Monday, February 28, 2011

So Many True Colors

Installation at Haines Gallery
"Studies for La Destitution de la Jeune Fille"
Gouache on paper and wood
Dimensions Variable

French artist Katya Bonnenfant has adopted the moniker The Old Boys' Club. TOBC's current exhibition at Haines Gallery - a scaled-down version of the recent wallpaper and sculptural installation at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts - is titled "La Destitution de al Jeune Fille (The Deposition of the Young Girl)." According to the gallery's press release, the title references a "post-Situationist theory [...] initially put forth by the anonymous collective, Tiqqun." Apparently, Tiqqun "advances the notion of the young girl as embodiment of the capitalist machine and the meaninglessness of modern life." Further research reveals that the preponderance of content published in Tiqqun's now defunct journal is jejune and impotent pseudo-philosophy, the sort of tripe that too many artists mistake for genuine thoughtfulness. Happily, despite her meager inspiration, TOBC puts on a good show.

"Study for La Destitution de la Jeune Fille #41"
Gouache on paper
12 x 9 inches

The back gallery at Haines is pleasantly crowded with TOBC's colorful and riotous gouache drawings and sculptures. Bonnenfant's cast of cartoon characters is diverse; celebrities like Darth Vader and Waldo appear, but most of the artist's spear-wielding insurgents are humble and unfamiliar. What treasure or ideology are they fighting over, exactly? Narrative particulars are few and no critical players or turning points are obviously apparent; it's a ceaseless and meaningless melee (like Tiqqun's conception of modern life!).

The opaque, vivid colors of TOBC's gouaches call to mind the advertising industry's heraldry and, in combination with the masks and costumes of Bonnenfant's characters, emphasize the combatants' ethnic or cultural differences. The effect is gestalt; Bonnenfant's oddball cast of warrior mascots is a manifestation of the physical and economic violence of globalization. That's also what Tiqqun aimed to communicate but, where they failed, TOBC succeeds artfully and without pretension.

Installation at Haines Gallery
"Studies for La Destitution de la Jeune Fille"
Gouache on paper and wood
Dimensions Variable

Image credits: all images from the artist's website and Haines Gallery website

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Art Practical: Richard Baker

Richard Baker
"The Air-Conditioned Nightmare"
Gouache on paper
12 x 10.5 inches

My write-up of artist Richard Baker's gouache portraits of books is included in the most recent issue of Art Practical, an online magazine focused on the Bay Area's visual arts. The short piece appears in AP's Shotgun Reviews department. Read it here.

An element of Baker's work that I don't mention in the AP review is its special relevance to San Francisco; the artist's selection of titles and authors highlights the city's rich literary history. Happily, the town remains chock-a-block with neighborhood bookstores and reader-friendly cafes. Yet Kindles, iPads, and conversations about "the death of print media" abound. Indeed, even we bibliophiles find ourselves doing more (if not most) of our reading on electronic devices. Soon, our cherished libraries and bookstores may be considered the equivalent of charnel houses. If so, I'll still retreat to those tombs to touch, smell, and otherwise be with books. I'm guessing Baker will, too.

Baker's book portraits are on view at Gregory Lind Gallery through February 26th.

Image credit: courtesy Gregory Lind Gallery

Saturday, February 19, 2011

"The Air That Touched Things"

Claude Monet
"La Pie (The Magpie)"
Oil on canvas
35 x 51 inches
"Monet once revealed that he wanted to paint not things in themselves but the air that touched things - the enveloping air. The enveloping air offers continuity and infinite expansion. If Monet can paint the air, he can follow it like following a thought. Except that the air operates wordlessly and, when painted, is visibly present only in colors, touches, layers, palimpsests, shades, caresses, scratches."

- John Berger, "The Enveloping Air," Harper's Magazine, January 2011
I'm not sure which I like more, Monet's wonderfully quixotic desire to paint "the air that touched things" or Berger's evocative prose. In any case, Monet nailed the light in his magpie painting.

Image credit: ripped from

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Authority of the Museum

Marcel Duchamp
(Photo by Alfred Stieglitz)
"The traffic of the readymade is one-way; a urinal that becomes art [...] can't escape to be a urinal again. The authority of the museums forbids it."

-Peter Schjeldahl, "Between the Lines," The New Yorker, November 29, 2010
Schjeldahl's observation is insightful. I'll take it one step further.

By submitting itself to "the authority of the museum," the urinal becomes something lesser than any of those in a public toilet. Presented as art, it is form without function; as Schjeldahl contends, it ceases to be a urinal.

But even though the urinal-cum-artwork can't escape this new identity, it might inspire museum visitors to reconsider the aesthetic merit of mundane, functional objects. If the visitor carries that perspective out of the museum doors, the readymade's meme has "escaped" the institution. In other words, the urinal trapped in the museum aggrandizes free and functional urinals the world over precisely because it has been stripped of its utility!

Why does the art world understand aesthetics and utility to be mutually exclusive?

Image credit: courtesy, Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Everywhere Looks the Same #2

Read about the "Scavenged Image (Remixed)" series here.

Image credit: copyright Christopher Reiger, 2011

"Scavenged Image (Remixed)"

"The price which man had to pay for his culture and civilization was the severing of this bond which had to be torn to give him his specific freedom of will. But our infinite longing for paradise lost is nothing else than a half-conscious yearning for our ruptured ties.”

-Konrad Lorenz, King Solomon’s Ring
I enjoy using Adobe Photoshop's basic tools to tweak JPEGs that I've collected online. Occasionally, my tinkering provides inspiration for a drawing. More often, the crude experiments are saved to my hard-drive on the off chance that I might later find some happy use for them.

A couple of weeks ago, while pondering a quick collage of a young man wearing a howling-wolf-with-moon t-shirt, I realized that my Photoshop amusements more plainly evidence the humor implicit in the ideas and questions that preoccupy me. Very few people comment on this aspect of my drawings and paintings; if they do, they assume the humor is unintended.

I believe this is partly a function of the artist's character informing the viewer's read of his or her art; people who don't know me well usually describe me as earnest, pensive, and not a kidder. Compounding matters, the pictures' principal mediums, watercolor and gouache, are considered the province of the Sunday painter. For many viewers, then, the drawings and paintings are either too heady or too precious.

By contrast, the Photoshop works are unpretentious "one-noters" that demand little from the viewer, yet still speak to some of the same existential questions that my works on paper do. What is our relationship to the rest of the animal kingdom and to nature, at large? How does our cataloging impulse inform those relationships? How do we reconcile imaginative myth with science, or our base animal with our spiritual aspirations?

But the Photoshop works also ask questions that my drawings and paintings do not. In what ways have we turned other species into commodities? What are the contemporary totem animals for an increasingly urban humanity? More profoundly, is the contemporary human condition one of contradiction? Although self-consciousness, advanced socialization, and technology make us exceptional and allow for the creation of culture and civilization, is it not those very developments that our inner animal rages against? Might many of our contemporary behaviors be analogues of the displacement exhibited by animals living in zoo enclosures?

Because these are related, but different questions and because the Photoshop works are more playful and wry, I've decided to present them on Hungry Hyaena. The first picture in my "Scavenged Image (Remixed)" series will follow this post. I will add more regularly.

Note: A thank you to Joy Garnett; her ongoing "Found Art/Unmonumental" series, posted on her long-running and consistently excellent blog, NEWSGrist, is, in some respects, cousin to this project.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Enter the Rabbit

A red rabbit for the Chinese New Year

Although New York City has a larger Chinese American population than does San Francisco, the Chinese New Year is a much bigger deal in Fog City than it is in the Big Apple. The Chinese American population in New York accounts for approximately 4.5% of the total population; in San Francisco, it constitutes close to 20%.

Like New York, San Francisco has ethnic enclaves that exaggerate these demographics. I live in a part of the city known as the Inner Sunset, located at the eastern edge of the expansive Sunset District. About half of the Sunset's population is Asian American, mostly of Chinese extraction. In an interview published in the current issue of San Francisco Arts Quarterly (SFAQ), celebrated Bay Area artist Barry McGee remarks that he dislikes the Sunset District because "it's foggy, and there's a big Asian population." The interviewer asks, "You don't like Asians?," and McGee replies, "[...]well it's not that I don't like Asians, but I don't like that many Asians, you know?" I presume that the half-Chinese McGee is joking, but his tongue-in-cheek comment speaks to our species' inborn, tribal orientation.

Curiously, while I'm acutely aware of how "out of place" I am in some ethnic neighborhoods, I've never felt incongruous or unwelcome in predominantly Chinese American communities. There are, of course, significant cultural differences - I'd almost certainly feel homesick and alien were I to live in Beijing or Shanghai for a time - but, unlike McGee, I think the substantial Asian American population is a feather in the Sunset's cap, and I was pleased to see a number of red lanterns and celebratory banners hanging from Sunset awnings yesterday morning.

Maybe, though, there is a more novel reason why I appreciate the Chinese New Year? As a would-be ger (or convert to Judaism), I also observe a new year that's not dictated by the Gregorian calendar. I made my New Year resolutions in early September, during the days preceding Rosh Hashanah, a period that saw no spike in gym memberships.

What is to be made of this hybrid identity of mine, especially in light of our increasingly universalistic aspirations? I'm a straight, white male, and my family tree has a preponderance of English and Scottish Protestants; in other words, like it or not, I was born "the man." Yet I am also, by means of the mystical and psychological process of conversion, a Jew (technically speaking, I'm almost one, mikveh pending). Although most of us associate ethnic identity with skin color or bloodline, ethnicity is by definition a stew of heritage, language, culture, and religion; it is compound. Thus, though I'm only 1/8 Jewish by blood (i.e., genetically or physiologically), I'm able to identify as wholly so (i.e., psychologically).

Because of this rewiring of my identity, I'm ever more appreciative and proud of the diverse makeup of the United States. Many Americans nurture a composite identity (e.g., Italian American, Japanese American, or, less specifically, African American). Although it's crucial that we must prioritize the shared aspect of these respective identities, we should also celebrate the differences. In other words, just as our membership in the family of humankind does not preclude our identifying as part of nations, clubs, or families, American peoplehood does not prohibit membership in particularistic communities, subsets of the greater national identity. Contrary to the well-intentioned, "all you need is love" promises of misguided ideologues, our nation's principal virtue may be it's appreciation for both the universal and the particular.

So, to my many Chinese American neighbors, and to the rest of our experimental nation, cheers to yet another Happy New Year!

Image credit: ripped from Sweety Petey Eco-friendly Baby Toys