Art Looks

The joy of ‘Gayface’

"Zack" from the Gayface series by Lauren Tabak

“Well, you’re queer,” photographer-artist-musician-coolperson Lauren Tabak says to me, quite correctly, on the phone. “What do you think about when you’re putting together a look?”

I’m a ’70s kid who blossomed in the ’90s, so for better or worse, everything I wear is politically fraught, hopelessly ironic, and ever-shadowed by guilt. (Is this from a sweatshop? Am I appropriating anything cultural? Is this something Rosie O’Donnell would wear?) So basically, in all senses of that adverb, I’m a typical older gay person.

“When I came out, I pierced my septum so everyone would know,” Tabak, who’s of my general generation, told me. Ah, for the days when piercing a body part meant something.

‘Amaris’ by Lauren Tabak

Tabak has launched a series of portraits (on display at gallery-cafe The Laundry through March 30, opening reception Fri/17 6pm-8pm) that explores contemporary queer identity—how are we seen, how do we make ourselves seen, what does our constructed appearance mean—in an era of melting definitions and binaries, uploads and filters, apps and ad-targeting, liberation and backlash, branding and resisting.

“I was interested in, and became fascinated by, how people ‘flag’ their identities now,” Tabak said, referencing the ancient dress codes (colored handkerchiefs, bar t-shirts, items of clothing, etc) and the gay gazes/looks that used to be necessary to identify one another on the street, while swimming in a silencing sea of heteronormativity.

The series of striking portraits, representing a huge variety of folks, is a labor of love for Tabak, who said she started it at first to be able to hang out with friends and people she likes. (The portraits are shot in her home, and there’s been a lot of day-drinking involved.)

‘Sergio’ by Lauren Tabak

But soon the circle widened as she began to digest the sheer amount of individuality and originality in today’s queer looks. Compared to the “Castro clone” look of 50 years ago, which flagged a generation of gay men (and butch women), there seems to be an endless variety of styles that fall under the wondrously growing LGBTLMNOP umbrella. With such diversity, she became curious: How does queer visibility matter, here and now?

Each portrait is taken against a pink background (duh) and comes with an accompanying story from the subject about their llfe. (We’re debuting one portrait and story, Andrea’s, below.) For her show at The Laundry, Tabak will also include an audio element, in which you can hear each subject telling their own tales.

“Some stories are powerful and poetic, some are just funny, and some are totally unexpected,” Tabak told me. “One of my subjects, Miles, came in and I thought he was just another gay boy for a fun shoot—but it turned out he was trans, with an incredibly deep story about hiding himself. So this project also seems to be a way of bringing those stories to light, and maybe a way of keeping them in one place. I think of it as a referendum on the state of gay.” (One subject, Amaris, says in her story that the exodus of queer people from San Francisco makes her want to be as visible as possible, a beacon of queerness.)

‘Kyle’ by Lauren Tabak

So, I asked, in this moment of Instagram and Grindr, when everyone already shows their own Gayface to the world, how is this project taking a different and necessary approach?

“The people featured in Gayface aren’t just people I photograph, they’re my collaborators,” Tabak replied. “I’ll send them a bunch of proofs afterwards and we pick out ‘the one’ together. And then I’ll ask them why they like what they liked. Some of the time, they say ‘I look really hot’—which can be very affirming when someone else puts you in that light. But a lot of the time they say ‘I look like me.’ And I think that’s just such a wonderful alchemy to have happen in a collaboration like this.

“One thing I’ve discovered is that younger people don’t care as much about the heavier political meanings of how they’re presenting themselves to the world, like maybe someone from our generation would,” Tabak said. “They’re less about representation and more about ‘I’m just doing me.’ There’s an openness to that, which was unexpected. They’ve already claimed it.”

With so many flavors of queer at the moment, how will she know when the series is finished? “We live in a bubble,” Tabak says, again quite correctly. “My dream is to hop in an RV with my dog and travel the country, have these conversations with and photograph as many people as I can, and see how things are looking out there.”


Below is a debut portrait of Andrea, along with her story

‘Andrea’ by Lauren Tabak

Goldilocks and the 3 bears was my favorite book as a kid. I loved that this lost child found her perfect ”chair,” a safe space, a place she belonged, or so she thought.

This year I will have been out for half my life. The queer community I was born into was defined by gay and lesbian bars and the poster child was a blonde haired, blue-eyed lesbian comedian. While my curly hair is messier and darker than Goldilocks and my eyes are more gray than Ellen’s, I still pass for white. As a young queer I settled for this because at least I felt accepted, at least a part of me belonged as opposed to the whole of me feeling alone. 

Both sides of my family migrated from Mexico to Stockton. We would visit San Francisco often and I was drawn to the outright defiance of conformity that pervaded the SF of the ’90s. A place where immigrants, artists and outcasts sought refuge, a city where community meant everything. 

It’s taken me all the 37 years of my life to learn to silence preconceived notions around my identity. I embrace the power I hold, I am the legacy of my family’s courage and the “borders“ I am transcending for future generations are; toxic machismo, classism, homophobia, and racism. Growing up between two cultures meant that code switching was a means of survival and that has translated into how I navigate hetero/queer, genders/nonbinary, architect/artist, trauma/healing.

After two decades of living all over California, absorbing and immersing myself in the queer circles, latinx communities, and creative networks I finally find myself in San Francisco. My journey has taught me to unapologetically claim all the complicated layers of my existence. I have become uncompromising, and authentically me because I found my throne, it was in the mirror all along.

Through March 30
Opening reception Fri/17, 6pm-8pm
The Laundry, SF. 
More info here

Cartooning the Japanese Internment, through George Takei’s eyes

Harmony Becker illustration from the cover of 'The Called Us Enemy'

Harmony Becker, the creator of the comics Himawari Share, Love Potion, and Anemone and Catharus, was at her booth at an indie comic arts show in Brooklyn when Leigh Walton, with Top Shelf Productions, approached her and asked if she was interested in illustrating a book on the Japanese American experience. 

Becker didn’t know at the time the book was going to be about the Japanese internment—when 120,0000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated without due process during World War II. Specifically, the graphic memoir, They Called Us Enemy, was actor and activist George Takei’s story. 

“I think it was partially because of my style,” Becker said about why she was asked to do art for the graphic memoir. “One of the writers called it kind of Peanuts manga.”

San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum will have a show of Becker’s work from the book, along with some of her research and preliminary drawings. The show, They Called Us Enemy: A Graphic Memoir, which opens January 18 and runs through May 17, will also feature some original artwork from the Cartoon Art Museum’s permanent collection, including comic strips and animation from the 1940s. 

In They Called Us Enemy, Takei (along with co-writers Justin Eisinger & Steven Scott) tells the story of Takei’s family being ordered to go to a “relocation camp” when he was four years old. In February 1942, a couple of months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, forcibly removing people of Japanese descent from their homes on the West Coast and putting them in hastily built camps where they were incarcerated for the remainder of the war.

From ‘They Called Us Enemy’

After a few months housed in horse stalls, the Takeis took a train to Rohwer in Arkansas, the most eastern of the 10 internment locations. Then when his parents answered no to two questions on the government’s loyalty oath — about swearing allegiance to the United States and serving in the US military — they were sent to Tule Lake, a maximum security camp encircled by extra strands of barbed wire with 24 guard towers.

In his book, Takei also shares details about the politics of the time and in the camps with some people wanting to fight in the war on the US side, while others became more radicalized due to their horrible treatment by the US government. Takei takes pains to tell how his parents tried to shield him and his younger brother and sister, and how he and his father had many discussions about politics when he was a teenager. Takei takes the story all the way through to his studying acting at University of California, Los Angeles, and getting involved with Civil Rights to his getting the role he’s best known for, of Hikaru Sulu on Star Trek. 

The team behind ‘They Called Us Enemy’: George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, and Harmony Becker

Becker only had a few photos of Takei’s family to work from. Writing for comics it’s very clear what you need to do, she says, with directions about who is in a panel, and where they are standing. She met with Takei three times, and she says he has an excellent memory about that time in his life, remembering, for example, the exact layout of the two rooms his family lived in at Tule Lake. 

Becker says she was surprised how much research she needed to do to find out things like what canteens and radio looked like in the ‘40s. She looked at Dorothea Lange photos of the internment, and did Google searches, creating a Pinterest board. She also got a documentary from the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles that she found helpful.  

The book got the top spot on Publisher’s Weekly annual Graphic Novel Critic’s Poll, and Becker’s art was singled out for making it special and capturing the confusion of a child removed from his home. One reviewer wrote: “The art is simple, but very effective, capturing the struggles and bright small joys of a fragmented childhood.”

From ‘They Called Us Enemy’

Becker says she’s most pleased that Takei was satisfied with her drawings and that he told her she got his mother’s expressions right. 

Becker is Japanese American, and she had read about the internment as a child. She says what struck her most about Takei experience is his belief in America- even after everything he and his family went through. In the book, Takei writes about Ronald Reagan apologizing for a grave mistake and signing an act to give internees a $20,000 redress. After dinner talks with his father informed his belief that even with constant outrages such as migrant camps at the border, the United States is a democracy of the people, and people can do great things. 

“When I first started, I was almost a little cynical,” Becker said. “But George is so stubbornly patriotic that after spending time with him and hearing him speak multiple times, I was very inspired by his patriotism. He makes me feel proud to be American, which is not something I would usually say.”

January 18-May 17, 2020
Cartoon Art Museum, SF.
More info here

A 24/7 switchboard connecting participants to ‘The Dead Woman’

From 'A morta"

For her first solo show in California, Brazilian artist Cinthia Marcelle has converted the galleries at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts into a temporary radio station. Through computers at the Wattis and on personal computers or phones, members of the public here and around the world can participate 24 hours a day in Marcelle’s work, which is structured around Brazilian writer Oswald de Andrade’s 1937 play A morta (The Dead Woman). 

In this play, Andrade investigated the relationship between theater, life, and death, and he considered the social implications of artists’ relationship to their work and in the conflicts of everyday life. This reflected some of Marcelle’s questions about her art with rising social inequality in Brazil and around the world. 

Marcelle has worked in lots of different forms, including installation, performance, drawing and video, and Kim Nguyen, CCA Wattis curator, says her art has lots of attention to detail while being lighthearted and having a satirical humor. 

‘A morta’

“The proposition here is all of us together get to rewrite the script and retell the story,” Nguyen said at the opening of A morta. “The show embraces chaos and disorder.”

The characters in Andrade’s play are on the wall of the gallery—including “The Poet,” “The Precocious Tourist,” “The Living,” and “The Dead”—and the character name lights up when chosen by a participant. Through song selection those taking part at home or at the gallery, assume a role in the play, so their choices construct—and deconstruct—the script. 

The audio streams into the gallery space, where visitors listen to the sounds and voices, as well as the moments of silence. Nguyen and Marcelle say the exhibition was partly inspired by collective action, like that of protest movements.

From ‘A morta’

At the opening of her show, Marcelle, who has exhibited all over the world, including representing Brazil at the Venice Biennale, and who currently has work at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s SOFT POWER exhibit, said she was drawn to Wattis partly because of the window looking into the gallery from the street. 

“This work deals with outside space and inside space and brings it together,” she said. “This room is inside, but it’s automatically connected to outside because it will be online 24 hours a day.”

The gallery has been hosting public programs along with A morta, including Chris E. Vargas with a Transcestor Radio Hour, and PJ Gubatina Policarpio with a conversation on kinship. On January 10DJ Lynnée Denise will do a lecture and screening of her latest project, Circle Formation, an experimental video installation which uses the “ring shout” dance style “to highlight the link between gospel and the queer roots of disco and house music.”

The Wattis Institute
Through January 18
To participate online, go here

The unflagging, cinematic visions of James Tissot

James Tissot, "On the Thames," ca.1876. Image provided courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

A sharpshooter in the Franco-Prussian War, a society painter, and a watercolorist who did hundreds of religious scenes that inspired filmmakers, including Steven Spielberg and George Lucas—James Tissot lived an extraordinary life.  

It would be hard to find anyone who knows more about his life and work than Melissa Buron, Director of the Art Division at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and curator of the exhibition, James Tissot: Fashion & Faith, at the Legion of Honor. Tissot is the subject of Buron’s dissertation for her doctorate in art history from the University of London, Birkbeck College, and she spent years working on this exhibit. 

Co-organized with the Musées d’Orsay et de l’Orangerie, Paris, the show has about 60 of Tissot’s paintings, including 10 of the Irish woman he loved, Kathleen Newton. October, a large portrait of her wearing black with autumn leaves in the background, hangs in the entrance to the show. She and Tissot never married because she was divorced, and they were both Catholics.

James Tissot
“October,” 1877. Image provided courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Newton died young of tuberculosis, prompting Tissot to leave London where the two of them had lived together and move back to Paris. Desperate for some kind of contact with her, he attended séances, wildly popular at the time. One of the paintings The Apparition, long thought to be lost, is from a vision he had at one and shows Newton with a spiritual guide, both of them in a celestial glow.

Buron jokes that she would be glad to work on a screenplay about Tissot in her spare time and that she has already cast the movie in her mind. His fascinating life is one of the three core themes she followed in organizing the show, she says, along with his immense talent and how after being an international superstar, he has been somewhat forgotten today – this is the first solo show of his work in the United States since one in 1999 at Yale.   

Buron has her own theory about why Tissot is not as well-known as his contemporaries such as Edgar Degas and Edward Manet. He had no one to carry on his legacy.

“He never married and no heirs,” she said. “So he was a bit hampered in that there was no one to carry the Tissot torch.”

Another thing that might have contributed to his fading from view, Buron thinks, is how difficult the painter was to categorize. He wasn’t really an Impressionist, turning down Manet’s invitation to be in their first big show of 1874. He wasn’t a realist either, and he spent the last years of his life making hundreds of watercolors of religious scenes. 

James Tissot, “La Femme à Paris: The Artists’ Wives,” 1885. Image provided courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Also, after spending a little more than a decade in London, Tissot was viewed with some suspicion when he came back to Paris, Buron says. To combat that he decided to do something he thought was very French—paint Parisienne women.

This led to paintings like The Artists Wives, a detailed scene at an outdoor café. Tissot’s father was a textile merchant and his mother owned a milliner shop, and the artist’s love of fabric and fashion is evident in these paintings. 

Tissot worked in different mediums, including painting, watercolors, prints and enamel, and Buron says his work is both pleasing to look at and deceptively complex. He also had a sly sense of humor, she thinks, and during a tour of the exhibit, she points to an example: London Visitors, a painting with lots of blacks and greys that shows a family of tourists on the steps in front of the National Gallery, the clock behind them showing that it’s 10:30, suggesting they are leaving a half hour after the museum opens, having raced through to check it off their list before going on to the next thing.

James Tissot, “London Visitors,” c. 1874. Image provided courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

In what was considered scandalous at the time, the woman in the group looks directly at the viewer—or maybe at the man who left a still burning cigar on the steps in front of her. Tissot’s storytelling and wit are on display here as they are in another painting in the room, Too Early, which shows a father and his three daughters arriving, well, too early, for an event. The maids, recognizing the social faux pas, are peering around the corner and laughing at the hapless guests. 

The show ends with 22 out of 700 of Tissot’s ridiculously cinematic Biblical watercolors. They inspired filmmakers, including William Wyler, who in Ben Hur, used Tissot’s What Our Lord Saw from the Cross, as a model for a scene where viewer see the crucifixion in a sort of aerial view. Spielberg and Lucas used the painter’s version of the Ark of the Covenant, seen in Moses and Joshua in the Tabernacle, in their movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark.

James Tissot, “Moses and Joshua in the Tabernacle,” c. 1896-1902. Photo © The Jewish Museum, New York. Image provided courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

That Tissot’s works exerted so much influence on filmmakers and are still seen in popular culture can’t be ignored, Buron says. This series of watercolors were hugely successful when first shown in Paris and London before going on tour in the U.S. 

“There are reports of people walking through these galleries, falling to their knees in veneration, weeping at the spectacle of these images,” she said. “They are so famous and well know that the artist John Singer Sargent, acting as an advisor to the Brooklyn Museum of Art, said you have to buy these works of art, you have to differentiate yourself from that other little museum in Manhattan- the Metropolitan Museum- because if you buy these works of art, people will come to your museum forever.”

Legion of Honor
Through February 9

More information here 

‘Bureau of Aesthetics’ prioritizes Native arts

Native Art Department International, "Walk the Walk" (Sam Durant) 2018. Photo by Jeff Warrin.

With Native Art Department International (NADI), Jason Lujan says he and Maria Hupfield try to collapse distinctions and treat other artists in a way that would have been helpful for them starting their careers. Lujan says he has often been asked to participate in shows about Native art where the organizers ignored his experience and talents.

“Usually the way it went is they’d say, ‘I wanted to put together a show about Native artists, so I Googled it and your name came up,’” he said. “We wanted to prioritize what artists were doing as opposed to just who they were.”

The wife and husband, who now live in Toronto where Hupfield is from, started NADI when they were living in Brooklyn.  Their latest show, Bureau of Aesthetics, is now at KADIST, a nonprofit art organization. Mercer Union curated the show, and the artist-run center in Toronto is the first institution to take part in KADIST’s Art-Space Residency in San Francisco. Both NADI and Mercer Union focus on collaboration and collectivity, which they explore in this show. 

For example, KADIST’s windows to the street and their library displays examples of Bay Area collectives including Borderline Art Collective, ONE+ONE+TWO, Slingshot, Street Sheet/Coalition on Homelessness, and 3.9 Art Collective. 

Institutional ephemera displayed in KADIST’s windows. Photo by Jeff Warrin.

Lujan says working with these collectives meant a lot to him and Hupfield. As an urban Native artist, he finds that often institutions are more interested in including rural Natives.

“What you’ll have is a community of Natives in an urban area like this, but then they’ll bring someone in from Alaska to talk about being from whatever community,” he said. “So, we’re hyper-conscious when we’re brought in, we don’t want to be the kind of artists who are parachuted in, utilize resources, and then leave. Because we’ve seen it on our end many times.”

Lujan says he asked KADIST to put him in touch with artist collectives in the Bay Area. He met with them and asked them about their experiences. 

Some of the members of 3.9 Collective, a group of African American artists in San Francisco, told him about what had happened when there was an exhibit of Black artists from the southern United States in San Francisco. 

“I asked them, ‘How were you utilized as part of Black community here?’ and they hadn’t been utilized at all,” Lujan said. “When there was programming here, they found that there were Black artists here from the South who were passed over because the museum decided to fly in people from Georgia. That was exactly the kind of thing we don’t want to do.”

Along with the work from collectives in the window and on the bookshelves, pieces in the show include Double Shift, two hoodies sewn together with painted canvas connecting them that Hupfield and Lujan used to do a performance at the Nocturne Festival 2018 in Halifax, Nova Scotia; Drink for Two, five sake bottles with a pink lightbulb; and Walk the Walk (Sam Durant), with neon Walk/Don’t Walk crosswalk signs over the text “You Are On Indian Land Show Some Respect.” 

The exhibit also includes There Is No Then and Now; Only Is and Is Not, a video of Dennis Redmoon Darkeem a Black member of the Yamassee Yat’siminoli tribe, dancing in an empty theater, dressed in powwow regalia. 

From Dennis Redmoon’s “There Is No Then and Now; Only Is and Is Not,” 2018

Hupfield says they included this piece in an exhibition they were invited to take part in, On Whiteness, at New York’s The Kitchen.

“We kind of complicated the space because we came in with this piece that wasn’t just about Native Americans dealing with whiteness and the privilege of passing but looking at the way that race affects our communities. You can be white and passing but if you’re codified in another way as Dennis is, there’s a denying that he could be Native.”

Hupfield says working together, she and Lujan have done different kinds of things, including film screenings and curating shows. Collaborating is a kind of strategy, she believes. 

“We wanted to present ourselves as standing shoulder to shoulder with other artists,” Hupfield said.  “Being together we have a lot more power to create the types of opportunities that we were looking for that we weren’t finding.”

Through January 25
More information here

‘A Gothic Tale’ plumbs Legion of Honor’s haunting depths

Installation view of Alexandre Singh's 'A Gothic Tale.' at the Legion of Honor

Does Halloween have you in the mood for some film noir? Maybe some mirrored walls and alternate selves? Something SPOOKternatural?

Then head to the Legion of Honor (on the site of a former graveyard, muahaha) and see French artist Alexandre Singh’s show, A Gothic Tale (through April 12), which includes a 20-minute film, The Appointment, an absurd and dreamlike thriller. The main character wakes up to find “12 o’clock at the restaurant La Folie” written in his appointment book – but he doesn’t remember making the date or who he is meeting.

When no one shows up at the restaurant, he gets obsessed with solving the mystery. Nothing says haunting and creepy like organ music, and the film’s score, written by a Dutch composer, is performed at intervals on the museum historic Spreckels organ.

Still from Singh’s film ‘The Appointment’

San Francisco’s ties to film noir, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai inspired Singh, as well as the Legion being on top of a former cemetery. The mirrored walls in A Gothic Tale are a nod to a famous scene from Welles’ 1947 movie with a shootout in a hall of mirrors, and doppelgängers, or doubles, are a device used in Gothic literature.

These divided selves first popped up in German literature of the 1800s, and also have appeared in the work of Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King, famously in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Picture of Dorian Gray, and in TV shows like The Vampire Diaries. Many video games have some version of fighting an evil version of yourself. The Legion itself is a doppelgänger of the Palais de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris.

From ‘The Appointment’

Before entering the room where The Appointment is showing, you go through the Legion’s medieval art gallery, where doppelgängers, such as prints of Roman tombs by Giovanni Battista Piranesi and biblical scenes by Albrecht Dürer, hang on walls covered in mirrors.

Singh looked through the museum’s collection with contemporary arts curator Claudia Schmuckli, to find works for A Gothic Tale. He and art historian Natalie Musteata, who produced The Appointment, worked to create a surreal experience with prints that look like duplicates – but are mirrored, bastardized, or pirated, Singh said on the opening night of the show. 

“We are presented in this Hall of Mirrors with reflections of ourselves and reflections of characters where there are little eerie differences,” Singh told the crowd. “It’s an opportunity to celebrate the eerie, the uncanny, the strange, the horror in a museum context, which may sound odd, but then when you walk through these galleries and see all the decapitated bodies and Christ being tortured on the cross, it’s not so strange.”

Through April 12
Legion of Honor
Tickets and more information

Can a museum exhibit capture Burning Man?

HYBYCOZO, ​'Trocto,'​ 2014. Photo courtesy Oakland Museum of California

It has blinky lights, art cars, the gifting of trinkets, and the Temple of Reunion by legendary temple-builder David Best. There’s cool video from Black Rock City, burner fashions on mannequins, storytelling about the history and ethos of Burning Man, and even founder Larry Harvey’s iconic Stetson hat.

All the ingredients were there, minus the dust, but it still just felt a bit sterile and self-important. No Spectators: the Art of Burning Man (through February 16, 2020), which recently opened at Oakland Museum of California after its ballyhooed premiere at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in DC last year, is a reminder how crucial context is to Burning Man art. 

Experiencing art in the desert at Burning Man is a full sensory experience. It’s not just the art piece you’re looking at, it’s the sonic cacophony of myriad moving sound systems, the alkali dusty air, the silhouetted mountains in the distance, the wide-eyed friends and strangers around you, emotions altered by work, drugs and/or the journey to this spot.  

Maybe it’s impossible to convey the Burning Man experience in a museum setting. Perhaps it’s enough to display some interactive art for the virgins (like the glowing, moving shrooms of Shrumen Lumen… dude) and nostalgia for the burner veterans (wow, Michael Mikel’s HellCo jacket and Cachophony Society’s six-fingered neon hand…cool). 

Duane Flatmo, ​’Tin Pan Dragon,​’ 2006. Photo by Steven T. Jones

But it’s just not the same without any kind of soundtrack—a notable omission that reflects OMCA collaborator the Burning Man Project’s disdainful disregard for the DJs and sound camps that helped popularize the event—except for the narrator’s voice on the Burning Man documentary. I kept waiting for a playa-inspired prank in the droning narration, but no, he played it straight and earnestly. 

The artists and theme camps that build Burning Man every summer are undeniably a major creative force in the Bay Area, which is still the cultural and artistic center for the event it birthed, producing incredible artworks of growing complexity and innovation. 

And the curators of this exhibit, both here and from the Smithsonian (who were all new to Burning Man), were smart to tap that amazing creativity by commissioning veteran artists to build original artworks for what became a traveling show, including the Five Ton Crane crew that built the Capitol Theater art car, the Paper Arch by Michael Garlington and Natalie Bertolli, and Best’s Temple. 

In fact, the curators offered more support than most artists ever get from the Burning Man Project, which rarely fully funds even the projects it deems worthy of art grants, leaving crews to do big fundraisers and often struggle with debts long after their projects have burned to ash. 

Burning Man costumes. Photo by Steven T. Jones

So it’s great to see burner artists gaining a new patron and being able to show their work closer to home. The Capitol Theater—which combined a retro theater art car with an original silent film production featuring Bay Area burner luminaries as actors—was particularly impressive, marrying builder and performance art in a way that embodied Burning Man’s participation principle more than any piece in the exhibit.

Temple of Reunion, like the Hayes Green Temple that Best built in San Francisco in 2005, was also an authentic example of a playa staple artwork recreated in the Bay Area for a wider audience to appreciate, to write messages on, to use as a place for reflection.

The temple’s accessible placement outdoors in the Oakland Museum’s courtyard, along with a scaled-down replica of Marco Cochrane’s amazing “Truth is Beauty” sculpture—which debuted at Burning Man in 2013 and is currently at San Leandro Tech Campus—help open the exhibit up. 

Michael Garlington and Natalia Bertotti, ​The Paper Arch​, 2018. ​Photo courtesy of the Oakland Museum of California.

But overall, No Spectators suffers from some of the same problems that plague Burning Man itself. It lacks self-reflection and resists prompts and opportunities to evolve with our changing times. Burning Man brass buy into their own we’re-changing-the-world bullshit while cultivating a velvet-rope elitism and cult-like devotion, seemingly unaware how off-putting and off-key that is to outsiders.  

Burning Man claims high-minded countercultural values—“radical inclusion, decommodification, radical self-reliance”—that its leadership rarely even tries to live up to. The event’s cultural and artistic dynamism is delivered by attendees who pay for privilege to do so, in the context of a calcified event structure that hasn’t significantly changed in decades, except to just grow bigger and bigger.  

As KQED’s critical review of the exhibit pointed out, it would have been nice to see more than “a surface-level celebration of a cultural phenomenon with so many other angles worthy of exploration,” such as why an event populated mostly by relatively affluent white people is relevant to the larger world. 

One of those angles was on vivid display this year when the Burning Man Project proposed to grow the event to 100,000 and loudly cried foul at the resulting federal permit conditions. They responded with an ambitious environmental pledge—but the whole saga was a top-down approach that belied its claim to “radical inclusion.”

Photo by Steven T. Jones

I’ve covered Burning Man as a journalist for 15 years now, sometimes sparking or feeding controversies that leaders of the event always try to gloss over or ignore. So I’ve come to expect very little in terms of true introspection or evolution from the six people who have run Burning Man since 1996, minus Harvey, who died last year.

They seem content to just stay the course, which has worked out remarkably well for them as Burning Man has grown from countercultural happening to a must-see bucket-list event for the mainstream. 

But that journey, and the many contradictions and critiques that it entails, could have been interesting material for an exhibit that wanted to do more than scratch the surface or sing Burning Man’s greatest hits for the default world spectators. 

That would be art that illuminates, not just celebrates, what really happens at that thing in the desert and beyond.    

Through February 16, 2020
Oakland Museum of California
Tickets and more info here

Steven T. Jones is the author of The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Couterculture.

The joy of big bamboo—and lots of it

'Connection' 2017, by Tanabe Chikuunsai IV at the Asian Art Museum

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.”

Tanabe Chikuunsai IV in a tiger bamboo grove in Susaki, Kochi prefecture, Japan. Photograph by Tadayuki Minamoto.

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.”

Having his work at the Asian Art Museum is particularly exciting to the artist because of its connection to renowned Japanese basketry collector Lloyd Cotsenwho donated more than 800 baskets from his collection to the museum in 2002. A competition that Cotsen sponsored in the 1990s made Chikuunsai IV decide he wanted to be an artist like his father.  

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.”

Asian Art Museum
Through August 25
Tickets and more information here

‘Art of Peace’ transforms guns into beauty

John Ton, 'Robby’s Arc,' 2017. Courtesy the artist.

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.’”

Natasha McCray-Zolp and Shameel Ali),Resurrection, 2018, Courtesy the artists.

They did listen and she started the Robby Poblete Foundation. The organization has now partnered with Yerba Center for the Arts and United Playaz, a violence prevention and youth development organization, for a group exhibition Art of Peace, opening July 23 at YBCA. 

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.”

John Ton, Robby’s Arc, 2017. Courtesy the artist.

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.”

Clody Cates and Gaige Qualmann, ‘Return to Nature #1.’ Coutesy the artists.

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.”

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
July 23- August 25
Opening reception Tue/23 at 6pm
Tickets and more information here 

At Creativity Explored, Isaac Haney-Owens curates a vibrant ‘Cityscape’

Lucinda Addison's painting at 'Cityscape'

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.”

Isaac Haney-Owens at work. Photo courtesy Creativity Explored

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.  

‘Isaac Haney-Owens, ‘One Stop Auto Parts,” 2016

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.

Isaac Haney-Owens, ‘Al’s Cafe,’ 2016

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. 

A work by Charles Stanberry in ‘Cityscape’

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.”

Through September 5
Creativity Explored, SF
More info here