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.

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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.

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.

Brion Nuda Rosch, "Time as Concept (Infinity)," 2011

Brion Nuda Rosch presents twenty-three new works ranging from a large diptych painting to numerous smaller collages (through October 1, 2011). Many are reminiscent of the work Rosch has shown over the past few years, featuring a found image, often of a black-and-white landscape, with a painted, cut-out, four-cornered form placed on it. The form in these works is painted flat brown, perhaps a stand-in for the earth, or some sort of firm grounding. These and other works play with formal concerns such as foreground and background, form, and composition.

Perhaps the most poignant piece of this ilk is the sextet of same-sized works, arranged grid-like in three columns of two, Time as Concept (Infinity). The background image is the same in every piece; the brown shape is the only variable, changing in size and form. In the lower-right-hand work (the “last” piece) the brown shape fills the frame. What, then, is the image? Is this, or where is, the content? By showing us “something” and then “nothing,” Rosch effectively demonstrates what is at the heart of his work; he questions the foundations of image-making.

At times Rosch’s minimalist approach becomes too minimal, as with the piece Two Right Angles in Conversation, a framed cut-out piece of cardboard with rough strokes of brown paint on it. We consider the form, and move on. But when he’s on point, which he is numerous times in this show, Rosch provides us with sharply edited works that simply, elegantly address major concepts with a minimum of fuss.

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.”

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.