The Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art (SECA) Award program is based on nominations made by members of the local arts community and SECA members. Next, they review applications from more than 200 artists and make studio visits with approximately 30 finalists led by SFMOMA’s SECA Art Award curators and open to all SECA members. Lastly, one to four artists are selected by the curators.
After the who, the how and the whatever, the introductory speeches soon veered off into the insider language of art speak, sadly reminiscent of art school hyperbole. The best part of the introduction was sitting next to Mike of Civic Center blog fame and trying not to giggle at his irreverent comments.
I also got distracted by watching the shimmering reflection of Jim Campbell's installation piece on the black bands of the Botta staircase. But the art speak simply turned me off and, as it turns out, didn't remotely describe what we saw later. I know about art speak; I can do it myself. I was well on my way to an MFA when I decided that end of the art business wasn't for me.
Ruth Laskey, Twill Series, Imperial Purple
For me, Ruth Laskey's work showed the most real skill and genuine potential. She employs traditional weaving techniques to expand on the "painterly tradition of geometric abstraction." The pieces reminded me of needlepoint on linen, except that she weaves the background as well as the geometric image in a complex and intricate process. The geometric pieces are exquisite and meditative. Although they are beautifully framed and mounted, their small size and delicate, monochromatic color are not qualities that work well in SFMOMA's huge galleries.
Mauricio Ancalmo combines various found mechanical instruments in film-based installations and kinetic sculptures to form a structural dialogue that is both poetically and philosophically inspired. Do you want to have this translated into English? His Rube Goldberg machine is an old fashioned turntable, hooked up to a projector that projects a loop of found film around the three and a half walls of a small room built within the gallery. There's music of a sort. The piece is mildly amusing although I got a bit of vertigo trying to follow the rapid image as it revolved around the room. The piece is titled "A Lover's Discourse" and if this is the state of loving communication, no wonder the divorce rate is so high.
Colter JacobsonColter Jacobsen's "meticulous drawings, watercolors, and installations often incorporate found ephemera to explore reflection and longing." The very young and very sweet curator described his work as "mundane and mysterious." Want a translation? The mundane and mysterious piece was a snail, made of found pieces. Other items were a watercolor on the inside of a book jacket, and other small images, looking rather like postcards - except that real postcards are more interesting. Trust me when I say that the reproduction of his pieces looks better than the originals. Because he uses so much found material, it's difficult to tell what's original from what is his creation.
Ruth Laskey, Black Twill Series
Kamau Amu Patton synthesizes works in a range of media to investigate the "inter-zone of sound, materiality, and perceptual experience." Please don't ask me to explain this because I haven't a clue. The room had black something on the walls and black strips on the floor with an obtrusive wall of noise blanketing the room. The free form, free standing sculptures had a lovely simplicity but I can't speak to their originality.
Kamau Amu Patton. Form 1
I wondered if the guards were going to have to keep people from stepping the patterns on the floor. I did ask the very nice guard if the sound portion work would be difficult to deal with on a daily basis. She very tactfully responded that it was just up so it wasn't a problem...yet. But imagine having to stand all day surrounded by "noise" and ask kids not to walk on the installation piece on the floor.
Barry McGee has covered the last wall of the 5th floor gallery with his patented bright geometric squares. At least they are colorful.
What does this art say to me? Am I thrilled, provoked, enlightened, amazed, intrigued?
One member of the press (Susan Cohn, San Mateo Business Times) was asking the curator about how this art relates to people who are not already art insiders. The curator was tap dancing around the question, throwing up art speak like white caps on a windy day but the long and short of it is --- it doesn't. It doesn't matter that one of the artists uploads his sound installations (think dull roar of traffic heard from a distance) to the Internet.
I thought that maybe the younger generation would "get it" but Susan said that she has two boys and they don't understand this art nor do they care.
But her unanswered question is an important one. The fact that the curator couldn't answer it without resorting to her previously memorized sound bites says volumes about the art and whom it relates to. It's art by insiders, for insiders and made by people who understand very well the language of artistic success and how to manipulate it.
I always fight my own tendency to dislike so much of what passes for contemporary art. especially conceptual art. I am aware of my own prejudices and know that I am not the best judge. But the bulk of this work is simply not interesting enough to force me to struggle with my own bias.
In fact, work like this continues to deepen the divide between the elite who go to museums and the rest of us. This bothers me because I care about art. Maybe educational programs will cross some of that divide. But you have to show those of us who are not art insiders that it's worth crossing that divide.
The show is largely the visual equivalent of art speak where big, pseudo profound cliches cover the page but mean nothing. I'm glad for the artists who have now made a huge career leap but sad that, after such an extensive process, SECA thinks that these are the best we have to offer.
*Images from SFMOMA, lines in quotes from their press release.
Article from the NY Times: SECA Award