Art Films (reprinted

Art Films

“Velvet Buzzsaw,” the new artworld satire and /horror film, seems the film for the moment, given how nutty, if not quite murderous, the art world seems, at times. I have not seen it yet, so I can’t pass judgment, even if the online and print chatter so far has been mixed.

As the topic of art-world films has come up, however, I thought I would recommend a few films worth watching, films that I have chosen to see more than once. I do not make this statement lightly, as I consider many films worth watching once, but not twice or more. And some films are interesting in some ways—the subject or plot, especially if reality-based, and even the special effects—but annoying in others, e.g., glacially slow pacing, painfully bad dialogue or acting, and nonsensical storylines. I am sure that many of you watch, as I do, prepared to Fast Forward, in the immortal words of the Colonel Sanders character in Mel Brooks’s Spaceballs. There aren’t enough good satires on the art world, alas, so I am including some biopics and documentaries. Some of these are available online.

Best satire:

—Untitled (2009), a spritely, buoyant satire of the New York art scene, manages to be both wryly amusing about the vagaries of artistic and commercial survival, about The Work We Have Chosen (to quote Hyman Roth in Goidfather 2), and, curiously, warm-hearted about its cast of artistic characters, including artists, gallerists, and collectors, perhaps because its writer/director, Jonathan Parker, had previously been active in the contemporary music scene. I had the good fortune to attend its premiere in San Francisco in an art audience that loved the jokes, especially its sendups of the more twee variety of conceptual art.

 Best artists-only nonfiction-based dramas:

—Final Portrait, director Stanley Tucci’s valentine to the so-called existentialist sculptor/painter Alberto Giacometti, traces the laborious making (and Sisyphean unmaking) of a portrait of an American critic James Lord, whose book detailing the ordeal-by-sitting was the basis of the screenplay. Art civilians may find the film as tedious as watching paint dry, as one innocent film critic complained, but art cognoscenti will find Geoffrey Rush’s comic-anguish turn close to perfect, and the film’s recreation of the famous dusty Avenue Hipployte-Flandrin studio is remarkable, and even museum-worthy on its own. I reviewed the movie for VAS (use search box); it’s also reprinted at (scroll down to April 2018).

—Edvard Munch is Peter Watkins’ 1974 portrait of the Norwegian Expressionist artist as a young man adrift in the fin-de-siècle bohemian circles of Christiania (Oslo). This sober examination will be slow going, indeed, for many viewers, and depressing to some, with its flashbacks to scene of family trauma that were depicted in now-famous paintings, but it’s a fascinating look at how the free-love counterculture made (and maybe unmade, partially) the young, sensitive “doomed” painter—who went on to live an improbably long and productive life.

—Vincent: The life and Death of Van Gogh (1987), written and directed by Paul Cox, takes (if I remember aright) a first-person-camera look at the life of the Dutch visionary, with a voiceover narration taken from the artist’s letters to his supportive art-dealer brother, Theo, read by the actor John Hurt, whose gravel-and-velvet voice seems just right. (The camera-as-protagonist idea has been used before, to my knowledge: once in a Dick Powell noir, and once at the beguiling beginning of Fredric March’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.) Also check out Andy Serkis’s spooky-mad Vincent—almost horror-movie-worthy— in Simon Schama’s series, The Power of Art. (Alan Corduner’s Mark Rothko in that series is also a bravura performance.)

 Best general-audience documentaries:

—The Universe of Keith Haring (2008) by Christina Clausen makes terrific use of videotaped footage of the young graffiti artist, entrepreneur and gay activist, finding his way in New York in his teens and twenties, before the scourge of AIDS. I found it extremely touching, and its use of found footage extraordinary; if only large VHS cameras had been around to record, say the painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Charlton Heston as Michelangelo in The Agony and The Ecstasy, however, still serves us —as does that other masscult biopic, Lust for Life, with Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh.

 —Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film (2006) is a six-hour, A-to-Z documentary made for PBS’s American Masters series by Ric Burns on the bewigged icon of affectless cool and prophet of media-based art. The artist’s ascent from small-town Pennsylvania to a career in commercial illustration and later to the heights of New York’s art world is fascinating, even if it was the filmmaker Emile de’Antonio who persuaded the artist to paint Coke bottles and other consumer products of desire in a flat, uninflected style, not in juicy, romantic Abstract Expressionese.

 —The Cool School (2008), Morgan Neville’s enthralling look at the origins of the Los Angeles contemporary art scene in the 1960s, focusing on the radical Ferus Gallery, and featuring interviews with many of the artists, critics, and dealers, including Edward Kienholz, Billy Al Bengston, Craig Kauffman, Walter Hopps, and Irving Blum, with his limos, yachts, and eye-candy escorts.

 I am certain that I have unintentionally omitted some good movies, even some I may have watched twice (but not three times). Ed Harris as Pollock, Charles Laughton as Rembrandt, Timothy Spall as Turner come to mind for Honorable Mentions. And then there are the fictional artists: Alec Guinness’s and Robert Newton’s obsessed eccentrics in The Horse’s Mouth and Odd Man Out, respectively. Art is long, and life is short.

David Edwards: Biomorphic at Avenue 12 Gallery


David Edwards: Metal Drawings, Paintings and Sculpture

Avenue 12 Gallery, San Francisco

The word ‘biomorphic,’ in art-history-speak, means organically shaped, not geometric. The term originates in the Surrealism of the 1920s and 1930s, which advocated ambiguous, organic forms deriving from the unfiltered subconscious. The Surrealists’ interest in bypassing conscious intent with its limitations in search of le merveilleux produced art as well as literature (automatic writing) that exploited chance and instinct; the unpremeditated painterly gesture was one of Surrealism’s legacies to Abstract Expressionism.

David Edwards’ exhibition comprises four bodies of work: 1) abstract calligraphic paintings on paper and plaster, made with ink and tools fabricated by the artist, resembling manuscripts written in some archaic, unknown language; 2) metal drawings, enlarging these pictograms into wall reliefs in steel, cut with a plasma cutter, and painted in brown and black acrylic; 3) sculptures similarly based on the pictograms, but built into three dimensional bas-reliefs with styrofoam, Bondo car-body filler, epoxy and wax; and 4) botanical-looking structures resembling stems bedecked with seed pods, made from, of all things, black trash bags made of LDPE (low-density polyethylene) transformed with heat and, one would suspect, skillful manipulations like a glassblower’s.

Painting #2 and Painting #4 display Edwards’ asemic (nonliteral) writing in square blocks of characters that suggest simplified human figures (as in cave paintings), sometimes seemingly in costume, flowers, eyes, fruit seeds, and even microscopic flora and fauna.  Edwards began drawing with a wooden rod dipped into India ink, then moved with a cast-glass dip pen before finding a more flexible solution by casting his own dip pen in another, slightly more flexible material—perhaps silicone, if memory serves.

The Metal Drawings, made from painted, cut steel, isolate and enlarge the characters. Edwards used a slide projector, decidedly old-school, to transfer his ink sketches to the steel, after which he employs the high-tech plasma cutter. The dialogue between the artist’s materials and the impulses controlling his hand—the ch’i,tor life force, in Chinese calligraphy—yields images of unpredictable yet compelling poetry. Fossilized primitive life—egg cases, tentacles, seed pods—though not expressly invoked by the artist, will certainly come to mind in these untitled ‘drawings’ that are reminiscent of the indeterminate living shapes in the paintings of Joan Mirò and the sculptures of Jean Arp.

More three-dimensional are Edwards’ wall reliefs and sculptures, built up and out into the viewer’s space, but still fundamentally conceived of as wall-hung objects, like trophy tools or weapons of unknown purpose. These mysterious artifacts mighjt populate a Parisian ethnographic museum, along with 1930s Surrealist works by Giacometti with whom they share esthetic DNA. Edwards’ Plastic Formssculptures, again wall-mounted, are symmetrical structures suggestive of seed pods, spines, thistles, and egg cases, technical tours de force that have been magically or alchemically wrought from lowly garbage bags, a battery of specialized tools (tubes, spray bottles, misters), and practice, practice, practice. The artist, who has a degree in Plastics Technology: “I always want to try out new things.”

David Edwards has always gravitated to abstract art made from compulsion and necessity, and ad-libbed, rather than preplanned: he likes to “not have any idea what [he] was doing; to just dive in and make marks.” At the same time he has a love of materials and their specific properties, from the thick oil paint used by Van Gogh, admired when he was beginning his career, to WInsor Newton India ink, which combines intense pigment with just the right viscosity, a choice that he made after considerable experimentation. His work combines an artist’s interest in instinct and gesture with a scientist’s curiosity about materials to create “drawings from the subconscious come to life,” “living shapes,” and darkly mysterious artifacts suggestive of amulets, charms, fetishes, fossils, weapons and tools. 



Fwd: Field of Words: John Patrick McKenzie and Ward Schumacher, Jack Fischer Gallery, San Francisco, June 5, 2021


A Field of Words

Jack Fischer Gallery

Visual art employing words walks a tightrope between the visual and verbal realms once thought to be apportioned to the right and left, or intuitive and logical, sides of the brain. This theory is nicely traced in Leonard Shlain’s 1996 The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, which interprets human history in terms of male linear logic (the alphabet) and female intuition/imagination (the goddess), and remains readable and fascinating, even if the science has proven to be more complicated.

In looking at word art, similarly, we may regard them in two mutually exclusive ways: as pattern or calligraphy, or, even asemic (non-literal) faux writing, in the Dada mode, beautiful-nonsense graphomania with a hint of satire about the limits of speech and writing;  or we can imbibe the word or text, relegating the painting to a mere placard or sign, with the visual element insignificant: Hamlet’s “Words, words, words.” In A Field of Words, John Patrick McKenzie and Ward Schumacher demonstrate that word art can be both verbally and visually evocative, with the viewer’s activated eye and mind engaging multiple points of view. The field-of-words metaphor suggests both the cascades of glowing, scrolling text, the Matrix coding beneath sensorial, blue-pill reality; the featureless color mists of 1950s-1960s Color Field Painting; and the orderly inscription of the soil with parallel furrows for agriculture, and thus culture.

McKenzie’s marker drawings on a variety of objects—paper, scavenged window frames, and glass bricks—have a graffiti energy reminiscent of Basquiat, but without that painter’s figurative imagery. The irregular rows of hand-printed phrases and sentences suggest the magical charging of objects by spells and invocations. In a drawing from 2008-9, 1980, the artist writes simple subtraction problems that seemingly solve for unknown people’s ages: 1980 - 950 = 30, 1974 - 1962 = 12, etc.  The artist’s tall, narrow numerals suggest op-art stripe patterns, with the blackened closed loops of certain numbers (0, 6, 8, 9) evoking computer-countable ballots and tests. Joyce DeWitt likes pink high heels, in white marker on black paper, suggesting a schoolroom blackboard, records banal or obvious celebrity information on actresses (Joyce DeWitt, Susanne Somers, Florence Henderson, Sarah Purcell) and musicians (Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney), including whether they are “still alive.” (Why not 2014 - 1933 = 81, for On Kawara, creator of the 1978 painting, I Am Still Alive?)  Equally cryptic are the random, stream-of-consciousness inscriptions on five wooden and aluminum window frames and glass panes and on three glass bricks, where the writing is so profuse, complicated with shadows and reflections,  as to be almost illegible. Words emerge here and there—e.g., radio, toilet, Swoosie Kurtz, taco shell, future generations—but the staccato markings suggest syncopated music scores or player-piano scrolls rather than script, an urgent profusion of mystifying words and phrases: Dada glossolalia.
If McKenzie employs writing less for literal meaning than to claim esthetic territory from non-art reality, Schumacher builds densely layered acrylic paintings on canvas of text, stenciled in black capital letters over gray and ocher backgrounds. The lettering is not clean and crisp, however, but deliberately imperfect, with blotches where the painting leaked under the stencil, and the texts layered in different colors, out of register, like Warhol screenprints, creating shadows or ghost images. The bleeding effect of the ’ink’  recurs in Schumacher’s works on paper, made on paint thickened with wheat paste, and bound in  books, several of which are on display by request. The lengthy texts recount the artist’s dreams and memories, “some fact and some fiction,” so the paintings serve as a kind of diary — perhaps of a fictional avatar escaped from an Eric Fischl painting. Russian Consonants (2020) is a stream-of-consciousness monologue on the fascinating oddments of Russian language and history, including Tsarskoe Selo, skoptski, Bolsheviki, and the lecherous mad monk, Rasputin. Horse, With Peonies (2020) recounts (with blocks of text reversed to white on black, as if poorly redacted) a dream of Freudian and Oedipal horror mixed with humor that is concluded by a mysterious equine visitor. Drawing Dirty (2021) introduces two young sisters who tempt the boy narrator with glimpses of nakedness and of dirty drawings for which he is unjustly condemned. Last but not least is I Need Do Nothing (2005), an eight-panel painting two feet tall by sixteen wide, with the walking-meditation mantra repeated endlessly, like “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” in The Shining, but with more rewarding results. Peruse the sides of these eight panels—there were originally ten—and you will note that the writing continues perfectly along the sides — although, presumably, not the back. Remember Jasper Johns’ stenciled words going off one edge of the canvas and continuing on the other side, as if the painting had been peeled from a cylinder. Schumaker’s love of ‘overall’ abstract painting, i.e., without traditional figure or ground, as practiced by Pollock, Rothko and Kline, combines with his dreams, memories and reflections in these humorous, mysterious, semi-fictional artifacts, or manuscripts, or handmade faded newspaper clippings.



Holly Wong: Phoenix, Slate Contemporary, Oakland

Slate Contemporary

The recent election of the reality-based Biden administration, replacing the disgraced faith-based follies of the Trump court, gives us a glimmer of hope as a respite from the dark madness of the past four years.

With much of the populace newly vaccinated, art venues are beginning to reopen; this is a relief to art aficionados suffering from esthetic withdrawal for which Zoom calls were a poor placebo. The melancholy isolation necessitated by the pandemic and the emerging general sense of a social reawakening (except for the cultists who are just now considering masks—to protect themselves from the vaccinated!) are the subtext (though not the subject) of Holly Wong’s solo show, Phoenix. That immortal bird of Egyptian mythology (and later Greek and Roman mythology) when aged, builds a bonfire, immolates itself, and rises, reborn, from the ashes; hope is “the thing with feathers,” as Emily Dickinson writes. Wong’s phoenix is composed of graphite drawings on mylar pieces that have been stitched together, forming an eleven-foot tall/wide free-form work suspended mid-air by monofilament. Swirling tapered forms covered with both organic (bubbles, droplets, tendrils) and geometric patterns (grids, nets, pixels) rise like tongues of flame, or feathers borne aloft by heat; the bird and the bonfire merge into a baroque-abstract symbol of destruction, purification and renewal. Wong is interested in Eastern lore, as well, citing Buddha’s Fire Sermon (as T.S. Eliot did, in The Waste Land), words of perennial (and perennially necessary) wisdom praising detachment from the ever-attractive “fire of lust, … fire of hate, … [and] fire of delusion.” 

Accompanying Phoenix are eleven small to medium-sized framed pieces reminiscent of nests or thickets, also made of sewn-together graphite drawings on mylar. The titles derive from classical mythology: Aurora, the goddess of Dawn, symbolizing rebirth; Arachne, the seamstress whose hubris led Athena to transform her (mercifully, as she had hanged herself) into a spider, a fitting spirit animal for the seamstress artist; Persephone, carried into the underworld to marry its king, Hades, but allowed to return to the surface each spring; Bia, the Greek goddess of force, who helped Zeus defeat the Titans and chained Prometheus to the rock for stealing fire; and Calypso, the nymph abandoned by Odysseus (another textile artist) after a seven-year dalliance. Six works are dedicated to Fellini’s betrayed yet resilient (and spiritually adept) housewife, played by Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina, from 1965 movie Juliet of the Spirits: art correcting life.

Wong’s interests in feminism, myth, and the power of the imagination are certainly relevant in the current cultural moment, since women voters played a decisive role in de-platforming our hubristic baby tyrant, but the artworks carry their subtexts lightly, subliminally. Wong begins with spontaneous, unplanned drawings of tangled skeins of swirling tendril and banner forms. She adds colored pencil and gouache paint, and softens the forms with atmospheric candle smoke (Surrealist fumage) to create shadow and depth to her interwoven, interlaced traceries. Because mylar drafting film is tough and translucent, she can cut it and reassemble the pieces with sewing machine, as well as draw on both sides. Wong’s take-off point from the subconscious and her immersion in craft and process and the slow emergence and evolution of the image push these works beyond postmodernist polemics into the beauty of complexity of art, a PIcassean lie that tells the truth and sometimes a Brechtian hammer with which to shape the world.

Laura Hapka at Themes+Projects

Laura Hapka

Themes+Projects, San Francisco, California  
Review by DeWitt Cheng  

Laura Hapka, “Two Blues,” 2020, acrylic and encaustic on linen panel, 36 x 36”

Continuing through April 24, 2021

The “Primary Process” abstract paintings of Laura Hapka, consisting of pairs of red, blue and yellow rectangles (supplemented by other palettes), hark back to the nonobjective, non-representational paintings of modernism’s golden age. Form was reduced to geometry, and color down to pure primaries, as in the mature works of Piet Mondrian, and Barnett Newman’s response to them in his four “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue” paintings of 1966-70. But if Hapka adopts (at least partially) the pure triadic colors in “Primary Process,” her use of materials, painterly touch and sense of humor (in her allusive, punning titles) counteract the ivory-tower formalism and pomposity satirized by Tom Wolfe in his book “The Painted Word.”

Hapka works on panels covered with linen, which she coats, irregularly, with clear encaustic beeswax, which both emphasizes the weave of the linen and obscures and occludes it where the wax is laid on thicker. On top of this matrix, which suggests fixed manuscripts or scrolls, or linseed oil halations on unprimed canvas, the artist trowels heavy-bodied acrylic paint in parallel stripes, suggestive of writing and icing. The resulting irregularly-shaped Rothkoesque rectangles, framed by the exposed linen, suggest diptychs, or open books, and, more metaphorically, portraits of couples, or the passage of time. When the painted elements are mounted to the wall, as in “The Yellow Press,” or painted directly on it, as in “The Primary Report,” hand-made paper sheets also come to mind. If post-minimalism with its covert anthropomorphism humanized the severe geometry of minimalism, these materials-focused abstractions humanize the impersonal, superflat, machine-look geometric abstractions of the 1960s. Hapka’s color blocks floating in space owe something to Hans Hofmann’s push and pull aesthetic as well.

But if Hapka adopts certain formal limitations and historic antecedents, she also offers resistance to them, if playfully. The nine-diptych, “Red States, Blues States, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter,” with its 3x3 array of panels, evinces both her aesthetic rootedness and independence. Hapka moves beyond the primaries into a darker palette of the four “Tone Down” paintings. The color blocks are mismatched — in size, as in “Red Before Red,” and in color, as in “Nostalgic Purple Void.” These are painter’s paintings that embrace art history without being constrained by it. As Ben Shahn once said, “the ancestors are looking benignly over your shoulder; they’re not your enemy.”