Archive for the 'Art' Category

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’ĂȘtre 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.

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.

Bedazzled

No matter the season, when I was a kid and my family took a trip to Frankenmuth, Michigan, we always made a stop at Bronner’s, where it’s Christmas all year round. Straight on through the doorway and veering slightly to the immediate right brought you to a show floor full of decorated Christmas trees, towering to the ceiling. As I remember them they were largely of the aluminum variety, in every off-color imaginable: magentas and silver, greens that corresponded to nothing in nature. Even the icicles of tinsel were gaudy to my young eyes (tinsel being verboten in my household because it was considered overkill by my parents’ sensibilities). I was eager to move on as soon as possible to find another unlikely character figurine to add to an already crowded nativity scene (the choices seemed without limit: there were water carriers, bread makers, musicians and even an elephant).

The vivid memory of that indoor forest came rushing back upon entering Yerba Buena’s exhibition of Nick Cave’s Soundsuit creations, many of which reach altitudinous heights. If there was any sign of my jaded childhood self amongst the visitors, I missed it: the kids in the gallery seemed absolutely agog at Cave’s wild creations, which are fitted to mannequins standing on platforms, set in an a nearly intersecting X-formation, in the center of the room.
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The costumes of Meet Me at the Center of the Earth show influence of the ceremonial garb of many world cultures, but they also display a keen eye for taking the most unpretentious and even (dare I say) vulgar of articles and constructing something beautiful from them. After all, here are the baskets that began appearing like clockwork every Christmas when my grandmother succumbed to a beaded plastic phase, the ones my sister and I would hide behind any bit of decorative screen available before guests arrived. I wish she was visiting now so I could point them out and she could shoot me a triumphant look of confirmation.

Attached like barnacles are potholders and knitted caps, God’s Eyes and plastic blossoms. Stretched over the shape of a polar bear frame are Aran Sweaters. One suit sports metal perches for porcelain birds, giving the appearance of a wearable candelabra. A tall polka-dotted feather duster looks ready to spring from the platform, an over-sized moldy bag of mobile Wonder Bread waiting to be set loose on an unsuspecting public. Like a fungal forest, another is covered with jutting brightly colored toys: tops and noise makers and rattles.
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Eventually, a line of shaggy pom-poms come into the room as the day’s performance gets under way. The dancers are wearing costumes less elaborate than those on display but which allow them more freedom of movement. Their rustling procession seems to bring a hush of calm to we visitors a bit blissed out by the visual overload of the exhibit. What starts as the quiet percussion of brush on drums eventually becomes a loud and well choreographed group dance after the performers snake their way back into the side gallery near the stairs. I was a bit disappointed at first that I didn’t get to find out what, say, the sound of a suit-clad stroller with an abacus face mask sounds like. But the recital eventually won me over, even crammed as we were in that tight space. It was also rather humbling to find a profusion of cringe-inducing signifiers of my childhood, the lost articles of hundreds of flea market trips, making a star appearance, as if to say, this is what we were waiting for all along.

Samsara

Arriving at Togonon Gallery I find there’s an artist talk already in progress, so I drift to the back of the room to hear a few details about Viva Paredes’ prayer wheels. The cross beams are all reclaimed wood, fitted together without nails. Her mindset regarding material is deeply influenced by past experience working with recycled products. I’m dying to give the wheels a spin. I’d like to get a closer look at the frosted image of a fleeing family on the surface of the jars and the medicinal plants contained within as well, but mostly I want to spin them. Not the most spiritual response to a work inspired by an object intended to foster wisdom, mindfulness and merit.

samsara1The talk ends, everyone stands, and I inch toward the sculpture but am cut off by the attendees headed toward the food and wine table. I am eventually pressed right up against it as people crowd around the artist with further questions, so I get a good look at the contents inside, even if I can’t identify them. Why herbs? The title, I learn, is Benediction for a Wetback, which means that setting the cylinders tumbling might be a way to prompt reflection upon those who uproot their lives either to escape hardship or to support their loved ones. Considering the wheels can be spun both ways on their spindles, the imprinted image is a clever comment on the plight of the migrant family: there is always the possibility of constant movement back and forth. Following work means there may be no easy measure of “progress” in a journey. Setting the wheel spinning makes you to some degree responsible for the silhouettes’ current plight, whether rapid flight or frenzied backtracking. I decide after all that maybe I’d rather let them be for the moment. Paredes’ work has given me something to contemplate, but already it’s safe to say it has inherited a penchant for instilling mindfulness from its archetype.

Proximity Space

I’m actually kinda pleased whenever I find that images on a gallery’s website don’t do an artist’s work justice. There are so many great sites that you can visit that’ll give you your daily art fix that it’s heartening to find qualities that are simply irreproducible as a jpeg, no matter the number of pixels. Method, presentation and experience, it turns out, can all be considered under the right circumstances as victims of lossy.
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So, here are your options: you can either take my word for it or you can head over to Rena Bransten Gallery yourself to view Amparo Sard’s The Error of Oversight: New Work. The white frames and white paper hiding in plain sight on the walls like peppered moths require your close attention, preferably with eyes no more than three inches from the genuine article.

The figures in each work are composed of precise stippling, using a pin rather than a pen, so that the surface of the paper rises in gentle mounds describing contours and giving emphasis to intricate patterns on clothing. The subtle bas-relief allows extremities to submerge into the milky background in Untitled (Four legs – after the mistake) (or has the “mistake” lopped them off altogether?). Following the series around the gallery counter-clockwise, limbs begin to become disjointed and disembodied. In a piece from The Error Series, 2007, the female figure grasps two child sized arms like tools as if divorced or debarred from her immediate physical sensations.
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Eventually the subject’s forms begin to stretch like taffy, tubed tentacles lazily puddle around torsos or dangle from holes in nearby walls. In Untitled (Divided by the half – still alive), the woman has been completely bifurcated, but her heart fills the foreground. Fragile, mangled, twisted and pulled, Sard’s figures each have a kind of resilience built into the details. There is the occasional expression of disbelief, but more often those of determination or accord. In Divided perspective wins out: broken, but the heart still beats.