"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Over the last decade, Kantor has focused on creating work that layers art-historical references, among them works such as Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergere, and Monet’s Les Mueles, for instance; and reproduction, be it photography, digital Internet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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Margaret Kilgallen, "Untitled," arylic on paper, c. 2000, 13.25 x 12 inches, courtesy Ratio 3, San Francisco

“Summer / Selections” (through August 5, 2011) is an excellent opportunity to view a healthy sampling of over 40 pieces, some of which have never been shown, by the late Margaret Kilgallen (she was only 33 when she died, in 2001). Kilgallen was a seminal member of what has been dubbed the Mission School, the graphic, folk-art-esque, street-art-inspired SF movement of the early 1990s that produced other such notables as Chris Johanson and Barry McGee (Kilgallen’s widower; the shared visual language between McGee and Kilgallen is evident in both artists’ work).

Kilgallen’s art is deeply rooted in craft, in particular that of sign-painting. Further lending a hand-hewn feel is her use of roughly sewn-together canvases and repurposing of paper. But what is most captivating about Kilgallen’s work is her use of line, shape, and color, and the attention cast on everyday subjects and objects: trees, leaves, faces, shoes, and even simple repeated patterns. With minimal crisp, smooth edges used to delineate her graphic, highly stylized depictions filled in with only one or maybe two flat colors, Kilgallen operates with maximum efficiency to maximum effect. The commonplace is elevated to a level of rich meaning; Kilgallen speaks in elegant visual haikus.

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.