Lynn Sondag's "Cityscapes" at Avenue 12 Gallery, San Francisco. November 2020.

LYNN SONDAG: Cityscapes

Avenue 12 Gallery

If the title of this exhibition, Cityscapes, suggests panoramic views from some of San Francisco’s new apartment towers looming over its boarded-up street businesses, the subject matter of Lynn Sondag’s lyrical watercolors, however, is more bucolic. Sondag focuses on the northwest quadrant of San Francisco, north of Golden Gate Park, where she lives, and, to use John Muir’s terminology, saunters, with an observant eye. San Francisco—ineffaceably dubbed The City by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen—is still a walker’s town, and these paintings reflect the artist’s strolls around the Richmond District, Lake Street (branded the Lake District by the real estate market seeking Wordsworthian nature-lover cachet), Golden Gate Park, Seacliff, The Presidio, Mountain Lake Park, Crissy Field, and Ocean Beach. Cityscapes comprises sixty-odd paintings from several series executed during the past twelve years, concluding with the Lake Street series from 2020,  depicting scenery only a block or two from Avenue 12 Gallery.

Sondag, a professor of art at Dominican University, grew up in the Midwest, and brings her love of nature to the Bay Area, famously rich in natural beauty and distinctive architecture. While the viewpoint of the paintings and their fresh immediacy suggest a plein-air, on-site painting practice, Sondag works from reference photographs, and reconstructing the scenes in her studio. (Photographers will note that her framing has the 2:3, 3:4 and 9:16 aspect ratios of digital SLRs. ) There is nothing photorealistic about her loose, atmospheric renderings, however, which seem to record her feelings about the scene as much as the facts of weather, architecture and foliage. The art historian Barbara Novak, describing the conflict in early American painting between realist and Transcendentalist impulses, between objective and subjectivity, cites the painter Thomas Cole, who worked from memory, trying to “get the objects of nature, sky, rocks,, trees, etc. as strongly impressed on my mind as possible ... [B]y looking intensely on an object for twenty minutes I can go to my room and paint it with much more truth than I cold if I employed several hours on the spot.... I become more intimately acquainted with the characteristic spirit of nature than I could otherwise do.”

If photography serves as Sondag’s sketch book, replacing Cole’s twenty-minute fixed gaze, the sense of place must surely be recorded in the artists’ visual memory, or, in Wordsworth’s words, “that inward eye/Which is the bliss of solitude.”  While watercolor is the perfect medium for recording color effects and spontaneity, it is not forgiving; it is inherently not amenable to correction or  adjustment, demanding decisiveness, experience and a vision or, in Sondag;’s case, an interpretive “emotion [to be] recollected in tranquillity.”

San Franciscans—especially of the wanderer-lonely-as-a-cloud tribe—are likely to have a strong affinity for Sondag’s evocative pictorial tone poems of our beloved peninsular paradise, which capture meteorology and mood more completely than any of the artist’s snapshots must manage to do. The camera never lies, but it’s only a machine. Sondag’s atmospheric paintings of sky overarching the domestic landscape may remind you of Turner (Sea Cliff V and VILake Street District 16th Avenue, Presidio Drive ), and her architectural renderings may suggest Hopper (West Clay, Anza Trail I) as an antecedent or ancestor, but these art-historical resonances attest to a shared sensibility that finds visual analogues for feeling available to the attentive, transparent, Emersonian eyeball.—DeWitt Cheng



























Art and China after 1989, SFMOMA

A Panoramic Exhibition Traces Chinese Contemporary Art

In 221BC, the self-styled first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang (259-201BCE) declared his reign the beginning of history, and enforcing the decree by pre-empting dissent: burning the books and burying the scholars possessed of other ideas about antecedents. Jorge Luis Borges, in “The Emperor and the Books,” an essay about this alternate-facts regime, concludes that Qin’s radical rewriting of history was doomed to fail (as it did, with Emperor Two), by the conservative character of “the most traditional of peoples.”

Given the strongly Confucian, hierarchical bent of Chinese culture, that characterization has some truth. However, it ignores the social, political and economic revolutions of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (as well as various failed revolutions: the Boxer and Taiping Rebellion, etc.). Cultures do not attain the ripe old age of five thousand by being inflexible and dogmatic—by building mental walls, and forsaking rationality and reality. The historian Will Durant noted that China’s foreign conquerors and rulers—the Mongols of the Yuan Dynasty and the Manchus of the Qing Dynasty—ended up mastered and colonized, themselves. “Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind,” observed the sage, Bruce Lee.

The lessons of history, including cultural syncretism are much in evidence in the wide-ranging survey now at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World (through February 24), assembled by the Guggenheim Museum. Comprising over a hundred objects—in painting, drawing, photography, video, sculpture, installation, and conceptual art—from sixty-odd individual artists and collectives, the show is an ambitious retelling of the development of contemporary art, especially conceptual art, from the quashing of democratic dissent at Tiananmen Square in 1989 to China’s ascent to the world stage as an economic equal with its hosting of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a spectacle that enlisted the talents of famous artists Ai Wei Wei, who designed the Bird’s Nest stadium, and Cai Guo-Qiang, who designed the fireworks extravaganza.

The title of the show is revealing: Art and China. The development of contemporary art is on display, but there’s little or none of the Cynical Realism that first registered with western audiences, a kind of ironic commentary on Chinese culture that seemed made for export: Pop Art (not socialism) with Chinese characteristics, to misquote Deng Xiaoping. With multiple curators, the show is expansive, with much of the work seemingly chosen as much for historical (or art-historical) reasons as for pure aesthetic appeal (which contemporary art mavens sometimes disparage as counterrevolutionary bourgeois hedonism). Can we dub Chinese conceptual art, then Sino Realism?

The show is organized in six topics, each one occupying a gallery or two on the museum’s seventh floor.

1. No U-Turn: 1989 revisits the China/Avant-Garde Art show that opened in the National Art Gallery in Beijing, in February, 1989, containing work made during the previous decade after the liberal reform policies of the late 1970s. Unfortunately, the forward-looking, no-retreat thrust of that show was blunted by the events of June 4, which prompted both an exodus of talent and dampened the \ spirits of those who remained. The most prominent work in this gallery is the large pair of sculpture installations by Huang Yong Ping, “Theater of the World” and “The Bridge,” which update traditional Chinese animal symbolism with live snakes, lizards and insects, confined to zoomorphic (snake- and turtle-shaped) cages. Installed at the Guggenheim, the piece aroused the ire of animal rights activists; SFMOMA has chosen to exhibit the work emptied of prisoners, and thus without creaturely carnage. More traditionally palatable is Gu Dexin’s “Plastic Pieces—287,” a swarm of multicolored plastic tangles, melted into organic forms suggesting android viscera, and more interesting to peruse in its bizarre details than to behold in toto as a large wall installation. My favorite piece in the entire show is Qiu Zhije’s panoramic six-panel map of China, “Map of Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World,” a fanciful yet sobering depiction of mountains, river and plains bedecked by historical and cultural inscriptions in English and Chinese: e.g., Valley of Reform Era, No U Turn, Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, Struggle Against Bourgeois Liberalization, etc. It’s a world contained in an artifact, like the Bronze-Age Greece contained in Achilles’ shield in The Iliad, or Bruegel’s living-folklore painting of Dutch villagers enacting 16th-century Dproverbs. Alas, this encyclopedic masterpiece linking traditional Chinese landscape painting with history, politics and aesthetics, belongs to the Guggenheim, which commissioned it; at least it will be available in New York.

2. New Measurement: Analyzing the Situation follows the development of conceptual art in Hangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai, using “mechanistic processes, documentary sensibilities, and minimalist means that slyly mimic the very systems the artists sought to subvert”—I quote the show’s wall label—by eliminating individuality and embracing absurdity. Wang Guangyi’s oil painting Mao Zedong: Red Grid No.2, is a grisaille rendering of the Great Helmsman, almost official-looking in its neoclassical perfection, but crisscrossed by red stripes suggestive of cages. Geng Gianyi’s Misprinted Books are bound volumes of gibberish Chinese characters, a Borgesian idea, converted to Hanzi. Qiu Zhije’s “Assignment No.1: Copying the Orchid Pavilion Preface 1000 Times” both embraces and mocks China’s reverence for tradition and rote learning: the artist copied a famous fourth-century poem until it became an illegible, inscrutable block of ink fashioned and canceled by innumerable repetitions.

3. Five Hours: Capitalism, Urbanism, Realism examines the return to social realism in Beijing and Guangzhou. Hung Liu painted “Avant-Garde,” a shaped-canvas self-portrait as a rifle-bearing soldier in the People’s Army, in 1993-4, after emigrating to California; it’s monumental and dignified, a testimonial to the value of traditional art training, once disparaged by the avant-garde West as Soviet Realism—and a reminder that ‘avant-garde’ was originally a military term. Zeng Fanzhi’s oil painting,”Meat,” shows stoic slaughterhouse workers changing into their work clothes, while surrounded by hanging carcasses that are nearly indistinguishable from the men’s bodies.  Liu Zheng’s documentary photos of coal miners and actors and Wang Jianwei’s “Living Elsewhere” video of hardscrabble country life—at the edge of a superhighway, no less—remind us that ‘crazy rich Asians’ are the stuff of global fantasy—mostly. (The film flopped in China, incidentally.)

4. Uncertain Pleasures: Acts of Sensation examines both the acsecnsion of Chinese contemporary painting to the international market, and the reaction to that financial success among the artists of Beijing and Hangzhou. Ai Weiwei:”Always distrust authority, be suspicious of centralist theories, doubt your alleged cultural influences.” Yu Youhan’s collage, “Just What Is It That Makes To day’s Homes, So Modern, So Appealing?” pays homage to Pop Art with its title, taken from Richard Hamilton’s iconic collage; but instead of a California bodybuilder with a giant lollipop as protagonist, we have a middle-aged Mao enjoying the midcentury-modern lifestyle. Lin Tianmiao’s sculpture, “Sewing,” looks at the Chinese fashion industry through the lens of surrealism, with its sewing machine wrapped—mummified—in cotton thread, and a ghostly pair of hands busy at work via digital video projection. Chen Zhen’s suspended sculpture, “Lumière Innocente,” a child’s bed bedecked with otherworldly lights, is a magical object even without a social subtext. Song Dong, by finding and throwing stones, and painting on them a record of his interactions, creates faux-archaic artifacts endowed with narratives in “Throwing a Stone—documentation.” Ai Weiwei’s famous photos of the artist dropping a Han Dynasty urn are here, as is a Han vase decorated with a Coca-Cola logo, and an unpretentious photo of an insouciant young woman (the future Mrs. Ai, I believe) lifting her skirt and flashing her panties for the camera at The Forbidden City.

5. Otherwhere: Travels Through the In-Between focuses on the increased contact with the international art market as well as the transformations in consciousness wrought by digital media. Song Don’s “Stamping the Water” is a series of color photographs documenting an hour spent stamping the water of the Khasa River with a large carved woodblock bearing the ideogram for water, an exercise in poetic transcendence—or bureaucratic absurdity. Zhan Wang’s video, “Empty Soul /   ”The Mao Suit,” documents the mass-grave burial of a number of coffins, each bearing an empty Mao suit, in a parody of the massive Qian burial site of the First Emperor, with his armies of ceramic warriors. Liu Xiaodong’s four full-length oil portraits of soldiers,  “Battlefield Realism: The Eighteen Arhats,” are painted in a simplified realistic style recalling both commercial illustration and Egon Schiele, a style appropriately ambivalent for warrior-saints.

6. Whose Utopia: Activism and Alternatives Circa 2008 examines the art produced as the Beijing Olympics (motto: One World, One Dream) drew near, promising renewed international acceptance and enhanced national prestige. Various groups of artists abstained from the official rites and ceremonies, creating utopias of their own outside the object-trading commercial system, and in stark contrast with the dazzling pyrotechnics that highlighted the Olympics opening ceremonies, shown in a video. Gu Dexin’s “2009-05-02,” a series of painted ideograms in official fonts and colors, reproduces disturbing text from Lu Xun’s dystopic novel of 1918, Diary of a Madman. Ai Weiwei’s “4851” covers the walls of a small gallery with lists of the names of children killed in (I believe) the Sichuan earthquake, a topic he covered several years ago in a dragon sculpture composed of small backpacks. The dragon, associated with water and benevolence, is also the subject of Chen Zhen’s “Precipitous Parturition,” an 85-foot long dragon with a sinuous body made of bicycle inner tubes, and a head fashioned from bicycle wheel rims, hanging in SFMOMA’s old main entrance, on Third Street. The hasty birth of a mobile, industrialized nation—with its benefits and costs—is the subject here, and one which resonates through the rest of this mammoth exhibition on which I have barely touched here. It’s a must-see aesthetic spectacle—with sociopolitical characteristics.











It should not be forgotten that a certain amount of Big Brotherism still prevails in China, now aided by digital technology, so artists who stayed in China after 1989, unlike their emigrant peers, still have to toe the line. The governments actions against Ai Wei Wei, which culminated recently in the sudden (but probably expected) bulldozing of his studio,  cannot have escaped anyone’s attention. Youthful protests against cultural conservatism—the invasion of museums, and documentation of actions performed in public space, familiar to westerners familiar with Dada and performance—took place, but overt political dissent is understandably nowhere to be seen. During the Soviet bloc years, eastern European artists used Surrealism to mask and process their discontent. Conceptual art, with its intellectual puzzles and in-joke humor, may serve the same covert expressive function in today’s capitalist China. Can we dub it Sino-Realism?




the twenty years between the bloody suppression of protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and the ostensible accession of China to respectable nationhood (these days, with the rule of law seemingly on the decline everywhere, not looking so respectable) with its hosting of the Olympics in 2008.  Art fans will remember that Chinese were enlisted in the spectacle: Ai Wei Wei designed the Bird’s Nest stadium; and the pyrotechnics expert _____ was entrusted with the fireworks, which are, after all, a Chinese invention.


Originated at the Solomon Guggenheim Museum in New York City, to acclaim and alarm. The acclaim was for the show’s ambitious scope, tracing the history of China’s avant-garde art movements in a vast country without much of a collector base, and its ascension to the global art world (several of the artists are rep[resented by Pace and Gagosian, major player galleries with worldwide reach and impact. The alarm was for a pair of controversial installation sculptures,

Chen Zhen’s “Precipitous Parturition,” and 85-foot long dragon with a sinuous body made of bicycle inner tubes and a head fashioned from bicycle wheel rims and other parts. hanging in lobby of SFMOMA old main entrance

Parturition is giving birth, so the hasty birthing of a mobile, industrialized nation—a formidable dragon, traditional symbol of _______________


ZHang Peili “Water: Standard Version from the Cihai Dictionary”  (1991) video of famous woman newscaster who has been tricked into reading a dictionary entry on water, symbol of change and adaptation


Huan Zhang “12 Square Meters:”(1994)


Ai Wei Wei “Dropping Han Dynasty Urn “ (1995

“Han Dynasty Urn with Coa-ColaLogo”





Xu Tan “”Made in China” installation (1997-8)


six theme

third space”

critical stance and open-ended forms of COnceptual Art


Gu Dexin’s wall sculptures of melted plastic pieces in various colors —organic, variety meats intestinal viscera zoomorphic invertebrate life forms from some alternate reality


QIu Zhijie “Map of art and China After 1989: Theater of the World “ 2017)

six-panel painting in ink ion paper mounted tovsilk

commissioned by te Guggenheim

specifically created for this theme

mountains, plains, rivers,  vast expanse

features labeled  Chinese history and art history that has the intellectual and emotional depth and the visual grandeur of a Breugel lansdcape populated by enactments of sixteenth-century Dutch proverbs



Huan Yong PIng

“Theater of the World (1993) millipedes, beetles,crickets, cockroaches, grasshoppers geckos and wall lizards

The Bridge 1995  bronze figurines, corn snakes and sulcata tortoises


Wang Xingwei’s 2001painting, “New Beijing,” replicating a news photo of wounded students whelled to the hospital but replacing the students with wounded oenguis


Xu Bing’sinstallation “Where Does the Dust Itself Collect?”

Chan Buddhist poet

originally distfrom9/11 site


Huang Yong PIng ”The History of Chinese Painting and A Concise History of Modern Painting Washed in a Washing Machine for two Minutes (1987/93)






The End of the World (reprinted from VisualArtSource newsletter)


If you are like me (and we do share hominid DNA), you have been spending the last few months doing all you can to oppose our mad king and his suicidal minions while fighting off nagging doubts, mine probably amped up by too much YouTube time with Epic History and The Fall of Civilizations.

What if Trump, the cruel, venal Biff Tannen (based on Trump, as everyone must by now know), endowed with federal superpowers, and aided by the bullet-headed thugs of his Republican Guard or SA, wins re-election? What if we cannot find solutions for the pandemic, for economic decline, and for global climate catastrophe?

The end of the world (as we know it) is a trope of science fiction movies, and the post-apocalyptic era is a kind of survivalist fantasy world of Wild West anarchy with mighty-man warlords. It is of course also the story of much of human history, once you remove the trappings of state and the regalia of royalty and religion. Shakespeare’s history plays bedeck royalist gangsterism in ineffable verse.  Coppola’s Godfather trilogy depicts ruthless organized crime as business sans the usual hypocrisy, and a potential pathway to ‘legitimate’ power. Vito tells his son, now following in his footsteps: “I don't apologize - that's my life - but I thought that, that when it was your time, that you would be the one to hold the string. Senator Corleone; Governor Corleone.” All bow to President Corleone.

Western civilization represents at least in name an advance from the barbarism to which e seem to be succumbing. It is trendy these days to disparage Enlightenment liberalism as an ideological figleaf for capitalism, colonialism and exploitation; it has been those things, but at its best represents, as it did for Lincoln, the last best hope for mankind. Can America gets its mind right, and live up to its stated ideals, or do we cede the planet, with supine ‘realism,’ to nakedly authoritarian rival regimes?

We are currently in a great transition. The digital global economy is wreaking havoc on traditional norms, awakening dark forces—“dark shadows” in the words of our oracular maximum leader. A book from my freshman Western Civ class in college comes to mind: Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium examined how the social chaos wreaked upon feudal society by the incipient industrialization of Western Europe created the context for radical millennialist movements who believed the end of the world imminent in the year 1500. These groups rampaged across Europe, goaded by charismatic prophets, who assured them of inevitable success in establishing a true holy kingdom, no matter how many priests had to be beaten or beheaded.  It’s a rollicking tale, nicely encapsulated in a few antinomian (i.e, above the law) chapter headings: The Saints Against the Hosts of Antichrist; An Elite of Self-Immolating Redeemers; An Elite of Amoral Supermen. Clearly we are in a similar moment of crisis. Perhaps Q, the Deep Throat of QAnon, knows the story’s conclusion, even if his warrior-citizens do not: how church and state put aside their usual bickering and united, the mailed fist within the velvet glove, to burn the heretics and suppress their impious, populist aspirations. (Perhaps Q is an agent provocateur, covertly keeping the populists busily gnawing harmless chew toys in concert with the disinfotainment specialists at St. Petersberg’s Internet Research Agency...)

The Judaeo-Christian tradition’s eschatological concept of linear time ending with the return of an angry/rewarding God, however loony in real life, has paradoxically inspired great works of art; but do Bosch’s sublimely weird visions balance the suffering inflicted by the “christianizing and civilizing”(William McKinley) conquerors outfitted and enriched by the artist’s pious collectors? The Founding Fathers of the United States, heir to both Christian belief and Enlightenment thought, tried (imperfectly, as everyone now knows) to balance the better aspects of both, while turning a blind eye to their dark side:  the slavery and genocide necessary to Manifest Destiny, to Making America Great.

But you have to wonder how much that supposedly necessary hypocrisy cost the leadership in psychic terms. The historical examples of fallen empires were often in their thoughts, and some of the painting of the era depicts those fears, while attempting to discharge or displace their energy into the safely remote past—object lessons for New World’s Best & Brightest. JMW Turner’s paintings of doomed civilizations and Hubert Robert’s paintings and Piranesi’s paintings and etchings of Roman ruins and imaginary prisons testify to a fascination with decline and decay that some now (where did Happy Talk go?) would deem morbid, while others would accept them as the inconvenient truths of philosophical realism.

Several years ago I read David Foss Bjelajac’s study of Washington Allston’s painting “The Feast of Belshazzar.” Its subject is the biblical account of the hand of God delivering a fiery written warning to the Babylonians that their glorious empire would fall (as it did, in 539BCE): Mene mene tekel upharsin. Rembrandt had painted it earlier, dramatically, and the Romantic John Martin showed his contemporaneous version in England to great success; but for Allston, just after the Revolution, it was a pictorial reminder that the new republic—the new Israel, not the new Rome—would have to be godly, so the painting has a rather stentorian, moralistic feel. Allston, who worked on the painting from 1817 to 1843, was planning to work on the obstinate Babylonian king on the day he died. Maybe America’s royals can learn from the writing on the walls of Portland and Kenosha before our money-centered, death-dealing empire/world is given to the new Medes and Persians, whoever or whatever they turn out to be.











































VESTIGES: Photos and Photocollages by Vanessa Woods and Josh Smith, Jack Fischer Gallery, San Francisco, September 5-October 17, 2020


VESTIGES:The Beauty of the Fragment

 “The people have a poetic sense in themselves. They are the men who invented that ceaselessly renewed verbal poetry— slang. These men are endowed with a constantly creative imagination. “They transpose reality.” What then do modern poets, artists, and painters do? They do the same thing. Our pictures are our slang; we transpose objects, forms, and colors.

Fernand Léger, ”The Human Body Considered As An Object” (1945)


Each period has its peculiar image of man. It appears in its poems and novels, music, philosophy, plays and dances; and it appears in its painting and sculpture. Whenever a new period Is conceived in the womb of the preceding, a new image of man pushes towards the surface and finally breaks through to find its artists and philosophers.

Paul Tillich, ”Each Period Has Its Peculiar Image Of Man” (1959)

In 1959, as Abstract Expressionism was in full sway in New York, the art historian and curator Peter Selz curated an exhibition, New Images of Man, at the Museum of Modern Art that focused, in contrarian fashion, on the figure, then an aesthetic taboo. The exhibition catalogue featured Tillich’s article, cited above, and could easily have included Léger’s, advocating for a humanistic figurative art that might be understood and embraced by the common man—the average blue-aproned Parisian ouvrier whom he celebrated and monumentalized. Selz reprised his 1959 show fifty years later, in Berkeley, in 2009, at the Alphonse Berber Gallery, under the expanded title, New Images of Man and Woman.

Contrary to postmodernist practice, with its appropriation of mass-media imagery for deconstruction and sociopolitical critique, in their current show, Vestiges, Smith and Woods have chosen to deal with the intimately personal—with family life and the female body, respectively—as their royal road to the universal. In this they align with Selz, Tillich and Léger, employing modernist visual style to explore the unchanging human condition.

The photographer Josh Smith and the photographer and collagist Vanessa Woods met in art school in 2004, and have worked together and separately since then, pursuing complementary approaches to art-making in spousal parallel evolution. Artist couples have the advantage of trusted, knowledgeable creative feedback, conveniently located in-house. Given our current cult of individualism, and driven production, we might assume that familial proximity and diminished privacy might inhibit creativity, but Smith and Woods pursue personal, poetic visions while juggling teaching and family responsibilities. For these artists, art arises from the reality of daily life and from romantic solitude in the garret. Woods cites Imogen Cunningham as an inspiration, both for her photographs and for her managerial skills, with “one hand in the dishpan, the other in the darkroom.”

The title of the show, Vestiges, aptly describes the couple’s joint approach, employing fragmented imagery to depict situations, ideas, and emotions impossible to represent in a naturalistic way. Vestiges are remnants, but those pieces excerpted from reality can be reassembled to form new configurations, as the modernists of a century ago discovered: Cubism’s composite glimpses depicted the complexity and simultaneity of modern life a century ago; and, a decade later, the irrational juxtapositions launched the alternate universes of Dadaism and Surrealism.

Josh Smith writes that he focuses on “moments of presence and tension” avoiding dramatic incident, instead looking to embody the “in-between moments of our lives. Readers of Susan Sontag’s On Photography may remember that “in-between moments” was a phrase used by the great Swiss-American photographer Robert Frank to designate what Sontag calls “moment[s] of revealing disequilibrium.” In 2015, I wrote, of Smith’sPlaces You Know series,

...his works ask the viewer to create through imagination the connections between everyday surroundings that are not inherently dramatic, or immediately meaningful—the anti dramatic 1960s New Topographics work of Lewis Baltz and the wry disjunctions of Lee Friedlander come to mind—although Smith’s cropping transforms them into strong abstractions that’ ‘talk’ to each other and to the thoughtful viewer.


But family life has shifted Smith’s gaze from the landscapes of suburbia to domestic interiors and family life, assumed, erroneously, despite many exceptions—Bonnard comes to mind—to be primarily the domain of women artists like, say Mary Cassatt.  Smith takes quick fragmentary shots of his children frozen in ambiguous action, faces omitted, that are compelling and enigmatic. Like the incongruities and surprises associated with street photography, Smith’s images are life caught on the fly by a critical eye. Smith loves both the hunt for images, and the ambiguous narratives that arise after editing and printing, when, as he says, “a photograph suggests meaning but does not divulge it.” Completing the circuit between subjects, artist and viewer is the important thing, not a predetermined meaning or interpretation, although Smith’s evocative studies of family life subvertsively yet quietly challenge the toxic gender-based orthodoxies of American mass culture in 2020.

Vanessa Woods’ collage aesthetic and technique derive from the subversive Dada-Surrealist tradition of a century ago, pioneered by Max Ernst, George Grosz and others. The juxtaposition of unlikely elements to create an irrational world of paradox and enigma became one of Surrealism’s signature devices, nicely expressed in the poetic simile by the Comte de Lautréamont, “as beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissection table of an umbrella and a sewing machine.” In 2016, Woods showed twenty-five collages in a two-person show, Somewhere Between Here and There, at Jack Fischer Gallery, in San Francisco. Woods’ work was shown alongside collages by her friend and mentor, the late Ken Graves, who had recently bequeathed her his archive of cutout materials. At the time, I wrote:

If [Woods’] previous work featured contorted and sculptural bodies (sometimes headless) in isolation, these are placed in a dark, deep, cinematic space. No fewer than sixteen of the works feature standing protagonists, their features obscured by cloth hoods (or real feathers), standing as if for inspection. The source images are perhaps bureaucratic or medical. Woods places them in mysterious indoor/outdoor, real/simulated surroundings reminiscent of Joseph Cornell’s assemblage boxes or Giorgio de Chirico’s vertiginous plazas.


As we all know by now, the Surrealists were social and aesthetic rebels, but less than enlightened by current standards of gender equality. Woods differs from the intellectual bad boys of 1920s Paris in rejecting the Surrealist idea of the female muse, instead embracing motherhood and womanhood as themes, while adhering to the collage technique for altering reality. Woods’ images in Vestiges dethrone the male gaze and scuttle the objectification of women. Photographed body parts of the artist and others merge with geometric structures to form sculptural presences—faceless surrealist personnages—set against white backgrounds. Weirdly humorous, they’re subversively feminist, but in no doctrinaire way: ribbons wrapped around bombs, as the Surrealist leader André Breton described the paintings of Frida Kählo. Some appear monumental, and could easily become public sculpture.

Vestiges confronts the realities of family life and contemporary consciousness in the digital era. Smith’s intimate “slipping glimpser” (to employ De Kooning’s term) photographs depict the beauty of ordinary life. Woods, conjuring iconic figures and structures from charged fragments, in a kind of aesthetic paleontology, implies that human imagination and creativity can survive even our current era of unthinking rage and outrage. --Dewitt Cheng, San Francisco, August, 2020

Reception photos from September 5, 2020.

Surfing & Serfdom (reprinted from VisualArtSource Newsletter, July 2020)


 It has been just over four months since the pandemic forced Americans out of the public realm and into privacy and maybe even privation. Certainly we as a people are unused to sacrifice, despite the fine words of Republicans extolling the  “blood and treasure and sacred honor” risked by the Founding Fathers (remember statues and monuments and holidays?). We have all seen the tragic results of entitled solipsism in surging infection rates all over the country.

 For us the relatively fortunate, for whom the pandemic and massive economic dislocation have not proved to be seriously life- or lifestyle-threatening, it has been a forced vacation filled with reading, internet surfing, DVD binge-watching, and, for me, meditative strolls along nearby Ocean Beach, punctuated by occasional forays for groceries and gas. It’s a little confining, certainly, but in no sense anything like the punishing solitary confinement that the maskless crowd bemoans. (Your solitude tolerance may vary.)

 One unanticipated effect of my 120-odd day recess from of the art scene (which had of course largely stopped) was the discovery that life after art, without art, was possible, and no particular hardship.  Working as a peripatetic critic for some twenty years, I had always considered it my mission to interpret what was going on—or at least what I deemed interesting and praiseworthy. It was a kind of moral mission, if not quite sacred.  In a VAS Editorial on whether art criticism matters any more, I opined:

 Art criticism (or journalism—and it will be remembered that even mighty Clement Greenberg preferred the term of ‘art writer’ to ‘art critic’) is in danger of sinking into arcane jargon or giddy puffery, depending on the venue’s intended audience. Can art and art criticism reach out to a wider audience, and aim for meaning rather than meaninglessness? In the opinion of this art lover, they must, or become irrelevant and decadent.

 While I still believe that, removal from the “carnival attached to a stock market,” as the art critic Robert Hughes once described the art world, has produced no withdrawal side-effects for this art addict. Isolation from the glittering world has diverted my energies into other pursuits. I am in no serious danger of imitating the good Stoic gentleman of Lucretius’s epic poem, De Rerum Natura, however pleasant the scenario:

 ...stand[ing] aloof in a quiet citadel, stoutly fortified by the teaching of the wise, and gaz[ing] down from that elevation on others wandering aimlessly in a vain search for the way of life, pitting their wits one against another, disputing for precedence, struggling night and day to scale the pinnacles of wealth and power.

 There are nowadays, of course, as many aimless souls to watch condescendingly as there were in Rome in 55BCE—and we can watch them from thousands of miles away.  (I recently reread Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, an account of how Lucretius’s masterpiece, lost for centuries, was discovered during the Renaissance, a copy turning up to the classicist scholar Poggio Bracciolini’s astonished eyes in a remote German monastery. Its novel freedom from religious gloom and doom galvanized the political thought of our philosophe Founders. It was one of Thomas Jefferson’s favorite works, several copies of which he collected, in various languages; and his “pursuit of happiness,” so dear to the individualistic American psyche (whatever the conformist realities may be), derives from it.

 The notion of absolute freedom is of course a fantasy, too. In America, a nation of self-selected rebels from a host of countries and cultures, it serves as a generalized substitute for the cultural and genetic identity that less wide-open countries inherit as a birthright. We may be free to choose where we place our loyalties, but he absolute freedom fetishized by footloose young men—devotees of Ayn Rand and Jack Kerouac, alike—is no more viable in the real world than roadways ungoverned by regulations. One would think that common sense would have descended on the free-market ideologues of the right by now, even old Alan Greenspan, once a bright young Randian, but the promise of easy wealth is irresistible, especially when blared forth from televisions, radios and phones incessantly and ubiquitously.

 The unfreedom of travel and socializing breeds a freedom of self-examination and introspection. I possess many books that I have aomehow never read—tsundoku, in Japanese—and will try to make the best use of this time boon, while it lasts. All the same, I look forward to getting into harness, engaging again with the art scene, and discovering how the Great Hiatus will have affected artists, many of whom are happy to be left alone, uninterrupted, in their studios.  As Spanish crowds shouted, as their monarchy was restored after the defeat of Napoleon, according to Robert Hughes’ biography of Goya, Vivan nuestras cadenas, Long live our chains! Stay safe and sane, and vote accordingly.