December 17, 2010

Editor's Note

On infrequent occasions a cause célèbre will arise that is a matter of concern and reflection on our society’s enshrinement of free speech and expression. I do not believe the cases of censorship in recent decades came close to eradicating those key freedoms. Nor do the two current cases begin to bring us to that doorstep. Which does not render the dual stories involving Italian muralist Blu and the late artist-activist David Wojnarowicz (he succumbed to AIDS in 1992) uninteresting or unworthy of concern. One is really nothing more than an exercise in unilateral but nuanced civic mindedness; the other is an instance of genuine censorship, however. The comparison between them, particularly occurring as they did at nearly the same moment, is instructive.

The rhetorical attack against a work that was on view at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. by Bill Donohue, President of the conservative and religious Catholic League, with support from Republican House leaders John Boehner and Eric Cantor labeled Wojnarowicz’ video “A Fire in My Belly” “hate speech” that was “... not the first time the Smithsonian has offended [Christians].” The Smithsonian reacted by pulling it from an acclaimed exhibition, “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” the theme of which is gay and lesbian identity in art.

Regarding Blu’s mural of caskets draped in dollar bills (rather than the Flag), MOCA Director Jeffrey Deitch is quoted in the LA Times: “This is 100% about my effort to be a good, responsible, respectful neighbor in this historic community ... As a steward of a public institution ... [I was] considering the sensitivities of the community ... [Blu had] ended up working in isolation without any input.” The reason for such sensitivity? The Department of Veterans Affairs building is directly across the street facing that wall of the Geffen Contemporary, and a few yards away stands “Go For Broke” a memorial to Japanese American servicemen. Far from seeking to stifle expression, Deitch owns the decision was his, and does so in the context of the curatorial process preceding opening of the much anticipated “Art in the Streets” exhibition that debuts next April. It would be a vast stretch to conclude that this was an act of censorship or even a gratuitous exercise of control.

The spiritual core of the Wojnarowicz action is a heart of darkness, and an all too familiar tactic of the right. Congressional Republicans used it to raise the cudgel of “hate speech,” a transparent and hypocritical tactic, given that they have routinely offered only roadblocks to related hate crime legislation. The only malevolence to be seen is the bigotry of the accusers. The work itself is an intensely expressionistic manifestation of personal sadness and rage over the death of the artist’s mentor and lover Peter Hujar.

But don’t expect such facts to provoke one instant of reflection among people who possess no interest in the art whatsoever. This act is solely about power and politics; aesthetic insight and personal reflection are entirely beside the point. Much as Republican efforts to de-fund the National Endowment of the Arts of the basis of four artists’ grants made a generation ago, this is all about inflaming the emotions of constituent groups whose wish is to eliminate such expression altogether. There is virtually no money at stake, nor is there any threat to anyone at all, but that does not matter to a demagogue.

Equally implicated, but in a wholly distinct way, the Smithsonian, parent to the National Portrait Gallery, which immediately surrendered to the pressure. No defense was offered, either spirited or principled. In a letter to the Smithsonian’s Wayne Clough, Warhol Foundation President Joel Wachs wrote, “Such blatant censorship is unconscionable.” That the bigoted wing of the ideological right displays a capacity to act the scoundrel is one thing, but that high level administrators of one of America’s most important cultural institutions cooperate seemingly without hesitation amounts to an absence of the sort of vigorous resistance that is a regular down payment for the preservation of freedom.

You can take a look at both short videos at the Visual Art Source website; scroll down the home page, or drop the Editorial tab to Video (be sure to watch Blu’s brilliant “Big Bang Big Boom” mural-animation while you are there).

- Bill Lasarow

Chris Engman, "Inverse Negative," 2010, inkjet print, 38 x 48”, at Greg Kucera Gallery.


Chris Engman
at Greg Kucera

Rose-Lynn Fisher / Brian Forrest
at Craig Krull

Preston Singletary
at Heard Museum

Joan Hall / Ivano Vitali
at Blue Star

Andy Goldsworthy
at Haines Gallery

Joe Sorren
at CSUF Grand Central

Continuing through December 24, 2010
Greg Kucera Gallery
Seattle, Washington

Photographer Chris Engman has zero interest in capturing time. On the contrary, his color photographs reveal temporality by shifting the viewer’s gaze away from the often-mundane object at the center of the frame and towards peripheral shadows, changing climates and fluctuations in light.  In “Dust to Dust” Engman uses images of constructed (and deconstructed) environments to highlight the temporary nature of all things. “Life,” says Engman “is one of those things that just doesn’t stay still.”

Engman isn’t content to stay behind the lens. His images are often the end result of labor-intensive architectural projects painstakingly planned out, built and documented while alone in the middle of the desert. In preparation, Engman envisions every aspect of the project from beginning to end, creating a highly detailed shooting schedule with notes on the position of the sun and the direction of the camera. In addition to food, camping equipment, sunblock, and a lot of water, Engman hauls his camera equipment, materials such as rope, plywood and cinderblocks, and the tools necessary to build his structure on site. “Once I’m out there I have to make do with what I’ve got.”

For “Equivalence” Engman constructed and raised an upright plywood frame consisting of thirteen squares and two triangles in the middle of the Eastern Washington desert. He created a single photograph of the structure using an 8 x 10” camera, then returned to Seattle to divide the image into fifteen larger digital prints that he attached to the framework when he returned to the site a month later. The final image shows fluffy white clouds floating lazily through Engman’s solid structure.  At first glance nothing seems amiss, but further examination reveals out of place shadows, clouds drifting in opposing directions, and other tell-tale signs of manipulation - all strategically left in by the artist. “It’s important for me to leave traces of the process so that information is there for the viewer,” Engman explains.  “My constructions are not sculptures in the traditional sense. They’re just vehicles to reveal a process that is focused on experiencing time and understanding what photographs do – or don’t do - to time.”

See complete article. . . .
- Suzanne Beal

Horses of distinct colors: David Wojnarowicz' "A Fire in My Belly" (still from video), left; and Blu's MOCA mural being whitewashed (right).

Rose-Lynn Fisher, “Proboscis 150x,” 2010, archival pigment print, 24 x 30”, at Craig Krull Gallery.

Continuing through January 8, 2011
Craig Krull Gallery
Santa Monica, California

The deep, dark, almost tactile blackness covering Brian Forrest’s photographs is primordial. At first glance the extensive darkness they offer seems like a blind wall; dense, solid and impenetrable. Like human eyes becoming attuned to seeing in the dark, however, the images slowly adjust to a lingering gaze; shapes emerge and forests appear. Not the shadow dappled forests of holidays spent camping out, but the mythic, haunted forests of ancient human memory.

Rose-Lynn Fisher’s glowing black and white photographs are no less a visual journey, but take the route of amazement. Her images are radiant, incredibly sharp, very high contrast photographs of the world beyond what can be seen with the naked eye. Using a camera attached to a scanning electron microscope she zooms in on the tiny body of a gold dusted honeybee. That thin layer of gold, only a couple of atoms thick, functions to increase the conductivity of the creature’s surface rather than color it, and gives her high powered magnifications a stunning intensity.

See complete article. . . .

– Suvan Geer

Preston Singletary, "Raven Stealing the Moon," 2006, glass, 17 x 10 x 6.6", at The Heard Museum.

Continuing through February 6, 2011
The Heard Museum
Phoenix, Arizona

Driven by a desire to wed traditional Native American storytelling and symbolism with the “wow factor” of contemporary glass blowing, Preston Singletary succeeds on both counts in this mid-career retrospective. Of the 54 works, most draw their inspiration from Singletary’s Tlingit (Alaskan native) heritage and thus depict anthropomorphic animals on glass representations of utilitarian and ceremonial objects such as crest hats, amulets, baskets, cedar boxes and masks.

The aspects that elevate the pieces to the “wow” level are: the intense yet translucent colors; the use of lighting to let the geometric designs cast shadows on the display surface; the painstakingly precise cuts to the glass through sand carving and other devices; and the sheer size of several pieces.

Taking center stage is “Clan House” (2008), a 16-foot-by-10-foot cast-glass triptych evoking a longhouse, with two intricately carved posts flanking a giant screen, all aglow in gold and black. Another stellar achievement is “Raven Steals the Sun, Stars, and Moon” (2008), depicting the omnipotent Raven of Tlingit heritage, mounted high on the wall. Inside its beak: a glass fireball symbolizing light. The piece is deceptively simple, and, like “Clan House” and other pieces, it brings welcome diversity to the American Studio Glass movement.

- Deborah Ross

Joan Hall, installation view (l. to r., "C4," "C1," and "C2," 2010, paper, found objects, Mylar, acrylic; foreground, "Here No More," 2010, found nets, paper, glass, plastic, cast resin, stainless steel), at Blue Star Contemporary Art Center.

Continuing through February 12, 2011
Blue Star Contemporary Art Center
San Antonio, Texas

Avid sailor Joan Hall responds to the plastic trash she sees floating miles from the ocean shore with her wall-mounted sculptures that resemble fishing nets bulging with man-made debris. Her visual lamentation about the decline of ocean life evokes feelings of being damaged, trapped and insignificant. Working with Japanese-style handmade paper and printed digital imagery, she uses a scalpel to cut out the fish nets and laminates them with Mylar for a translucent effect.
In one piece, she’s inserted contrasting circular images of cancer cells and coral life forms, though it’s difficult to distinguish the abnormal cells from the merely endangered. The largest wall work appears stuffed with sun-bleached shopping bags, illustrating that 10 percent of all plastic winds up in the oceans. She also uses flotsam picked up from the beach, such as the plastic fishing nets that form three garbage baglike sentinels in a melancholy floor installation, “Here No More.”

Ivano Vitali’s newspaper weavings that mix crafts traditions with that of Arte Povera are paired with Hall’s recycled works under the title “Crossovers: Materials and Metaphors.” Guest curator Meredith Dean brings together these distinct bodies of work based on shared handmade techinique and environmentalist concerns.
- Dan R. Goddard

Andy Goldsworthy, “Stacked branch, boulder, spire, Woody Creek, Colorado,” 2006, unique Ilfochrome print, 15 1/2 x 15 1/2”, at Haines Gallery.

Continuing through December 24, 2010
Haines Gallery
San Francisco, California

Using only materials found as is in nature — rocks, dirt, water, flowers, branches — Andy Goldsworthy creates quietly beautiful installation works. Goldsworthy has executed over 120 commissioned works the world over, several of which are located in the Bay Area, including the cracked stone piece, “Drawn Stone,” which traces the entrance to the de Young Museum, “Spire” in the Presidio, “River of Stone” at Stanford, and “Surface Tension” at the Hess Art Museum. Typical of the Scottish artist’s work, these feel so right, so effortless, poignant and poetic. What isn’t evident is the complex conceptual and experimental considerations leading up to these elegant final products.

This current exhibition provides insight into Goldsworthy’s explorations; it includes documentation — photos, works on paper, proposal drawings, and video — of the “incidental” and often temporary creations resulting from Goldsworthy’s process. Images of a hand smacking the dusty ground in the Presidio at the site of “Spire” address his process and stand apart from the final rather architectural image. Video documenting the creation of “Rain Shadows,” for which the artist laid on the ground through rainstorms; in the end, the form of his body remains in the dry dirt. These action maquettes and other artistic residues bring a greater understanding to the longer lasting final product. But they also illuminate, as anyone who’s seen the 2001 documentary “Rivers and Tides” — which follows Goldsworthy through many artistic adventures — that this artist creates graceful traces, however impermanent, all along the way. It’s a selection that not only reveals Goldsworthy’s path of contemplation, but is a fine example of ephemera that succeeds as works of art in their own right.

- Cherie Louise Turner

Joe Sorren, “Interruption,” 2009/10, oil on linen, at CSUF Grand Central Art Center.

Continuing through January 2, 2011
CSUF Grand Central Art Center
Santa Ana, California

The paintings of Joe Sorren are childlike, cartoonish, dreamlike and lowbrow. But to so label them is to trivialize them. These seemingly innocent works are the product of a world-class painter, albeit a modest one, who paints for the sheer joy of it, who understands that the journey of making art is art itself, and that a finished painting is the beginning or inspiration for a subsequent painting. Each of Sorren’s colorful works is a complete scene, a slice of life, inhabited by round-headed, child-like, shmoo-like characters. The series consists of characters with soft edges, in soft hues, all with soft, short hair, at play with balls, in exotic forests, on the beach, at elegant events in gowns, relaxing in bed, posing for a painter.

Sorren says, “I start out on a new canvas, with the idea vaguely pointing the direction. Sometimes this can lead to new perspectives and associations within the painting.” As a whole, the works present an imaginary world somewhat reminiscent of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Several sculptures, created in collaboration with Jud Bergeron, depict similar characters, although more rough-hewn, giving the viewer a literal space to see and now to cohabit.

- Liz Goldner