Sunday, January 31, 2010

Porto Franco Art Parlor

I visited a new-to-me gallery this weekend: Porto Franco Art Parlor, at 953 Valencia, San Francisco. It's a small second floor walk-up in a Victorian building between 20th & 21st (across from Liberty Street.) Imagine a tiny apartment, turn each room into an exhibition space, and use the kitchen-dining area as the reception space. It's a warm, friendly space and it was really humming - lots of people were coming in off the street to check out the show, which was a retrospective of drawings by Henry Elinson.

As one of the visitors (an Elison collector) said:
"Violently pink and angry, and intrusive. Talent huge and phallic, like a battering ram, that makes me wince. But the gallery - Parlor - is a kind of place that you just want to have in San Francisco. Former bath house/spa and parlor for the ladies is understated, smart, whimsical and smooth, run by the owners who make you feel welcome and at ease ."

The next show at Porto Franco is an exhibition of drawings and sketches by Franchesca Yarbusova, wife and collaborator of animator Yuri Norstein.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Chor Boogie at Air Castle Gallery

You may remember Chor Boogie as the aerosol artist who was stabbed in November while working on his Market Street mural. He's not only recovered, finished the mural, and then repaired it after a vandal attack, but he is planning other huge projects both internationally and around town.

Now there’s an opportunity to see some of his more lighthearted, small works close up at Air Castle Gallery. The opening reception is this Friday, January 29, from 6pm-midnight. This show features tiny aerosol paintings of his signature "boogie birds" -- a joyful addition to his already positive work.

We will be hearing more from this artist.

(There are some interesting links within this post; they seem to become visible only by mousing over them. Please do.)

--Ramona Soto (bluemonk)

Friday, January 22, 2010

Design lecture by Tim Brown of IDEO

Last week I attended a thoughtful lecture by Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, a global design consultancy. He was at California College of the Arts to talk about his new book, Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation.

Brown's own company is a model of transformation and innovation. A quote from the lecture announcement indicates how wide-ranging its scope is: "IDEO's mission is to fuse design, business, and social studies to come up with deeply researched, deeply understood designs and ideas. IDEO works on projects in a variety of industries, including computers, furniture, medical, sporting goods, telecommunications, toys, and transportation. It has designed and prototyped a life-saving portable defibrillator, the defining details at the groundbreaking Prada shop in Manhattan, Apple's first mouse . . . and Microsoft's second mouse."

The audience spilled out of CCA's Timken Lecture Hall and into an adjacent area. That's where a lot of us were, watching on a large screen. While he's very passionate about his ideas, Brown seems affable, as well as very modest about his own accomplishments. Although he has extensive training and experience as an industrial designer, he has a far more wide-ranging view of how "design thinking" can be applied. According to Brown, "design thinking is an approach that uses the designer's sensibility and methods for problem solving to meet people's needs in a technologically feasible and commercially viable way. In other words, design thinking is human-centered innovation."

Brown advocates using design thinking to make a difference in all areas of life, not just in those traditionally thought of as design targets. Design thinking can impact the way people design everything from a computer mouse or a building to economic models and healthcare. He makes the case that society itself would work much better if everyone--not just professional designers--approached problems with a childlike curiosity and a willingness to experiment. "The key to education," says Brown, "is to not eradicate kids' natural inclinations. Most people had their last good design education in kindergarten." Kindergarten is usually the last time in their schooling where children are allowed the freedom to examine problems in depth, collaborate, and then design unlimited prototypes. [Although this too has changed; given the pressure to push academics earlier and earlier, kindergarten has become the new first grade.] Children naturally experiment extensively and work together when they are given the opportunity for free play; this is the way they learn how the world works and how to solve elemental problems in natural, creative ways.

Collaboration is also valued at IDEO, whose staff is composed of professional designers and non-designers alike. All are encouraged to practice design thinking: to think deeply about a problem, ask a lot of questions, work together, make prototypes, and not fear failure. In fact, Brown encourages people to "fail early, and fail often." It's better to test a design on 5 or 10 people first, and fail--even repeatedly--than to inflict the design on thousands of people and THEN find out it doesn't work well. "Designers often impose changes on people's lives and forget how painful change can be." If some system in a workplace, for example, isn't designed well, people may be extremely unhappy; perhaps they even quit, and no one may even realize why.

That's a main reason why it's so important to start with a person's comfort zone when introducing a change in behavior. IDEO focuses on studying people's existing situations and behaviors, and then builds on what's working right. Bank of America approached IDEO several years back with a problem: many people were not using the bank as a place to save money. Why not? Didn't they see the importance of saving? IDEO studied people's habits and found that--while people weren't necessarily using traditional savings accounts--they were consistently saving money in other, small ways. IDEO identified two widespread behaviors:

1) People tend to round up their utility bills. If the electricity bill is $47.68, for example, they might pay $50.00. When asked why they do this, they explain that they just want to make sure they never forget the bill and always have enough to pay it.

2) When people receive change from a cash transaction, they tend to save the change in, for example, a jar at home. They keep adding to it until it reaches a significant amount, and then spend it only if they need to.

In other words, people do want to save, and they will do it if it is built into their natural activities. IDEO took advantage of this impulse and invented BofA's very successful "keep the change" program: a painless way to save small amounts of money, with the added incentive of the bank matching the savings up to a certain amount. By studying the problem carefully and finding out what people were already doing naturally, IDEO was able to find a "win-win" answer to the problem of saving money.

But Brown also cited several examples (mentioned in the book) showing the importance of implementing design thinking to solve some of our toughest problems, such as how to fight diseases, how to improve education, or how to design water distribution in a developing country. Too often we have thought that big problems like this can best be solved by, as Brown says, "getting a few bright folks in California to think of solutions." However, research consistently shows that participatory social contracts work best: foundations and/or governments enabling NGOs and the people themselves to actually design and deliver the product in ways that work best for them.

Lastly, Brown urged everyone to think of life itself as a prototype. We have the opportunity to design our lives. "We have built societies where we don't reflect; we rush through our lives, either not thinking about them, or going to the other extreme and overplanning them. Don't be completely aimless," Brown urged, "but don't be so preplanned that you don't see opportunities and take them. Step back and observe yourself and others. You may find that there are better ways to interact and to do things." We can use design thinking to help in everything from small things--like designing gatherings to be more enjoyable to ourselves and others--to making big decisions more successfully.

IDEO's website has a Change by Design page, which includes a definition and a diagram of how design thinking works.

CCA has an events page with a lot of useful links to upcoming exhibitions, lectures, and workshops.

Tim Brown also has given a TED talk, which I found interesting and fun.

--Ramona Soto (bluemonk)

Monday, January 18, 2010

Henry Ossawa Tanner - African American Artist

Henry Ossawa Tanner is a world-famous "Negro" artist almost unknown in his native America. I'm publishing this story in acknowledgment of Martin Luther King Day, 2010.

Why isn't Henry Ossawa Tanner a household name? He is a major American artist with an international reputation. Is he relatively unknown here because he is an African American? He has been acclaimed among black leaders including Booker T. Washington, Edward Bannister, and W.E.B. DuBois. Tanner's solid accomplishments in painting and his illustrious family history, together with their relative exclusion from American arts and letters, make a strong argument for multiculturalism - in this case the inclusion of non-white-male artists in the canons of our books and universities.

"The Banjo Lesson" Henry Ossawa Tanner 1893

A major retrospective of Tanner's work was on view at San Francisco's M. H. de Young Museum in early 1992. The exhibition had already appeared in the major museums of Philadelphia, Detroit and Atlanta. Most of us still don't know who Tanner is or what we can learn from him.

Henry Ossawa Tanner was born in 1859 and grew up in Philadelphia. He attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts where he studied with Thomas Eakins. By 1887 he had exhibited frequently in Philadelphia galleries, at the Pennsulvania Academy and at the National Academy of Design in New York. He went to Paris in 1891 and by 1894 his painting, "The Banjo Lesson," had been accepted in the prestigious Paris Salon. Every year until 1914 Tanner had a selection in the Salon show. In 1897 "The Resurrection of Lazarus" was purchased by the French government for the Musée de Luxembourg.

Tanner resided primarily in France but spent periods of time in the United States, exhibiting frequently in Cincinnati, Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia. In 1908 Tanner had his first solo exhibition in New York, and in 1913 he had a solo show at Knoedler's, a gallery that remains well-known to this day. By 1923 he was awarded Chevalier of the Legion of Honor by the French government. He continued to have major exhibits throughout the United States. He enjoyed an international reputation as an American painter, along with Whistler, Mary Cassatt and other Americans who painted abroad. We know the others and we now have an opportunity to know Tanner.

Looking at Tanner's works at the de Young quickly dispelled the tradionalist's argument, barely acceptable in the latter 20th century, that Tanner is not an important artist and that his relative anonymity has nothing to do with his race. The de Young galleries were filled with over ninety paintings and numerous drawings. A quick walk through all the rooms revealed a strong, consistent artistic vision supported by the self-confidence and skill of the artist as painter. At various times Tanner used marine, animal, landscape, portrait, genre, Near Eastern (Oriental) and Biblical themes. Numerous examples of each kind of painting verify the artist's skill regardless of his subject matter.

From his earliest works, Tanner demonstrates the mastery of color, brushstroke, composition and light that belong to a true painter. In this exhibition there were no poorly painted picutres. Tanner's serene and elevating inner vision binds the ninety paintings together. His large canvases invite you to reflect calmly and deeply on the meaning of life as seen through the eyes of a lion, an old black man, a Jew, sometimes of a Biblical character. His color range and compositions are complete. There are no holes, no unfinished corners, no unresolved surfaces, that allow your attention to be diverted and wander out of the painting. To enter into one of Tanner's paintings is to see a reflection of a whole, meaningful, spiritually imbued universe.


"Angels Appearing Before the Shepherds" Henry Ossawa Tanner

Tanner's religious Biblical paintings form the largest group in the show. Perhaps it is the strange "Tanner Blue" palette that makes them stand apart from the rest of Tanner's work and from that of other artists. Here again a tradionalist might dismiss these paintings as irrelevant and derivative for their period (1897-19097) compared to Tanner's contemporaries - the Impresisonists, Post-Impressionists and emerging Fauves.

Tanner is a unique painter in the manner of Odilon Redon or Gustave Moreau who also painted in the late 19th century. When Tanner's painterly gifts are wedded to Biblical subjects, the effect of looking at one of these bluish turquoise misty paintings is to feel a suggesiton, an atmosphere, a mystery, an imaginative place of departure. These are almost symbolist paintings not limited to the subtle often moonlit view of barely discernible Biblical characters. One can look at the figures and their surroundings and go on to imagine a whole world, a whole story, even a whole religion. Tanner fulfills one of the potentials of great painting - to take the viewer outside of him or herself into a larger, more universal world.

If the Biblical pictures attract attention first, then the accomplishments of the other paintings are that much more amazing. Tanner's marine pictures, like "Fishermen at Sea" (1913-14), a powerful view down into a boat from above, and "The Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water" (1907), often come close to the skill of Winslow Homer for evoking the sublime majesty of the ocean. Tanner's ability to render the ocean is not an accidental accomplishment. He often went to the Jersey shore and later the Brittany coast in France. Why was he excluded from the 1983 Boston show of Masterpieces of American Painting 1760-1910 which included similar marine paintings? Once again, is it simply because the curators were unfamiliar with the scope and stature of this African American artist? Both Tanner and Bannister were excluded from another major exhibition in Detroit of American Arts between 1876 and 1983.

Tanner's landscapes rank right up there with Corot, including his view of the Atlantic City Dunes, the North Carolina Mountains, and a picture of Georgia woods with the ocean beyond. Each of these pictures has a mystery all its own. The Atlantic City dunes barely exist in people's memories today but Tanner's picture brings back all the romance and beauty of what must have existed in that early resort. Tanner also gives us the spiritual mystery of the North Carolina mountains rather than an egocentric view of the landscape.


"Georgia Landscape" Henry Ossawa Turner

Tanner's portraits most clearly demonstrate his equality with the great painters of his era. "Bishop Joseph Crane Hartzell" and "Two Disciples at the Tomb" could hang proudly next to a Sargeant or a Manet. Once again, we have to ask why Tanner is overlooked in spite of such powerfully painted faces as Harkwell's or the Disciples'? Tanner's portrait of Booker T. Washington, which should be a standard image in our visual vocabulary, brings alive a great man, a great African American, and reveals the skill of the painter in rendering a man's soul in the image of his face.


"Half Length Study of a Negro Man," a charcoal and pencil drawing, looks up at a Negro bearded man from just below the pelvic bone. Tanner's confidence, skill, subtle powers of observation and willingness to deal with his subject's inner life are all revealed in this intimate drawing. Unobscured by the passion of color and paint, Tanner's vision and bonding with his subject reach us directly in this simple yet extraordinary drawing.

Much of the literature around this exhibition (the plaques in the museum, the catalogue essays, the brochures) talk about Tanner's genre paintings, meaning his images of African Americans going about domestic tasks like the "Old Man and Boy at Dinner," or the famous "The Banjo Lesson." Although we would like to see these pictures as typical of Tanner's whole body of work, they are only a small part of it. We cannot take the part for the whole without missing many great works of art. Breadth and consistency make Tanner a great painter.

Like other white adults, for years I have made the effort to fill in the gaps of my vision of colored people, Negroes, Blacks and/or African Americans. I was raised in Philadelphia which has been racially polarized for generations. Bit by bit I learn to piece together the whole life of African Americans - joys, hopes, pains, homes, vacations, families, dinners. We were raised to see disembodied servants or people on streetcorners. No mention was ever made of the rest of these people's lives.

And the Tanner family story contains a wealth of new material. It is well-documented in the exhibition catalogue, particularly in an essay by his grand-niece, Rae Alexander-Minter. This story, which should be as well-known to Americans as that of John Singer Sargeant or Winslow Homer, is partially revealed while viewing the exhibition and reading the accompanying materials.

Henry Tanner's father, Benjamin, a Pittsburgh native whose family dates back to the 18th century, studied Greek and Latin at Western Theological Seminary in Allegheny, PA. In 1888 Benjamin Tanner became a Bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which, according to W.E.B. Du Bois, was "the greatest Negro organization in the world." Tanner's district included Canada, the West Indies, British Guiana and South America.

The elder Tanner founded schools and missions, carried on a lifelong study of Greek, Latin and Hebrew, published a major book on the schism of the black and white Methodist churches and became a brilliant eccesliastical scholar. His home in Philadelphia became "the centre of the black intellectual community in Philadelphia." He published the A.M.E. Church Review, on the of the first church magazines published by blacks for a national audience.

His oldest daughter Halle graduated from Women's Medical College in Philadelphia (founded because the other medical schools would not train females) and went to work for Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute. She became the first woman doctor ever admitted to practice medicine in Alabama. Henry Tanner's brother-in-law, Aaron Mossell, was the first black person to graduate from the Univesity of Pennsylvania Law School. Henry's niece was the second black woman in America to receive a Ph.D., and the first in economics. She was also the first black woman to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania Law School and the first to pass the bar and practice in the state. Another of Henry's sisters married Lewis B. Moore, the first black to receive a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania.

Tanner himself was often grouped with outstanding black leaders and was considered a success in his own lifetime. He mostly lived in France from 1891 on and married a white woman, but he never ignored his Negro identity. "He often opened his home and studio to black American artists, such as William Henry Johnson, Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, Laura Wheeler Waring, Aaron Douglas and Hale Woodruff, all of whom sought his advice and counsel when in Paris. While reading a passel of his letters, I discovered that my granduncle never considered himself an expatriate; in fact he eschewed the word. He believed he did not have the luxury of being an expatriate, a privilege, as James Baldwin would suggest years later, accorded only to white Americans." (Rae Alexander-Minter.)

His son, Jesse O. Tanner, explains his father's importance in Alexander-Minter's essay: "My father always worked very hard on his pictures and they were painted very slowly. If you study them, you keep discovering new things about them - a new form is revealed, a new star seems to shine, a new shadow stretches out - in a word, his pictures are very much alive. A Tanner can do more than give you enjoyment, it can come to your rescue, it can reaffirm your confidence in man and his destiny, it can help you surmount your difficulties or console you in distress."

The Henry Ossawa Tanner exhibition and the accompanying catalog notes was a revelation to me in 1992 when I first arrived in San Francisco. Today the Internet offers us a complete education in the rich, moving, and sublime world created by African American artists. It is our obligation to learn about this world.

©1994 Sherry Miller.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Bruce, T-Shirts, Museums and Marketing

It's Saturday and while other people are sleeping late, I've been writing away like mad. I've got a new piece up at Chez Namastenancy and another at the Examiner.

SF Museum Examiner

A press release arrived with today's collection of e-mail that SFMOMA, in partnership with the Gap, will be selling T-shirts with images from the Fisher collection. Some of the artists listed are nationally known- Kerry James Marshall, Ed Ruscha, among others. The list of merchandise is pretty comprehensive, including mugs, T-shirts, hats, notebooks, sketchbooks, luggage tags, business card holders, water bottles, coffee tumblers, and tote bags that will feature the 75th anniversary "starburst" logo. Print-on-demand posters featuring artworks from the suite of SFMOMA's 75th anniversary exhibitions will also be offered.

There's been a lot of discussion on various blogs, including Tyler Green's, regarding museum policies and ethics. Both the New Museum in NY and the MOCA have come under fire for hiring former art dealers as their new directors. The economy is the bed rock of all these money related choices. Some arts journalists and bloggers criticize these decisions but, lacking a royal patron, I don't see how else some of these organizations will survive. Some of us have lived in a little idealistic bubble, making art for art's sake and never examining what comes tomorrow.

Well, tomorrow is here.The economy is bleak, there is little government support and if museums are to survive, they have to make difficult decisions. Some of those choices involve merchandising t-shirts and coffee mugs, blockbuster shows and private parties for those with some jingle in their pockets. In Cabaret, the ring master of ceremonies sang the catchy little ditty that money makes the world go round. It was true when the Parthenon was built, when Rembrandt had to declare bankruptcy, when Van Gogh was depressed over his lack of sales and it's true now.

The right man for MOCA: The Daily Beast Arts Coverage:

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Keith Hansen in Bolinas

Keith Hansen in his studio

Keith Hansen in his Bolinas studio. Keith is friendly, knowledgeable and enthusiastic birder who also happens to be a talented artist. His studio is not only the space where he paints, it also serves as retail space, bird observatory, and ad hoc museum. He is currently working on a massive project, identifying and illustrating he birds of the Sierra and he showed us one of the panels from that project (above.)

Keith Hansen's Studio

Keith Hansen's big window looks out on a courtyard filled with bird feeders, fountains, and plants - and birds. There's a constant hum of birdie activity there. He's hooked up a tiny video camera to a scope and very little prodding, he'll replay videos of birds who have visited the space recently. This 2 to 3 minute video shows Keith in his studio, using the set up:

Keith Hansen's Studio

Keith Hansen's watercolor table and palette in his Bolinas studio.

(All photos by Anna L. Conti - more of Keith and his studio here.)

A Show That Could Not Be Seen

Nancy Ewart, David W. Sumner & I went over to Oakland Sunday, to see the Amor Fati show at the Joyce Gordon Gallery, but it never opened. We stood around with several other people who had also come to see the show. Since we'd come some distance we stuck it out for almost an hour before giving up. I emailed the gallery later that day to ask what happened, but have not received a reply. I felt sorry for the artists because, not only will we not see or review the show, but we are left with more than a little irritation at the thought of this show.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Riding the F line

For those of you who live in SF and are familiar with our crazy politics, this does not refer to Chris Daly and his New Year's resolution to use the "F" word at every Board of Supervisor's meeting. No, the F line is operated as a heritage streetcar service, using exclusively historical equipment both from San Francisco's retired fleet as well as from cities around the world. While the F line is operated by the San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni), its operation is supported by Market Street Railway, a nonprofit organization of streetcar enthusiasts which raises funds and helps to restore vintage streetcars. The set of photos is by Troy, from the excellent photo blog Caliber.

Go see more at:
Calibers SF

Monday, January 4, 2010

Cantor Art Center: Sixty Figure Drawings by Frank Lobdell

 I have been struggling all week to write this. I wanted to say something intelligent and insightful and not just spit forth the usual platitudes. I hope that I succeeded.