Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Square Cylinder: "Painting Between the Lines"

Fred Tomaselli
Photographic collage, acrylic and resin on wood
48 x 48 inches

My review of "Painting Between the Lines," a thoughtful (if flawed) group show on view at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, is published on Square Cylinder.

Read it here.

Image credit: courtesy, CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, 2011

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Review In Brief: Lionel Bawden's "World of Surface"

Lionel Bawden
"Flipside (II)"
Colored Staedtler pencils, epoxy, and incralac on black Perspex shelves
12.25 x 5.25 x 3.5 inches

All of the sculptures exhibited in "The World of Surface," Australian artist Lionel Bawden's recent solo show at Frey Norris Gallery, are constructed using colored pencils. Bawden painstakingly epoxies the pencils together and carves them into a variety of colorful forms. Some of the resulting artworks pour off their wall-mounted shelves like melting candles. Others are small totems with geometric, mandala-like patterns that evoke Georgia O'Keefe's sensual flower paintings as well as the indigenous art forms of Bawden's native country.

"Flipside (II)" and "Gatekeeper (II)," the strongest works in the exhibition, belong to this latter type, and their kinship to Australian Aboriginal art forms like basket weaving and bark painting is manifest not only in their patterns and Bawden's consummate craftsmanship, but also in the sculptures' earnest desire to function as sacred objects, vehicles of meditation and trance.

Lionel Bawden
"jewel linking (dense field)"
Colored pencil & ink on paper
30 x 22 inches

Even viewers who dislike Bawden's work must acknowledge his skill, but the pencil sculptures' material novelty (their "neato" factor) risks their dismissal as schtick. Wisely, Bawden included 5 works on paper in "World of Surface." Although his drawings aren't as peculiar and interesting as his sculptures, Bawden's decision to enlist different materials in his exploration of repetitive processes is a good one. Each of these drawings features a honeycomb array of carefully rendered, multicolored hexagons. They're almost garish, and the imagery isn't particularly compelling, but Bawden is most concerned with creating a record of his patient handiwork, and the "World of Surface" pictures can be seen as a design-conscious riff on jail wall hash marks.

Lionel Bawden's "The World of Surface" was on view October 1 - November 26, 2011, at Frey Norris Gallery (161 Jessie Street, San Francisco).

Lionel Bawden
"Gatekeeper (II)"
Colored Staedtler pencils, epoxy, and incralac on black Perspex shelves
11.5 x 9.25 x 4.25 inches

Image credits: Lionel Bawden images, courtesy Frey Norris Gallery

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Elisheva Biernoff's "Inheritance"

Elisheva Biernoff
80 slides of endangered wilderness areas projected onto mist from a humidifier housed in a plywood and fabric enclosure

Environmental historian William Cronon argues that "only people whose relation to the land was already so alienated could hold up wilderness as a model for human life in nature, for the romantic ideology of wilderness leaves precisely nowhere for human beings actually to make their living from the land." I recalled Cronon's incisive critique of wilderness ideology as I pondered artist Elisheva Biernoff's "Inheritance," a compelling installation included in Eli Ridgway Gallery's recent group show, "Better A Live Ass Than A Dead Lion."

"Inheritance" was installed in a dark side gallery on Ridgway's lower level. A wall-mounted, carousel slide projector cast images of "endangered wilderness areas [...] onto mist from a humidifier housed in a plywood and fabric enclosure." The humidifier's fog billowed out of a television-sized opening cut into the plywood, and the projected photographs reflected by the haze were sometimes -- for an instant, when the mist was just so -- recognizable as landscapes, but rarely as specific environments or locations. Without the artist's accompanying list of "disappearing places," viewers couldn't know they were looking at Alaska's Tongass National Forest, Florida's Everglades, Brazil's Pantanal, China's Gobi Desert, or another of nearly 80 imperiled landscapes.

Elisheva Biernoff
80 slides of endangered wilderness areas projected onto mist from a humidifier housed in a plywood and fabric enclosure

Biernoff's installation, which was also included in ProArts Gallery's 2010 "2 X 2 Solos" exhibition program (and, by virtue of its strength, will likely be a part of future exhibitions), is luminous and its effect almost ethereal, but unlike the meditative Light and Space works of James Turrell or Doug Wheeler, Biernoff's installation doesn't provide opportunity for reverie. The transitions between the images are abrupt, and marked by the noisy, mechanical advance of the slide carousel. Ka-jenk, Ka-jenk. Just as we begin to discern the vision roiling in the mist -- 'Is that a jungle? Perhaps a swamp?' -- we're jarred from our musing. Ka-jenk, Ka-jenk. Again, we endeavor to interpret the play of light and color in the vapor, and again: Ka-jenk, Ka-jenk! A contemplative inclination is foiled by the machine's relentless progress, and there's sly humor in Biernoff's frustration of our stubborn need to identify and classify; viewers can see the specters in the mist, but can't make much (if any) sense of them. Even so, we'll continue to plumb the rolling fog for clues.

Our ancestors assigned supernatural qualities to fluid media. They scried smoke to portend future events and viewed it as a vehicle of conveyance, capable of carrying the essence of a sacrifice to the god or spirits of a people. In "The Wizard of Oz," the face of the eponymous wizard appears to the protagonists in a cloud of reddish smoke, causing them to tremble in awe. Seeking a similar experience of wonder, many of the people who visit wilderness areas do so to behold nature's majesty. Their language is often reverent; they speak of the sublime and the transcendent. But what is a wilderness area, exactly? According to the United States Wilderness Act of 1964, wilderness is land that "generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable [...that is] designated for preservation and protection in [its] natural condition." Unfortunately, the "imprint of man" is not always readily observable (consider the nuanced affects of climate change or the irradiated, if picturesque Red Forest that surrounds the decommissioned Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant). More problematically, as Cronon makes clear, the Wilderness Act definition sets man apart from "the forces of nature." This latter move is a Romantic, naive impulse. All habitats are interconnected; even protected landscapes are affected by activities outside their boundaries. Moreover, because many refuges, parks, and wilderness areas are disconnected from other undeveloped lands, the flora and fauna living in these protected areas risk genetic isolation and face an increased risk of local extinction (e.g., the Florida panther and many other critically endangered species). Outside of the Wilderness Act and our collective imagination, then, there is no "original" or "virgin" landscape.

The dreamlike quality of Biernoff's installation is therefore appropriate. The notion of "wilderness" is as indefinite as the mirages the artist creates for us with light and vapor. Some fictions, though, are useful. If the dream of Eden compels us to be better stewards, it's all for the good. Yet Biernoff reminds us that we're more likely to avoid the pitfalls of ideology if we recognize wilderness is an illusion, that the specter before us is manufactured using a humidifier and an outmoded piece of technology. The artist presents us with the wizard's face, but also reminds us of the man behind the curtain.

Elisheva Biernoff's "Inheritance" was on view October 8 - November 5, 2011, at Eli Ridgway Gallery (172 Minna Street, San Francisco).

Elisheva Biernoff
80 slides of endangered wilderness areas projected onto mist from a humidifier housed in a plywood and fabric enclosure

Image credits: "Inheritance" installation photographs, courtesy Eli Ridgway Gallery

Note: Due to carelessness, this write-up was originally published as a "Review In Brief." It's longer than the pieces in that series, however, and is no longer associated with it.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Review In Brief: Jan Tiura's "Hulls"

Jan Tiura
"sea song"
Archival pigment print
36 x 30 inches

Bay Area native Jan Tiura half-jokes that a high school sailing trip from San Francisco to the Galapagos Islands and back, a voyage of some 6,600 miles, "ruined her for indoor work." Fortunately, Tiura eventually found maritime employment on San Francisco Bay's tugboat fleets, and, not long thereafter, became the first woman to captain a Bay tugboat, a position she held for over 30 years, until her retirement in 2010. During the decades she spent at tugboats' helms, Tiura regularly photographed the container ships and oil tankers that she helped guide into and out of port. The weathered hulls of the vessels were a favorite subject; 14 of Tiura's "Hulls" pictures are currently on view at Dickerman Prints.

Tiura has a keen eye, and she frames for us the remarkable beauty that she observed on the job. In "pirate II," the discoloration of the ship's paint by the action of salt water and sunlight over time creates captivating alchemical abstractions. In "Oslo II" and "sea song," the scratches, gouges, and furrows into the ships' steel skin call to mind the best of Cy Twombly's gestural mark-making. The "Hulls" photographs are enriched by the knowledge that the beauty Tiura documents is the effect of a working boat's full, hard life.

Jan Tiura
"pirate II"
Archival pigment print
30 x 30 inches

The prints were produced in collaboration with Seth Dickerman, and the exhibition's press release celebrates the results as "a testament to modern photographic technology's ability to create high-quality, large-format works of art from incredibly small and low-resolution digital files." The prints on display average about 30 x 30 inches, and they look terrific from 3 feet away; on very close inspection, however, the details are pixelated and slightly blurred. Unfortunately, no matter how talented the printer, a small digital file can only be pushed so far. In future editions, I hope Tiura and Dickerman will scale down the print size; the pictures would still sing at 20 x 20 inches.

Jan Tiura's "Hulls" is on view through December 11, 2011, at Dickerman Prints (3180 17th St, San Francisco).

Jan Tiura
"5W/4W II"
Archival pigment print
36 x 30 inches

Image credits: Jan Tiura photographs, courtesy Dickerman Prints

Monday, November 14, 2011

"Drawing Conclusions"

Christopher Reiger
"slow motion, falling through the ylem"
Pen and sumi ink, gouache, and watercolor on Arches paper
13 x 13 inches

I have a number of works included in "Drawing Conclusions," a group exhibition at Heart that features a selection of Root Division resident artists (and me, a Root Division alum). Root Division is a Mission District-based arts and arts education non-profit.

From the press release:
"Root Division and Heart are pleased to present an exhibition of work by Root Division artists who use a wide range of media and techniques to elevate the form of drawing from simple sketch to complex works of art.

Continuing its tradition of exploring the connections between wine and other forms of creative expression, Heart will pair wines to each artwork at the opening reception, with $1 from each pairing sold donated to Root Division."
I look forward to finding out what my art tastes like!

"Drawing Conclusions" is curated by Marisa McCarthy.

1270 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

Opening: Wednesday, November 16th, 7-10 pm
Exhibition Dates: November 16, 2011 - January 16, 2012

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Stretcher: Surabhi Saraf

Surabhi Saraf
"Fold {Live}"
Photograph of site-specific performance in San Francisco

My write-up of new media artist Surabhi Saraf's "Fold {Live}," a series of site-specific performances in San Francisco, is published on Stretcher: Visual Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area and Beyond.

Read it here.

This month, Saraf's "Fold {Live}" is being performed in Australia.

Image credit: courtesy, Surabhi Saraf, 2011

Monday, November 07, 2011

Jerry Saltz's "Clusterfuck Synchronicity"

Some folks love to grumble about Jerry Saltz. Whether it's his writing craft, his demeanor, or his decision to participate as a judge on Bravo's "Work Of Art" reality series, Saltz's haters always find something to bemoan. Whatever.

I don't know Jerry well, but I enjoy reading his reviews and I appreciated the two classes he taught at the School of Visual Arts. Saltz's proclivity for, in his words, "speak[ing] about art more directly and more often to anyone willing to listen [...] even if they didn't go to art-school or don't know the secret handshakes and lingo of the art world" distinguishes him from many of his professional counterparts. Admittedly, I'm biased by this populist attitude. As I wrote here a few months ago, "artists need to make art that connects to common human experience, and both artists and art writers need to communicate more effectively with the general audience." Saltz generally succeeds on that count, and he should be cheered for that achievement. But this very success often inspires his detractors because, in the eyes of some, fine art isn't meant to appreciated by the masses.

In the course of a recent interview with ArtInfo, Saltz expressed his disappointment with "the many who continually pooh-pooh art-galleries."
"For these complainers the art world is not good enough. Contemporary art is not up to their standards. They're always disappointed. I always want to say to these people, 'Go away. We can't help you.'"
The same goes for most of the Saltz haters, in my view. Go away. Help yourself. ("Most of," because a small minority of Saltz naysayers articulately and thoughtfully express their grievances and invest their energy in creating the type of criticism or point of view that they champion.)

The ArtInfo interview is short and worth a quick read. If you're a writer, some of Saltz's responses will be particularly resonant.
What's the most indispensable item in your office?
My doctor said, "You have almost no vitamin D in your system." I said, "Probably because over the last 12 years or so I barely go out of my house other than to see shows and buy deli coffee each evening to refrigerate for the following day." So, until my number comes in, the most important thing in my office is the picture window I sit next to all day, every day, and look at the world going by. 

Where are you finding ideas for your work these days?
I believe in a sort of clusterfuck synchronicity. I believe anything and everything I'm reading, seeing, thinking, or talking about has something to do with whatever I'm working on at that exact moment. I pay very careful attention to all of these things and use as much of it as possible. It is no longer possible for me to look at something and not think, "This has something to do with my work."
I especially like "clusterfuck synchronicity." Thank you, Jerry. If you write it, they will come...for better and for worse.

Photo credit: NBC Universal, Inc., 2010

Friday, November 04, 2011

Announcing BAASICS

I'm very excited to announce that artist-curator Selene Foster and I have received a Southern Exposure Alternative Exposure Grant award for our Bay Area Art & Science Interdisciplinary Collaborative Sessions (BAASICS) proposal! BAASICS is a series of San Francisco-based evening programs that bring together local visual artists, choreographers, composers, scientists, and interdisciplinary thinkers to present engaging, multi-media lectures and performances that consider a given theme. The programs are free and open to the public.

In conjunction with A Live Animal, a group exhibition that Selene and I co-curated at Root Division in July 2011, we assembled 4 visual artists, 3 scientists, and 1 choreographer in San Francisco's ODC Theater to further explore the exhibition's theme in a program of TED Talk-like lectures and performances. The evening was a terrific success, drawing a capacity crowd and generating excited conversation during the reception that followed. Many of the attendees enthusiastically requested more such events.

With BAASICS, Selene and I hope to foment creative exchange and even long-term, mutually beneficial relationships between artists and scientists. Despite much talk of commonality between the disciplines, there is little substantive dialogue. Laudably, there are an increasing number of efforts to cultivate interdisciplinary, art-science projects; unfortunately, the lion's share of these result in vaguely "sciency" artworks or analyses of aesthetics rooted in cognitive neuroscience or sociobiology.

BAASICS isn't goal or project oriented; after all, there are many important differences between art and science, but one undeniable likeness is that the best discoveries are often stumbled upon, not planned for. We hope that BAASICS will provide a forum for artists and scientists to come together to share the ideas and practices that animate their lives and work. A principal aspiration of BAASICS is that we will learn from and be inspired by one another.

Even more important than facilitating relationships and the sharing of ideas, however, is the possibility of engaging a general audience. In the United States, the contemporary fine arts and sciences are generally set apart from popular discourse. Because BAASICS programs are free and open to the public, we hope to make the fine and performing arts and sciences less esoteric, inspiring guests to think about how art and science relate to one another and to society at large.

FYI: The theme of the second BAASIC event -- albeit the first associated with the name -- will be technology and notions of "the future." The roster of presenters hasn't been determined (it will take place in May or early June 2012), but speakers and performers might ponder, for example, robotics, artificial intelligence, medical advances and human nature, how our globalizing culture will shape technology, or dystopian versus utopian prospects. If HH readers know of Bay Area visual artists, composers, choreographers, scientists, or general smarty-pants who are engaging technology in some way and might be interested in participating, please put them in touch with me. Selene and I want to review as large a pool of applicants as possible.