Friday, April 30, 2010


Morning on the San Joaquin Plains, 1921, oil on canvas board

I finally made it over to the Grace Hudson Museum for their show, "Space, Silence, Spirit: Maynard Dixon's West." It is up through June 20th.

The Hudson website notes that it is a coup for a small town museum to display work by an artist of Dixon's prominence. This is true, but it should be noted that the exhibit, one man's collection, is very heavy on drawings and light on paintings, and that most of the drawings are what I'd consider sketches. Having said this, I hasten to add that it is a very well conceived and coherently presented show, arranged chronologically and with all phases of his creative life well represented.

The painting I spent the most time with is a very small oil, perhaps 5 or 6 inches high x 10 inches wide, titled "Trail Herd" and dating to early in his long career, 1915. Unfortunately I can't find an image of it online. It depicts a group of cattle and in the foreground two mounted cowboys. The dynamic movement of the two horses and riders is so very wonderfully captured and the composition dances across the small canvas.

The other single thing I found most interesting was a copy of a letter to the editor Dixon sent to the San Francisco Chronicle in 1939. He had been married to Dorothea Lange (by 1939, divorced) and during the time she was taking the photos for which she is famous, he was producing drawings and paintings on similar themes. The letter is a passionate defense of the humanity and rights of California's economic migrants.

This is a show worth seeing - but for folks reading this from over 2 hours away, frankly it may not be worth a trip up unless you have other things you want to see or do here (and being it's wildflower season, the weather is great, there are lots of great day trips around here and its a very scenic ride either to the coast or the Napa Valley, you could make a great weekend out of it!).

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Art of Photography
Today's KQED Radio "Perspectives"

Interesting observations on the art of photography, on KQED radio "Perspectives."

Listen to the recording at

Wed, Apr 28, 2010 -- 7:35 AM
The most probing questions Peggy Hansen gets about her photography are all about the camera she uses. But the key to good art has little to do with the means of producing it.

posted by Phil Gravitt

Monday, April 26, 2010

(ReBlogged from "Working Artist's Journal")

Another spectacular weekend spent visiting artist open studios . . . this time it was in the Mission district which, according to Mission Artists United, "has more artists than any other neighborhood in San Francisco." I hit the big buildings, spent two days at it, still didn't get to see everyone, but here are my top four favorites:

Sonya Philip
fiber arts
1890 Bryant Street, Studio 210

She calls herself a fiber artist, but I think she's more than that. She did have a lot of woven, knotted, sewn, and needled work. Some of it reminded me of Masako Takahashi's work, although Ms. Philip wasn't familiar with her. A mixed media sculpture caught my eye - it was a white dress form filled with little red & white fist-sized creatures which Ms. Philip called "the spleens." She explains here:

Diane Komater
wire sculpture

Her wire drawings are the best I've ever seen in this medium. Excellent, intelligent grasp of line with a good dose of humor. She also shows work at Velvet Da Vinci on Polk Street in San Francisco:

Diane Komater

Kirstine Reiner
Workspace Ltd., Studio 10a
2150 Folsom Street

I'm really at a loss for words when it comes to Reiner's work. It's perfect. Mind-blowing, really. Her rendering of flesh is so alive, it's hard to resist touching it. And she puts just as much care into her backgrounds, with emotional, modulated mixtures of colors and tints:
Kirstine Reiner's studio

Natasha Dikareva
Workspace Ltd., Studio 12
2150 Folsom Street

These sculptures drew me in more than anything else this weekend. I want one. They have enough symbolic and narrative content to keep me thinking for a long, long time and the form & colors are exquisite. Many of the wall sculptures on exhibit this weekend were commissioned portraits that centered around a cast of the subject's face. Surrounding the face was an integrated imaginarium specific to that person's story. Many of her other pieces were covered with ink-like scribing, which she called tattoos, but which really resembled ancient cartography. Natasha Dikareva's work makes spirit visible:

Natasha Dikareva

More quick shots of artists in their studios on my Flickr page.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Reinventing Ritual: Contemporary Art and Design for Jewish Life at the CJM

Jonathan Adler. Utopian Menorah. 2006 (Theme: Building)

For most of us, the morning ritual consists of falling out of bed, stumbling to the bathroom, putting on the water for coffee and reading the paper - or the Internet. Some of us check our e-mail first thing. Some have to walk the dog. But the current exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum takes the idea of routine, thoughtless ritual into a more spiritual dimension and links objects made by contemporary artists and designers with the ancient rituals of Judaism.  It is designed to invite visitors to consider their own rituals and create dialogue through a series of questions asked through the exhibition like: What are the rituals that you perform as you wake up in the morning? Are rituals different from a habit or routine? What do you remember about rituals you participated in as a child?  Have you continued or modified those rituals for your family?  Do you have a sacred space in your home? How did you make it sacred?

Judaism is one of the oldest, if not the oldest surviving monotheistic religion. Jewish rituals, customs and scholarly traditions have allowed it to survive centuries of persecution so the ritual items in the  exhibit take on an importance beyond their design - they are a  spiritual link with the past. The objects presented in the show reflect contemporary concerns and artistic  viewpoints.

The show is arranged in four thematic nodes: Thinking,  Covering, Absorbing, and Building. These themes focus on ritual as  physical action related to specific acts such as eating, drinking,  counting, smelling, lighting candles, and praying, essentially grounding  them in things shared by all people -- food, clothes, the environment.

Studio Armadillo. Hevruta Minuta. 32 knitted skullcaps. 2007 (Covering)

Ritual is central to Jewish lived experience and practice. Rituals are performed to celebrate or mark life’s passages, to bless the food that that they eat, and to sanctify the space in which they pray. Jewish texts and laws require rituals, although specific customs and practices vary in different parts of the world and have evolved and transformed over the centuries. Contemporary Jews seeking renewed relevance in their relationship to Judaism have expanded and invented new ritual practices. Rituals can be celebratory and raucous or somber and meditative, solitary activities or group experiences. The impact of a ritual on those engaged in it is not easily articulated, but it transforms and changes the participants in the process.

Martin Wilner. Sephirot III, 2007 (Thinking)

The exhibit features innovative works in diverse media including installation art, video, drawing, metalwork, jewelry, ceramics, comics, sculpture, textiles, industrial design and architecture created between 1999 and 2009.  Since the 1990's, Judaism has been revolutionized by feminism, environmentalism and much more and the current exhibit reflects that reality. “The Museum has really been at the forefront of thinking about ritual objects and their contemporary significance,” says Connie Wolf, Executive Director of the CJM. “Reinventing Ritual builds on what we’ve created – looking across the spectrum at traditional objects and rites and bringing in both new and familiar artists to think in fresh ways about the role of ritual in our everyday lives.”

Helène Aylon, All Rise (2007) (Thinking)

Many of the objects can be viewed through the prism of contemporary social movements  – feminism for example being one of the greatest sources of new ritual practices. With Fringed Garment (2005), American fiber artist Rachel Kanter pushes the boundaries of traditional sex roles by combining a kitchen apron and a prayer shawl (until recently worn only by Jewish men) in a more practical form designed for a woman. Kanter writes, “If I wanted to wear a tallit, it should be made for me and speak of my experiences as a spiritual Jew, a woman and a mother.”

Rachel Kanter. Fringed Garment. 2005 (Covering)

A sculptural installation by past CJM Invitational artist Helène Aylon, All Rise (2007), addresses the patriarchal tradition that allows three males to pass judgment in the Jewish Court but forbids women to judge. Aylon’s installation is an egalitarian vision of the future: a courtroom that administers feminist halakha (Jewish law). “I think of my work as a ‘rescue’ of the Earth and G–d and Women—all stuck in patriarchal designations,” she writes.

Alan Wexler. Gardening Sukkah.(Building)

The exhibition also includes a resource area that provides information about traditional and contemporary Jewish ritual. Several works in the exhibition also have an accompanying video-label that provides further insight into the process, ritual, and concept behind these works. These video-labels are portions of a commissioned video featuring commentary by rabbis, artists and the exhibition’s curator. The excerpts provide insight into the show’s themes and an explanation of the highly symbolic rituals of Judaism and more.

All images courtesy of the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Check their website for hours and a list of accompanying programs:
or call 415.655.7800. The Contemporary Jewish Museum is located at 736 Mission Street (between 3rd & 4th streets), San Francisco.  

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

SOMA Open Studios at South Beach

paintings by Florence Gray

I stopped by South Beach Artist Studios on Sunday, the last day of SOMA Open Studios in SF. I'll write more about Sandra Yagi in the next post, but two of my other favorites were Susan Rippberger and Florence Gray. (That's Florence's work above - a couple of huge paintings in the hall outside her studio.)

Susan Rippberger
's studio was a hodge-podge of disparate projects and she was sitting at a table in the middle of it all with food wrappers scattered on the floor by her feet. Turns out, she was weaving a prototype "shawl" out of the plastic wrappers. Half the wrappers were from Mexico, half the wrappers were from the US. She explains it here:

Florence Gray is a painter and I was immediately drawn to her use of color and her expressive, brushy application of the paint. Her newest work is a large set of mostly small pieces, all with single iconic images and single words. She's been using an vintage set of simple kid's flash cards as inspiration. Regardless of subject, her paint handling is really beautiful. Here she is in her own words:

Also: Nancy Ewart wrote about some of the SOMA open studios at the Examiner.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Helen Frankenthaler at Berggruen

Bias Blue, 1965, @ Helen Frankenthaler

 To be young, talented, and ambitious in the NY of the 1950's was not such a gift if you were also a woman. But if you were all of the above, and smart/and or lucky enough to fall in with the most influential art critic of the times (Clement Greenberg), marry another one of the giants of American Painting (Robert Motherwell) and not fall prey to the shadows that consumed many of the women artists of the time, you too could still be a "name" in the art world. Helen Frankenthaler is still a "name" in the contemporary art world. The current exhibit at is a rare look at a thirty year time span, one which is even more rare because none of the local museums have any of her work (or at least, not on display). She has also been fiercely protective of her work, often not allowing images to be reproduced, either in magazines or on the web. So to to see them here in San Francisco, in the flesh, as it were, is doubly unique.

Granada, 1953. @ Helen Frankenthaler

At the time, her staining or soaking technique of color into unprimed canvas was different enough to bring critical attention but it's the quality that continues to command respect - the lyrical watercolor aesthetic that harkens back to John Marin and Arthur Dove. Her breakthrough painting, Mountains and Sea (1953) came after a year spent studying and assimilating Pollock's work. This piece made her reputation and established her signature style.

Orange Underline, 1963. @ Helen Frankenthaler.

Her fluid, intuitive visual language - poured paint on unprimed canvas - does not photograph well. In photographs, you miss the shock of paint against the off-cream of the canvas, the halo effect of the colors, the blurred edges. I think that her work remains popular because it makes no demands on the viewer beyond appreciating the dreamy, creamy colors.

Helen Frankenthaler  Provincetown 1, 1965

In the introduction to "Helen Frankenthaler, A Paintings Retrospective" (E.A Carmean, Jr), the author asked her what viewers should learn from her work. Ms Frankenthaler responded, "in my art I've moved and have been able to grow. I've been someplace. Hopefully, others should be similarly moved."

Helen Frankenthaler. Winter Energy

I enjoyed her lyrical pieces in the exhibit but I wasn't sure that that she had been anywhere other than where she first started, back in 1953. Some of the pieces are more shapeless than lyrical with muddy and indistinct colors. Even her master, Jackson Polllock came to a stuck place in his drip-and-pour process. Ms. Frankenthanler has been at it a long time and it's natural that not all the paintings are up to the highest standards. If she were a lesser-known artist, she might be less indulged and that's not a bad thing. The show could have done with a more rigorous selection process. That would have made the better pieces stand out more.

Helen Frankenthaler. Movable Blue, 1973

Nevertheless, to have a solo exhibit of an artist of this stature here in the Bay Area is a grand treat.There aren't many living artists of the second-generation of abstract expressionists still around and fewer still are women. Joan Mitchell, Grace Hartigan, Lee Krasner are all gone so the fact that Frankenthaler is still going strong is something of a miracle.
All images courtesy of the John Berggruen Gallery; copyright Helen Frankenthaler

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Worlds in Miniature

The Museum of Performance & Design is making preparations for a new exhibition featuring the world of toy theatres.

Toy Theatres: Worlds in Miniature opens in July and will showcase 21 rare toy theatre models from around the world, some dating back to the 18th century.

Toy theatre certainly isn't dead. In recent years contemporary artists including Sandow Birk and William Kentridge have used toy theaters to create stunning new work.

Sandow Birk produced and filmed his interpretation of Dante's Inferno entirely on the stage of a toy theatre, and Kentridge used a toy theatre to create a production of Mozart's Magic Flute that employed Kentridge's unique projections.

You can see more images of toy theatres at MPD here. I've had the opportunity to work with some of these models and they truly are a fascinating coming together of the visual and performing arts.

Photo of "William Tell" toy theatre courtesy of MPD.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Looking for Art in One of the Wrong Places

Haven’t gotten out much to see art in the last 4 months, with the exception of the early February opening of Love, Art and Chocolate at 323 Gallery, and more recently a quick sprint through SFMOMA 75th Anniversary exhibit.

On an early morning walk the other day, I came across a row of boxy 1950s-style houses that were all painted about the same time during the fresh-paint-and-then-flip housing boom a few years ago. Even though the paint wasn't that old, several houses had massive peeling.

One house caught my eye, and I stopped to marvel at how the paint peeled in interesting and creative forms. I wondered if it was a different painter, if he or she knew that by ignoring all the rules of paint preparation, and then applying the paint a certain way, it would yield a few short years later a 3D mural of peeling paint in the shape of butterflies, the continents of Africa and Australia, the islands of Hawaii, Indonesia, and Rhode, a large manta ray and a tall ship. It was something to behold in the early morning light.Speaking of murals, San Francisco muraling team Jennifer Ewing and Leo Germano recently completed several large art deco paintings that are installed in the historic Varsity Theater in downtown Davis. The theater web site doesn’t mention the murals; I guess you need to buy a ticket to see them. Another reason to go to Davis is to see the Proclivities show of SF encaustic artist Adele Shaw at the Pence Gallery. The opening reception is tonight Friday April 9, 7-9PM. The show runs through May 9.

posted by Phil Gravitt

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Chinese Master Ink Painters at the Cantor Arts Center

Just a few quick notes about a show I saw today: "Tracing the Past, Drawing the Future - Master Ink Painters in 20th-Century China" at the Cantor Arts Center, through July 4, 2010
I was really excited to see this show. Not only was it a room full (100 pieces) of ink & watercolor paintings, but it built on the things I learned in February at the "Shanghai, Art of the City" show at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.
This exhibit at the Cantor was work by four artists, known in China as the "Four Treasures" of 20th Century painting: Wu Changshuo (1844–1927), Qi Baishi (1864–1957), Huang Binhong (1865–1955), and Pan Tianshou (1897–1971).

One of the first images the visitor sees on entering the exhibit is a very large portrait of Wu Changshuo, executed by two of his students. the head is painted in photorealistically, the rest of painting is the loose, brushy style more common to traditional Chinese ink paintings. Until I saw a similar piece at the SF museum recently, I'd never seen this kind of work before. They had several examples here sat the Cantor. Always done in collaborations, with one artist working on the face, another artist finishing the rest. Wu Changshuo's work was very colorful and some showed the influence of the European impressionists. (His painting of hanging gourds below.)

Qi Baishi's animal scrolls were animated, sensitive masterpieces - the perfect line, single strokes, awesome! (That's his shrimp at upper right.)

Huang Binhong did plain air painting in the countryside, and some of his "sketchbooks" (tiny scrolls) were on display in cases. Amazing when you consider they had to grind the inks. His larger scrolls were mostly blacks & greys with lots of layered overpainting and dry brush. (Image of his work at top left.)

Many of Pan Tianshou's scrolls were massive in size. They were designed for public spaces and often hung in government buildings. He also used his fingers instead of brushes much of the time! (Image at right is his.)

In the hall outside the painting exhibit are photographic of the artists, their students, and some of the areas where they lived and worked.

There are a few YouTube videos about the exhibit, but the Cantor web site has almost no images.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Friday Gallery Walk

social commentary

Just a quick run-down of a few galleries we saw this evening:

F*cal Face Dot Gallery
Marco Zamora & Derek Aalbeck - Extremely small gallery (one room, about the size of a master bedroom) but bold art. Incredibly rendered graphite drawings by Derek Albeck and interesting ink & watercolor paintings on wood by Marco Zamora.

Octavia's Haze
Expressionist paintings by James Michalopoulos - Had trouble finding this gallery (the gallery web site says it's located at 370 Hayes - it's actually a block away from there) and when we did finally locate it, it was closed. Even though we were there an hour before the stated closing time. Too bad, I really wanted to see James Michalopoulos' paintings.

So we checked out another gallery instead - Polanco Gallery at 393 Hayes. They had a terrific group show of Mexican artists - the best show of the evening, really. Unfortunately, they don't allow photos in the gallery, which is really too bad since the images on their web site don't do justice to the work. The work was arranged exceptionally well and paintings by Rafael Rodriquez and Carlos Jaurena were top quality. There was also a great little piece by Abel Almenara that is not even on the web site.

94xxxx5 photo show

Rare Device is one of those small gallery & craft places that seem to be proliferating these days. Theoretically, sales of the small craft items support the fine art exhibition space, but I've heard from some of the folks in these spaces that actually the economic downturn has hurt small craft sales more than fine art. "94xxxx5" is a photo show in a tiny back room at Rare Device - the work focuses on SF neighborhoods and fits well with the rest of the items in the space.

Along the way, we passed some outdoor art on Octavia:

"Ecstasy" on Octavia