Last week I went on the First Thursday art walk of downtown galleries for the first time in several months. August is a bit of a down month, and so there weren’t really many things opening, and for several exhibitions this was really more of a “last Thursday” as they close to make way for the fall openings. Nonetheless there were several things that caught my attention, and there were a few that I was glad I caught before they closed.
At A440 Gallery, I saw recent paintings by Peter Onstad. Of particular note was a large painting, mostly blue, with abstract geometric lines and shapes. However, on closer inspection (and with some guidance from the artist), one can see that it is in fact a very stylized map of San Francisco, with prominent representations of Golden Gate Park, the Panhandle, the Richmond District and North Beach. Once one becomes oriented, the grid of streets downtown and the diagonals of Market Street and Columbus Avenue become apparent as well. There is even a marker for 49 Geary. The exhibit will be coming down this Thursday, but the painting will soon be on display at Vesuvio’s in North Beach. As a side note, Onstad’s grandson also showed some of his work at the exhibition: small characters fashioned from wine corks and household items. One of these was sold to a friend.
At Robert Koch Gallery. I saw a series of photos by Czech photographer Miroslav Tichý. He spend decades from the 1960s to the 1980s photographing the women of his hometown Kyjov, often surreptitiously using homemade cameras and lenses made from everyday materials such as cardboard tubes and Plexiglass. The resulting images are quite grainy, and the female figures blurry or ghostly. They are also quite voyeuristic, with the subjects seemingly unaware that they are being photographed. Although many of the featured photos depict nude figures, I personally preferred the more mundane images of casually dressed woman walking, such as the two Untitled photos shown below (all of his photos in the exhibition are Untitled). Although still grainy, these feel more like snapshots documenting fashions in a small town in Eastern Europe, but there also a bit of darkness to them. There was also a video of Tichý in which he demonstrated some of his homemade cameras and lenses and talked about his work.
[Miroslav Tichý. Courtesy Robert Koch Gallery.]
Also on display were a series of photo montages by Hungarian artist Foto Ada. Her pieces combine various images depicting modern urban life in the 1930s. There is often urban architecture and industrial elements juxtaposed with whole or partial human figures, such as an areal photo of the New York skyline superimposed above a row of legs of sitting female figures; or the Untitled photo combining a large industrial building “Europahaus-Musterchau” with an attractively attired woman, a strange puppet and a bicyclist wearing a gas mask. The latter is one of many images that reference the pending world war and the rise of Nazism and Fascism alongside high-paced modern life. The images feel in a way vary contemporary and familiar, particular as someone enamored of modernism – and the references to Fascism are perhaps a warning of what could happen in our own modern times.
[Foto Ada. Untitled, c. late 1930s-early 1940s. Courtesy Robert Koch Gallery.]
Both exhibitions at Robert Koch Gallery are closing on August 21.
Photography seemed to be the featured medium in most of the exhibitions I saw, even at galleries where I usually see paintings or mixed media. Stephen Wirtz Gallery presented photographs by Michael Kenna. Kenna’s black-and-white prints are extremely detailed with high contrast, and combine natural and human-made elements. The quality of the prints and subject matter can be seen in Lake Bridge, Hongkun, Anhui, China, with the sharp black lines and curves of the lilies and bare trees against the stone bridge. The water of the lake is essentially invisible except for the reflections of the other elements, giving the image a more abstract quality.
[Michael Kenna. Lake Bridge, Hongkun, Anhui, China. Courtesy of Stephen Wirtz Gallery.]
In addition to several others from lakes and gardens in China, I also liked his architectural-detail images from Venice, such as Fondamente Nouve Poles, Venice. Again, the elements seem to be taken out of their aquatic context into a more abstract realm. The exhibition will remain up through August 21, and is worth seeing if one is in downtown San Francisco.
[Michael Kenna. Fondamente Nouve Poles, Venice. Courtesy of Stephen Wirtz Gallery.]
It is interesting to look at the crispness (clean lines, sharp contrast) of these photos, even as small images in this article, in comparison to Tichy’s blurry and grainy images. The former appeals to more to me as an aesthetic (and something I aspire to in my own work), although I did appreciate the latter as well, and having both as part of “evening of photographic exhibitions” worked well for me.
Modernbook Gallery presented an exhibition of photos by Fred Lyon of San Francisco from the 1940s and 1950s. There are iconic images such as the Golden Gate Bridge but also more esoteric locations, such as the detail of streetcar slots in Noe Valley or close-ups of people walking near buildings. The large prints are very detailed, and some such as Huntington Hotel, 1958 truly capture capture the fog against architecture. I also was drawn to a large image geometric grids, which turned out to be the interior of the Sutro Baths when it actually was still public baths and not stone ruins. The gallery was also playing host to photographers presenting limited-edition books of their work. One of these books, Chinatown By the Bay by Neeley Main caught my interest…and may be a subject of a future article.
[Fred Lyon. Sutro Baths Divers, 1953. Modernbook Gallery.]
Haines Gallery, where I usually see paintings or mixed media work, also featured a photography exhibition. Youngsuk Suh’s Wildfiles explores the “myths of the American wilderness.” All the photographs were shot during the California wildfires of 2008-2009 – though severe wildfires are an annual event here and he could have chosen any year. His large-scale images depict wildness areas obscured by smoke, with human subjects incongruously going about their daily lives, as if the fire and smoke were just another part of the weather. We see people at leisure on a riverbank underneath a bridge, relaxing or wading into the water, with a thick haze in the background. In my favorite picture from the series, a lone chipmunk stands on an artificial lookout point on a hillside. Only in the picture of a fireman are the dangers and challenges of the fire apparent (ironically, he is smoking a cigarette). Also on display was Amy Ellingson’s Summer Frieze, which was composed of a series of abstract panels featuring uniform oval shapes in a variety of colors and transformations. In some cases, they were presented straight, with different combinations of solid colors, in others they were overlaid on textures made from disjointed pieces of the shapes. The panels were arranged in a uniform line stretching around all four walls of the room.
Photography even worked its way into the Cold+Hot exhibition at Micaela Gallery, which was primarily about glass sculpture. However, it was the abstract sculptures that drew my attention, such as the large towers of rounded handblown silver-mirrored glass by Michelle Knox and the curving steel-and-glass shapes by JP Long that would actually look quite at home in CatSynth HQ although they are completely devoid of any straight lines. Tim Tate’s installations combined stationary glass with abstract moving video. Silvia Levenson’s small bottles provided yet another, perhaps more intimate, interpretation of glass.
[Michelle Knox. Installation view of silver-mirrored sculptures. Also Silvia Levenson’s The Pursuit of Happiness. Courtesy of Micaela Gallery.]
Finally Bekris Gallery surprised me with a series of cartoon-like drawings that featured a character that was basically a large nose on legs. It seemed quite familiar, and it only took me a moment to recognize it as William Kentridge, whose retrospective at SFMOMA in 2009 had been a surprise discovery for me. It’s not something I would pick out from an exhibition postcard by default, but everytime I see his work in person, whether still or moving images, it draws me in (no pun intended). I remember Kentridge’s 2008 animation piece loosely based on Nikolai Gogol’s The Nose, to which the still images in this exhibition are clearly related or derived.