Parting Glance

parting1Has it really been a year since I first started grousing about Warner Bros’ meddling with the first cut of Where the Wild Things Are and puzzling over how anyone could possibly not be crazy about blueberry pie? A big thank you to Visualingual, Engineer’s Daughter, Catherine Clark Gallery, Invisible Venue, San Francisco is Sexy, artist Jon Clary, Intersection for the Arts, Iceberger Gallery (please, please come back) and the Chinese Culture Center for linking to my posts. Go visit them! Thanks also to Marina Cain of Cain Schulte Contemporary Art, johnny0 of Burrito Justice, Resonant Eye, Beverly Kaye of ArtBrut, and DJ from Eighth Art for their comments. Props to Mark McLaren of McBuzz for helping me out with tips to get my sidebar widgets to do what I wanted. And thanks to artist Rie Kawakami for just being awesome overall.

parting2Before I go on, I’d like to invite anyone out there reading to attend the vigil for Laura Ling and Euna Lee that will be held on the steps of City Hall in San Francisco tomorrow evening, Thursday July 9th at 6:30pm. Laura’s husband Ian Clayton has set up a post office box, and we’ll have pre-addressed post cards available for you to send a message to the women, who have since our last vigil been sentenced to 12 years in a North Korean labor camp. The postcards from our last vigil were delivered to Laura and Euna and I’d imagine are a great comfort to them since access even to their family members is limited. There will also be a group photo so you can show your solidarity in a request of amnesty for the two reporters.

Okay, back to the farewell.

If there was anything disconcerting about visiting galleries in the past year, it was arriving to find them empty. From the start, I decided I would only attend shows that were reachable by public transportation and that were open on a weekend day or had extended evening hours (none of this by appointment only). I tended to choose SF venues since I could cram several stops into a Saturday (meaning I missed a wealth of amazing things going on in the East Bay) and to emphasize just how much good stuff was happening locally. I hope that something I posted encouraged someone who would normally feel intimidated by the idea to try a smaller venue rather than making a trip to the museum.

My friend Dave asked me to list the words and phrases I vowed never to utter in a post, so here they are (as near as I can remember):

“problematize”
“What does it mean to say…?”
“notions of”
“in a sense…”
“challenges the very nature of…”
“calls into question”

So if you saw any of them here, it was because I was being lazy or not paying attention or both.

To all the visitors who arrived via a Google image search for James Jean, I apologize that there wasn’t more here for you. Maybe an SF gallery would like to host a showing of his work (hint, hint)?

Since today is shaping up to be the most visited on my blog since I started, I can only assume that this means that you’re all on your way to check out the Present Tense show. Just tracking down all the window displays is an adventure in itself, so be sure to pick up a flyer with locations, available right inside the doorway. I self consciously chose the Chinese Culture Center for my last post since it was the site of the first exhibit I wrote about (and Beili Liu’s artwork still sticks in my head to this day). I thought it would bring a nice kind of closure to the blog. I needn’t have bothered trying so hard. Fate has a way of working these things out for you.

After CCC, I walked down to Meridian and then hoped on BART to catch the final day of the Trace Elements show that was in its last week. I walk inside the Herbst Theatre, head to SFAC’s room and give the door a tug. Locked.
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Despite the fact that there’s a sign right next to me that says it should be open.
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Furious. A guy in a suit approaches, bangs loudly on the door and gives up. I’m reminded that my very first blog post was actually about standing outside Fecal Face with my face pressed up against the glass trying to make out all the wonderful things I could see inside. This happened to me so many times over the past year that I stopped writing about it.

But one thing at least was different this time around…
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…this time, I had my camera.
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Take that Time, you son of a bitch.

Subjunctive

The reader of The Classic of Mountains and Seas plays hopscotch from peak to peak, moving in leaps and bounds roughly according to one of the four cardinal compass directions. On each stop the traveller is given a Rough Guide equivalent of the major points of interest: natural resources, resident deity, flora and fauna. Some of the denizens are rather strange. A familiar creature may be used as reference for point of comparison, but deviations from the expected are dutifully noted: a multiplicity of legs, a single eye, a human face atop a snake’s body.

None are perhaps as strange as the “look-flesh” creature, helpfully described by translator Anne Birrell in the glossary of the Penguin Classic edition, quoting third century commentator Kuo P’u, as “a mass of flesh which looks like the liver of an ox: it has two eyes.” Coming across it again and again in the text, I’ll admit I found it rather hard to visualize hopping about the slopes of its territory. Farther east than the scholars could have imagined (and their imaginations were robust), further even than the country of the Blacktooth people across a vast ocean is a city at the foot of two hills, barely worthy of mention compared to the legendary peaks in the eighteen books. I only bring it up it because it’s here that I think I’ve finally got a glimpse of the “look-flesh,” far from its home.

Liting Liang is only one of the dizzying number of participants in the Chinese Culture Center’s current show Present Tense Biennial. Her ink on paper works immediately brought to mind the descriptions from the book (one of the joys of which is the many interpretations by artists throughout the ages of the creatures within). There is the crouched chimerical woman, lower body sheathed in rows of reptile scales. Another figure stands posed, cleaver in hand, snake wrapped around her neck like an alert scarf (snakes are often described grasped in the hands of deities or clamped between their jaws). Then there’s a curious lump of a thing, kind of like a potato or blowfish with legs, in stockings and heels. Is this the “look-flesh,” dressed to impress for the twenty-first century? It’s probably wishful thinking. Maybe a distant relation? Or is it something never before seen, field notes for an as yet unwritten nineteenth book? At the very least, the impossibilities inherent in her striking work offer a good entrance point for the show as a whole, because it gives me license to call her a favorite among a multitude of favorites in this diverse and absorbing show (a site dedicated to images from the center has proved a broken link in the last few weeks that I’ve tried to visit. But you can get an idea of how amazing her pieces are here:, it’s the first image in the review).

The bulk of the show is less concerned with mythology as a whole as it is with mythologizing, or to be more specific demythologizing. Curator Kevin Chen of Intersection for the Arts, with the aid of Abby Chen and Ellen Oh, have spread the net wide in the selection of contributors: 31 artists, not all of them of Chinese origin or descent. The diversity of the participants has borne fruit in a show with varied approaches and executions. I start with Liting Liang’s work not just because I love her ravenous eater and dismembered legs washed ashore but because the works are so singular. The raison d’être of the show has such a strong psychological pull that it’s easy to forget that Present Tense is not just an exercise in itself. The show offers many reminders that identity is a tricky thing, constantly embattled and contentious, and many of the pieces are meditations on that theme, urging the viewer to revise their assumptions. But the engine that drives that process is the uniqueness of each artist’s vision: they are well worth appreciating each for their own sake.

subjunct1Thomas Chang, for example, explores what’s left of a theme park in Orlando, Florida fallen into disrepair. The miniature monuments captured in C-Prints have a haziness in the details which only serves to draw attention to the haziness behind the enterprise itself. The brain child of the Chinese government, the amusement site was meant to foster interest in tourism with replicas of famous sites in 1/10th scale. A facsimile of Tengwang Pavilion however is now gutted, the front exposed like a doll house and overgrown with weeds. This official “imprimatur” of Chinese culture, made for export and based on sites of historic importance and grandeur, has an interesting counterpart in the export of Americaness in Charlene Tan’s work (more on that in a bit).

Across the room, Imin Yeh’s Good Imports, 2008 presents a laptop completely shrouded in patterned textile. In an online interview, the artist explained that the fabric is typical of that found lining boxes of souvenirs from China. Perhaps it is the usual taboo of “look but don’t touch” but the wrapping evokes a sense of prohibition at the sight of screen and keyboard enveloped, even while the design lends a mystique of value, despite both the material and the hardware being the result of mass production. There is a divide between the reaction to goods which reach our shores somehow imbued with a sense of China as a country of deep history and traditions and cheap consumer products whose cheapness would not be possible were they made State-side.

subjunct2Exploring the source of those imported goods whose provenance is invisible to most consumers, Suzanne Husky recreates a factory floor of tiny workers. As a group they are nearly indistinguishable in their spread armed poses and blue aprons, but the faces are taken from photographs of actual people, giving at least the illusion of individuality. Down on Kearny St., Husky has installed a sister piece in an empty store front that instills the eerie sensation of spying on actual factory workers through the glass doors (see below).

The portraits in Sumi ink by artist Nancy Chan are precisely observed. The sense that Annie is observing you above her clasped hands is palpable. The works were rendered on long sheets of paper calling to mind traditional prints and calligraphy presentation.
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I’m watching Fang Lu’s music video Straight Outta HK when I see a familiar face. Alex Yeung is the front man of hardcore band Say Bok Gwai (and a coworker of mine) and the story behind the piece is coaching hip hop artist Kelda in a cover of one of their tunes, the trick being the lyrics are in Cantonese.
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Perhaps the most dramatic piece in the show is the cornucopia built of wire and paper, spilling out facsimile cartons of McDonalds packaging. The name of the piece, The Good Life, 2009 reminds us of the associations that accrue to the powerhouse chain’s product, being such a ubiquitous American brand. But a close look at the photocopied boxes reveal the traces of glocalization. These particular boxes have been tailored for the Chinese market, while still retaining the signifiers (like the arched “M” logo) that entice a consumer hungry not just for food but the array of symbolic connotations that go along with it. Charlene Tan’s piece captures many of the absurdities: the ostensibly American meal would be prepared and served by Chinese workers employed by the franchise, and even the most American of offerings on the menu go through a process of vetting to make sure they’re attractive to the palates of the country of that particular outlet. The abundance of empty boxes inside the horn of plenty underscores that our exported idea of “the good life” may not be all it’s cracked up to be. Even the “weave” of the cornucopia is just a photocopied texture.

Fans of painted chopsticks, bundled in groups of a hundred, form Arthur Huang’s demographic study of cities in which he has held residence. My Life as a Chinese American So Far (36 Years and Counting), 2009 breaks down the racial makeup of communities based on census data. Simply looking over the color key (“raw umber” for African Americans, “burnt sienna” for Latino Americans) reveals the quixotic nature of the enterprise. Huang has attempted to match the selected hues with an eye to them reflecting to some degree an approximation of actual skin color. In doing so he underlines the suggestive power of what appears at first glance to be objective statistical data. Even the selection of something as subtle as color coding can have a profound effect on our assumptions whether we are aware of it or not.

Yu Yudong’s One person’s parade series is a good end point for this glimpse of a show that negotiates ideas of shared heritage, tradition and experience even while critical of imposed collective identities. The four protest signs display photographs of the artist, bullhorn pressed to his mouth, sign in hand. In one, he stands in an empty street, midway between a crosswalk, beneath signage indicating that this is the city of Songzhuang, China. In another, he is atop a wall of painted brick, near the building’s corrugated metal roof. The works stand in stark contrast to the work of Hei Han Khiang just a few rooms away that focuses on the Tiananmen Square protests of Spring 1989. Although following the forms of the demonstrator engaged in a group action, Yu Yudong’s “protester” stands alone with an unknown message that goes unheard, at times in locations where his presence is assured to go unnoticed.

The Present Tense show actually continues outside the gallery, with a number of satellite installations located throughout Chinatown on Kearny St., Clay St., Columbus Ave. and Walter U. Lum Place. You can watch video of curator Kevin Chen touring a few of the window displays on this installment of Culture Wire.
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Let The Sun Shine In

I kind of miss Jack Fischer Gallery’s old digs: the paintings stacked along the floor line, the fat plan chest in the cubby hole always topped with interesting sculptures in miniature. The entrance, fitted into the obtuse angle of a twist in the hallway, seemed to advertise that you’d stumbled on something out of place. It always reminded me more of a hatchway than a doorway, as if it could be shut up and the whole thing carted away at a moments notice, to resurface again in some unsuspecting town.

The new space is right next door. It’s brighter thanks to windows at the far end, with the additional square footage providing more breathing room. I missed the Opening Salvo show celebrating the move but took advantage of getting an early reprieve from my workday last week to catch Lora Fosberg’s Feel The Now, which runs through August 1st.
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The radio towers of Thank You For Everything are aural prisms refracting slivers of anxiety, apology, admonition and regret. The commercial airwaves are filled with DJ blather, but each of us are traveling broadcasts radiating out into the world a torrent of transmissions both negative and positive. Adhering not at all to the wave properties of nature, the agitated fragments of text do not interfere or displace one another: they merely collide and freeze in place stubbornly.
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Everything’s mirror is the sun of It’s a New Dawn, radiating epigrams of unbridled optimism. Trite or inspiring depending on your disposition, the phrases beam pep talk onto the rooftops below: “Let’s Begin Again,” “Take This to the Limit” and “Forcast: Sunny” (sic… but why sweat the small stuff?). The visitor finds themselves standing somewhere betwixt the two. Doubt or hope? Which will it be? All or nothing? It’s worth noting that the towers stand on a barren hillside, each keeping a comfortable distance. Switch the frequencies. Adjust your transmission.

Figures in the Earth

A little girl watches her grandmother walk off into the distance, returning home to die in the town where she grew up. As the silhouette of the old woman disappears behind the crown of a road, it’s as if the sky has swallowed her up.

Maborosi is filled with such images. Still haunted by dreams of her grandmother’s departure, Yumiko (played by Makiko Esumi) moves to a small seaside community where she tries to rebuild her life, filled with doubt after the death of her husband. Close ups become less frequent, profiles form half moons of light in rooms steeped in darkness and figures become insignificant specks against the coastal landscape.
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Wide angle shots define a new emotional space for Yumiko’s world. Gone is the intimacy of a cramped apartment, the neighbor’s radio blaring through thin walls. Children at play become lost in a snowy hillside’s spotted hide and race across an inverted sky. They emerge from a drainage tunnel into a blotch of light that looks abstract and unnatural.
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The scenes tantalize at meaning inherent in the imposing nature of the coast that somehow reflects the inner anguish of Yumiko’s search for answers. “…The sea is awesome,” she observes at one point. “Perhaps too much so,” her companion replies.
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Grotto

I’m looking for the entrance to the basement of Triple Base to check out Elyse Mallouk’s Trickle-down: Yours for the Mining when the gallery attendant emerges from the back room and points out a little hatchway inside the front window.
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A perilous looking hatchway. A neck-breaking descent. With disclaimer.
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That’s what’s been missing in the exhibits I’ve been attending: the element of danger.
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Downstairs, a single light dangles inches from the ground in the center of the basement. In the corners of the room, placed at angles at varying heights are several reflecting panels. Projectors affixed to the ceiling display images of animated diamonds whose reflections crawl along the surfaces of the walls and floor. One of the mirrors was displaced somehow, so the man positions it back into its niche before disappearing into the back room.
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It’s frankly pretty beautiful, and the slightly cartoonish rendering of the faceted gemstones only adds to the sly presentation. They’re items endowed with an almost mystical appeal, the power of what they represent seemingly more real than the objects themselves. In the dark with the swirling shapes dancing around you, you could imagine yourself in a cave full of the genuine article. The inability to take hold of them has a strong symbolic resonance. Well worth your time to take a trip down this particular rabbit hole.

Ontological Carousel

Already a fan of Jon Clary’s stuff, Friends of Painting at Eleanor Harwood allowed me both the opportunity to get lost in some of his new stuff and served as an introduction to Bruce Wilhelm’s work.
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Some of Wilhelm’s acrylic paintings actually reminded me of Clary’s wonderful Campfire, which was included in Root Division’s Three Angles show last year. There are the multiple layers, slices of reality that pierce through the painting’s top surface. What begin as droplets of simple patterns and repeating designs in Invited to the Party eventually engulf the visible space in molten surges in Little Bites. The superposition reaches it’s most violent contrast in the collision of planes of Plaid Stab.
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The most engrossing stuff though was Wilhelm’s series of looping animated shorts, playing on monitors mounted on the walls of the gallery in wooden frames. Racing through Ocean is a painted horse whose upper half has been sheered off, like the canopy of a car in a Hal Needham flick. Rows of waves slice back and forth: see-saw obstacles at a carnival fairground game. Land features a bent tree springing upward, the ground constantly aswirl with fat brushstrokes of brown and gold. There is the immediate absorption in the subtle variations of the repeating sequences but you could easily burn through an hour marveling at all the variety in each painted frame as it flickers by. If you’ve been lamenting the closing of William Kentridge’s show at SFMOMA, here is your antidote.

Quicktimes are available on the gallery’s site, but you’re going to want to pay a visit to fully appreciate the vivisections in Wilhelm’s painted works and the invasion of nature upon the man-made (and vice versa) in Clary’s latest dreamscapes.

Loop the Loop

In the spirit of the 4 Star, the best movie house on Earth, I thought I’d combine two reviews into one ass-kicking double feature. You’ll have to provide your own shrimp chips and popcorn yeast of course.

Let’s get this out of the way, right off: Yo-Yo Girl Cop has the best opening credit sequence ever made (Saul Bass fans clam up).
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Out of the public eye, a select number of teens are tapped to go undercover to infiltrate schools where domestic terrorist threats are suspected to be hiding. Other than their wits, empathy for their peers, and whatever fighting skills they might have accrued in their past lives (the girls seem by nature or nurture to be a pretty brutal bunch), their weapon and sole identifier as a member of the elite group is their yo-yo.

It’s always fun to see what other countries can do with what is largely an American concept: super heroes. It was British writers who added much of the polish and depth that we expect nowadays from characters who for decades were content with looking colorful and engaging in what amounted to schoolyard brawls that tore up city blocks. The Philippines gave us Gagamboy, which while often funny, came off more as a parody than a serious contender. Cutie Honey from Japan cranked up the humor still more, which unfortunately made the outing seem to sag a bit when the character had to get down to the business of saving the world (yet, still a favorite all things considered).
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Yo Yo Girl Cop plays it with a straight face. Sort of. If there is one thing in common I love about so many Japanese films, it’s the sincerity. Faced with the alarming number of suicides among teens or the disaffection of the hikikomori, for a country that often identifies restraint as part of the national character their cinema displays an outpouring of sympathy for adolescents and the trials they face. The film is honest enough to admit that adults for the most part don’t have a clue how their kids are feeling. So we get quite a bit of Aya Matsuura as Saki Asamiya simply dealing with the problems of both bullying and suicide chat rooms while investigating the school.

Where Gagamboy never missed a chance to wink at the audience, Yo Yo Girl Cop rarely does, but although Saki Asamiya’s initiation into the life of an undercover operative takes a page right out of La Femme Nikita, there is nothing nearly that sublime here. It skews closer to Spider-man where things are deathly serious, but there’s time out now and again for a few laughs from J. Jonah Jameson. Here we get Riki Ishikawa as her minder, pulling faces every chance he gets, and I like him more and more with every sneer. There are certainly plenty of over-the-top performances to go around, perhaps all the more endearing since everyone seems so earnest you can’t help but feel that they’re all quietly dancing around the silliness of the central conceit of the main character’s arsenal. It’s important to remember that super heroes as a concept are inherently pretty ridiculous to begin with. You’re going to have to wait ’til the very end for the yo-yo fight. It’s brief, but believe me it’s worth it.
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Madam City Hunter, on the other hand, doesn’t even bother with a prolonged title sequence. Before you can say in media res the bullets are flying and our heroine is on the scene. This is the kind of lean and mean storytelling that Hong Kong brought to action films decades ago that made American films taste like weak tea by comparison. Alas, some of us had to play catch up, and it’s clear that by the Nineties when this film was released, the formula had been refined to perfection. Thankfully, Hong Kong directors, perhaps because of the huge numbers of films released each year and anticipating their audiences ever sharpening appetites were never willing to rest on their laurels. There was still a lot of experimentation going on, seeing just how much you could alter the ratio of comedy to drama for example, or just how you could do a shoot-out sequence a little differently.
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In the case of Hunter, we get an increase to the humor quotient, which if graphed would look like a continual ascent with brief dips appearing for the occasional action set piece. Although martial arts films frequently mix comic elements during frantic fight sequences, Hunter is constantly deflating suspenseful set-ups with a humorous denouement. It’s as though the main characters just can’t take the situations they’ve been placed in seriously. So when an assassin slips into an apartment, turns on the gas and plants his bomb, the protagonists tweak to it pretty quickly, but spend most of the time bickering over who is going to deal with the problem. It’s almost as if they’ve disarmed the set-up rather than the bomb.

So who is Madam City Hunter? She’s Cynthia Khan, playing Yang Ching, the toughest cop on the force. Yes, like every cop in film since time immemorial she falls under scrutiny and is nearly pulled from the case, but in a refreshing HK twist, her superior begs her to cross the line and do things her way (it may have something to do with the fact that he’s developed something of a crush on his subordinate).
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Joining her as partner is a private investigator played by Anthony Wong. If I’m not completely mistaken his character is actually named Charlie Chan. He provides a little approximation of a broken English stereotyped Chinese character at one point for laughs, which was so unexpected and daring that I think I yelped. I’m so used to seeing this guy in hard boiled roles like in Beast Cops and Infernal Affairs that it’s nice to see him making mince meat out of a comic role. He also sports a shaggy mane of scraggly hair in this one, which means some terrible looking wigs on the stunt men.

Shelia Chan plays Charlie’s love interest Blackie, who from the moment she appears pretty much steals the show. If IMDB is to be believed it’s unconscionable that she doesn’t have a filmography as extensive as Wong’s. Along with the police chief, they together form a kind of Love Quadrangle, everyone suspicious of the other’s affections. The brilliance behind it is that it’s all just Charlie jerking everyone else around to amuse himself. One scene in a restaurant finds all of the characters speaking in voice-over wondering about the others’ intentions while reading all kinds of meanings into every move of a chopstick. Blackie, worried that Charlie is falling for Yang Ching, gets progressively drunker, punctuating every exchange between him and the chief with yet another toast, with predictable results.
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So what do you get for your rental price? You get a battle on bamboo scaffolding. A cool set piece fight on a dam. There is the dreaded “Wonder Strike,” mentioned more often than performed. There’s a car wash seduction scene, a dinner seduction scene, a haircut seduction scene, all of them played thankfully for laughs. There is the fun that only decades-old movies can provide of revealing what filmmakers thought would be a cool apartment (red brick wallpaper), a cool club (neon sign of a music stave with blinking notes), or a bad-ass gang hideout (lots of graffiti in day glo colors of big Rolling Stonesesque lips, skulls and peace signs). It’s unconscionable that this didn’t go into sequel mode á la the Mad Mission series. Some people aren’t fond of the admixture of comic, romance, drama and action but Hong Kong cinema does it oh so well, so if you’re game, here’s an antidote for those deathly serious action films that do none of the above well at all.



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