The timely and thought-provoking exhibition Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera Since 1870 — currently on show at SFMOMA through April 17 next year — explores the use and cultural impact of photography made in public spaces. A thorough examination of a powerful subject, the show inspires us to examine and question how we feel as individuals and a collective about watching and being watched. It also makes clear the huge impact cameras and camera technology has had and continues to have on us.

Exposed is co-organized by SFMOMA and Tate Modern (where it débuted in May), and comprises over two hundred images with works by artists, amateurs, professional journalists, and governmental agencies. The exhibition was conceived by SFMOMA Senior Curator of Photography Sandra S. Phillips and co-curated with Tate Curator of Photography Simon Baker. Just prior to the show’s SFMOMA opening, I did a walk-through with Phillips to gain insight on the show and learn about the stories behind the images.

Chérie Turner: What was the impetus for this show?
Sandra S. Phillips: That’s what everyone wants to know. I did a show a little more than fifteen years ago called Police Pictures, and it’s about the way we think photographs are objective truths, and they’re really not. This idea was the next obvious one — to look and see if the camera has made us see in ways we wouldn’t maybe ordinarily see and what it means culturally for us, too. If there’s a way we look at the world differently because we’re seeing it through a camera lens.

Can you talk about how the show is divided.
There are five sections [The Unseen Photographer, Voyeurism and Desire, Celebrity and the Public Gaze, Witnessing Violence, and Surveillance]. The first [The Unseen Photographer] is really about the beginning notions of what privacy is in public spaces. We are sensitized to having a sense of privacy because photography exploded that and abused it.

In 1870 it was possible suddenly to make a camera small enough that you could conceal it and film fast enough that you could record movement. There were all these amateurs all over the place who were making pictures that were very invasive. The laws said that an American citizen has a right to privacy except in a public space. So that’s why there’s this tradition of street photography, especially in the United States.
So a lot of these pictures here were taken with concealed cameras [several such cameras are on display] — looking at people when they were sleeping or drunk or when they were poor.

Man, Five Points Square, New York, 1916 by Paul Strand, 1916

This one is one you shouldn’t miss [Man, Five Points Square, New York, 1916]. It was done very early with a box camera that had a false lens on the front and the real lens on the side. It’s an invasive picture. The photographer’s looking at someone’s private anguish. And obviously many of the people in these images are poor–that’s another inegalitarianism.

New York by Garry Winogrand, 1969 Collection SFMOMA, fractional and promised gift of Carla Emil and Rich Silverstein; © Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

This is interesting [New York] because the photographer uses a wide-angle lens, and of course, the couple doesn’t realize they’re being photographed. They think he’s taking just her picture.

nging photos; I’m thinking here about the torture or violence photos in this show as well as the sex images. Can you tell me why they interest you and why you think they’re important for us to look at.
First of all, I don’t think they’re all that difficult. We see most of this on the web all the time. They’re not unusual, they’re just in a different context here. And the reason they’re here is because I want people to think about them. I think they’re very beautiful.

One issue here is, How important in photography is it for the photographer to be an artist? I don’t think it’s important at all. I think the only thing that matters is the picture. And the picture can be taken by a robot or a child or a master photographer. This show is really about ideas as much as it is about pictures. That’s why they’re here. They’re here to be provocative and to promote discussion and thought. There are some creepy pictures, but I think they’re probably creepy because our culture is creepy. Many of these pictures were published in newspapers and magazines. It’s shocking we tolerate it.

We get to face that here, too.
This section [Celebrity and the Public Gaze] is about celebrity and the double-dealingness of celebrity. Celebrities, to be celebrities, need a public, and they need to show their privacy to the public because that’s what the public wants.

The Queen Plays with her Corgies from the series Confidential by Allison Jackson, 2007 Courtesy the artist and M + B Gallery; © Alison Jackson, courtesy M+B Gallery

These pictures [by Alison Jackson] are completely made up. They’re not real. They’re made with people who look like, say, the Queen.

[Moving on to the Witnessing Violence section.] One thing about this part of the show is that it demonstrates the violence and change in the sixties. There was a lot of sixties trauma that’s depicted that everyone got acclimated to; you saw people getting mangled by dogs and the Vietnam War.

Then we come to the first of the surveillance rooms. We start with history here beginning with the Civil War.

Criminal Record Office, Great Britain, Surveillance Photograph of Militant Suffragettes, ca. 1913 Collection and © National Portrait Gallery, London

Then, here [Surveillance Photograph of Militant Suffragettes], very early in the twentieth century, late nineteenth century, the police had these files on dangerous persons, like suffragettes or anarchists.

And then the technology improves, so you can have pictures taken of people in courtrooms or private meetings, without their knowing. And then this is Cold War stuff; here are real spy pictures.

I like them because you really can’t tell what happened. They’re completely ambiguous. They’re supposed to say something and they really don’t.

Marc Garanger, Femme Algerienne, 1960 collection SFMOMA, Accessions committee Fund purchase; © Marc Garanger

And these [images by Marc Garanger, 1960] are interesting. The photographer is a French soldier, who, during the Algerian War was sent to photograph woman to keep police records of them. Everyone had to have an identification card. And these are women whose faces had not been seen by anyone except their families. He had to insist that they take their veil off and be photographed. So two things that these women don’t appreciate, that kind of invasiveness and the graven image thing. The experience of doing this radicalized the photographer. He now uses these as documents of how we shouldn’t treat people.

Looking through these surveillance images, a lot of what this show is about is technology.
But also the meaning of technology and what technology looks like. You have to see it to be able to understand it. In the next room are more personal investigations of surveillance. This is a very interesting piece by Yoko Ono where she follows this person. It’s called Rape, but she’s just following someone.

Again with the creepiness.
It is creepy, but it’s also fascinating once you get into it.

Shizuka Yokomizo, Stranger No. 2, 1999 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Accessions Committee Fund purchase; © Shizuka Yokomizo

These are other images [work by Shizuka Yokomizo] that you feel like you really shouldn’t be looking at because they’re so invasive.
Well, she’s this little Japanese lady and she writes to these people and says, “I’d like to take your picture through your window at night. And if you don’t want me to, just close the curtain.” She never actually talks to them directly. She just leaves this note in the mailbox. Of course, they can’t see her —

But they seem to be looking right at her. So, we’ve reached the end of the show here. Is there anything in particular that you would like the viewer take away from this show or think about.
I think the thing to think about is how powerful this is in our culture. How much a part of our culture it is. It’s infiltrated our lives. And, we might want to think about that. Not to be judgmental, but to understand what it means to us as a culture.

Advertisements

Several months back, I was ordering a cappuccino at SFMOMA’s new rooftop sculpture garden, and I noticed a dessert offering that uncannily resembled a Piet Mondrian painting. Another looked a lot like a Wayne Thiebaud cake. Looking closer, I saw that all of the desserts had ties to artwork.

“These are beautiful, and look delicious,” I thought. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
And I was right; these unique sweets are the creation of resident pastry chef Caitlin Williams Freeman and can only be found in this singular location. And though the idea of making art-inspired treats came to Caitlin in a flash, the full-circle journey to this took a decade.

I sat down with Caitlin at the rooftop garden on a recent sunny day to discuss how she went from being a photography student at UC Santa Cruz and pastry shop counter girl to developing her own baking and pastry niche.

Caitlin Williams Freeman holding a Wayne Thiebaud-inspired cake; courtesy SFMOMA

Chérie Turner: Can you tell me about your art background?

Caitlin Williams Freeman: I was at school in Santa Cruz in the photography program, and we would come up here [to San Francisco] a lot to see various gallery shows. And we would always come to the museum. That’s when I first saw Wayne Thiebaud’s painting [Display Cakes], and I was captivated. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it. I just really, really loved that one particular painting.

CT: And how’d you get started with baking?

CWF: In college, I worked at this pastry shop. I was just a counter girl, but I was so obsessed with pastries. Years later, I ended up meeting the woman [Megan Ray] who became my business partner.

She had just gotten laid off at a dot com and had never worked at a bakery. But she decided she wanted a cake shop, and so, the two of us were enthusiastic enough that we would just work all hours. We would do farmer’s markets. Then we were offered a space in the ferry building. That was October 2003.

Working at Miette [the cake shop] is how I met James [Freeman, owner of Blue Bottle Coffee]. He was my next-door neighbor at the Berkeley farmer’s market. It’s a long story–then in 2008, I sold my part of Miette; it was actually the same day James and I got married.

The Ellsworth Kelly ice-cream bar (with Kelly sculpture on rooftop garden in background)' courtesy SFMOMA

I took a few months off after that and made pastries for James, for Blue Bottle. I figured I’d do that for a while, and then I’d go do my own thing–open a pie shop or something. Shortly after that, the museum [SFMOMA] asked James to open a coffee shop here [at the rooftop garden].

 

I thought it was really cool, but I hadn’t really thought about any connections–but we were up here and suddenly I was like, this is the reason I’m a baker! Because I was obsessed with this painting in this building. We were in this meeting, and I grabbed James and said, “Can I make Thiebaud cakes here?” He said, “Sure!”

So that was the plan: I was going to make Thiebaud cakes in the place where I became inspired to become a baker. It felt so perfect. It had taken me ten years to get here, but it couldn’t have happened better if I had planned it.

CT: But you did more than just Thiebaud cakes.

CWF: Yes. To figure out what else I was going to make, I went and soaked in every piece of art that was on display and tried to figure out what to do. And it’s fun because, with the exception of the Thiebaud cake, which we always have on the menu whether or not the painting is hanging, we really keep the desserts limited to reflecting what’s actually on display in the museum. So when a new show comes up, we make a new dessert based on what will be showing.

CT: Can you talk about the process of coming up with new desserts?

CWF: It’s generally something I’m really inspired by. But you also have to be in tune with what are the popping pieces, the pieces you just can’t miss.

We have this Agnes Martin piece right now that we’re working on, but I really wonder, “Is anyone going to get this?” It’s such a subtle piece, and it’s such a subtle product that we made, and I think it’s just perfect and delicious. But I have no idea if people are going to connect to it. In that case, then, we try to come up with something that is interesting in another way. We have both the artistic angle and the food angle, so if we have something that’s a little more abstract, we can try to make it a more beguiling flavor combo.
I’ve been inspired in many different ways. Like the Mondrian cake. I distinctly remember going past the Mondrian painting, and I kept thinking, “What can I even do with that?” I knew I had to do something, but I didn’t know what.

The Piet Mondrian cake; courtesy SFMOMA

Then I happened to be looking through this old cookbook of Victorian cakes. There’s this old cake called the Battenberg cake; it’s an old British cake. When you cut it, it’s a checkerboard. And I was like, “There it is!” So that ended up happening by finding a cake that was an inspiration and seeing the structure and figuring out how to turn it into art.

We’ve also been really liking these do-it-yourself art/dessert pieces, like the Richard Serra piece. We’re just about to do Alexander Calder build-your-own mobile cookies.

CT: So, what is your overall general approach to developing these desserts?

CWF: We keep two worlds in mind [art and food] and see where they can cross over. Some are really obvious, like the Thiebaud and [Richard] Diebenkorn, and those we feel like we have to have because people can connect with them really easily. But I don’t ever want to recreate a piece of art. It’s our interpretation of it.

The Jeff Koons "Michael Jackson and Bubbles" dessert; courtesy SFMOMA

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.”

I came across a quote from John Waters in the current issue of Juxtapose magazine that neatly threaded together three things in a way I hadn’t previously realized: What I loved most about his last solo exhibition (titled “Rush” at Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco, May 27 through July 10), one of the primary draws I have to looking at art, and why I’m also so drawn to the current solo exhibition of work by Maira Kalman, titled “Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World),” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CMJ) in San Francisco.

Waters says: “Art is exactly when there’s nothing there and only you can see it. If you go to art galleries all day and you really learn to see, when you walk home, at least for a couple of hours, you’ll see something on the street that will remind you of art. It fades; you have to go back to galleries. But then everything you see will look like art…”

John Waters, Pecker Still Life (4), 2010, chromogenic color print; Courtesy Rena Bransten Gallery

This is why I so loved Waters’s recent series of photographs, “Pecker Still Life,” which debuted in “Rush” and depicted unremarkable sights behind the scenes of movie filming — bits of the crew’s everyday life — as well as the piece “Shooting Script”, a photo of a grid of nine pads of yellow lined paper with all the pages ripped off and only the cardboard left. These are common objects with great stories.

New York artist Maira Kalman takes this elevating of the everyday even further: She’s turned just about anything in her world — from rubberbands, shoes, a candy bar, and a single pink present to hotel rooms, a found couch, or a dream — into artwork. “Basically I get paid to be myself,” Kalman says in a quote from one of the show catalog essays, “and for my imagination.” And what a joy.

Maira Kalman, Pink Package, 2004-5, gouache on paper; Courtesy of the artist and Julie Saul Gallery, New York

Kalman’s work is most familiar outside of the context of the fine art world. She’s long been an illustrator for the New Yorker — having created many covers — as well as twelve children’s books (most of which she either wrote or co-wrote), the first of which, Stay Up Late, was a collaboration with Talking Heads front-man David Byrne. She’s written and blogged for the New York Times, has worked on a set for Mark Morris and designed with Isaac Mizrahi and Kate Spade, among other projects. She is also a photographer and embroiderer. This, her first solo museum exhibition, is a retrospective covering thirty years of Kalman’s work and also includes an installation of objects from her home and studio; it premiered at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania earlier this year, will be on show at the CMJ through October 26, and then travels to the Skirball Cultural Center in L.A. and The Jewish Museum in New York.

Installation detail; Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco

Kalman is not a formally trained illustrator or painter, but that’s not to say her pieces are uninformed by the art world. The work is layered with cultural and art historical references from Matisse and Chagall, Dadaism, Surrealism, and Futurism. Fashion, travel, and design also figure greatly. In addition to illustration, an arena Kalman has had a profound impact on is design; she was very influential in the work of her husband Tibor Kalman (now deceased), who founded M&Co, a firm that is credited with changing the world of contemporary graphic design. Among other projects, M&Co created Bennetton’s Color magazine.

Maira Kalman, New York, Grand Central Station, 1999, gouache and ink on paper; Courtesy of the artist and Julie Saul Gallery, New York

Kalman’s work, however, does have an outsider art quality — quirky, unique, absurd and highly imaginative. Figures and objects are not rendered precisely but possess personality and a distinct loveable quality. And, they are often funny. “Maira Kalman,” says curator Hiroko Tanaka in a catalog brochure of the artist’s 1989 exhibition at Ginza Art Space in Tokyo, “your pictures are so crazy that everyone wants to hug them.”

Kalman’s work engenders great affection, no doubt. Her honest representations hit their mark. In another of the essay’s for this show, Kalman is quoted describing a painting she did of Le Corbusier’s kitchen sink. She says her intension was that it be “an earnest and loving presentation of something I fell in love with.”

This is the very heart of Kalman’s work, and why we heart it so much. Not only do we share her love of what she presents to us, we begin to see the love-worthy bits of life’s art we unattentively pass by every day.

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.