review: APAture

This year’s APAture exhibition at Kearny Street Workshop is different, and you can tell right away.

APAture is Kearny Street Workshop’s juried annual multidisciplinary arts festival. I’ve been involved in past APAtures and KSW, so this will be part review, part proud stock-taking of how far KSW has come.

It’s tighter and more focused, with fewer artists, more work of a higher caliber, and more professional exhibition strategies. The result is less misses and more hits. Cheers to everyone for making it all happen: for putting in the work, but also being brave enough to break from tradition and raise the stakes.

Past shows have leaned heavily towards emerging art, and, for lack of a better term, “Asian America 101” art. In this show, some work dealt with identity issues, but the overall show was much more contemporary in tone. Short artists’ statements on the wall labels helped to convey the artists’ intentions and broad range of investigations.

Here’s what caught my attention:


Prints by Dinesh Perrera

Dinesh Perrera’s screenprinted revisions of Art Nouveau-style Ceylon Tea posters are beautiful and demonstrate stylized drawing skills, but I’m not convinced that they fulfill their stated mission “to recontextualize Sri Lanka’s tea industry from being a British luxury import to a product that is integral to Sri Lanka’s cultural identity.” The artist swapped out Mucha’s fair-skinned feminine beauty for a Sri Lankan feminine beauty. In place of romanticized botanical motifs, tame elephants and critters serve The Lady tea in dainty teacups and saucers. The idealized Western images and their corresponding values — leisure, afforded by wealth — have too much of a presence, and the posters still function like ads, inspiring class aspirations, but with modified cultural symbols.

Projected interface for Takashi Kawashima's Ten Thousand Pennies project

Projected interface for Takashi Kawashima's Ten Thousand Pennies project

I was really amused by Takashi Kawashima‘s Ten Thousand Cents, a participatory project in which he contracted, at the cost of one penny each, drawings of tiny fragments of a $100 bill. He reassembled the drawings to form a counterfeit image, and developed a really cool, simple interface that allows viewers to click on a pixel and see the original fragment side-by-side with a video of the drawings-in-progress. Kawashima’s project is complicated and yet cleverly circular (the labor costs were $100, and the participatory process is mirrored by interactive viewing), with a straightforward display.

Viewer in Amy M. Ho's Beyond II

Viewer in Amy M. Ho's Beyond II

Amy Ho presents a ceiling-mounted mirrored box full of cut paper that resembles leaves of grass. Viewers ascend a ladder to insert their head and see an infinite room. It’s difficult not to associate this experience with Misako Inaoka’s room-sized installation currently on view in Bay Area Now at YBCA. Inaoka’s dropped moss ceiling was interrupted with small dome-like portals to take in animated sculptures, sounds and even a view of grass. It’s an unfortunate but inevitable comparison. I was also puzzled about the placement of the box, a few feet away from an actual skylight in KSW’s ceiling. This was made up for, though, in oodles of surprise and delight when the artist appeared in a handmade durian costume.

Is that a durian costume? You bet!

Is that a durian costume? You bet!

Detail of a work on paper by Weston Teruya

Detail of a work on paper by Weston Teruya

Weston Teruya is the Featured Artist in the show, and he contributed two collages/works on paper. Teruya’s work is always fantastically well-made. His imagery are piles of junk — chairs, rubbish, coolers, ladders — in what seems to be the middle of a hurricane. Flying objects may seem fanciful, but given the tumult in the world these days, the images strike a chord with the nervous sensation of impending collapse.

Custom lighting appliances for Mark Baugh-Sasaki's sculpture

Light-boxes for Mark Baugh-Sasaki's sculpture

Mark Baugh-Sasaki makes sculptures that literalize the awkward tension between nature and industry. His hanging sculpture of two naked tree boughs mechanically splinted together is more subtle and poetic than previous works, but I’m an admitted light bulb nerd, so sue me if I was fascinated by his custom designed lighting fixtures: clamp lights embedded in low pedestals. The geometry of it all (square-circle-circle) and unexpected surfaces were just nicely weird and matter-of-fact; no illusions or pretenses. The bulbs were slightly menacing when you realized how much current passes just under the glass at foot level…

Another artist contributed a narrative photographic triptych, but she sort of approached-me-but-not before I could snap my note-taking photo of the wall label. I have seen women-in-costumes-in-the-forest photos before, but there was something ironic about these staged images that I wanted to hear more about. So I asked her. In a very brief, cagey conversation, I learned that the photos were “about race and gender.” She recasts herself as the shining prince in the fairy tale, but I was less than charmed by her reticence in person and in the exhibition materials to contextualize her work or motivations.

Barbara R. Horiuchi’s aluminum panel is basically an abstract painting, but even I found its visual drama breathtaking, and found it even more curious after learning about the strange materials behind it.


art review: new work, hahn and netzhammer at sfmoma

Just caught two shows of contemporary art and installations, breaking up the familiar galleries at SFMOMA. I was pleasantly surprised by both of these shows.

New Work: Zilvinas Kempinas, Alyson Shotz, Mary Temple
through Nov. 4 (Second floor)

I’ve already mentioned the awesome work of Zilvinas Kempinas here. At this show featuring work dealing with light and perception, Kempinas presents a site-specific installation of VHS tape attached to the floor and the wall, forming a huge, shimmering slope of black stripes. I may have to retract my statement that I’m not one of these people who likes a work wherein the more you look at it, the more there is to see. But Kempinas’ tape installation provides a wealth of optical illusions—vibrations, moirés, interfering shadows, grids of tape and shadow—which were pleasing to discover. Though one could argue that this installation falls into the category of media art using media relics, it has a stronger relationship to op-art, and consequently seems more open-ended than some media art objects.

Mary Temple contributes a subtle, effective trompe l’oeil installation miming cast window light, complete with silhouettes. She used latex paint on the walls, and stain on hardwood floors. However, the telltale additional layer of hardwood flooring over the museum’s floors gave away some of the almost-invisible process. It is what it is.

Alyson Shotz’s installation of clear beads on giant abstract wire forms was tightly constructed. It was a cool, massive installation that can only exist in behemoth galleries and museums. Still, it was not as dramatic as I had expected it might be. I don’t think all art has to be beautiful, but any abstract form playing with light seems to me to be clearly about beauty and perception, and this one fell a little short for me. I can’t figure out if it was the lighting, or if my expectations to be dazzled (or beadazzled? harhar.) were too high. Maybe I’ve been blinded by one too many beaded installations by Liza Lou?

Room for Thought: Alexander Hahn and Yves Netzhammer
Through Oct. 5 (Fourth floor)

A strange and wonderful installation of multiple video projections, sculptural objects and wall painting. In the center of the darkened space, a table sits on the ground with its legs hooved in oversized glasses; the rectangular center of the tabletop is pulled out by two ropes, forming a swing-like appendage to another twin table that hoovers, hardware hidden, in the air. Oversized ventilation pipes house a series of projectors, whose videos feature Virtual Reality-style animations of mannequin-like figures in unsettling abstract environs. I understood immediately that the doll-like bodies facilitated the telling of a deeply psychological and disturbing story. But the multiple elements were highly choreographed, and I wasn’t able to experience it all in my short visit, though I’ve got lingering spookiness to mull over.

Art & Development, Community


Fighting off a sore throat, I ran through the Grounded and Grounded? exhibitions at Southern Exposure and Intersection for the Arts a few weeks ago. Though I would have liked to have seen more of the interactive works, which painted the town pink as well as other things, here’s what “took.”

Jessica Miller at Grounded?
Jessica Miller‘s time-lapse videos / stop motion animations. I liked this lego-glacial-pattern piece, and a mesmerizing video of pink tape filling up the negative shapes in the shadow of an iron gate. As the sun went down the florescent tape filled the frame. I liked Jessica’s earlier baroque-pop photo-installations, too — those were funny and pretty — but these new videos are rough around the edges, and it’s exciting to see what she’ll do next.

Zachary Royer Scholz‘ b/w print of a site-specific/found sculpture. I remember seeing this piece in 2006, and was happy to see it again. I think I like Zach’s work because it seems to involve so much chance and discovery, like Daniel Spoerri filtered through a more formal language.

This photo by Moshe Quinn (Thanks Kevin Chen!) of light rippling on a mundane stuccoed building with street-level newspaper boxes and a passerby = Genius.

While there were other interesting works, Christain Nold‘s Emotional Mapping poster, which was the result of a previous project at Southern Exposure, really caught my attention. First, the poster’s beautiful, in a micro-macro, Tufte/information-graphics-fan way. The content, consisting of mapping daily minutia, is personal, revealing and engaging. The map is a successful poster and also works as a book with multiple readings. But the project is interesting because the map is just a sliver — albeit a beautiful one — of a larger work that resides in the outside world.

Work about minutia is not new. I’ve made some, I’ve seen a lot. But Nold’s seems exceptional because it acts like a book, but you don’t have have to be bookish to find yourself immersed in the details.

If you’re like me, and are impressed by scary-smart programmer-artist-designers who make technology elegant for art applications, you’ll want to check out Nold’s site.


One more art school critique

Sat in on Keith Boadwee‘s class at CCA yesterday. It was a great experience, and I really enjoyed being a guest at art school again.

I was a guest for four 40-minute critiques at the end of the first semester of the MFA program. I remember the first semester of grad school as intense and crazy, a time of getting unhinged and cramming to produce work for the review. The MFA program is designed with an inherent paradox: students are to experiment under intense scrutiny. I sensed that many of the students felt the pressure and uncertainty. But I think while the critiques can be severe, the criteria for this evaluation are modest and fair: I think students are expected to demonstrate vigorous work habits, experimentation, and self-examination.

It took almost the whole 40 minutes, but I ended up liking the work of the ironically-named Justin Hurty, whose project encompasses walking around while carrying super-heavy assemblages of fired clay, cardboard, wire and packing tape. He literalized the burden on artists and on straight white men — he punished his body as a project. In fact, for the following two hours, he carried the objects to the other critiques. His hands got red and veiny, and you could see how much it strained his back. It inspired both schadenfreude and sympathy. While I think the class gave Hurty the hardest time (three cheers for his exemplary grace under fire), I think his earnestness, persistence and willingness — to run with the project and the critical input — are characteristics that will pay off.

An artist named Crow, whose last name I missed, presented photographic and cinematic documentation that formed the research and proposal for a series of objects. It was about Toulouse Lautrec, dwarfism, bodies, and involved a lot of theory about difference, gender and identity. It sounded like a good idea. But this kind of work, so heavily grounded in theory, is maddeningly complicated. I think it parallels OCD art, only the wow factor here is how theoretically sound a project can be. You can’t really critique a project that’s still in its planning stages, but Crow also strikes me as competent and much more informed about theory than I, so I’m sure he can accomplish whatever he decides on.

Josh Ferris showed photographs of a miniature landscape, with the intention of commenting on both global climate change and the sublime. The good news is that he exhibited beautifully-executed prints. The bad news is that I have seen work like this before. Thankfully, Ferris recognized that the work was problematic in how it created a conversation that focused too much on representation. Ferris, like Crow, seems to be biting off a huge can of worms, and it will take a lot of persistence and creativity to come up with an interesting artistic statement. I hope that the work of Richard T. Walker, whose work is about literally conversing with Romanticized landscapes, will be a good reference point for Ferris.

David Gillespie (corrections welcomed) showed diagrams and photographs representing his research for projects investigating subjects as varied as airports to brain implants. The display formed a wall of information that was difficult to scale. If I felt combative in Gillespie’s critique, it’s probably because I see similarities in our practices: a disinterest in visual interest, and an exploration of “meta” art methods or expectations. One project is an attempt to quantify metaphor as a requisite aesthetic unit in art. The terrain and method is valid, but as a viewer I needed more ways to engage with his process-product spectrum.

I’m sure all these projects will mature by the MFA show in 2009. Looking forward to being delighted and impressed. Good luck guys!

Community, Research

Tastes in art: what I learned from two videos

My generous host in London, curator and artist Rico Reyes, posed a thought-provoking question. We were visiting galleries, and I had something like an allergic reaction to psychedelic self-portrait videos at a gallery in London’s chi-chi West End (think: garish tie-dye animation superimposed on a bodysuit, with an Enya-like house music soundtrack, and hideous picture quality). I couldn’t hang, so I waited for Rico outside.

He asked: Do you look at art that is similiar to yours, or dissimilar?

Clearly my estimation of art is influenced by my tastes, and of course any artist would be happy to discover art that resonates with one’s own. So I admitted I usually look longest at art that is similar to mine. For example, I tend to spend less time with photographs and videos.

But I don’t feel that this is too limiting, because Jordan Kantor, a professor of mine in grad school, pointed out that art can look or think like one’s own. So while I headed out to the V&A just to see Simon Perriton’s installation just because its medium is papercuts, I’ll also happily perform actions with built-in futility in Jon Brumit‘s Vendetta Clinic, which was on view in Yerba Buena Center for the Arts earlier this year.

Which is not to mean that I don’t appreciate art that’s dissimilar to my own. I was recently surprised and impressed with a short video by Michelle Blade. Her work is on display in “I’m OK, You’re OK” (a group show I’m also in) at Playspace, the graduate gallery at CCA. (While our work can be tied together curatorially, I find her work different than mine because it seems uniformly optimistic.)

Michelle’s video consisted of a single shot of a gathering at Golden Gate Park. In the video, dozens of people, organized as a color spectrum of brightly hued shirts, hold hands and run in a winding spiral until they form a tightly knit column. And then they disperse. If you view the work as an abstraction, the colors advance in an orderly, quick pace, slow to a graceful endpoint, and then re-animate in disorderly joy. Colors overlap, the action reveals itself, and the activity disperses. It’s utopic — like the previously mentioned video — but Michelle’s is simple, short, endearing, unpretentious and pleasingly self-contained. While the video employs simple parameters, the social sculpture depicted in it is a fertile catalyst for ideas about art, painting, abstraction and social actions.

Though I tend to look for work that is similar to my own, I’m most interested in the elegant conveyance of complex ideas.

Activist Imagination, Research

The Stone Age

“We’re in the Stone Age of environmental consciousness.”

That’s what I thought the other day when I saw a recent print advertisement for Chevrolet’s new hybrid vehicles. In the full-spread photo, a mean-looking concept car with oversized rims sits on a grassy meadow surrounded by rolling, tree-covered hills.

car ad

The ad rings false for me because American car manufacturers have been slow to release hybrid vehicles and adopt alternative technologies. The big 3 automakers are, as many others have pointed out, dinosaurs of the Industrial age, who ruled by the might of mass production. The sweet irony is that one can ‘buy American’ — and purchase a Toyota made in Fremont, CA. Dinosaurs, after all, are slow on the uptake of the ‘adapt or perish’ idea.

And so with the art direction here. Every element of this ad is a cliché. The message — “Chevy’s gone ‘green'” — has been clunkily literalized: Take a Chevy. Put it in a leafy locale.

What’s missing is a critical visual and conceptual analysis.

First, to point out the obvious: parking a car on a meadow isn’t environmentally friendly. Most meadows function as natural water filters for underground streams, so oil leaks are bad news blues. And driving on critters’ homes can’t be fair play.

Second, the grass’s cut tips give away that it’s not a meadow, but a lawn that was recently mowed. Since manicured lawns suck up water and pesticides, they don’t make good symbols for ecological health, either.

What makes it necessary to convey environmental soundness so literally? The car’s engine may be green, but that’s not reflected in its design. Outwards, it’s conventionally stylish. The bullish front-end and low-slung cab references the gas-guzzling muscle cars of yesteryear. In fact, for a futuristic prototype, it looks a lot like today’s Dodge Charger. Oversized rims and minimized tires give away Chevy’s conceit to style over function. I thought green meant you take only what you need, and you don’t need huge alloy rims.

The problem is that the fear of crunchy-granola designs has overshadowed the imaginative possibilities for what a green car could look like. And imagining change is the first step in making change, as Angela Davis recently discussed at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Arts (check out a podcast of Angela Davis’ lecture on contributions to feminism from theorists of color). Green can, and should, look different. I’m sure that environmental concerns will force the tide of mass opinion to turn towards an attitude that desires green inside and out. We won’t have a choice: either we choose green, or Mother Nature will choose it for us.

Of course, the ad itself is printed on paper, which is gloss-coated and therefore probably not recyclable. Worse, the ad appeared in a special supplement, of which this reader received two unsolicited copies. By extraction, I’d guess that thousands, if not tens of thousands, of these ad-revenue-driven publications have entered the waste stream, courtesy of a giant publishing house.

This ad reminds me of old advertisements with laughable premises — like the young actor Ronald Reagan endorsing smoking as healthful. I’m looking forward to the day when green visual literacy is so prevalent that corporations can no longer pass off half-hearted attempts at consciousness.

. . . . .

Similarly, I sometimes feel like we’re in the Stone Age when it comes to identity and art. The critique of formulaic Identity Art is that it operates on a one-plus-one equation, like the ad above:
green + car = green car

Its corrolary, so to speak:
identity + art = Identity Art

such as,
asian design motifs + painting
migration story + photo-collage

Thankfully, postcolonial theorists provide a critique of essentialism, the idea that certain groups carry innate characteristics, implying the inability to transcend one’s traits. In art, essentialism is when artists “get put in a box” or marginalized, and it feels like, well, being stuck in the Stone Age. There’s some validity to this feeling, considering that women and people of color have had a relatively short history of participating in “high” art discourses in the US (and we are still struggling for control over the modes of our self-representation). So in the US we are in an early era of art that can emcompass the voices of women, people of color, the working classes, immigrants, etc. I think the first task is to debunk the perception that art by certain groups should look a certain way. I was reminded of this earlier today.

In To Hedonopolis, From Melancolony, curator Rico Reyes explores the emergence of two thematic strains in art works by Filipino and Fil-Am contemporary artists. So the show brings light to two distinct perspectives. The works are in diverse styles and media, but the artists are uniformly confident and adept. Some, but not all, of the content transparently corresponds to aspects of Filipino identity.

I was admiring an abstract painting by Reanne Estrada, when an agitated stranger next to me asked aloud, “How is this Filipino?”

I wish I could say that I helped the young viewer critically engage with Reanne’s work (afterall, he’s an APA, I’m an APA, he’s a student, we were on a university campus), but I’d be lying. Instead, I was flabbergasted that an APA would suggest that art that isn’t overtly Filipino isn’t Filipino enough.

When I was in Manila, the question of “What is Filipino?” followed us Galleon Traders around like white on rice. I didn’t learn an answer so much as gain a comfort with the standing question (not unsimilar to an ‘intersectional’ position advanced by feminist theorists of color, described in Davis’ lecture). To leave the question unanswered acknowledged the Philippines’ complex history of colonization and its people’s ongoing perserverance and shifting identities. To attempt to answer it, and make “capital-F” Filipino art (i.e., as Carlos Celdran joked, nailing a bangus to a wall), would be to ascribe to an essentialist point of view.

Which relates to ideas I’m thinking about now for Activist Imagination. I think it’s time to start reimagining the blanket term “APA” (Asian Pacific American) for the future: APA can, and should, look different. But how?

And how will this change the function of an APA arts organization?

Art & Development, Community, Values

SFAI Graduate Exhibition

I may not be objective about the work of students at a so-called rival school, but a recent visit to the San Francisco Art Institute’s MFA exhibition provided a useful point of reference for my own experiences.

Like CCA’s graduate exhibition, the SFAI show opened with a bang and closed after only a brief week. Eight-day exhibitions seem freakishly short; on the morning of my de-installation, I smothered a petulant whine: “I don’t wanna take it down!” SFAI students enjoyed the benefit of a printed catalog; CCA’s online catalog seemed like an ecological and economical, though under-utilized, alternative.

Understandable criticisms of the CCA show were that the number of artists was overwhelming, and the space was too difficult to navigate. I can see how a show of CCA’s 50 MFAs could be daunting–and I could relate to the sentiment when I attempted to view the work of SFAI’s 98 artists.

The exhibition was held at the Herbst Pavilion at Fort Mason. The gallery set-up was provisional: clamp lights snaked across the tops of false walls held up by makeshift shims. At times I found the installation earnest (The numerous artists were accommodated in a huge space, so what more could you ask for?), but more often, I found installation decisions baffling and distracting. In one extreme case, decent landscape paintings about environmental destruction were hung above horrendous pumpkin-orange floor molding. Later, I enjoyed some confident paintings and a video about the sea, however, a borrowed wooden pier and taxidermied sea gull impinged on the physical space and seemed like clunky, redundant buttresses to ideas that stood on their own. Finally, confident works by two artists with gay male perspectives were adjacent, but the pairing was formally disadvantageous and curatorially marginalizing.

OK, enough with the nitpicking. My subjective highlights:

Whitney Lynn‘s bunker of canvas cushions was the only work that directly addressed the Herbst Pavilion’s military history. This site-specific work was unassuming, and it was my favorite piece in the sprawling show. Employing only a small pencil drawing and a sculpture of uncolored fabric and soft texture, the artist pulled off a political statement that was more evocative than the agitprop at the front of the exhibition.

Michele Carollo makes room-sized installations that look like modernist paintings. Photos of the installations appear to be expressive two-dimensional works, but in reality the installations are a little bit goofy, reminiscent of a funhouse. Her investigation seems original and fun, and I’m excited to see where it goes.

Jana Rumberger’s birdcages made of calendar pages and cellophane tape were pretty and poetic.

J. Kristen Van Patten exhibited a well-executed wall-based installation composed of wires, abstracted prosthetics and tiny magnets. It was reminiscent of Miro and Calder, but less whimsical and more formal.

Alan Disparte’s paintings verge a little too close to Clayton Brothers cuteness for me, but the one-minute video was a refreshing, if bite-sized, take on graphic design and nostalgia.

(On another note, I’ve been thinking about cuteness a lot lately, picturing a parent’s warning that misbehavior is “not cute.” Cuteness seems indicative of novelty and bemused consumption, and its widespread adoration seems dangerous or at least dismal, signalling relationships built upon simplistic visual appeal. In place of cuteness, what about that old-fashioned value of character? Strength and morality may not be hip or ironic, but that’s the point.)


Keith Boadwee & Patrick Rock at Queen’s Nails Annex

Keith Boadwee at QNA is a great example of a high-caliber show in a small space. Super meticulously executed and installed photographs, collages, sculpture, drawings. Love the Magritte-ish/Lucas Samara-ish self-portrait, the David Hockney yarn drawing, and the Santa Monica Blvd meets Castro Street Ruscha-inspired map drawing. Don’t have photos, but you cans see previous work at the artist’s page at Lightbox Gallery (LA).

Portland-based sculptor/conceptual artist Patrick Rock is showing his cake on a flourescent pink floor, along with a short video and a photograph. The whole space is an installation of intense pink color, intensely sweet cake smell, and a loud video of a pink baloon deflating. It’s weird how Rock sparingly uses intense, loud elements to make a statement. Very funny. See Patrick’s artist’s website.

Patrick Rock's fallen cake at Queen's Nails Annex. It's huge, maybe 6-8 feet long. The walls are actually white, but look pink due to the screaming florescent floor.
Patrick Rock’s fallen cake at Queen’s Nails Annex. It’s huge, maybe 6-8 feet long. The walls are actually white, but look pink due to the screaming florescent floor.