July 2010

"Wildwood" by Nemo Gould

Don’t let the title of the exhibition derail you: this is not a show of devices aimed at doing evil. It is a superb display of the intersection among art, mechanics, and whimsical beings. Finely crafted, imaginatively assembled, and possessing a balance of humor and insight, the work in this three-person exhibition is unique and eclectic.  “Machinations” (on show through August 21, 2010) features the art of Jeremy Mayer, Nemo Gould, and Benjamin Cowden — all Oakland-based — in this new gallery’s second exhibition.

The common thread of these works is the assembling, reassigning, and recycling of found or archaic objects — often mechanical — to examine or explore creative inquiries or comment on the human condition. Evident is an interest in robotics and the inner workings of man-made systems. (Not surprisingly, all three artists presented work at the recent Maker Faire at the San Mateo County Event Center during May.) Though sharing these similarities, the expressions are different. Mayer exclusively uses antique typewriter parts to creative human forms; he does not solder, weld, or glue any of the pieces, they are only reassembled. The three works here are extraordinarily detailed, beautiful, but the clear standout here is the graceful lifesized female figure Nude IV, Delilah.

Gould presents dioramas, large-scale figures, and wall-mounted pieces, including a green-backlit octopus creature, partially made out of a guitar, which is thus fittingly titled Acoustapus. The materials used to create these intricate and often funny works vary widely — wood, spare parts, a lens, a thermometer conduit, and much more have found their way in. Not everyone finds his work amusing, however. Gould created the larger-than-life, anatomically correct robot sculpture that met with neighborhood controversy in 2004 when best-selling author Robert Mailer Anderson and wife Nicola Miner — daughter of Oracle co-founder, Robert Miner — displayed it in front of their Pacific Heights home. The topics Gould explores range widely, from commentary on the struggling artist, to oil spills, the monkeys who died in space experiments, and his obsession with the aforementioned octopuses.

The four kinetic sculptures created by Cowden are clean and sleek, elegant forms. Using gears and other interworking mechanical parts with miniature human figures or fabricated body parts, the work examines the human experience. A Series of Arbitrary but Passionate Decisions points to the uncontrollable nature of life; Eating my Cake and Having it Too, which features a disembodied (fake) tongue and lollypop, examines that oft-quoted phrase.

This is tinkering taken to the level of sublime. This show serves as a reminder that, with ingenuity, curiosity, imagination, and the care of craftsmanship, our junk really can transformed into treasure.

Installation view of Clare Rojas's solo exhibition at SF Museum of Craft and Folk Art; courtesy SFMCFA

San Francisco neo-folk artist Clare Rojas expands her visual range in this pivotal show of new work, which dominates the intimate space of this small museum. This is a powerful, twistedly delightful exhibition. It further adds to the artist’s growing stature as one of the Bay Area’s most celebrated and prolific contemporary artists. In addition to this, her first solo museum show, Rojas’s work is also currently featured in a two-person exhibition with Barry McGee at the Bolinas Museum of Art, and, last April, the SF Arts Commission installed a commissioned work by her at the City’s international airport.
In keeping with past work, this show is bright and graphic. The flatness of the work references Rojas’s printmaking past; the influences of folk art, outsider art, street art, cartooning, illustration, and quilting remain strong. Rojas is rightly associated with the area’s “lowbrow” Mission School, which also encompasses artists McGee, Chris Johanson, and Margaret Kilgallen, among others. Comparisons among the artists can readily be drawn.
But Rojas is not simply a product of influences. Her voice, iconography, and message are distinctive and evolving. In this show, Rojas presents both smaller works, which are hung salon-style along one wall, and then numerous enormous works that cover the rest of the walls from floor to ceiling. Also on view is an amusing video, “Manipulation,” that Rojas contributed to with animation.
Throughout, the artist continues her references to home-life with figurative narratives that are often bizarre, verging on disturbing; a primary topic is gender/feminism. In one large-scale work, three women look to the sky, two expelling an upflowing substance from their mouths, the other from her eyes. In another, three male figures ascend a striped ramp/tongue that leads to a woman’s open mouth.
New here the artist also presents almost completely abstracted scenes, though references to the home remain; another larger-than-life piece is a minimalist home interior. Exploring formal uses of line, perspective, color, and composition, Rojas’s depiction of this comfort zone gets a little queasy. One high point of the exhibition is a huge “wall quilt” made up of numerous geometric panels, each painted one color, and arranged in a way that recalls childhood parquetry block designs; this surrounds a central seated female figure.
A critique that has been leveled at Rojas’ work is that it drifts toward decorative simplicity. Now, no. It has decorative elements that make it likable, just not too likeable. It pushes far beyond becoming vapid or ingratiating. Colors, shapes, and patterns clash in challenging, dissonant ways; there is a not-quite-right-ness that keeps us fully engaged. It is, indeed, the decorativeness that provides the hook; we stick around to feel the story.

In a 2004 New York Times review of Rojas’s solo show at Deitch Projects, critic Roberta Smith ended with the upbeat, “. . . this show generally brims with promise.” Clare Rojas is making good on that promise.

This review was originally published at Visual Art Source.

Four galleries in San Francisco have teamed up and given curatorial freedom and unlimited access to their racks to four artists tasked to create one four-part group exhibition. This superb mega-show is called: “They Knew What They Wanted”. And it’s a rare change-up to the typically less inspiring multi-artist shows that occupy gallery space during this, the art world’s slow season. It’s also helping to bring together the city’s ever burgeoning art scene.

Detail of show curated by Katy Grannan at Fraenkel Gallery; courtesy Fraenkel Gallery

Roughly a year ago, Jeffrey Fraenkel, owner of his eponymous and highly regarded photography gallery, dreamed up the idea of a collaborative summer project involving other galleries. He teamed up with internationally renown Berggruen Gallery and two newer, highly contemporary galleries, Ratio 3 and Altman Siegel and developed “They Knew What They Wanted.” The show spans all four spaces. Each gallery’s part is curated by one of their own artists — Robert Bechtle for Berggruen, Katy Grannan for Fraenkel, Jordan Kantor for Ratio 3, and Shannon Ebner (the only non-SF artist; she’s from L.A.) for Altman Siegel.

DETAIL of show curated by Jordan Kantor at Ratio 3; courtesy Ratio 3

“This truly was a collaborative effort,” says Frish Brandt, director of Fraenkel. She also notes that this was a case study in gallery cross-pollination, as a means to strengthen the area’s visual art community and relationships among galleries. Quoting a favorite borrowed phrase, she says, “I’ve always said, ‘It takes a village.'” So successful has this project been, both from a planning as well as a results standpoint, Brandt notes that there is interest in future collaborations.

I’ll admit, when I first learned about this show, I thought it might suffer from being gimmicky, too hip and clever. I was wrong. After I saw the first show, I couldn’t wait to see the second. My enthusiasm only increased as I made my way to galleries three and four. One of the original show titles was something along the lines of “Treasure Hunt.” While I’m happy that got nixed, it does rightly point to the searching, journey, discovery elements of this project.

From gallery to gallery, there’s the joy of finding stellar not often or rarely seen pictures and sculptures from artists famous, emerging, and little or unknown — and spanning a large swath of time — such as: anonymous, E.J. Bellocq, Vija Celmins, Lee Friedlander, Adam Fuss, Maureen Gallace, Edward Muybridge, Trevor Plagen, Ed Ruscha, Rachel Whiteread, Sara Vanderbeek, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Charlie Harper, Matt Keegan, Los Carpinteros, Henry Wessel, Barry McGee, Tom McKinley, Manuel Neri, Mitzi Pederson, Robert Rauschenberg, Will Rogan, Iran Do Espirito Santo, Garth Weiser, and others, including the artist/curators themselves.

The installments are further enhanced by unique curating, expressing the individual personalities or creative investigations of the artists. “It’s as much about the artists as it is about the shows,” observes Brandt. We’re also reminded the role curating plays in how art is perceived; new context provides a fresh take — the experience of an artwork is always partially a product of the environment. “Everything has its absolute right place in relationship to itself and the work that it is in proximity to,” says Ebner on this subject. “Each artwork possesses a universe and so determining where it belongs in relationship to all of the other universes around it is a very satisfying problem.”

Painting from show curated by Robert Bechtle at Berggruen Gallery, Tom McKinley, Pool House, 2008, courtesy Berggruen Gallery

So, puzzling through the curatorial dynamic of each show presents another layer of pleasures. At Freankel, Grannan presents clumps of coherence that play off each other in strangely humorous ways. “It’s ineffable,” observes Brandt about Grannan’s chapter. “It has a certain energy – -messy and chaotic.” An energy akin to that of the subjects in the photographs Grannan makes. Similar rhythm can be found in Kantor’s contribution. He started with key works and built small groups around each. The show holds together with a subtle narrative that one feels rather than tells; Kantor attributes that cohesion to the fact that all of the works were ones that appeal to his taste. More directly emulating his artistic style, Bechtle’s show features almost exclusively landscape, many depicting everyday life. “I included many artists who I admire,” he says, “and added others I wasn’t familiar with.” Much of the curating process was intuitive, by the seat of his pants, he says.

Ebner’s creation has the feel of a singular installation. “I did not really set out with too much criteria,” she explains, “but more of a vague sense that I wanted the works selected for the show to possess a kind of quality or affect.

Sculpture from show curated by Shannon Ebner at Alman Siegel, Iran Do Espirito Santo, Water Glass 2, courtesy Altman Siegel, SF

“I was looking to see if there are ways to select and juxtapose artworks so that what they mean or say or do as a fixed identity is constantly being called into question,” Ebner continues. “A good example of this might be Iran’s water glass [Iran Do Espirito Santo’s Water Glass 2] and how, because it is a solid form made of crystal, it creates the illusion that it is a liquid, a glass always full. When you take a liquid and make it a solid, but still have it appear as what we expect it to be, you are really asking us to think about all of reality as a series of inquiries and/or doubts.”

“They Knew What They Wanted” is like great summer reading. Fun, liberating, and with just the right amount of depth and momentum; you not want to stop until you reach the end. It also leaves you hoping that there will be a new release next summer.

Detail of show curated by Shannon Ebner at Altman Siegel, courtesy Altman Siegel, SF

This exhibition closes August 13.

"Shooting Script" by John Waters

I was excited to see the solo exhibition at Rena Bransten Gallery of work by John Waters (on show through July 10). I’ve seen a lot of Waters’s creations online and in print (and, like most, am much more familiar with his movies than his artwork), but this was my first experience of them in person. I liked them, some surprising much.

Most of Waters’s artwork has some connection to film; he often alters movie stills, making them much more darkly humorous than the original. Those are fun. But even better are the works that show the poetic mundaneness of filmmaking, the everyday stuff that’s really great to look at and provides us outsiders an insider peek into that mysteriously magical world of movies (apparently, it’s not as glamorous as you might imagine). Though I love the “Pecker” images, a series of photos taken on the set of Waters’s 1998 movie by that name (note that while many of the pieces on show in this exhibition have been previously shown in galleries in New York and L.A., this series makes its debut here), the piece that I revisited several times and return to in my memory often now is the one featured here, Shooting Script.

So simply, it gives us sense of how much goes into moviemaking; all the pages that had occupied those pads used up. Our imagination fills with all of the notes, directions, revisions, re-revisions that may have been on those sheets. Those nine pieces of blank cardboard (arranged so neatly; this is an organized process), fringed on top by all those little shredded scraps of paper—one with a small bit of writing still left—resonate with the all the activity dictated on what are likely now crumpled yellow balls in the trash. The whole process relayed in a grid of the remnants of dime-store notepads.