28 Chinese, Asian Art Museum.

Last week I finally had a chance to see 28 Chinese at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. It was in many ways an inspiring exhibit and I had been hoping to write about it earlier than today – a series of unfortunate personal matters have gotten in the way of that. But it is nonetheless worth reading about, and seeing if you can this afternoon or tomorrow before it closes.

28 Chinese presents the work of 28 contemporary Chinese artists working in a variety of media. It ” is the culmination of more than a decade’s worth of exploration and research by art collectors Don and Mera Rubell,” who met with 100 artists in China between 2001 and 2012 to learn about them and assemble works from their collection. The exhibition features famous artists like Ai Weiwei, but also up-and-coming artists such as Lu Wei, whose large-scale oil-on-canvas work Liberation No. 1 was among my favorites in the show.

Lu Wei.  Liberation No 1. Oil on Canvas
[Liberation No. 1, 2013, by Liu Wei (Chinese, b. 1972). Oil on canvas. Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection, Miami. © Liu Wei.]

It depicts a colorful and unfathomably dense urban landscape, even beyond what I experienced in Shanghai in 2009. It might be disquieting to some, but I find it welcoming. Lu Wei used computer software to generate the patterns which we then rendered as oil on canvas. Another work that made use of mathematical processes to direct traditional painting practice was Shang Yixin’s acrylic work 1061.

Shang Yixin.  1061.  Acrylic on Canvas.

[1061, by Shang Yixini (Chinese, b. 1980). Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection, Miami. © Shang Yixin. Photo by CatSynth (Instagram)]

The artist uses the the square as the fundamental building block in all of his paintings. He uses precise rules to generate the patterns of colored squares, which result in different images each time. It seems he must be using stencils or edges to get such precise shapes and textures from acrylic.

An equally modernist but very different type of painting could be found in Zhu Jinshi’s Black and White Summer Palace – Black. The paint was applied using trowels to create a thick and presumably quite heavy topographical structure. It brought to mind the incredibly heavy painting The Rose by Jay DeFao.

Black and White Summer Palace – Black by Zhu Jinshi
[Black and White Summer Palace – Black by Zhu Jinshi (Chinese, b. 1954). Image from The Asian Art Museum’s Tumblr.]

There were quite a few interesting sculptural and conceptual works in the exhibition. One of the highlights was Zhu Jinshi’s monumental installation, Boat. It composed entirely of layered calligraphy paper and bamboo rods suspended from the ceiling. It was over 40 feet long, and visitors could walk inside of it.

Boat, 2012, by Zhu Jinshi (Chinese, b. 1954). Xuan paper, bamboo, and cotton thread
[Boat, 2012, by Zhu Jinshi (Chinese, b. 1954). Xuan paper, bamboo, and cotton thread. Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection, Miami. © Zhu Jinshi. Photo by CatSynth (Instagram)]

Not as large in size, but also quite monumental in its weight was Ai Weiwei’s conceptual sculpture A Ton of Tea, which literally was a ton of tea compressed into a cube.

A Ton of Tea, by Ai Weiwei
[A Ton of Tea, by Ai Weiwei (Chinese, b. 1957). Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection, Miami. © Ai Weiwei. Photo by CatSynth (Instagram)]

The setting for this piece and many others was inventive juxtaposition by the museum of works in the exhibition with the more traditional pieces from their permanent collection. The contemporary works stood quite a part from the traditional, but was interesting to see a few thousand years of Chinese artist practice all together.

One more surprising and intense conceptual work was He Xiangyu’s installation Cola Project, in which he boiled down 127 tons of Coca Cola to create a highly corrosive black residue. He used this as an ink to create traditional Chinese ink-on-paper drawings. In addition to the drawings, the installation featured a case of the rather disturbing substance, and the even more disturbing photos and videos from the worksite where large industrial cauldrons were creating it. The scene suggested a poorly regulated industrial site, and the room was filled with an odor of burnt caramel (probably emitted from the drawings). It was a rather intense work. And fortunately I am not fond of cola.

Like any good exhibition, this one inspired me in my own artist ideas – especially the two-dimension works. It also made me reminisce about my adventures at galleries and art districts in urban China, such as Shanghai’s Moganshan Road, which I’m sure has changed in the 6 years since I was last there.

28 Chinese is on display at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco through tomorrow, Sunday, August 16. If you are in the area I recommend checking it out.

Iconoclasm (Arnix and Max Papeschi), The McLoughlin Gallery

The McLoughlin Gallery is currently hosting a two-person exhibition marking the American debut of artists Arnix and Max Papeschi called Iconoclasm. As the name might suggest, it’s a somewhat quirky and unusual show, and is not subtle in its critiques of power and popular culture.

Both artists take satirical and deeply critical looks at power, the people and institutions in power and how power is communicated through propaganda and pop culture. Arnix (aka Arnix Wilnoudt) takes aim directly at seats of power in religion, the military and politics. His harshest and strongest work is reserved for the Catholic Church, including hypocrisy around sexuality and power and the continuing sexual abuse scandals. He is steeped in knowledge of the Church’s history, theology and rituals, and uses those as the framework in which he places images of human sexual organs, silicone heads of pigs and other elements.

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[Arnix, The Forbidden Fruit. Mixed media, 1870 chapel brass and silicone. Image courtesy of The McLoughlin Gallery.]

The pieces can be challenging to look at, but also quite strong both visually and in execution. The artifacts, such as the 1870 chapel brass in the piece The Forbidden Fruit, shown above, were rescued from a church in The Netherlands. The pig head is cast in silicone, but using actual pig hides in the casting process to give it an eerily realistic texture. These elements, along with the human sexual organs (both male and female) recur in many of the pieces. Rescued artifacts, including angel statues and ash cups are prominently featured in the largest piece of exhibition, The Last Judgement: The Revelation.

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[Arnix, The Last Judgement: The Revelation. Mixed Media Installation. (Click to enlarge.)]

The bright, airy space of the gallery and the reflective surfaces of the metal components makes the piece seem very open and inviting and belies its darker qualities around trauma, another theme in Arnix’s work. However, he doesn’t reserve all his criticisms for religion. In Known Unto God, an installation that includes an audio element, he criticizes both the loss of life in war, and way populations remain silence in the face of their leaders’ misadventures.

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[Arnix, Known Unto God. Brass, Mixed media, Audio. Image courtesy of The McLoughlin Gallery.]

There is humor in his work as well. His series of panels depicting the “seven deadly sins” are quite fun, both with the individualized pigs and the modernist iconography that leaves one guessing which sin is being depicted (I managed to get them all right).

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[Arnix, Seven Deadly Sins. Installation Print on plexiglass and silicone pigs. Image courtesy of The McLoughlin Gallery.]

Humor is Max Papeschi’s work. He brings together powerful political figures from history, images of disasters, and commercial or pop-culture icons in unexpected ways, and in doing so takes aim at both commercialism and propaganda, i.e., the idea that we can sell anything. Perhaps the most stark example is the use of Mickey Mouse to “sell” Nazis.

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[Max Papeschi, NaziPinkieMouse. Digital collage (Edition of 7). Image courtesy of The McLoughlin Gallery.]

A major part of commercial culture is product placement, sometimes inappropriately done, as in this advertisement for Coca Cola in the World War II bombing raid.

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[Max Papeschi, Product Placement 2.0. Digital collage (Edition of 7). Image courtesy of The McLoughlin Gallery.]

The humor is a little less dark in his series where famous (or infamous) leaders are placed on familiar figures from entertainment and pop culture. Indeed, a few of these were a lot of fun (Saddam Hussein has a disco dancer is particularly amusing).

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[Max Papeschi, Vladimir & Joseph. Digital collage (Edition of 7). Image courtesy of The McLoughlin Gallery.]

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[Max Papeschi, Ramadan Night Fever. Digital collage (Edition of 7). Image courtesy of The McLoughlin Gallery.]

These digital collages are not at all done to disguise the editing, indeed the Photoshopping is quite obvious. But that is probably the point, the bluntness and obviousness of the image. They stick with the viewer even after leaving show.

Iconoclasm will be on display at The McLoughlin Gallery (49 Geary St, San Francisco) through Saturday, May 31.

MoMA: Rene Magritte, Isa Genzken, John Cage, Dorothea Rockburne

There is always a lot to see at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) whenever I return to New York. This includes major exhibitions as well as smaller surprises tucked away in the labyrinth of galleries on the lower floors.

Of course, the most featured (and crowded) show was Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938. The exhibition is not a retrospective, but rather concentrated on a period of about ten years during which Rene Magritte developed his surrealist language and techniques. There are the deceptively simple scenes of everyday objects with unexpected or even disturbing details, as well as the early conceptual works that demonstrated his thinking about art, including This Is Not a Pipe.

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[René Magritte (Belgium, 1898-1967). La trahison des images (Ceci n’est pas une pipe) (The Treachery of Images [This is Not a Pipe]). 1929. Oil on canvas. 23 3/4 x 31 15/16 x 1 in. (60.33 x 81.12 x 2.54 cm). Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California, U.S.A. © Charly Herscovici -– ADAGP – ARS, 2013. Photograph: Digital Image © 2013 Museum Associates/LACMA,Licensed by Art Resource, NY]

Magritte, Rene
[René Magritte (Belgium, 1898-1967). Le portrait (The Portrait). 1935. Oil on canvas. 28 7/8 x 19 7/8″ (73.3 x 50.2 cm). Museum of Modern Art. Gift of Kay Sage Tanguy. © Charly Herscovici -– ADAGP – ARS, 2013]

While the exhibition doesn’t include some of his works with which I was most familiar (such as Les valeurs personelles), it was an opportunity to see early pieces I had never seen before. One can see in all of these the focus on out-of-cotext objects and repeated motifs such as bowler hats. The use of text and images disconnected from conventional meaning appears through many of the pieces as well. In addition to the paintings, which dominated the exhibition, were also collages and 3D objects from pre-existing elements, popular forms among Magritte’s contemporaries.

Located across the hall from Magritte, Isa Genzken’s large retrospective exhibition was quite a contrast in terms of its scope and style. Rather than focused on a period of the artist’s career, it covered almost four decades from the 1970s to the present, during which Genzken’s practice changed significantly. Her earliest pieces indirectly incorporated elements of sound, with sculptures representing waveforms linearly or in polar projection (e.g., “ellipsoids”), and photographs of 1970s stereo system advertisements. From there, she moved to themes representing modernism and urban landscape, including in a series of large works made of concrete or other building materials, displayed together in a large room. While the largest suggested modern architecture, some of the concrete pieces suggested urban ruins.

Isa Genzken: Retrospective
[Installation view of the exhibition Isa Genzken: Retrospective. November 23, 2013–March 10, 2014. © 2013 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photograph: Jonathan Muzikar]

From the very minimal and geometric, Genzken’s work seems to have taken a turn for the more playful, with a large variety of colorful mixed-media pieces. She also poked fun at artistic conventions with her Fuck the Bauhaus series of assemblages.

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[Isa Genzken. Fuck the Bauhaus #4, 2000. Plywood, Plexiglas, plastic slinky, clipboards, aluminum light shade, flower petals, tape, printed paper, shells, and model tree. 88 3/16 x 30 5/16 x 24″ (224 x 77 x 61 cm). Private Collection, Turin. Courtesy AC Project Room, New York. © Isa Genzken]

There is a more serious tone, and one simultaneously hopeful and melancholy in her pieces made in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York. The event affected her deeply, as it did many of us, and I found myself lingering with these last pieces to find the emotion along with the lines, shapes and colors.

It seems like every visit to MoMA includes some show that directly or indirectly includes John Cage. This time, there was a small exhibition There Will Never Be Silence: Scoring John Cage’s 4’33″ built around the museum’s original score of the piece (in proportional notation). Works from the disparate schools such as Fluxus and minimalism and spanning a wide range of artists including Robert Rauchenberg, Josef Albers, Yoko Ono and Dick Higgens are included, and each some way explores the concepts of silence and space exemplified by 4’33”.

1636.2012 2239.2008

[John Cage. 4′33″ (In Proportional Notation). 1952/1953. Ink on paper, each page: 11 x 8 1/2″ (27.9 x 21.6 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Henry Kravis in honor of Marie-Josée Kravis, 2012. © 2013 John Cage Trust]
[ Dick Higgins. Graphis No. 19 (Act One of Saint Joan at Beaurevoir). 1959. Felt-tip pen, ink, and pencil on paper, 14 x 16 7/8″ (35.6 x 42.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008. © 2013 Dick Higgins]

The minimal and conceptual is also at the heart of Dorothea Rockburne: Drawing Which Makes Itself. The exhibition, which has the same name as one of the artist’s early exhibitions in 1973, focuses on the use of carbon paper and basic drawing processes to realize large-scale works on paper and on the walls and floor. Some, like Triangle, Rectangle, Small Square were self contained and made the simple shapes and curves life-size, while pieces covering entire walls and floors gave the concept of drawing a larger-than-life but nonetheless inviting quality.

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[Dorothea Rockburne. Triangle, Rectangle, Small Square. 1978. Colored pencil on transparentized paper on board. 33 x 43″ (83.8 x 109.2 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Sally and Wynn Kramarsky. © 2013 Dorothea Rockburne / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York]

There was much more to be seen at MoMA, some of which like the recent photography acquisitions can be difficult to summarize in an article like this. Like many of the places I visit in New York, I really should be going more than once a year.

Chris Burden, Extreme Measures, New Museum

Among my first stops during this year’s New York trip was the New Museum, which is currently featuring a museum-wide exhibition of works by Chris Burden.

His work spans several decades and includes sculpture, performances and pieces that blur the boundary between the two. While the exhibition officially focuses on “weights and measures, boundaries and constraints”, the theme that seem to most unify all the pieces was “play”. Certainly, he has access to toys on larger scale than most of us could only dream of as kids who loved building sets. This was most apparent in his series of bridges, made from custom erector sets and other materials.

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Similar principles are at work in his large-scale sculptures, which use metal and found material and also included a sense of motion. The Big Wheel is indeed a huge wheel constructed from weathered metal.

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It is designed to spin freely, and visitors are treated to a twice-a-day “performance” of the piece where a motorcycle is used to start the wheel spinning. You can see a bit of this in the following video:

A nearby sculpture address the absence of motion with a perfectly balanced Porsche and meteorite. I am curious as to how Burden obtained such a large meteorite to use in this piece.

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Motion is taken to another extreme in an outdoor piece (shown as video documentation in the exhibition) where large steel beams are dropped into a pool of wet cement. As the positions, angles, are unpredictable, the result is a rather chaotic jumble of vertical steel spires. The video itself is quite interesting with the motion of the cement in response to the the dropping beams.

Perhaps the element of play is most apparent (and most poignant) in A Tale of Two Cities. Burden constructs a tableaux of two city-states at war using sand, plants and a large array of toys.

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Some of these toys (in particular, a few of the space-themed toys) were familiar from my own childhood. And certainly we sometimes created battles with them. But those fantasies never touched on the realities of war, and somehow Burden made that very apparent in this piece. Perhaps it was the presence of bullets among the toys that made it seem like something very, very bad could come of this.

The exhibition also includes other conceptual pieces, as well as some examples of Burden’s early video work, which was interesting precisely because it seems dated.

Chris Bürden: Extreme Measures will be on display at the New Museum through January 12, 2014.

APAture 2013 Opening Night

After a four year hiatus, Kearny Street Workshop’s APAture festival is back. The previous APAture in 2009 was my first look into the Bay Area’s vibrant scene of emerging Asian Pacific American artists. This time around, I not only attended the festival and gallery exhibition opening, but participated as well as one of the featured musicians. I created a set that featured the dotara, a South Asian folk instrument, as well as a sketch box, DSI Evolver, and analog modular.

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The presence of blue and purple in the setup is not an accident, as the color blue was central to this performance. It was part of my costume and the lighting as well.

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[© 2013 Susa Cortez/Kearny Street Workshop.]

The piece unfolded with the usual black-cat-blue-light opening, followed by a gradual swelling and fading of sounds from the modular. The dotata and sketch box were fed into the Make Noise echophon for effects reminiscent of old studio tape delays, alongside more modern noisy elements from the other modules. Overall, the performance was well received. For some, it was their first experience with electro-acoustic improvisation, and expressed to me their curiosity about it afterwards.

The opening night also included an opportunity to see the work of the visual artists participating in APAture. There was quite a range of work, and several pieces were quite strong both technically and conceptually. Jessica Tang covered an entire wall with panels connected by strands of red string. A closer look revealed that the panels were successive runs of Google translator on a block of text. The view can observe the decay of meaning and language through her piece:

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Yuki Maruyama’s wooden blocks function as 3D versions of manga (comic) frames. The blocks can be assembled into new comic narratives, i.e., an “exquisite corpse”. Having three dimensions, however, allows for more combinations and interpretations of the assembled comic.

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More traditional artistic media were represented as well. Wenxin Zhang’s presented stark versions of portraiture and architectural photography.

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One of the more amusing pieces was an interactive conceptual work by Alison Ho, in which she invited visitors to stick gold stars with various Asian stereotypes on a blown up image of her face. Her piece was intended to challenge the notion of Asian American’s as a model minority. Clearly, many people were having fun with it.

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[© 2013 Susa Cortez/Kearny Street Workshop.]

Other works that piqued my interest was Mido Lee’s starkly beautiful photographs of dead/forlorn trees, including some from desert landscapes; and a minimalist ring of light presented by featured artist Michael Namkung.

APAture has continued throughout October with events focus on different media, including writing, performance, and comics/zines.   The next event will be music night on Friday, October 25, at SUB/Mission (2183 Mission Street, San Francisco). If you are in San Francisco, do check it out.

Desire Obtain Cherish, #sideffects, The McLoughlin Gallery

For us at CatSynth, the summer is usually a time of intense musical focus, and this one more so than most. While I keep up with the visual arts as best I can during these periods, it often takes something strong and unusual to get my attention for these pages. #sideffects, the solo exhibition by Desire Obtain Cherish (DOC) at The McLoughlin Gallery, is one such show.

DOC - Blood Sugar High

The cover piece of the exhibition, shown above, along with the title itself, gives the viewer an immediate sense of what the show is about. The piece combines several banal and commercial elements, a store mannequin stuffed inside a replica of a familiar peppermint candy. These materials fit perfectly with DOC’s use of commonplace materials and tropes, but they are also provocative, pointing out the association of the female figure (particularly Asian female figures) with a commoditized “sweetness” and sense of possession. Clearly, we should expect to have our sensibilities tweaked a little bit as we progress through the exhibition. At the same time, the title with its hashtag and the written style tell us that along with the art, we will be subject to a bit of the artist’s written opinion, whether we want to or not. Indeed, the gallery layout for the show juxtaposes groups of similar art pieces with written thoughts from the artist, titled with a hashtag, an organization I found fun and creative.

The entrance to the exhibition is dominated by a piece featuring a “red carpet”, which was particularly amusing for the opening.

DOC #sideffects opening reception
[Image courtesy of The McLoughlin Gallery.]

The cartoon hands at the end of the carpet are sweeping something in some direction, but it’s not clear if it’s the carpet or the gold bricks that lie beyond it. The gold bricks, which were simultaneously part of the larger installation and individual works in their own right, bore DOC’s official designer monogram, if one imagined such a thing existed outside the confines of an art gallery.

Desire Obtain Cherish gold bricks

The resemblance to certain well-known designers’ monograms is clearly not a coincidence. Indeed, the monograms of actual well-known designers featured prominently in the series Designer Drugs:

DOC Designer Drugs, single set
[Image courtesy of The McLoughlin Gallery.]

A sardonic and somewhat dark sense of humor permeates much of the work, with an emphasis on twisting commercial or pop-culture references. There was a series of crucifixes made from flavored chocolate bars emblazoned with the brand-name “Heresy”. (Unfortunately for me, but fortunately for the artworks, they were not made of real chocolate). The theme was most strongly present in the series of “pill portraits” featuring iconic images of celebrities who died from drug overdoses, assembled meticulously from thousands of individually wrapped pills. The subjects range from movie legends like Judy Garland as Dorothy to artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat.

DOC - Judy's Purple Poppies
[Image courtesy of The McLoughlin Gallery.]

Despite his open ridicule of commercial and celebrity culture, Desire Obtain Cherish – whose real name is Jonathan Paul and was refreshingly down-to-earth when talking with visitors to the opening – is not without humility about his own role as an artistic provocateur and his history in Los Angeles street art. Indeed, one of the most fun parts of the opening was an installation in which visitors were invited to grab hold of a paintball gun and shoot a hanging figure directly mocking street art heroes including Banksy.

DOC paintpall street art installation

I did of course try my hand at the gun, which is quite an experience for those of us not immersed in so-called “gun culture.” It did splatter not only on the figure and the surroundings, but some bits rebounded back out into the main gallery dangerously close to myself as well as innocent bystanders.

It should also be noted that Desire Obtain Cherish, who was trained at the Parson’s School of Design, still retains his knowledge of art history and practice even as he openly rebells against it. This was particularly noticeable in his riff on Dali’s famous “melting clock” piece. In a contemporary play on the original piece’s title, DOC’s is called “Short Term Memory.”

DOC - Short Term Memory

Overall, this was a strong show, and a coup for a gallery that I have been following since its inception about two and a half years ago.

Desire Obtain Cherish, #sideeffects, will be on display at The McLoughlin Gallery through August 31. If you are in San Francisco this week, I strongly recommend checking it out.

Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde, MoMA

As usual, my trip to New York included an afternoon at MoMA. I don’t always research the exhibitions in advance, I just show up and sometimes can be happily surprised. And upstairs from much publicized display of Eduard Munch’s The Scream, I found one such surprise. Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde catalogs the art movements that initially rose out of the ruins of post-war Japan, mixed and blended with international avant-garde trends of the 1960s, and ultimately moved more into alignment with Japanese culture at large.


[Nakamura Hiroshi. Upheaval (Nairanki). 1958. Oil and pencil on plywood. 36 1/4 x 72 7/16″ (92 x 184 cm). Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art, Nagoya. © Nakamura Hiroshi, courtesy Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art, Nagoya]

As one might expect, many of the 1950s pieces, only a decade after the end of World War II, are a bit bleak, and in some cases quite absurdist. This is consistent with the rise of butoh in the performing arts during the same period. But we also see examples that share characteristics with abstract expressionism that was happening in the United States at the same time.


[Yamaguchi Katsuhiro. Vitrine: Deep into the Night (Vitorīnu: Yoru no shinkō). 1954. Watercolor on paper, oil on wood, corrugated glass. 25 3/4 x 22 1/4 x 3 9/16″ (65.5 x 56.5 x 9 cm). Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo. © Yamaguchi Katsuhiro, courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo.]

At the same time, the architectural pieces associated with the Metabolism movement were quite optimistic. Although some were fantastical in their designs such as Tange Kenzo’s A Plan for Tokyo, 1960 , there were a few that were actually built, such as Kurokawa Kisho’s Nakagin Capsule Tower Building.

The span of the exhibition intersects with Fluxus, and a few of the artists featured in last year’s Fluxus 50th anniversary exhibition made appearances here as well. Many of the Japanese artists that would become associated directly or indirectly with movement crossed paths at the Sogetsu Art Center, including Yoko Ono and Ichiyanagi Toshi. Among the pieces documenting this fertile ground were Ono’s Cough Piece and the graphical score Toshi’s IBM for Merce Cunningham. I still find inspiration in pieces like Toshi’s score four decades later.


[Ichiyanagi Toshi. IBM for Merce Cunningham. 1960 (Fluxus Edition announced 1963). Score. Master for the Fluxus Edition, typed and drawn by George Maciunas, New York. Ink, typewriting, and graphite on transparentized paper. 8 1/4 x 11 9/16″ (21 x 29.3 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift. © 2012 Ichiyanagi Toshi. Photograph by Peter Butler]

I was not at all surprised to see Yoko Ono represented once again in this exhibition. But I was happy to discover Akasegawa Genpei in the exhibition, though his membership in the Hi Red Center.


[Hi Red Center. Hi Red Center poster (recto). Fluxus Edition, edited by Shigeko Kubota, designed and produced by George Maciunas, New York. Edition announced 1965. Offset printing on paper, double-sided. 22 1/16 x 17″ (56 x 43.2 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift. © The Estate of Takamatsu Jirō, courtesy Yumiko Chiba Associates, Tokyo.]

The Hi Red Center again intersected with the world of Fluxus, even appearing in a Fluxus edition and hosting many associated artists as guests. But beyond that, Akasegawa Genpei was involved in original and sometimes controversial conceptual pieces. In his “Anti Art” objects, I could see that start for his work in the 1980s on “hyperart” or “Thomassons”. (Thomassons have been discussed on this site in earlier articles and will undoubtedly come up again.)

The later section of the exhibition chronicled the transition from the gritty and often monochromatic style of early conceptual art to a brightly colored cartoonish style associated with Japanese Pop Art. It is easy to see the rise of manga and anime in Japanese popular culture in this trend, though the content in these pieces is often more serious and subtle.


[Tateishi Kōichi (Tiger Tateishi). Samurai, the Watcher (Kōya no Yōjinbō). 1965. Oil on canvas. 51 5/16 x 63 3/4″ (130.3 x 162 cm). The National Museum of Art, Osaka. © Estate of Tiger Tateishi, courtesy The National Museum of Art, Osaka.]

Although I quite liked Tateishi Kōichi’s painting shown above and others in this part of the exhibition, overall the pop art did not hold my attention in the way the preceding sections on conceptual art did. But overall, this was a great exhibition that I was happy to come across.

Guy Overfelt #BLACKLIGHT, Ever Gold Gallery

Last weekend I had the opportunity to see #BLACKLIGHT, conceptual artist Guy Overfelt’s solo show at Ever Gold Gallery, before it closed on November 3rd. The main installation of the show was “hesher tribute” to renowned artist Dan Flavin, whose work involves abstract lines of light (you can see an example in this show at David Zwirner in New York in 2009). Overfelt’s tribute uses these light elements arranged in a pentagram in a darkened room with mirrors:


[Courtesy of Guy Overfelt and Ever Gold Gallery.]

It was interesting to peer directly through the infinitely vanishing series both head-on, as in the image above, or from the side. Indeed, the effect of side or oblique views was more disorienting, especially coming into the dark room during an exceptionally bright and sunny afternoon in San Francisco. Indeed the contrast between indoors and outdoors is what made this a particularly strong experience.


[Courtesy of Guy Overfelt and Ever Gold Gallery.]

It is the pentagram element that makes this “hesher” art. The darkened posters from L.A. punk shows that cover the wall before the installation and a curtain in the rear of the gallery would appear be at odds with the hesher theme, which is distinctly different from punk even if they overlapped during the early 1980s.


[Courtesy of Guy Overfelt and Ever Gold Gallery.]

Some rather colorful posters were also presented separately as framed oil-on-linen pieces.

The gallery describe this exhibition as Overfelt’s last exhibition, stating somewhat mysteriously that “You’ll never see Guy Overfelt’s face in San Francisco nor his work after this exhibition.” I hope that is not in fact true, as the work of this 2012 SECA AWARD nominee is growing on me.

The Fisher Collection at SFMOMA: Calder to Warhol

I have been meaning to write reviews on some recent exhibitions I have seen set SFMOMA: the selections from Fisher Collection and New Topographics photography exhibition, both of which I have actually seen multiple times. This article covers the Fisher Collection, which will be closing this coming Sunday, September 19.

I have been spending some time thinking about what it means to write “CatSynth reviews” for a major exhibition like this about which so much has already been written. In the end, it’s about personal significance. It was really a microcosm of many of the exhibitions and artists that I have followed or discovered over many years – indeed, the exhibition included artists that i had first discovered through retrospectives at SFMOMA including William Kentridge and Chuck Close, or artists such as Ellsworth Kelly and Sol LeWitt whom I have gotten to know better through the museum’s programs. It is also an opportunity to explore what does (and does not) captivator me with modern art.

One of the things I find most compelling about modern art is the simplicity and sense of calmness I can feel in its presence. This is particularly true of the more minimalist and geometrically inspired works shown on the upper floor of the exhibition. This included those labeled formally as minimalism like Sol LeWitt, but also the large monochromatic panels of Ellsworth Kelly and Richard Serra’s geometric metal sculptures.


[Installation view with Janus by Gerhard Richter (1983) and multiple pieces by Richard Serra. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.]

There is something about this type of art that I find very comforting, especially in a large scale presentation like this. I can focus on lines and curves and colors and nothing else. I can get absorbed into the repeating variations in Sol LeWitt’s drawings and sculpture, or allow my mind to go blank in Ellsworth Kelly’s simple series of panels. (Perhaps this is what made the placement of Anselm Kiefer’s straw-infused works inspired by the Holocaust in the middle of the same gallery all the more jarring.)


[Ellsworth Kelly, Blue Green Black Red (1996). San Francisco Museum of Modern Art]

Even Alexender Calder’s more organic forms fit into this category and were placed together with the others on the upper floor of the exhibit. It would be interesting to consider Calder’s curving but solid mobiles next to the intricate and delcate straight lines in LeWitt’s Hanging Structure 28c and Antony Gormley’s Quantum Cloud VIII.


[Alexander Calder, Eighteen Numbered Black (1953) . Sol LeWitt, Hanging Structure 28c (1989).]

LeWitt also touches on my interest in mathematics and algorithms (and technology) in art, and conceptual art, most notably in his Wall Drawing, which was created directly on the wall of the gallery in colored pencil from the artist’s specifications.

Gerhard Richter was a bridge between the minimalist and geometric art and the other parts of the collection. His Farben 256 with its array of solid-color rectangles was closer to the previously described works (and although I liked it I couldn’t help but think of a paint chart). Other pieces were more photographic – my favorite of these was Verwaltungsgebaude with its modern arctecture and motion.

The other direction that my artist interests tend is towards urban environments, including graffiti or industrial scenes. Cy Twombly’s large paintings in the exhibition feature repeated curving scribbles that remind me of the graffiti that I often photograph. The white scribbles on gray background in Untitled (Rome) reminded me specifically of walls I saw shooting photos in Warm Water Cove.

Twombly was placed along other works from the middle of the century. A large-scale piece by Lee Krasner was prominently featured (I have yet to see a solo retrospective of her work). A canvas with bright blue by Sam Francis caught my attention. The permanent collection of SFMOMA prominently features works by Richard Diebenkorn, and I think I liked those more than his work in this collection.

In addition to minimalist and geometric works, I also tend to notice art with a playful or surreal nature, or things that are particularly unique. William Kentridge’s installation based on Mozart’s The Magic Flute falls in this category. He built an entire miniature stage with archival photographs and moving images set to selections from the opera. While much more elaborate and complex than the previous works, the performance was still very arresting.

Strictly speaking, there was relatively little photography in the exhibition (although many of the paintings seemed derived from photographic sources). Of the few photographs, the strongest was an image by Sophie Calle which depicted a decaying bed in a courtyard of an apartment building, and was accompanied by a rather morbid story. Another of the featured photos, John Baldessari’s Blue Moon Yellow Window, Ghost Chair was quite painting-like with its extreme contrast and colored overlays.

I certainly did not touch upon everything within the exhibition in this brief review, so those who are interested are encouraged to check out the online exhibition page, or visit if you are in the area in the next five days.

[The photos in this article can be seen on flickr.  You can also see photos by others tagged SFMOMA on flickr or via SFMOMA’s online communities page.]

In Tandem with Max Mathews, Aaron Koblin, and Daniel Massey

Last Friday I attended a talk featuring Max Matthews and a new conceptual work by local artists as the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts (GAFFTA). GAFFTA is an intriguing new organization and space for the intersection art, design, sound, and technology. They are “dedicated to building social consciousness through digital culture.”

Max Mathews. Photo by Vlad Spears

I had last seen Max Mathews, considered by many to be the “father” of computer music, at an 80th birthday tribute at the Computer History Museum in 2007, and before that delivering the keynote address at ICMC 2006. It is great to see him still going strong and engaged with technology and supporting others’ creative work. His talk primarily focused on his work at Bell Labs, and in particular the history and technologies surrounding his 1962 computer rendition of the song “Daisy Bell” (aka “Bicycle Built for Two”). It was an early example of physical modeling synthesis, where sections of the vocal tract were modeled as tubes, and sound generated directly from physics equations. His version of the song was popularized in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, although Mathews revealed that the version Kubrick used in the film was not his recording. He also presented another famous example of computer-generated vocals, a performance of the “Queen of the Night” aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. This piece used formant synthesis in which focus on recreating spectral characteristics of the sounds (i.e., the formants that characterize vowel sounds) without necessarily modeling the physical processes that allow humans to create those sounds. The voice is quite compelling (if a bit dated), and demonstrates that the most realistic sounds are not necessarily those generated from physical models.

[Mathews, Koblin and Massey.  Photo by Vlad Spears.]

Mathews’ presentation of “Daisy Bell” served as an introduction for a new project “Bicycle Built for 2000” by Aaron Koblin and Daniel Massey. Koblin has been working on a series of conceptual pieces that utilize the Amazon Mechanical Turk, a framework for harnessing human intelligence to solve large problems. There are some things that humans are quite efficient at and computers are very poor at, such as recognizing distorted text (think of the CAPCHA codes that we all deal with on websites, including here at CatSynth). The Amazon Mechanical Turk, which derives its name from an 19th century hoax where a supposedly mechanical chess-playing machine turned out to be a human hidden inside a box, provides a framework and API for defining tasks to be solved by humans, recruiting people to work on them, and then compensating them for their efforts according to a fixed budget. One of Koblin’s pieces provides the instruction to “draw a sheep” for a few cents. He then collected the resulting drawings of various sheep (and non-sheep) from around the world and compiled them into a larger mosaic work, The Sheep Market. You can see the overall mosaic as well as click on individual sheep and even see an animation of how they were drawn by the individual contributors.

[Screenshot of Bicycle Built for 2000, by Aaron Koblin and Daniel Massey.  Click to enlarge.]

For “Bicycle Build for 2000”, Koblin collaborated with Daniel Massey on a work that focused on sound and music. The Max Matthews rendition of Daisy Bell was decomposed in a sound segments no longer than one syllable, and for each segment an Amazon Mechanical Turk task was created for someone to sing back the sound. Koblin and Massey then reassembled the sounds to re-create the song as sung by the participants. The initial version, in which only one singer was used for each component, was almost unrecognizable, though quite interesting. A larger version which included a chorus of voices on each segment better represented the original qualities of the song, and clearly recognizable. You can hear the full version at the project website, along with an interesting visualization of the assembled recordings. The fact that the larger ensemble produced a more recognizable result, essentially averaging out the various sung renditions, is perhaps an example of the oft touted “wisdom of crowds”.

There is also a slightly more ominous set of questions from these works concerning exploitation of individuals who don’t know the overall purpose of their tasks, or about hive mentality and such, but I still find it quite interesting and am inspired to try out the Mechanical Turk for a future art project.