One Language Everywhere

Into the plastic tray go the keys, change, wallet and off comes the belt. Although I’ve lived in San Francisco for eight years, I’ve never had occasion to actually visit City Hall. A week ago people were lined up around the block here to get married. In the rotunda where my friends exchanged their vows they are setting out chairs and decorating for some kind of party. Otherwise the place is obviously winding down and people are wandering out after their work day. The security guard is bored or tired and doesn’t bat an eye when misunderstanding him I wander away from the metal detector looking for the stairs to the basement before, realizing I still have to pass through the customs to get to them, I return to his desk. Suddenly the thought hits me: wasn’t it here that former supervisor Dan White murdered Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone?

I’m here for, if I can find it, the Insights exhibition featuring work by blind and visually impaired artists. I’m familiar with Lighthouse, the organization that is presenting this show in partnership with the SFAC. When I worked at TechTV, before they closed their San Francisco office and studio for good after being purchased by Comcast, the channel did a piece on the organization, focusing on new technologies for the visually impaired presented by their director of employment and technology services Nicaise Dogbo. The piece was instructive not only because it outlined the possibilities that gadgets could have to improve the quality of life, but also because it delineated the many degrees of visual impairment that exist which I was largely unaware of.

Although I find an elevator to the lower level, I’m fairly baffled looking at the map. Just which room is the exhibit taking place in? Since there’s no one around, I keep wandering about and Insights finds me. At the junction of five hallways, the works can be seen lining the corridors that radiate off from here. Nothing to do but pick a direction then.
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Thanks to the fact that many of the pictures are framed, it was hard to get a good picture of many due to the lighting. Don’t be surprised if you see a little bit of me present in a reflection. Part of the purpose of the exhibit, beyond showcasing the work of talented artists is, in the words of Lighthouse’s Executive Director Anita Shafer Aaron to “(raise) the general public’s awareness of visual impairment.” Thanks to some of the best signage I’ve seen at any exhibit this year, it definitely succeeds. I once again am confronted with the dearth of education that I possess regarding the many kinds of impairments that fall under the legal definition of blindness. This work by Felicia Griffin, a Monoprint simply called Untitled, is startling.
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Many of the features worth admiring in it probably won’t show up in my photographs: the crisscrossed hatching and subtle coloring that seems less planned than distressed, as if it had worn from the surface of the print over time. The jagged infusions of red are a nice violent contrast with the ordered grid patterns faintly visible in the background.
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These are the kinds of details I like in Twombly: big movements, themes and shapes against slight but profuse backgrounds filled with activity. Griffin works with assistants who help carry out the directions for her work as she notes on the placard that her “hand eye coordination is not so good.”

Like Griffin, Sharon Haynes has been legally blind since birth. She uses magnification software to help plan and view her pieces, a reason that she is drawn to create in digital formats. She notes that “I do not have to worry about cleaning the paint or other media from my nose afterward” since she must be extremely close to her work in progress due to her Myopia. Suffocating is interesting because although the title suggests panic, it could just as easily be seen as a representation of exploration of the senses.
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In any case, feedback of things as subtle as light and shadow, to a person trapped underground or emerging from the depths can carry intense emotional weight. A sighted person suddenly finding themselves in the dark, or a blind person in an unfamiliar environment immediately stretches out to explore with their senses, hands before them. Defining spaces is instinctual and tied intimately with our feelings. Suffocating is drama in four panels and the representation of five hands.

language4Mari Cardenas is rightfully this year’s catalog cover artist. Allow me to gush for a moment. The Louvre might have Mona Lisa’s mysterious smile but for the next month City Hall is blessed with this girl’s arched brow. The detachment in the expression, the seemingly placid response still directed at the closed door points to a multitude of readings. The title Leaving only expands the interesting possibilities. What has this girl experienced that her reaction is so measured? Defeat, defiance, resignation, dismissal? Is it an elaborate put-on to preserve dignity? California, a state with a deep well of stories arising from immigration, displacement, eviction, divided families and loyalties, acceptance and intolerance seems to lurk somewhere in the margins. Cardenas notes on the signage that she has had Macular Degeneration for 14 years and “see(s) shapes but no detail.” The picture seems perfectly composed, the head nestled within a rectangle of bright yellow, the body set against the steps (how far down do they go?) denoting distance, yet her eyes still draw the viewer back to the residence. The picture suggests movement but the eyes imply the thoughts of the subject remain with this place, this moment.

Michael Jameson is one of three artists featured here who are not part of the juried exhibition. They all were recipients of last year’s Elva Iacono Vergari Prize and so have been favored with their own kind of exhibition within the exhibition showing off their work.
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Jameson’s pictures show a knack for capturing personality, or evoking it through pose. The blacks are heavy with thick applications and lines. Fat smears of white and black still somehow amount to excessive detail. Check out the eye of the bull,
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Ginsberg’s hands,
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Dylan’s shoulders.
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“I have had Retolental Fibroplasia since I was 6 months old. Fortunately, it left me with some vision in my right eye. My left eye is glass,” states the artist’s message. He relies on special eyeglasses and “the best possible lighting” to create his work. Jameson’s mastery of negative and positive space are one of the main strengths of his work I think. I am never a fan of celebrity portraiture, whether they be paintings or photographic. What fascinates me about Jameson’s is that they never devolve into caricature. They seem first and foremost explorations of space, of contrasts. The subject matter is incidental and yet he seizes those elements that are inherent in the subject and a necessity to the composition itself: Ginsberg’s hands again or Dylan’s pout. A little hard to see since I had to take the picture at an angle due to the reflections I was getting, but the hook of Sean Lennon’s arm as he adjusts his suit is a wonderful counterpoint to the long torso that stretches out of the frame. The features of the face are elfin yet dignified: they are sharp and yet dissolve into the leaves of the tree.
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Learning Center by David Kontra is another personal favorite. It reminds me of everyone back home who asks, “Why do you live in a city?”
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This seems like the honest reply. Because cities are dirty, jammed with buildings that share little aesthetic commonalities, institutions whose very facades are soul sucking, monuments that you ignore, people of every description walking together arm in arm, alone muttering, talking on their headgear while swinging their briefcases, old couples holding each other for support, surrounded by enough foliage broadcasting their colors and spilling them unto the wet pavement and memories to make it all something worth smiling about.

Charles Blackwell’s Clash bang boom slam must have been another serious contender for catalog cover artist. Blackwell has “no central vision, only peripheral” and finds inspiration from music, “sitting close to the performance.” Clash is about as close to the music as you can get, indeed viewing it feels like you are inside the music.
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Finally, a very unique work, that is intimately tied with the artist’s experience. Due to an “unknown form of Retinal Degeneration,” George A. Covington actually uses reproduction to view the world. After capturing an image with his camera and transferring it to computer, the features of the landscape emerge for him, which otherwise remain a blur of “light and dark contrasts.” Desert Stonehenge is the representation of a place that seems forgotten, ravaged by time and perhaps war.
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Like Ozymandias it seems a relic immeasurably old with something to tell us, but lacking a poet it make its lesson known. “Most people see to photograph,” notes Covington, “I photograph to see.”

Civic Center blog called Insights “one of San Francisco’s best annual art shows” and I’m inclined to agree. There was also quite a bit of tactile work on display, and the selection of open hallways mean that navigating through the space is quite accessible if a visitor is wheelchair bound. I only wish it had been a site open on weekends, but City Hall’s hours of operation are forgiving: it’s open on weekdays until 8 pm. Few shows so reward the attendee by being both pleasurable and instructive. Departure from the show is liable to make you as conflicted as Cardenas’ girl. SFAC, any chance of a permanent exhibit? It’s a long wait until next year.

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