Pay No Attention to the Art Behind the Locked Doors

I suppose there’s something humorous about an exhibit concerning censorship being closed despite the posted hours. But jokes are all about timing and delivery and it was nearly 90 degrees in San Francisco on Saturday and felt more like 110. So I sit in the shade of the steps at the San Francisco Center for the Book and glare at their equivalent of a whoopee cushion, a banner advertising Banned & Recovered: Artists Respond to Censorship. I walk around the building telling myself I will sneak in somehow through the handicap access ramp. It is guarded by workers from the adjoining cafes taking a break from the heat of the kitchen. I complete the circle, play with the door buzzer for awhile and practice the many ways I will weave the word “fuck” into a post about the San Francisco Center for Not Fucking Open When They Say They Are.

I’m contemplating with dread the long walk to the Braunstein/Quay Gallery when I remember that CCA has a show I was going to catch next weekend. A short walk amongst the towering converted warehouses, a crowd outside some kind of dress outlet who ask for directions to Chinatown, a BMW that comes screaming out of nowhere, running the stop sign and nearly plowing into me as it speeds out of sight and I’m in sight of the cheering glass facade of an institution that amuses itself by dropping or adding the letter “C” from its name at regular intervals.

First things first, do they allow picture taking? One of the women on duty turns to the other hopefully. Her counterpart shakes her head solemnly. No problem: all your website are belong to us. I drop a few bucks into their donation box, grab a program and suddenly I’m out of the heat and over the rainbow.

CCA Wattis Institute for the Contemporary Arts’ show, simply titled The Wizard of Oz, is a celebration and exploration of the many permutations and possibilities that have spun off from the original work of L. Frank Baum since it was first published in 1900. The first thing you’ll probably be drawn to upon entering the gallery is Donald Urquhart’s vast primer that covers the right wall, an alphabet from A to Z of the Wonderful World of Oz. The picture here from CCA’s website is obviously a kind of precursor or jumping off point. Although Urquhart focuses primarily on the film version and Judy Garland in particular, the example on the gallery page is less extensive than the one on display. Indeed, a Google image search confirms that he is fond of this format as he has tackled subjects as varied as bad luck and Joan Crawford. There are some surprises here, “H is for Judy’s hand” which was “(a)lledgedly removed in the year before her burial…” There’s quite a bit of trivia: “R is for Ruby Slipppers” and “S is for Silver Shoes,” the former explaining “I’m in the film” and the latter “I’m in the book.” The B for Bosoms relates that Judy Garland had to strap down her breasts for the film, a move that George Lucas would later impose upon Carrie Fisher for Star Wars. But then the wall reminds us that Dorothy is supposed to be 12 years old. I have no idea what that says about Lucas’ view of Princess Leia. I’m a bit surprised at just how much of the Oz minutiae I’m familiar with: the jitterbug song that was cut from the film, the skin poisoning that resulted from the makeup used in the film. I’m guessing the “O” is from Garland’s audio memoirs, “…I’m over the rainbow, You’re over the rainbow- We’re all totally over the goddamned rainbow!!!” but it was probably just “P is for Pills” talking.

In the next room is a looping presentation of the earliest still extant film adaptation of the book from 1910. It’s so obscure, eclipsed by its bigger, brighter MGM descendant that no one is even positive who the director was. The signage is less than glowing, explaining that it was obviously tailored for children (as opposed to…?), but it has brilliant background matte paintings and lots of Méliès-worthy special effects. In any case, it’s always refreshing to see a different take considering how enduring and encompassing the musical version has become. Which leads in to a series by Clare Rojas that I found absolutely fascinating. Taking the poppy field episode as a jumping off point, these are the characters reimagined altogether in style and treatment. The approach is vaguely folk art, the participants largely in profile, applied in chilly gouache and latex. Instead of the feeling of exhilaration at the harrowing escape, instead there is a strange sadness in the sight of the broken poppies mowed down by Dorothy and the mustached and very human Woodsman.

It’s the human qualities of course that help us identify with characters like the Tin Woodsman. Even today when companies try their hand at creating their own Tin Woodsmen like Asimo, similarities to us are carefully crafted into the design and performance. Evan Holloway strips all such attempts at comparison away in his tribute sculpture to the character, a pulley and cam assembly with counterweight ready to release the affixed axe for mechanical, undeniably machine-like operation. But don’t believe for a minute that this means Holloway lacks a heart like his iron clad subject matter. Playing softly on a nearby speaker is a strangely touching ode the artist composed to accompany the sculpture that you can take a listen to at YouTube. Beware: there is a lot of feedback in the background of the recording. There are a total of seven parts to the video series, I picked the third one because it seemed to have the least amount of audio distortion. Once the band kicks in the problems in the sound quality pretty much vanish.

A clamped curtain by Ulla von Brandenburg in a harlequin pattern of black, red and white leads you further back into the exhibit, which seems appropriate because the further you travel, the more conceptual the pieces become, and their relationship seems to stray further and further from the easily identifiable aspects of Baum’s creation. Rivane Neunschwander’s wall of ribbons focuses on the act of wishing, each streamer inscribed with a singular desire: “I wish democracy was real;” “I wish for an easy death;” “I wish my imagination was useful.” Each is a kind of lament that focuses less on escapism than on personal or universal regrets about the state of things. Like Dorothy comes to realize, “(t)here’s no place like home,” we just wish home were a more agreeable place sometimes. A pad of paper and pencil are provided to add your own response to roll up and insert into the holes drilled in the gallery wall.

Time to head out and make my way to Braunstein/Quay. On my way out I come across this plaque to the right of the doorway: “Lyman A. William The Road Through the Forest, 2008 On September 3, 2008, Lyman A. William was blindfolded and taken to a location unknown to him, some distance from San Francisco. William then removed his blindfold and began a journey back to San Francisco with only his trousers, shoes, socks, underwear, blindfold/handkerchief, shirt, sweater, hat, 35 millimeter camera, 24-exposure roll of film, and limited amount of money. We anticipate his return at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, September 16, when he will give a gallery talk about his travels.” Jesus Christ!

It’s still punishing out in the heat. At Alameda and Kansas St. a bus almost collides with a truck running the stop sign. I wonder where Lyman A. William is at right now. I bet he’s regretting bringing that sweater.


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