Flannel and Fur, Danny Keith’s solo show of recent paintings at Ratio 3, includes fifteen portraits of bearded young men and one study of a classical bust. All but three of the portraits are made of oil on wood panel, and the others are watercolors on paper. The works are academic in the traditional sense, with particular attention paid to naturalistic lighting and figure proportions. The works’ scale and intense study of a single posed subject, combined with the artist’s layered modulation of color and tonality—mixing paint on the palette and the canvas as if negotiating between the two—suggest that they were made from observation.
By engaging with traditional modes of representation in a highly personal way, Keith’s paintings propose alternatives to gendered clichés of beauty by presenting male images that are both masculine and pretty. Fox Fur, Fox Fur No. 2, Fox FurNo. 3, and Fox Fur No. 4 (all 2011), for example, depict the same model from the waist up, nude save for a tanned-fox fur either draped around his shoulders or propped on his head. In each painting, Keith returns to the same subject from different angles, repeating the same lighting source and background colors. His brushwork both strives for an honest realism and meticulously records every freckle, tuft of fur, and chest hair.
Flannel Shirt No. 1, Flannel Shirt No. 2, and Hunter’s Plaid(all 2011) depict the same model wearing a plaid textile wrapped around his head or draped over one shoulder.Repose No. 2 (2011), the smallest work in the show, measuring 12 by 18 inches, is the only piece to depict the model’s entire body: he’s nude, lying face down on a bed, possibly sleeping. The image is both erotically charged and intimate, with looser brushwork, but Keith still carefully captures the play of light and shadows across the room and the model, depicting every toe, a tattoo, and even the translucency of an earlobe.
Keith’s use of the same subject, repeated visual patterns, and consistently detailed brushwork throughout this body of
work recalls Félix González-Torres’s tender, minimalist installations. Unlike Keith’s overt figures, González-Torres created metaphorical portraits of intimate same-sex relationships (sometimes his own) that explored and transcended identity politics by using simple objects as stand-ins for human subjects. Untitled (Perfect Lovers) (1987–1990), which features two synchronized wall clocks hung side by side, uses formal repetition to evoke the effortless sensation of a good interpersonal match and the constancy of real intimacy.
Keith’s repeated subject matter demonstrates a similar devoted, prolonged engagement, and his formal use of repetition within the brushwork and composition of each portrait symbolizes this emotional connection. But while González-Torres’s later works invite direct audience interaction, offering candies or prints to the viewer, Keith’s traditional paintings remain passive. This apparent difference between the two artists’ approaches masks a common theme in their subject matter: neither style of representation, pictorial or metaphorical, can bring forth a human presence, no matter how many people participate with a work or how accurate the representation appears.
The paintings occasionally flirt with metaphorical content, using symbols such as flowers (in Spanish Rose and I Hope All My Days Will Be Lit By Your Face, both 2011) and the fox fur, which evokes a vivid sensation of fur on bare skin and plays on the material flexibility of a feminine fox stole or masculine fox hood. More pointedly, Keith’s sincere renderings and complex, vibrant colors convey a longing for his subjects and create an emphatic sense of each model’s individual physicality. Additionally, in all but three of the works, Keith’s delicate depiction of his subject’s dreamy, inward gaze deepens the intimacy of each portrait.
Keith’s images of male beauty and the palpable vulnerability of his desire complicate the idea that the power involved in every erotic depiction only functions in one direction. His tender attention to every freckle and hair displays a sense of responsibility as opposed to a license to idealize or objectify. The ambiguity of Keith’s relationships with his subjects leads to narrative speculation, and his presentation of beautiful but heteronormatively masculine men makes such fantasies available. By working so intimately and personally, Keith offers viewers a broad and fluid range of identification and interpretation.
BUDDING ARSONISTS ASIDE, MANY OF US CAN STILL RELATE TO the cathartic emotion contained in the title “Inside us all there is a part that would like to burn down our own house”—an urge to wipe the slate clean, to destroy the imperfection of one’s reality and begin anew. In a diverse exhibit which includes conceptual sculptures, digital prints and a brief but impressive video, Geof Oppenheimer approaches the violence implicit in society, and how social systems and political dogma intersect with the terrain of art and culture.
Collaborating with an unnamed pyrotechnic expert who once worked for Disney, Oppenheimer created explosions within ballistic-grade Plexiglas cubes, their residue coating the interior surfaces with bright splashes of pigment. Visually stunning, each of the three cubes, collectively titledModern Ensembles (2010-2011), has a unique palette, one coated in warm, earthy tones of ocher and orange, another raspberry-alizarin with faint touches of yellow-beige and sky blue and the last army gray-green, shot through with electric yellow and darker tones of brown. While the sculptures attest to dramatic events involving gunpowder and pigment, they convey more an aura of science lab than battlefield, undermining somewhat their intended function as signifiers for the violence undergirding our culture.
Oppenheimer’s video Anthems (2011) evoked a generalized sense of dismay and unease with the social constructs that a military marching band might suggest. The four unspecified national anthems, simultaneously played by groups of the drum and marching corps of Rickover Naval Academy in Chicago, were blended and overlaid, essentially mangled beyond any recognition. Reflections and combinations of sound and image created an unsettling effect, while the military precision—the neatly pressed uniforms and shining horns—suggested the regimentation of life in the service of one’s country, and a kind of surrender of self to the greater whole, of following orders. As these lines of marching bands paraded in absurd, tight circles, periodically the cacophony of sound faded to silence, and the images of the marchers shifted to a vacant space bearing rough plywood constructions: a pair of steps. Eventually, the two risers fit together like a puzzle, one inverted resting atop the other—perhaps a metaphor for the enforced unity of political camaraderie.
The final component, Social Failure and Black Signs (2010), was comprised of acerbic wall-hung, text-based pieces. Against a light gray background a slender arm enters bearing a message lettered in plain white text on a black card—”TOLERATED AS UNFORTUNATE EXCESSES,” “AND DESPAIR, DECADENCE, AND MORALS” among them. These terse, dogmatic excerpts have been taken from interviews with notable politicians such as Ronald Reagan and Fidel Castro. A statement about the ultimate futility of political ideology, these images offer us a brittle aesthetic experience, and present a kind of intellectual conundrum as well: strings of words decontextualized to convey no coherent meaning, rather an ambiguous —yet autocratic—sound bite.
Oppenheimer’s work is engaging enough to draw and keep our interest, yet simultaneously hermetic and dispassionate enough to put us on edge.
- Barbara Morris
The title of Geof Oppenheimer’s solo exhibition at Ratio 3 creates an expectation of the artist’s engagement with self-conflicting, hidden compulsions. In fact, the show’s prints, sculptures, and video address the confluence of political verbiage, violence, and the hollowness of nationalism with varying degrees of success. The three groups of works support one another by providing context; the prints and sculptures in the main room, for example, gain much when viewed with the video’s soundtrack playing in the background. But when each group of works is viewed individually, it sometimes falls short of Oppenheimer’s stated intention to interrogate “the ways in which political and social structures are encoded in images and objects.”1
On the walls of the main space are the five black-and-white pigment prints of Social Failure and Black Signs (2010). In each photo, a smooth, graceful hand holds up a black card with white text. The phrases on the cards are forceful but opaque. “TOLERATED, AS UNFORTUNATE EXCESSES,” reads one card, while another asserts, “EVERYTHING, BUT IT’S NOT ENOUGH.” These phrases are quotes from interviews with various political figures from Castro to Reagan discussing their ideological failures. The form of the black card, its position aloft, and the text’s implied meanings all work together to position the prints as documentations of protest. Yet the force of demonstration is contradicted by the gentle, elegant grip on the cleanly printed card. Whatever raw energy the words conjure for the redress of grievances is dampened by the poise and domestication of the materials and composition.
In the center of the floor are Modern Ensembles (2010–11), three colorful sculptures made of gunpowder, blackpowder, and smoke dyes detonated inside transparent ballistic plexiglass boxes. Each flawlessly constructed cube is fairly large—around twenty inches in every dimension—and mounted on a footed aluminum base set atop a white pedestal. When Oppenheimer and a former Disney pyrotechnician ignited the volatile chemicals enclosed in the boxes, residue from the discharged powders coated the inside of the plexiglass with soft pink, orange, blue, mauve, and brown splatters. The hues of the exploded materials blend into one another to make lightly marbled patterns across the interior surface of the box, punctuated by small bursts of
sharper colors such as yellow and black. The work avoids many common clichés of art that explores conflict (particularly the tendency toward maudlin gestures), but the sweetly attractive colors and immaculate construction contradict the forcefulness of true violence, which often has ugly, ill-defined parameters. The scale and tidiness ofModern Ensembles mimic vitrines—devices for civilized viewing. That reference turns their interior chaos into a spectator’s version of violence, a signifier both produced and witnessed from a privileged, and even academic, remove.
The video in the back room isn’t marred by such reserved mannerliness. Anthems (2011) is a four-minute HD video of actors portraying a military marching band, interspersed with shots of a stark, minimal stage, and a soundtrack of four different national anthems. Most of the footage is of young men in khaki uniforms, marching in small formations across frames that are edited in transparent layers. They come and go across the screen, simultaneously walking toward and away from viewers. The shots are filmed from different angles, which results in a mildly dizzying effect when coupled with the multiplicity of actors in the overlaid frames. The musicians are only miming their roles, however: as they raise trumpets and horns to their faces, the mouthpieces barely touch their lips and their cheeks fail to inflate with air. Viewers can hear crashing cymbals, but never see them onscreen. There is a gap between what the music proposes and what the visuals portray, and it is precisely this space thatAnthems invites viewers to contemplate. Dark shots of a minimal stage set that is composed of a propped door and a pair of three-step plywood staircases heighten the slippage. Sometimes the stairs are stacked, with interlocking treads and risers that create a precarious whole leading neither up nor down. The shots of the stage set work well with the exaggerated portrayal of lockstep nationalism, amplifying the video’s focus on theatricality and spectatorship. Eventually the music builds to a crashing, blaring crescendo that breaks into silence, while the video whites out into blankness before the credits roll.
In each of the three parts of the exhibition, Oppenheimer brings an idea into conjunction with its opposite: strong political statements by men softened by clean, feminine articulation; the violence of explosions counteracted by pleasurable swirls of color encased in immaculate chambers; the chest-thumping pride of a national anthem mocked with a theater set and blurred into incoherence. But it is only in the last that the drama of the presentation fully meets the weighty concept behind it. Though Oppenheimer is able to provoke the viewer with the title of the show, it’s clear that the part of us that would like to burn down our own house is a more anarchic creature than the one proposed here.
Review by Matt Sussman
HAIRY EYEBALLWeds/2 marks the first citywide general strike in our country since 1946. Spearheaded by Occupy Oakland in the wake of the Oakland Police’s grossly excessive use of force against protestors last week, the strike is further proof that the only definitive thing one can say about the Occupy movement is that it is growing at a remarkable pace.
Whether this growth will result in greater political traction, rather than merely prompt further sympathy or ridicule from politicians and the media alike, remains to be seen. Then again, one metric of political traction for the Occupy movement is simply endurance, measured by present bodies. As Lili Loofbourow recently wrote in an on-the-ground report on Occupy Oakland for website The Awl, “technology tilts the political machine so that only that which is public matters.” And despite the Occupy movement’s necessary imperfections, there is no more direct and immediate way of being public than showing up and speaking out.
What gets broadcast and what gets heard beyond the encampments is another matter. Even with the tools of social media at the Occupiers’ disposal, can the movement’s horizontal, leaderless structure effectively amplifying the voices of “the 99%” without resulting in an echo chamber? And if that is what’s being perceived, both on the ground and in the national conversation, is that necessarily a sign of the movement’s failure or merely a testament to its vibrancy?
A variation on these questions of mediums and messages is at the heart of Geof Oppenheimer’s intellectually bracing and formally daring show at Ratio 3, Inside Us All There Is A Part That Would Like to Burn Down Our Own House, which although not explicitly about current events, uncannily resonates with them. The work inInside Us formally traces the fluctuating state of the body politic by zeroing in on moments of stress in which civic faith breaks down or flares up, whether due to admissions of failure on the part if its appointed leaders or from internal combustion.
The latter isn’t just a figure of speech. The ballistic-grade Plexiglass cubes on plinths that snake down the center of Ratio 3’s main room, collectively titled Modern Ensembles, each contain the multicolored residue of an explosion set off within. Oppenheimer worked with a pyro-technician (a former employee of the Disney Corporation, no less) to create custom-made charges of various explosive chemicals that were then detonated inside the cubes, resulting in gorgeous, nebula-like washes of color that completely cover each cube’s interior face.
That the beauty of the Modern Ensembles comes from such violent origins is less interesting to me (that’s an old story in Art History, particularly in regards to action painting, a tradition which these sculptures extend as much as they do classic Minimalism’ proverbial cube), than how they embody a tension between explosive force and containment. The Oakland occupiers also hit a wall — a phalanx of police armed with riot gear and tear gas. It’s hard not to think of that moment, that so many experienced remotely via Facebook posts and Flickr feeds, when viewing these chemically colored cubes that, although transparent, you can’t actually see through.
Communication breakdown is also taken up in Social Failure and Black Signs, a suite of five pigment prints that surround the enigmatic vitrines like a gaggle of lost protestors. Each black and white image consists of a similarly-positioned arm holding aloft a sign printed with phrases concerning governance or economics but clearly removed, media res, from their original context. “Tolerated, as unfortunate excess,” reads one. Another states, “everything, but it is not enough.”
These stranded phrases are, in fact, excerpts from interviews with political figures such as Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Fidel Castro and Robert McNamara, in which they discuss moments when their ideologies resulted in policy failure, something which Oppenheimer’s photographs formally restage by transforming these confessional moments into incomplete sound bytes.
The opposite tack is used to achieve similarly disorienting results in Anthems, a four minute high definition video, which superimposes footage of a military marching band playing four different national anthems while in formation. The resulting wall of sound renders the pieces indistinguishable from each other, while, visually, the rapidly overlaid footage scrambles the patterned order of military spectacle.
Politically, a lot can happen when polyphony gives way to cacophony (or in the case of Social Failure and Black Signs when signal becomes noise). But the result can also just be chaos. As an ongoing experiment in the messy business of building a participatory democracy with its share of successful and failed words and deeds, the Occupy movement is a living, ever-expanding testament to this. And despite being presented under a title full of Freudian dramatics, so are the pieces in Inside Us.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Geof Oppenheimer: Inside us all there is a part that would like to burn down our own house October 28th - December 10th, 2011 Ratio 3 is pleased to present Inside us all there is a part that would like to burn down our own house, a solo show of new work by Geof Oppenheimer, October 28th to December 10th, 2011. Working with diverse media, Oppenheimer takes the formal manifestation of civic value as his subject, interrogating the ways in which political and social structures are encoded in images and objects. It is a practice situated at the intersection of art and politics, but in such a way that neither art nor politics is reducible to the other term. Included in this exhibit is a new suite of sculptures, collectively titled Modern Ensembles. Working with a pyro-technician formally with the Disney Corporation, Oppenheimer developed a series of custom made charges of various explosive chemicals that where detonated within the voids of ballistic Plexiglas cubes. Having been set off, the detonations leave a residue of the explosion within each cube. It is an aesthetic of violence — a violent history but one that is unmoored from context to become free-floating signifier. This disconnect between violence and context renders the experience of violence abstract as it is freed from politics and morality. With a seductive beauty, these sculptures conflate the traditional ideologies of minimalist sculpture with notions of the corporeal pull of violence that pervades our contemporary world. A suite of five pigment prints titled Social Failure and Black Signs will be on view as part of the exhibition as well. This project was a culmination of a yearlong research project undertaken at the Special Collections Research Center center at the University of Chicago into the history of twentieth century political interviews. The prints feature excerpts from interviews with political luminaries such as Castro, McNamara, and Reagan, where they discuss the failures in their own ideological systems. The resulting texts, removed from context and held aloft by a hand model become a kind of broadcast as well as poetry of fallibility. Also on exhibit is a high definition video, titled Anthems . This four minute and forty-two second video is an investigation into social mapping and pattern-making. For centuries, the pageantry of military spectacle has been an umbrella for people to come together under one body politic. The drum core is a holdover from this cultural history. In the video, a confrontational situation, both visually and sonically, is set up between groupings of musicians marching in formation on screen. Shifting formation, and with superimposed images, the marchers are simultaneously playing four different national anthems. The audio tracks of the performance are highly edited and mixed so that the sounds of the individual anthems are lost in a wall of sound. Over the course for the video the sound and imagery build to a crescendo of incomprehension and then fades out to pure abstract blur that is devoid of any kind of representational mark. It is a violent imposition of different social structures upon one another. Produced with the drum and marching core of Rickover Naval Academy in Chicago, Illinois, Anthems was commissioned by SITE, Santa Fe for the exhibition Agitated Histories. Geof Oppenheimer was born in Washington, D.C. in 1973. He received his BFA from the Maryland Institute, College of Art (1996) and his MFA from University of California, Berkeley (2001). He has exhibited at The Project, New York (2006 and 2008), Aspen Art Museum (2010), LAX><ART (2009), PS1 Contemporary Arts Center (2006), The Contemporary Museum, Baltimore (2011), and SITE Santa Fe (2011). He currently lives and works in Chicago, where he is an Associate Professor of Practice in the Department of Visual Arts at the University of Chicago. This is his first solo exhibition at Ratio 3.
Ratio 3, 1447 Stevenson Street, San Francisco, CA 94103 USA
Opening reception: Friday, October 28th, 2011, 6-8pm.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Geof Oppenheimer: Inside us all there is a part that would like to burn down our own house
October 28th - December 10th, 2011
Ratio 3 is pleased to present Inside us all there is a part that would like to burn down our own house, a solo show of new work by Geof Oppenheimer, October 28th to December 10th, 2011.
Working with diverse media, Oppenheimer takes the formal manifestation of civic value as his subject, interrogating the ways in which political and social structures are encoded in images and objects. It is a practice situated at the intersection of art and politics, but in such a way that neither art nor politics is reducible to the other term.
Included in this exhibit is a new suite of sculptures, collectively titled Modern Ensembles. Working with a pyro-technician formally with the Disney Corporation, Oppenheimer developed a series of custom made charges of various explosive chemicals that where detonated within the voids of ballistic Plexiglas cubes. Having been set off, the detonations leave a residue of the explosion within each cube. It is an aesthetic of violence — a violent history but one that is unmoored from context to become free-floating signifier. This disconnect between violence and context renders the experience of violence abstract as it is freed from politics and morality. With a seductive beauty, these sculptures conflate the traditional ideologies of minimalist sculpture with notions of the corporeal pull of violence that pervades our contemporary world.
A suite of five pigment prints titled Social Failure and Black Signs will be on view as part of the exhibition as well. This project was a culmination of a yearlong research project undertaken at the Special Collections Research Center center at the University of Chicago into the history of twentieth century political interviews. The prints feature excerpts from interviews with political luminaries such as Castro, McNamara, and Reagan, where they discuss the failures in their own ideological systems. The resulting texts, removed from context and held aloft by a hand model become a kind of broadcast as well as poetry of fallibility.
Also on exhibit is a high definition video, titled Anthems . This four minute and forty-two second video is an investigation into social mapping and pattern-making. For centuries, the pageantry of military spectacle has been an umbrella for people to come together under one body politic. The drum core is a holdover from this cultural history. In the video, a confrontational situation, both visually and sonically, is set up between groupings of musicians marching in formation on screen. Shifting formation, and with superimposed images, the marchers are simultaneously playing four different national anthems. The audio tracks of the performance are highly edited and mixed so that the sounds of the individual anthems are lost in a wall of sound. Over the course for the video the sound and imagery build to a crescendo of incomprehension and then fades out to pure abstract blur that is devoid of any kind of representational mark. It is a violent imposition of different social structures upon one another. Produced with the drum and marching core of Rickover Naval Academy in Chicago, Illinois, Anthems was commissioned by SITE, Santa Fe for the exhibition Agitated Histories.
Geof Oppenheimer was born in Washington, D.C. in 1973. He received his BFA from the Maryland Institute, College of Art (1996) and his MFA from University of California, Berkeley (2001). He has exhibited at The Project, New York (2006 and 2008), Aspen Art Museum (2010), LAX><ART (2009), PS1 Contemporary Arts Center (2006), The Contemporary Museum, Baltimore (2011), and SITE Santa Fe (2011). He currently lives and works in Chicago, where he is an Associate Professor of Practice in the Department of Visual Arts at the University of Chicago. This is his first solo exhibition at Ratio 3.
In his first U.S. solo exhibitions since his mid-career retrospective at the Berkeley Art Museum in 2009, Ari Marcopoulos presents a new body of photographs and prints at Ratio3 in San Francisco, as well as a limited edition skateboard deck with one of his images screen-printed on it [through Oct. 22]. A new suite of black-and-white prints featuring Warhol’s iconic Marilyn portrait with one of Marcopoulos’s photos of graffiti printed over it shows concurrently at SF’s Gallery 16.
Marcopoulos’s new work (all 2011) features images ranging from portraits and figurative work to abstracts and street scenes of New York; he returned to the city in 2010 after fourteen years living in Northern California. There is a grittiness, a moodiness, a harshness to the images that stands in contrast to brighter and gentler works made in the past, such as those featuring his young sons in California or snowboarders carving up mountains. “I don’t take photos for aesthetic reasons or composition reasons,” Marcopoulos told A.i.A. “My photographs are really a translation of what I see in front of me; what I notice.”
Marcopoulos began his career more than thirty years ago when he moved from his native Holland to New York, where he started out photographing for Andy Warhol. While Marcopoulos is best known for his portraits and documentation of pop culture, it’s the accessibility, immediacy and rawness of his subjects and subject matter that is striking about his work, not unlike early street photographers such as Walker Evans, Garry Winogrand, and Robert Frank. Since ‘09, Marcopoulos has also been included in the 2010 Whitney Biennial (his second appearance there; the first in 2002), and a massive monograph of his work was published by Rizzoli earlier this year (about two inches thick, it features roughly 1,200 images printed on newsprint).
The portraits at Ratio3 are captivating. In Mask, a woman with shaved head and blue tape across her nose stares down the camera with unwavering intensity. But it’s three black-on-white, large-scale abstract (or, rather, obscured) prints here that particularly stand out. For these, Marcopoulos layered black-and-white images-he’d printed images over images on the same piece of paper in a regular office printer, and then had those scanned and printed, large-scale (90 by 60 inches), two, three, four times over on the same piece of paper. “I’m trying to evoke an experience in the viewer that goes beyond just looking at a photograph that tells you what you should feel or what you’re looking at,” says Marcopoulos.
One of these abstracted works, #5, is completely black-the abundance of image becoming the absence of image, which now is the image—save the top corner, which shows that the paper got folded over, an accidental happening when the original was running through the printer; it speaks to the process. The other two works of this kind, #9 and #3, feature moiré patterns as well as heavy moments of black. Hints of a figure can be seen in one. The enormous amount of ink and overprinting create texture and the layering gives depth, but very subtly. “I’m interested in printing,” Marcopoulos says. “I think about all photographs I’ve ever taken and how they would lead to a very dense black rectangle. They are still photographs, and they are an exercise in printmaking.”
The intensity and obscurity of the large prints is balanced by the more straightforward images—such as Touch, a poetic glance through a window with a prosthetic hand on the sill; 194, a figurative image of a woman from the back with arms stretched above her head; and Canal, a dark black-and-white scene of a muddy tile floor.
Then there’s Infiltration, the most poignant counterpoint to the prints; made of thirty-three individually framed, 10-by-7.25-inch black-and-white photocopy-on-newsprint pieces-including two of the originals that were scanned to make the large prints as well as images of people, drawings by Marcopoulos, a dead rabbit-it identifies the source of the larger works. And, it and the prints are simply two representations of how images can be presented: layered or laid side by side. “The prints are the same as the other pictures,” says Marcopoulos, “except they are on top of each other, so it becomes something different.”
Continuing through October 1, 2011
Brion Nuda Rosch presents 23 new works ranging from a large diptych painting to numerous smaller collages. Many are reminiscent of the work Rosch has shown over the past few years, featuring a found image, often of a black-and-white landscape, with a painted, cut-out, four-cornered form placed on it. The form in these works is painted flat brown, perhaps a stand-in for the earth, or some sort of firm grounding. These and other works play with formal concerns such as foreground and background, form, and composition.
Perhaps the most poignant piece of this ilk is the sextet of same-sized works, arranged grid-like in three columns of two, “Time as Concept (Infinity).” The background image is the same in every piece; the brown shape is the only variable, changing in size and form. In the lower-right-hand work (the “last” piece) the brown shape fills the frame. What, then, is the image? Is this, or where is, the content? By showing us “something” and then “nothing,” Rosch effectively demonstrates what is at the heart of his work; he questions the foundations of image-making.
At times Rosch’s minimalist approach becomes too minimal, as with the piece “Two Right Angles in Conversation,” a framed cut-out piece of cardboard with rough strokes of brown paint on it. We consider the form, and move on. But when he’s on point, which he is numerous times in this show, Rosch provides us with sharply edited works that simply, elegantly address major concepts with a minimum of fuss.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of curatorial practice is research, following thoughts to discover how random or apparently unrelated artworks that strike one’s interest can often have a literal or metaphorical connection. I am currently enjoying one such serendipitous occurrence which I thought I’d share.
I have followed San Francisco artist Sean McFarland’s art since he was in graduate school at CCA, where I teach. At that time he was engaged with the work of such artists as Thomas Demand and James Casebere, both noted for their photographs of cardboard models of office interiors and architectural spaces, respectively, that are utterly convincing as portrayals of the built world. McFarland had discovered a way to veritably flip the work of Demand and Casebere; he would take photographs of actual urban landscapes — houses covering the hills of San Francisco, in particular — and convince the eye that the images were of models. McFarland is now showing — at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’s triennial regional survey, Bay Area Now Six — dark photographs of gardens and closeups of foresty areas, which he chooses to show in the dimmest possible light.
This creates a theatrical and moody environment that manipulates the viewer’s experience of the work in the direction of the eerie, uncanny, and sublime. They’re arguably the strongest works in the exhibition. What I’ve discovered is that McFarland has touched on a theme that was very important to painters in the area a hundred years ago.
At the museum where I am director, at UC Davis, I am showing a piece I came across from our permanent collection by the Italian-born American artist Giuseppe Cadenasso. Cadenasso was the head of the painting program at Mills College from 1902 until his death in 1918 — he was run over and killed by a car, just blocks from the current SFMOMA and Yerba Buena, at Powell and Post. Here is the piece:
I believe Lake Aliso has been turned into a reservoir and is dry much of the year. However, a hundred years ago it was apparently quite a beautiful and romantic spot. A busy gallery visitor can easily overlook the painting, as at first glance it appears to be a mostly black abstraction, with some white and tan highlights. Close inspection reveals a lone boater disappearing into the reeds in the background of a pond at dusk.
One of the great things about working at a large university is the opportunity to get a free education from the faculty, especially the emeritus faculty that has the time to share its erudition. One of my favorites is Seymour Howard, one of the founders of the art and art history department at Davis. Now in his 80s, Howard and I have struck up a friendship since I arrived here in 2004. He loves to visit my shows and explain them to me from an academic point of view, which I eat up. When he recently saw the Cadenasso painting, he got very, very excited. Not only did he think it was a knockout [it really is quite wonderful — I just paused this writing to go take a look at its label and found a young undergraduate transfixed in front of it], but he exclaimed to me that the style was called a nocturne, and was highly influenced by Whistler!! Apparently there was quite a circle of these artists at the time in the Bay Area, including another artist of whom I was unaware, Jules Tavernier (who died young in Hawaii after founding the Volcano painters movement!). At that point my mind was whipping back and forth from 1866 London, where Whistler started his Hiroshige-inspired “moonlights,” as he called them, to the turn of the last century Bay Area and Cadenasso, to present day San Francisco and Sean McFarland.
A little research shows that nocturnes can be traced back to Rembrandt, but they really came into their own in France in the mid-nineteenth century, when the Barbizon school, inspired by Constable, moved nature studies from the background of historical paintings to the foreground in their work. JMW Turner was part of that scene, as was Corot, especially. And here’s the kicker, which made my day: our forgotten painting is by an all-but-forgotten Bay Area artist, Cadenasso, who was called in his lifetime, “the Corot of California.”
I can imagine an exhibition “showcasing the artistic and intellectual rigor of the Bay Area,” as the publicity says, but it would not look much like “Bay Area Now 6,” the triennial survey at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
Start by subtracting everything here except the work of Weston Teruya, Brion Nuda Rosch, Mauricio Ancalmo, Chris Fraser, Sean MacFarland and the sculpture of Tammy Rae Carland. Her cast bronze banana peels rank as instant classics, even minus the warm-up act that her staged photographs offer.
Fraser’s installation - a horizontal slit in the wall of an enclosure that diffracts incident light from a window and a series of bare bulbs - shows how easily unpredictable complexity can be coaxed from simple interventions in existing situations. Besides positioning itself in a history of “light and space” art long identified with California, Fraser’s “Developing a Mutable Horizon,” as it changes with the time of day, silently asserts the availability of meaningful aesthetic experience in the vast peripheral field of the unnoticed.