Sonja Navin and Mike Kimball

I recently visited two openings for artists I met at Open Studios last fall and whose work reflects my interests in highways, architectural images and the urban landscape. The artists take very different approaches, and the shows were in very different parts of the city – but having both openings on the same night was a great opportunity to see them together and simultaneously reflect upon the city itself.

First, I stopped in the relatively quiet West Portal neighborhood for a show at the Greenhouse Cafe featuring Sonja Navin. Navin draws on her architectural background to capture familiar images of the city in her paintings. Perhaps the most “familiar” image was the King Street off-ramp from I-280 in her large painting entitled 280.

[Sonja Navin. 280. Photo courtesy of the artist. (click to enlarge)]

Navin experienced this interchange the way many of us do, i.e., being stuck in traffic, and thus had the opportunity to visualize it in detail. She also had a painting East on N which featured a familiar view along the N-Judah metro line in the Sunset district.

Although her subject matter is often architectural in nature, her painting style features large brush strokes and irregular areas of color rather than the straight lines and precision of architectural drawings. She also had several figurative paintings, and some such as In The Haight combine both character and street elements.

Navin’s exhibition, which also features artist Kacie Erin Smith, will be on display at The Greenhouse Cafe, 329 West Portal Avenue in San Francisco through April 30.

After brief ride over Twin Peaks, I found myself descending into the Mission district for an opening at City Art Gallery, where I was particularly interested to see new works by Mike Kimball.

Like Navin, Kimball’s interpretation of the urban landscape distills it down to basic elements, but his prints and paintings feature very clean lines and simple geometric shapes. One example is his Maritime Plaza, which I immediately recognized (it is a favorite out lunch spot of mine).

[Mike Kimball.  Maritime Plaza.  Image courtesy of the artist.  (click to enlarge.)]

Like the building it represents, the image is framed by the triangules and X-shapes of the seismic bracing. This was one of the first buildings to use this technique, which is now a familiar site on buildings in the Bay Area.

In Division Street, Kimball represents another familiar sight from daily life, the interchange of I-80 and US 101 that sits above Division Street in SOMA. The image is composed of very simple curves and lines and solid colors, from which one can distinguish the elevated structures of the highway and the shadows they cast, as well as details such as the markings (and probably graffiti) on the sides of the trailers.

[Mike Kimball.  Division Street.  Image courtesy of the artist.  (click to enlarge.)]

Trucks and trailers also feature prominently in Kimball’s work. His “Truckograph” series features a similar graphic quality to Division Street. His larger work Meditations on a port looks at the stacks of trailers at the port as an abstract collection of boxes. Kimball bridges the industrial and abstract in this work – close up, one can see the writing and metal texture, but from a distance one simply sees the colored squares.

Kimball’s current exhibition will be on display at City Art Gallery, 828 Valencia Street, through March 28.

William Leavitt, Boyce/Greenlief duo and Karl Evangelista trio

I continue to work through the backlog of art and music reviews by presenting some of the openings and performances I saw on the particularly busy and fun evening of February 19 here in San Francisco. Although the evening included both musical performances and exhibitions of visual art, music was present as a central theme throughout.

First up, we visited Jancar Jones Gallery for the opening of William Leavitt: A Show of Cards. The exhibition featured “over 300 ink drawings on index cards” (though I only counted 248) arranged in three groups on the walls of the gallery.

[William Leavitt, A Show of Cards: Installation View. Photo courtesy of Jancar Jones Gallery. (Click to enlarge.)]

The gallery’s stark white walls presented a great surface for drawings, which were sometimes very sparse and sometimes quite detailed. Many featured musical elements, such as instruments or notes on a staff. There were also mathematical pieces (such as an x-y plot of a sine function), electronic circuit diagrams, architectural drawings, animals and abstract textures.

[Click photos to enlarge.]

It was fun to scan the rows of cards, picking out individual ones for closer inspection and comparison, particular the abstracts and the references to some of my own areas of expertise (e.g., music and electronics). It turns out Leavitt has a long-standing interest in electronic music, and was featured in this article at GetLoFi alongside circuit-bending godfather Reed Ghazala.

William Leavitt, Pyramid Lens Delta. Image courtesy of Jancar Jones Gallery. (Click to enlarge.)

In addition to being works of art in their own right, the cards serve as a source material for chance procedures that Leavitt uses in other works. In particular, a random subset of cards were used to generate a narrative that was incorporated into the text for his play “Pyramid Lens Delta” (the title came from the first three cards in the set). The script for the play was part of the exhibition. The back of the script contained the card set, and glancing through the text one could see where portions of the dialogue seemed to be drawn from the cards, particularly dialogue associated with Ivan, one of the characters in the play.

Leavitt has used chance processes for past works, including a theater piece The Radio which premiered in 2002. This piece includes not only dialogue but also an original score that included musique concrete. I would have liked to have seen this.

After Jancar Jones, we made a brief detour into that ambiguously defined area at the base of Potrero Hill to Project One for The Art of Noise, a visual exhibition coincident with the Noise Pop Festival. It featured large artistically altered portraits of well known musicians, as well as some installations, such Ted Riederer’s piece featuring drums covered in rose petals.

We finally ended up in the Mission District, and after a brief stop for tacos arrived at Bluesix for a pair of musical performances.

The saxophone duo of David Boyce and Phillip Greenlief. As noted in previous reviews, Greenlief’s virtuosic saxophone performances cover a wide variety of instrumental techniques. The duo weaved effortlessly between idiomatic jazz riffs and more free-form sections featuring multiphonics, noise production and vocals. The change between sections was both sudden and subtle; I was immersed in a jazz riff with long up-and-down lines or rhythmic patterns and only later would realize that we had moved to a more non-tonal (i.e., “noisy”) and arhythmic section. They demonstrate that these modes of music making need not be at odds (as they are sometimes portrayed on musician discussion lists) and can be part of a single piece of music. The performance did, however, inspire a short discussion with a friend about what is “experimental music” and why the performances this evening did or did not qualify as “experimental”.

Boyce and Greenlief were followed by the Karl Evangelista Spaceman Explorer Trio, featuring Karl Evangelista on guitar, Cory Wright on baritone sax, and Jordan Glenn on drums. Evangelista in his various groups blends jazz traditions with elements of late-20th-century experimental music. This of course led back to the question of whether or not this performance was “experimental”, particularly given strong jazz foundations on the pieces that we heard. The trio opened with loud driving rhythms and Evangelista and Wright trading long fast melodic runs. The piece “Hurdles” on Evangelista’s MySpace is quite representative. Another piece a somewhat slower groove with strong quarter notes (one might say a little bit “funkier”, more 1970s). Within this context, the melodies, riffs and one-off notes were often atonal, which helps to keep things moving forward. Overall, it was a fast-paced and virtuosic performance.

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

Reconnaissance Fly and Noertker’s Moxie at SIMM series

Last Sunday (November 1), Reconnaissance Fly performed at the Outsound SIMM Series.

This performance was as a trio, with Polly Moller (Scorpio, and flute and voice), Amar Chaudhary (Pisces, and electronics), and Bill Wolter (Saggitarius, and guitar).

Photograph by Jennifer Chu. Click to enlarge.

We performed four pieces from our “spong” cycle Flower Futures. What is a “spong cycle”? It is a series of pieces based on spoetry, “the deliciously powerful results of robot efforts to evade your spam filter” (as well as the enormous spam queue here at CatSynth). Most spam is banal or poorly written, but occasionally one stumbles upon a particularly beautiful piece of text. We performed four pieces from the eventual full cycle. The two I wrote entitled “Small Chinese Gong” and “Seemed to be Divided in Twain” are improvisational pieces based on graphical scores. You can see an example symbol to right. The interpretation of the graphics can be musical gestures “inspired” by shapes, or a more literal interpretation such as tracing them out on a Korg Kaos Pad – for this performance Bill and I had dueling Kaos Pads in some sections, which produced dense textures or “forests” of pointed sounds that reflected the underlying text.

Photograph by Jennifer Chu.

Photograph by Jennifer Chu.

Bill Wolter’s “Spam-a-lot” is a combination of improvisational and traditionally written material. The highlight of the piece is the section in the middle concerning “the animal trade in Canada”, ending with a bluesy rock pattern set to “Ca-na-da-a!”, and is probably one of our favorite moments in every performance or rehearsal.

Polly Moller’s “Emir Scamp Budge” is a more idiomatic piece, scored for a standard quartet of keyboard, bass, guitar and voice with a bit of a jazz feel. The text is set to a rolling melody set against a walking bass line and an odd chord progression. It is quite a contrast to the graphical score pieces, and a great excuse to dust off the jazz chops.

It was a pretty solid performance, with all the practice and rehearsal time having paid off. Sadly, this was in all likelihood the last performance that Bill Wolter will be playing with us.

We were followed by Noertker’s Moxie, featuring Bill Noertker on contrabass, Annelise Zamula on tenor sax and flute, Jim Peterson on alto sax and flute, Jenny Maybee on piano, and Dave Mihaly on drumset and percussion. They were marking the release of their new CD druidh lacunae.

The piece, Kamilopárdali, started off very free-form, with lots of detached notes and percussive sounds, including a cloud of metallic-percussion sounds, and Maybee directly playing the strings inside the piano. Gradually, the music became more focused rhythmically and melodically, and then began to alternate between sections of standard modern jazz with rhythms and chromatic lines, and more free-form sections like the beginning. At one point the rhythm disappeared entirely with only sparse hits on the piano strings, drums and bodies of the bass and saxophones. After this, a section with a stronger and tighter jazz melody and rhythm emerged; I believe this was the segue into the piece Athenian Birds.

This was followed by Virage, which Noertker described as having been composed in Hungary and Slovakia in 1995. However, the impression I had of the piece was more East Asian, with lots of pentatonic scales and harmonies set against a latin rhythm. Indeed, one flute melody performed by Zamula sounded exceptionally Chinese, not only because of the scale but also the ornamentation of the notes – there is a particular sound in Chinese music with grace notes or bends on accented notes.

One other piece that particularly caught my interest was Desert Canto. It was described by Noertker as a “beautiful piece”, inspired by photos from Nevada Test Site (site of former atomic-bomb tests) that were “beautiful but also disturbing.” The piece was indeed beautiful, very atonal – but a traditional melodic atonality as opposed to percussive or non-pitched – and had a soft, more dreamlike quality, with frequent cymbal and drum rolls and freer rhythmic structure. You can hear a clip of Desert Canto on the Noertker’s Moxie website.