Monday, March 30, 2009

Calligraphy, Art or Craft, and Does It Really Matter?

Calligraphy, Art or Craft, and Does It Really Matter?
An Illustrated Lecture by Charles Pearce
Thursday, April 2, 2009
San Francisco Public Library, 100 Larkin Street (at Grove)
Latino-Hispanic Room. Lower Level
Reception 5:30 • Program 6:30–7:30

Charles Pearce was born in England in 1943, graduating from art school in 1965 with an MFA in Calligraphy and Lettercutting. He was elected a Fellow of the prestigious Society of Scribes and Illuminators of London in 1970, and emigrated to America in 1980. While living in New York City, he was the first (and thus far only) calligrapher to be awarded Artist-in-Residence status by the city.

He is widely respected as one of the world’s leading calligraphers and is the author of a number of books including The Little Manual of Calligraphy and The Anatomy of Letters. He has taught widely throughout Europe, North America and Australia, and was employed as a design consultant at American Greetings. His calligraphic work is in a number of public collections as well as several private ones, including those of Queen Elizabeth II. In 2003 he moved to Arkansas, where he has built a studio and residence just outside of Eureka Springs.

Current work projects include several large canvas pieces, and he is toying with ideas for a major installation if he can find funding. His Shakespeare series is now available as giclee prints, and can be viewed on his website,

Friday, March 27, 2009


Tierney Gearon, Frame 11, 2007

I’m not that into Tierney Gearon’s new pictures. But the critical reaction to them has been interesting.

To review, Gearon has been showing in LA and London a series of pictures titled Explosure. Each is a double exposure created, she says, entirely in the camera. People have responded in two ways:

First, there has been general wonderment at the claimed absence of post-production, unalloyed by much real skepticism about the claim itself.

Second, there has been almost universal acceptance of the role of accident in the creation of these pictures. Gearon herself got this ball rolling with statements like “art comes out of accidents” and “double exposing them inside the camera . . . allowed the magic of an accident to happen!!!”

The magic of an accident!!! What could it mean?

I saw a guy get hit by a San Francisco Muni bus the other day. Although this happens so often that some might question whether it’s ever really an accident, I feel pretty confident that no art was created, and no magic either. So that’s probably not the kind of accident Gearon was talking about.

More likely she meant the accidental effects of superimposing one exposure on another, in camera, when you have less than total control over the results. But is that art? Isn’t it just the relatively minor thrill of coincidence? Can art actually arise from mere happenstance?

Maybe it can.

I used to be into the I Ching. At least to Westerners like Carl Jung, the key concept underlying the I Ching is “synchronicity.” In the context of the I Ching, synchronicity refers to the predictive power of the coincidence between patterns made by thrown yarrow stalks - or coins, or whatever you want to throw - and the patterns of human existence.

In a broader context, these “temporally coincident occurrences of acausal events” are seen as manifestations of universal archetypes, as keys to the collective unconscious. Thus, an art created out of such coincidences might have some kind of special access to the dream life of the world.

The Surrealists thought so. That was the function of the “automatic writing” devised by Andre Masson and used, with varying results, by Joan Miro and Jean Arp, among others.

And, if you’re willing to stretch a little further, it’s synchronicity that accounts for the expressive power of works as diverse as Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings and the stained canvasses of Arshile Gorky.

But Gearon’s work isn’t like that. In fact, there’s very little unconscious about it. Sure, the process of double exposure results in accidents, but they’re local accidents, in no way essential to the work. Gearon chooses the scenes to be superimposed. She doesn’t shoot at random, or with a blindfold.

In other words, these pictures aren’t dreams. They’re stories. And the project is just another expression of the narrative impulse which dominates photography today.

Gearon herself summed the whole thing up in an interview last January, in which she said: “Two boring images suddenly become more interesting than a regular photograph.” That’s about right.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Susan Middleton at Crown Point Press

Susan Middleton specializes in portraits of animals and plants, and her photogravures include a colorful portrait of a live octopus, two delicately colored flower images, and a touching picture of a specimen of the extinct passenger pigeon, almost iridescent against a velvety black background.

Middleton, with collaborator David Liittschwager, was in 1998 the subject of an Emmy award-winning National Geographic television special, America’s Endangered Species: Don’t Say Goodbye. She travels around the world, often with scientific expeditions, photographing live animals and plants. A new book of her photographs (her fifth major publication) will be published by Abrams later this year.

"I consider myself a portrait photographer. My subjects are plants and animals, and I hope to evoke an emotional response."
Susan Middleton

Although most of the art produced at Crown Point Press is drawn directly on copper plates by the artist, printing a photograph as an etching has been for thirty years an option for artists working there. Until now, color was added to photographs with hand-drawn plates printed behind the photo image. Middleton’s color photogravures are the first with natural full color photographic images, each one printed from four photo-image plates (red, yellow, blue, and black). The photogravure process is as old as photography itself. It is hand-printed from copper plates and uses gelatin as the base for its light-sensitive ground. There is no halftone screen. Tones are minutely differentiated by sifting tree rosin onto the plate to create an aquatint, then etching the copper plates in acid to varying depths. Darker tones physically hold more ink than lighter ones. Images are as detailed as any photograph, and the surfaces are richer. The printing, however, is extremely time-consuming.

Crown Point Press
20 Hawthorne Street

The Crown Point Press gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 pm.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

William Kentridge videos

In a comment to my post on this exhibit at Chez Namastenancy, Sheree of the Art and Life blog pointed out that there are a lot of William Kentridge videos up at uTube. When I went looking, I found more than “a lot,” I found a whole treasure trove. One of the things that I found difficult about the show was trying to watch his videos within a noisy, jostling crowd and in an environment where I felt rushed and pushed by the multitude of things to see. Watching them at home has allowed me to watch them in sequence and to understand them a lot better. Here are a few of his pieces but don’t just limit yourself to these; go and look at the whole body of work. The man (?) who posted them also has put up very astute commentary, which also deserves to be read. I sometimes feel that SF MOMA’s shows are all contemporary flash and no content but that’s certainly not the case with this one.

Johannesburg the Second Greatest City after Paris is the first in this series, and was made from twenty-five drawings

Felix in exile

History of the main complaint

Sobriety, Obesity and Growing Old

Weighing…and wanting


Sheree Rensell:

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Kerry James Marshall at SF MOMA

The first artist to receive a commission through SFMOMA's Art in the Atrium project, Kerry James Marshall is known for a rich and varied body of work that includes large-scale paintings and installations focused on issues of racial identity, black history, and the urban experience. Marshall has created two murals for SFMOMA, one for each of the large walls flanking the staircase in the museum's Haas Atrium. Titled Visible Means of Support, these works depict Mount Vernon and Monticello, estates of the Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. This interactive multimedia feature explores the murals.
There's a wonderful photo essay up at Civic Center with very astute commentary from SF Mikd:
who also provided the link to the interview here:

Friday, March 20, 2009

California Water Color Association
40th National Exhibition

The California Water Color Association is having their 40th National Exhibition at the Presidio Officers Club thru tomorrow, Sunday, March 22, 2009. About 100 water colors by artists from around the nation are on display. The exhibit is free for visitors. When you walk in, you are handed a mini clip board and asked to vote for your top three paintings.

Some of my favorites were "Reflections from a Chrome Bumper," (my title because I can't remember the real title) , "The 27th Virginia Infantry," "Coral," and "Milan" by Yong Paik, shown above.

I'd forgotten about the Andy Goldsworthy tree spire sculpture at the Presidio until I was leaving the water color exhibit. I asked directions in the Visitor Center at the officers club, and was told to park in the lookout parking lot, cross the street, and "the path is right there." Be forwarned, if you want to do a mini re-enactment of D-Day, go ahead and take the worn path directly across from the lookout parking lot. If you don't get run over on the blind corner, be sure to hit the path running, since there is no shoulder on the road. Running also helps because the path starts out as a steep, five foot, muddy embankment.

Over the embankment, you start the slower climb up the hill, after you first avoid the broken tree limb waiting to impale you if you slip. Once you get past those two pleasantries, it is a nice walk up the hill to the spire. FYI if you return the same way, you are again trying to cross the road at a blind corner, with no shoulder. The best way to get to the spire is to park in the golf course parking lot. Or, as posted on the Presidio web site, walk down from the lookout parking lot toward the golf course, cross the street, and take the REAL path from the end of the golf course parking lot.

I found the the Goldsworthy spire underwhelming. Everything Goldsworthy I have seen before this, including news clips, documentaries, the movie "Rivers and Tides," gallery exhibits, even the crack in the sidewalk at the DeYoung, left me impressed and wondering, "How did he envision that? How did he do that? How did he have the patience?"

In 2000, the Haines Gallery had a Goldsworthy exhibit called "River," with a perfectly formed peak on a twisting sand dune meandering through all the galleries. When the sand was removed after the exhibit closed, the hardwood floor retained a stain in the shape of the weaving sand, leaving a memory of the exhibit throughout the galleries.

With the tree spire, you (think you) know how he did it (with some logs nailed together) and why he did it (the trees in the area were cut down and replaced with new plantings). Maybe the "Ah-HAH" moment is in the year 2032 when the newly planted trees have all grown up around it.

by Phil Gravitt

Sunday, March 15, 2009

William Kentridge at SFMOMA

The Kentridge show is a thematic retrospective that impresses long-time fans with his recent, more complex work and does a good job of introducing his recurring motifs to everyone else. I exited the last film room holding my head, feeling like my brain had been punctured by a thousand new thoughts, filled to overflowing and leaking. The museum staffer who was next to the exit said, "Everyone's coming out like that - what's in there?"

Whether it's drawing, printing, or films, Kentridge is sticking with his use of black, white and touches of red - those ancient pigments that denote primal, mythic core questions. He uses images of himself as Everyartist, a shapeshifter who communes with birds and identifies with a hunted rhinoceros.

The most recent "films" from Kentridge are true multimedia pieces. A little box theater (like the puppet theaters on European streets) plays hand-drawn films on shifting screens with mechanical figures gliding in and out of the stage wings, interacting with the film and each other. The sides of the box are open so that you can watch the mechanics as well as the show. Music continues to play a huge role in his work. A couple of the films are loosely based on Mozart operas, and he uses African music in others.

When I entered the last room, I saw a circle of people around a big glowing dish and thought at first that it was a camera obscura. I quickly realized that it was round movie screen, animated by a projector above us. In the middle of the "dish" was a mirrored cylinder. The movie was an animated anamorphic projection which circled the dish in a constant fuzzy procession but reflected in the cylinder as a carefully rendered cartoon of the carnival of life and death.

I'd highly recommend that you see the exhibit in chronological order, starting with the room to the left of (outside) the main exhibit, as the works build on each other.

Image is William Kentridge's " Act IV Scene 7" from "Ubu Tells the Truth", via artthrob

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Staprans at Hackett-Freedman

Raimonds Staprans began drawing views of boats and water from his house in Riga, Latvia, as a child. Escaping first from Latvia, and later from Germany, Staprans emigrated to America with his family in 1947. At the University of Washington, he studied with Alexander Archipenko and George Le Brun, who had a profound influence on him. The artist had his first San Francisco exhibition at Maxwell Galleries in 1955, following master’s degree studies at UC Berkeley. Now in his late 70's, he still actively exhibits in both Europe and the United States.
In its hot, vibrant color and vigor of line, Staprans' work bears obvious connections to the works of the Bay Area figurative artists of the 1950s and 60s, particularly, David Park, Richard Diebenkorn and Roland Petersen. Legendary S.F. Chronicle art critic, Alfred Frankenstein, once described Staprans' landscapes as "among the finest examples of nature-in-abstraction being produced hereabouts."

Staprans' work also shows the inspiration of Wayne Thiebaud's highly schematized compositions and candy-colored palette. But beyond this connection, Staprans looks back to the flattened space and stylized forms of Matisse and C├ęzanne.

Rigorous geometry, a vigorous line, and a strong emphasis on order, both compositionally and coloristically, are hallmarks of Staprans's painting. n.1 Staprans himself has stated that he is "an abstract painter whose objects are recognizable and sometimes quite realistic, but [in reality] they are all … constructed from the ground up in absolutely abstract terms.… There is very little truth in [them]."2 His boxes, landscapes, and rolling fruit are, in the words of Art in America critic Michael Duncan, "settings for compositional tussles that have an essential logic and meaning."

An accomplished playwright, Staprans’ writing explores the tension between fact and fiction, totalitarian ‘reality’ and human truth, set against his Latvian homeland’s 20th-century history. His play Cetras dienas junija (Four Days in June), about the last days in office of pre-Soviet occupation President Karlis Ulmanis was a cultural and political watershed in Latvia in the late 1980s and played an important role in the county’s democratic revolution in the early 1990s. In 2003, Staprans was awarded Latvia’s highest civilian honor, the Three Star Medal, the equivalent of the United States’s Presidential Medal of Freedom.

At Hackett-Freedman to May 1st. This will be their last show open to the public and while I am extremely saddened to see the gallery close, it's appropriate that they end with with this stunningly beautiful exhibit.

1. Michael Duncan, "Raimonds Staprans: The Philosophy of On, Under, Nearby, and Through" in Raimonds Staprans (San Francisco: Hackett-Freedman Gallery, 2003)
2. Interview with art historian Paul J. Karlstrom for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.
3. "Raimonds Staprans: The Philosophy of On, Under, Nearby, and Through" in Raimonds Staprans, p.3.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

LA Paint at the Oakland Museum

I just made it to this show a few days before it closed. It's a small show, just a taste, really. Big range, though. (Anthony Hollingsworth convinced me to go see it.)

Don Suggs' startling concentric circles were impressive for their sense of movement and space. I found his "Headhunter's Dilemma" more interesting - full of obscure symbolic elements rendered with machine-like precision on a loose abstract background.

Brian Fahlstrom
was the only other abstract artist that intrigued me. His work reminded me of Mark Grim's work: "both visually cognitive as well as abstract."

Loren Holland
is a young artist whose content and imagery appealed to me, but I was puzzled by her choice of (unframed) paper for such large paintings. Some of them were showing signs of wear around the edges. And she was using oil the way most artists use acrylic (a flat, graphic style, with raised edges near the boundries that betrayed inexperience in paint handling.) Even so, she has a terrific eye for visual story-telling.

Robert Williams was well-known to me, and I was glad to see some of his better work here, especially "Surrealist Nude Quiche Cadaver Reclining" - a large, in-your-face image of famous surrealist artists surrounding a squishy corpse while Stalin and Trotsky look on from the corner. It's way over top, as usual.

Steve Galloway was my favorite, both for his painting chops and his original imagery. "Cave of 3 Bats and the Ray of Hope" was a painting I could look at for a long time. "Smokehouse Jig" is at the top of this post - image from his site, here.

Good set of photos from the show at John Casey's blog.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Upcoming lecture series at SF MOMA

Each Thursday evening, one of SFMOMA's curators shares a perspective on a single artwork on view. Talks last 20 minutes and take place in the galleries. This looks like a very interesting series of lectures. Tomorrow night the lecture is given on by Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher on Simon Ungers's Silent Architecture.

“This complex project is a study of four types of civic structure — Library, Theater, Museum and Cathedral — buildings that often employ grandiose architectural gestures in order to become recognizable symbols of the city in which they reside. Comprised of four untreated steel models that recall Minimalist sculpture, austere plans and monumental renderings, Silent Architecture is ideal for opening up several issues within design.”

Some of the exciting topics to come are talks on William Kentridge, whose piece "What Will Come (Has Already Come)" is now up at SF MOMA; Sarah Roberts on Robert Rauschenberg in Matisse and Beyond and John Aarobell on Sargent Johnson's "Forever Free."
Check the website for the complete list:
Image from SF MOMA website

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Hackett-Freedman gallery to close

I knew that SF wouldn’t be immune from the current recession. One of my favorite galleries, Gallery 415 at 49 Geary has already closed although Claudine still does business privately and via her website. But Hackett-Freedman is such a long established business that I thought it could weather the downturn. Unfortunately not! They will be closing to the public on May 1st, after the last exhibit featuring Raimonds Staprans and Marc Trujillo. Their last public exhibit will open on March 12th with a reception from 5:30 – 7:30 PM and will close on May 1st.
Founded in 1986, Hackett-Freedman Gallery exhibited 20th-century and contemporary painting and sculpture, with particular expertise in postwar American and Californian art. Over the past twenty years, the gallery has developed a reputation for representing superior works and for organizing the first major west coast exhibitions of many notable 20th-century artists. Their website is a gold mine of information and their exhibits have almost always been well thought out and organized.

Their long list of notable exhibits included works by Louise Nevelson, David Park, SF Abstract Expressionism and an exhibit on American Women painters. Last year, they held the first US exhibit of the works of British artist Patrick Heron and a comprehensive look at the final works of Bay Area painter David Park. While the gallery will still remain in the same location, it will be only showing works to private collectors - which will be a great loss to those of us who love art but don't fall in that particular category.

Given this sad news, this letter to the NY Times is particularly appropriate:

Money for the Arts

To the Editor:

Re “Saving Federal Arts Funds: Selling Culture as an Economic Force” (Arts pages, Feb. 16): Representative Jack Kingston of Georgia argues against allocating stimulus money for artists, saying, “Call me a sucker for the working man.” So be a sucker for artists!

Most of us are hard-working Americans, putting in long hours for low wages. Many of us are union members. If legislators really think we are such useless members of American society unworthy of scarce taxpayer dollars, then they should propose legislation exempting us from paying taxes.

Until that day, stop mislabeling and misunderstanding us and acknowledge that we contribute as much and deserve the same benefits as any other American taxpayer — no more and no less.

It is irrational to hold a belief that somehow artists are not a vital part of this country’s infrastructure. Look around you. Our work and our influence are everywhere.

After all, that money you say artists don’t deserve, who do you think designed and engraved it?

Monika Gross
New York, Feb. 16, 2009

250 Sutter Street, Suite 400
San Francisco, CA 94108
(415) 362-7152
images from website

Friday, March 6, 2009

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Little Boxes at Femina Potens

Tomorrow is First Thursday and all the galleries will be showing new work. But for something unique, check out the new show at Femina Potens. The group show of assemblage by women artists tells stories that are personal and profound, with roots in both surrealism and women's history.

Opening reception March 7 at 7:00 pm
Exhibit runs March 7 to 29, 2009. Gallery hours are Thursday to Sunday, noon to 6:00.
2199 Market St. in the Castro
Image from website

Monday, March 2, 2009

Decoding Identity: Museum of the African Diaspora

The show – Doing it for my people ends March 8th so there is still time to catch it. I’d say that the works exhibited are more notable for their political intent than their aesthetic effect but there is one stand out piece: Seated Above the Salt or 1st Ladies Presidential Torture Chair, a mixed media piece by Ramekon O’Arwisters (2007). In this assemblage/altered media/found sculpture piece, the first part of O’Arwisters’ title refers to the salt trade. Since time immemorial, salt – was – and still is in many parts of the world - a valuable commodity which is also used as currency. To be seated below the salt was an indication of low social status. In medieval times, the saltcellar, a richly ornamental item, was placed in the middle of the table. If you sat toward the head of the table, you were of high status; those who sat toward the end of the table of lower status. A further play on the title also refers to “salt of the earth” – those who produce the goods and services that keep society moving and salt as an item necessary for human health.

The other part of the title comes from a fable invented by O’Arwisters. In this modern fairy tale, the wife of Andrew Jackson uses the chair to coerce her husband to end the massacre of Native Americans. She is able to get him to abide by her wishes even though she didn’t have the right to vote – possibly by forcing him to sit on the highly uncomfortable chair.

The assemblage consists of three freestanding pieces, lined up in a straight row, a static rather than a tableau vivant. The chair’s surface is encrusted with a plethora of objects - various shells, both caramel whirled white garden snail shells and African trade cowry shells, buttons, pins, tiny items of jewelry, opalescent glass beads, blue and pink jigsaw puzzle pieces, round and oval shaped tiny mirrors, nails, fetish objects and other pieces too obscured by the overlapping layers to be identified. The small mirrors haphazardly placed among the jumbled debris covering the chair, reflect light back from the viewer. There is no one predominant color; each tiny item brings its own color to the back, seat and legs of the chair, resulting in a varicolored, crazy quilt, rock-like and organic appearing surface. The broken elements of the design – the encrusted chair, the nailed boxing gloves, the wine glasses filled with salt – make their points through their implied politics rather than through their artistic appeal but the piece has a power and strength that is unique.

Decoding Identity: I Do It For My People Featuring the works of 20 multicultural artists who challenge cultural and ethnic prejudices.

Image from website