"A Consensual Hallucination," 2015, hand-cut collage on paper, 9.5" x 13.25"

“A Consensual Hallucination,” 2015, hand-cut collage on paper, 9.5″ x 13.25″

Collage artist Alexis Anne Mackenzie pushes her artistic practice to greater abstraction and complexity in relation to the work she presented less than a year ago. Comprised of small pieces, several of them diptychs, Mackenzie methodically cuts one or two images into strips — curved arches, straight verticals, and  wavy verticals — of roughly the same thickness and adheres these over another image at regular intervals that are the thickness of the strips. Thus, the images remain visible, albeit now variably stuttered, and with varying degrees of recognizability. For the diptychs, the same base image is used. One piece features a set of strips over the base. For the other she uses those that are left, such that the pieces strongly relate but also demonstrate how, given different sets of information from the same pictures, things can look vastly different.

The results are mesmerizing. The evenness of the repetition of the strips sets up a meditative rhythm. And movement is created by the vacillations of the strips, as well as the shape of the strips themselves (the works with the arched strips call to mind a record, which speaks to the artist’s avid interest in music). Then there is the intense visual engagement, as the eyes are compelled to continuously shift emphasis so as to pull out one image. A longer look reveals greater details in an individual image — flowers, female figures — and then, as the eye begins to bring into focus another of the images, the first image appears to fade, becoming almost ghostly. At times, the images all work together to form yet something else again. Mackenzie does an amazing job of playing forms from different images off of each other. While the concept at its heart, given the visual complexity, is relatively straightforward — it’s an interweaving of images — the resulting optical playground evocatively teases with ideas of how much to keep hidden and how much to reveal.

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Free Range, 2014, oil on canvas, 60" x 40"

Free Range, 2014, oil on canvas, 60″ x 40″

Stepping into the gallery to view new paintings by Jake Longstreth, the first impression is of their atmospherics, which is a bit surprising. Previous work by this Los Angeles–based artist had tended toward bright colors and sharp lines with no visible brush strokes. These new works are much softer by comparison, with more muted, earthy tones. Brushstrokes abound, to such a degree at times, they hint at the pointillist work of Seurat; in other instances, the strokes are more bulbous, recalling those of Philip Guston.

The nine works that comprise this show — all of which are vertical, measuring as large as 60” x 40” and down as small as 17” x 13” — depict naturescapes; there is no sign of human touch. In some works the serenity of the scene is disrupted by a fire, with a large plume of smoke rising into the sky. The works feature either hillsides to mid-canvas or foliage down low; the rest of the picture is open sky.

Common to all of the works is a gentle glow, almost to the point of vibrating. Of special note is Free Range, the title piece of the exhibition, and one of the hillside paintings. Starting at the bottom, the ground changes in patches from a shadowed green, to light green, white, and pink tones — the style brings to mind Wayne Thiebaud. A definitive line marks the transition from ground to sky, the latter gradually transitioning from a hazy white to light blue.

Looking across Longstreth’s work over the past decade, these pieces mark a new phase, demonstrating this artist’s ability to stretch his talents into new styles, with clear success.

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.

"Bricks (Budapest)," by Tamas Dezso, 2009

Isolation, bleakness, and decay have a strong presence in this solo exhibition (up through November 23, 2011) of photographs by Hungarian artist and photo-journalist (he’s been published in Time, the New York Times, and National Geographic, among other publications) Tamas Dezso. But while the tone may be dour, the serene poetry of these works leaves one feeling more dreamy than depressed.

The works on exhibit (2009–2011) are all part of the series “Here, Anywhere” (recently awarded first place at the 2011 International Center Awards and the Daylight Magazine and Center for Documentary Studies Project Prize), which documents Hungary’s “vanishing past”—the edges of Hungarian culture that are being lost to post-communist-era changes.

These images, then, serve as poignant and powerful documentation of a culture experiencing profound transition as well as formally conscious works of art. As regards the latter point, these pieces capture moments of rhythmic chaos and juxtaposed textures—a flock of black birds flying above leafless trees against a grey sky; a man atop a huge pile of white bricks in front of a large brick wall; a field of dying sunflowers. These are moments of quiet, and are both arresting and contemplative.

Julie Heffernan, "Picking up the Pieces," oil on canvas, 72 x 54 inches, 2010, courtesy Catharine Clark Gallery

Full disclosure: I knew this show would be good before I viewed it. Not to say I didn’t give it a critical look-over, but rather, given Julie Heffernan’s track record, some preliminary jpgs, and reception of work from the same series that showed last year  in New York (at PPOW; the current show, on view through October 29, 2011, includes newer works), it was clear to me that this Brooklyn-based painter had another hit on her hands.

Heffernan’s work here, as in the past, is richly detailed and brilliantly colored—a riot of reds, oranges, yellows, and greens pervade. They reflect the artist’s lyrical talent with the medium along with her beautiful imagination. Heffernan is able to deftly relay unique, fairy tale–like visions of her world. These works are autobiographical and strongly rooted in art history. The visually luscious Old Master style riffs off traditional still live symbolism—a pile of dead birds sit upon a central female figure’s lap in “Self-Portrait with Talking Stones” (2011) for example. These symbols of abundance, feast and nourishment are presented and brought into the present with a good dose of surrealist dreaminess. Variously, rocks float in the air; a figure wears a headdress of fruit; the ground is folded up like a bundle of cloth.

Akin to Heffernan’s earlier work, these paintings feature a singular, centrally placed figure. But whereas before the figure was always female (and a self-portrait), several of these new works feature a young man who, it turns out, is her son. The back-story: Heffernan’s son is leaving for college. In one painting, “Picking Up the Pieces” (2010), this central figure has on his back a huge bundle collected into a rope net; around his waist is a tool belt stuffed full. The symbolism is clear—he leaves with baggage but also the tools to deal with the challenges ahead (off to the side there is also a rock and next to it a sign that reads “Hard Place”). In another work, “Self-Portrait with Falling Sky” (2011), Heffernan contemplates her new state of uncertainty: rocks hover and float around the central female figure, none of them, however, touching her. Her world is up in the air, but there is the sense that it’ll all work out right.

Heffernan’s works not only feature the overarching symbols, surroundings, and objects that speak to the storyline the main character is engaged in, but also comprise numerous vignettes that may or may not seamlessly gel with the larger narrative. They’re tangential offshoots or breaks that keep us on our toes—and sometimes they are so well integrated in the visual abundance of the work, they may not get noticed until a second, third, or fourth look. Many of these scenes or images are inspired by NPR, which Heffernan listens to almost constantly, providing a topical twist to the work, which, because the origin is a mass-media source, might well resonate with that audience.

All but one (a limited edition print) among the thirteen works are oil on canvas, and mostly large in size. As a group they embody a visually complex and stunningly rendered timeless tale of the human condition that continues to reveal fresh details over time.

"Tender" by Sister Corita, 1974, Collection of Lucia Eames

A blaze of bright color and bold graphics by Sister Corita (1918-1986; born Frances Elizabeth Kent, aka Sister Mary Corita and Sister Corita Kent) abound in this celebration of her life and impact at the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Folk Art (through June 5, 2011). Additionally fleshing out the importance of this influential West Coast Pop artist, innovative educator, and activist are ephemera, such as copies of the educational books Corita wrote; personal letters and photographs; and films and videos about the artist’s career and life. The exhibition “E is for Everyone: Celebrating Sister Corita” emphasizes key works from the 1960s, such as the iconic Power Up and Tender images as well as her close relationship with design couple Charles and Ray Eames.

Corita is known for crossing boundaries, be they creative or social. This comes through in this intimate (the museum encompasses one large gallery space) but still powerful exhibition. She was on the vanguard of pop and graphic art, working primarily in the discipline of screen-printing. The serigraphs she created combined graphic art, typography, music lyrics, social commentary, and literature to create her unique style. (Her teaching also reflected her cross-disciplinary interests; Corita co-taught classes at the Immaculate Heart College Art Department in Hollywood with such cultural icons as Alfred Hitchcock, John Cage, and Buckminster Fuller as well as the Eameses.) Her choice of medium fit well with her interest in social change and working class outlook on art and art-making, as her prints were easy to widely distribute and recreate. And they were: Corita was commissioned by Amnesty International and International Walk for Hunger, among other socially conscious organizations. Perhaps most widely known is her “Love” stamp, issued in 1985, and her notecards for the Campaign for Human Development (a collection of which are featured here).

"Power Up (A)" by Sister Corita, 1965, Collection of the Corita Art Center

Corita’s provocative spirit did not go unnoticed during her lifetime; in 1967 she was featured on the cover of Newsweek magazine; the cover line read: “The Nun: Going Modern.” And her influence continues: one can find correlations between the twenty-one works on show to contemporary artists such as Shepard Fairey, Ed Ruscha, and Pae White, and curators, graphic artists, and students continue to rediscover and draw from her work and teachings.

Two intriguing collage exhibitions have recently been on view in the art-booming Mission district of San Francisco: Hilary Pecis, “Half Truths and Outright Lies,” at Guerrero Gallery (through March 5) and Sebastian Wahl, “Kaleidoscpe Eyes,” at Gallery Hijinks (through February 26). In both, you’ll find a barely controlled cacophony of imagery, captivating composition and fine craftsmanship, with a punctuation of playfulness.

Hilary Pecis, "Up to No Good," 2011; Giclee Print, edition 1 of 3; Courtesy Guerrero Gallery

San Francsico-based Pecis tries a new medium with these new works: computer-based collage. Previously, Pecis hand-cut each piece of her finely detailed works which she then often enhanced with pen-and-ink patterned “doodles.” Using a computer has changed the work in two important ways: it is smoother, physically lacking the materiality of the handhewn pieces; and imagery has changed. Whereas Pecis had culled imagery from magazines — mostly fashion magazines, which accounted for their bright colors and loads of jewels and gems — now she’s got the entire Internet and we see everything from jets to kittens and mountain goats, pillows to trains and bombs exploding.

Hilary Pecis, "Kingdom," 2011; Giclee Print, edition 1 of 3; Courtesy Guerrero Gallery

Use of the Internet played a large part in image selection; Pecis often used images that randomly appeared during her searches to create her fantasy worlds. And this links to an interest that drives this body of work: the changing face of journalism, or information sharing (and subsequent worldview building), and resulting overload, both visual and written, which is increasingly empty of substantial content, is easily replaced, and is highly repetitive and self-referential. (As the press materials reveal, The title of the show is based on an Intelligence Squared debate, “Good Riddance to Mainstream Media,” which discusses the relevance and fate of traditional journalism and the blog. David Carr, a writer for the NY Times said “They become an echo chamber of half-truths, sometimes outright lies, without any real data points coming in. And so you end up with a sort of mass of people talking to each other, no one has read anything. No one knows anything. They’re talking about something that someone else read that read that read that read. And we end up in a meta-world.”)

One commonality that runs through almost all Pecis’s work is her penchant for tight, epic scapes. And here she continues to perform at top speed. Also in this show, and not to be overlooked, are two works that stray from the herd; they are calm, tranquil, the content highly edited down–perhaps created by layering image over image? The result of which is borderline nothingness. A preview of things to come?

Hilary Pecis, "100 Perfect Sunsets," 2011; Giclee Print, edition 1 of 3; Courtesy Guerrero Gallery

Sebastian Wahl at Gallery Hijinks

Sebastian Wahl, "Kaleidoscope Eye 1," 2010; original collage in resin on panel"; Courtesy Gallery Hijinks

New York artist Sebastian Wahl makes his San Francisco debut in this solo exhibition. As the title of the exhibition points to, the works are arranged in patterns of multi-reflected imagery, as if one is looking through a kaleidoscope. Wahl’s hand-cut images range from cultural icons to architecture, the religious and spiritual to nature. Fine detail and careful, strangely witty placement abound: by example, Andy Warhol famously swims in a can of tomato soup positioned on a bird’s wing in Kaleidoscope Eye 1.

Sebastian Wahl, "Spirit Bird," 2010; original collage in resin on panel; Courtesy Gallery Hijinks

Also notable here is the craftsmanship: the works are made of up to fourteen thin layers of resin–a medium the artist has been working in since 2006 — each encasing its own images. This introduces an added and unexpected depth and dimension; the layers cast subtle shadows with shifting light. Wahl, a former graffiti artist, says he’s interested in creating works that promote mindfulness and concentration. And this gets to the greatest strength of these works: there is a calm in the chaos.

Sebastian Wahl, "Mandala 2," 2010; original collage in resin on panel; Courtesy Gallery Hijinks