Category Archives: review

This Land is Whose Land

It’s kind of funny. I had to move away from the Bay Area in order to find the time to visit Pier 24. Before I moved I could never get into the city for a visit. Something about the weekday-only hours and having to reserve an appointment made it something that was just way too much work to fit into my schedule. Now that I live in New Jersey, it’s been relatively straightforward to include it on my itinerary when I return to California on a vacation. I’ve been three times in five years.

The current exhibition focuses on recent work documenting the United States. It’s not all photos of people but everything on display depicts elements of society and how it’s changed in the past decade. For me, as someone who’s spent the last decade paying a lot of attention to photography—especially new photography—many of these photos are not new to me. I’ve seen them online, in galleries, and at other museums. I haven’t seen them put together like this though as a depiction of, and conversation about, the current US social climate.

I got through two rooms before I had to stop and write down in my note book, “How white is this show going to be?”

This is not a dig at those two rooms* but rather a recognition that I had walked into the photoland equivalent of the endless media profiles of Trump Country which focus on “economic anxiety” and center the plight of poor white people.

*One was the entry room featuring photos by Katy Grannan and Richard Misrach. The other was a room of Alec Soth’s Songbook. Yes I’ve seen all of those before. Yes I even like many of them.

Bryan Schutmaat

Bryan Schutmaat

Heck, this is not a dig at any of the rooms. Rather it’s how Photoland missed—and misrepresented—the same things that the general media does. Any one of these photo projects is fine. Seeing them all together though just reinforces the tropes about who we consider to be American and who we’re expected to sympathize with.

It’s bad enough that I’m tempted to view a lot of this as Ruin Porn. It’s not the same as the luscious-surface-texture ruin porn that we saw in the beginning of the decade. In this case the themes and emotions represent the same easily-identifiable tropes of an alienated white middle and working class. We get that golden light of sunset and see the decline of towns and the isolation of the people who live there.

We don’t get a sense of why things are the way they are. We don’t get to see other communities and demographics. We don’t really get to learn anything from these. As well-crafted as these images are they also feel like the same story and same people over and over again. And as a result my brain just registers objections.

The Pier 24 no-context thing definitely hurts here too. Many of the images are ones where I want to know more about where they were taken and who used the structures. If the first round of ruin porn just involved us appreciating the way ruins look, this second round is about indulging in how the ruins represent people’s dreams. Not knowing whose dreams we’re looking at is a problem.

Highlights

Corine Vermeulen

Corine Vermeulen

Dawoud Bey

Dawoud Bey

It’s not all bad though. A few artists in particular stood out as saying something beyond just photographing the decay of white America.

Corine Vermeulen’s photos of Detroit are exceptional in how they celebrates perseverance and survival rather than limiting themselves to only portraying decline. Yes there are images in there of empty lots and abandoned buildings. But they’re outnumbered by images of life. Diverse images. All different ages. All different races. Individuals, couples, groups.

Have things sucked? Yes. Are things still hard? Also yes. Are things hopeless? No. Vermeulen’s work is optimistic and points at where we can go.

Dawoud Bey’s photographs of gentrifying Harlem meanwhile are wonderfully subtle—almost too subtle given the obviousness of the tropes at play in most of the other galleries. The images are often familiar but the focus is intentionally off from what I’d expect to be in focus.

The result is a set of images which is quietly about development and change. It turns the lens on the gentrifiers but in a way which never neglects to include an aspect of the old neighborhood also in the frame. Because of the focusing choices I was forced to really look at the photos and notice how details that are often used as background texture are in fact the lifeblood of the neighborhood being displaced.

An-My Lê’s photographs of New Orleans are another fabulously subtle collection* which gets into how history and myth interact—specifically in The South where the subtext of the Civil War and Slavery is everywhere. Her work feels especially relevant now as the whole country has had to grapple with these myths and where remembering history crosses over into glorifying atrocities.

*Yes I like subtle photographic themes in general but in this particular show where so many of the galleries are filled with unsubtle tropes I was particularly taken with the ones that encouraged me to stop and think.

The power of her photographs is such that when I can’t readily make the historical connection I find my brain suggesting plausible possibilities. Which means that her photo of that one solitary tree remains deeply disturbing to me weeks after I’ve seen it.

Lowlights

Paolo Pellegrin

Paolo Pellegrin

As much as I found a lot of the rooms to be over-troped, very few of them were what I’d call outright bad either. Paolo Pellegrin’s Rochester photos though really bugged me. Aside from my remembering his captioning controversy, the whole set just rubbed me the wrong way with a grittiness that felt like I was looking at clickbait.

My biggest problem is that it feels like the entire set is pro-police propaganda which shows all the “low lifes” they have to deal with now. The way Pier 24 hung the images caused me to see all of them as through this perspective. Even the photos which weren’t actually police-related. The tropes are so strong and this gallery leans so strongly into them that just a photo of kids running through a field ends up feeling like a police chase.

Given how much we all know now about how police interact with black communities, seeing these photos displayed like this really gave me hives.

Notes

Brian Ulrich

Brian Ulrich

A few notes about specific projects that caught my eye. I enjoyed Alessandra Sanguibetti’s work as a window into how a foreigner perceives America. Also the concept of photography as pre-emptive preservation for eventual death is pretty cool.

I also love Brian Ulrich’s deserted malls. A little bit of Todd Hido’s House Hunting. A little bit of Lewis Baltz. A little bit of Camilo José Vergara. There’s the suggestion that all old industry models are now dead in these.

James Nares’s slow-motion movie is a very interesting concept that just didn’t work for me. The big thing is that I feel like it needs more depth of field since I couldn’t help but watch it for photographic moments—many of which occurred in the out of focus areas. It is nice that this was as diverse as it was but it’s also yet another New York street photography project.

Daniel Postaer’s photos of San Francisco are fun because they’re of San Francisco and I recognize the locations. They also point out one of the weaknesses of good photographic practice and searching for nice light. All that wonderful golden light not only makes everything look the same but is literally the least San Francisco looking light possible.

Crossroads

Across the landing from House Imaginary in the old museum building was a small collection of government funded prints of the “American Scene.” This is not something I consider myself to be interested in but I always take a walk through all the galleries just in case.

I’m glad I did so. I don’t like most of these but I love what they made me think of.

First off, San José is making the argument that Federal support of the arts is not just a good thing but it’s an inherently American thing. These are important colors to nail to the mast. The importance of art, sustaining that art, and for the rest of the public to access that art is something that we’ve abandoned today. At the same time I recognize the nature of this public art and how it functions as propaganda.

Thomas Hart Benton Cradling Wheat, 1939

Thomas Hart Benton
Cradling Wheat, 1939

The specific images in the exhibition focus on American life and locations. I found them especially interesting to compare with the Mexican Modernism prints which are roughly contemporary and frequently depict similar subject matter yet feel completely different. Where the Mexican prints are explicitly anti-capitalist in their celebration of manual labor and the common worker, the American ones don’t have that edge.

Yes, they celebrate manual labor and the common worker as much as, if not more than, the Communist prints did. But the framing is one of nostalgia. Pastoral scenes have that rosy Grant Wood* idyllic pre-industrial feel. Rather than critique the way that way of life is changing the goal seems to be comfort and reassurance.

*Many of his prints are on display here.

Leon Gilmour.
Cement Finishers.

The industrial and urban prints do better. They’re frequently grittier and show a wider spectrum of life in ways that remind me of 1930s photography. The artists are clearly inspired by many of the same industrialscapes that attract photographers and the social justice cause of humanizing the laborers is also something that occurs frequently in photography of this time. Showing people living and working in the hustle and bustle of the city is a new avenue of investigation.

I’m still intrigued by the subtle differences in how some labor images read “Communist” while others read as “Capitalist.” I’m certainly aware that a lot of the federally-funded artists had communist sympathies but while I can certainly view many of these as being pro-labor, pro-communist images, they’re subtle enough that I don’t have to and, without the museum framing things this way, it’s very easy to see them as pro-development instead.

Anyway I wasn’t expecting  to have these thoughts about this show and I’m pleasantly surprised that I did.

Leon Gilmour.
Pinnacles.

The last section of the room involved landscapes and nature studies. I really liked these in part because how much they reminded me of photography and paralleled the emergence of group ƒ/64. There’s that same sense of deep crisp focus and the seduction of contrasty light. There’s the awareness of how natural views can function as abstract imagery.

I’m curious whether one medium influenced the other or if there was just something in the air at the time which resulted in everyone seeing things in similar ways.

House Imaginary

Upstairs from Rise Up and California Dreamin’ is a large exhibition about housing. Given how housing is one of the most-pressing issues in the area, this is one of the most-topical shows that San José could do.

The works on display demonstrate interesting combination of “house” and “neighborhood.” While the two concepts are obviously linked, I can’t think of any of the pieces which actually bridge both and investigate that link. If anything, California Dreamin’ comes closer than anything actually in the show with the way it evokes both the architecture of apartment housing and the feeling of being in those neighborhoods.

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Zarina

The works which investigate the concept of “house” frequently touch on how home is what you make of it. There’s photography like Bill Owens’s images of 1970s Bay Area suburbia or Larry Sultan’s images of his parents’ retirement community. There are wonderfully personal images like Claire Rojas’s small, wonderfully-detailed paintings, Carmen Garza’s comfortable family scenes, and Gertrude Bleiberg’s sketches.

As much as the theme of the exhibition is housing, these works are specifically about the concept of home. The nature of the housing is ancillary to the fact that it exists. It’s what we do with, and inside, that housing where the real meaning gets created.

My favorite piece in the show was Zarina’s collection of floorplans of all the houses she’s lived in. These aren’t architectural blueprints; they’re sketches of the floorplans based on her memories. I love the concept since it ends up being about the house itself, it’s use, and the way the artist is remembering her life there.

Looking at all the floorplans together is fantastic. I can imagine how the rooms were used and think about how life must’ve been in each home. I can compare the floorplans from different parts of the world and get a sense of how differently (or similarly) buildings are built in each place. Do I want to know about the neighborhoods these homes are in? Absolutely. But more than any other piece in the exhibition this one gets at how many different levels housing leaves its mark on us.

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An Te Liu

The neighborhood side of the show is also not just any neighborhood; it’s almost always about planned communities—usually suburbs but there is some work about company towns in here. Lots of photography again from Todd Hido’s wonderful night photos of suburban light to Robert Isaacs’s photos of Daly City to David Maisel‘s aerial photos of suburban sprawl.

My favorite piece from this section of the show is An Te Liu’s selection of Levittown-inspired fabric prints which take delight in the patterns of development and the effect that row-upon-row of like-looking houses creates when abstracted just slightly. It’s both a lot of fun and wonderfully clever.

Looking at all these images of surburbia though made me realize that none of the artworks on hand were actually prepared to deal with the situation of how to fit a massive amount of housing into an area where there’s no open land to build on.

All the new housing development I’m seeing in the Bay Area hasn’t quite figured this out either. There’s not enough room to build single family homes but everything still has to have vestigial trappings of a yard or a porch. Every home is accessed via a two-lane street lined with endless two-car garages on each side. The supposed front doors can only be accessed by a alley which is so narrow that sunlight only reaches the ground at noon. The streets and sidewalks in these developments are not public land so you can’t actually walk along them unless you live there.

We‘re trying to build forms of housing on land that can no longer accommodate that form. And we‘re selling a myth of home use that doesn’t appear to exist anymore.

This was a tricky show to do. I liked it but it also made me sad because so much of it is looking into the past at our memories of what home was. I appreciate that San José is trying to address a topical issue but looking into our emotional memories of what home was is merely the beginning. Too much of this exhibition treats that concept as the end of the discussion.

California Dreamin

In the gallery right next to Rise Up was an installation of Won Ju Lim’s work—in particular her lightboxes and lighted rooms which evoke the dreamy nature of nocturnal cityscapes.

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Won Ju Lim California Dreamin’, 2002

California Dreamin’ is a gallery-sized piece where images of sunsets with silhouetted palm trees are projected through a structure of foamcore and acrylic. It’s extremely Los Angeles. This isn’t a knock on it since it’s supposed to be Los Angeles but it risks feeling out of place in San José. As a native Bay Arean, I always kept LA a bit at arms length—in large part because of how often LA’s identity seemed to subsume the rest of California’s.

It was only after moving to New Jersey that LA began to feel like home. Now, with the way the Bay Area has changed so all the strip malls that used to house mom and pop shops and restaurants have been replaced with up-market food chains and luxury condos, LA often feels more like the Bay Area I remember. Yes the geography and vegetation are different. But the sense of the place and even the sense of the neighborhoods feels like what I want home to feel like.

I stayed in this gallery a long time. Took a nice slow walk around the entire structure. Let my eyes get accustomed to the light levels so I could really take it in. There’s something about that late-sunset time when the sky is still light but everything else is dark that I love. It’s time to finish up work and go home in winter. It’s time to finish dinner and get ready for the night in summer. There’s something calming about it not being night yet but definitely not being day.

The structure in the center of the installation suggested housing styles which are uniquely suited for this time of day. On the east coast, you’re not going to be hanging out on a balcony or walking around the street at this time. The weather is rarely amenable to it and homes aren’t built to accommodate this kind of thing.

On the west coast, this is peak go out and take a moment for yourself time. I haven’t done enough of that this summer but this installation reminded me of that joy.

Won Ju Lim Memory Palace, Terrace 49 #1, 2003

Won Ju Lim
Memory Palace, Terrace 49 #1, 2003

The Terrace installations have a similar feeling except that rather than being in a room which reminds you of being outside, these suggest the feeling of looking out your window and seeing the neighborhood wake up as the sun goes down. I love these pieces a lot too. They‘re still very LA but the foliage is different enough that they also remind me of the Bay Area and being out at night in the Peninsula or the East Bay where there’s just enough elevation to make things layered.

That cloudiness of the layers of acrylic also suggests a bit of fog is an added bonus. There’s nothing like a bit of marine layer to remind me of home.

Rise Up!

I finally took my annual trip to the San José Museum of Art late last month. I’d like to go more often but I’m only in town in the summer. I’ve been very pleased though that amidst all the changes in the Bay Area over the five years since I’ve left that San José has kept the quality up and is still presenting art that is relevant to the Bay Area rather than falling into the trap of chasing those blockbuster traveling shows.

Robert Arneson. Five Times for Harvey, 1982.

Robert Arneson.
Five Times for Harvey, 1982.

The main show this time is Rise Up. It’s a collector-based show but rather than featuring the same name-brand artists, it features a collector who actually has his own taste and vision. He started collecting by acquiring Robert Arneson’s Five Times for Harvey and then just took off in acquiring art from all kinds of under-represented artists.

The Arneson origin story of the collection is why things are framed as “social justice.” Most of the rest of the works on display though are not about outright protest or responding to a current event. Instead the central theme is one of representation. That they’re so relevant to today’s issues is a demonstration of how rarely we see these voices in mass media.

In some ways I’m annoyed by this mischaracterization. In other ways I really like it. Arneson may be the only white male artist in the show but by using the protest art framing, San José avoids making this a Race™ exhibition. We should be used to galleries full of art by people who aren’t white men. These artworks should also be presented as universal. And that’s exactly what San José quietly does here.

This show also blows up the idea that the silver lining to Trump would be that “at least we’ll get some good art.” The pieces on display go back more than three decades and speak about the pride and perseverance it takes to survive in this country as an underrepresented group. It’s art that typically doesn’t make it into mainstream collections but the sentiments of life and survival are as appropriate now as they were then.

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Wangechi Mutu

Of special note in this exhibition is the wonderful selection of artwork by Black women. Kara Walker, Mickalene Thomas, Sadie Barnette, Alison Saar, and Wangechi Mutu are all on display and their work in particular shows how limited the mainstream representations of black womanhood is.

The expressions of who they are, how society has treated them, how they feel about themselves. and what gives them strength confirm that the best way to break stereotypes and see people as human is to have a multitude of representations available. Not one artist on display or one character in a movie. Many of them, each with their own character and point of view.

The art is also frequently moving without the othering gaze that so-often occurs when I see these subjects in a museum. I just wish this were the standard for what art is without having to come up with some kind of hook for why it’s appropriate today.

Western Pacific Railroad Museum

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The unexpected benefit of my car dying is that I would otherwise never have visited the Western Pacific Railroad Museum. After visiting Sand Pond and Frazier Falls, we rolled into Portola not knowing exactly what to expect but optimistic that it would hold my sons’ interests for the hour or so before I planned to retrieve my car from the mechanic.

Ok, we kind of expected something “loving hands” rather than a museum with contextual histories for the artifacts on display. And this is definitely that—the most history on display is a paragraph about when things were made and when they were decommissioned. But where the context is missing this museum just keeps things wonderfully simple.

Here’s over 30 acres of rolling stock. Go explore. Go climb on things. The only rules are don’t walk on the tracks and don’t climb on the roofs. Everything else is fair game.

Is awesome. We all climbed on engines and into cabooses. Looking into the engine cabs is great. Climbing up into the caboose cupolas is a thrill. Seeing all the different box cars and hearing the sounds of the still-working rail yard is a thrill.

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There was not only plenty for the boys to do, they want to go back again.

As do I.

Since this was primarily a trip to retrieve my car from the mechanic I did not bring all my camera gear with me on this excursion. In particular, I left my Yashicamat in the cabin at Packer. This is probably just as well since I was on kid-watching duty (and there’s a lot to watch out for). But when I come back I need to make sure I have my Yashicamat with Portra loaded so I can go to town.

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Cantor Visit

A couple weeks ago I got to spend an hour or so at the Cantor Center. There weren’t any specific exhibitions I wanted to see but I always enjoy my visits as I’ve come to appreciate how the museum incorporates its teaching mission into the wall text and displays.

Ink Worlds

Li Huayi, Dragons Hidden in Mountain Ridge, 2008.

Li Huayi. Dragons Hidden in Mountain Ridge, 2008.

The main exhibition this time is about Contemporary Chinese painting. It’s one of those exhibitions that starts off rubbing me the wrong way since I’ve been developing an allergy to any museum show which over emphasizes the collector. It thankfully sidesteps the biggest pitfalls by being a collection which is distinct and focused.* Plus part of the point of this show is to showcase student curation so the result doesn’t feel like an attempt to increase the prestige of the collector.

*All too often it seems like these exhibitions are intended to glorify the collector and showcase the same group of big-name white western male artists.

It’s great to see these presented in a way which emphasizes their contemporariness and how they’re in conversation with modern art in general while also riffing on the specific history and legacy of different forms of Chinese art. The massive change in China’s role in the world over the past couple decades and how all the artists presented have lived that experience—whether in China or as part of the Chinese diaspora that’s had to rethink its relationship with its home country.

Where other museums lump this kind of artwork into the basement as ancient craft, the works on display are clearly something new and relevant. Many of them work on multiple levels that depend on your familiarity with all the context in play and I love that that so much of that context is provided in the curation as a few older, more traditional works are on hand to provide a comparison and reference.

I especially like the pieces that play with how calligraphy and line interact with illustration and pictographs. The investigation is especially interesting and I also enjoy the fact that it feels like I’m trying to understand a joke but just don’t have the knowledge (in this case being able to read Chinese) to fully understand it. Yes there’s an explanation. Yes, like with a joke, the explanation is never the same as getting it.

In some ways I feel like the joke’s actually on me—and other westerners—who can’t tell the difference between a fake character and a real one. But rather than finding this a problem I love that the Cantor is confident enough to roll with it. I don’t need to get it and I’m glad the museum isn’t catering everything to people like me.

Do Ho Suh

Do Ho Suh. Who Am We? (Multi) (2000).

Do Ho Suh. Who Am We? (Multi), 2000.

There was also a small gallery with three Do Ho Suh works in it. I particularly like the Who Am We? wallpaper and how it’s so subtly done that a fair number of museumgoers just missed that it was even an artwork.

The other two works—Cause and Effect and Screen—are much more obvious in a  social-media-bait kind of way. I find it fascinating that they predate peak social media since they photograph so well. Suh though has been playing with the concept of scale and using little people to construct or support a large concept for decades now. It just so happens that Suh’s metaphors for how culture works are also metaphors for how social media itself works.

All those little people coming together to create content which is distinctly different. All those little people coming together to create content for the easy consumption of other people.

Also The Cantor displayed Do Ho Suh in the Asian wing. In the adjoining gallery they had on display a statue of the Vairocana Buddha. Having just seen all of Do Ho Suh’s work, I looked at the thousand Sakyamuni Buddhas which form the Vairocana Buddha’s seat with very different eye. I’m not sure this comparison was even intentional but I appreciated it anyway.

Alphabété

Frédéric Bruly Bouabré. Une banana jaunie offrant une divine peinture, ici, “l’épée” joue le role d’un prince sacré favorable à une douce union, 2006.

Frédéric Bruly Bouabré. Une banana jaunie offrant une divine peinture, ici, “l’épée” joue le role d’un prince sacré favorable à une douce union, 2006.

The small room of Frédéric Bruly Bouabré was wonderful. The small cards were inventive and joyous and reminded me of Lotería in the way that they appropriate terms from a colonizer’s language by illustrating them in local style and accompanying them with rhymes and verse.

As with the Ink Worlds display, much of these feels like an inside joke that I don’t/can’t get and, more importantly, don’t need to get in order to properly appreciate these. What I understand is fun and funny enough and I appreciate again that things aren’t catering to my western-based cultural background.

Stanford needs to digitize more of these since right now its website is disappointingly image-free when you search for the collection.

Dancing Sowei

In another small room was a small exhibition about a Sowei Mask. No image for this section since the most striking part of this room for me is that it included video of the mask in use and recognized that without that information there’s no way to possibly appreciate it correctly.

I love that Cantor recognizes use as an important part of the object. And not just handwaving at “ritual mask” or some kind of comment that often suggests that non-Western art is craft and Western art is part of a more-pure use-free tradition.* The video is great.** As is the explanation about how it represents gender and beauty for its culture.

*The Cantor’s African Gallery calls this out wonderfully as well although I wish the same disclaimer existed in the pre-19th Century European galleries.

**Though did make me wonder why no such treatment was given to the Nick Cave Soundsuit on display.

Humanity in the Age of Frankenstein

Beth Van Hoesen. Stanford (Arnautoff Class), 1945.

Beth Van Hoesen. Stanford (Arnautoff Class), 1945.

The other “big” exhibition is inspired by Frankenstein and the 200 anniversary of its publication. It’s a very interesting concept for an exhibition and a wonderful focus for mining the collection and finding works that investigate our knowledge of how the body works and interrogate the distinctions between man and machine (or computer).

Unfortunately I didn’t quite buy the reach in terms of the works on display and the story they were trying to tell. The show felt like it was going too shallowly in too many different directions. Some of it felt like a history of our understanding of the body. Other parts of it cast modern art featuring Tech and technology in Frankenstein’s monster terms.

I really like the second focus—especially at a place like Stanford whose involvement with Tech often precludes any self-reflection about the ethics of what they’re doing. But it doesn’t go nearly deep enough and leaves things at a facile surface comparison of “how scientific investigation has evolved” rather than making us think about what monsters we’ve unleashed on the world.