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

"Pitch" by Timothy Nolan

In his solo exhibition at Marx & Zavattero (on view through August 21, 2010), Los Angeles-based artist Timothy Nolan delivers contemplative sculpture that is all clean geometric forms, a subtle palate of silver, black, gray, and white, and various surface treatments – mirrored, reflective, flat. Nolan continues his investigation of patterns, repetition, and systems, both made and natural. The work easily draws the viewer into the complexity encompassed, including the exploration of visual perception and construction of illusory versus real space.

Evident throughout is the influence of minimalism and cubism; the artist is also inspired by craft and op art. The exhibition features floor and wall sculpture as well as works of silver metallic paper on panel and other two-dimensional pieces. The centerpiece – both literally, as it takes up a large space within the gallery, and figuratively; it’s enchanting – is the twenty-foot-long Pitch. Comprising more than twenty triangular pieces of various sizes, with several of the surfaces mirrored and reflecting off of each other, the work evolves into endless shards and crystalline structures, elegantly getting to the heart of Nolan’s interests. In the wall sculpture, “Stack” – which is also made up of a series of over twenty non-identical hard-edged shapes, these composed of printed vinyl on aluminum – geometric shapes in five gray-scale hues also play with our comprehension of light and shadow and the shaping of space; the piece appears to be more three-dimensional than its flat surfaces really are.

While Nolan’s artwork overall is hard-edged and calculated in appearance, it’s not cold. This is meditative work that we not only see but experience.

"Away" by Erin Cone

Even with fast and wide praise of her paintings since her first (sell-out) solo show in 2003, Santa Fe–based artist Erin Cone continues to push her work, and it shows. Cone boldly, consciously explores new approaches to form, composition, and palette with each body of work she creates. The recent solo exhibition at Hespe Gallery in San Francisco shows the painter refining and developing. 

Cone paints stylized figures based on herself. (These aren’t self-portraits, however; Cone acts as model, not subject). She says, accurately, that her work is a fusion of figurative realism and abstract minimalism. The figure is almost always solitary against a flat background and usually cropped in an arresting way—off to one side cutting out an arm, three-quarters of the head cut off. These works are as much about forms and arrangement as they are about the figure itself. And they are strong; this is made obvious when noting that the impact of the work isn’t diminished when showing the figure from behind, typically a less engaging view.

Numerous influences and art historical connections can be seen in Cone’s work. The clean, stylized approach of the neoclassicists, albeit with a fresh approach; Cone’s figure, dressed in “office casual,” is a modern woman. Contemporarily, there is a resemblance, especially as regards cropping and also stylization, to the Pasadena-based artist Kenton Nelson. Cone herself states influences from Georgia O’Keefe, Caravaggio, Édouard Manet, Gerhard Richter, and Wayne Thiebaud, among others. Cone’s traditional influences—she’d originally wanted to be a portrait painter in the Old Master style—are contrasted by the bold, commercial feel of graphic design and the slickness of photography. Her surfaces are clean and smooth, unblemished. (Cone worked as a graphic designer at a publishing company before taking the leap to devote herself to painting full time.) Inspiration also comes from collage, fashion, and dance.

For this body of work, Cone has limited her palette. She’s playing with levels of contrast. Some work features less, such as Away, a quiet work with almost a sepia tone appearance. Work such as Allure, showing a partial upper portion of a figure with a bright red shirt again a blue-grey ground, shows more. But gone are, say, the hard orange backgrounds of past work. The new-found subtlety is welcome. Cone also softens her images and adds movement by showing afterimages, hints of where the body just was; it gives us more to see. And the rendering of the figure itself, verging slightly more toward realism, gives these paintings greater life and depth; they energize the work more than in the past, and they’re simply better painted. If there are criticisms to be made, it’s that Cone’s work can tend toward being too pretty and too rigid or graphic—flat, lacking depth. Cone’s to be credited, however, for seriously honing her craft and working through formal concerns. It’s an exciting process to watch and no small pursuit.

 Here we see a dedicated, talented painter steadily developing into an artist.

This review first appeared on

David Michael Smith's "King George III"

From the moment I first saw SF-based artist David Michael Smith‘s work at Scott Richards Contemporary Art a month or so ago, I was smitten. I had the chance to see this latest creation, King George III, at the SF Fine Art Fair, and I liked it so well that I was inspired to create this new section so I could talk about it: my pick of the week.
Smith draws on historic personalities, pop culture, and symbolism to add rich (often creepy or dark) narrative to his beautifully rendered, almost surreal paintings. Note, for this work, he also made the frame and constructed the clock.
Here is Smith’s full description of this painting as stated on gallery Website: This painting depicts King George III, the third British monarch from the House of Hanover. By all accounts a well-intentioned, pious, and judicious king, he suffered in later life from recurrent and, eventually, permanent mental illness. This is generally supposed to have been the result of the blood disease porphyria.
One of the symptoms of porphyria is a purple discoloration of urine during an attack. The painting is saturated with the color purple and the glass bowl under his right hand is full of a purple liquid. The pillar behind him is made of porphyry (derived from the same Greek word, meaning “purple pigment,” from which the disease is named) as is the clock face set into the frame. I’ve included symbols of madness in the painting including a hornet and a tulip and the looming storm on the horizon.
King George III kept a menagerie of exotic animals at Kew Gardens and I’ve included the monkeys as a reference to them. As his life became more and more wretched due to his illness, he lived much of his later years as a prisoner in Windsor Castle, subjected to the harsh treatment of various doctors. I imagine he could have felt quite a kinship with these creatures, ripped from the normalcy of their lives and put behind bars.

Enrique Chagoya's "Illegal Alien’s Guide to the Concept of Relative Surplus Value" will be offered in the silent auction at Vernissage

This Thursday, May 13: Vernissage, the MFA preview party and fundraiser for the SF Art Institute. Highlights include: live music by legendary Studio 13 Jass Band; guided private tours by some of the area’s finest curators (see list below); a silent auction featuring original fine art by SFAI alumni notables, including Nicole Buffett (BFA 01, MFA 04), Omar Chacon (MFA 04), Enrique Chagoya (BFA 84), and William Wiley (BFA 60, MFA 62); and the opportunity to be the first to experience the work of a next generation of emerging artists coming out of one of the nation’s most prestigious and forward-thinking art schools. The exhibition features work in a variety of media by approximately 100 graduating MFA students. Vernissage also presents the unique opportunity to meet and discuss with the artists. Additional information and purchase tickets at:
Where: Herbst Pavilion at Fort Mason (Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street)
When: 6 p.m.  Patron tours with special curatorial guests; 7 p.m. Cocktail buffet / mingle with artists / silent auction / entertainment
Curtors offering private tours: Apsara DiQuinzio, Assistant Curator of Painting and Sculpture, SFMOMA; Rudolf Frieling, Curator of Media Arts, SFMOMA; Gary Garrels, Elise S. Haas Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture, SFMOMA; Betti-Sue Hertz, Director of Visual Arts, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts; Hanru Hou, Director of Exhibitions and Galleries, SFAI; Robert Flynn Johnson, Curator Emeritus, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Julio Cesar Morales, Adjunct Curator, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts; Jeannene Przyblyski, Dean of Academic Affairs, SFAI; Dominic Willsdon, Leanne and George Roberts Curator of Education and Public Programs, SFMOMA; and John Zarobell, Assistant Curator of Collections, Exhibitions, and Commissions, SFMOMA. 

Thomas Campbell's "Der"

Yar is a nautical term for “ready,” or “quick and agile.” Being so, Thomas Campbell’s current show, which bears the term as its title, is appropriately named. It’s of the now, and ready in abundance; there are almost thirty works on show. Not overfull, the quantity is in synch with the lively color and ebullient movement of these works. They’re fun, whimsical, and detailed. This show is quick and agile, moving deftly through a variety of materials and forms: bronze sculpture, acrylic, spray-paint, wood cut-out sculpture, sewn fabric, gouache, gourds, prints.
The maritime reference is also fitting; Campbell’s work comes out of surfer/skateboarder culture (he lives in the small coastal town of Bonny Doon, outside of Santa Cruz). He is aligned with fellow “Beautiful Looser” (referencing the groundbreaking exhibition and now documentary film) artists, such as Barry McGee, Chris Johanson, and Mike Mills. Comparisons can also be made to artist Mike Shine, who also resides in a rural coastal town, Bolinas. With them he shares a graphic, bold, illustrative aesthetic. Also common, giving a nod to the graffiti/urban art scene, as well as recalling the 1960s rock posters by Wes Wilson, is the incorporation of words featuring stylized lettering. And like all of these artists, this work moves beyond its initial hit of jubilance, hipster trendiness, and humor (some work of this genre fails to get past this).
The work here is precisely executed and demonstrates a confident and rich use of color, pattern, narrative, form and composition. What points best to this are the two works that stray the most, but are perhaps the best in show: the two bronzes, Charles and Der. ared down to the blue-black color of the metal, each presents a single character. They demonstrate Campbell’s ability to edit and engage formally, seriously, and retain voice and vision; it’s yar.

"The Three Graces" by Lucy Gaylord-Lindholm

This review of Lucy Gaylord-Lindholm’s current solo exhibition recently appeared on Visual Art Source:

Enchanting, strange and impeccably painted, the series of new oil paintings by Bay Area artist Lucy Gaylord-Lindholm are wonderfully enticing, presenting a multi-layered universe that continues to unfold. The thirteen detailed works that comprise the exhibition are small, ranging in size from 17.5-by-13 inches to 11.5-by-9 inches. They are designed to create an intimate viewing experience.
A romantic evening landscape is intruded on by an enormous structure, or perhaps it is a creature made of haphazardly arranged pieces of lumber and fronted by the head of what appears to be a bird. Finely rendered portraits morph into a tangle of string. Gaylord-Lindholm’s paintings have a classic, centuries-old feel, drawing on traditional subjects and the genres of landscape, still life, portraiture, and the figure, with a heavy dose of surrealism.
In Three Graces the famous mythological trio is depicted nude and voluptuous in its traditional grouping. The middle figure faces away while the other two have their faces exposed to the viewer; here, however, the nudes are variously covered in larger-than-life Band-Aids – the adhesive strips appear on multiple occasions in this body of work. And, unlike most portrayals where the women interact only with each other, here the figure on the left, Aglaea, goddess of beauty, stares brazenly at the viewer, referencing the once-upon-a-time controversial frankness of Édouard Manet’s Olympia.
Gaylord-Lindholm draws ideas and imagery primarily from art history, pop culture, science, and fairy tales. “I’ve always been interested in the quirky or absurd,” the artist says in a recent interview, “portraying the impossible in a way that almost could be plausible.” From show to show, painting to painting, the imagery varies widely, but throughout, the palette is rich, the work tight and dramatic. And there is a commonly depicted idea: change, juxtaposing reality and the further reaches of our imagination, often drawing from a place of fear – disintegration of self, insanity, claustrophobia.
Untitled #2 is a portrait of a young girl, face forward, who stares into the middle ground, out toward us, but not at us. Her hair is dark brown and tied back, giving her a plain look; her clothing, which we see from the waist up, is a dark grey. She is against a solid darkish brown-green background. Below her neckline we can partially see through her to what’s beneath her skin: a small shadowy horse, mechanics, perhaps a spaceship. There is movement indicated toward the bottom and flowing to the right, as if a celestial storm is beginning to blow through her and will eventually fully expose her bizarre inner workings.
While these works are haunting, they are so gorgeously rendered and delightfully intricate, they play out like a dark comedy. And though completely odd, they have an internal logic that makes its own kind of sense; these paintings aren’t arbitrary. They approach the edge of absurdity without crossing over. We come away smiling and a bit more comfortable with the world’s uncertainty.

Xing Danwen's "Wang Jin, Marry a Mule 2"

Xing Danwen, “A Personal Diary”
At Haines Gallery, San Francisco, Calfornia 
Exhibition ran through March 27, 2010

Photographer Xing Danwen is recognized as one of China’s most influencial contemporary female artists. This is the first and only scheduled U.S. showing of an important series of her photos, “A Personal Diary of Chinese Avant-Garde Art in the 1990s.” The images document the subversive performance art scene—which comprised many of Danwen’s friends—that took place in Beijing’s “East Village” from roughly 1992 to 1994. Art historically then, the series is significant for chronicling a formative period of China’s contemporary art scene.
But artist fame and historic importance aren’t the primary reasons to see these works; they are good art. The images are powerful, bizarre, beautiful, charged—pushing Chinese cultural convention and comfort boundaries. Subjects are naked, as in the four-panel Liu Anping, Untitled Gesture; play with gender roles and identity, as in Ma Liuming, Performance 2 and Zhu Ming, Mona Lisa 3 , which show male artists exploring the feminine; and otherwise test social limits, as in Wang Jin, Marry a Mule 2—a photo, dazzling with hot pink, of Jin in tuxedo and his mule “bride”. In Zhang Huan, 65Kg, Huan is suspend naked in chains from the ceiling with 250 cc of his blood dripping into a hot pan.
These are pictures with punch. Learning about the harsh experiences of several of the artists depicted, as well as Danwen—incarceration, poor living conditions, interrogation—because of their creative output adds to the narrative.  
Danwen’s intimate and confrontational style has appropriately been compared to Nan Goldin’s. But the similarities end there. These images are crisp, colorful, and large (60-by-40 inches framed)—a celebration of rebellious experimentation.
These images don’t let you go easily. And sometimes they even make you smile.

(Exhibition recommendation orginally posted in the Visual Art Source newsletter.)

Illustration for Don Quixote by William T. Wiley

There are two exciting book releases this week from San Francisco specialty art-book publishers: Don Quixote, Book I, with illustrations by SF artist William T. Wiley from Arion Press and the Grabhorn Institute (Book II will follow later in the year); and a survey of work by SF artist Brion Nuda Rosch from Little Paper Planes (LPP). This is the first book published by LPP.