Review


"Untitled (20A)," 2012, oil on cotton and pencil on canvas, oil on wood, 50" x 45"

“Untitled (20A),” 2012, oil on cotton and pencil on canvas, oil on wood, 50″ x 45″

From his earliest forays into the world of visual art, Jordan Kantor has inextricably linked art-making and art history. This dual interest has led Kantor down a path of academic rigor, curatorial studies, art teaching, and art writing–all of which informs Kantor’s strongest passion: being an artist. While still in high school, he started taking art history courses at the local university (Princeton). From there, Kantor went on earn a degree in painting at Stanford, where he developed, as a thesis project, an exhibition of prints by Albrecht Durer: “It was not so much a scholarly thing,” explains Kantor, “but more from a practical perspective, of my own interest in reproductive mediums, narratives, across a certain set of artworks.”

Kantor later pitched the thesis exhibition to Harvard, which led to a three-year curatorial project, and to Kantor earning his PhD there, in the history of art and architecture. Meanwhile, he also began to build a name for himself as an artist, having shows in New York, where he was living. “One of my goals was to get out of the studio and not just be in my own head,” he explains. “I was introduced to some people at Artforum magazine, and I decided I wanted to write reviews, in the tradition of artists who wrote, such as Donald Judd–who found a way to work out problems in their artistic practice through a writing practice.” He began writing regularly for Artforum, and to this day continues to publish articles on contemporary art. Kantor also further engaged in curatorial pursuits, working for two years as an assistant curator at MOMA. But his primary interest remained art making, so when the opportunity arose to move to San Francisco to teach at CCA and return to a full-time studio practice, Kantor made the move.

Over the last decade, Kantor has focused on creating work that layers art-historical references, among them works such as Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergere, and Monet’s Les Mueles, for instance; and reproduction, be it photography, digital Internet imagery, or X-rays; along with various stylistic allusions, from the minimalist grid and monochromatic color to the pared-down approach of Luc Tuymans, mixing them all together with an acute awareness of the object-hood of art. In recognition of his practice, in 2008, he received a SECA award from SFMOMA and was included in the 2008 California Biennial, at OCMA.

Given the vast and multifaceted background Kantor pulls from, the resulting body of work may appear incongruous to an unsuspecting viewer. “You might walk into a show of mine,” Kantor states, “and it might look like a group show, with works with so many different approaches and aesthetics. That’s because the unitary element of my practice isn’t aesthetics, it’s concepts.” One consequence of his art being so steeped in concept and the art world dialogue is that the work, by Kantor’s own admission, has required some background knowledge to be fully understood and appreciated. This is something the artist is veering away from in his current work, which explores the artistic value of materials and objects surrounding the art-making process; can, for instance, the rags used to wipe his paintings be configured into artwork in their own right?

For his recent solo show at Ratio 3 in San Francisco (January 11 through February 9), then, Kantor crafted “a large group, at least ten, of the rag paintings, in four-color, hand-painted artist frames,” he says. Additionally, he crafted “a suite of ten small representational paintings based on photographs of a woman’s hand in front of differently colored monochromatic fabric and a small group of large abstract works painted on wooden lattice.”

“Now the work is what it is,” he explains, “a display of materials. If you want to pick at it, you can tease out the thoughts that come from art history, but I don’t see that as being a prerequisite to having access to my work. It’s an open-ended process. I’m more interested in asking questions than arriving at answers.” This act of creating a dialogue strikes to the heart of what has driven Kantor since the beginning: “I see the whole process of being an artist as a way of engaging in a conversation across time,” he says, “sometimes with historical figures and sometimes with my peers and sometimes with people I don’t even know.”

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Driss Ouadahi, "Breakthrough," 2012, oil on canvas, 78 3/4" x 141 3/4"

Driss Ouadahi, “Breakthrough,” 2012, oil on canvas, 78 3/4″ x 141 3/4″

“Look Both Ways”  features 31 works by 20 artists, including a large installation, several sizable sculptures and wall-works, as well as a number of moderately sized works. It also introduces Hosfelt Gallery’s grand new space — a light-filled, high-ceilinged, industrial-raw space encompassing 8,900 square feet — in the Potrero Hill area of San Francisco. The exhibition is a sampling of highlights from an illustrious stable artists: Alan Rath, Jay DeFeo, Tim Hawkinson, and Jim Campbell among them. And not only does it celebrate what’s transpired over the gallery’s 15-year history but also, with the introduction of several new artists as well as new work by long-standing artists, looks forward.

One highlight of the show is that several of the larger works – including Liliana Porter’s installation “Man with Axe,” the mechanized sculpture “Lala Zaza” by Rath, and Hawkinson’s whimsical “The Fin Within” – are to their benefit provided ample room to breathe in the expansive gallery space. And while there are works in a number of different mediums — mechanical sculpture, paintings, drawings, photography — and varied formal orientations — bright, subdued, detailed, minimal, organic, reflective — it all manages to hang together, a nod to good curating.

On the note of curating, and further addressing the space of the gallery, one of the stated goals of the exhibition is to present “work that exists on one level when seen from a distance, but that is something else up close.” There are several instances where this is particularly evident, one of which is Campbell’s light sculpture “Tilted View.” From afar, it’s a suspended plane of small, white globes, with shadows of what could be overhead clouds creating subtly greyed areas that float across their surface. Step in closer and the orbs break down into their individual units, each one hanging from a black wire. The illusion of the changing skycap is, it turns out, programmed patterns of light fed into small bulbs. The image has been pixilated, albeit it is no less lyrical for knowing that.

Emil Lukas’s elaborate wall-hung “Horizontal Ring” reads at a distance as a colorful abstract image that shifts as you move around it. The fine and innumerable pieces of thread that comprise the piece become evident as you get closer; they are strung from nails tacked into the sides of the frame, akin to the string art we were all introduced to in childhood, though taken to a whole new level of intricacy and layering. The effects are delightfully dizzying and dynamic.

Also by design, another common thread here is an emphasis on a visual hook to draw us in only to slowly reveal a greater depth. While the works throughout the show are consistently engaging, there are a few that stand out, particularly in this regard.

The breathtaking oil-on-canvas diptych “Breakthrough,” by Driss Ouadahi, features a broken chain-link fence with only sky behind it, here a purple and yellow sunset. This photorealistic work makes an immediate impact: it’s expansive, all-encompassing, and gorgeous. Sit with it for awhile and thoughts of imprisonment, escape, longing, and “it’s better on the other side” readily come to mind; then the patterns of the fence take on a meditative quality, disrupted by the snared imperfections.

While it’s easy to get wrapped up in the presence of the grander works, there are a number of modestly scaled pieces that hold their own: lively and colorful ink-and-acrylic on paper works by Rina Banerjee, simple yet poignant collages by John O’Reilly, and delicate monochromatic watercolors by Nicole P. Fein. It adds up to a celebration of thoughtful, complex work and a tantalizing foreshadowing of things to come.

Gottfried Helnwein, 2011, "Child Dreams 6," 94.5 x 172"

Seven arresting, large-to-enormous paintings are presented in this solo show (up through February 25, 2012), another in a long line of powerful exhibitions, by painter, photographer, costume and stage designer, and performance artist Gottfried Helnwein (this is the artist’s 15th exhibition at Modernism). Raised in Vienna, Austria, during the troubled years following World War II, Helnwein has focused his career on using art as a means of confrontation: “I felt I could strike back with my pictures and force people to look at things they’d rather forget,” he says in an essay by Robert Flynn Johnson. In this strategy—though less direct—of creating unforgettable politically and socially critical work—and specifically regarding the connection of focusing on the Nazis—there are links between Helnwein and Belgian painter Luc Tuymans. A primary focus of the artist, which is the case with this show, is portraying young girls who have been victimized or are otherwise in danger; the mood is foreboding. The photorealistic canvases—Helnwein’s skill is impeccable—of often larger-than-life subjects make the impact all the more intense. And while his images are often disturbing—his work has been vandalized more than once over the years—they are never repulsive; the works balance horror with beauty, providing a successful vehicle that plays straight to the artist’s intent: we stop and look and think about it.

This current exhibition, featuring work from a new body of work, “The Dreams,” was inspired by the sets and costumes Helnwein created for “The Child Dreams,” a play by the late Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin. Several of the works feature girls (or a girl) wrapped in white bandages and wearing a flowing white dress, floating/falling through an undefined red/black space; the dreaminess, mysteriousness, of the works is a departure from the past, but no less enthralling. The most captivating of these is the huge (94 1/2 x 172 inches) The Child Dreams 6(2011), which features over twenty of the girl figures, lit from above and center by an unknown source, in various poses and at varying degrees depth—some almost fade away, appearing as ghostly beings retreating into the darkness, while others are well defined. The work evokes both a fear of helplessly falling into the abyss, which is compounded by a fear of violence, implicated by the bandages, as well as poetic freedom, as the figures almost blissfully move through space, ballerina-like. Once again, Helnwein has us just where he wants us.

David Jang, "Proliferate"

The common feature that runs through the recent solo exhibition (up through September 30, 2011) of work by Los Angeles–based artist David Jang is repurposed material, which the artist has used to create a small installation piece, a wall sculpture, and two-dimensional pieces. What is most refreshing is Jang’s creative refiguring of his chosen mediums and objects; their original purpose or configuration is not immediately evident. More to that point, the work isn’t reliant on this eco-trend; it’s not defined by the recycling, only provided with greater depth. Two pieces in particular are exemplary in this regard: Novelty and Proliferate. The former is a sculpture that comprises seven variously sized Hydrangea-like, half-sphere silver forms—created with inside-out chip bags. Taken at face value, the piece bursts with shiny complexity—the organic shape juxtaposed with the man-made metallic sheen. Factoring in the material as chip bags adds an element of festivity or community (one can imagine a party of chip eating to provide the artist with the needed materials; the tight gathering together of the bags also contributes to this idea of community). Much quieter, Proliferate is a long off-white/yellowish ribbon-like piece that snakes back and forth in loopy zigzags, standing up on its thin edge; for this work, Jang covered a roll of paper towels in resin. Simple, beautiful, and moveable. Several other works in the exhibition are made from large pieces of wood, covered, at least partially, with a layer of deconstructed/flattened soda cans, with circles repeatedly etched into the surface. These rough, heavily textured works—and explorations of form, pattern, and composition—speak to the artist’s interest in portraying the cyclical nature of being, of life, and repetition (not only does Jang use the same shape over and over, but his use of multiple iterations of the same types of objects in one piece—cans, bags, etc.—also addresses mass consumption and throwaway culture). The rusty patina, while adding subtle color, also speaks to progression, aging, and renewal (these cans are experiencing a new beginning as an artwork). While repurposing materials and formal explorations aren’t groundbreaking endeavors, Jang brings, especially to the former, a unique, playful aesthetic worthy of thoughtful contemplation.

Julie Heffernan, "Picking up the Pieces," oil on canvas, 72 x 54 inches, 2010, courtesy Catharine Clark Gallery

Full disclosure: I knew this show would be good before I viewed it. Not to say I didn’t give it a critical look-over, but rather, given Julie Heffernan’s track record, some preliminary jpgs, and reception of work from the same series that showed last year  in New York (at PPOW; the current show, on view through October 29, 2011, includes newer works), it was clear to me that this Brooklyn-based painter had another hit on her hands.

Heffernan’s work here, as in the past, is richly detailed and brilliantly colored—a riot of reds, oranges, yellows, and greens pervade. They reflect the artist’s lyrical talent with the medium along with her beautiful imagination. Heffernan is able to deftly relay unique, fairy tale–like visions of her world. These works are autobiographical and strongly rooted in art history. The visually luscious Old Master style riffs off traditional still live symbolism—a pile of dead birds sit upon a central female figure’s lap in “Self-Portrait with Talking Stones” (2011) for example. These symbols of abundance, feast and nourishment are presented and brought into the present with a good dose of surrealist dreaminess. Variously, rocks float in the air; a figure wears a headdress of fruit; the ground is folded up like a bundle of cloth.

Akin to Heffernan’s earlier work, these paintings feature a singular, centrally placed figure. But whereas before the figure was always female (and a self-portrait), several of these new works feature a young man who, it turns out, is her son. The back-story: Heffernan’s son is leaving for college. In one painting, “Picking Up the Pieces” (2010), this central figure has on his back a huge bundle collected into a rope net; around his waist is a tool belt stuffed full. The symbolism is clear—he leaves with baggage but also the tools to deal with the challenges ahead (off to the side there is also a rock and next to it a sign that reads “Hard Place”). In another work, “Self-Portrait with Falling Sky” (2011), Heffernan contemplates her new state of uncertainty: rocks hover and float around the central female figure, none of them, however, touching her. Her world is up in the air, but there is the sense that it’ll all work out right.

Heffernan’s works not only feature the overarching symbols, surroundings, and objects that speak to the storyline the main character is engaged in, but also comprise numerous vignettes that may or may not seamlessly gel with the larger narrative. They’re tangential offshoots or breaks that keep us on our toes—and sometimes they are so well integrated in the visual abundance of the work, they may not get noticed until a second, third, or fourth look. Many of these scenes or images are inspired by NPR, which Heffernan listens to almost constantly, providing a topical twist to the work, which, because the origin is a mass-media source, might well resonate with that audience.

All but one (a limited edition print) among the thirteen works are oil on canvas, and mostly large in size. As a group they embody a visually complex and stunningly rendered timeless tale of the human condition that continues to reveal fresh details over time.

Alex Lukas, "Untitled," 2011

Apocalyptic American landscapes fill the walls in Philadelphia-based artist Alex Lukas’s current exhibition (on show through October 8, 2011). The twenty-five works here range in size from 6-by-10 inches to 25-by-72 inches. The undisputed centerpiece is an enormous cyclorama in the center of the gallery that measures 4.6 x 33 feet; the work is displayed in an arc that surrounds the viewer so that it encompasses one’s entire field of vision.

Two types of scenes are presented here. Metropolis-scapes appear underwater, overtaken by lush vegetation and what appear to be decaying swampy suburban areas. The revisiting of very similar imagery does become repetitive is too frequent, causing the initial emotion response to dissipate.

The cyclorama features the second, suburban-y scene. The format itself is significant not only because of its grand size but also because its original message juxtaposes powerfully against its message here. Cycloramas were a format used during the 19th century to display scenes that commemorated national strength, such as battles won; here it envisions the ultimate power as nature (to the demise of a superpower). It is tempting to extrapolate that the action in the original cycloramas (e.g., war, striving for ultimate power) may well lead to the condition presented in the current cyclorama.

In all of the works there is not a human in sight, but there are traces everywhere, in the form of buildings, deteriorating billboards, and graffiti. The latter is especially poignant, pointing to what is often the most enduring and powerful form of communication to distant generations and after general destruction: writing on walls. That graffiti might be the only surviving remnants of man amounts to the proverbial “writing on the wall”: we should have seen this coming.

What is particularly striking in these works, as opposed to other end-of-days art (think Sandow Birk’s series The Rise and Fall of Los Angeles or Albrecht Dürer’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse), is that the images feel peaceful. Waters are still and clear. There is no fire; there are no explosions. Trees and bushes are healthy and abundant. Doom is paired with serenity.

Jacob Aue Sobol, "Untitled #8," from the series "Sabine," 1999-2002; gelatin silver print. Courtesy the artist and Yossi Milo Gallery, New York; © Jacob Aue Sobol, courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York.

Five spacious rooms, each featuring a series of works by a different artist—Jim Goldberg, Daniel Schwartz, Zanele Muholi, Jacob Aue Sobol, Richard Misrach—comprise this wide-ranging, direct, and personal photography exhibition. Like the book project from which the exhibition takes its name, published in 1929 by German photographer August Sander, this show aims to capture our contemporary moment in time by looking at the “faces” (mostly the photographs feature people, save Mirach’s series, which features graffiti in post-Katrina New Orleans) of specific situations around the world.

The show opens with poignant as well as beautiful images from San Francisco–based Goldberg’s series “Open See.” The series comes out of a project documenting new European immigrants and focuses on the African countries they come from. The people photographed, all of whom are desperately poor, are often facing the camera and shown within the context of their surroundings, be that a small hut or standing atop a pile of rubble. Throughout, they exhibit an undeniable strength—which, we assume, can only be known by those who have survived deplorable situations.

In the next room are thoughtful, meditative works from Schwartz’ series “Traveling Through the Eye of History.” From 1995 to 2007, the artist captured images along the historic Silk Route, which travels through parts of central Asia, Afghanistan, Iran, Kashmir, western China, and Mongolia. Especially as regards areas that have been heavily affected by war (particularly Afghanistan), these are refreshing for their everyday look. And while we see signs that conflict has taken place—most notably the large empty space in an Afghan hillside where a giant Buddha (destroyed by the Taliban) once resided—the images aren’t about the drama of particular moments in history. This is what you see, what you experience, just being in this place; these are people going about their daily business.

South African photographer Zanele Muholi presents straight-ahead, formal, background-less, black-and-white portraits of transgendered and homosexual South Africans, people who are often targets of violence, discrimination and ridicule. We are informed that even the most violent acts against these people go unpunished because there are no laws regarding hate crimes in South Africa; some of those photographed have died as a result of this violence. The works are undeniably powerful; the strong, direct, “everyday” people—none of them stand out visually in any obvious ways—who serve at Muholi’s subjects put a face on a horrible circumstance.

Aue Sobol presents candid shots from the life of his girlfriend in her hometown of Tiniteqilaaq, a small fishing village in east Greenland. The work is intimate and has an atmospheric quality. The haziness, off-kilter angles, and personal moments captured balance the rest of the exhibition, which elsewhere is more formally polished.

The exhibition ends on a sad but somewhat humorous note, with Misrach’s post-Katrina images of graffiti messages on New Orleans homes that were devastated by the floods. These works feature not one person (or any other living being, for that matter), but are nevertheless alive with raw human emotion: sarcasm, disappointment, sorrow, and anger. This is what happens when you have nothing more to lose. From the undeniably funny “wicked witch” painted on the side of a house, with an arrow pointing down to the ground, to the defensive and confrontational “I am here; I have a gun” painted on boarded up windows, Misrach deftly, elegantly conveys the wide range of reactions elicited by those who suffered the worst of the storm.

These artists put a human face, one we can identify with, on situations a great many of us have no personal experience with. They bring far-away situations into our direct contact, without drama or fanfare. These instances are as remarkable as they are ordinary. The power of the exhibition, then, lies in the ability of these works to touch on intense, loaded, or very personal subjects and remain fascinating to fully digest. These works don’t punch or shock; they gently, beautifully present our reality, and are an opportunity to take it all in.

This exhibition continues through October 16, 2011.

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