March 2011

"Tender" by Sister Corita, 1974, Collection of Lucia Eames

A blaze of bright color and bold graphics by Sister Corita (1918-1986; born Frances Elizabeth Kent, aka Sister Mary Corita and Sister Corita Kent) abound in this celebration of her life and impact at the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Folk Art (through June 5, 2011). Additionally fleshing out the importance of this influential West Coast Pop artist, innovative educator, and activist are ephemera, such as copies of the educational books Corita wrote; personal letters and photographs; and films and videos about the artist’s career and life. The exhibition “E is for Everyone: Celebrating Sister Corita” emphasizes key works from the 1960s, such as the iconic Power Up and Tender images as well as her close relationship with design couple Charles and Ray Eames.

Corita is known for crossing boundaries, be they creative or social. This comes through in this intimate (the museum encompasses one large gallery space) but still powerful exhibition. She was on the vanguard of pop and graphic art, working primarily in the discipline of screen-printing. The serigraphs she created combined graphic art, typography, music lyrics, social commentary, and literature to create her unique style. (Her teaching also reflected her cross-disciplinary interests; Corita co-taught classes at the Immaculate Heart College Art Department in Hollywood with such cultural icons as Alfred Hitchcock, John Cage, and Buckminster Fuller as well as the Eameses.) Her choice of medium fit well with her interest in social change and working class outlook on art and art-making, as her prints were easy to widely distribute and recreate. And they were: Corita was commissioned by Amnesty International and International Walk for Hunger, among other socially conscious organizations. Perhaps most widely known is her “Love” stamp, issued in 1985, and her notecards for the Campaign for Human Development (a collection of which are featured here).

"Power Up (A)" by Sister Corita, 1965, Collection of the Corita Art Center

Corita’s provocative spirit did not go unnoticed during her lifetime; in 1967 she was featured on the cover of Newsweek magazine; the cover line read: “The Nun: Going Modern.” And her influence continues: one can find correlations between the twenty-one works on show to contemporary artists such as Shepard Fairey, Ed Ruscha, and Pae White, and curators, graphic artists, and students continue to rediscover and draw from her work and teachings.

"Powerless" by Deborah Oropallo

The show of new work by Deborah Oropallo at Gallery 16 in San Francisco (through April 30) expands her exploration of gender power, the symbolism of the uniform and the role of iconic imagery in shaping female identity. One to continually push conventions of image-making and composition, Oropallo again exceeds herself.

In her work over the past several years, Oropallo had delved into juxtaposing famous portrait poses of 17th- and 18th-century portrait paintings of powerful men with modern-day lingerie modeling (its startling how similar the poses are). Following that, in 2009, it was collaged, strong, sexy rodeo cowgirl imagery, again juxtaposing a strong male archetype with a strong, sexy female-type.

A fitting next step, this new series takes on the rich topic of female fairy-tale figures and vulnerable/sex-kitteny female Pop imagery: Little Bo Peep, Rapunzel, Wonder Woman, French maid, Snow White, the Catholic school girl, and Alice in Wonderland all make an appearance here.

But though the references are pretty obvious, they are altered with the inclusion of bondage or S&M references, gas masks, ski masks, and other less cute imagery. These works have greater edge than previous pieces. Oropallo is growing increasingly bold, and the results are viciously engaging. They are funny, creepy, strange, whimsical, and powerful, without falling into easy traps of feminist bitterness or clichéd comparisons. Taken one way, they are comparisons of equal opposites—sweet and innocent versus aggressive and violent—bringing to question which really holds the power and the reality of either, or both, of the fantasies (and whose fantasies are they, anyway?); taken another, they are a collapsing together, all at once, of the potential numerous identities that comprise any single human being. These are well thought out pieces that pose intriguing open questions.

From a visual standpoint, the work is drop dead striking. Most are large, measuring 60-by-44 inches. And they have an incredible sense of depth — the imagery is layered and collaged—almost to the point of appearing three-dimensional. The structure of the images gives them movement and life; Oropallo is a master of composition. And in that, she’s become a great manipulator of the manipulators, using the language of visual messaging to bring those very messages into question.

Two intriguing collage exhibitions have recently been on view in the art-booming Mission district of San Francisco: Hilary Pecis, “Half Truths and Outright Lies,” at Guerrero Gallery (through March 5) and Sebastian Wahl, “Kaleidoscpe Eyes,” at Gallery Hijinks (through February 26). In both, you’ll find a barely controlled cacophony of imagery, captivating composition and fine craftsmanship, with a punctuation of playfulness.

Hilary Pecis, "Up to No Good," 2011; Giclee Print, edition 1 of 3; Courtesy Guerrero Gallery

San Francsico-based Pecis tries a new medium with these new works: computer-based collage. Previously, Pecis hand-cut each piece of her finely detailed works which she then often enhanced with pen-and-ink patterned “doodles.” Using a computer has changed the work in two important ways: it is smoother, physically lacking the materiality of the handhewn pieces; and imagery has changed. Whereas Pecis had culled imagery from magazines — mostly fashion magazines, which accounted for their bright colors and loads of jewels and gems — now she’s got the entire Internet and we see everything from jets to kittens and mountain goats, pillows to trains and bombs exploding.

Hilary Pecis, "Kingdom," 2011; Giclee Print, edition 1 of 3; Courtesy Guerrero Gallery

Use of the Internet played a large part in image selection; Pecis often used images that randomly appeared during her searches to create her fantasy worlds. And this links to an interest that drives this body of work: the changing face of journalism, or information sharing (and subsequent worldview building), and resulting overload, both visual and written, which is increasingly empty of substantial content, is easily replaced, and is highly repetitive and self-referential. (As the press materials reveal, The title of the show is based on an Intelligence Squared debate, “Good Riddance to Mainstream Media,” which discusses the relevance and fate of traditional journalism and the blog. David Carr, a writer for the NY Times said “They become an echo chamber of half-truths, sometimes outright lies, without any real data points coming in. And so you end up with a sort of mass of people talking to each other, no one has read anything. No one knows anything. They’re talking about something that someone else read that read that read that read. And we end up in a meta-world.”)

One commonality that runs through almost all Pecis’s work is her penchant for tight, epic scapes. And here she continues to perform at top speed. Also in this show, and not to be overlooked, are two works that stray from the herd; they are calm, tranquil, the content highly edited down–perhaps created by layering image over image? The result of which is borderline nothingness. A preview of things to come?

Hilary Pecis, "100 Perfect Sunsets," 2011; Giclee Print, edition 1 of 3; Courtesy Guerrero Gallery

Sebastian Wahl at Gallery Hijinks

Sebastian Wahl, "Kaleidoscope Eye 1," 2010; original collage in resin on panel"; Courtesy Gallery Hijinks

New York artist Sebastian Wahl makes his San Francisco debut in this solo exhibition. As the title of the exhibition points to, the works are arranged in patterns of multi-reflected imagery, as if one is looking through a kaleidoscope. Wahl’s hand-cut images range from cultural icons to architecture, the religious and spiritual to nature. Fine detail and careful, strangely witty placement abound: by example, Andy Warhol famously swims in a can of tomato soup positioned on a bird’s wing in Kaleidoscope Eye 1.

Sebastian Wahl, "Spirit Bird," 2010; original collage in resin on panel; Courtesy Gallery Hijinks

Also notable here is the craftsmanship: the works are made of up to fourteen thin layers of resin–a medium the artist has been working in since 2006 — each encasing its own images. This introduces an added and unexpected depth and dimension; the layers cast subtle shadows with shifting light. Wahl, a former graffiti artist, says he’s interested in creating works that promote mindfulness and concentration. And this gets to the greatest strength of these works: there is a calm in the chaos.

Sebastian Wahl, "Mandala 2," 2010; original collage in resin on panel; Courtesy Gallery Hijinks

Untitled (Reaper Drone) by Trevor Paglen

In his first domestic solo exhibition since winning a SECA award in 2009 (on view at Altman Siegel Gallery through April 2, 2011), Bay Area photographer Trevor Paglen ups the aesthetic ante while maintaining his edge. Paglen is known for documenting secret military and intelligence surveillance operations; he is interested in how machines that “see,” be they cameras, drones, or satellites, impact our world and how we move through it. This show is no different and so shares with previous work a sense of intrigue. We get to spy on things that are supposed to be hidden. These new works also feature a more developed poetic beauty.

A group of three large-format (two 48 x 60 inches, the other 60 x 48 inches) untitled photographs featuring a Reaper Drone against a huge sky are reminiscent of Rothko color-field paintings. They are luminous and subtle, the drone almost lost in the vast skyscape.

Also taking on a painterly quality is the glowing image, They Watch the Moon, and the whiteish-orange-red blurry abstraction The Fence. The former is a long-exposure image of a “listening station” in West Virginia taken on a night of the full moon; a glowing, golden city in a hazy green atmosphere. The Fence shows the radar system that surrounds the U.S., the frequencies having been brought into a visible spectrum.

An eight-image sequence of a Predator Drone flying, titled Time Study, is a nod to the motion images of Eadweard Muybridge. Paglen even goes so far as to develop his photos just as Muybridge did, using the albumen method, which gives them a yellowed, aged look. And like the images of his inspiration, Paglen’s explore ideas of vision, time, and place–a common theme throughout the show–capturing what we can’t see with the naked eye. But here things get a bit more serious; these are highly advanced systems for warfare.