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.

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