Quick takes: MAS attack LAxSF and Surrey Street Salon

It’s been a while since I have reported on one of those evenings with multiple cultural events that enrich life here. One recent rainy evening involved a visual art opening and a salon with a variety of performances.

I started at 17th Street Studios in the Mission for MAS Attack: LAxSF, a one-night show that featured 30 artists from Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively.

One of the particularly intriguing pieces in the show was Miri Chais’ Rabbit Hole, with its organic circular forms but technology-inspired details and changing blue patterns of light. The mixture is intentional, and the title is inspired by Alice in Wonderland.

Miri Chais Rabbit Hole

Utopian Heads by L.A. artist Mark Dutcher caught my attention for its evoking of painting styles and concepts of the early twentieth century experiments. The title of the piece seems to fit with that as well.

Mark Dutcher, Utopian Heads

It seemed that the artists from L.A. dominated my attention at the show. As with the above pieces and the one below by Steven Wilkoff, they seemed to unapologetically modern.


But these piece from Oakland-based artist Scott Greenwalt did provide a contemporary take on abstraction.

Scott Greenwalt

It was then off to Glen Park, just a short trip south from the Mission along the miniature freeway known as San Jose Avenue. (But that’s a story for another time.) My destination was the Surrey Street Salon for a fun evening of performance with a circus theme. So of course there were clowns with vaudeville-style musical numbers.


There was also serious musical talent on display. I was quite impressed with Tin Sandwich, an all harmonica band.

Tin Sandwich

Their instruments ranged from tiny inch-long specimens to the large bass harmonica.

bass harmonica

Their arrangements, while mostly traditional songs, were quite tight, and included some impressive solos. I would definitely want to see them again.

Surplus-1980 bandmate Moe! Staiano also performed, this time on solo percussion.

Moe! Staiano

His avant-garde percussion playing is frenetic, moving quickly from on idea and one instrument to another, whether it is part of his traditional drumset or superballs against the window.

In all, it was a great evening of music and art, and the two events provided quite a contrast in style.

Ellsworth Kelly and Metropolis II at LACMA

While in southern California for NAMM last month, I made a point of stopping at the LACMA (the Los Angeles County Museum of Art). The museum and the trip to get there through downtown LA were the perfect coda to the overload of NAMM. And by chance, it was the opening day for a retrospective exhibit of works by Ellsworth Kelly.

[Installation view. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings. January 22-April 22, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo (c) 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA]

I am quite familiar with Ellsworth Kelly’s paintings through SFMOMA (see my review of the Fisher Collection show from 2010 which featured several large pieces). His large panels in single colors with rectangular or curvilinear shapes are quite iconic, as are his grids of colored squares. But in LACMA’s comprehensive exhibition, which focused on Kelly’s printmaking along with some drawings and paintings, I was exposed to different and unexpected directions in his work. There was a room of minimalist panels, but all in black and white instead of his usual bright colors. There were also pieces with organic and complex patterns based on plants and rivers. In between there were brightly colored abstract works that seem to bridge the gap between the organic and the minimalist.

An example of the familiar and unfamiliar in Kelly’s work appears in the first gallery. Around the corner from a large set of four solid shapes is a piece with a similar curvilinear shape but a rougher and more natural looking texture.

[Installation view. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings. January 22-April 22, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo (c) 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA]

The next section featured Kelly’s studies in abstraction, influenced from his time in Paris in the 1950s. Here were see experiments with different pairs of colors on the same shape, with simple titles such as Orange over Blue (Orange sur Bleu). The shapes, rounded rectangles and arrows, seem manually cut and have the imperfections of natural (or at least handmade) forms. But through the medium of printing with different colors, they become more mechanized.

[Installation view. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings. January 22-April 22, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo (c) 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA]

The next room was the most surprising. All the works here were in black and white, something which I had not associated with Kelly up until this moment. One wall featured the same curvilinear or angular shapes as his more colorful abstract works, but in monochrome they are far more severe. But this is good thing. In monochrome, he plays with contrasts and positive and negative space with the shapes without the distraction of color.

[Installation view. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings. January 22-April 22, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo (c) 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA]

But even more unexpected were his monochrome prints based on natural forms, which were in this same room. He did a series of lithographs of botanical forms in the late 1960s that featured simple line drawings that capture the imperfections of natural subjects. I would never have guessed these pieces were his without the labels. More recently, he did a series of large monochrome prints based on the texture of the moving water in the some of the world’s most famous rivers.

[Installation view. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings. January 22-April 22, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo (c) 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA]

So how does one fit these in the context of Kelly’s more colorful abstractions? Certainly, the black fields can be seen as simply another color study; and the rivers can be seen as abstract but complex textures informed by nature. The textures of the rivers can be seen reflected in abstract piece Red Curve (State I) from the first room of the exhibit. The botanical pieces are the ones that are the most difficult to place in context aesthetically, the artist himself states that “the drawings from plant life seem to be a bridge to the way of seeing that brought about the paintings of 1949 that are the bases for all my later work.” It is possible to see the repeated curving shapes in his abstract work as inspired by plant forms.

The final room featured more of the style that I most associated with Kelly: angular solid fields and color grids.

[Installation view. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings. January 22-April 22, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo (c) 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA]

It was in this last room that another museum visitor came up to me and asked, “Why is this good? What do you see in it?” I’m sure I was gazing rather intently at various pieces which probably signaled to her that I had a genuine interest in this work. I did my best to try and answer her question, which seemed to be as much about minimalist artist general as Ellsworth Kelly in particular. For me, good abstract and minimalist art captures my attention and “arrests the mind” (with apologies to James Joyce). Additionally, all art and perception of art has context. There was the context of each piece, even if a single-color panel, within the greater body of work on display. There was context of my experience, and joy in looking at these works in the quiet gallery, the calming effect. There is also the execution, choosing the right colors and the right proportions for shape and size of each piece, that Kelly was able to do consistently. I’m not sure the woman was particularly satisfied with my answers. She walked away saying “I guess I just don’t understand why this belongs in a museum.” I did my best – I do truly want to share the enjoyment of modern art, and especially abstract art, with others, which is why I write articles like this.

Also on view at LACMA was Metropolis II, large kinetic installation by Chris Burden. It features stacks of highways weaving their way among densely packed buildings. A continuous stream of cars speed along the highways, some of which are six lanes across. The result is a frenetic pulsating vision of a future city, or an imagining of the pace and anxiety of a contemporary city. This piece is best experienced in motion, and you see a bit of it in this video:

This piece of course appealed to me as a person who loves cities and the urban landscape and who has a fascination with the patterns of roads and highways. Looking from above, the traffic is simply a current like moving water and provides none of the stress that one experiences on actual city streets. I can also admire the amount of work that must go into making something like this. The toylike scale of the installation also gives it a playful quality. It was just fun to experience.

Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings will be on display through April 22, and Metropolis II is ongoing. Both are worth seeing if you are in Los Angeles.

Richard Serra Drawing and Sharon Lockhart Lunch Break, SFMOMA

Today we look at two current exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) that opened in October and continue through mid-January: Richard Serra Drawing and Sharon Lockhart’s Lunch Break. I had the opportunity to attend the museum’s press preview for both of these exhibitions and posted live updates via my Twitter feed @catsynth (the hashtag was #serrapreview).

The main event of the day was the opening of Richard Serra Drawing. I have long been fond of Serra’s large-scall metal sculptures. The minimalist yet strong constructions of flat steel planes or gently curving metal are instantly recognizable as his. This exhibition was my first experience with his drawings and sketches. Many of the pieces had the same characteristics as his sculptures, the reliance on strong geometric forms in a minimal presentation, such as his 1973 piece Untitled. One could see this piece as the shadow of one of his sculptures.

[Richard Serra, Untitled, 1973; paintstick and charcoal on paper; 50 x 38 inches; collection of Mary and Harold Zlot; © 2011 Richard Serra / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York; photo: Ben Blackwell]

Several of the pieces rivaled his sculptures in scale.

[Richard Serra, Blank, 1978; paintstick on Belgian linen; 2 parts, each 120 ¼ x 120 ¼ inches; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; © 2011 Richard Serra / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York; photo: Gianfranco Gorgoni]

However, to simply describe the work in this exhibition as Serra’s sculptures flattened to two dimensions would miss most of what makes it unique and surprising. Many of the large black pieces are done with painstick, and the large geometric shapes which smooth from a distance have a very rich and rough texture. However, to simply describe the work in this exhibition as Serra’s sculptures flattened to two dimensions would miss most of what makes it unique and surprising.  Many of the large black pieces are done with painstick, and the large geometric shapes which smooth from a distance have a very rich and rough texture.  It was something I referred to while visiting as “liquidy roughness.” The texture and medium also allowed Serra to move beyond basic geometry into forms that cannot easily be realized as sculpture. In out-of-round X, an exaggerated texture is present in the main circular shapes, and continues to diffuse out past its edges. It is not a simple graduation where the texture becomes more diffuse from the center, there is still some semblance of a geometric shape in the image. But it is nonetheless unlike any of his sculptures, and I would not have automatically marked this as Serra’s if I saw it from a distance outside of the exhibition.

[Richard Serra, out-of-round X, 1999; paintstick on handmade Hiromi paper; 79 ½ x 79 inches; collection of the artist; © 2011 Richard Serra / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York; photo: Rob McKeever]

Indeed, more organic circular shapes and ambiguous edges abound in Serra’s drawings. He also escapes from the solid or semisolid forms with line drawings that add more empty space. In these drawings, he reduces the drawings to one-dimensional forms in a way similar to his use of planes in three-dimensional space.

The gallery presentation provided a chance to see the diversity of the works side-by-side, but also left a large amount of empty space that abstract pieces truly need to be appreciated. I liked this location which featured Diamond (1974/2011) in the foreground and the circular Institutionalized Abstract Art (1976/2011) around the corner. Both were redrawn on the walls for this exhibition. They are perhaps the most minimal of all the pieces, and as such benefited the most from the context of gallery and the association with the other works. They provided a contrast to more roughly drawn or textured pieces. The spacious presentation also allowed room to explore the shapes in a personal manner. One wall of pieces entitled Drawings after circuit featured simple lines against aging paper, and seemed ripe for interpretation as a Hipstamatic photo.

[Click image to enlarge.]

The notebooks, while not as monumental, presented another dimension of Serra distinct from both his large drawings and his sculpture. We see the freedom to explore shapes and ideas that don’t yet need to stand up in large scale.

[Richard Serra, notebook: Double Torqued Ellipses; Guggenheim Bilbao, Spain, 2005; paintstick on paper; sheet: 12 ¼ x 14 ½ inches; collection of the artist; © 2011 Richard Serra / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York; photo: Rob McKeever]

There are not only small sketches of ideas that could be used in larger works, but energetic and curving sribbles and even playful human shapes.  The notebooks serve more as inspiration for visitors (particular visitors who are themselves artists) than as works unto themselves.

Perhaps the most unusual piece was the list of verbs that appeared at the beginning of the exhibition.

[Click image to enlarge.]

It could serve as both an artist statement as well as an art piece.

At the end of the tour, Richard Serra was present to discuss the exhibition and take questions from the press. He had a very clear and accessible way of describing his work and process, as much engineer as artist.

It was interesting to hear him describe traditional architecture he saw in Spain and Turkey as sources of inspiration for his work. I associate stylized form and intricate detail with such architecture, and what attracts me to Serra’s work is its break with these traditions for a more simple focus on large-scale textures and geometries, and the exploration of asymmetry. I did not get a chance to ask any questions myself, squished among members of the established art press, but it still good to just be present and listen.

Sharon Lockhart’s Lunch Break is quite a contrast to the Serra drawings in media, style and subject matter. Through photographs and film, Lockhart presents a personal-scale view of industrial labor at the Bath Iron Works, a large naval shipyard in Maine. The artist spent a year in the town and at the shipyard, “interacting with workers and gaining their trust and collaboration.” The result is a portrait that is both intimate and detached. In the photographs we see everyday objects and elements of the “shadow” economy among the workers, such has makeshift cafes and lunch stands. The film meanwhile turns a short period of the workers on lunch break into a monumental portrait of industrial life.

The film is based on ten minutes of footage tracking along the a 1,200 foot hallway, without any panning, zooming or any other motion of the camera besides the steady forward progression. Along the hallway, workers go about the normal routines during lunch break, sitting, standing, eating, reading, talking However, what we ultimately see is anything but routine. The film is slowed down to 80 minutes (one eighth the speed of the original). The result is a stretched out abstract industrial exploration, which emphasizes the expanse and straight lines of the hallway as we pass by the workers.

[Sharon Lockhart, Lunch Break (Assembly Hall, Bath Iron Works, November 5, 2007, Bath, Maine) (still), 2008; 35mm film transferred to HD, 80 min.; courtesy the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles; © Sharon Lockhart]

The music, a similarly slowed down mixture of sounds collected from the factory space by filmmaker James Benning and composer Becky Allen, gives a heightened sense of a fictionalized industrial landscape. Of course, I immediately started deconstructing the sound, which appeared to be a combination of pitch and time shifting and granular synthesis, but this did not detract from the overall presentation of the film, which was projected on the wall of a dark elongated room with surround sound for an immersive experience and other worldly experience. Although the film itself was interesting to watch, it was the music that kept my attention for an extended period of time. I tended less to see the details of workers in the visual and focused more on the big picture of the hallway, while in the music I kept looking for details, little bits of metallic or machinery sounds, or the occasional hint of human activity, amidst the overall drone of low-frequency noise.  It is hard to give a sense of the piece, with just an image. It should be experienced in person with the full sound.

The photographs that accompanied the film were not altered and presented images of the lives of the workers at the shipyard that would normally be hidden to outsiders. Several of the workers have set up small shops that sell coffee and food and operate as a shadow economy, where people leave money in boxes on an honor system.

[Sharon Lockhart, Dirty Don’s Delicious Dogs, 2008; chromogenic print; 41 1/16 x 51 1/16 in.; courtesy the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, Gladstone Gallery, New York, and neugerriemschneider, Berlin; © Sharon Lockhart]

The images are impersonal in the sense that they do not include any people, but the personalities of the workers who created the objects and spaces are indirectly present. In contrast to the film, with the industrial sounds of the music and scale of hallway dominate the viewer’s attention, the images and silence leave the viewer free to imagine the people who wrote the signs on the shops or attached the stickers to the lunch boxes. In particular, that was my impression from the sign “Please don’t forget to put money in the bank” with its accompanying smiley face. This sign forms the cover for exhibition catalog as well.

[Sharon Lockhart, Handley’s Snack Shop, 2008; chromogenic print; 41 1/16 x 51 1/16 in.; courtesy the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, Gladstone Gallery, New York, and neugerriemschneider, Berlin; © Sharon Lockhart]

Although Lunch Break presents it subject with a certain detachment and abstraction, it is hard to separate it completely from the economic and political reality of contemporary life in the U.S. As stated in the official release, “The project’s attention to the local and to the rarely portrayed experience of the working class take on a particular social and political relevance in the context of global capitalism, war, and economic recession.” The opening was occurring at the same time that the Bay Area incarnations of the Occupy movement were just picking up momentum (my first visit to OccupySF was just a few days earlier.) The combination leads to interesting questions about how protest, art, and the daily routines of working people intersect (and how they often don’t).

It was interesting to have seen both of these exhibitions together, and then reflect on them side-by-side several weeks later. My experience of Serra’s drawings is defined by shape and texture, and leads to more internal contemplation and fewer words that reflect the scale and space of the exhibition. By contrast, Lockhart’s Lunch Break speaks to me on a technical level with music, film and photography, and is on a personal scale. As such, it leads to more words and thoughts upon reflection. Both are valuable experiences and ways of seeing art.

Both exhibitions will be on view at SFMOMA through January 16, 2012. I strongly recommend checking them out if you are in the Bay Area.

[All captioned images are provided courtesy of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.  Images marked “catsynth.com” were taken by the author during the press preview.]

Readings at Electric Works, and the Snowball Pond Orchestra, December 7

The evening began at Electric Works for readings from the art issue of The Believer.

We spent a few minutes browsing the gallery at Electric Works, which featured work by Paul Madonna. His large-scale pieces included text that seemed only slightly related to the images, which often featured cartoon creatures, commercial art, and little “alien-monster” finger puppets similar to the ones I keep in my office at work.

Michelle Tea presented a reading from her piece about the fifth marriage ceremony of two “sexy performance artists” as an unauthorized event at the 2009 Venice Beinnale. Her descriptions of their costumes were quite detailed and her deadpan delivery of some their odd statements was amusing.The readings Jeff Chang and Michael Paul Mason seemed more like paper presentations at an academic conference, although I was quite intrigued by Mason’s piece on the disappearance of Ford Beckman, a highly successful minimalist artist who somehow went from the inner circles of the art world to working at a Krispy Kreme Donuts in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The examples of Beckman’s work shown in the presentation suggested the sparse geometry and simple patterns of minimalist work, but also a weathered quality that brings out the underlying materials.

The highlight of the evening was the presentation by Eames Demetrios. Demetrios. He is the grandson of the designers Charles and Ray Eames, a filmmaker, and also the Geographer-at-Large for Kcymaerxthaere, “a parallel universe that shares, to some degree, our physical planet.” After chiding the audience on their woeful state of knowledge of Kcymaerxthaere, he presented some examples of how the history and mythology intersect with our physical world, and his work to recognize significant intersections with commemorative plaques. My favorite observation was the many roads named in honor of Earl Frontage. The presentation concluded with a rousing group rendition of “Kymaerica, Sambamba Dier” sung to the tune of America the Beautiful.

After a brief stop for refreshments, it was off to The Makeout Room for the Snowball Pond Orchestra performing Piece to Celebrate the Proximity of Pearl Harbor Day and the Death of John Lennon, the first conducted composition by kingtone (aka Lucio Menegon). (Some readers my recognize Lucio as the host of the Ivy Room experimental-improv series.) “The piece is a a surround sound minimalist-meets-mayhem piece to celebrate the proximity of two events that managed to wake people out of their collective stupor for a moment or two.”

The first two sections appeared to focus more on Pearl Harbor and the last two more on John Lennon. The opening section featured the guitars, as described above. Later on, much darker guitar and string sounds were set against snare drums that sounded at once militaristic and like a clip from a rock solo, followed by long sustained guitar unisons and complex chords. The music gradually took on more of a rock feel as the narrative moved from Pearl Harbor to John Lennon, with quotations from “Helter Skelter” (from the White Album) towards the end.

You can read more about the performance, and see photos and a video clip at the kingtone website.

SF Open Studios Week 3, part 1: Abstract

Week 3 of San Francisco Open Studios features South of Market (SOMA), my neighborhood, and Mission Bay, the corridor along 3rd street further south. This is a rather large piece of territory within the city, and a mixture of old industrial areas and downtown that seems to me very creative. I have decided to divide my experience into three distinct sections: abstract, architectural/urban, and figurative/characters. These are by no means authoritative groupings, they just represent the main areas of my interest among the work that I saw, and a way to separate the large number of artists I saw into something a bit more manageable. And of course many of the artists blue the boundaries between these distinctions. This article presents a few of the artists whose work was primarily abstract.

Paule Dubois Dupuis.  Click to enlarge.

Paule Dubois Dupuis. Pour toi maman. (Click to enlarge)

At South Beach Studios, I once again visited the studio of Paule Dubios Dupuis. I had seen her work last year when I was specifically looking for large abstract paintings, and indeed her rich and vibrant canvases were once again among the largest I saw this weekend. Her paintings feature shapes and areas of color of different sizes with soft of ambiguous borders – the content has a very expressive, even emotional, quality. Her smaller “Graffiti” series is very crisp and tight with shades of black and grey; her exceptionally large Pour toi maman is simultaneously study in color, shape, and use of text, and a moving tribute to her mother.

Clare Kuo.  Boundaries #24. (Click to enlarge.)

Clare Kuo. Boundaries #24. (Click to enlarge.)

At 1035 Market Street, I encountered the work of Clare Kuo. Her large abstract paintings have very strongly defined shapes and boundaries, with large fields of color. Within each, one can see different shades in the brush strokes and fine detail, but it is the large outlined shapes that most stand out. Conceptually and texturally, her paintings remind me a bit of Silvia Poloto’s Observations series (from Open Studios week 1), but with a different vocabulary of shapes.

Andrzej Michael Karwacki. (Click to enlarge)

Andrzej Michael Karwacki. (Click to enlarge)

Also at 1035 Market, Andrzej Michael Karwacki presented both abstract work as well as figurative work, and indeed I did not initially realize they were from the same artist.Karwacki keeps the two bodies of work fairly separate, and noted that the viewers and clients for his abstract and figurative work fell into two very distinct groups. So perhaps I was an exception in having an interest in both. His abstract work was very textural, with brighter natural colors often running down the canvas in a manner that suggests water running down the side of a wall. Some of his paintings also feature plant shapes and patterns. His figurative paintings, by contrast, had a very crisp feel with well defined lines, and reminded me of fashion and glamor photos. These images also incorporated text in the form of poems printed in the background.

One of my favorite “spaces” from the weekend was Pier 70, a collection of dilapidated port and industrial buildings in Mission Bay. I featured one of my own photos from this area in last week’s Wordless Wednesday, and will have more to say about it in a future article.

Phillip Hua. (click to enlarge)

Phillip Hua. (click to enlarge)

I did see several artists at the Noonan Building at Pier 70, including Phillip Hua. I have seen Hua’s abstract work from his De/Construction series before at Hang here in San Francisco. I was attracted to the large shapes lined with smaller dots and splatters; and stark coloring with broad areas of black set against white and bright colors. His more recent work, re:Action involves ink and tape placed on top of pages of the Wall Street Journal. The images of trees that emerge suggest the “reclaiming” of the Journal pages. The newspaper was created from trees, and now it is being used to recreate trees.

In a lower level of the same building, I found the work of John Haines. His metal sculptures feature soft curving lines, circles and smooth textures. The abstract metal shapes have a very organic feel and the thin lines in some of the pieces convey a sense of motion. It also was fun to try and use the circles as “windows” through which to peer at some of the other sculptures.

John Haines. (click to enlarge)

John Haines. (click to enlarge)

Rebecca Fox. (click to enlarge)

Rebecca Fox. (click to enlarge)

It seems that I always end up being drawn to abstract metal sculpture, and thus I ended up again this year atIslais Creek Studios. Some of the artists I saw last year were not showing this time. But I did see Rebecca Fox’s large metal sculptures. Her arrangements of almost perfect circles and other curvilinear forms in arrangements suggest astronomical symbols. The shapes and surfaces have a very smooth, continuous quality to them. They also have a feeling of strength when viewed in person, even some of the pieces composed of thinner circles.

Nearby, Yong Han’s sculptures provided a stark contrast. If Fox’s sculptures are represent simplicity, strength and circles, Han’s are intricate, delicate and very linear. Several of his sculptures featured complex arrangements of wire, bars and rods, sometimes vertical and sometimes at odd angles, and sometimes quite tall. Although not necessarily the tallest of his sculptures, I liked this pair as they reminded me a downtown city block.

Yang Han.  (click to enlarge)

Yang Han. (click to enlarge)

Back in SOMA. Reiko Muranaga’s drawings blended figurative and abstract shapes, such as in the large charcoal-and-ink drawing Session. One can focus on either the thick black curving lines, or the figures that emerge from them. This piece in particular seemed to fit quite well with the red table in front of it.

Reiko Muranaga.  (click to enlarge)

Reiko Muranaga. (click to enlarge)

She has also composed some exceptionally large scrolls of her drawings, although these were not on view. Muranaga also presented her Letters to Monet series features soft fields of colors (light reds, oranges, blues) overlaid with very detailed brush strokes suggesting birds or plants.

At Garage Studios on Bryant Street. Alan Mazzetti’s paintings feature a very geometric vocabulary with clearly delineated shapes and textures. Although the linear and rectangular shapes stand out from a distance, up close one can see the the defining elements are the circles. There the large and clearly visible circles, but also the arrays of smaller circles that together form larger objects, and the circles that are hidden in the textures of the paintings.

Alan Mazzetti.  (click to enlarge)

Alan Mazzetti. (click to enlarge)

At SOMA Studios Mark Harris presented an interest mix of purely abstract work from his Letting Go series featuring energetic curved lines, and prints that ranged from abstract to overtly political. Some of his prints were recycled from previous trials, on which he placed text elements including his iconic “signature” shape.

I had initially seen Jeremy Garza’s work as another example of the use of text in abstract art, with his shapes that resembled a sci-fi language. This was apparently a coincidence, though he noted I was not the first person to point that out during the day.

A few artists blurred the distinction between abstract and architectural (actually, several did whether intentionally or not, like Yong Han’s sculptures above). From a distance, some of the paintings in Nanci Price Scoular’s “journeys” series look like abstract color fields with soft muted tones, but on closer inspection they are revealed to be details from structures, such as the “urban still life” pieces featuring rusted iron rings and gates.

Nanci Price Scoular.  (click to enlarge)

Nanci Price Scoular. (click to enlarge)

Samantha Ricca also crosses the boundary between abstract and architectural, with one series of paintings featuring surved, organic, almost corporeal shapes, and another featuring featuring straight lines and sharply delineated outlines of structures, such as a ferris wheel. Ricca’s studio was back at Pier 70, and a fitting place to conclude until the next article, which will focus on urban and architectural art.

[Images marked with “catsynth.com” are photographs taken with permission of the artists for use in these artists. Other images are reproduced from artists’ websites with their permission.]

SF Open Studios, week 1

Just as it was last year, Open Studios is “art overload” – the sheer number of artists and artworks can be quite overwhelming, even just concentrating on a few studios in a small number of blocks in the Potrero Hill and Mission neighborhoods. I concentrated on a few areas of particular interest, such as pure abstraction, conceptual work, urban landscape, and use of technology, but also took notice of other themes such as animals (especially cats) and selected figurative works as well.

The first major stop was Art Explosion Studios on 17th Street (they now have several locations). I usually begin by seeking out larger abstract works (such as might be appropriate for the walls of CatSynth HQ). These could be single large paintings, or collections of smaller objects to form a whole. An example of the latter was Kally Kahn’s black-and-white “pincushion” series.

[click to enlarge]

Kally Kahn

[Click on any image in this article to enlarge.]

Very abstract and geometric, I did not immediately recognize them as pincushions until Kahn pointed it out. The brought to mind science fiction or microbial illustrations, and as such I thought of Miro’s Constellation. The coloring and texture also reminded of Julia Orshatz’s work I had seen a week or so earlier at First Thursday, although Kahn’s pincushions were rounder and less intricate.

In terms of larger abstract canvases, Heike Seefeldt’s Roller Coaster series stood out. Each 3-foot square canvas featured a central color and set of shapes (e.g., spirals, radial patterns, stripes, etc). Most made use of bright colors, but the Devastation sub-series featured darker colors, including one distinctive black canvas with more rectangular shapes.

Heike Seefeldt

Heike Seefeldt

Melisa Phillips

Melisa Phillips

I again found Melisa Phillips’ paintings, featuring stenciled text on large color fields as well as embedded abstract figurative images. She also presented some of her figurative drawings this year, but it was still the larger text-based works that got my attention. There is always the question with works that incorporate text about whether it is a purely visual element, or conveys meaning. Certainly, one recognizes the letters in these paintings as letters and thus as language, but for me part of the appeal is that they don’t appear to mean anything with regards to our normal use of language. (I found myself speaking with another artist, Megan Cutler, on the challenges of using text in art.)

Michelle Champlin’s large canvases featured cityscapes that were imaginary but were inspired by real cities, such as San Francisco.

Click to enlarge

Michelle Champlin

At least one painting featured an outline of the Transamerica Pyramid; another was supposed to represent a neighborhood like the Tenderloin as seen at ground level and incorporated newspaper clippings into the background. Champlin said she was inspired by the cosmopolitan nature of the cities, and the coming together of many different people with different perspectives.

click to enlarge

Jhina Alvarado

Jhina Alvarado’s stark Forgotten Memories series was based on old photographs she collected. It seemed odd to possess “other people’s memories”, which led her to create these series where the people were presented on empty backgrounds, and their eyes covered with black boxes. Alvarado suggests that blocking out the eyes added anonymity, as well as some mystery to the figures, and to separate them from the memories of the original owners of the photographs.

Interestingly, some Alvarado’s work was displayed into the main hall next to another series of paintings in which the main figure’s eyes were hidden. Romolo R Nisnisan Jr’s In the eyes of a hakujin included a large portrait of a blindfolded Asian woman, supposedly a caricature of western mens’ perceptions of Asian women (or at least that’s what the poorly worded artist’s statement suggested).

On my way to Art Explosion, I stopped at a small studio on Potrero Avenue, featuring paintings by Calixto Robles. Several of his large paintings feature iconic and stylized images of jaguars.

Calixto Robles

Calixto Robles

Most were singular portraits like the examples above, although Robles sometimes incorporated them into other pictures with dreamlike or religious imagery.

Sevilla Granger

Sevilla Granger.

At 1890 Bryant Street, I met Sevilla Granger. Most of her canvases feature trees in silhouette surrounded by warm colors. The trees often have sharp bends in their branches and patterns reminiscent of the cypress trees along the California coast. Interestingly, these “arboreal portraits” are sometimes painted over initial abstract layers of paint that are never seen except as texture beneath the surface. She actually presented one of these preliminary images as a finished work, and found that it received a very positive reaction.

Catherine Mackay’s paintings focus on the “visual urban experience”, and her new series Wharves and Warehouses continues this theme. I had seen Mackay’s work before, which featured familiar locations from San Francisco and New York. Unlike her previous paintings, which featured very think paint and strokes that obscured the industrial quality of the scenes, the current series is very finely textured and almost photographic in some cases.

Catherine Mackay

Catherine Mackay

I instantly recognized one of the piers from along the Embarcadero near the Bay Bridge, an area which has been a rich source of material for my own photographs – this led to an opportunity to share some of my own images and discuss our experiences with the urban landscape.

While some artists focused on a particular media, theme or technique, Mr. Rogers was focused on a single character “Bunnymatic.” As the name implies, bunnymatic is a sort of robot/bunny character, inspired at least in part by the characters of Sanrio (e.g., Hello Kitty, etc.). We see bunnymatic in a variety of media (painting, graphics, popsicle sticks, kinetic sculpture) and in a variety of situations, such as playing drums, partying, towering over a skyline, etc.

Click to enlarge

Mr. Rogers. Bunnymatic.

Another comic/cartoon-like image that caught my attention was this one illustration by Matt Delight, featuring a young woman and her pet mollusk.

Matt Delight

Matt Delight

A block or so away was Project Artaud, which houses a warren or live/work artists’ spaces, studios, galleries and a large performance space (where the 2008 San Francisco Electronic Music Festival was held).

Around a corner, I came to the studio of Janet Scheuer, whose colorful paintings feature cats. In particular, they feature her cat who passed away at the venerable age of 21.

Janet Scheuer

Janet Scheuer

In another corridor, I heard electronic music coming from the studio of Saiman Li, where a small group was performing live. The walls were covered with a variety of objects, photos and conceptual works relating to Asian visual imagery and Asian identity.

Saiman Li

Saiman Li

I made a brief detour to Cellspace. I mostly know Cellspace as a performing arts venue rather than a place for visual art. I did see large black abstract sculptures by Corey Best in the main hall. I also saw a few minutes of a dance performance entitled “Happenstance of Social Blunders”. Basically, it seemed to be deliberately clumsy dancing, set to some light jazz music provided by a live band.

Silvia Poloto.  Observations in Deep Blue.

Silvia Poloto. Observations in Deep Blue.

Silvia Poloto.  Void.

Silvia Poloto. Void.

After Cellspace, I visited the private studio of Silvia Poloto. I have a small mixed-media piece of hers, and have always liked her very deliberate arrangements of geometric shapes, color fields, organic elements and the occasional snippet of text. Her studio, like her canvases, was clean and smart and organized and was well suited for displaying some of her larger works.

Some, such as the blue painting from her Observations series, resemble that original small piece and have a the look and feel of a rough drawing.  Others, like those in the Absense Presence series are very smooth and polished, and divided into sections with abstract shapes or photo-realistic elements in each.  A third series, Highland, appeared to combine both styles into a very tall narrow dimensions.

[Images from the artist’s website reproduced with permission.]

From Poloto’s studio, I wandered down Folsom Street to Workspace, Ltd., a large and inviting collection of studios in a converted old industrial building.

Perhaps one of the most unique collections of work I saw was that of John Zaklikowsi. His source materials are a combination of discarded electronics (hard drives, cell phones, etc.), gears and chains, and musical instruments, which he arranges into large and intricate sculptural works. Some are flat wall-mounted collages, including one titled Number Theory; but he also had a grand piano covered with electronics and embedded with flutes, a clarinet and even a tabla.

John Zaklikowsi

John Zaklikowsi

I did not try to play it.

The corridors and studios of Workspace, Ltd also featured a variety of more conventional work. Leslie Andelin’s The Big Bang was a huge canvas covered in rectangles. The bright greenish colors are not really my preference. I did like the industrial and abstract paintings by Amy Curkendall and Alex Zenger, with lots of straight lines and angles. Ali Saif had a large collection of darker abstract canvases, mostly black and silver, with bits of red and other colors – his titles suggested industrial themes like classic cars.

As 6pm approached I did find a place to “decompress” from the artistic and sensory overload. Delfina Piretti had set up a tent as a quiet space where people could compose images from their dreams. While I mostly just wanted a moment without any additional input, I did contribute a drawing, trying to unload a bit of everything from all the different themes and trends into a single image. I left it behind in the book, unlabeled and unsigned.