ART LOOKS Tanabe Chikuunsai IV has been surrounded by bamboo since he was born. A fourth generation Japanese bamboo artist, he studied at sculpture at Tokyo University of the Arts and learned technique from his father and grandfather.Chikuunsai usually produces small sculptural work and traditional flower baskets—but for several years, he’s been fashioning large-scale installations at places including New York’s Metropolitan Museum and the Musée Guimet in Paris.
Now Chikuunsai IV‘s largest sculpture, and the first one on the West Coast, Connection, is at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. This and other pieces are meant to evoke the immersive feeling of walking through a bamboo forest, with woven strands twisting from floor to ceiling.
His sculptures are regenerative: Chikuunsai IV starts by selecting stalks of tiger bamboo, which only grows in the mountains of Kochi prefecture, and weaves them into an installation. Then he takes that installation apart, cleans the bamboo, and recycles it into a new sculpture.The bamboo in Connection was previously used in works in Paris, New York and Sao Paulo, Brazil.
The artist spent several weeks at the museum installing Connection with three apprentices. He says he wanted to do the large pieces to appeal to a more general audience.
“I began to realize that making large works appeals to young children,” he said in Japanese. (Maya Hara, the museum’s Japan Foundation Curatorial Assistant for Japanese Art translated his words.) “People are inspired. In Brazil, some people cried. There was an exhibit in Paris that was up for a year, and I saw people sitting inside the gallery, looking contemplative and sort of relaxed,almost like a healing experience.”
The artist was born Tanabe Takeo—he was given the name Chikuunsai, meaning “master of the bamboo clouds,” in 2017. Bamboo is sacred to him, which is one reason he wants to reuse the stalks in his installations.
“At the university, I noticed that making art produced a lot of waste, and that making art was almost like a selfish act,” he said. “I love bamboo so much, I want to take care of it and use it as long as I can.”
Another reason he likes taking apart his installations and reusing them is to emphasize the character of the bamboo, Chikuunsai IV says.
“It’s not like ceramics. I can make something and take it apart and remake it,” he said. “Part of the title Connection is connecting generations of family to the future. I’m using the bamboo as a metaphor for connection from one cycle of life to the next cycle of life.”
Chikuunsai IV still makes more traditional, smaller works in bamboo. Whether the works are big or small, he says he listens to his instincts. “I’m almost like a conductor with the large installations, trying to bring everything together, “ he said. “With a smaller piece it’s more like a solo performance.”
ART LOOKS Pati Navalta Poblete grew up in Vallejo. But after her 23-year-old son Robby Poblete was shot there in 2014, she had such severe PTSD she couldn’t go bring herself to go back there. She had moved to Fairfield about a year before he was killed, and when driving home, she would go well out of her way to avoid going near Vallejo.
The first time she did go back after her son was killed, it was to meet with a group of elected officials to present her idea for a foundation to honor her son—and to combat gun violence. Her idea was for the foundation to promote career development, gun buybacks, and making art from the guns. Navalta, who has a background in editorial writing and communication for national and international nonprofits, had put together a three-year strategy plan.
“What they saw was a mother in grief, and I could see them thinking, ‘She’s suffering—does she know what she’s doing?’ and one said, ‘You know, you’re not the first woman who has lost a child to gun violence,’” Navalta said. “I said, ‘We’re innovative. We’re going to create career pathways for ex-offenders.’”
A friend in law enforcement told Navalta that guns taken off the street were destroyed. She wanted some kind of transformation for them. And she says her son inspired her to make them into art.
“My son’s DNA is in every program in the foundation,” she said. “He was working at Genentech learning to weld, and he wanted make art.”
Navalta says she thought the vocational and gun buy back programs would be the most tangible parts of the foundation since the number of guns taken off the streets and jobs people get can be quantified, but she then she saw the impact on viewers of transforming the guns.
“If you use art as a vehicle, you move people emotionally,” she said. “Once you’re able to touch the heart, you have a chance to shift the mind.”
The theme of the show at YBCA is “transformation.” Navalta says artists can interpret that any way they want. Many of the pieces take the form of nature: a monarch butterfly, a solar fountain, and a tree made of rifle stocks and shell casings.
The founder of United Playaz, Rudy Corpuz, also loves having an exhibit where the pieces are made from guns.
“The spirit in the art is what’s so powerful, I think,” he said. “It sends a message that can be so damaging and destructive can be also be so amazing and beautiful.”
In December 2018, United Playaz members collected 244 guns in a buy back, which have been repurposed by 10 artists into sculptures.
“Twenty people were collecting the guns—10 ex-lifers and 10 kids—and we buried one of the kids today,” Corpuz said, speaking about 15-year old Day’von Hann, a member of United Playaz who was shot in the Mission district earlier this month. He will be honored at the exhibit’s opening. “He died from the same thing he was trying to stop. That’s why we do what we do so nobody has to go through all the excruciating pain I saw his mother going through today.”
His daughters, Mookie and Selena, attended the funeral with him, Corpuz said.
“Selena is 12 years old,” he said. “She’s supposed to be going to kick it at the park, not to funerals for her friends.”
United Playaz is now in New York and the Philippines as well as San Francisco. They have violence prevention programs, after school programs, and workforce development. They, like the Robby Poblete Foundation, have taken thousands of guns off the streets.
Navalta says when she started the foundation, she had planned for a year to get community buy-in, then focus on gun buy backs and making art the second year, then start workforce development programs. But all that happened in the first year.
“I’ll never again underestimate the power of one,” Navalta said. “Now people in Congo and Argentina and Europe are reaching out and wanting to do something similar. All that comes from just one mom in Vallejo.”
ART LOOKS Artist Isaac Haney-Owens lives in San Francisco, in the Rincon Hill neighborhood. He likes walking around. He likes the skyline. He likes the diversity of people. He likes the different architectural styles. He likes taking photos of things he finds interesting.
So Haney-Owens was a natural to curate the new Cityscape show at Creativity Explored, a nonprofit art center and gallery for artists with developmental disabilities.
“I like doing art about cities because I love cities,” Haney-Owens said at the opening of the show, where he was sitting behind a table with copies of the zine, Whipper Snapper Nerd, featuring his artwork. “I love the urban environment. There are all these different sounds and always something new to see.”
The Cityscape show has paintings, drawings, and sculptures of the city by Haney-Owen and other artists, including Lance Rivers’ watercolor of the Marriot Marquis and Coit Tower, Kate Thompson drawing of people walking around the city, Isaias Gomez’s graphite drawing of AT&T Park, and a colorful sculpture of a house by Lucinda Addison.
For the show, Haney-Owens also worked with Francis Kohler, the studio manager at a second Creativity Explored location in Potrero Hill, to transform the desk at the 16th street gallery into a newsstand.
Haney-Owens’ work in the show includes his recreations of signs from small businesses, in lots of detail, such as Al’s Cafe and One Stop Auto Parts. He’s also done digital drawings of San Francisco landmarks like SFMOMA, the Ferry Building Marketplace, and the Transamerica Building.
A couple years ago, those images were deliciously edible when they adorned chocolates from Recchiuti Confections. Jacky Recchuiti, who founded the company with her husband Michael, has been working with Creativity Explored for years, putting the artists’ work on chocolates, and Haney-Owens’ drawings of iconic places in the city have been the most popular, she says.
Jacky says they used to live nearby and in walks around the neighborhood got interested in the gallery and in the artwork there. They wanted to be involved and ended up in a partnership where they to use some artists’ work on their chocolate, with a portion of the profit goes to Creativity Explored.
The benefits go beyond money, Jacky says.
“It brings awareness to our audience of this great organization that supports the art community,” she said. “This organization really opens us up to accept all artists.”
Joaquin Torres, the director of San Francisco’s Office of Economic Workforce Development was also at the opening. The office has given $7.1 million to 36 organizations in the past two years, he says, and almost half of that went to 19 arts and culture organizations. These organizations create jobs and make the city more vital, Torres says, with arts organizations generating $1.45 billion in economic activity a year.
Torres’ mom has been blind for 10 years, so he says the work Creativity Explored is doing means a lot to him on a personal level.
“It’s exciting and really moving to me how much care and attention and detail was spent creating this space for people with disabilities to allow their identities to be defined by their art,” he said. “And it gives us so much. To look at the work on the walls and be able to view the city through their artistic lens is really powerful and potent.”
Kohler, the mentor for the exhibition and one of the teacher/facilitators there, calls Haney-Owens a great artist and a “powerhouse,” and Kohler felt curating a show was a good next step for him. He was firm about not wanting to be a co-curator for the exhibit.
“I just wanted to support Isaac’s vision,” Kohler said. “That’s why we’re here.”
CITYSCAPE, CURATED BY ISAAC HANEY-OWENS Through September 5 Creativity Explored, SF More info here.
ART LOOKS Traversing decades, mediums, and populations, Queer California: Untold Stories, on view through August 11 at the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA), aims to shine a light upon the queer individuals, places, and objects from across the Golden State that have remained marginalized or overlooked, even within mainstream accounts of the LGBTQ past.
At the same time, the exhibition aims to acknowledge the limits of what it can achieve as a corrective to the historical record. “Sometimes things are left out of mainstream narratives for banal reasons, sometimes for political ones. Sometimes these overlap. Some stories we do not know, and many cannot be recovered,” reads one wall text toward the exhibition’s start. As Queer California goes on to show, this admission doesn’t mitigate the stakes of attempting such a recovery. If anything, it can reveal new ones.
To this end, curator Christina Linden has wisely taken this disavowal of mastery as an opportunity to enlist a who’s who of contemporary queer artists—many with ties to the Bay Area—to act as docents and commentators on the archival material on view.
Case in point is the exhibition’s opening installation. Gilbert Baker’s hand-sewn prototype for the rainbow pride flag reveals that his original design had eight symbolic colors. Baker had to jettison two of them—turquoise and hot pink, meant to signify sex and magic—because they would make the flags too expensive to mass-produce. The artist Amanda Curreri makes these colors central to her more abstract 2013 flag, titled Misfits 1979 (Sex and Magic), which hangs behind Baker’s. The pairing encapsulates the tension between elision and rediscovery that animates the best work in Queer California.
Chris Vargas’s large-scale installation, MOTHA (The Museum of Transgender Herstory and Art), for example, turns a meta-critical lens on this dynamic, creating a miniaturized version of Queer California in the process. MOTHA is an ongoing conceptual project through which Vargas works with existing archives and museums to source and display materials related broadly to trans history.
The resulting “exhibitions” critically examine how institutional forces, along with scholarly research and community-lead activism, shape that history, while still allowing previously hidden or overlooked items to go on view. Here, behind a proscenium that resembles the kind of neoclassical façade one typically associates with The Met or The British Museum, Vargas has assembled objects and art by and about a pantheon of Bay Area transgender pioneers: there’s one of Sylvester’s sequined jackets; an incredible checkers set by painter and trash drag superstar Jerome Caja; and memorabilia from Jose Sarria’s days performing at the Black Cat.
For all of the larger installations, such as Vargas’s or Kaucyila Brooke’s intricate forensic mapping of former gay and lesbian bars around Los Angeles, some of Queer California’s more fascinating contents can be found in the vitrines and nooks at the edges of the gallery’s open floor plan. I had no idea, for instance, that the Los Angeles chapter of the Gay Liberation Front had attempted to create a rural gay utopia in Alpine County in 1970. Even more surprising is the Berkeley Barb clipping detailing how one member of the group dissented on the grounds that to establish such a community would infringe on native sovereignty, echoing current debates on the intersection between settler colonialism and queerness.
If Queer California can be faulted it is not so much for what may have been left out, but for its good-faith effort to include so much. The installation is, in a word, dense.
The timeline on the main gallery’s rear wall, to pick one notable example, is packed with fascinating anecdotes and ephemera but the format feels at odds with the resolutely non-linear presentation strategies that precede it. The attempt to use every inch of available wall space also leaves some of the visual art pieces feeling orphaned or shoehorned by dint of their proximity to more fully integrated groupings. Andrea Bowers delicate pencil portrait of a trans May Day protestor is drowned out by Resilience of the 20% (2016), the imposing 1,300-pound bronze cast of the hunk of clay artist Cassils sculpted with their bare fists during their durational performance series, Becoming an Image.
It’s also easy to miss things. I only realized I hadn’t seen H. Lenn Keller’s 1980s photographs of Bay Area black lesbians, for instance, until I reviewed the exhibition checklist. Whether by design or accident, return visits to Queer California are a necessity.
This packed cocktail party approach to curating and installing is not without its local precedents. In many ways, Queer California feels like our moment’s analog to In A Different Light, the groundbreaking 1995 survey of queer art organized by Larry Rinder and Nayland Blake at the Berkeley Art Museum. Just as that exhibition proposed alternate art historical genealogies between then-emerging Bay Area artists such as D-L Alvarez and Vincent Fecteau and canonical antecedents like Romaine Brooks or Andy Warhol in salon-style hangings, so too does Queer California suggest that queer visual artists – as opposed to the institutions that frame them — may be the canniest interpreters of a history that is both shared and disparate.
Despite its clear love of the archive, Queer California seeks to make clear that unearthing LGBT history is a way back to a queer future. “The future is queer, because the present is not enough,” declares wall text at the start of the exhibition. Queers look to their past to dream and propose what lies ahead, what could be.
Alvarez, who shows up in Queer California, too—his graphite, ink and collage pieces bookending the exhibition—provides another gloss on this sentiment. “Timelines are circular and mixed through with fact and fiction,” reads a quote attributed to the artist, also located at the exhibition’s outset. It’s an appropriate appraisal of Alvarez’s own work, which weaves thin stripes of cut paper into abstract tapestries of color and text—the tickertape of history shredded into a confetti cloud—but it also points to the malleability of history as material when places in queer hands.
Engaging with the past becomes a means by which queers continue to question and establish their identities, creating new lineages and new forms of community in the process. If, as the old Marxist saw goes, history is what hurts, Queer California demonstrates, with an overfull heart, that the past can also give us life.
ALSO ON VIEW:
It’s not even Pride month yet and San Francisco is already chockablock with visual art exhibitions that cruise the archive.
Starting this weekend through the end of June, Oakland-based artist Sadie Barnette transforms The Lab into The New Eagle Creek Saloon, an installation and ongoing series of public events that reincarnate the multiracial gay bar her father operated between 1990 and 1993. In addition to presenting archival material, and constructing a working bar—gilded with Barnette’s magpie eye for glitter and sparkle— the space will host screenings curated by The Black Aesthetic, a site-specific dance ceremony choreographed by Rashad Pridgen’s Global Street Dance Masquerade, and will even make an appearance in this year’s Pride Parade as a float.
Currently on view at the San Francisco Art Commission’s downtown gallery, With(out) With(in) the very moment brings together Bay Area-based artists who witnessed and participated in the waves of community activism that arose in the 1980s and 1990s during the worst of the plague years. Guest curator Margaret Tedesco’s selection is both elegiac and urgent providing one model for how art can make demands – for changes in conscience as well as ground conditions—in moments of crisis.
ART LOOKS There are many reasons kimonos can fascinate—the fabric, the embroidery, botanical motifs like bamboo or plum blossoms, or the loose construction and simple lines. All this is on display in Kimono Refashioned at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum.
The exhibition’s curators Yuki Morishima and Karin G. Oen show how these features of the kimono (which translates as “a thing to wear”) have inspired and influenced fashion designers including Coco Chanel, Tom Ford, and Issey Miyake for the past 150 years.
When Japan reopened trade with the West after US Commodore Matthew Perry landed in Edo Bay with a fleet in 1853 and forced Japan to sign trade agreements with Western nations, there was a craze called Japonism. Imports, including woodblock prints, ceramics, and fans, as well as kimonos, flooded European markets. The Japanese aesthetic famously influenced artists like Vincent Van Gogh and Claude Monet as well as designers and architects like Louis Comfort Tiffany and Frank Lloyd Wright.
That influence also extended to fashion. The exhibition begins with two paintings featuring kimonos, one by French painter James Tissot and the other by the American painter William Merritt Chase, The next section, “Japonism in Fashion,” shows examples of the kimono’s impact in the second half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th as Western fashion started to reflect its simpler style and silhouette.
In apparel from the collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute, we see features like the luxurious silks of the dresses, motifs like the ferns and cranes on a Christian Louboutin pair of boots (these are from 2017), and the dress Paul Poiret designed for his wife, with a short black jacket worn over a grey silk crepe kimono. Poiret, the first major Western designer to make a dress without a bustle in 1906, was trying to get away from the restrictive style of 19th century women’s clothing, and he liked the simple fit of the kimono.
In the following section, “Kimono in Contemporary Fashion,” we see how in the 1980s, designers such as Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto, and Issey Miyake started presenting a sort of minimalist, deconstructed aesthetic. According to Oen, their clothes were shocking to the world of Paris high fashion, featuring asymmetry, exposed seams, and in some cases, an unfinished look.
It’s not every curator who would bring philosophy into fashion, but Oen dives right in in her essay in the catalogue, writing about how these fashions were a sort of deconstruction, a word that featured prominently in the work of German philosopher Martin Heidegger, particularly his Being and Time.
French philosopher Jacques Derrida expanded the use of the term, Oen writes, framing it to mean “the never-ending activity of investigating the social, political, linguistic, and cultural structures that underpin the texts, images, objects, etc., that populate our world.” Oen points out this term has been applied to movies, books and architecture—why not fashion?
After some bracing deconstruction, the show ends with an epilogue on “Japan Pop,” looking at how casual fashion, especially with menswear, uses elements of manga and anime. We see this in a suit and hat featuring motifs that frequently appear in manga and a full outfit, including sneakers, which have robot motifs from anime.
ART LOOKS Melissa Buron, director of the art division at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco says it’s fitting that the show Monet: The Late Years(through May 27) arrived at the de Young Museum around Valentine’s Day in San Francisco, a city that loves Claude Monet.
But, really, what city doesn’t? With those colors, that invention, and his sheer determination to do something new, it would be hard not to.
With his ubiquitous impressionistic imagery gracing everything from greeting cards to stained glass, we expect to love Monet (1840-1926). What we don’t expect is something we haven’t seen before. In 2017, curators at the de Young worked with George Shackelford, deputy director of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth on the show, Monet: The Early Years, focusing on the artist’s work from when he was 17 to 31, when he was developing his style. (During the preview for the show, Shakelford described himself as “kind of a Monet guy”—more than an understatement.)
That show, like this one, held surprises—it was Monet before becoming the Monet we know, experimenting with painting water and light. The current exhibition shows the French artist reinventing himself in his 70s and 80s while reeling from several tragedies, both personal and global. He had cataracts. His second wife, oldest son, and stepdaughter and frequent model, had all died. World War I had broken out and soldiers passed through his property on the way to the front
Given all this, along with his age, it’s understandable that Monet was sticking close to home and his beloved garden in Giverny.
But rather than give up painting or stay with his old hits, Monet took things deeper, doing huge murals and veering towards abstraction in his later paintings. The exhibit opens with paintings Monet did of his garden, with the Japanese footbridge and the newly installed lily pond. Shackleford says Monet employed eight gardeners, and some were responsible for making sure the lily pads stayed pristine. Eventually, he had the dirt road paved over to prevent dust from settling on the flowers.
There are more than 20 paintings of the lily pond, and the show offers a chance to be immersed in a large room of these luminous paintings. Seeing lots of Monet’s studies of the same subject (as elsewhere in the exhibit with the footbridge, a weeping willow, and his rose garden) lets us get some idea of how he was thinking and experimenting. Monet also began working on significantly larger canvases, between 14 and 20 feet wide, doing a series of mural-style paintings now known as the “Grandes Décorations.” Agapanthus and Wisteria are displayed in the show.
Along with the large paintings of the lily pond, in blues and pinks and greens, the show goes into his late garden paintings at the end. He uses much more brown and reds than we’re used to seeing with Monet, in serial paintings of the Japanese bridge over the lily pond, a rose covered trellis on the path from his house to his studio, and a tree with a twisted trunk. One of these, Weeping Willow, from the Kimbell Art Museum’s collection, was painted in 1918–1919 in what art historians think was a response to the tragedies of World War I.
ART LOOKS “My house is a museum,” Romanowski tells me over the phone. “My whole life is art.”
I haven’t been to his house, but anyone who’s encountered Romanowski’s prolific output over the past three decades knows that last statement isn’t just some cliché. From a celebrated, ongoing series of art on abandoned mattresses to installations at spots like Life and Nectar (not to mention an entire musical career), Romanowski is constantly making art. He’s become a sort of patron spirit of Lower Haight, as well as one of the city’s essential artists.
Now, a show at 111 Minna entitled “Every Now & Then: The Art and Music of Romanowski” serves as a mini-retrospective of his 30 years of production. The show captures the essence of the puckish artist, who often represents himself in Mickey Mouse ears and whose sly sense of humor extends from his uncanny way of juxtaposing found objects to the name of his record label, Trouser Trout.
“You don’t need money to make art, if you’re really an artist you can make things out of what you find for free,” Romanowski said. “I consider what I do a kind of recycling.” An expert forager and crafter, he combines scavenged materials like wood dowels, stereo speakers, window panes, and record crates—often adding his unmistakeable stenciling style—to create striking, involving works that emanate a vintage aesthetic filtered through classic jazz and hip-hop. (My favorite Romanowski piece is a skateboard overlayed with piano keys.)
For all the public places you may encounter his work though—on those mattresses, stenciled on walls, covering an entire little parking enforcement vehicle—Romanowski eschews the overall title “street artist.” As befits his Swiss origins (he moved here in 1988) he looks to Continental assemblage artists like Marcel Duchamp and Kurt Schwitters, and Russian-born American sculptor Louise Nevelson for inspiration. (He does allow that his mattress bombing and stencils are technically street art.)
Another huge influence: legendary jazz label Blue Note and its indelible album covers, designed by Reid K. Miles. Romanowski’s colorful stencil collages play with that air of sophistication, mixing silhouette-like human portraits with blocks of muted color and floating numbers or icons. That style extends to his musical output (he’s released about nine solo albums and collaborations, and was a part of the legendary Future Primitive art-music collective), full of jazzy rhythms, vintage samples, hip-hop grooves, and dub effects. He’s been collecting vinyl for 40 years, his connoisseurship coming through in selecting works for the show, which he curated.
“I live with this art, I really don’t think about, he said. “When I walk through the show, it’s like walking through a dream. I think, ‘who made all this?'” Looking through his past work to choose pieces for the show also served a therapeutic purpose: Romanowski recently lost his mother, and Nectar, the Lower Haight restaurant he had a big part in, closed last year. “It helped me with the grieving process,” he said.
The opening of the show had lots of Romanowski touches: For one, he drove his mini-vehicle into the gallery to act as a pop-up shop for selling his 7-inch records and t-shirts. It was a bit of old school pranksterism that brought back a taste of the real San Francisco. Romanowski is one of our few surviving artists in a city going through expensive changes, and it’s somehow comforting to have his life’s work on display downtown.
“In the early 2000s, it seems like art here was really big, I had projects traveling around the world,” he said. Now it has really shrunk, it seems like everyone is holding onto their one little rock, because that’s what we have to depend upon. There used to be a lot more collaboration and crossing over. I don’t see so much of that anymore.”
This magical show is a reminder of the expansive talents the city still holds, following their own vibes despite all the boring conformity.
“EVERY NOW & THEN: THE ART & MUSIC OF ROMANOWSKI” Through April 26 111 Minna, SF. More info here.
ART LOOKS If you were a hip gay American man at a certain point in history, say about 1988-1993, you were expected to be in possession of a very specific set of items.
A worn jean vest heavily plastered with protest buttons. A thrift shop bust of Nefertiti. Campy sets of salt and pepper shakers. A record collection combining Patsy Cline, Patti Smith, Prince, De La Soul, an unintentionally perverse vintage children’s gospel album, and the latest from the undergrounds of Detroit, Manchester, and Olympia, Washington. Third-generation VHS copies of the three Johns: Cassavetes, Carpenter, and Waters. A small clown painting from John Wayne Gacy. A quilted cap or clunky piece of jewelry nodding toward the Afrocentric movement. Something Bakelite.
And on your rundown, downtown apartment walls? Well those were the windows of your connoisseurial soul. Posters of Dutch typography, Swiss design, Russian Constructivism, Maoist propaganda, French Nouvelle Vague … And photographs, mostly torn from coffee-table books or foreign magazines, by Pierre et Gilles, Joel-Peter Witkin, Nan Goldin, David LaChapelle, Diane Arbus.
And the great Peter Hujar, of course—a major part of whose oeuvre is featured in an absorbing, must-see retrospective at Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archives entitled Peter Hujar: Speed of Life (through November 18).
The show has been up since June. But it’s taken me this long to write about it, I think, precisely because his work recalls such a specific time in my homosexual life—I feel woozy before the task. Hujar’s indelible portraits of famous avant-garde artists and drag queens, and his curiously gothic landscapes and animal pictures, are so fastidiously exquisite, so fussily exact, so representative of a period past (“Speed of Life” is a very odd title) that they immediately summon the ratty hauteur, the necessary obsessions, and the cold-eyed dignity that helped most gay men survive, and not survive, in the early gay lib and AIDS years.
Hujar, born in New Jersey in 1934, was active in New York at its artsy 1970s-’80s peak, and “Speed of Life” is bursting with well-known pictures that continue to dazzle in their black-and-white perfection: Susan Sontag thrown back on a blanket, caught in a turtlenecked reverie; Candy Darling gazing softly from her flower-strewn deathbed; Cookie Mueller about to quietly read you from top to bottom and back. He achieved the twin miracles of making Fran Lebowitz look ravishing and William Burroughs look sympathetic. There are instantly recognizable photos of gay liberation moments which have been copied in famous TV shows and movies, and iconic snaps of gay men cruising the notorious piers.
He loved taking photos of people sprawled on beds or chairs—it was a way of disarming his subjects as well as creating his unique spatial compositions, which focused attention along the diagonals of a raised arm, say, or an asymmetrical hairstyle. “I make uncomplicated, direct photographs of complicated, difficult subjects,” Hujar wrote. “I photograph those who push themselves to any extreme, and people who cling to the freedom to be themselves.” That might indicate we’re in Mapplethorpe territory—and some of Hujar’s more erotic work, only some of which is represented here, does approach the lurid gloss of that leather-trousered master.
But Hujar is pulled in a more Victorian direction: His portraits often combine the freakish curiosity of Arbus and the monumental candidness of his mentor Richard Avedon into something resembling momento mori portraits suitable for displaying atop a casket. They are unmistakably contemporary but they feel historic, as if burned to silver plates. (Not for nothing did Hujar make his own display prints.) That doesn’t mean there’s no life in those portraits; far from it, these are the essences of his subjects so well-distilled that there’s really no need to go on. We see nostalgia washing over the present.
That’s OK—for every portrait of Divine looking outrageous at Studio 54, there should be an equal and opposite portrait of Divine slung against a mattress, looking like she’s wistfully solving a complex algebra problem. And the effect reaches a hilarious apex in Hujar’s pictures of animals, which never fail to look like local royalty—perhaps after the estate money has been exhausted. Two grazing cows face the camera like dowager duchesses out for a stroll, while a stout horse could be Prussian baron put out to pasture. Even Hujar’s cityscapes, brimming with Manhattan’s then-abandoned warehouse spaces and fantastical graffiti, seem not so much snapshots taken on the fly as he ran through the streets with his fellow artist and partner in crime, David Wojnarowicz, but etchings of some fallen empire from long ago. You’d hardly know Keith Haring and SAMO were gleefully bombing subway tunnels nearby.
Like Hujar, Wojnarowicz was an artist totally of his time—although while Hujar was reportedly cold and exacting, Wojnarowicz burned hot with political anger. (Coincidentally Wojnarowicz’s incendiary art was the subject of a huge retrospective called “History Keeps Me Awake at Night” at NYC’s Whitney this summer.) Both were very sexually liberated and passionate, but neither seemed the life of the party—despite finding themselves at the center of one of the 20th century’s most vital party scenes. In fact, Wojnarowicz’s incredible photo of Hujar right when he died of AIDS in 1987, aged 53, was the photo most of my edgier gay friends hung on their walls. Perhaps the death of the party is a better way to describe the pair in those upside-down times, and they were more celebrated for it.
That doesn’t mean there was a lack of charm. Two of my favorite Hujars are here: Blanket in the famous chair (1983) which shows a blanket his subjects sometimes used to keep warm bunched up and perched like an expectant ghost, and Daniel Schook sucking toe (1981), capturing an innocent-looking scamp with a bowl-cut holding his own toe in his mouth. It’s both obscene and uproarious, a Hujar rarity. (There’s a bit in the show about Hujar as an example of camp, but I fail to see it.)
“Speed of Life,” which traveled here from NYC’s Morgan Library, mimics Hujar’s preferred hanging. He wanted images displayed together, but no two similar ones near each other. Thus we get varied sequences of portrait, landscape, cityscape, animal, etc. Strangely, the overall result isn’t diversity, but similarity—he went for pretty much one perfect effect over and over, and he mostly achieved it. That effect powerfully pulls you back into a overwhelming moment of history, while revealing its personalities and complexities. It never feels stale or old-fashioned. But the timelessness sometimes leaves you wishing for a little air.
PETER HUJAR: SPEED OF LIFE Through November 18 BAMPFA, Berkeley More info here.
CURATOR JOEL SMITH ON PETER HUJAR Sat/27, 1:30pm BAMPFA, Berkeley More info here.
ART LOOKS The work of 20th century surrealist Belgian painter Rene Magritte’s,with its iconic green apples and men in bowler hats, invites the viewers question reality. Perhaps his most famous work, from 1928-29, is a painting of a pipe, with the words, “This is not a pipe” over it.
This exhibit—exclusively shown at SFMOMA—focuses on Magritte’s later work. There are plenty of apples and bowler hats, yes. But there is also a vase of flowers colored with the sugary pastels of Renoir, a giraffe inside a wine glass, and a group of pigs eating themselves.
When Germany occupied Belgium in the ’40s, Magritte rethought his whole way of painting and started what was called his “sunlit surrealism” period, using the atmosphere and tones of Impressionism.
He had good reason to question surrealism, says Caitlin Haskell, who curated the show for the SFMOMA before being whisked away by the Art Institute of Chicago to be curator of International Modern Art there.
“The objectives of surrealism were basically causing confusing and disorientation,” Haskell said. “It sort of felt like the Nazis had already done that, and life was confusing and bewildering enough.”
Haskell has been thinking about this show for years. It started with a piece in SFMOMA’s collection, Personal Values, which shows outsized day to day objects—a bar of soap, a comb, a shaving brush and a match in a room with wall of cloudy sky. Haskell says this painting is an example of how Magritte using clarity to develop mystery.
The show contains nine galleries of the artist’s work, with 20 works that have never been seen in the United States. It starts with his sunlit surrealism period and his vache paintings, which use bright colors and loose brushwork similar to Fauvism and Expressionism. The exhibit also contains his “hypertrophy” paintings, where the scale of familiar objects in altered, such as in Personal Values. In The Listening Room and The Tomb of the Wresters a green apple and a red rose, respectively, fill the whole room.
Magritte’s bowler-hatted men that he is so associated with also make an appearance, standing under a sliver of moon, made out of a cloudy sky or of tree leaves. In The Son of Man, one stands with a suit and tie and hat, a green apple obscuring his face.
The Fifth Season means to immerse the viewer in Magritte’s work, and that is most evident in two rooms, The Enchanted Domain and The Dominion of Light. The first contains Magritte’s largest work, a 360-degree panorama, which he did for a circular room in the Grand Casino in Belgium, which include two apples wearing masks, a lion with a garland of flowers, and a half-person, half-fish sitting on a rock in front of a ship.
Magritte made more than a dozen variations of his Dominion of Light paintingsbetween 1949 and 1964. At first glance, they look like twilight scenes, but then you realize they are night landscapes with a sunny sky of the daytime. Since the artist died, no more then two have been exhibited together, but six of them hang in this room, so viewers can experience them as a series.
The final gallery contains gigantic floating boulders, the shape of a bird containing sky, and nests with eggs. That Magritte. He used humor. He used unsettling images. He presented alternative universes to make us think about what’s real and to wake us up a little to our surroundings and our world.
RENE MAGRITTE: THE FIFTH SEASON runs through October 28 at SFMOMA. More info here.
ART LOOKS In 1981, Ben Vereen, known for his role as Chicken George in the miniseries Roots, and for winning a Tony in Bob Fosse’s “Pippin,” performed at Ronald Reagan’s inaugural gala.
Vereen danced and sang the song “Waiting on the Robert E. Lee” in blackface, as a tribute to Bert Williams, an African American vaudeville entertainer who was forced to perform in blackface. Then, Vereen took off his makeup while looking in a mirror and singing the mournful song, “Nobody.” But despite its promise to broadcast the entire performance, the television network, ABC, only showed the first half of Vereen’s performance, cutting to Donny and Marie Osmond.
This left it looking as though Vereen had performed a sort of minstrel show for the Reagans, and led to the ruin of his reputation. One African American activist said he was “insulted, outraged and disgusted.” Actor Ossie Davis called it tragic, and actress Ruby Dee said Bert Williams was turning over in his grave.
The artist and filmmaker Edgar Arceneaux has made a multimedia video installation Until, Until, Until . . . , exploring Vereen’s performance. He also wrote and directed a live action play of the performance, which showed at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts at the end of February. The installation is on view at the YBCA through March 25, along with another piece by Arceneaux, a sculptural labyrinth, The Library of Black Lies, which holds a collection of crystallized book presenting variants on African American history.
On Friday, March 16, Arceneaux will be at the YBCA with his friend and collaborator, art historian Julian Myers-Szupinska. Along with talking about Arceneaux’s two works at YBCA, they will discuss history and art and using archival images.
Arceneaux says they’ll start off by talking about an image in the middle of The Library of Black Lies of comedian Bill Cosby, accused of drugging and raping multiple women. Arceneaux says the library is a way of examining the stories we tell ourselves.
“We like our history to be progressive and triumphant, from slavery to Martin Luther King to Oprah,” he said. “But the way we learn is through a series of mistakes and meanderings, and the labyrinth is reminiscent of that experience. Mazes are designed to get lost in, and labyrinths are to find yourself in. In the middle of this one, you’re looking at Bill Cosby, and we’ll be having a conversation about that and how the image is composed and riff on that.”
The two will also discuss Until, Until, Until . . . , Arceneaux says. When he first learned about Vereen’s performance at the inauguration on a PBS show about 20 years ago, it made a big impact on him.
“I just remember the emotion of it,” he said. “Seeing him do that in this sea of Republicans – it was so crazy. I had a hard time comprehending how it happened.”
Arceneaux says he wasn’t planning on making art about the performance, but then he met Vereen at a birthday party and talked to him about it, and the singer invited him over and showed him the video of the performance. This made a big impact on him, and is included in the play of Until, Until, Until . . . with Arceneaux playing himself.
Arceneaux is known for his work exploring race and memory and the connections between history and the present. The artist says he considers himself as a conceptualist, taking things apart and putting them back together. He thinks of Until, Until, Until . . .as a sort of loop, he says, and he remembers when Vereen invited him over to his house to watch the inaugural performance.
“It was a powerful experience being in that moment, sitting in his living room watching him watch himself portray a man 100 years in the past,” Arceneaux says. “It was a sort of out of body experience, and in that moment, I was thinking there was a story I could tell about the past and how the past is inserting itself in the present.”
EDGAR ARCENEAUX: UNTIL, UNTIl, UNTIL… Artist Conversation, March 16 Until, Until, Until… and Library of Black Lies through March 25 Yerba Buena Center for the Arts More info here