Art & Development, Community

Art and Interaction

In a nice counterpoint to the typical gallery-going experience filled with ho-hum pretty, salable pictures, I had a great weekend that was filled with art as well as experiences, friends and community.

M and I skipped over to San Pablo Ave for Blankspace Gallery‘s annual Holidayland sale. The gallery is set up as an indie mart featuring affordable knickknackery and small works of art, which tends to be more cute and lifestyle-y than my tastes in art usually run, but perfectly appropriate for gift-giving. I thought Misako Inaoka‘s small guoache paintings on paper were extremely great values. M beamed–he’s always happy to support small businesses in Oakland. We really appreciated Blankspace’s reasonable prices and community-minded partnerships (such as the photo diorama, whose proceeds will be donated to art in Oakland schools).

After a gut-busting stop at Juan’s Place in West Berkeley, we wobbled up San Pablo to the Pacific Basin building to catch the end of Ice on the High, a series of feral experimental events organized by Kim Anno, Maggie Foster, and Aida Gamez. After watching video projections on empty storefront windows, the chilly air lent us the nerve to try the door to an darkened, empty storefront. To great relief, this led us to a sublime installation of mylar and sundry scraps of digital light in the back of the unfinished space, and on to open studios. Kim’s studio was thoroughly engaging, for her gorgeous paintings on aluminum (recently on view at Patricia Sweetow Gallery) as well as her newest work in a wholly different media. We were ushered back to the unfinished storefront for a live video and sound performance. M gamely looked and listened, and I found my brain responding to the Cagean sounds with the unselfconscious unfolding unique to attentive listening. I missed Joshua Churchill‘s performance, so I’ll have to make a point to stop in to his show at NOMA Gallery off SF’s Union Square.

The next day I popped in to David Cunningham Projects for Jigsawmentallama, a group exhibition featuring contemporary San Francisco artists as well as emerging and established international artists. I like DCP for its local/international blend and conceptual/installation/video/performance bent, so I was saddened to hear that the shop is closing and this will be the last exhibition. DCP’s going out with a bang-on show, however.

There’s a selection wall works — including San Francisco-based artist Keith Boadwee‘s beautifully produced, seemingly improvised, visceral photographs exploring the potential of fruit for torture — and some fantastic prismatic Polaroids (look for a witty one of Buckminster Fuller). The show includes an impressive number of videos for such a compact space; many of them trade in psychedelic imagery, but the space doesn’t feel overpowering. Skye Thorstenson‘s high-wattage overdose of color via found footage was installed precisely on a vintage television facing a corner; in effect, it is an exercise in tolerance under a barrage of sound and grotesque pop imagery. I also enjoyed Ireland-based artist Austin McQuinn‘s video in the far back viewing room. In it, a man donning a goofy primate mask mixes clay on a kitchen table, sculpting mountains and finally a ‘man’ in his own image. The kicker is the grandiose orchestral soundtrack, a stark contrast to the video’s poor production quality. I think most artists recognize the implicit egotism in our creative acts; McQuinn’s parody captures this feeling that the artistic act is both slightly supernatural and yet somewhat fraudulent. Don’t miss the installation hidden behind black felt by Swedish, Berlin-based artist Sonja Nilsson. I don’t want to ruin the surprise, but I will say that it’s got a pop song, hologram-like effects and a (literally) stunning surprise.

Finally, I also went to Exercises in Seeing, a exhibition to which I contributed a new work, curated by the Post Brothers at Queen’s Nails Project. The premise of the show was unusual — it was a one-night only exhibition held in the dark with 31 local and international artists. The event was spirited, experimental and experiential. I enjoyed watching visitors make their way into the dark, and explore the show as their eyes adjusted. The rules of standard operating procedure had been thrown out; many visitors were liberated to touch and smell the works, while others forged into the darkness with their cellphones held out aloft, both examining and determining worth of examination within milliseconds. Visitors were meant to explore the exhibition with the aid of an audio guide, written in characteristically speculative high style by David Buuck. The audio guide lent much desired in-“sight” to the works on display to me. It’s a pity that more viewers did not take advantage of it in the venue’s party atmosphere, but it’s not too late to download the audio guide and take an audio/visual(ized) journey.

The show seems to be a collection of experiments in art- and exhibition-making, with artists and viewers freed from their conventional roles and responsibilities. I appreciated artists and viewers who were able to run with it.

Though the experience of the artists’ works in the show was limited (due to visibility as well as the nature of group shows in general), I find the work of many of the international artists to be cool, conceptual and witty — here’s a list of the artists’ names with links to their sites or their galleries’ sites.


notes on news

Over Thanksgiving dinner — Filipino food and apple pie — I had the rare pleasure of explaining contemporary art to family members. We talked about postmodernism and how a picture of $400 by Warhol could bring in $43.7M at auction.

I can appreciate how hard it is to make sense of the contemporary art world. I know about how some things work; others, I’m still learning — such as this telling article about why blockbuster museum shows like Tut are such big business (below). It’s because it actually is a big business.

But the Tut show, a product of an alliance between Zahi Hawass, the Egyptian government’s chief archaeologist, and U.S. sports and entertainment giant AEG, is also a global revenue powerhouse that takes over its hosts entirely.

In 2005 Hawass paired with AEG, which owns sports arenas and teams (such as the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings) around the world , for a traveling exhibition that would display a few dozen of Egypt’s thousands of Tutankhamen artifacts. The show was to be put on by an AEG subsidiary, Arts and Exhibitions International.

The deal was simple: The hosts, like the AGO [(Art Gallery of Ontario)], could keep a portion of the gate receipts (the AGO declined to disclose how much, citing a confidentiality pact with AEI), but would surrender all say in how the show was presented and installed. The host would only profit after all of AEI’s costs were covered. AEG also demanded that its own, proprietary gift shop be installed.

At the AGO, the result is a stranger in the house, a hermetically sealed silo hived off from the rest of the gallery. This isn’t how most people expected the gallery to carry its mission of transformation [and inclusion of contemporary art] forward.

—Murray White, “Boy king’s reign at AGO troubles artists” (Toronto Star, November 29, 2009)

I’d had inklings of such tactics (when the Tut show came to the de Young Museum, local preparators were shut out of the installation work), but this is unsettling. Museums are perceived as custodians of historically significant artifacts. For many visitors, this suggests a faith in museum officials — that what’s exhibited is there because it’s edifying and worthy of the public’s attention. The reality is more complicated — in the Tut show, what’s exhibited is there because it’s historical as well as popular and profitable.

To make an entertainment business out of exhibition-making just feels wrong. I’m not so innocent to believe that art and commerce must be kept separate, but I’d hope that museums would be above big-business tactics (media saturation, merchandising, proprietary products) and values fixated on the bottom line. When museum officials legitimize a corporate blockbuster exhibition as an attempt to expand audiences (to their non-profit institutions) at $32.50 a pop (most of which goes to a big business), it seems unscrupulous.

Before traveling to the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Tut exhibition was at LACMA. That sort of makes sense. LACMA’s a county museum, so its emphasis is not on contemporary art or risk-taking; it can be forgiven for erring on the side of populism. Plus, everybody knows it’s strapped for cash. Now, Koon’s hanging locomotive sculpture needs a helping hand. At “an estimated cost of $25 million, making it one of the most expensive public art projects ever undertaken” (Katya Kazakina, “Koons’s $25 Million Dangling Train Derailed by Lacma Shortfall,”, November 29, 2009), no wonder. I’m all for ambitious public art (love Chris Burden’s lampposts at LACMA), but you don’t have to be a cynic of fine art to think that $25M is an outrageous sum. Imagine how many new works of contemporary art that could fund. You could award 100 artists a quarter of a million dollars each!

Last, Randy Kennedy sums up a massive study of how artists are faring in the recession (“A Survey Shows Pain of Recession for Artists,”, November 23, 2009). Of 5,300 respondents spanning painting, film and architecture,

  • “more than a third don’t have adequate health insurance”
  • “While the majority of artists have college degrees, only 6 percent said they earned $80,000 or more.”
  • The artists surveyed tended to earn either very little of their overall income from their artwork or almost all of it.”

I’m biased towards indie stuff: art and commerce can mix well. If you’re feeling the gift-giving spirit this month, don’t forget your local artists and galleries:

SHOP SHOW @ Swarm Gallery, Oakland, CA
Opening Friday, December 11, 2009, 6-9 pm and continuing through January 24, 2010

HOLIDAYLAND GIFT SALE @ Blankspace, Oakland, CA
On now thru December 20, 2009, with a First Friday Reception on December 4th from 6-10pm


art art art weekend part one

Installation by Sam Lopes, Joy Fritz and Friends at Blankspace Gallery.

Installation by Sam Lopes, Joy Fritz and Friends at Blankspace Gallery.

Nipped in Sam Lopes’ opening at Blankspace Gallery in Oakland, CA. To be more specific, the exhibition, “Just because there are questions doesn’t mean there are answers,” is a show of “new collaborative work by Sam Lopes, Joy Fritz and Friends.” The works were what JC (not that JC) might have called craptastic, where craftsmanship seems deliberately hobbled, so that naive drawing styles in odd materials (crayons and oil pastels) take precedence. The show is really colorful and sweet, and compellingly nostalgic for the 1970s. It turns out the depiction of of handicrafts from the shag carpet era might be inspired by nostalgia for a gay heyday.


Drawing by Sam Lopes, Joy Fritz and/or Friends

There were some passages that reminded me, in a good way, of Ben Shahn’s work, where the line seems so unfettered you can’t tell when it’s good or bad, but you just know that it’s exuberant.

In contemporary art, “decorative” is usually used derisively, but I’m starting to re-think this prejudice. Certainly, I’m more interested in work that has interesting and rigorous conceptual intents, but I’m also beginning to suspect that decoration and conceptual rigor are not as oppositional as presumed. In a way, decoration is not entirely free of function—people seem to have an innate decorating impulse, tied maybe to creativity and expression as well as aspirations and the need to see themselves reflected in the world. At a basic level, it seems to fill a desire to find a voice or secure a space in the material world.


Drawing by Sam Lopes, Joy Fritz and/or Friends

There’s a lot of decoration in “Just because.” It’s in the selection of subjects that lend themselves to high-spirited colors and patterns, like bedspreads with fringes, wallpaper, bolero jackets and hand-knit rugs. And while I’m sure this decorative impulse was driven partly by pleasure and the unadulterated love of drawing, I also suspect that the choices were not entirely formal, and the use of pattern and decoration suggests something about art being, fundamentally, a craft, and craft being more akin to hobby-like forms of self-expression, rather than a selling point of marketable art objects.

It’s East Bay Open Studios this weekend, where everyone and their purse-making sister, graf-merging cousin, and urban-artifact-re-arranging uncle open their studios to the public. I think that membership-based art organizations are critical to building and sustaining a vibrant local art community, of course, but the experience of seeing so many different kinds and qualities of art can have low returns when taken all together. It’s like going to an international buffet, and you end up getting hummus on your sushi and chow mein in your bread pudding.

I stopped by a few different studios in Oakland today. I found it strange that only half of the studios in a certain complex were open. I realize that registration for Open Studios requires a hefty membership fee, but still, it seems like a missed opportunity to not be in your studio if the public is going to be wandering through your building anyway.

terry furry

Works on mounted Kraft paper by Terry Furry at Swarm Studios.

Terry Furry’s a genuine, nice guy, so it’s hard for me to be objective about his work, but I really enjoyed his latest batch of paintings on mounted Kraft paper. I know that some of their appeal stems from a certain graphic design or illustration-y cleanness. Still, these still-lifes of a boy’s or man’s personal effects are more ambiguous than his previous figurative paintings, and hence, more open-ended and compelling. The empty spaces seem less like formal devices, and a little more affective.