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.

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"Glimmer" by Will Rogan

Will Rogan presents quietly intricate photographs and sculpture that continue his pursuit of finding the extraordinary in his everyday urban surroundings in his solo exhibition at Altman Siegel Gallery (through November 6, 2010). This provides him a path by which he explores themes of time, impermanence, relationships, and fragility. Similar visual elements also repeat: eyes, light reflected off shiny surfaces, portraits.

Each theme or visual element will pop up in several pieces, but none is present in all of the works. For the viewer, it presents a fun game of “find the similarities” among the different works; they are evident in big ways and small details. In several instances, themes loop over themselves, adding layers and complexity.

Viewing the Past as it Happens, Men Versus Clock: the Unequal Struggle, and The Elusive Nature of Time are each a photograph of a spread from a book about time; the titles of the works are the topic that is covered in the spread. The book itself is clearly dated. It has become a victim of the topic it addresses. The photographs themselves document a moment, which immediately becomes the past. They can never capture the present because as soon as they do, it is gone. Nothing is permanent.

Impermanence is also present in Can and Glimmer. Each image features an instant of the sun hitting a reflective surface – an aluminum can in the former; a piece of broken mirror in the latter – providing a flash of brightness in an otherwise dull and ugly landscape. These are two more examples of Rogan highlighting something “fantastic,” however brief, where otherwise we would see only decay.

Rogan has that wonderful ability to create work that is both complicated – there’s so much going on it can make your brain hurt, or alternatively jump for joy – as well as peacefully evocative. At times images are downright elegant and beautiful. When drawing our attention to a googly eye reflected in a mirror in The Floor, he also permits that serious are can be quite playful.

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.