Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Dimension of Ink, #1 by Zheng Chongbin (at the Asian)

Born in Shanghai (1961),  Zheng Chongbin studied in China before traveling to the U.S.l where he received am MFA from the SFAI in 1991. He now spends his time between China and the U.S.. His work reflects influences from both cultures - Chinese Ink meets Franz Kline!  His work is abstract and yet, resonates with subtle reminders of traditional Chinese landscape painting. He paints with ink on paper but uses acrylic and fixer to create a sense of depth and darken the blacks for greater contrast.  When I heard him talk, he spoke of how traditional Chinese painting - particularly contemporary traditional painting - can suffer from washed out colors and lack of spacial depth. 

information from the catalogue of the exhibit: Shanghai, Art of the City
Image courtesy of the Asian Art Museum and Michelle Dillworth. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Gail Wight, Restless Dust - San Francisco Center For the Book

 "Anemones would mock us and Darwin's ghost would lose his mind among the barnacles" Gail Wight, Restless Dust. 2009 IIMPRINT Residency Book project at the San Francisco Center for the book.

Take the 22 Fillmore (or you can drive for there is some parking) to the other side of Potrero Ave to a formerly nondescript, now gentrifying part of town. You get off at De Haro, cross the street and turn left. I don't know if it's North, South, East or West; I just know that you get off the bus and turn left. You will walk past a bright blue building on your left, past Sally's Restaurant and still looking left, you will see the steps to the San Francisco Center for the Book. Since 1996, the Center has been teaching bookmaking and related skills and showing work that expands the boundaries of the book arts. The current exhibit, "Restless Dust," by Gail Wight is no exception. The source of the book title is a quote from Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley,

“It appears to me impossible that I should cease to exist, or that this active, restless spirit, equally alive to joy and sorrow, should be only organized dust.” 

Gail Wight, Restless Dust

It was Wight's idea to issue an invitation to Darwin's ghost to wander around the greater Bay Area and the metaphysical colloquium between them led to this elegant and poetic dialogue between art and science. In looking at the ways in which Darwin's legacy has impacted our culture, she examines the fragile and endangered state of our environment.

Gail Wight, Cabinet of Curiosities -2001
Touch any image on the top of the cabinet and it will lead you to another series of images (some with sound) to a time-based meditation on the nature of evolutionary science.

In an e-mail exchange with Ms. Wight, I asked her "what actually led you down this artistic path in the first place? You've been working in the intersection of art and science for quite some time. Was there an "ah-ha" moment or was it slower, more organic (as it were)? How did you come to link Mary Wollstonecraft and Darwin? Or was it "just" an artistic leap? I was also looking at your CV - do you think of yourself as an artist who uses scientific images or a scientist who uses art to convey ideas? Or is that misframing the question?"

Gail Wight, Ghost. plexiglas & electronics, 7" x 8" x 12", 2004
Ghost was made in honor of all of the small beetles, moths, butterflies and bugs who lost their lives in the course of the practice and pedagogy of science

This is her response, "A good two decades ago, while an undergrad at Mass Art in Boston, I was going through some medical difficulties. The entire world of medicine - its history, altruism, and vagaries - just overwhelmed me. My fantastic professors gave me "permission" to think of medicine and science as subject matter for art, not so popular an idea back then. I am, happily, still stuck in this rut. It's an deep and cavernous rut filled with seemingly endless inspiration for art."

"I'm absolutely an artist, not a scientist in any way. I do rely on the generosity of scientists. I like to think that while I'm using scientific imagery, I'm also tapping into scientific methods, practices, habits, abnormalities, culture, tools, and a certain way of viewing the world, in order to construct artistic allegories that might have some relevance for people."

"Wollstonecraft and Darwin... They're both on my personal list of favorite "great thinkers." I think they were both trying to think outside of the rigid constraints of their times, and expand our understanding of our own humanity. That quote by MW just breaks my heart. Darwin was so determined to do so much, discover so much in the little things of life. Barnacles were his favorite, but he studied SO many aspects of the living and geological world. When I started to think about him as a person, rather than just a figurehead, Wollstonecraft's quote came to mind."

Cabinet of Curiosities, wooden cabinet housing an interactive cd-rom

In addition to the completed limited-edition book and documentation of Wight's residency, the exhibition includes earlier referential work such as The Cabinet Of Curiosities, Ghost and Ground Plane, among others. In the glass case lining one part of the exhibition space, the Center is displaying some of the paraphernalia that went into the making of the book - steel letterpress alphabet shapes, lino cuts, hand made stamps, tags with fragments of 19th century copper plate writing, pages open to show some of the quirky and poetical texts in the book.

The snowflake mandalas (Ground Plane, 2007-08), on the wall are actually digital prints, with individual images from hundreds of exact scale photos of squirrel, marmot, snake, frog and other animal bones. Taken from the Hadley Lab Collection, each mammal was between one to ten thousand years old. Wight states: “These images became a way for me to think about deep time and the Earth's crust as a crowded record of that time, a conduit of information about the past, and the space upon which we draw our present lives.”

The end wall of the exhibit has the following quote from from Stephen Jay Gould:

"The most important scientific revolutions all include as their only common feature the dethronement of human arrogance from one pedestal after another and previous convictions about our centrality in the cosmos." 

By combining 19th century scientific images with 21st century technology, Ms. Wight's work is  playful, poetic, elegant and insightful. This is art that is made with the intent of making us think more deeply about our place in the world and our imprint upon it without being pompous or, worse yet, boring and trendily obscure for the sake of being obscure.

All images courtesy of the San Francisco Center for the Book
Michael Bartalos is a board member for the SF Center for the Book and provided the photos for this article. 
Blog of her work in progress:
Gail Wight's website:

Restless Dust - A ghost walk with Darwin, up until April 17th, 2010
SF Center for the Book
300 De Haro St. Ste. 334
San Francisco, CA 94103
Gallery Hours: Sat 12-4; M-F 10-5.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Rainy Tuesday

Picked up while wandering through the Internet:

Dimensions of Ink - from the current show at the Asian Art Museum

Joanne Mattera's always insightful Marketing Mondays

Reduce fees and boost city funding of the arts?
This is particularly relevant to me as SF makes artists in the city pay a license fee. The law states that you don't have to pay the fee if you are open less than four days a year. Most of us are only open only two days a year - during Open Studios - yet the city is rigidly insisting that we all fork over. It's not a lot of money but it's indicative of an attitude toward local artists that is not supportive or friendly.

Members of the Long Beach City Council hope to get City Hall off the backs of working artists, street performers and informal arts venues such as galleries, bookstores and coffee houses, while impaneling a new commission to brainstorm ways to boost the city government’s funding of the arts.

The outsourcing of arts education?

The certified arts teachers are getting it from all sides. Not only do they have to worry about a narrowing of the curriculum in an accountability zeitgeist run amuck, but they are being attacked as all certified teachers are for the quality of their training and performance while facing the growing issue of alternative certification. And yes, they are greatly concerned about teachers being asked to teach the arts who are licensed in other subject areas.

Google Opt Out?

But when does opportunity become exploitation? A recent report called Emerging Workers, produced by the Arts Group, a body representing arts students and graduates, is not mincing its words. It has called the large number of unpaid jobs in the creative sector "exploitation" and is calling for legislation to regulate the use of unpaid internships by arts organisations, suggesting that all placements over a month should be paid the national minimum wage.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Weekend Wrap Up for Feb 20-21st.

A meditation on Darwin, two cartoon shows and a new exhibit of Chinese Ink painting opening at the Cantor Museum in Stanford - something for everyone.

San Francisco Center for the Book: Gail Wight - Restless Dust

 Image from the exhibit; used with permission

"This exhibition explores the making of “Restless Dust,” created during Wight's one-year residency at the Center. The source of the book title is a quote from Mary Wollstonecraft (author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and mother of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, author of Frankenstein):

It appears to me impossible that I should cease to exist, or that this active, restless spirit, equally alive to joy and sorrow, should be only organized dust.”

In addition to the completed limited-edition book and documentation of Wight's residency, the exhibition will include earlier referential work. Wight states: “These images became a way for me to think about deep time and the Earth's crust as a crowded record of that time, a conduit of information about the past, and the space upon which we draw our present lives."

 The Bodies Are Back  - at Intersection for the Arts through March 27.

Margaret Harrison's take on what was originally an astute feminist commentary on women and sexuality in the 1970's has morphed into cartoon images, the adult children of a misalliance between Tom's of Finland and Vargas.  That this is touted as gender bending feminism in San Francisco (of all places) - on a street with Good Vibrations and a community thrift store that has an open porn section, shows how the meaning of feminism has been devalued in the last two decades. The police shut down her original show and she abandoned the work for years; it should have stayed that way. The work from 1971 and SOME of the reworked pieces maintain their critical edge but the bulk of the current work is little more than another rift (albeit skillful) on cartoons, leather bustiers, high heels and Superman in drag.

Through March 27. Noon-5 p.m. Wed.-Sat. Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia St., S.F. (415) 626-2787.

Drawing the Sword: Samurai in Manga and Anime explores the changing face and interpretation of the samurai as seen through two of Japan’s most creative and expressive artistic forms. Now on display at the Cartoon Art Museum (in the heart of San Francisco’s South of Market museum district), the exhibition traces this evolution from historic 19th century woodblock prints to leading-edge 21st century animation production cels and drawings.

Cantor Museum: The Lobdell show closes and a new exhibit opens: Tracing the Past, Drawing the Future Master Ink Painters in 20th-Century China
Calligraphy and paintings from artists known in China as the "Four Great Masters of Ink Painting."

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Shanghai - Art of the City at the Asian Art Museum

A Shanghai missionary (quoted in Stella Dong’s book on Shanghai) railed “If God lets Shanghai endure, he owes an apology to Sodom and Gomorrah.” Shanghai- a city that was once synonymous with decadence and crime, a name that conjured visions of sin and sex, brothels, babes, laissez-faire capitalism and colonial privilege. The city was (and is) cosmopolitan and dynamic, the place where East met West, sometimes in a creative synthesis and sometimes in a confrontation that ended in tragedy. Yet, while the concessions forced the opium trade on the Chinese, it also opened the country to new ideas, among them nationalism, democracy, the equality of women, and Communism.

 The Bund, within the premises of Russell and Company. by Chowkwa. 1897. Oil on Canvas. Peabody Essex Museum. Courtesy Asian Art Museum

While the exhibit gives you a good overview of Shanghai, all cleaned up and ready for the 2010 Expo, it does not give you a good image of Shanghai's dirty, dangerous and difficult past. The elegantly calm oil painting of the Bund (see above) does not begin to explain what was really happening. The concessions forced from the declining Celestial Empire by the European powers opened the country to the opium trade, which decimated the Chinese while creating vast fortunes for the privileged. The Taiping revolt and the breakdown of Manchu control sent thousands flooding into Shanghai. Slums, brothels, crime, corruption and exploitation of the Chinese became commonplace; the racism, so casually displayed by the Imperialist powers added another layer of misery. What I looked for - and didn't see in this portion of the exhibit - was a visual of that side of Shanghai. The Buddhists say that the jewel of the lotus grows out of mud. In Shanghai, there was plenty of mud and it didn't just come from the river. Show me!

Evening Glow on the Huangpu River, 1955. Shen Roujian. Shanghai History Museum. Courtesy Asian Art Museum. 

But, while the western powers exploited China, they also opened the country to Western ideas in art (among other things). In 19th century Europe, art was revolutionized by the Japanese prints than originally came wrapped around trade goods made for the European market.

Something similar happened in China and the first part of the exhibit shows Chinese artists struggling – not always successfully – to master oil painting, Western perspective and genre painting. Guan Liang could be a student of Cezanne and the two pieces by Guan Zilan, one of the few successful women artists of the period, could take place of pride in many European museums. The point of this part of the exhibit is not that they are all great works of art; the point is that China’s traditional culture, including painting, was undergoing rapid, even revolutionary change. What is shown here is, of necessity, only a tiny fragment of the history of the contacts between East and West - sometimes there was a significant artistic synthesis into a new art form (as in film or posters). At other times, the combinations were much more awkward and jarring.

One of the more ironic pieces in the exhibit is a traditional scroll painting by Ya Ming (1924). The gentlemen so elegantly posed in the painting are two of the most powerful chieftains of the Shanghai underworld. Their realistic faces are at odds with the traditional brushwork on silk.  But, looking at this elegant ink scroll of two respectable gentlemen, would you be able to guess their business? Is there any indication of the cruelty, disease and vicious nature of the criminal underground there? If Shanghai, Art of the City is telling the history of the city through its arts, I want to see it all, high, low and somewhere in-between.  I didn't see it and I wanted to see it. Maybe China has yet to produce a Coppola capable of visualizing both the reality and the myth of pre-revolutionary Shanghai. Shanghai was notorious for it's brothels, babes and decadence. I wanted to see an opium pipe or two, a photo of the slums, even a small display of the items used in foot binding.

So, show me!

One area that did work was the selection on the graphic art of the 1930's. China was under attack by the Japanese and human misery had spiraled into the stratosphere. Both the Nationalist and the Communist Party were organizing in Shanghai. For a short time, they were even allies!

Lia Hua, Roar, China. (1907-1994). Woodcut on paper. Collection of the Lu Xun Memorial Hall. Courtesy of the Asian.

The graphic arts collection is fascinating for these artists were combining traditional Chinese colors and art deco with commerce to produce pieces that are still fresh and vibrant.  I’m not a big fan of furniture but the placement of the furniture exhibit with its sumptuous pieces of Art Deco elegance– next to the revolutionary posters and wood cuts of 1930’s China – packs a visual punch. One China is wealthy and privileged, the other poor, oppressed and struggling against crime, corruption and exploitation, both national and international.

  Parade for the Founding of the People's Republic of China (Shanghai). 1950. Hangzhou National School. Courtesy of the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre and the Asian Art Museum. 

Another strength of the exhibit is the selection given to the art of Communism and the Cultural Revolution. Bright colors, red cheeks and Chairman Mao preside over what was, in retrospect, as turbulent a period as the 1930's and 1940's.

In Stella Dong's book, Shanghai is often referred to as the Emperor's ugly daughter who never has to worry about finding suitors. The show can only cover a few of Shanghai's suitors because 150 years of history is too much to show, much less tell. Yet, it is more than worth while to see because what is shown is intriguing. While I wished for more, the museum has opened another door into the history of country - and a city -  that is the emerging powerhouse of the coming decade.

Stella Dong.  Shanghai, 1943-1949. The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City
Jonathan D. Spence. The Search for Modern China

Monday, February 15, 2010

Shanghai - Art of the City at the Asian

One of my favorite pieces in the show is the "Landscape – Commemorating Huang Binhow – Scroll " by Shen Fan. Where else could you see a piece by a contemporary Chinese artist, recreating an ancient Chinese art form, using neon, a substance first identified in 1898 by the British chemists, Sir William Ramsay and Morris Travers. The screen is lit by electrified tubes, a 19th century discovery by the Frenchman Georges Claude.

Over the course of two hours, individual neon lights, evoking single brush strokes, light up. This is accompanied by individual notes on the qin (a zither-like instrument) to form a continuous whole. The length, shape, angle and location of the neon tubes decide the length and tone of the musical notes. The museum has thoughtfully provided a bench next to the installation for those who want to sit and experience the whole cycle. Joe Martin Hill in the December 2006 of Yishu Magazine commented that this work was worthy "to contemplate the weight of history and its contemporary reformulation."

Shen Fan describes the music.."There is no melody, no rhythm, no harmony. Who would care about the source of the music? Maybe, that is the sound of nature." (Shanghai, Art of the City, pp. 221).

 I asked one of the guards if the museum made them practice Tai Chi in front of the screen in time with the music produced by the installation. With a completely straight poker face, he told me, “No, they make us do yoga.”

In the context of Shanghai’s completely international status, well represented by this exhibit,  I could well believe it.

 Detail of the installation from the Asian Art Museum's blog:

Shanghai “at the Asian opened to a particularly negative review by Kenneth Baker, the Chronicle’s resident art critic.  According to him, the show is  “too little on too much.” After complaining that he saw better shows (i.e. more focused on 21st century Chinese art) in larger spaces, he concludes with the comment that "Here is the ultimate knock on "Shanghai": I left it less interested in visiting Shanghai than when I arrived."

Gee Kenny, why don't you tell us what you really think?

The show is ambitious and there is no doubt that trying to pack 150 years of tumultuous history into the Asian’s rather small exhibit space does cause problems. Most of us are used to viewing art separate from history. But in this show, history is the focus and art provides the context.  The art exhibited is not always beautiful, but that makes it more fascinating. For a museum to turn the usual focus of an exhibit upside down is a bit disorienting  for viewers to take in but it is a worthwhile and (mostly) successful attempt.

Yet, I suspect that if Asian had been less ambitious, they would have also been criticized for that. To compare the show at the Asian, as Baker did, with more thematically focused shows at the National Gallery or the Museum of Modern art is hostile and mean spirited without being insightful.

I will write more later as I process this complex show (you thought I was not going to be loquacious- HA!). But for those who want more background, I can recommend the catalogue on Shanghai. Written and organized by curators Michael Knight and Dany Chan, it is full of insightful essays filling in all the gaps that the exhibit didn't have the space to show.

Steven Winn:


Thursday, February 11, 2010

A conversation about Tuymans

 Luc Tuymans, Turtle, 2007 (David Zwirner Gallery, courtesy SFMOMA).

When I posted my review on Luc Tuymans, I asked my friends for feedback - good, bad, critical, raves- whatever. One of the frustrating things about writing is the usual lack of feedback. Well, I got more than I asked for. I feel that this is one of the most insightful conversations about art  that I've been a part of in a long time. What makes it even more exciting is that it comes from working artists, not official art critics. (Conversations posted with permission.)

Anna L. Conti : Nancy, this is good. The first part is the best part - up until "Is the heart of darkness white?" I might have ended it there. Actually, I like the paragraph about Gruenwald, too. And now that I read it again, there are many more good points. I guess the only part I'd cut are the remarks about the artist's personal appearance. (Me: Good point and I did cut a line or two).
Working Artists Journal

Richard Bolingbroke
: Nancy, I thought it was a wonderful article. While I have only seen a couple of his paintings and a peek into the closed off exhibit when I was last at MOMA, I find your critique of the exhaustive text and grey paintings to be spot-on.
I find "political" art to be usually second-rate (Guernica and some Goyas excepted) since its not about painting and politics is hard to encompass in a manner that can be appreciated more than a few years after the event.
This whole nonsense about the death of painting and now it's being saved by this shadow of a painter is such hype. Too much about nothing in my opinion.
Keep writing

 Sherry Miller: I read in an interview with Tuysmans that he said he considers Jan Van Eyck (not Grunewald but close!) the greatest artist of all time. I went through the whole show without reading any of the text panels and only a few of the labels. The show seemed to me to be a commentary on 20th century history. It is cool and intellectual (unlike Kiefer) but there is a long history of intellectual painting (Poussin, Leger for example) along with emotional painters (Rubens, Bacon). The intellectual painters are still good painters but I too prefer the emotional. It's a good column with lots of information and your own view clearly expressed. I only wonder what you did in there for a whole hour? (ME _ I went to look at the paintings done when artists didn’t need to apologize for being good painters!)
Sherry Miller

Nancy: Thanks for all the feedback - I really appreciate it. I am ambivalent about Tuyman's work which is why the essay was so hard to write. I DO like some of his pieces; the close-up portraits are powerful, even without the text. I feel that it's important for me to engage with all kinds of art and try to write clearly. It's easier to write when it's somebody I despise, like Koons. Now that was a treat to write! But Tuymans is in a different category and while I don't "like" his work and the hype is a turn off, there's enough "there there" for a serious look.

Sherry : I think we read the same interview. It makes sense that Tuyman's prefers Van Eyck who is cool, intellectual and whose paintings are full of symbolism. But I felt the comparison with Gruenwald was more telling.

Virginia Arana Greene: Nancy, i think you hit the crux of the issue with the question "is the heart of darkness white?"

i think Tuymans perhaps would be the first to agree that his paintings cannot possibly convey the actual sense of horror of colonialism - in the BBC interview he talks about his work being "borne out of a genuine distrust of imagery, distust in terms of not only comprehending it but also making it." i think that is at the heart of the discomfort i feel in looking at his work - there is nothing physical to hang onto or even launch from - images are not to be used/trusted as a starting point, sensual, gestural paint use is gone, color is sharply reduced (i agree it is still there though so it does evoke a powerful mood). in a sense to me then these are not close to "paintings" at all nor even close to photographs really! for me, the whole exhibit becomes a contemplation on the impossibility of truly understanding history. i agree with you that in the end this is the use of a visual work to impart something that might have been as powerfully conveyed through language, through an essay, book or even through a film

Sherry Miller: Virginia you say "for me, the whole exhibit becomes a contemplation on the impossibility of truly understanding history " I think if the show did that, it is a success art exhibit that words would not convey!

Virginia Arana Greene: Hi Sherry - True - I think it is successful to what his intentions were however I'm not entirely sure that words cannot convey similar ideas - certain works of fiction might do that or films.

One thing that sticks with me after seeing the show is that I cannot imagine owning a Tuyman's piece and gazing at it many times in my living room whereas I definitely would want to own say a Joan Mitchell painting and it would never lose its interest for me. For me, I think that sense of continual satisfaction and delight emanating from a piece is the essence of good painting.

Nancy Ewart: You guys are the BEST! You are more articulate, more thoughtful and more insightful than a whole Internet full of "name" critics. I wish I could post this discussion on my blog - if I can, do I have your permission? It's rare to find such a conversation on art and when I find one (even if it's around something I've written), I'd love to have more people read it. Who says that you only have shallow conversations on Facebook?

Sherry Miller: I thought the same thing - that it would be great to post this whole conversation where others could read it; I was also thinking of putting it on my blog. Let's put it somewhere that Kenneth Baker and Tyler Green, not mention Schrewdjahl (sic) could steal it! Ha!

Liz Hager: I was trying to decide whether to drag myself to this exhibit. (Alas, curiosity has the better of me, and I probably will.) In the meantime, thanks for all these interesting points.

    Appreciation for lots of art depends on understanding the context (historical, aesthetic, etc.), so I don't so much take issue with his too-esoteric-for American audiences historical context. But yes the copious amount of (esoteric) text always a turn off.

    What worries me most about the show is Schjeldahl's assertion: "If painting has nothing significant left to say, he seems to reason, it might as well say nothing about significant things."

    Art's gotta have soul for it to withstand the test of time.
Venetian Red

    Obviously, I disagree with Schjeldahl - just look at the roster of painters that I mentioned in the article. But I also suspect that Schjeldahl was trying to say something clever about Tuymans; it would never do to say that this year's Emperor is wearing shabby clothes. So, he --- like so many others -- resorts to over the top type. I know that hype is nothing new but when there is SO much hype for a painter whose skills are ambiguous , it is, for me, a real turn off.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Wednesday Links

"I don't think art needs to do anything else. All art is good or bad according to how much life it holds and releases.

The Fresno Metropolitan Museum will be selling its collection at auction - about 3000 items. I can't find a list of even the most valuable ones but this means that all art items will probably disappear from public view:

The Shanghai Art Exhibit at the Asian Art Museum will be opening this Friday - don't wait to be Shanghaied! Just Go, Go, Go!
 Landscape-Commemorating Huang Binhong-Scroll, 2007. By Shen Fan (b. 1952). Installation with lights and sound. Courtesy of the artist.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Luc Tuymans at SF MOMA

Luc Tuymans, Orchid, 1998; oil on canvas; 39 1/4 x 30 1/4 in. (99.7 x 76.8 cm); Private collection, courtesy David Zwirner, New York; © Luc Tuymans; photo: Felix Tirry, courtesy David Zwirner, New York

The latest bad boy of the art world comes preceded by copious amounts of critical hype. He's articulate, fond of making brash, provocative statements and is a photographer's dream. Yet, there’s precious little living in Tuyman’s paintings, much ambiguity and no love that I can discern. Tuyman’s uses his pieces to criticize society, in his case, all the last 100 years of Colonialism, Imperialism and Nazism. But it is a critique from a distance. His work is cool, detached, and ambiguous.  He's cool with his cropped hair, stylish black jacket and provocative stance.

In King Leopold's Ghosts, Hochschild's superb, engrossing chronicle focuses on one of the great, horrifying and nearly forgotten crimes of the century: greedy Belgian King Leopold II's rape of the Congo, the vast colony he seized as his private fiefdom in 1885. Until 1909, he used his mercenary army to force slaves into mines and rubber plantations, burn villages, mete out sadistic punishments, including dismemberment, and commit mass murder. The hero of Hochschild's highly personal, even gossipy narrative is Liverpool shipping agent Edmund Morel, who, having stumbled on evidence of Leopold's atrocities, became an investigative journalist and launched an international Congo reform movement. I read Kristoff's article on what's currently going on in the Congo and wondered how Leopold's legacy of oppression and torture could possibly be conveyed by Tuyman's cerebral paintings with their deliberately obscured images and muted, grayed color palate. Can the uber-cool convey the horror of the concentration camp, as portrayed in the piece below?

Luc Tuymans, Gaskamer (Gas Chamber) 1986; oil on canvas; 24 x 32 1/2 in. (61 x 82.5 cm); The Over Holland Collection. In honor of Caryl Chessman; © Luc Tuymans; photo: Peter Cox, courtesy The Over Holland Collection

Is the heart of darkness white? Can white and gray-white adequately convey horror?

One of his psychic ancestors would be the 16th Century painter, Matthias Grünewald whose often grotesque religious paintings showed Christ presiding over the suffering world. But unlike Grünewald's world, we do not share a common religion or painterly symbolism.  In Tuyman's world, there is no Christ, there is no redemption. To use Hannah's Arendt's famous phrase, there is only the banality of evil - except that the pieces are often so obscure that it is impossible to recognize what evil is being portrayed.  Much of the  work is often visually weak and meaningless without the text.There are exceptions - the close-cropped portraits of Rice, Ben Laiden, Loyola are an unflinching look at the faces of those who wield power without regard for ethics or compassion.

Schjeldahl claims Tuyman's work dramatizes the fallen state of painting since the 1960s. But,  I don't agree; there are a dozen painters whose work I respect - Saville, Dumas, Freud, even Richter. Their work is more painterly, the effect doesn't depend on text and the paint engages you.

Luc Tuymans, Lumumba, 2000; oil on canvas; 24 3/8 x 18 1/8 (61.9 x 46 x  cm); The Museum of Modern Art, New York, fractional and promised gift of Donald L. Bryant Jr., 2002; © Luc Tuymans; photo: courtesy David Zwirner

Some of the portraits like that of Condi Rice or Patrice Lumumba show real skill in handling paint. One of his earliest pieces up, titled "Hands" shows a painterly facility. But there is far too much concept and too little painting: I got bored after about an hour. Now, it was interesting to hear him talk about his process but then, I always like to hear articulate artists. When I walked out of the Kiefer exhibit, I was emotionally exhausted. Even if I didn't get at first all the historical references, I was deeply touched and fascinated. When I left Tuyman's exhibit, I was not the slightest bit engaged. Now, I appreciate the historical references. A lot of people don't know about King Leopold's oppression of the Belgium Congo and a lot of other people are far too ready to forget or ignore the concentration camps and the "medical research" that was done on millions of people.

 But reaching the heart of darkness is not done by paintings of blasé images, surrounded by acres and acres of text. I always have "problems" with painting that needs comprehensive text to make it approachable. If you aren't interested or disagree politically, you won't go - and if you (or the public) don’t go, what is the point? If you don't know about Nazism or the history of the Congo or even contemporary American politics, his grey on white pieces lose two thirds of their power. Since that's the case, why not write a good history book? If he lived three hundred years ago, he would have been a history painter with a whole list of rules and the painterly ethic to go with it. He might have even worked with Rubens in making a case for the legitimate rule of Marie De Medici. If not that, then he would have been covering acres and acres of palace walls with 17th century political propaganda, kings as gods, conquering all for the glory of the Bourbons or the Hapsburgs or the Stuarts.

But, living now, there are no rules, there are no standards - but there is, for a certain type of ambition - building the career. What is good painting in the post-modern era? The critics don't know. Look at the frequent declarations that "painting is dead." If you want to look at passionate and deliberate "bad paintings" that are also a critique of racism, look no further than the late Robert Coldescott. If you want post-modern art, the story starts with Duchamp and stretches into the future. Where Tuyman's work will end up is anybody's guess.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Shanghai: Opening this week at the Asian

Shanghai- a city that was once synonymous with decadence and crime, a name that conjured visions of sin and sex, brothels, babes, capitalism and colonialism. It was both cosmopolitan and dynamic, the place where East met West, sometimes in a creative synthesis and sometimes in a confrontation that ended in tragedy. It was the birthplace of the Chinese Communist Party and where Chang Kai Shek took control of the Kuomintang, the city where the White Russians and Russian Jews fled for sanctuary. It's been at the cutting edge of politics, revolution and movements of all kinds for most of its history. Currently, it's the largest city in China and one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world.

The Asian Museum will be presenting objects from Shanghai's history, from its origins in a traditional, walled Chinese city through the decades of Manchu downfall, civil war, the Japanese invasion and Communist rule. Throughout all, the artists of Shanghai - in whatever medium - have created unique and stunning works of art. Who says that East can't meet West (or vice-a-versa)?

 The museum has a wonderful educational section through their web pages - full of information about Chinese history and art, Shanghai and the upcoming show.

Opening February 12 through September 5th
Asian Art Museum
200 Larkin Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 581-3500
Shanghai (Wikipedia)

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Pearl Paint Closings

At yesterday's round table discussion at SF MOMA, we were discussing Pearl Paint closing and the potential future of that stretch of Market St. A couple of us had lived in NY and were curious about the flag ship store. Apparently it's in trouble as well:

Weekend rambles: outsider art, sky photos and video whimsy

James Castle (1900 – 1977) devoted his quiet life to making small art objects, drawings and books painted, drawn and constructed from used materials found in his rural homestead near Boise, Idaho. Born deaf, Castle never learned signing or lip reading and instead taught himself a rigorous personal creative language using discarded milk cartons, matchboxes, chimney soot, his own saliva and colors squeezed from wet tissue paper. In an hermetic environment with limited communication with relatives who cared for him, Castle constructed arresting images and objects based on his observed surroundings: interiors, people, animals, and farm landscape. Some works are composed from words and images seen in print, which carried a special fascination for the artist.

It's interesting that the show of this "outsider" artist coincides with the Outsider Art Fair in New York. Like most outsider art, his is hard to describe. It makes me realize how much we depend on categorizing art in order to understand it. His deafness and isolation combined with an unsuspected (for the time) intelligence and creativity led him to view his surroundings with an astute understanding and a sophistication which is shocking for someone who we would consider marginalized.

Despite the barrenness of Castle’s surroundings and the solitary quality of his life, his works lack any sense of loneliness, pain, or worry. On the contrary, “making art for Castle,” says BAM/PFA Chief Curator Lucinda Barnes, “was clearly an act of confident pleasure and curiosity, an act in which he immersed his full awareness.”

Organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the show is on view at the BAM ( Berkeley Art Museum) from February 3, 2010 through April 25, 2010.
Also at Gallery Paule Anglim:

Robert Hartman at Triangle - His sky photos of California combine photography with painterly ambiance.

Katya Bonnenfant at Haines. Normally I'm not that fond of video/installation/conceptual pieces but this one captured my attention.

This is the French graphic/web designer;'s first exhibition at Haines Gallery. The "Hortensia Suitcase Delux,” includes “Motif Fleuri” a projected image of a small creature climbing its way across the flowers and plants of botanical wallpaper installed on the gallery walls and designed by the artist. Bulges grow on him, he blows on them and they transform into seeds that fly to fertilize other corners of the wallpaper. The corollas hide all kinds of strange lovers. Also on view is “Vintage Packaging for Animation,” a series of small animations enclosed in vintage calculators and clocks. The artist works with these recycled machines to give them a whimsical ‘second life’.
It's both charming and bizarre.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Music from Mail: Tribute to Vieux Farka Toure

Rhythm and Hues: Cloth and Culture of Mali at the Museum of Craft and Folk Art in SF

While little known in the West, the West African country of Mali is home to more fiber artists and designers than most other countries in the world. Examples of Mali's extraordinary legacy of textile arts, with its vibrant colors and complex graphic statements will be presented at the Museum of Craft and Folk Art in San Francisco from February 5-May 2, 2010.

The exhibit will give long overdue recognition to contemporary Malian fabric artisans and highlights the enduring significance of textiles as a major form of aesthetic in Mali. Featuring works beyond the mudcloth tradition, this exhibition seeks to showcase contemporary styles and techniques which have yet to be shown in the US. Due to the expository role of cloth in daily life, both hand-dyed and factory printed kinds of popular fabrics reveal current and constantly evolving cultural trends. The pictorial nature of the prints allows the wearer to express unique and equally critical messages, such as political attitudes, educational institutions and affiliations, or social views, and public health concerns. Although the shapes of the garments remain fairly constant, the colors, patterns, designs and messages of the cloth are constantly transforming.

The museum will also showcase other forms of traditional art and craft from Mali, such as wooden puppets, and the life-sized masked and costumed figures called “marionettes” which act out village legends. Unusual calabashes and baskets are also included to show the wide variety of Malian craft and folk art. They will also explore social issues such as empowerment of women, the status of dress, women’s identity, and current trends in fabric design.

Museum of Craft & Folk Art
51 Yerba Buena Lane
San Francisco, CA 94103

For more information, read: From Timbuktu to SF, By Kris Vagner

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Wednesday Links

Luc Tuymans -The Architect (1997) © Collection Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden
Oil on canvas. 113 x 144.5 cm
I spent the morning previewing the new show at SFMOMA - Luc Tuymans, a contemporary Belgium painter who is is reputed to be "one of the most significant painters working today." It's sure to be the new "hot ticket" in town but I'm a bit cynical about the hype. But more about that later; I have to let my impressions mature (mutate? ferment) for a bit before I come to a more nuanced conclusion.

More on the Westboro Baptist Church comes to town circus; SF out maneuvers and out protests the protesters. If it’s one thing we do well, it’s theatre of the absurd.

“God sure hates a lot of things these days. Does he hate ponies because gay people like to ride them? Or is it because tiny horses really tick him off?”

Also over at Princess Sparkle Pony

Matty Boy’s clever and insightful column – God gets Rickrolled via Matty Boy

The new guy at the met via Culture Girl. Skip the “Jeff Koons paints’ part unless you are a glutton for unnecessary punishment.

I like his taste in painting; he chose this to hang in his private office

In drawing classes, enough with the uber-skinny -if I wanted to draw a bone, I would have taken anatomy! The general belief is that models for figure-drawing classes need to have picture-perfect figures. But across the region, colleges and art schools say they're in desperate need of different bodies to pose, usually naked but not always, for figure-drawing, anatomy, and animation classes.

It's a challenge that's been around since the aerobicized decades of the '80s and '90s, said McKenna, who has been model coordinator for four years. Women in particular feel they don't fit the model images of television (think America's Next Top Model) and magazines.

The invisibility of older women artists
 One of the observations made by Sylvia is how hard other women on are on women artists. The one comment on this page was from a woman, who had never met Sylvia, and yet, was harshly judgmental of her.

Where are the arts important?
The arts play a vital role in virtually every community across the nation. It is not simply rich New Yorkers who care about music or dance or theater. People of all backgrounds and income levels are involved with the arts across the United States:

Ditch the show; keep the catalogue:

Turkish Women Artists and scroll down for a nice piece on Eva Hesse.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

I was promised donuts!

SF's Answer to the Westboro Baptist Church
Westboro Baptist Church showed up to protest in front of Twitter’s San Francisco office on Thursday, but found themselves severely outnumbered by a crowd of absurdist pranksters. San Francisco responded as only San Francisco can. Strictly speaking, this is not art but it's artistic, free spirited, creative, independent and open minded. It's everything Westboro is not!

Chor Bird Boogie Woogie

John, over at the SF Examiner web site has written a lovely article about Chor Boogie. He was the artist who was stabbed while working on a mural in one of our more down scale areas. He's recovered and back on the job, creating, among other things, beautiful murals to brighten up some of San Francisco's blighted areas.

"Chor discovered art at the age of five when, with paint brush in hand, he declared to his kindergarten teacher, “When I grow up I am going to be an artist.“ He drew his first meaningful inspiration, though, from seeing wall art on aqueducts and other structures near his boyhood home. Immediately recognizing the seriousness of the work, and able to distinguish art from regular graffiti, Chor set about to follow the more artistic roots of what he saw. But it hasn’t always been an easy road. And with society’s uneven impression of spray paint art, sometimes it’s been an uphill struggle.

“My first painting was actually in my bedroom,” recalled Chor in a recent conversation. “My father wasn't going to let me go out there and do stuff like that, so my parents let me paint on the wall of my room. That's where my first creation came out.”

From there, Chor set out on a path of self-study that included not just contemporary masters, including street artists such as PHASE 2, Vulcan, and Apex, but also fine art masters including Gustav Klimt, Michelangelo, and Salvador Dali.

“With Gustav Klimt, I like his composition and the way you can see the feeling in his work,” explained Chor. “And I like the way he used gold, real gold, and silver. While I don't use real gold or silver, I do use gold, silver, bronze, copper and other metallic spray paints, which illuminate skin tones.”

Read more at:

Ramona at BAAQ also has a lovely article up:

Chor's website

He's even got his own page at Wikipedia:

And his own gallery space at 1706 Steiner St, San Francisco.  The show runs Friday, January 29th to Sunday, February 28th.

For those who are fans of grey drawings, done with tiny dots and dashes, made up to look like greyed out photographs, here's one for you - the poster boy for patience and minimalism.
Ewan Gibbs

Monday, February 1, 2010

Luc Tuymans opening tomorrow at SFMOMA

Luc Tuymans, The Secretary of State, 2005; oil on canvas; 18 x 24 1/4 in. (45.7 x 61.5 cm); Collection the Museum of Modern Art, New York, promised gift of David and Monica Zwirner; courtesy David Zwirner, New York; © Luc Tuymans

The first U.S. retrospective of the work of Belgian contemporary artist Luc Tuymans — and the most comprehensive presentation of his work to date—will be on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) from February 6 through May 2, 2010, in its only West Coast presentation.

Luc Tuymans (born 1958) is considered by many to be one of the most significant painters working today, and his distinctive visual style and approach to issues of history and memory have influenced an entire generation of younger artists. Interested in the aftereffects of some of the most traumatic events of the last and present century and their representation in the mass media, Tuymans uses a muted palette to create paintings that are at once sumptuous and subtle, enigmatic and disarmingly stark. 

Tuymans draws on a whole variety of media, including traditional European to make his closely cropped, close-up looks at faces and landscapes, both interior and exterior. His comment from an 2009 interview with Gareth Harris (The Art Newspaper), is intriguing, "My ultimate aim is to detach myself completely and look at my works as a spectator would but that is a dream." If nothing else, he is articulate. The show is preceded by a whole marching band of praise but I'll wait until I see the work in person before I decide. It's probably no surprise to viewers of modern art that it's dangerous to believe the hype until you look at the work. In fact, it's dangerous to even read the press release until after you see the work; try to look with a fresh, innocent eye and leave the critical analysis until later.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art • February 6 to May 2, 2010