First Thursday Art Walk, August 2010

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.

Joshua Lutz Meadowlands, and First Thursday SF

Initially, I had not planned to attend First Thursday this month, given all the music shows and such. But at the last minute I decided to venture out on a very rainy evening and found some surprises.

First, I visted Robert Koch Gallery, where I have found several interesting photography exhibitions over the past year. This month they were featuring the Meadowlands series by photographer Joshua Lutz.

The Meadowlands is a sprawling area of marsh and landfill in northern New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from New York City. Growing up in New York, it was a place I passed by countless times on the New Jersey Turnpike, but really did not know. This is an experience that many New Yorkers have had with the Meadowlands, including Lutz. His photographs are part of a decade-long project that features both the natural and artificial landscape of the area (and how the two are irrevocably intertwined) as well as portraits of its residents.


[Photos by Joshua Lutz, provided courtesy of Robert Koch Gallery. Click to enlarge.]

The are the highway structures over the marsh, familiar to the “drive by” experience, but also small-town storefronts and businesses, and portraits of individuals. These people and places are only a few miles from New York City but are a completely different world. And as Lutz points out, it is relatively challenging to get into and out of the Meadowlands from the highways, and easy to get lost inside. (I have my own experience taking wrong turns off the roads near the George Washington Bridge and having a hard time finding a way to get back on). One photograph I picked up on featured an older Indian man sitting among some plants near a truck stop, which was an interesting mix of subject, and seemed at once posed and spontaneous. Some of the places seem quite natural, with streams and trees, but there is always something from the human world that intervenes, a highway in the background, train tracks, the remains of a car, etc. Many of these images are reminiscent of decaying urban (and suburban) landscapes that tend to get my attention when I travel on my own. Lutz has turned his similar interest to other locations beyond the Meadowlands, and the exhibition also featured several photographs from his recent series Am✡Dam. You can see more examples at his or the gallery’s exhibitions page.

As a side note, we realized that we both grew up in the same town just north of New York City at about the same time. Small world indeed!


James Castle. Courtesy of Gallery Paule Anglim

Across the street at Gallery Paule Anglim, I saw their exhibition of the work of James Castle. Castle was born deaf, never learned signing or lip reading, and apparently lived a very quiet and somewhat isolated life in a rural homestead near Boise, Idaho. He created unique works on small found objects and materials, such as bits of paper, matchboxes, and soot. Many of the pieces include both drawings and text, as in Unititled (3 Z $). The content, text and small images reminiscent of icons, feels very contemporary, although the materials and the texture of the work give it a more aged feel.

Jack Fischer Gallery featured Josedgardo Granados’ incredibly intricate drawings. Although one can see many examples on his website, it is really impossible to see the detail except in real life. Even at full scale, one needed a magnifying glass (conveniently provided by the gallery) to see the individual lines of the drawings, which placed natural and sci-fi elements against detailed skies and landscapes.

Mark Wolfe Contemporary Art presented “State of the Union”, a group exhibition in which artists presented images and interpretations on “events of the present and recent past at home and abroad.” Francesca Berrini’s maps of imaginary places, including Tributary and Lazy River, are created from torn maps of existing places – I was able to pick out some locations in North Africa and the Middle East.
Alessandro Busci’s Rosso is an image in red featuring construction cranes over what appears to be a ruined landscape.

The (now closed) exhibition Five Year Plan at Steven Wolf Fine Arts included large representation of a crossword puzzle by Kent and Kevin Young that caught my attention. The clues are missing, which of course makes the puzzle all but impossible to fill out.

First Thursday, January 2010

We at CatSynth present a few notes from our gallery visits here in San Francisco on the first Thursday of the year.

Peter Focault, courtesy of Micaela Gallery

First up, we visit Micaela Gallery for an exhibition of work by Peter Focault and “friends”. Focault’s large ink-on-paper works build up complex structures from simple lines and strokes. The textures can be come very intricate and dense, such as in this detail from Four Square Squared Series #2. Several pieces also have a very architectural quality, while others such as the Evolution Series #1 have a more organic feel.

In addition to the wall presentation, there was a live performance and creation of a new drawing. This was a collaboration of Focault, musician Jake Coolidge, and Jonathan Grover. Coolidge performed live processed bass guitar with loops and other samples. The audio was then interpreted by a robot that moved with a pen on a surface in response to changes in the sound. The long curving strokes with back-and-forth motions gradually produced an image that was similar in style to completed works. You can see a brief sample in the video below from Jake Coolidge’s blog, along with a more detailed description of the process:

Shannon Ebner’s Signal Hill at Altman Siegel depicted every day objects, some with text, some with symbols like stick figures, some bits of manufactured material, that all convey information or “signals” in contemporary society. I identified with the simple and geometric elements and incorporation of text in her large photographs as well as her sculpture, as well as the sparse presentation by the gallery.

Shannon Ebner, courtesy of Altman Siegel Gallery

The photographs also had a very three dimensional texture, such as one photograph of an international graphic symbol (included in the photograph above) that one often sees on a very smooth surface.

Holly Andres, courtesy Robert Koch Gallery (click to enlarge)

At Robert Koch Gallery, I saw Holly Andres’ Sparrow Lane series. The photographs this series feature a group of adolescent women. The photographs seem to be narrative, as if the girls are exploring and investigating, but they are also disjoint without any real story line. As she explains in this interview, Andres spends a lot of time carefully crafting the images, including the clothing worn by the models and the walls and furnishings of the spaces. The clothing was very well done. Most seemed vintage mid-century and featured skirts and dresses with straight lines and solid colors that gave the characters a modernist “early 1960s” feel. On the other hand, the props and settings seemed more baroque and and did not really hold my interest. The one exception was the The Missing Bird (presented here), which places the characters in a grittier basement covered in media images with a cat in the background.  I did find myself contrasting this series with the Dystopia exhibition I saw at this same gallery a year ago – it would be intriguing to see them side by side. (The exhibition will remain on display at the gallery through the end of the month.)

While exploring the photographs at the Koch Gallery, the air from the doorway carried the heavy tones of electric blues. I followed the sounds next door to the Haines Gallery, where a blues band was playing. It turns out the band was led by Mike Henderson, whose paintings were featured in the current exhibition.

I tend to be drawn to minor keys and modes, so minor blues holds a special place in my musical vocabulary. His paintings have geometric shapes with complex textures, overlaid with various line drawings and lettering. Some have a very bright texture akin to a wood surface, while others are dark black with small light shapes and figures.  It is interesting to consider the connection between the music and the visual art.  Unlike the collaboration described above where the connection was direct, the connection here is more emotional or evocative.

Stephen Wirtz gallery presented Catherine Wagner presented large highly-detailed prints of specimens from the California Acadamy of Sciences. They were arranged by biological taxonomy, but also visually. From a distance, one can focus on the overall texture, while up close one notices the details of each specimen. Hits by Rick Arnitz featured large canvases, each of which seemed to take on a different geometric theme: brightly colored circles, a texture of red a black vertical lines, stars on a light blue field, etc. I often like discovering pieces from the permanent collection on display in the back room – I recall Ulrike Palmbach’s soft sculptures of cats from a previous visit – this time it was Marc Katono’s Half Light, a large light canvas with very delicate curves and lines. The piece was reminiscent of organic fibers and would have seemed at home among Wagner’s prints.

Randy Hussong, Courtesy of Gallery Paule Anglim

Across the street at Gallery Paule Anglim, I saw Randy Hussong’s Sculpture and Lithography exhibit. All the images were based a large steel box held up on one side by a stick with a chain, essentially a “trap” of sorts. The box itself was shown in the center of the room as a piece entitled Prey and Weight.  Along the walls were combination photographs/lithographs based on images of the box in outdoor setting, based on photographs at different times of day. The box is clearly artificial, but it’s coloring and worn texture allow it to merge with the natural environment. Additionally, there was one pure black-and-white lithograph entitled Trap.

At A440 Gallery, Dominic Alleluia’s large mixed media works had a very contemporary feel. They combined large abstract elements, color textures and shapes with energetic dark swirls and waves reminiscent of graffiti. A third dimension in some works included objects and materials such as wooden dowels and metal. I found this video of the “artist at work”, and I thought the music expressed the energy of his pieces the exceptionally small gallery space.

Finally, I would like to mention seeing the exhibition Diane Arbus‘ photographs at Fraenkel Gallery.  The exhibition, titled Christ in a lobby and Other Unknown or Almost Known Works by Diane Arbus, were selected by sculpture Robert Gober from a collection of little-known photographs.  The photographs, which were relatively small in size, did fit into the context of Arbus’ better known images in that they depicted a wide selection of people, some very everyday and some a bit more challenging.

First Thursday October 2009

It’s been a while since we have a reviewed a First Thursday Art Walk here at CatSynth. It is partly because I have been away the first Thursday of several months, and on the ones that I have been here I felt largely uninspired. However, fall is usually the best season for these events, and several exhibits at 49 Geary did catch my interest this time.

The highlight of the evening was actually the combination of visual art, musical performance and film at Steven Wolf Fine Arts. As I entered, bass clarinetist Jeff Anderle was performing a solo piece. We last saw Anderle at the 2008 Switchboard Music Festival. I then noticed the main visual exhibition Taking Pictures by Nicholas Knight. In these photos, Knight captures gallery viewers in the act of taking photographs of art, particularly with small digital cameras or iPhones. I of course needed to play along and take a photo of his photos of people taking photos of art:

In front of Knight’s work, we see the part of the percussion setup for the next performance by the Magik*Magik Orchestra. The piece by composer David Lang (of Bang on a Can fame) featured flower pots purchased from a hardware and garden-supply store (visible on the lower right of the photograph). However, the pots were very well chosen for intonation and resonance, and the performance had a very harmonic and ethereal quality. The three percussionists also remained very in sync with one other through the long tones. The next piece, which was also by David Lang, was titled Little Eye and featured cello plus percussion. It was a contrast in complexity from the cello and simplicity from the percussionists. The cello melody was very classical or baroque, while the percussionists provided a very modern background texture that featured rubbing on rusted wheels. There were also individual notes on a xylophone and piano/keyboard that added a different texture.

It turns out this performance of David Lang’s works was in support of the soon-to-be-released film (untitled), for which Lang provided the music. The comedy features a new music composer and Chelsea art galleries, and I am quite eager to see it when it comes out.

At the Haines Gallery, I was particularly drawn to the exhibit by Julia Oschatz entitled Odd One Out. The room was painted in a geometric black-and-white pattern, which matched the quality of Oschatz’s largely geometric and abstract drawings on the wall.

The drawings had a very stark quality to them in terms of the shapes and textures. Rather than just abstract geometry, the drawings depicted other worlds. Some seemed to be directly taken from science fiction, others more surreal. There were also several videos featuring a mouse-like character experience all sorts misadventures. On further inspection, I realized that a small version of this character was present in most of the drawings as well. One just had to know to look for it.

Once again, the Elins Eagles-Smith Gallery featured large abstract paintings, this time by Gustavo Ramos Rivera. Rivera’s large canvases are brightly colored and feature large shapes that seem like signs or icons in an unknown language. One can see repeated shapes with different color palettes in each painting. The sculptures that dotted the gallery for the exhibition featured similar motifs and complemented the paintings well.

Aaron Parazette’s paintings at Gregory Lind Gallery seemed reminiscent of Piet Mondrian’s famous neo-plastic works, but with a more varied color palette and some different shapes. The most stark pieces of the evening were Freddy Chandra’s retangular color fields of acrylic, resin and graphite at Brian Gross Fine Art .

We conclude with a very different exhibit that again brings together visual art and music. Fifty Crows Gallery featured the solo exhibition Curse of the Black Gold by photographer Ed Kashi. Perhaps what got my attention more than the photographs themselves was the music of Femi Kuti, son of the legendary Nigerian musician Fela Kuti.

Wordless Wednesday: Alley behind 49 Geary

Art notes: SFMOMA, Kentridge, Shettar, First Thursday

This was a rather art-intensive weekend, even by our recent standards at CatSynth., spanning Thursday through Sunday. This article will only touch on a few items.

At an unplanned visit to SFMOMA, I encountered for the first time work of William Kentridge. Kentridge is a South African artist working with stop-motion films, multimedia, dance and theatre. His work spans from whimsical to overtly political, often dealing with themes from both South Africa and the region. My initial impression of Kentridge’s work from the exhibition ads and the first passing glance at the gallery were mixed. The figures in his earlier animations, such as Soho and Felix are caricatures, with squat bodies and exaggerated features, are usually not that inviting to me. But one can quickly see the immense time and skill that went into these works, which are made from a sequence of charcoal drawings. And having seen the craft, I started to notice the art, and able to step away from the figures themselves to see the mixture of film, animation and music at a more abstract level. His later works, such as 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès, Journey to the Moon, and Day for Night, allow for a more abstract viewing, and also introduce his self portraits and self-deprecating sense of humor. Set on six screens, I moved between abstract animations of star and insect movements, and the artist spilling coffee onto his blank paper.

Probably the most interesting was his newest piece, I am not me, the horse is not mine, 2008, loosely based on Nikolai Gogol’s The Nose. There was of course a partly live-acted, partly animated nose as the “star”, but also other elements depicting the demise of the Russian avant-garde under Soviet rule, and elements mixing abstraction and Soviet-style realism, with muted color fields, geometry and text. There was also an interlude of South African choral music for good measure. I wish I had been in town for the performance and lecture last month.

The final works, based on Mozart’s The Magic Flute, were the most elaborate, with video projects based on archival film, animations and stills projected into wooden stages with live mechanized shadow puppets. It was clear that the audience was transfixed in a way I usually don’t see for multimedia and video presentations in an art gallery.

This is probably worth going back to see in more detail. I simply did not have the time to stay and watch every video and animation.


Also at SFMOMA were some exhibitions I had seen but not written about previously, including the portrait photography exhibit Face of Our Time. I usually don’t go for straight-out portrait work, but these mostly large images worked in the context of the other exhibits at the museum.

I did take note of the abstract and whimsical sculpture of Ranjani Shettar. Her work combines modern technologies and traditional Indian craft techniques, but with none of the nostalgia or adherence to cultural stereotypes that often dominates Indian art, at least as it is presented in this country. Her sculptures do have a very naturalistic quality, reminiscent of much contemporary work in the western U.S.


Last Thursday was also the First Thursday open galleries in downtown San Francisco for April (this year is going by so fast, isn’t it?). I should first recognize Trevor Paglen, who was showing both at SFMOMA as a SECA Art Award recipient, and at the Altman Siegel Gallery. It is quite a coincidence to see the same artist at two venues in a single week.

Perhaps my favorite show was Ema H Sintamarian at the Jack Fischer Gallery. Her drawings/paintings consisted of surreal, curving architectural elements, with an almost cartoonish quality. Bright colors and shapes against a white background.

The show by South African artist Lyndi Sales was intricate and very meticulous, work digital cuttings of found and printed objects – it was also a poignant tribute to her father’s death in the Hederberg crash.

Portraits seem to sneak their way into many of my experiences this week, with Gao Yuan’s “12 Moons”, a series of photographs with a Chinese take on the “Madonna and Child” theme. She was featured at MOCA Shanghai last year in 2008 (MOCA was of course closed the main weekend I was there).

Susan Grossman presented chalk and pastel drawings of photographs, that quickly revealed themselves to be familiar scenes of San Francisco. The black-and-white coloring and soft edges also serve as a fitting close to an article that begin with the soft charcoal drawings of William Kentridge, even if the subject matter could not be more different.