Wednesday, October 17, 2007

2007 Venice Biennale photos online

I have finally posted my images from the Biennale up on Flickr. They can be seen here.

Yin Xiuzhen, China Pavilion

The Biennale was overwhelming to say the least. Lots of really strong work in the different international pavilions, mostly by young artists with promising careers ahead of them. Standouts were David Altmejd at the Canada Pavilion, Hyungkoo Lee at the South Korea Pavilion, the exhibition at the First Roma Pavilion, Sophie Calle at the French Pavilion, the Hong Kong Pavilion, the Chinese Pavilion, the Russian Pavilion and the two installations that made up the Scandinavian Pavilion.

David Altmejd, Canada Pavilion

There was no shortage of fresh energy in the international pavilions, but the main exhibition in the Arsenale and the Italian Pavilion were painfully dull by comparison. Curated by Robert Storr, former MoMA curator turned dean of the Yale School of Art, the two massive shows had a mausoleum feel, commemorating innovations long out of date and mostly serving to promote the curator's agenda over the advancement of contemporary ideas related to the art and culture of today.

Yang Fudong, Arsenale

I also visited Documenta 12 and Skulptur Projekte Munster this summer, and will eventually post those images. Stay tuned.

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Monday, August 20, 2007

The Present Group

The Present Group is an art subscription service based in Oakland. For $150, roughly twice the cost of a leading contemporary art magazine, you can receive an original piece of art every quarter. The first two issues were multiples by Ethan Ham and Benjamin Rosenbaum (spring) and Presley Martin (summer), but in September they'll be releasing a new set of unique drawings by Christine Kesler. Christine drew these on the road from Brooklyn to SF, where she recently moved to start grad school at CCA. She should be well served by a department that helped shape the work of Leslie Shows and Val Britton, two artists with comparable interests in painting as topography.

That's all I can tell you for now, except that I'll be contributing a short essay on Christine's work to the September release. Watch for it.

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Monday, August 06, 2007

Sunshine - a film by Danny Boyle

Scottish director Danny Boyle's eighth film, Sunshine, is an ambitious and moody space thriller that starts out great and ends up somewhere between "pretty good" and "kinda good." The cinematography and art direction, especially lighting, sound and set design, are outstanding. The performances by supporting actors Cliff Curtis, brilliant (can't resist) as the spaceship psych officer addicted to bathing his inner darkness in light, Hiroyuki Sanada, as the stoic Captain Kaneda, and the ever-awesome Michelle Yeoh, as Corazon, tender of the Oxygen Garden, are pitch-perfect. Lead Cillian Murphy is pleasing to look at and not annoying, which is probably enough, though I don't really buy him as a nuclear physicist (perhaps I've met too many).

The first act is wonderfully languid in the best space-is-so-big tradition. The earth has become a frozen wasteland, and a team of astronauts cast by Benetton in a ship predictably called Icarus are on their way to the sun to detonate a nuclear payload that they hope will jump-start the dying star. The second act sets up a compelling psychological conflict, between playing things safe and taking risks to get better results, as the crew intercepts a signal from the sister spaceship whose mission was lost seven years earlier, and attempts to rationalize their curiosity about the lost ship with justifications based on flimsily calculated benefits. All perfectly good fodder for a psychological thriller about the vast loneliness of the universe and the hell that is other people.

Unfortunately, in the third act this film suddenly becomes a cheesy slasher flick. Too in love with their characters to make them compellingly conflicted, Boyle and writer Alex Garland transfer all that conflict onto a barely justified bogeyman out to thwart the dwindling crew of surviving goody-goodies. It's so much more interesting when the characters are their own enemies, torn between self-interest and the good of others, a conflict that Boyle navigated skillfully in Shallow Grave, Trainspotting and even the adorable kid flick Millions. But here he pulls his punches, allowing all the characters who have survived the first and second acts to choose goodness and service while introducing a hastily sketched surrogate for their darker impulses. The last half-hour of the film involves many blurry chase scenes, and several incidents where the ship is damaged and the crew must race against time and the psycho to keep the whole thing from blowing up.

Sunshine starts off drawing heavily on 2001: A Space Odyssey, references Alien but ultimately ends up in territory closer to the pre-Titanic James Cameron's underwater disaster snoozer The Abyss. In that movie, a group of stranded submariners were picked off one-by-one by a water phantom that represented their darkest impulses and fears. The Abyss was a far worse film than Sunshine, which has most of its problems at the end and looks great throughout, but it's a weak position to end up with when you aimed for the company of Kubrick and Ridley Scott. You should still see Sunshine if you like spaceships, fire or Irish girly boys. All of which are good things.

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Saturday, August 04, 2007

Ala Ebtekar at Gallery Paule Anglim

Ala Ebtekar makes beautiful drawings based on contemporary and ancient Iranian myths. At Anglim he is showing a series of paintings in acrylic, ink and watercolor that use book pages written in Farsi as their support. The largest paintings in the show bear the image of a winged centaur, a familiar Mediterranean motif. Somehow he doesn't seem particularly happy about the belligerency focused toward, and emanating from, his home territory.

Smaller works are bordered with collapsed piles of fallen heroes. Casualties of the ancient war described in the Farsi text (the canonical Shahnameh or Epic of Kings), they could as well have been felled by the coming one to be provoked by the dual mad rages of Ahmedinijad and George W.

It's a busy season for Ala, as he has also recreated his 2004 installation Elemental for the Asia Society's traveling show "One Way or Another: Contemporary Asian Art Now," opening at the Berkeley Art Museum on September 19. A show of drawings related to his 2006 shows Emergence at Richmond Art Center and Emergence: Elements at Anglim, closed earlier this year at The Third Line in Dubai, UAE. Having had the pleasure of curating his show at Richmond, I could not be happier that he's garnering some international attention.

There's more to report, about the adjacent show by Bull.Militec, but that will have to wait until I see the second part of that installation, in "Dark Matter" at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Watch for it next week.

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Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Taraneh Hemami: Most Wanted

Intersection for the Arts
Closed June 30, 2007

Taraneh Hemami is a San Francisco artist whose work could not be more timely. Raised in Iran and exiled as a teen, she is adept at expressing both the allure and the extremism of her given homeland and her adopted one alike. I had the pleasure of working with Taraneh in 2006 when Homes was installed at ZeroOne San Jose. Homes is part of her project CrossConnections, in which she collects images and impressions of Iranians and Iranian-Americans in presentations that emphasize her community's peaceful self-awareness. The project is ongoing, with Taraneh currently traveling to Iran to realize a new chapter in the coming year.

Most Wanted has an entirely different approach, in which Taraneh looks at her people of origin through the eyes of Americans and finds distortion. In early 2002, an image was circulated widely over the Internet showing the US government's supposed priority security targets, whose faces were reproduced in such low-resolution as to be almost comically indistinct. Not content simply to point out that this popular image reduces individuals to a collection of universal characteristics (beards, veils, dark skin), Taraneh took apart and reworked this image in a variety of conceptually skillful ways. The showstopper is a large beaded curtain in which each glass bead works as a pixel, faithfully reproducing the obscured faces of the original. Each iteration of the found image in this show further strays from representation, as in the animated video where the faces morph into one another.

A curved row of steel structures from floor to ceiling suggest a screen or perhaps a jail cell, each one framing a single face from the poster. These come to resemble "martyr" posters of militant Islamists killed in conflict, superimposed with stylized flower patterns which Taraneh explains are reminiscent of the decorations found on such posters in Iran today. Gridlike, they also evoke paint-by-numbers or needlepoint patterns, and so their funereal power is diffused by domesticity.

Taraneh also tests the limits of another form of representation, names, which she prints on a carpet leading up the stairs to the exhibition. In Eastern traditions, it is forbidden to step on a text (all books being worthy of respect), so it was a bit unnerving for me to walk up the stairs and stomp on all these Muslim names. The same names are translated into Farsi and painted on a gallery wall in transparent glue, only made visible by the soil which Taraneh and a team of assistants brushed over the surface. Again the means of representation are thwarted, specific meaning lost in translation and a generic "Iranian" or "Islamic" entity comes up in its place.

In light of the communication impasse between the US and Iran, the work of Iranian-American artists like Taraneh Hemami serves the important social role of pointing out the fallacy of easy assumptions and making us appear more human to one another. This kind of cross-cultural dialogue is essential to maintaining peace between the two countries. It's remarkable that, here in the US, we can turn to our neighbors to give us perspectives on everywhere else in the world. This diversity of viewpoints is what will save us from the narrow, prejudiced militarism of our day.

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Saturday, June 30, 2007

Conversation 4: Jillian McDonald/Mark Lee Morris

San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery
June 29 - August 25, 2007

I'm excited to report on Canadian-turned-New Yorker Jillian McDonald's solo show "Me and Billy Bob" at the SF Arts Commission Gallery. McDonald is a rare find, a funny, accessible and highly conceptual media artist who doesn't talk down to her audience. In video and web works dating from 2003 to the present, she investigates the social compulsion to invest celebrities with feelings of false intimacy, noting that the increasing disconnection we feel from our families and communities is prompting us to inappropriately displace our relationships elsewhere.

McDonald composites herself into scenes from Billy Bob Thornton's films, responding passionately to his gentle attentions. She draws his famous tattoos onto her own body in pen and ink, later realizing that only temporary tattoos of his name can adequately express her love. Upon hearing of Billy Bob's 2004 plastic surgery, she covers her face in temporary tattoos in mourning and protest. Finally, impatient with her beloved, she strays into the arms of rivals including Johnny Depp, Vincent Gallo and her paramour's ex-wife, Angelina Jolie.

The "Conversation" exhibition series juxtaposes a Bay Area artist with an artist from elsewhere, highlighting common interests and threads in their work. San Franciscan Mark Lee Morris presents "Hamartia," a TV serial melodrama in which he plays all the parts, available on YouTube and on view/in production in the Arts Commission window display at 155 Grove Street. His process is similar to that of Kara Hearn or Desiree Holman, acting out on lifelong obsessions by inhabiting each player in a series of original yet archetypical scenarios. Over the course of the exhibition, Morris will create several episodes of "Hamartia," introducing several characters and revealing other facets of his intimate relationship to television.

In her most recent work, McDonald's obsession has turned from movie stars toward horror films, and she's embarking on several new projects intended to tease out the very real social fears embedded in shock-and-slash narratives. My own affection for the critically-sharp fantasies of John Carpenter, Sam Raimi, George Romero and their Japanese counterparts Naoyuki Tomomatsu, Takashi Miike, Tetsuro Takeuchi, Kinji Fukasaku et al being profound, this is a direction I deeply approve of. Keep an eye on Jillian McDonald, she is just getting going.

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Sunday, June 24, 2007

Vivienne Westwood recap

San Francisco's de Young Museum was the first and so far the only US stop on the Westwood retrospective tour. Looking at this show proved that Vivienne Westwood taught most of us in the final quarter of the 20th century how to dress, and her influence on high and street fashion alike is still apparent. Westwood's DIY spirit in the early years is infectious, and some of her later pieces merge evening gown elegance with medical, bondage and military influences in remarkable ways. You can still see knockoffs of her early punk designs at any punk/goth/industrial club, and her appropriation and redesign of British nobleman's dress presaged hip hop's affinity for Tommy Hilfiger.

Many of her later day wear collections area bit more hippie/folkie and fairly hideous in my opinion, but I'd kill for that hobble dress with the hospital straps. It's like something rose up out of the Alte Krankenhaus in Vienna, all gussied up for the Oscars. Wish I could find a picture for you. This picture of the AKH should give you some idea.

I'm not generally a fan of big-name designers taking over museum spaces as it tends to dumb things down in a fairly crass and commercial way, but sometimes the accolades are deserved even by someone who hangs out with supermodels. Also, I liked seeing this image on banners all over the city:

One of Westwood's most significant contributions has been her embracing of androgyny in several collections. Bizarre structural features such as the "Mini-Crini," a short bustle in front, add to the gender confusion.

Anyone who says that Vivienne Westwood (or Malcolm McLaren, or the Sex Pistols) invented Punk is mistaken, but Westwood deserves a lot of credit for bringing Punk sensibilities to a broader audience with designs that were cheap and easy to copy, or reinvent. It's not surprising that she has taken such an interest in later years in her extensive study of historical costume, as that early work represents a historical moment of its own, in great detail.

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Skinny Puppy at the Fillmore 6/21/07

It's hard to believe, but Skinny Puppy have been playing together for over 25 years. They've built a solid international following without scarcely any attention from mainstream radio. We almost didn't go to this show on account of being somewhat disappointed with the last tour, less theatrics and fewer of the best songs. Good thing we were talked into it, because Nivek Ogre and cEVIN Key are keeping the spirit of Alice Cooper alive and well on this tour.

The stage at the Fillmore was dominated by a white scrim splattered heavily with stage blood. I found a spot by the front where I could see around its edge an get a glimpse of Ogre's shadow-puppet props and costumes. He performed about half the show from behind that scrim, taking on various mythic monster personas for different songs. Their passion for performing is clearly back in force, and we were happy to hear several old favorites and some new material that sounded promising.

Their new album is "Mythmakers" and it comes out this month. Now that's my kind of classic rock.

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Saturday, June 23, 2007

New space: Johansson Projects in Oakland

Kimberley Johansson first got my attention with her show "The Art of Survival" at ABCo Artspace in West Oakland, where she impressed by bringing Jim Campbell and Victor Cartagena into Oakland's alternative gallery scene. She's just closed another ambitious, intergenerational show at Ego Park and her own new space at 2300 Telegraph. "Excavations" featured established Bay Area artists Lewis de Soto, John Roloff and Mark Brest van Kempen alongside newer talents Misako Inaoka, Scott Oliver and Val Britton. I was only able to see half the works, those that remained on view after the show had officially closed.

Val Britton

Val Britton's large works on paper are intricately detailed and cut out, taking on a sculptural topography that links up conceptually with her cartographic drawings. She says they have personal significance as a kind of visual history of her father, a truck driver. The titles, which are unwieldy at best, suggest as much, but the works can be read much more expansively with a mind to Manifest Destiny and our home in the American West, as well as to the migratory condition of contemporary life.

Scott Oliver

Scott Oliver is everywhere these days, and it's well-deserved for someone so hardworking, gifted and plain old nice. He's got a show up at YBCA right now as the Collective Foundation with Joseph del Pesco, he's still co-editing the Bay Area art review website Shotgun Review, and he's got an upcoming residency this fall at the SF Dump. Can't wait to see what he does there! Hopefully more amazing pieces like The Valley (above).

Misako Inaoka

Misa Inaoka's grass ceiling at Johansson is an art installation I would love to live with. Her inverted field is peppered with track lights, resembling a flipped-over golf course. Her bizarrely modified birds sitting on ethereal branches complete the dreamy faux-natural mood. Barely noticeable peepholes in a wall reveal more surreal nature scenes in miniature. The interplay of natural and artificial elements in her work is uniquely Japanese, and reminds me of this building in Fukuoka that my friend Rick recently visited, with a mountain of stepped gardens outside and a luxury shopping mall on the inside.

Acros Building, Fukuoka, Japan

The collaborative installation by John Roloff and Lewis de Soto is a gallery version of a public artwork they have proposed for the Oakland Estuary, a murky channel connected to Lake Merritt that runs through downtown. Sludge from the estuary sits in the bottom tank, with clear water stacked above it. Both tanks bear inscriptions, the top tank's in reverse so that the text can be read clearly in the water's reflection. The proposed installation would be a series of engravings in reverse on the Estuary's promenade, so that passersby could read the inscriptions in the water below. Mark Brest van Kempen has also been engaged by this Oakland beautification effort to create sculptures for the Rockridge-Temescal Greenbelt Park. I was sorry to have missed his installation of "Impossible Parks."

Lewis de Soto & John Roloff

Patricia Sweetow's new show at 77 Geary

Several good shows this month in SF and Oakland. Patricia Sweetow has reopened her gallery at 77 Geary (on the mezzanine), in a raw loft space reminiscent of early Chelsea locations. The inaugural show is "Stop Pause Forward," open until June 30. She's promoting several promising younger Bay Area artists in this show, including Weston Teruya, Jamie Vasta and Jonathan Burstein, and also has a great piece by New York artist Christian Nguyen.

Jamie Vasta

Vasta's paintings made with glitter are intricately drawn and stunningly gorgeous, and in the best of them the narrative is strong enough to overcome my implicit distrust of their beauty. Photos don't do them justice, you really need to see how the light plays off their ersatz surfaces in person. Burstein collages pictures cut from art magazines into self-portraits in which images of famous and unknown artworks, fashion, design and advertising blend to represent the artist as a composite of diverse influences. It's a sophisticated comment on the realities of post-graduate life. Teruya's sculptures suggest garden follies built from a combination of sporting equipment, barricade and natural landscape, and his "Garden Flags" continue the odd safety/sport signification with drawings reminiscent of Ben Peterson (who's recently left SF for Philly - another significant loss to the Bay Area art scene).

Jonathan Burstein

Christian Nguyen's work is new to me, and quite intriguing. Sacristy, Altar and Mizrab, 2006, is a scroll covered in intricate pencil drawings, architectural in nature, that Nguyen encodes with complex philosophical, mythological and spiritual intentions. The elaborate web of advancing and retreating spaces suggests M. C. Escher seen through a Modernist lens. This work is from the series The Empty Space (2003-06), which Nguyen's artist statement says is based on the story of the Tower of Babel, a fantasy of uniformity and cohesion.

Christian Nguyen

Sweetow's July show will be video art, curated by Jeanne Finley and featuring recent CCA grads David Gurman and Amanda Herman, as well as Tommy Becker and Bayete Ross-Smith, both of whose new work I'm excited to see. Solo shows for Jamie Vasta, Bayete Ross-Smith and Christian Nguyen are coming up later in 2007-08. It's encouraging to see her bring some fresh energy to sometimes stodgy Geary Street. I wish her great success.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

More ISEA / ZeroOne Artists to Watch

ZeroOne was so huge and spread out that it was pretty much impossible to see everything, and my access as an Associate Producer was limited by my responsibilities to certain artists and venues within that role. Still, I managed to see a few really outstanding projects, not all of which I will remember to list here.

Luther Thie & Eyal Fried, Acclair (at San Jose City Hall)

Luther and Eyal won the Adobe-sponsored Emerging Artist Award for Acclair, a performative commentary on consumerism in the name of security.

Rachel Rakena, Pacific Washup/Rerehiko (in Container Culture at the South Hall)

These videos, made in collaboration with aboriginal choreographers, address immigration and ethnic integration in Australia and New Zealand.

Norimichi Hirakawa, DriftNet (in Container Culture at the South Hall)

DriftNet is a visualization of the immense flow of data over the Internet. The abstract projection of the DriftNet washes over the floor and walls of the exhibition space, responding to the movement of the viewer.

Gail Wight, Rodentia Chamber Music (in Edge Conditions at the San Jose Museum of Art)

Gail Wight's "species collaboration" is a group of plexiglass instruments, hollow inside, housing white mice as a cage would. The mice control the sounds made by the instruments. Mouse music - I love it.

Mark David Hosale, Defendex-ESPGX (at the South Hall)

I first saw DEFENDEX-ESPGX at SIGGRAPH in 2005. I really like how the structure housing the video monitor and components visually complements the videos' retro militarism. This would look fantastic in one of the Headlands' ex-military barracks buildings.

Bioteknica (Shawn Bailey & Jennifer Willets, with assistance from Oron Catts & Ionat Zurr of SymbioticA), Bioteknica: Laboratory Remix (at the South Hall)

Bioteknica addresses fears surrounding stem cell experimentation by deliberately inciting the artist's own cells to mutate, with the aim of creating living sculptures inspired by teratoma cancer cells. Creepy and very thoughtfully executed.

Huang Shi, Drift Bottles (in Container Culture at the South Hall)

The smell, sounds and arrangement of this artwork made me very, very happy. The Drift Bottles are blown glass with elegant silver stoppers, hung in an arc from the ceiling, with microchips inside. Open one and speak into it, and the next person who comes by will get your message trapped inside the bottle with a potent whiff of incense.

Pia Tikka with Joonas Juutilainen, Obsession (at the South Hall)

Obsession is a four-channel feature film in which the scenes are not traditionally sequenced. Instead, sensors inside the viewers' seats monitor heart rate and viewing position to select the sequence of the scenes according to the viewers' responses. This maintains the passive experience of movie-watching while giving the viewer agency to dictate what he or she sees.

Colin Ives, Nocturne (at the South Hall)

Kit foxes, field mice and possums are some of the animals Colin Ives observed and documented with his infrared camera. Part naturalist documentary, part interactive installation, the creatures in the video footage seem to respond to the presence of viewers.

Neighborhood Public Radio (Lee Montgomery, Jon Brumit, Michael Trigilio and Linda Arnejo) (at the Camera 12 ticket booth and on the air)

NPR provided commentary on the festival, programs on other artists' projects, interviews, music and live entertainment for pedestrians on San Jose's downtown Paseos. Listeners could tune into the radio broadcasts emanating from the tower of the San Jose Museum of Art and see the programs being created in the window of the Camera 12 ticket booth. I'm excited to work with NPR again this summer at Headlands. More details to come.

Survival Research Labs, Ghostly Scenes of Infernal Desecration: An SRL End of Days Production (at the South Hall)

Pulling off a full-scale SRL show was no small feat, and the result was genuinely mind-blowing (I'm fairly sure mine was blown at least a foot back by the Shockwave Cannon). My partner worked with SRL many years ago and had been telling me for nearly a decade how I needed to see them, but he wouldn't allow me to get my first impression of SRL from the small-scale events they've been restricted to putting on in the Bay Area these last few years. It was absolutely worth the wait to see SRL in full effect. Keep an eye on Recombinant Media Labs, who will be screening a 10-channel video recreation of the show sometime in 2007. Not to be missed!