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.