Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Allison Adams At the SF MoMA's Artists Gallery at Ft. Mason

"I seek the outdoors and that feeling of connection as much as possible, but I am still within this urban environment most of the time, which can sometimes feel isolating. I reflect and muse upon all that I experience and see here and seek out the Nature hidden under asphalt, pavement, and planted green lawn. " Allison Adams

Allison Adams, Pathway (now on exhibit at the SF MOMA Artists Gallery)

At the current show in The Loft space at SF MOMA's Ft Mason gallery, Curator Renee de Cossio has paired Adams' woven textile forms with Stern's more open and airy pieces. Using an old-fashioned loom four harness loom, Adams uses recycled plastic as well as wire, monofilament, audio and video tape to create asymmetrical woven pieces and three-dimensional sculptural pieces. The woven pieces are shinny and dense, glittering with bits of recycled material, integrated into the irregular grids. The Nebula pieces are more open, and very evocative of the star clusters from which they get their name. Many of the woven textile pieces are enclosed within dark frames which does not, in my opinion, allow their need for visual expansive space. The lighter framed pieces are more successful because the frame disappears against the wall, allowing the viewer to be pulled in far enough to examine the superb craft of the artist as well as the inventive use of recycled materials.  

Allison Adams, Swirl Nebula III

 Unfortunately, Adams' three-dimensional pieces and Stern's airy abstractions (some of which are on unframed paper0 don't always work well together -- or, to be more accurate, the Loft's gallery space is too small to allow each artist's work to claim its visual territory. I was reminded of SF MoMA's exhibit in which they combined pieces by Ansel Adams and Georgia O'Keefe. In many instances, Adams' dark, glossy photographs sucked energy from O'Keefe's more delicate and colorful abstractions. A 2009 show at the Clark Museum in Williamstown, Massachusetts,  which paired O'Keefe and Dove was more successful. Both those artists shared a painterly vision and a similar technique and palate. Yet I understand why the curator packed the small Loft gallery with these pieces. They are unique and deserve to be shown. But, given the gallery situation in San Francisco, artists like Adams and Stern have to fight for recognition in a town with too little space for serious artists.
SFMOMA Artists Gallery at Fort Mason
Building A, Fort Mason Center
San Francisco, CA 94123 USA
Hours : Tuesday - Saturday, 11:30 a.m. - 5:30
All images courtesy of SF MOMA Artists Gallery and the artist

Monday, March 29, 2010

Pia Stern at SF MOMA Artists Gallery at Fort Mason (through April 23)

Stern didn't start out to be a painter; in college she studied social sciences, language, city planning, anthropology - the grab bag of a student unsure of her direction and lacking discipline and focus. That's an observation, not a criticism. I think most of us were in the same place in the less financially stressed college atmosphere of the 1960's and 1970's. But she spent her junior year in Aix-en-Provance, signed up for a painting class which changed her life:

Pia Stern. Nocturne

"I felt at home with the people teaching that class...They were all devoted to Cezanne and lived in the shadow of Monte Saint-Victoire. I felt at home with how they looked at things, philosophically speaking, as well as their way of perceiving things visually."

" I remember the first stoke; cobalt blue, a diagonal stroke on a rectangular three-by-four canvas. I burst into tears when I made it. It was a Zen experience."

When she returned to California, she began to study painting in earnest. She was fortunate in her teachers for the art world here was still infused with the unique artists that came out of the post-war generation - Diebenkorn, Park, Thiebaud. They distrusted too much verbalization and taught in a direct, personal manner. One of her most influential teacher, Elmer Bischoff addressed the work on "what was going on, or not, in inner terms." (1)

 Pia Stern. This Time The Promise

Out of this she developed a lyrical style, based on intuitive gestures and spontaneous marks, a cryptic language that almost seemed understandable if the viewer looked long enough.  Her current work at the Artists Gallery at Ft. Mason is still lyrical but is edging closer to abstraction. The pieces are larger than the ones last shown here in the lobby of 555 Market Street but they still pull the viewer in. Stern describes her current oils on canvas as a cross between optimism at Obama's election but concern over the dismal decade that we had just survived and where we, as a country and the world, might be going. The canvas is large, rectangular, layered with a palimpsest of oil and oil pastels. She retains the poetic feeling of her earlier work but the gestural shapes and quasi-writing float in the luminous field, asking questions that only the viewer can answer.

 Stern's concerns with what she describes as "...existential nature of her work...the tension between light and dark" comes to the fore in the series "Earth Abides." These charcoal pieces were done just before the US entered the war in Iraq and prefigure the devastating conflict to come. Nevertheless, her work retains what Sister Wendy Beckett wrote about in her 1988 publication, Contemporary Women Artists:

 "When art is personal and private, we can feel an irritating sense of exclusion. The artist has therefore to win our trust, and lure us into his "private dreams" in a way that we can understand. Pia Stern ..has an unusual power of transforming her "dreams" into our own. They remain hers; she does not share them..But we are not asked to riddle out Stern's private meanings." (2) 

What I find fascinating is that Stern, while continuing to develop as a painter, has avoided the pull to make work that is completely insular and self-referential. Her work speaks to me beyond her biography - her parents escaped Nazi Germany -  or even (possibly) her intent. Like all good work, it allows the viewer to make their own assumptions and associations.

(1) Charles Shere. Impulse, Depth and Poetry: The Art of Pia Stern. Imagio, Vol 21, February 1999, pp 31-41.
(2) Sister Wendy Beckett. Contemporary Women Artists. 1988

SFMOMA Artists Gallery at Fort Mason
Building A, Fort Mason Center
San Francisco, CA 94123 USA
Hours : Tuesday - Saturday, 11:30 a.m. - 5:30 p.m.
All images courtesy of the artist. Photographer Ian Cummings.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Pia Stern at the SF MoMA Artists Gallery at Ft. Mason

Pia Stern, "Wicked Romp" (2009). photo, Ian Cummings (courtesy of the artist).

From the press release..

"Stern's paintings suggest a logic of the heart, which she uses to guide her art-making process. Her painted and drawn figures and forms set within abstract fields combine to create rich, tactile, and vibrant expressions that allude to the individual's psyche and one's place in the natural world."

I am going to write a decent review later but for now, I just want to mull over the luminous beauty of her paintings. In her book on Peace, Sister Windy Beckett wrote: "Stern shows us two ways of being: the physical, answerable only to accident, to wind and tides; and the spiritual, answerable to inward truth. One is free-flowing; the other is fixed, grounded in more than its own small compass - in God. "

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Same as It Ever Was

. . . in the immortal words of 80s icons the Talking Heads.

Went to the Getty Villa a few weeks ago. You probably know this already, but it's all antiquities now--the paintings were trucked over to the Getty Center. I am a philistine, I know, but one floor of antiquities is pretty much my limit, then they all start to look the same, so much so that my friend had to call my attention to the paintings of drunks on the wine vessels. The drunks were doing what drunks do everywhere (click on these to see the vessels): singing; singing while urinating (a servant holds a pitcher for his master's eliminations); dancing; flirting and frolicking; making unwelcome advances; having a sexual encounter; staggering home with the help of one's friends; and, of course, the classic: vomiting.

Monday, March 8, 2010

International Women's Day and San Francisco's own International Museum of Women

International Women's Day (8 March) is an occasion marked by women's groups around the world. This date is also commemorated at the United Nations and is designated in many countries as a national holiday. When women on all continents, often divided by national boundaries and by ethnic, linguistic, cultural, economic and political differences, come together to celebrate their Day, they can look back to a tradition that represents at least nine decades of struggle for equality, justice, peace and development.

International Women's Day is the story of ordinary women as makers of history; it is rooted in the centuries-old struggle of women to participate in society on an equal footing with men. In ancient Greece, Lysistrata initiated a sexual strike against men in order to end war; during the French Revolution, Parisian women calling for "liberty, equality, fraternity" marched on Versailles to demand women's suffrage. The struggle continues today because the issues that impact women are our issues - poverty, racism, injustice, violence. As the saying goes, women hold up half of the sky.

San Francisco has it's own museum dedicated to women. The International Museum of Women, (I.M.O.W.), is a social change museum that celebrates and values the lives of women around the world. The museum's programming is offered locally in the San Francisco Bay Area as well as globally. The museum began as the Women's Heritage Museum in 1985 and in 1997 became the more encompassing International Museum of Women.

The need for a larger museum was realized in 1997 when a group of Bay Area teachers sought a place to take their students. One of these teachers, Elizabeth L. Colton, who had been on the board of the Women's Heritage Museum, spurred the drive to create a larger museum, in part through private funding.

Since its rebirth under the new name in 1997, I.M.O.W. has organized more than seven major exhibitions, hosted a number of public fora, developed educational curriculum for schools and created a number of speaker series programs. Current on-line exhibits include "Economica: Women and the Global Economy" and Women on the Map."

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Shanghai - Art of the City at the Asian - Soiled Doves, New Women and Celluloid Goddesses

What do the following have in common – foot binding, prostitution, the silk industry, concubines? They all have to deal with the reality of women in Shanghai and they are all omitted from the current exhibit at the Asian. Shanghai, The Art of the City,  presents such a cleaned up and ready for its close-up image that you would never guess that it was a byword for decadence, corruption, violence,  and in the 1920's and 1930's, the  VD capital of the world.

Shining Eyes and White Wrists. (Above) (1887-1893) Wu Youru. Ink on Paper. Collection of the Shanghai History Museum. Women are playing billiards in one of the new public gardens in Shanghai. Since upper class and "respectable " women were largely secluded during this time, it's a reasonable assumption that these women were prostitutes (from the catalog of the show, p. 95)

In the first part of the exhibit, we are treated to a display of charming images about women. One brush-and-ink drawing is described as women playing table tennis, another one is identified as a courtesan while another women is using a sewing machine, but among the lot, there is only a casual mention of bound feet.

Bound feet were a fact of life in China. In a conversation during the press preview, Barbara Koh, the Shanghai Celebration assistant, told me that food binding wasn’t banned until 1949. So, all those tiny feet peeping out underneath trousers were actually bound, one of the numerous ways humans have invented to torture themselves in the name of fashion. Girls, some as young as four years old, had their feet strapped and broken. They suffered years of pain and a life-long restricted mobility, all for the sake of fashion, custom and what was thought of as sexy and erotic.

Image on the left: Bound feet (Wikipedia, Creative Commons License)

It wouldn’t have taken much to include this information in the exhibit –  maybe a photo, a pair of the tiny embroidered slippers and we would have had a telling visual of the deformed feet that Chinese women tottered on for centuries.

What about the reality in the section titled "New Women?"  In Stella Dong’s book on Shanghai, she recounts the experience of Alicia Little, a 19th century Englishman who attended an upper class banquet. As upper class women were secluded, the only women who attended were concubines and prostitutes attached to the various brothels in the district. Beautiful, young and beautifully dressed, the women were carried into the room in palanquins and "limped" back into them after the dinner was over. These women were the lucky ones, pretty, with some accomplishments who lived in fairly luxurious surroundings until they got too old to ply their trade or got ill. But the reality for most women in Shanghai was different.  By the time Shanghai became a treaty port, it was the brothel capital of the world. One in every 130 women in Shanghai were prostitutes and the city had the highest rate of VD in the world. (Dong, 35 - 45).

The exhibit would have gained immeasurably if there had been an open acknowledgment of the status of women during the 150 years covered by the show. Women were regarded as inferior and expendable. An ancient maxim decreed “Eight saintly daughters are not equal to a boy with a limp.” It's something that the Chinese Communist government fought against but their "one family, one child" policy resulted in more male births with girls being either aborted or abandoned (and China is not alone in this attitude).  This policy resulted in a disparate ratio of 114 males for every 100 females among babies from birth through children four years of age. Normally, 105 males are naturally born for every 100 females.

It Often Begins with a Smile, Jin Meisheng, 1930's - New Woman or just the same old profession, dressed up in new clothing? (from the catalog, pl 148).

There is a whole section of the exhibit on the new women of the 1920’s and 1930’s. The posters are gorgeous, the new fashionable dress elegant but how many women would afford this life style?. There is a delightful poster of two women dancing together. They are called tea girls but the text tiptoes around what their actual profession was.

Now, I realize that the museum is doing a survey and that a lot of children come to view the exhibit. It wouldn’t do to have too much frankness in the signage but why not somewhere in the catalog? In fact, given the talented museum staff, why not something in the wall text?

Some new women – like the Soong Sisters, daughters of a millionaire family really were new women -- although they were still defined by whom they married.  The second daughter, Ching-ling married Sun Yat-Sin, the founder of the Chinese Republic. The youngest daughter, May-Ling married  Chiang Kai-shek., the eventual dictator of China and Taiwan and the eldest daughter, Ai-ling, married the richest man in China at the time. There were the daughters of the nouveau riche bought the gorgeous Art Deco furniture and carpets displayed in the exhibit but the majority of women in China, in Shanghai (or elsewhere), worked for pennies, were treated like dirt and lived hard and difficult lives.

Even the goddesses of the Chinese Cinema suffered from public expectations of their behavior and their role. Ruan Lingyg, one of the most famous, committed suicide because of this. I wrote about this in a previous post:

 Where the Asian DOES get it right is in their film series. Starting off with the film "Triad," they will be showing a wide variety of films not normally seen in the U.S. There are films from ethe earliest days of Chinese cinema, films with a social focus and ones that portray the reality of the city, from the prostitute in "Triad" to "The Goddess," the best known surviving film staring Ruan Lingyu to documentaries on the Jewish refugees in Shanghai.

If women make up 50% of the population, why are we, why is the museum in 2010 promoting such an inaccurate and sanitized picture of their lives? The Shanghai exhibit at the Asian is a survey show. Parts of the exhibit suffer from taking such a wide angle view of a city with such rich and difficult past. Yet, it would not have taken much to include a few items such as an opium pipe, a pair of bound slippers, a portrait of of a real prostitute, even a photograph of the Chinese part of the city to have make the show more accurate, without sacrificing its broad appeal. Monday is International Women's Day and we are still fighting to have our authentic experience and history told. 

Stella Dong. Shanghai, The rise and fall of a decadent city.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Joe Cunningham, Quilter and Artist-in-Residence at the De Young

Bend in the River. Joe Cunningham. Now property of the De Young.

  I've always liked quilts and even helped make a few when I visited my grandmother. My participation was limited to cutting out blocks of fabric as my stitches were nowhere near her standards. I enjoyed playing around with the fabric and listening to the ladies from her quilting group as they stitched away, needles flashing and tongues clacking as they destroyed the reputation of somebody else in the tiny Oregon lumber town where she lived. Of course, at the next meeting, it would be somebody else's turn to be the topic of gossip but the cakes and pies were always good. I especially remember the coconut pie which I will always associate with the Wedding Ring quilt pattern. It's funny how the memory works!

This months' artist-in-residence at the De Young probably doesn't continue the gossip portion of the quilting bee (we certainly won't be served coconut pie, alas) but his quilting skills are right up there with the best in the tradition. He invites visitors of all ages to experiment with their own quilt making ideas, as well as learn quilting techniques such as hand-quilting stitch and quilting on a frame.
Joe Cunningham began making quilts professionally in 1979, after a ten-year career as a musician in Michigan. His early mentors were steeped in the history and traditions of quilts, leading Cunningham to a life of study in quilt history and a love of traditional technique. Over the years his work has evolved into a unique personal style both original and shaped by the tradition. Throughout Cunningham’s career, he has written eight books on quiltmaking, including an essay on the current exhibit on Amish Quilts. He has made appearances on the HGTV series Simply Quilts with Alex Anderson, as well as The Quilt Show with Ricky Tims and Alex Anderson. Cunningham performs a musical quilt show titled Joe the Quilter for guilds and theaters nationwide.

Cunningham explains, “I enjoy interacting with the public and explaining to them the history of quilts and the process of quiltmaking. It is rewarding to have people join me at the frame to learn how to quilt. I am an ambassador from the quilt world.”

De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco, CA 94118
Hours: Tuesday–Thursday, Saturday and Sunday: 9:30 am–5:15 pm
Friday: 9:30 am–8:45 pm. Closed on Monday
Joe Cunningham's web site: 
More on cloth and textiles at the always well-written and insightful Venetian Red: