Archive for the 'Painting' 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’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.

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.

Daydreaming

my love for you is a stampede of horses blogger Meighan O’Toole’s curated show You’ve Got Light in Your Eyes is on at Needles + Pens through June 28th. I visited during a jam-packed Memorial Day weekend, trying hard to keep in mind how little money I had in my wallet as I passed all the glorious stuff the store had on sale. Must focus.

Kate Bingaman Burt’s Dress is ornamented with hand stitched sticker shock, pockets advertising rates of exchange we all agonize over.
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Like pages torn from a circular, her drawings form a little nimbus around the apparel.
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On the adjoining wall, Dan Syzmanowski’s work reminded me of old paperback covers. I feel like a story hides behind each one.
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Aidan Koch’s At the Beach, suggesting that even the humblest moments of our lives deserve a mythology. The woman gingerly stepping through the shallows is ringed by salt-water blossoms, like the personification of a tide pool caught mid-dance.
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Coffee Break

Rachel Sager at Sugarlump, 24th st. near Bryant.
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Craig Prehn at Four Barrel, Valencia and 15th st.
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And now I can’t fall asleep…
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Apocalypto – Interesting Version

Enrique Chagoya has repurposed the bat signal to get the word out: the end is nigh. Instead of projected onto the clouds of the night sky however, Camazotz illuminates the top of several reconfigured one-armed bandit slot machines that form the center piece of the artist’s show 2012: Super-Bato Saves the World at Electric Works through July 2nd.
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Not that the end year of the Mayan calendar should throw us in a tizzy. Change isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and after a few pulls at the machine levers you might just find yourself feeling pretty optimistic about the future. Chagoya has built up a colorful cast of post-mythological characters in a mash-up of American and Mexican secular and sacred iconography, past and present. He even provides a handbook for the perplexed, taking the form of an illegal immigrant’s secret guide and accordioned like a codex, to the strange groups that cluster together north of the border (“Liberals” are fittingly presented as a cartoon ball of whirling kicks and punches, from which the head of Batman emerges with a smirk).
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Armed with your primer to Cabbage Patch-faced Uncle Sams and forewarned about the weird ways Mexicans have been represented in pop culture (one particularly disturbing pulp is referenced in a number of works), you’ll probably resign yourself to the fact that things have been pretty chaotic up ’til now in any case. Once you’ve tackled one border crossing, there are plenty more waiting for all of us on the road up ahead.

Kind of Blue

It would have been easy to get completely absorbed in the Out of the Flat Files II exhibit at Triple Base (I could look at Serena Cole’s stuff all day) and end up neglecting the back room. There I found a selection of Bryson Gill’s work, forming a kind of chilly aesthetic equator on the walls of the tiny office space.
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Gill has taken familiar classical works, chopped them up, and paired them down to essentials. Volume is emphasized. Faces and limbs have the cold solidity of stone. Necks and orbits are buried in deep shadow. It’s a little like seeing a Vermeer glimpsed through a clouded window pane, obscured but also changed by the refraction and uniform color of the film.
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