Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Take me Away

How often do we venture into our public buildings? Our court houses, and civic centers and city halls? Except for the occasional tourist with an interest in the grand architecture that boasts an individual city's wealth, locals rarely enter these doors. It was with this thought that I went to San Francisco's City Hall to see Take Me Away, an exhibition of photographs organized by the San Francisco Arts Commission Galleries.
The SFAC "makes contemporary art accessible to broad audiences through curated exhibitions that both reflect our regional diversity and position Bay Area visual art production within an international contemporary art landscape. By commissioning new works, collaborating with arts and community organizations and supporting artist’s projects, the SFAC Galleries programs provide new and challenging opportunities for contemporary art to engage with a civic dialogue." at least according to the mission statement posted on their website. Sticking a rather interesting and diverse photography exhibition into the basement of one of the more overlooked public buildings in the city does not strike me as the best way to make contemporary art accessible. You could perhaps argue that they are attempting to draw attention to the city hall itself, and open its doors to a wider audience. But this theory doesn't hold up when you actually go in search of the show itself. After a rather impressive wander through the great domed hall and up the sweeping staircase, I had to ask where I could find the photographs, as there was absolutely no signs or advertising.
They were located, I discovered after much searching, in the basement. A long, cold corridor with low ceilings and atrociously bad lighting. Not the ideal venue for any kind of art display. I'm not sure whose bright idea it was to turn this disused room into a gallery but it felt like they had ran out of better venues and stuck it down there out of the way in a moment of panic or oversight.
Which is a shame, because the show itself was surprisingly impressive.

A juried photography exhibition comprised of over 100 works by regional photojournalists and fine artists.  Photographers were encouraged to "reflect on both real and imagined spaces one might visit in order to leave the everyday. The chosen works represent a myriad of places to escape, ranging from virtual space to locations as close as home". In advance of the call for submissions, the jurors selected three established Bay Area photographers to present larger bodies of work. David Gardner’s series about people who trade stability for life in a motor home will sit beside Alice Shaw’s renowned series People Who Look Like Me, which depicts the artist stretching her own identity in order to look more like another person. Rebecca Horne’s domestic scenes contribute an unsettling and fantastical vision of daydreaming gone awry.  "The exhibition ultimately examines human connections to respite, adventure, and fantasy, through ideas and spaces related to escapism."
Actually, the three featured artists I found to be some of the least interesting. Gardner's series of full time nomads was a simple visual documentary of a minority class of people. It read like an August Sander catalogue of a class of people with little insight or artistic merit. The photographs themselves were not particularly striking, and the subject matter, while highlighting an alternative lifestyle and underground movement of people, were emotionless and did little to reveal the personalities of the subjects or give insight into their day to day lives.
Similarly, Alice Shaw's series was an interesting idea whose novelty soon wore off, large colour prints of the artist standing beside a series of people that in some way resemble her, they  are in the style of simple snapshots, but on a much bigger scale. The variety or race and gender in the series shows the mutability of resemblance. There is something to recognize in each person the photographer stands beside, but I think the choice of presentation, and aesthetic style lets the series down somewhat.
Rebecca Horne's series had a little more depth, close up images of ordinary objects they are an investigation into questions of the phenomenology  of everyday objects. they unusual viewpoints, often from below such an item as a pot on the stove or a table top made me think of the angle of view that children have, and how a simple change of perception can so profoundly affect the way we encounter our physical environment.

By far the best work for me was Adam Katseff's Landscapes. Large framed black images behind glass, with the glare from the fluorescent lights on the glass at first they looked like flat blackness, without any photographic image. As you look for longer, the picture emerges, huge mountainscapes and forests, photographed at night with long exposure times, they give more of a sense of the sublime beauty of nature than any painting or colour photograph I have ever seen.

Another work of note was that of Meghann Riepenhoff, whose Eluvium dealt with the physical nature of photography, the process of exposing light in the darkroom to create a physical impression in a piece of paper. Instead of using a camera, she simple covered the paper with sand and then manipulated it into shapes with her voice, the titles describe the vocal action she took to produce the effect. Yelling, screaming, crying, singing, whispering, produces a series of blue and black abstract shapes that are reminiscent of landscapes and call to mind the efluvium after which the series is titled. I found it an interesting parallel between emotion and nature, with the human voice playing the part of wind in the manipulation of soil deposits.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Altman Siegel Gallery

My review of O the sleeping bag contains the body but not the dreaming head at Altman Siegel gallery. Work by Alice Channer, Anicka Yi and Aaron Flint Jamison.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Oakland Art Murmur

I attended my first Oakland art murmer last night since moving to the area. It was quite the occasion, with Telegraph Avenue between 19th and 27th street blocked off for a variety of street stalls, music, food carts and other entertainment. There were also numerous galleries and studio spaces around downtown Oakland open until 9pm, and many of the bars and restaurants had live music filtering out the doors. I arrived early, when the streets were still being blocked off and many vendors were only just arriving. This meant I got to take a leisurely wander and get a look ahead of the crowds, I even got a tarot card reading and my portrait drawn for free, before queues started forming.
The street fair boasted mainly pretty objects for sale, handmade jewellery, cacti in an assortment of glass jars, leather purses and hand printed tshirts. I was glad to have only brought the bare minimum of cash with me, to resist spending my weeks wages on all the beautiful things on sale. Much of the art here was street art, silkscreened posters of Obama smoking a joint, posters from the naked bunny project, a guy with his own steam punk customized bicycle with a pull along mobile gallery adorned with matching paintings. 
As I got to the galleries in the surrounding area, the crowds had swelled and it became difficult to get into many of the venues. there was a good selection on show, with open studios FM displaying by far my favorite art of the evening. Mostly ceramic artists, with one photographer, one printmaker and a painter thrown in for good measure, the stand out was a selection of prints small delicate black and white etchings with accompanying typescripts. In the push of the crowd I didn't manage to get the artists name, but his stand was surrounded by the haunting marionettes of Peter St. Lawrence, and despite scrutinizing their website I can't seem to track him down.
A couple of doors down was Manna Gallery with an exhibition by Jhina Alvarado-Morse, a series of beige photorealistic paintings and some large abstracts by Linn Thygeson. Photo gallery had a show of vintage esoterica a nice collection of prints from the collection of Louis Klaitman. There were some real  classics in there from the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Annie Liebovitz, Ralph Eugene Meatyard and William Wegman. In Mercury 20 was the very amusing show "Pet Peeves" by Julie Alvarado and Charlie Milgrim. A series of dog portraits on one wall faced down a very odd collection of green bowling balls against the other wall- the "pet peas" of Milgrim which were dressed up in leads and collars, put in cages and fish tanks in a mockery of the containment and control of animals as pets. While the humor of these works quickly wore off, Dave Meekers exhibition "Lucky" had a little more depths. These sculptures "conceptualize the luck that surrounds us. The artist imagines this intangible with an inviting sense of humor. Luck is aligned with chaos and chance. It comes in many shades of good or bad, big or small, and may have very little to do with our own desires, wills, or intentions. These works are lyrical, associative, and built on the premise that every day we are presented with lucky moments of one kind or another, and that we may choose how to interpret, accept or reject them". (www.davemeekerart.com)
I will definitely be going again next month, and saving up in order to indulge in the assortment of beautiful things on sale. I also hope to venture further downtown, towards Jack London square and pop into some of the other galleries that I didn't have a chance to explore last night. As well as all the art on show (a lot of which is being sold at very reasonable and affordable prices) there is a delicious selection of food, wine tastings, live music, DJs and other arts and crafts to part you from your hard earned cash. 
I would advise starting early though- as the night descends into rather messy drunken revelry pretty quickly with queues to get into all the bars and the streets thronged with teenagers and drunks. 
The website for the whole event along with maps of participating galleries can be found here: http://oaklandartmurmur.org/

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Without reality: There is no utopia

Without reality there is no utopia in the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts attempts to compile a collection of artworks that "focus on political systems, their temporal nature, and the fragility of democratice ideals".
The show features a varied range of meiums, artists and messages, tied together by a rather tenuous claim to the political. I found the scope to be too broad, encompasing too many voices and losing its stated purpose amidst the chatter of so many voices of protest, freedom and revolution.

The exhibition takes its premise from the philosophical conceptions of Jean Baudrillard and Andreas HuyssenAccording to Baudrillard, what has happened in postmodern culture is that our society has become so reliant on models and maps that we have lost all contact with the real world that preceded the map. Reality itself has begun merely to imitate the model, which now precedes and determines the real world: "The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory—precession of simulacra—that engenders the territory. “It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real” he is suggesting we can no longer distinguish between nature and artifice.(Full text here) (artists are claiming to break through this barrier ??)
Huyssen is then brought in to conclude that since the real has been lost and supplanted by the simulacrum, utopia can no longer exist, since it is intricately related to the superation and improvement of reality.  The disappearance of the real thus results in the disappearance of the utopian. This is why, according the curators of the exhibition, it is "urgent and necessary to reset the real, to return to reality, or, at least, to its analysis, in order to attempt to apprehend a new utopian thought. the situation demands it". I find several problems with this statement, besides to over enthusiastic use of commas. Although not being all that well versed in Huyssen's theories I am a little shy to criticize, it does seem to be rather a leap to presume that utopia cannot exist without reality- for how then is it supposed to become a reality? Surely the dreamscape of the simulacra make a ripe ground for the introduction of a utopia? Or must utopia always be on the outside, a ghost dogging the edges of the real?
Either way, the exhibition sets up a nice philosophical premise as its introduction that gives the viewer a lot to chew over before the any of the art itself is introduced. Then we come to the problem of how to connect this grandiose concept to tangible works of art. Here the curators insert another conceptual step: they divide the exhibition (and the physical space) into two asymmetric sections. The first is titled: "Description of the Lie", as a prologue to the systems of production of the simulacra of the real. The second section is titled: "Collapses", which is further divided into four collapses; the collapse of communism, the collapse of capitalism, that of democracy and that of the geo-political. This further categorization is defended by another quote from Huyssen "Utopia never dies alone: it drags along its counter-utopia". Thus communism is suggested to have dragged along its counter utopia, capitalism, which in turn involves a geo-political implosion.

With all this complicated conceptual setting up before any artwork is even introduced, I was starting to feel the need for a map to trace the development of these ideas. And as you turn from the descriptive written introduction on the wall, there before you is indeed a map. Perestroika Timeline is a long black banner interrupted by white text and images which cut into the smooth line that circumscribes the gallery walls. The text refers to various incidents in the collapse of communism: the fall of the Berlin wall, the end of the soviet union, the reunification of Germany and the dissolution of the Warsaw pact. At the end of the timeline there is a split, between a utopian idealistic possible outcome and the negative damaging reality. Created by Chto Delat? http://www.chtodelat.org/ a loose collective of Russian poets, artists and philosophers, singers, designers and critics, reality is presented as a chronological sequence of events that leads towards a political collapse, and is presented as preventing and obstructing reality. So far, so political.

The rest of the exhibition follows this same vein, works that are engaging with the negative outcomes of specific political regimes, while not actually positing any alternative, escape or even addressing any more pressing questions. Many of the pieced felt like filler, chosen for their mildly anti-capitalist or pro-minority focus, such as Carlos Motta's Ideological Graffiti, which archives the opinions of citizens of 12 Latin American countries focusing on the perception of interventionist policies of the USA.

Another timeline, which was a little more successful as a work of art, was Daniel Garcia Andujar's Postcapital 1989-2001 Which takes imagery from the media and ideological stereotypes and generates a bizzare melding of two extraodinary resonant moments in recent history: the collapse of the Berlin wall the the destruction of the twin towers in 9/11. A digital archive gathered from images on the internet, the piece covers the majority of an entire wall, the shiny colourful images attractive like familiar adverts. It's only on closer inspection that the message is revealed: Che Guevara in an ad for sports shoes, an ad for a men's magazine with an image of the Kennedy assassination, in which Jackie is the one shot and a tagline of "if men are your target make sure you don't miss them".

As described on the project website:
       "Here, Andújar views the developments subsequent to the “fall of the Wall” not as aspects of postcommunism but rather of postcapitalism. Emerging here is the question as to what extent capitalist societies have changed in absence of their erstwhile counterparts and which new walls have been erected through the global politics following events of 1989 and 2001. The triumphal course of capitalism and of the Western democracies has by no means proved to guarantee peace, security, and stability, as the conflicts in former Yugoslavia, the war in Iraq, or, even more recently, the slumps in the U.S. financial markets have demonstrated. “Postcapital” is an attempt at reading the complex and divergent realities of the twenty-first century by virtue of their forms of representation: the review of an age whose prelude has been pinpointed by Andújar as localized between 1989 and 2001". 

Ignasi Aballi"s Listados (World Map) 2010 takes a less pictorial approach. In a series of frames, the artist lists the names of every country to appear in news headlines in every section of every edition of the spanish daily, El Pais over the course of one year. The result is a printed version of a tag or word cloud, with the size of the font and recurrance of certain names indicating the bias and focus of news media. It is a measurement of the appearance and disappearance of collective or individual presence of countries and events that took place, based on the priorities of newspaper editors. By default this creates hierarchies of visibility of some events over others. Listed alphabetically I found myself wanting to know how the list would appear if ordered chronologically, or if compared to similar listings from other newspapers, both in the same country and in others. 

While Aballi's work raises a complex set of questions about the relationship between media and public interest, other works in the exhibition were more blatantly political, not always to positive effect. 

Oliver Ressler's work contained too much news and not enough art, and the predominance of charts, maps, timelines of political developments and ideologies became tiresome, such as Zeina Maasri's political posters depicting various signs of conflict from Lebanon's Civil War. While visually pleasing, the posters have very little insight besides revealing bias and design strategies for propaganda.  This is symptomatic of the general failing of the exhibition as a whole, the leap between the first and second proposal is not made, the response of the art to the collapse of utopia is a loose collection of political imagery with no message. 

This for me, sums up a major problem with group exhibitions, while the theoretical premise contains an interesting and powerful idea, the actual art fails to measure up, perhaps due to it being a group show, I felt that some of the works were being made to ascribe to a preset concept  in which they did not fit comfortably