Alice Shaw, "Curtain Call," 2012, Pigment print on canvas, 43'' x 78''

Conceptual artist Alice Shaw gracefully balances humor and serious commentary—here, global warming and pollution—in her fifth solo exhibition at Gallery 16 (through April 21). Employing photography, sculpture, canvas, and/or paint, Shaw wittily, slyly, pointedly relays her thoughts and observations about the deteriorating state of our surroundings.

Some works hit like one-liners, such as Evidence of Global Warming—Former Goldfish Habitat (2012), a fish bowl filled partway with sand with a piece of driftwood sticking out of it. Others reveal in layers, such as Some Things Change and Some Things Stay the Same (2011), a photo of trees in a forest; at center are trees whose leaves are changing, surrounded by evergreens. Also subtle, and cheeky, is Panorama (2012), which at first appears to be only a raw canvas; closer inspection reveals a forest landscape painted along the sides, just brushy enough to deliver the image, just quiet enough to not be obvious.

Throughout this large show (there are a total of 26 pieces) of generally smaller works (most pieces measure in the range of 10-by-13 inches), we are, one work after another, compelled to stop, look, smile, and think. Shaw’s unique vision and clever perspective, an enduring pleasure in all her work, is once again superbly translated into objects, of art.

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Joseph Park, "Wizard," 81 x 72 inches, oil on linen mounted on board, courtesy Rena Bransten Gallery

Joseph Park, whose recent work is featured in this solo exhibition (through August 20, 2011), “This is Prizmism,” is an outstanding painter. It is apparent as soon as you enter the gallery, which is divided into three specific sections: one representing the “school” of prizmism (works done in a variety of explorations using the style); another, the full realization of the style; the third, the “masterpiece”—we are witness to the steady progression of a genre.

This is a style that the artist has developed and, as the name implies, subjects look as if they’re being seen, at least partially, through a prism: angular and often featuring a riot of dazzling color.

Fittingly, the school section features figure studies, plaster casts of heads, and the equipment the artist uses to practice his craft, namely, an easel that can hold the artwork at any angle or orientation and at a variety of heights. In the next room are eight medium-sized works of various subjects: a portrait of Van Gogh, a self-portrait, two home interiors, a pair of abstract works—demonstrating a full range or realization of the application of prizmism. The final room has only one work: “Wizard,” a large (81 x 72 inches) prizmism-ed take on Diego Velásquez’ “Las Meninas;” a nice art historical nod not unlike those we find in the work of Vik Muniz.

The show’s concept hovers on gimmickry. As other critics have noted, the work tends to be overly rich and somewhat show off–ish. But this can be forgiven: Showing off is only unforgivable if you can’t deliver. And Park delivers. He inspires us to want to look with care at each and every painting; to realize which works alone make his case. If he adds on beyond that, the rest serves to demonstrate that Park is a master of his vision.

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.

"Gentle Surrender" by Eric Zener

In his new body of work—on show at Hespe Gallery through May 31—Marin-based painter Eric Zener addresses an entirely new subject: trees and bushes. The show includes mostly oil-on-canvas work, with only a few mixed-media pieces, the latter of which have dominated recent exhibitions. Known for his dreamy, intensely colorful, layered resin-and-paint images of underwater swimmers and water-focused work, which he’s been creating since 1998, this new direction is a total departure.

As with the earlier work, these pieces are photo-based. But while the hyper-real glossy mixed-media works (which actually begin with a photo transfer) demonstrate the depth and vibrancy Zener has excelled with in the past, it’s the paintings that steal the show. From afar they do maintain a photorealistic quality (indeed, digital images of the paintings may lead you to believe that they are actually photographs), but closer up, gestural brushstrokes reveal the medium; these are painterly works.

The subjects depicted are predominantly of trees with dense and messy branches, sometimes bare and in one case, on fire; up very close, the tangle of foliage verges on abstraction. These subjects could, in many cases, be dead, or just barely surviving a cold winter. The palette is equally as sparse; several works are done in black and white. When leaves and hue are present, the coloring is subtle enough to allow the frenetic composition to hold court. These works are a study in the beauty and intuitive order that can be found in nature’s chaos; they are immediately reminiscent of Lee Friendlander’s images of similar subjects, as from his “New Mexico” series, and have a similar affect on the viewer: they’re calming and mesmerizing.

Zener moves with this series from explorations of life to death—and, in the case of the fire painting, destruction. He moves from wet to dry, sooth to rough, bright to somber, glossy to matte, simple to complex. He’s removed the fluid figure and replaced it with a nature that’s impenetrable. These works are more difficult, and less inviting, and with them Zener hits a whole new stride.

"Powerless" by Deborah Oropallo

The show of new work by Deborah Oropallo at Gallery 16 in San Francisco (through April 30) expands her exploration of gender power, the symbolism of the uniform and the role of iconic imagery in shaping female identity. One to continually push conventions of image-making and composition, Oropallo again exceeds herself.

In her work over the past several years, Oropallo had delved into juxtaposing famous portrait poses of 17th- and 18th-century portrait paintings of powerful men with modern-day lingerie modeling (its startling how similar the poses are). Following that, in 2009, it was collaged, strong, sexy rodeo cowgirl imagery, again juxtaposing a strong male archetype with a strong, sexy female-type.

A fitting next step, this new series takes on the rich topic of female fairy-tale figures and vulnerable/sex-kitteny female Pop imagery: Little Bo Peep, Rapunzel, Wonder Woman, French maid, Snow White, the Catholic school girl, and Alice in Wonderland all make an appearance here.

But though the references are pretty obvious, they are altered with the inclusion of bondage or S&M references, gas masks, ski masks, and other less cute imagery. These works have greater edge than previous pieces. Oropallo is growing increasingly bold, and the results are viciously engaging. They are funny, creepy, strange, whimsical, and powerful, without falling into easy traps of feminist bitterness or clichéd comparisons. Taken one way, they are comparisons of equal opposites—sweet and innocent versus aggressive and violent—bringing to question which really holds the power and the reality of either, or both, of the fantasies (and whose fantasies are they, anyway?); taken another, they are a collapsing together, all at once, of the potential numerous identities that comprise any single human being. These are well thought out pieces that pose intriguing open questions.

From a visual standpoint, the work is drop dead striking. Most are large, measuring 60-by-44 inches. And they have an incredible sense of depth — the imagery is layered and collaged—almost to the point of appearing three-dimensional. The structure of the images gives them movement and life; Oropallo is a master of composition. And in that, she’s become a great manipulator of the manipulators, using the language of visual messaging to bring those very messages into question.

"Eye (Red, White, Blue) by Andrew Schoultz

San Francisco artist Andrew Schoultz’s newest work (on show through October 23, 2010) comes at you like an explosion. It’s big, bold, and colorful. It’s also serious, playful, and chaotic. The show features collage and acrylic paintings, monotypes, and large-scale sculpture. Throughout, Schoultz utilizes graphic/illustrative imagery regularly featured in past work as well as his exquisitely detailed line work. In every piece there is more than a lot going on. They work on numerous levels, foremost hovering between representation and abstraction. They are a brightly twisted playground for the eye and the mind, a trip down the rabbit hole with serious social commentary.

Schoultz came out of the graffiti scene; he put up his first tag while he was still in grade school. This street experience is reflected in his gallery work, most obviously in his penchant for large scale. He counter-balances this with innumerable small elements. The play of scale gives the work a great deal of depth and movement.

He also reworks the same images over and over, in the same manner that tags are repeated again and again on the street. For Shoultz, this repetition serves two purposes. It’s a form of storytelling: “In stories,” Schoultz said in a 2006 interview with Fecal Face, “characters reoccur and build themselves. I like the idea of developing a character or an image.” He also notes that by painting the same subject year after year, it slowly changes and finds fresh meaning. Throughout this body of work, we see the medieval horse, the eye of Providence (a graphic eye as appears on the one-dollar bill), tornados, bricks, and buildings askew. They serve as powerful symbols of Schoultz’s explorations: issues of man versus nature, history (and its sad repetition), environmental concerns, and globalization.

Like that of any good storyteller, Schoultz’s narrative does evolve, often to address current events. Reclamation, Oil, Water, for instance, is a commentary on the Gulf oil spill. The tornado (loss of control to nature) and eye are present. Schoultz also throws in a few other not so subtle but well placed ideas: the rippling water creates a camouflage pattern (war for oil), and the shimmering silver paint on a structure being transported on the water looks a lot like an oil slick (the true cost of global commerce).

The final crossover from Schoultz’s street work is the audience he addresses: the public. It shows a capacity to appeal to a broad audience, from children to the well-versed art lover.

Not to be overlooked is Schoultz’s use of color, which plays out in several ways. Red, white, and blue figure prominently in several works (a flag reference). And the messages are clear. In the large wall sculpture Broken Wall (in Three Parts) the American colors are separated to suggest a country divided or breaking apart. And gold, on bricks no less, figures prominently, especially in the enormous (and self-explanatory) Brick Wall (Gold).

Color also contributes to the many ways any given piece can be experienced. Explosion, a work made of layer upon layer of collage and innumerable graphics and images, as well as pieces of dollar bills, features numerous accents of different neon colors. From far away, these punchy tones read like a fairly un-modulated color-field painting. Up close, the eye reads color frantically in this wonderfully active work.

In this exhibition we are also privy to two types of work either not before seen, or not common to Schoultz’s oeuvre. New are his acrylic-on-found-antique-metal-plate-print paintings. In these black-and-white pieces, mostly comprised of his “Revisiting Insignificant Moments in History” series, Schoultz paints his own intricately lined iconography over the intricately lined images of the original prints, deftly merging past and present. Schoultz also presents a number of prints, most notably the monotype series “Compound Eye.” Each print features a one solid color, the eye graphic subtly present in a slightly different hue. The eye looks like a fingerprint or the rings of a tree. The series together is a breakdown of all the primary colors present in the show.

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.