flagellation reveals as much interest in architectural perspective and multiple views of motion as in the Passion.) Works by Jacques Callot in the seventeenth century and Goya in the nineteenth depict violence without the religious gilding, in tragic, secular terms more aligned with our contemporary worldview, expressed by

W.H. Auden, in “Musée des Beaux-Arts,” inspired by a Breughel painting, “About suffering they were never wrong, The old Masters: how well they understood. Its human position: how it takes place. While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” Agony in Effigy: Art, Truth, Pain and The Body runs through June 17, 2018; Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, 2120 Oxford Street, Berkeley, 510/642-0808; —DeWitt Cheng