"Bricks (Budapest)," by Tamas Dezso, 2009

Isolation, bleakness, and decay have a strong presence in this solo exhibition (up through November 23, 2011) of photographs by Hungarian artist and photo-journalist (he’s been published in Time, the New York Times, and National Geographic, among other publications) Tamas Dezso. But while the tone may be dour, the serene poetry of these works leaves one feeling more dreamy than depressed.

The works on exhibit (2009–2011) are all part of the series “Here, Anywhere” (recently awarded first place at the 2011 International Center Awards and the Daylight Magazine and Center for Documentary Studies Project Prize), which documents Hungary’s “vanishing past”—the edges of Hungarian culture that are being lost to post-communist-era changes.

These images, then, serve as poignant and powerful documentation of a culture experiencing profound transition as well as formally conscious works of art. As regards the latter point, these pieces capture moments of rhythmic chaos and juxtaposed textures—a flock of black birds flying above leafless trees against a grey sky; a man atop a huge pile of white bricks in front of a large brick wall; a field of dying sunflowers. These are moments of quiet, and are both arresting and contemplative.

"Left Leg" by Catherine Wagner

Catherine Wagner’s photographs of splints (on show at Stephen Wirtz Gallery through December 18, 2010) — the medical devices used to stabilize injuries and often associated with war wounds — and antique prostheses are riveting. Each of these technically precise images shows one device against a flat black background in gentle, even light; the device appears to float in the space. Isolated, showing fine detail, these images are intense. Splints and prosthetics are highly personal. They’re held tight or molded to the body and worn for protection and recovery, repair. Thus, the title of the exhibition “Reparations,” implying making amends. It’s a loaded concept especially in this time of multiple international conflicts, and also an indirect path from which to approach such difficult subjects. Wagner points us in a hopeful direction.

Wagner deliberately chooses to photograph splints and prostheses made at various points through history, thus there is a didactic angle that displays the progression that’s been made in this field of medicine. For all of their references and dramatic portrayal, these are highly evocative pieces. For some, they illicit fear, repulsion, or sadness. But they also symbolize healing and help: everything will be set right, allowing for a return to normal life. Behind each object, we know there is a story, perhaps glorious, perhaps tragic, perhaps comic. The absence of the person who wore the device begs the question of his or her fate. And then they are, in many cases, intriguing simply as sculptural pieces. These direct, thought-provoking images convey the power of a well-chosen and expertly photographed subject.

Ever since Bay Area painter Nellie King Solomon had her first solo show in San Francisco fresh out of graduate school in 2001, her work has met with positive reviews, even from the hard-to-please SF Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker. (She’s also a three-time SECA nominee, up again for the award this year.) The final words of his glowing appraisal of that first show also issued up a challenge that many shared: “Her show is a powerful debut that will be hard for her to follow.” Solomon laughs about the gauntlet Baker threw. Her reaction? “I was like, you do not know who you’re messing with.” Almost a decade later, the work is stronger than ever.

As Is, 2001, by Nellie King Solomon; courtesy Nellie King Solomon

Solomon makes luscious, ephemeral large-scale abstract paintings on Mylar, addressing issues of space and environment, control and movement. They are created in her light-filled Hunter’s Point studio, on a table using handmade tools or sometimes just gravity to maneuver the paint. The imperfect surface contributes to the creation. Her early works were bright and fluid; puddles and rivulets meandered over the opaque surface resulting in meditative, organic paintings. On some, oval marks stamped with one of her homemade wooden tools, are also evident, harkening back to the point at which Solomon started her artistic journey–with the dot.

Solomon’s path to painting was indirect. Raised in San Francisco by an architect father and philosopher/dancer/writer mother, she’s known the creative life since birth. But it wasn’t clear until she’d already pursued several different avenues, including sustainable agriculture and architecture, that painting would be her primary focus. The decision to pursue art–Solomon earned a master’s of fine arts degree from California College of the Arts–coincided with a shift in momentum. “The reason for the dot was to stop traveling. Every two years I would leave some city and move to another. I needed to stop. The line, which was architecture, was also travel; so I took it away. I was in dots for four years before I touched representation and then another four years before I touched color. Then it moved to these ovals because I wanted a little bit of speed, but I still wanted it to stay slow.”

Niagara, 2000, by Nellie King Solomon; courtesy Nellie King Solomon

With this new work, Solomon is beginning to move. Whereas past paintings were almost self-created by the undulations of her work surface, in these, Solomon is the primary guiding force. A common feature throughout are large, thick rings that don’t quite close; the shape is created with a graceful full-body gesture, a nod to Solomon’s early training as a dancer. “I have hidden that strong arm behind my back for a long time,” she explains. “I’m just letting it come out. That’s one reason I work so large. I want it to be to some degree out of my control. If it’s too big for me to be able to handle, it keeps me from getting glib. It keeps me a little scared.” Solomon’s increased boldness is also evident in her changing palette. Pretty pinks, reds, and yellows of the past are replaced by toxic neon oranges and magentas and dark browns, black, green, and blue mixed with glitter; the edges, caked with soda-ash, have a corroded texture. The influence of Solomon’s interest in the environment, and the increasing degradation of it, is increasingly obvious. Gone are the delicate niceties of early work; these paintings are brave, brazen, and intense.

Boom Bloom, 2008, by Nellie King Solomon; courtesy Brian Gross Fine Art

“I always knew I had something to say,” says Solomon, reflecting back over her career to date. “I just didn’t know what I was going to say. But I knew that nobody was going to do it if I didn’t. I feel like I’m just getting started.”

This is not about Dave Eggers, the best-selling author and founder/editor of McSweeney’s. Nor is it about David Byrne, the bike-rack designer and lead singer of the Talking Heads. This is about visual art and the two-man show that currently features work by both Eggers and Byrne at San Francisco’s Electric Works (on show through August 21).

Exhibition view of work by Dave Eggers

The first, and last, impression of this show is delight, with a dose of idiosyncrasy. It’s a good summer offering: light and witty, even quirky hip. Eggers’s contributions take up the larger space of the gallery, while Byrne’s work is featured in the smaller side-room. The work shares a clean aesthetic; both present drawings on paper (Eggers uses China marker, Byrnes, graphite) that incorporate use of text. Eggers’ space also features the same words and images painted large on the walls. Color is limited — black, white, orangey-red, and grey-blue.

Exhibition view of work by Dave Eggers

This is Eggers first solo art exhibition, and it’s a nice start. But this is not the first time Eggers has made visual art (though this his most recent work; all pieces are 2010). He studied painting and art history at the University of Illinois and worked as an illustrator, cartoonist, and designer before switching over to the written word; he didn’t think he could make art a career.
Each piece in the show features a detailed drawing of an animal against a blank white or tan of the paper surrounded by text; the animal images are based on old photos, and the text is Eggers’ idea of what that animal might be thinking. Appropriately, the animals’ personalities are introverted, standoffish, or a little sad. The artist’s graphic/illustrative influences are clear; the uncluttered, bold layout with large lettering is reminiscent of political propaganda posters — nature illustrations meet Shepard Fairey.

Why Did Your Grandfather Send You This Picture Of Me? by Dave Eggers; Photo courtesy SF Electric Works

The works on paper are hung all over, a loose salon style, and broken up by the large wall works. Animals are everywhere. A beaver poses the question: “Why did your grandfather send you this picture of me?” A rhino states: “It is time you thanked us for deeds done in thy name.” A bull notes: “You will never have a successful long-distance relationship.” And a bat boldly says: “Go to the city in your car.” In several cases, the same text is used with a different animal or the same animal is paired with different text. The phrases are humorous, at times poignant or advisory, though several do feel like inside jokes or personal observations we’re not let in on.

Military Technology by David Byrne; courtesy SF Electric Works

This is not David Byrne’s first art exhibition; he has been showing artwork since 1990 (in a group show held in Tokyo). Featured here are several drawings from his early 2000s “Arboretum” series (which was, incidentally, featured in a book by the same name published by McSweeney’s). As the series’ title suggests, the images (mostly) connote trees; they are very simple line drawings that only hint at the form. Fittingly, image serves only as structure for what are really diagrams (also on view are a bar graph and a Venn diagram); a word is written on each branch and root. In them, Byrne humorously, smartly traces the connection or flow from one idea to another, often seemingly unrelated, idea — unless you’re Byrne’s imagination. In his words, Byrne says:

Drawing/diagrams (mostly) in the form of trees, which both elucidate and obfuscate the roots of contemporary phenomena and terminology. Sort of like borrowing the evolutionary tree format and applying it to other, often incompatible, things. In doing so a kind of humorous disjointed scientism of the mind heaves into view.

The Influence of Mixed Drinks by David Byrne; courtesy SF Electric Works

In The Performing Arts, roots of One-Man Show, Dance Theater, Revival, Fringe and other performance-associated designations grow branches of Bankers, Designers, Bureaucrats, Politicians, Career Military, and other professions. The Influence of Mixed Drinks features roots of various popular cocktails and branches of idyllic world situations: Racial Equality, Religious Tolerance, Mideast Peace, and the like.
The shows together provide insight into the creative thought processes of these contemporary cultural influencers.

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.

See review of Paul Madonna’s recent show, “Album 01: In What Era Will You Get Stuck” at SF Electric Works in the current issue of art ltd. magazine.

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