Monterey Bay Aquarium

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Another visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It’s been a year. This time we managed to explore the whole aquarium more although we spent a lot of tim in the special tentacles exhibit. I was on kid duty and didn’t get to photograph much. They’re at the stage where they run from tank to tank and “see” things really quickly. But large tanks hold their attention for a while. As does looking out over the bay and seeing all the cormorants leaving their nests and returning with fish.

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San Francisco Zoo

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It’s been a few years since I’ve been to the San Francisco Zoo. My observations from my previous visit still stand, but this time in addition to thinking about the animals on display, I found myself thinking about the zoo itself and how it’s kind of a throwback to a lost era.

I have mixed feelings about the San Francisco Zoo in particular. A lot of zoos I’ve been to are completely redone with all fancy new enclosures. The San Francisco Zoo on the otherhand, while there are plenty of new enclosures, has still kept a lot of its WPA-era infrastructure. This is simultaneously depressing since they’re really not the best places for animals as well as exciting since if you squint, you can see glimpses of the past and imagine what things used to be like when all these animals were exotic reminders of how big the world was.

I found myself looking a lot at the old infrastructure this time. Both because as my kids get older, I find myself trying to remember how the zoo was when I used to visit it at their age, and because I enjoy the idea of the zoo containing reminders of how our past society was. And how much we’ve learned about animals since then.

A lot of these photos are close to being ruin porn. At the same time, they’re also me chasing my own memories and ghosts—including the fact that we bought a Zoo Key this time.

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Of course, I was also trying to take photos of the animals. One of my childhood memories of the zoo was how the animals were always hiding.* That’s thankfully no longer the case today. The animals were all out, and quite often lively and healthy looking. So that was nice to see. And nice to photograph.

*In hindsight, it was probably because their enclosures were so depressing.

And the kids had a good time chasing down the Zoo Key boxes and seeing all the animals. Except when things got a bit smelly.

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May Backlog

Continuing from April.

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Emily Fisher Landau Collection

In addition to Levinthal and the Initial Public Offering shows, San José also had a traveling show from the Whitney which focused on the Emily Fisher Landau collection. I’ve been increasingly blah on collector-centric shows as they’ve all started to look the same to me: decent art surveys which make sure to hit all the big names in a collect-them-all fashion but never say anything about the collector beyond thanking them for donating the collection to the museum. Oh, and there’s often a nice cushy catalog with the donor’s name in big letters on the cover.

The better examples at least have nice samples from all the big-name artists. The best examples have multiple nice samples from those artists so you can really learn about them.

The Landau collection is one of the better examples in that it’s a bit collect on of each but manages to choose a good sample of each artist.

Still. It’s hard to do a writeup for this kind of show. So as with the Initial Public Offering show, this is just what caught my eye.

Rodney Graham. Oak, Middle Aston, 1990

Rodney Graham

Photographywise, it’s always nice to see real dye-transfer Egglestons. Especially now that that process is dead dead.

It’s also nice to see a few Peter Hujars in the flesh. I need to look at more of his work.

And Rodney Graham’s large upside down photo print emulating the camera obscura experience is an interesting idea. It’s not as magical as a true camera obscura but it does suggest a bit of the same change in our relationship with the image subject that a camera obscura or view camera can produce.

John Baldessari. What This Painting Aims to Do, 1967

John Baldessari

I still like most everything Baldessari does. Neil Jenney makes me laugh. And John McLaughlin’s “simple” collages are a brilliant idea worth stealing.

Glenn Ligon’s piece about profiling is disturbingly, depressingly, still relevant today.

I noticed that Jasper Johns’s flags in 1973 have 50 stars (they didn’t in 1968) and now I’m wondering if the change was intentional.*

*Note: Hawaii became a state in 1959.

Keith Haring. Untitled, 1985

Keith Haring

David Wojnarowicz. Untitled, 1990

David Wojnarowicz

And between the Hujar photos, Haring print, and Wojnarowicz collage, I started to realize how brief but intense the AIDS epidemic was.* I grew up during it so it was just always there for me.* Now, three decades later, it’s become apparent that there’s maybe a decade of art which reflects the fear and loss and despair and confusion of the disease as it rampaged through the art community and the gay community.

*I’m using past tense here because I’m really talking about the period of time when the disease was pretty much a death sentence in the West and we were just figuring out what it was and how it infected people. It’s obviously still an epidemic in parts of the world from an infection point of view. But it’s no longer the death sentence it used to be and I don’t get the sense that we, culturally, are as scared of it like we were then.

There’s something both dated and uniquely raw about the AIDS artwork. For as much stuff as was going on in the world over the decades covered in this collection, a lot of the art just ignores it and focuses only on the art world. This is not a criticism, just an observation. The AIDS-related works are one of the few cases where the art confronts and reacts to world events. It’s also extremely personal and it’s still very powerful to see art where the artist is reacting so viscerally to what’s going on.

At the same time. Yeah. We no longer care about AIDS the way we did then. It’s still something to fear. But it’s a different fear than it used to be and as a result, the art feels dated since we’ve moved on to other causes.* I can see already how I’m going to have to explain to my kids how things were when I was growing up.

*Compared to the Ligon piece I mentioned earlier which is also personally reacting to current events but which reflects a situation we’ve not made any clear progress on improving. So his piece feels not just fresh and relevant, but disturbingly so.

Initial Public Offering

One of the things I like about the San Jose Museum of Art is how it frequently just shows new acquisitions in shows which basically state “we thought this was interesting and think you may too.” I’ve seen some interesting things there over the years—Listening Post being a highlight—and I was interested in their latest installment.

It’s not really an exhibition you can talk about as a whole. These are various works of art—some of which are boring and others of which really grab you—and the only common thread is that they’re new to the museum. But there’s always something which makes the whole visit worthwhile or which I want to remember and talk about.*

*Well, besides David Levinthal which was so good that everything else could have been awful and I’d still have considered my visit a success.

So. Highlights and thoughts that occurred to me while wandering through San José’s Initial Public Offering:

Sandow Birk. Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Sandow Birk’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights really stood out. I already like his work after seeing his Dante drawings a few years ago. This is even more amazing. It’s not a piece to read the declaration in,* rather, it’s enough to know that the entire declaration in written there and spend your time scrutinizing the rest of the drawing. There’s a lot to see—much of it directly relevant to the current state of Silicon Valley.

*Better to get that from the UN website.

Gleaming glass towers of progress and comfort on one side. Slums and squalor and poverty on the other. Inequality, especially regarding access to basic rights, everywhere. Security cameras and surveillance all over. That the monument is falling over and propped up is just overkill. I stayed in front of this and looked at it for a long time.

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From a less serious point of view, I really liked Stephanie Syjuco’s International Orange Commemorative Store. It’s nice to come across art that just makes me laugh. This is one such piece. While it’s relevant to the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Area, it’s also just a funny commentary on the way we merchandise everything.

Why not an International Orange store? I found myself kind of wanting a Giants cap with the logo in that color.

Sam Hernandez. Dichos y Bichos II

Sam Henandez’s Dichos y Bichos was another piece I looked at for a while. Many of these I recognize. Many I do not. But I’m always struggling to come up with Spanish idioms (especially when trying to explain English idioms to Spanish speakers) so it’s nice to see these.

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I also really liked Clare Rojas’s paintings. Lots of detail and gesture but also something very controlled from a folk craft point of view about these. I especially liked how they were displayed together in their own cluster.

I’m gradually turning into a Mission School fan and it’s nice to see local museums focus on that movement.

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I really liked the new Eric Fischl painting. Not much to say except that I always love these kind of gestural drawings (though this painting is huge) that manage to evoke so much with such ease.

Jay DeFeo; Three Mile Island #2, from the series One O'Clock Jump

Jay DeFeo is awesome. As usual. She sees things the way I wish I could see things as a photographer. And she paints or draws them in ways that are extremely photographic, but also which are possibly beyond the capability of a photograph. Her objects—in this case a tape dispenser—become renderings that transcend being representations of the product and instead suggest character and soul. I could look at her work all day.

John Chiara. Fort Barry at Bonita Point (right)

John Chiara is interesting. Especially when displayed with his comment:

I’ve kind of made photography as…labor intensive as it can be.

I’ve gradually been moving away from process fetishism. Especially in photography. Not because I believe that stuff never matters, just that all too often it’s treated as if it’s all that matters. It’s easy to become enamored with the process and forget that the end product also matters. At the same time, of course the process informs the end product.

I’m not too taken with this photo. But I appreciate how the museum tries to strike a balance between focusing on the process and asking viewers to think about how the process influenced the piece by limiting the locations (and environments) in which Chiara could actually take a photo.

It was also nice to note that many, if not most, of the pieces in display are either by local artists or of specific local interest. I’ve always liked how I can get a fix of local art in San José. It pleases me to see that they keep on pushing the collection that way.

Evening walk

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David Levinthal: Make Believe

Toys are intriguing, and I want to see what I can do with them. On a deeper level, they represent one way that society socializes its young.

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David Levinthal; Untitled (Willie Mays, No. 43), from the series, Baseball

I had a chance a few weeks ago to check out David Levinthal at the San José Museum of Art. It’s worth seeing. While at one level, photographs of toys can feel like something which falls into the clever gimmick side of things.* These are not just photos of toys—in fact, there’s nothing juvenile about anything here.

*Especially in our upworthy-saturated age where this exhibition just felt like something that could be titled “Common toys photographed as if they were real, you won’t believe the results!”

A lot of times, Levinthal directly apes existing photographers or photographic work. Just as often though, he starts off aping something specific and proceeds to get sidetracked into deeper investigations into the nature of the toy itself—and what the toy represents in our socialization. In both cases, the results retain hints of the toyness but also take us beyond into realms were we start rethinking how we perceive and react to the subjects of  photos in general.

There’s a lot of cultural baggage present. In the subjects, in ourselves, and in how we approach and react to the medium of photography.

David Levinthal; Untitled #64

Even though we know—or should know—better, it’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking that photography is true and that certain manipulations of the subject are somehow unethical. Maybe it’s photographic cheating. Maybe it’s more along the lines of the current market for unretouched photos—typically of women—which is either about shaming celebrities for “lying,” embarrassing them for being real, or setting a “good example” for our girls.*

*I’ll admit that I don’t understand the gotcha nature of these photos and I’ve never understood exactly what the intended message accompanying their release is.

For me, Levinthal’s photos of Barbie do a lot more at calling out the artifice in photography—especially fashion photography—than any of the supposed ethical violations. By photographing Barbie in the style of Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, we can see how artificial everything really is. The images read as fashion—heck we’re looking at the clothes more than we do in most fashion photos where we can be distracted by the charisma of the model. At the same time, we know none of it is real and can start asking questions about lighting and makeup and color and depth of field and focus and what message this kind of toy sends to our kids.

David Levinthal; Untitled  (No. 159 alt), from the series, Modern Romance

Light and focus in particular are two tools which get a lot of extra attention in this show. Many of the photos are intentionally out of focus—emphasizing form over details. This makes it easy to lose track of the fact that these are toys so we start filling in our own details. When things are theatrically lit on top of this, I found myself reacting to these as if they were real even though I knew they weren’t.

But not in an uncanny valley way. The lighting and focus tricks manage to avoid both the valley and any sense of hyperreality. We see mood and gesture and more adult natures in the toys instead.

David Levinthal; Untitled (No. 124), from the series, XXX

Levinthal is troubled by the proliferation of porn and sexuality, especially when it becomes embedded in toys and child socialization. I can see his point while also finding it kind of quaint; art museums tend to skew in the complete opposite direction.

His approach with the dolls manages to point a lot of this out without being either skeevy or crackpot. He’s not being a creep with kids’ toys nor is he looking for things which aren’t there. He’s mining all these toys for their mythic imagery and pulling out all kinds of things that kids just absorb.

They’re never just toys. Kids play with toys to roleplay and figure out their reality. When toys get pushed into situations beyond the orthodox use cases,* a lot of this latent imagery becomes more apparent.

*As someone who fully agrees with Micheal Chabon’s rant about the orthodoxy of Toy Story, I sure hope they do.

David Levinthal; Untitled (Wild West Sheriff 11-94), from the series "The Wild West"

So many of Levinthal’s series are about mining specific myth families. Whether they’re famous baseball moments or the Wild West or iconic historic moments (e.g. Little Bighorn, Iwo Jima, and The Alamo), in all cases the toys become larger than life. They’re gateways into movies and fantasies and learning what it means to be American.

Many of them speak to me and my youth and remind me both of being a kid again and  what I get to see my own sons play with. The nostalgia though is tempered with warnings about how almost all this imagery is, or can be, problematic. These are all myths from a simpler time. We know better about them now.

David Levinthal; Blackface (#1), from the series "Blackface"

Nowhere is this more clear than in the blackface photos. Where most of Levinthal’s work is subtle and allows us to imagine things as being real, these photos are in-your-face grotesque. They emphasize how these can’t be fun no matter how “harmless” people claim them to be. This isn’t a fantasy myth, it’s a dash of cold water on top of what used to be common imagery.

This is quite a different approach to this subject than Carrie Mae Weems’s subtlety. It’s no less powerful and very interesting to compare American Icons with Levinthal. The subtext of common household toy is the same. Weems shows how insidiously common they could be. Levinthal forces us to really observe the nastiness of the stereotype.

David Levinthal; Untitled (No. 8), from the series, Mein Kampf

The photos of Nazi toys are similarly troubling. In this case, the toys aren’t grotesque; they’re seductively beautiful. By being toys, we can kind of explore this seduction in a safe space. At the same time, even blurred, these photos remind us how much we’ve been socialized. Holy crap is an out of focus Hitler doll still pretty fucking menacing.

From a design impact point of view, the Nazis knew exactly what they were doing. It’s clear in the photos how much Levinthal was drawn to the designs too. From a kid’s point of view, it’s also an important lesson on making sure that we adequately explain how we can be seduced by things that are bad for us. And that it’s okay to feel that and even acknowledge the compulsion without having to act on it.

David Levinthal; Untitled (No. 1), from the series, Hitler Moves East,

It’s especially interesting to compare the Nazi photos with the photos from Hitler Moves East. In this case, Levinthal isn’t mining the myths as much as he’s staging and creating his own. Since there are few photos of Operation Barbarossa, the result is almost a graphic novel illustrated with Capa-like photos of toys.

Just like a graphic novel can pack serious punches when softened with the appearance of kids-stuff, these photos illustrate material which may have been too heavy to handle if actual photos existed.

I haven’t seen a photo exhibition like this which made me truly question how real every image was or to what explicit portion of the image I was reacting to, or whether my reaction was a product of my socialization. I was second guessing myself a lot. In the best way. With a lot of questions I should ask myself about all photographs I encounter.

Also:

Most of the prints on display are large-format Polaroids. I’m not going to go into tech geekery here. It’s just wonderful to see them in person.