WOMEN我們: From Her to Here, Chinese Cultural Center, San Francisco

WOMEN我們: From Her to Here

Chinese Cultural Center, San Francisco

by DeWitt Cheng

 Last year’s Black Lives Matter and MeToo movements shook America to the core, focusing long-overdue attention on ancient injustices institutionalized by law and custom. The prejudice of ’real’ Americans—white, straight, and male-dominated— toward the racial and gender (or sexual) Other has been aptly characterized by the historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr., as “the white normative gaze.” That gaze is increasingly backward-directed, as post-election and post-insurrection attempts to forestall the future include serious measures like voter-suppression legislation and hate-crime attacks on Asians, and trivial distractions like the culture-war hysteria over ‘classic’ children’s books and toys.

In this fraught context, WOMEN我們: From Her to Here, at San Francisco’s Chinese Culture Center (February 19-August 28, 2021) offers an alternative vision that is global and inclusive—and forward-looking. The Mandarin term for ‘we’ is ‘wǒmen,‘ and the playfully-titled From Her to Here, is the third of a series exploring women’s and women artists’ roles in the Asian diaspora. By employing archival imagery and digital technology, it melds respect for the past (e.g., ancestress pioneers) with hope for a future of gender respect, solidarity and tolerance.  CCC Curator Hoi Leung: “I want to present feelings and experiences rooted in the nonbinary, where individuals  are given the freedom to define who they are, what their safe spaces are like, and what their communities can be.” CCC Executive Director Jenny Leung: “WOMEN我們 is a bold voice for equality and social justice.”

Eleven LGBQT+ and feminist artists and art collectives or teams from the San Francisco Bay Area, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Beijing were invited to participate. Their works range from prints and photography to video, film and installation.

The three artists from Taiwan are Chen Han Sheng, Huang Meng Wen, and Yao Hong.  Chen’s mixed-media installation, When I Was A Child, employs floral and botanical imagery in a screenprint and a sculptural array of stainless steel boxes, each bearing a single leaf that moves, intermittently, to commemorate the murder in 2000 of a Taiwanese teen, Yeh Young-chih, who was deemed effeminate by bullying classmates for making artificial flowers; his death in the school bathroom eventually led to reformist legislation. Huang’s Suits and Corsages series pays homage, via a video of black-and-white vintage snapshots, to the sartorially splendid cross-dressing “Teddy Girls” of 1950s Taiwan who defied conformist fashion expectations financially, too, running a corsage business; her color group portraits, with their youthful subjects posing casually while attired formally in tailored black business suits and floral cheongsams, exalt their cultural descendants today; and vintage studio portraits framed by defocused period backgrounds add an elegiac note. Yao’s Erotic Wallpaper, framed by digitally printed tiles, covers the gallery foyer walls with dazzling color and pattern, and snippets of imagery and text; the artist’s free-form, non-associational “neurotic visual texture that defies common sense” may express the anxiety of contemporary Taiwanese life in our uncertain era, but the more-is-more effect is as weirdly exhilarating as it is claustrophobic.

The photographer Nicole Pun and the gay archivists/activists of the Queer Reads LIbrary and Mixed Rice Zine are based in Hong Kong. Pun in her In & Out series photographed against black backgrounds the caressing gestures of lesbian lovemaking. The Queer Reads Library, a collaboration of three artists, writer Rachel Lau, editor Kaitlin Chan, and publisher Beatrix Pang, is a collection of LGBTQ books created for young readers created in response to censorship by HK libraries. J. Wu, the Bay Area-based creator of  Mixed Rice Zine, named after a term for Asians who prefer white sex partners, curated. Besides the publications, the display features an interactive aspect, the Queer Reads Lexicon Project, which employs QR coding (note QR coded meaning) to collect gay slang in various languages.

Moving west, we have the team of filmmakers Luka Yuanyang Yang (Beijing) and Carlo Nasisse (New York), and the spoken-word performer Brad Walrond (New York).  Yang and Nasisse collaborated in the affecting 2019 film Coby and Stephen Are in Love, about a former nightclub dancer from San Francisco Chinatown’s Grant Avenue Follies and her experimental-filmmaker partner and soulmate. In his video, Blood Brothers, Walrond declaims passionately and poetically about the onset of the AIDs crisis, his words in English and Mandarin accompanied by images from artist Steven A. Williams; if we could once have comfortably relegated that tragedy to history, it resonates particularly powerfully with us now, struggling through the covid and opioid crises.

Rounding the terrestrial corner, we come to the Bay Area, home base to filmmakers Heesoo Kwon, Madeleine Lim, and Tina Takemoto, and painter Chelsea Ryoko Wong.  Kwon’s digitally created videos employs Second Life software to generate 3D animated figures, nude stand-ins for her female relatives, who inhabit a tropical paradise atop an island floating through deep space, or enveloping a 3D flyover representation of the Chinese Culture Center’s distinctively inverted-Y-shaped building (on the third floor of the Holiday Inn). In Kwon’s invented religion, Ley Museoom Town is a multi-generational peaceable kingdom of sisters and daughters partially clad in snakeskin, a borrowing from Korean folk culture; utopianism is always iffy, but the current dystopic myopia calls for hope. Lim’s acclaimed 1997 video, Sambai Belacan, named after a Malaysian shrimp dish, portrays the daily struggles of three Singaporean lesbian immigrants; employing a variety of styles, the film captures the complexity and contradictions of new Americans negotiating life suspended between the old and the new, between reality and dreams.  Takemoto’s film, Ever Wanting (for Margaret Chung), takes as its subject Margaret Chung (1889-1959), a pioneering Chinese woman physician who lived an adventurous secret love life; the film is evocative rather than expository, so that you might not discern its subject matter from its oblique, allusive shots of medical paraphernalia, Lily Pons, Anna May Wong, WAVEs and WW2 Flying Tiger fighters, all speckled with orange and brown flak suggestive of combustible nitrate film stock. Last but not least, Wong paints cheerful scenes of a gay alternate universe in bright tones and flattened shapes reminiscent of Romare Bearden’s collages or Joan Brown’s paintings. A Secret Place: Li Po Lounge depicts the Chinatown hangout for 1940s gays, still in operation, as a fit milieu for the legendary poet who drowned while trying to embrace the moon.  The Forbidden City illustrates not the imperial center of Beijing, but the 100%-Asian Union Square nightclub of the 1940s and 50s that inspired the novel and movie Flower Drum Song. No chastely alluring fan or bubble dancers inhabit this cheerfully feminist painting; it’s a place where the drop-dead gorgeous sisterhood might warble with delight Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “I enjoy being a girl.”

The exhibition was online only (https://www.cccsf.us/women-from-her-to-here ) due to pandemic regulations, but is now open for scheduled visits via the website.

Fault Lines: Paintings and Assemblages by Katherine Fishburn

Fault / Lines 2001: Paintings and Assemblages by Katherine Fishburn

 Contemporary art is a confusing free-for-all. Paintings and sculptures are made with bizarre and sometimes perishable materials; conceptual artworks conjoin ideas and disciplines that have no obvious connection or affinity. There is no mainstream trend in art any more, as there was (or appeared to be) during the modernist era, roughly 1900-1980. The art world’s focus on one style at the time, the new succeeding the old, had a certain simplicity (if you ignored the contradictions), but it also stifled or hampered creativity that did not fit the stile du jour (which of course changed every few years). When abstraction was de rigueur in the 1950s, figurative painters felt that were treated as reactionary enemies; the abstractionist Philip Guston was reviled as a traitor to the cause for returning to figuration and even storytelling during the1960s, with the nation riven by racial tensions and the Vietnam War, for refusing, in his words, “to adjust a red to a blue.”  Now that the idea of the avant-garde army marching in lockstep is blessedly over, artists have more freedom and more options, although, truth be told, the myth of historical inevitability made for easier marketing in postwar America.

 If contemporary artists enjoy more creative freedom than before in today’s pluralistic, nonhierarchical art world, they do still have to forge their way and personal, eclectic, subjective style. The Maryland-based painter and poet, Katherine Fishburn, has created such a style by hybridizing or combining twentieth-century freewheeling Abstract Expressionist paint application, pure color from nineteenth-century Impressionists and Fauves, and even political and philosophical concerns, perhaps not immediately apparent to the casual viewer, but informing and expanding the meaning of her paintings and assemblages. Fishburn: 

 My inspiration comes from everywhere: from my studies of world history, biology, literature, philosophy and politics. From what I have discovered walking along the shore, wandering through fallow fields and hiking at high altitudes. Most important: it comes from encountering great art… Lee Krasner, Grace Hartigan and other female artists of abstract expressionism—also … the Spanish painters Goya, Dalí and Mirò.

The show’s title, Fault / Lines, reflects simultaneously the current societal and intellectual fractures in Western society (most notably in the USA)—and the uncertainty of contemporary life, a fundamental precept of the existentialists and their like-minded peers, the Abstract Expressionists; it’s a philosophical idea that has been around for millennia but was lost in the post-World-War-Two triumph of American culture and materialism, only re-emerging in the past two decades, after 9/11, when the myth of Fortress America tragically collapsed. 

 To express the complexity and contradictions of contemporary life, Fishburn creates, often without preplanning, oil paintings in which palette-knifed patches of strong color and abstract form vie with incised words invoking the artist’s concerns. The artist's immersion in “pushing paint around,” to cite an AbEx trope, would seem at first an incongruous fit with sociopolitical content, but these are personal artworks, not propaganda, even, perhaps, exorcisms, in a certain way. For Fishburn, laying the paint on “thick, with gouges and scrawls,” was “liberating. It was also a way to externalize the strong emotions I have about what is going on (i.e., wrong) in the world today.” The titles sometimes come after, “discovered,” and sometimes precede the painting process; clearly the immersion in painting brings to the surface issues lingering in the subconscious, as does all her art up to this point. According to her, she “resolutely mines the subconscious, making visible harsh truths and raw emotions that many in today’s world would disregard—preferring to avert their eyes and dismiss the difficult questions her work generates.” In addition, the titles are not always explanations of the abstract imagery: sometimes they are merely suggestive, or even in ironic counterpoint, as in Goya’s satirical Caprichos etchings. With their vibrant, bravura energy, the paintings catch and hold the eye of the art-centric viewer; but the sociopolitical messages contained therein, not always planned, make the images commentaries on public matters, or, in Latin, res publica, the etymon of our word ‘republic.’ They’re painterly abstractions that morph into covertly dissenting history paintings. 

Across America, for example, depicts a schematized national landscape based on America the Beautiful’s spacious skies, amber waves of grain, and purple mountain majesties, but in the hectic loaded-paint style of Van Gogh’s Crows in the Cornfield rather than the lush beauty of, say, Maxfield Parrish or Grant Wood. At top left we see a fragment of a tattered windblown Stars and Stripes, while below, in the tall grass, lie five sets of concentric red, white and orange circles: targets, or gun muzzles?

All Bleeding Eventually Stops is a skyscape in turbulent dark blue, white and yellow paint that might remind art mavens of the cosmic visions of Turner, Ryder or Clifford Still. The title, with its pathetic-fallacy suggestion that the body and the universe mirror each other, is an ironic medical axiom: either the wound heals or the heart stops bleeding. Which is it here?

Bon Appétit depicts a wedge of chocolate cake set in a darkened room, spot-lit by a ray of spiritual light, as in religious paintings depicting the Annunciation or saintly conversions. Scraped out of the thick dark paint (a mix of Dioxine purple, burnt umber and Alizarin red), however, are the inscription, “bon appétit,” and the initials, “MA.” Marie Antoinette, I learned recently, probably did not actually personally address the plight of the starving poor of pre-Revolutionary France by advising them dismissively to “Let-them-eat cake,”, since the quotation was attributed to other unpopular spendthrift foreign queens; but resentment toward out-of-touch ruling classes seems unfortunately always relevant—and bittersweet, as is chocolate made with the highest cocoa-content. 

Doctor’s Orders presents another Still-like abstraction, primarily in black and white, with patches of red, blue and purple. The word “script,” inscribed at top left, has a variety of meanings, from the common shorthand for prescriptions to handwriting itself, to money markers, to screenplays— and might also be seen as an homage to artists using writing in their works, from Miró (one of the artist’s favorite painters) to Picasso and Jasper Johns to Eric Wool. 

In Country is Fishburn’s response to the Vietnam War and its veterans, whom the artist taught at Michigan State University: “They were hungry to learn and soaked up everything I had to offer, unlike most of the other students in the class. They made teaching that damned course a joy—we both had a purpose. They had learned the hard and dangerous way the value of getting an education.”  The vertical-format painting presents an ambiguous slice of verdant landscape, set afire, undoubtedly based on the napalm and Agent Orange bombing campaigns designed to defoliate the jungle or rainforest, depriving the enemy of cover for weapons resupply.  A 45-degree right triangle is superimposed on the landscape, suggesting, perhaps, the use of military vectors and triangulation in target siting, also perhaps a pun is invoked as there was nothing “right” about the war, except for the Hawkish administration’s cabinet and the generals’ endless lies that we could win it.  “In-country” was GI slang for Vietnam (as opposed to the “the real world” of the US).  A perhaps long-forgotten battle waged early in the war occurred in The Iron Triangle (War Zone D). As Fishburn writes, “word-association is the name of the game,” so it is not farfetched to see an echo of the Bermuda Triangle, a so-called “wormhole,” where all at sea is lost—as we, too, lost the war to a well-organized rag-tag army of citizen soldiers who knew and loved their country far more than the arrogant American invaders, burdened down with their gear and heavy armaments—puzzled as to why they were there in the first place.

Nine Eleven was inspired by the lacy steel-girder scaffolding that remained standing after the towers had fallen. Fishburn writes that during the weekend that followed the attack, she drew in colored pencil a rough sketch of the horror, trying not so much to “understand it but to defeat it by creating something.” Her scene of national trauma is depicted semi-abstractly, as a welter of orthogonal blue-gray brushstrokes, surrounded by explosive flames of yellow and orange, all set against a darkened sky. The high-contrast gestural brushstrokes may suggest certain visionary landscapes of El Greco or the expressionist apocalypses of Franz Marc and Ludwig Meidner that seem in retrospect to have foretold The Great War.

We Ate Our Shoes is unusual in that the title preceded the painting, although I do not know its source. I cannot help cite Charlie Chaplin’s boiled boot and laces (eating spaghetti-style, wound on a fork) in The Gold Rush. Fishburn’s image of geological strata blue and white at the top, for sky or water, succeeded by layers of deep red (composed of magma? or blood?) and cracked gray (mud? or the enormous boulders which cover the ground at the site of the Battle of Gettysburg?) reminds us that we are composed of elements common to the rest of Creation: dust to dust. A thin layer of white skulls serves as a wry memento mori, like the excavated skull of Hamlet’s boyhood companion, Yorick the jester. The bulk of the painting is the indifferent landscape: humans are reduced to only the heads of their skeletons.

Along with the paintings, the show includes nine assemblages made during the past year, composed of everyday items, mostly vintage, with some purchased online, since brick-and-mortar browsing has been curtailed, with everything else. Arranging marbles, earrings, brooches, carved animal and human figurines, hat pin holders, seedpods, seashells, bottles, paint brushes, miniature trees, pencil sharpeners, locomotive engines, perfume bottles and vases into tall pyramidal structures, Fishburn creates what she calls ships: metaphorical container vessels (that also suggest floral arrangements) for miscellaneous humble objects that carry the poetic aura of human usage, even if they defy literal analysis. Reverence for the past and for lowly objects is more Asian than western, and Fishburn chooses objects from Japan and Thailand, embracing their cultural meanings while subsuming them into her creative universe. “Stuart’s Folly,” for example, is named after a neighbor’s Shi Tzu puppy, but its punning title plays with Seward’s Folly, the 1867 once-mocked land deal through which the United States acquired worthless Russian colonies from Alaska to northern California. If Fishburn’s paintings subtly exhort us to save the world, her assemblages invite us to savor its rich and varied cultural smorgasbord.

As a postscript, Fishburn writes:

I guess maybe I am only recognizing now that I created “ships” to both escape the plague (by losing myself in the act of creating them) and to bring the outside world to me. I chatted with almost every vendor on Etsy from whom I bought the components of my creations; it was very social, one of the very few interactions I had with other people all year. Also, one of the first haunting images of the pandemic was the ironically named cruise ship, the Diamond Princess, anchored and quarantined at Yokohama for a month because it was infested, not with rats, but with highly contagious Covid-19 passengers. Conversely, there is Katherine Anne Porter’s 1962 allegorical novel Ship of Fools about the rise of the Nazis. Ambiguity and paradoxes delight me.


Christian Marclay at Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco (reprinted fromVisualArtSource.com)

Christian Marclay
Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, California  
Review by DeWitt Cheng  

Christian Marclay, “Untitled (Death),” 2020 digital chromogenic print, 34 x 25”


Christian Marclay may be forever known primarily as the creator of “The Clock,” a 2010 video-collage loop that attracted critical accolades and widespread popular interest. Spanning twenty-four real-time hours, the film is crafted from 12,000 scenes appropriated from commercial movies that feature clock faces. Chronologically edited into an epic subversive anti-narrative, it is a moving and ironic tribute to movies, and, by extension, art as both an escape from and a consolation for human vulnerability to time and mortality. Shots of the same actors at different ages, of sunsets, of withered flowers and of lit cigarettes (which Marclay considers “the twentieth-century symbol of time”) recur in his wryly engaging contemporary memento mori. Marclay, in an interview: “We’re much happier when we don’t have to think about time. Here in this film, you have to think about time constantly ... This piece is really about the present though it’s made of fragments of the past.” 


In his 2011 Golden Lion Award speech at Venice, Marclay wittily thanked the jury, and, implicitly, Andy Warhol, “for giving ‘The Clock’ its fifteen minutes.” “The Clock” may also remind art aficionados of the young Surrealists’ group nights out, viewing fragments of movies at a succession of theaters — anti-narrative channel-/web-surfing avant la lettre. (While the six $467,500 copies of the video are owned by major museums or wealthy collectors, excerpts are available online.)


Marclay, who is both a visual artist and a composer, here combines his dual interests in avant-garde performance (a ‘phonoguitar’ ‘performance’ (my air quotes) of a Jimi Hendrix LP with a strapped-on record player providing the audio) and composition (‘turntablist’ scores created by reassembling LP fragments) with traditional artworks, like the collages and digital prints. These new works feature cutouts from comic books and magazines that have been assembled into fractured, crystalline configurations that resemble Cubist and Futurist paintings. The hyperbolic anguish and horror of comic books, which would be camp if seen alone — compare this with the ironic approbation for Lichtenstein’s borrowings from masscult — remain somehow undiminished and even enhanced by the aesthetic fragmentation; as if the raw emotions of the comics, with their adolescent target audience, gain in power by being shared across the time that separates the artists. The power of these synthetic visions testifies to Marclay’s compositional (editing) skills, and further aided by the ragged, fraught emotions of the art audience of this peculiar moment, after a year of covid isolation and four (or forty) years of toxic predatory capitalist misrule.


Five single-image collages are included in Christian Marclay’s current exhibition. “Raging Fire” is an abstract apocalypse in red and orange flames excerpted from comic books. Its triangular shards evoke the destructive beauty of conflagration and the exaltation of destruction. After 1/6 it has become timely, but without rhetorical or polemical straining. It may be the source material for a stop-motion video loop of the same name (also on view), with flame fragments slowly wafted aloft. “Face (On Fire)” and “Face (Écorché)” depict floating faces, aflame or flayed (écorchés are plaster models of the skinless human body used in art academies to teach anatomy), eyes bulging, howling and buried in comic-book sound effects (SLAMM, SCREEEK, FWOOOM), like Medusa’s silenced head wreathed in snakes.


Nine digital chromogenic prints, probably slightly enlarged from their collage source material, accompany the collages. All are untitled, though they carry meaningful parenthetical qualifiers. “Untitled (Death)” and “Untitled (Crying)” present blue heads in extremis: female and male, by turns horrified and exultant, with the torn edges of the collaged eyes and mouths and even the pleats in the paper and wrinkles in the tape serving the expressionist emotional impact. In “Untitled (Pulp),” and “Untitled (Black),” the heads are reduced to gaping mouths all but buried by their congested matrices, while the ripped drawing of “Untitled (Torn)” achieves the dark pathos of a Bacon or Caravaggio.


Returning to Marclay’s musical side, the show also includes fifteen collages from which a print suite, “No!” has been created. The prints are unnumbered and unsequenced. Taken together they constitute the score for a future vocal improvisation. 

Charles Anselmo: Teatro/Moto at Gallery Route One, Point Reyes Station

Charles Anselmo, Teatro CampoAmor #24

Charles Anselmo: Teatro/Moto: Photographs on Paper and Silk

February 20-March 28

Gallery Route One, 11101 Highway One, Point Reyes Station CA

Th-Sun 11-5, 415.663.1347 

Photography captures time, but in more ways than one. It freezes an instant, for posterity, but the images made by cameras and film (or digital sensors) capture not only the instant of their creation, but the time elapsed from past to present. Photographs are time machines or time capsules bearing messages from the past.

 The Bay Area photographer Charles Anselmo is is a connoisseur of ruins, like those eighteenth- and nineteenth century artists and photographers who documented the ancient worlds of Rome and the Middle East. Best known for his photographs of the picturesquely decaying infrastructure of Havana, made during over seventy trips during the past twenty years, Anselmo is decidedly old-school in his studied approach to carefully scouted and selected subjects. He carries a view camera and tripod, and shoots on 4x5 film, scanning the negatives for digital printing in large format on paper (traditionally and archivally matted and framed) or on silk (hung loose from curtain rods, and rippling with the slightest air current). The crumbling, neglected public buildings that he photographically preserves—both colonial-era baroque and revolutionary-era modernist in style—affect the contemporary viewer as the antiquarian etchings of Piranesi and the Romantic paintings of the Turner and Hubert Robert did their audiences, evoking melancholy about the depredations of time, and a pleasant sense of at least temporary immunity—of being an observer and survivor. Rose Macaulay describes such nostalgia—etymologically, the pain of memory—in her classic Pleasure of Ruins, as a pleasurable “self-projection into the past, ... observing the screech owl, the bat, and the melancholy ghost, and the vegetation that pushes among the crevices and will one day engulf.” 

Anselmo writes that he depicts “derelict sites, with the “broken structure and interiors engaging a dialog about the interaction of place, memory and the city's social context... Expressing their own visually inherent narratives, these disparate, fragmented realities remain disconnected from their original identities. Like the unknowable "essences" in Plato's Theory of Forms, the structures which began as perfected, idealized concepts are later reinterpreted, broken and repurposed under the weight of history as they become "phenomena," the sensory representations in everyday life.” He captures  “the dissonances of Cuba's urban landscape in ... decline as palaces and theaters become outside spaces, and the broken symmetries of grand structures are newly interpreted as subjective phenomena in a timeless archaeology of loss.” The photographs of Teatro/Moto depict the decaying grandeur of an abandoned theater built in classical European style a century ago, during Cuba’s colonial period. Anselmo:

 Nestled behind the extraordinary Baroque beauty of Havana’s restored Gran Teatro is the smaller, roofless Teatro Campoamor. For fifteen years I had walked by this remarkable relic, unable to enter due to its barricades and boarded doors. One oppressively humid day in July, 2017, I met the caretaker who had been living in the theater for twenty-four years in what had been a coat-check room. [The caretaker’s portrait is included in the exhibit.] I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the inner edifice magically overtaken by lichen and vines, its wooden stage turned into soil by many seasons of rain. Fifteen-foot tropical palms had been gifted to this interior from seeds driven by the hurricane winds of previous years, the gold gilt peeling from sensuously ornate plasterwork.

Anselmo’s large, hyper-detailed photographs and his prints on billowy Habothai silk convey the richness of faded architectural glory as it succumbs to time and nature —and to the repurposing of the past by the future. The Teatro Campoamor was transformed in the 1990s into a parking lot, or moto, probably serving patrons of the resplendently restored Gran Teatro, adjacent to it in Havana’s city center. The art critic Jorge Luis Aguilar writes that the Teatro, as a remnant of pre-revolutionary Havana, is something “we don’t want to see or remember,” but still a part of Cuba’s history and psyche. “Anselmo is a compelling seeker. He has wandered Havana’s streets innumerable times, like any Habanero. He knows Havana as very few do. He enjoys telling her stories, telling her dreams, ... with the smiles and the suffering.”

 Hypercapitalist America, which has in recent decades prided itself on market-based “creative destruction” and the enrichment of its elite while neglecting its crumbling infrastructure and the desperation of ordinary citizens, should observe, and draw the proper conclusions. Americans might also consider the totality of their history, not just its airbrushed grade-school-friendly mythology. In “Ozymandias,” Shelley evoked an ancient ruined royal statue reduced to two stumps of legs:

And on the pedestal these words appear:

'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away."



Charles Anselmo, Teatro CampoAmor #32

Charles Anselmo, Teatro Campoamor #19

Charles Anselmo, Reynaldo’s Room

Charles Anselmo, West Column

Charles Anselmo, Reynaldo

Christine Miller High at Avenue 12 Gallery, San Francisco, November 2020

CHRISTINE MILLER HIGH: Vintage San Francisco

Avenue 12 Gallery

Christine Miller High (1911-2010) was a fourth-generation San Franciscan who painted San Francisco street scenes in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. High’s watercolors have a broad appeal that transcends their everyday subject matter— everyday for scenic San Francisco, that is; there is also, as we look back at old San Francisco, a nostalgic appeal, especially for San Franciscans familiar with the scenes, and perhaps of a certain age. (San Franciscans may be forgiven for being a little obsessed with The City for its looks: the abstract painter Mark Rothko, who lived here in 1949, said the most beautiful place in the world should be its art capital.)

The artist lived most of her long life in Marin County and San Francisco. She began her art education at Miss Burke’s School, and continued at the Fashion Art School, in the Scottish Rite Temple, also in San Francisco, with the Baroness Maria von Ridelstein (1884-1970), who strenuously advocated realism to her students: “Critics get excited by something new .... Hang an ism on it and call it a new style of painting. ... It is ridiculous—going to extremes doesn’t lead anywhere. We should come down from our high horses and say art is a language.... An accomplished artist talks with his painting.” That advice seems to have resonated with High, whose work seems close in spirit to the landscape tradition of the seventeenth-century Dutch Golden Age or the Ashcan School of American painting a century ago or the Expressionist landscapes of the Depression: her paintings are shaped by reality and emotion inspired by the motif rather than pre-existent symbolism or pictorial formulas—or isms.

High’s career is outlined in Edan M. Hughes’ monumental 1985 reference work, Artists in California, 1786-1940, a twenty-year labor of love in researching some 6600 artists through newspaper and magazine articles, business records, exhibition catalogues, and telephone-book cold calls to people with the artists’ surnames. Hughes cites 1910, just before High’s birth, as the date when California women artists, formerly confined to decorative paintings, began to take their work seriously and compete with men. High, whose plein-air watercolors of local scenes were a far cry from delicate scenes of domestic tranquility, exhibited locally, joined the Society of Western Artists, and was scheduled for a 1941 one-woman show at the de Young Museum, a signal honor for an artist not quite thirty, but one which sadly never took place because of the onset of the war.  But, as the saying goes, she persisted.

The seventy watercolors on paper that comprise Vintage San Francisco are, despite their years, surprisingly fresh-looking; they could have been painted yesterday, though High’s subdued palette and fidelity to reality link her work to her formative years rather than yesterdays isms. There are four thematic groups:

Icons, e.g., portrayals of touristic postcard cynosures like the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Bridge, the Japanese Tea Garden, winding Lombard Street, North Beach, etc.;

Neighborhoods, e.g., the Octagon House, Telegraph Hill, Sea Cliff, a produce market, Temple Emanu-El, and various gardens, alleys and parks;

Views: e.g., Lafayette Park, Inspiration Point, the Marina and Angel Island, the Sausalito waterfront, the San Francisco skyline, etc.; and

Waterfront: e.g., Fisherman’s Wharf, Sausalito Houseboats, the Embarcadero, etc.

The works are undated, so the thematic groupings above probably have no chronological sequence. I read recently that traditional Asian artists, because of their cyclical notion of time, did not date their works in Western linear time. I suspect that for High, working in series was never a concern; that she painted what she encountered and wished to commemorate by participating in it sympathetically. The paintings may seem unsophisticated to some, with technically ‘incorrect’ (but not ‘naive’) rendering, as in the paintings of the Henri Rousseau. Their virtues, as documents of time and place, of nature seen through the artist’s temperament, endure. —DeWitt Cheng