Category Archives: review

Back to my roots

Despite living in New Jersey I maintain a membership with the San José Museum of Art both because it’s a good deal and because I really value my yearly visit. More than any other museum in the Bay Area I find myself appreciating what San José is doing and how it so frequently manages to display artwork that feels both relevant to the area and which appeals to my specific sensibilities.

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The big exhibit this time is a large exhibition of Rina Banerjee’s artwork. Her work investigating is especially relevant to the Bay Area in how it investigates globalism and the way it intersects with identity, assimilation, gender, and colonialism. There’s very much a “the world is at your fingertips” sense in this artwork and she’s asking us—and especially the Silicon Valley culture—to think about the power dynamics at play when we combine things from all over.

Her work straddles that line where it’s simultaneously beautiful and grotesque—very often just the viewing angle is enough flip it from one to another.* Ornamentation becomes something monstrous. Small details show up and totally change the context. Superficial beauty falls apart the more you look.

*It reminded me of Kara Walker’s work and how it often does similar things where you can look lazily or you can really look and see all the layers of colonialism and gender and how things can be simultaneously exotic/alluring and vulgar/threatening.

There was a large tour group from Apple at the museum when I went and I just hoped that they were sensitive to the way that these large, apparently-beautiful objects completely turn the longer you look at them and see all the embedded issues in what they’re made of. While Banerjee is doing this on purpose, she’s also doing it to ask us to look closely at everything.

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There was a smaller gallery of Catherine Wagner’s photographs. I was unaware of her work but I love it. Her science photos are great and deftly illustrates the artisty in how science is as involved in the process of looking (and seeing) in the same way that photography is.

Her Pomegranate Wall takes this a step further and essentially uses an MRI machine as a camera. The way it’s presented in a back-lit wall of multiple small images abstracts the subject matter and makes my brain think of all kinds of other connections from MRIs of brains to microscopic views of single-celled organisms.

San Jose has had a tendency to put up large pieces that feature small multiples of information (eg Listening Post and Epilogue). Wagner’s work fits right in with this and feels especially appropriate for an area that specializes in managing an overwhelming amount of little pieces of data.

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The last exhibition in San José is an installation of Pae White’s foreverago along with a couple other pieces of hers. Foreverago is a lot of fun. It’s huge and a ton of stuff to explore (the back view is as nice as the front) and I appreciate the circular relevance of digital design and jaquard looms. Recasting tapestry as “modern” is the perfect way of reminding people that it was also the original punch-card programming.

I also love the canvases of paper. They’re fabulously tactile and the colors are wonderfully subtle. I just wish there was a video or photos of how they were made since I couldn’t quite picture it based on the wall text.There are also a couple other neat installations in this gallery. The chess pieces in particular are a lot of fun and look like the kind of thing that will show up in museum gift shops eventually.

Coordinates: Maps and Art

After I went to the Cantor Center I wandered over to the Stanford Library to check out the current David Rumsey show. It’s a wonderful little show which pairs maps with artwork and explores how maps and the choices mapmakers make parallel the artistic choices that artists make.

Rather than going through my notes and highlighting everything that jumped out at me like I did with my previous visit, I’m going to go through the two or three groupings I enjoyed the most both in terms of the parallels they offered as well as the maps they showed. The Rumsey webpage includes links to the excellent catalog and I totally suggest downloading the high-definition PDF.

We’ll start with two pieces that best demonstrate the spirit of the exhibition in Baron F.W. von Egloffstein’s map of Mexican mining districts and Tauba Auerbach’s Fold series. Von Egloffstein’s shaded relief maps are a great example of how maps make a two-dimensional surface look three-dimensional. This is not the first such map but it’s both an early example and von Egloffstein is apparently somewhat of an inventor in this category.

Tauba Auerbach meanwhile paints a folded canvas with spray paint that mimics raking light so hat the resulting stretched canvas maintains the image of the earlier folds and still looks wrinkled.

Both pieces look three-dimensional and just ask to be touched even though they’re actually flat. And in both cases the intent of the craft is to actually use this shading to take advantage how our eyes can mislead us in how they interpret a two-dimensional image.

My favorite grouping were a selection of maps and artworks that removed maps’ attachment to geography and replaced it with other spatial and temporal relations. Maps aren’t just about seeing where things are in relation to each other, they frequently correspond to travel time and reflect our understanding of when we’ll get someplace.

At one level, these aren’t maps anymore because they no longer feature any geography. At another level, they absolutely are since geography isn’t the point. By removing the geography we’re forced to think about the world in a different way where the specific pathway no longer matters.

I also particularly liked pairing a couple maps that worked as small multiples. Sometimes one map isn’t enough and instead you need to see a series of maps. Pairing a series of weather maps with On Kawara is brilliant. One map is boring. Even two is pretty weak. Four though? We’re starting to see how things can be interesting.

What happened this day? What happened that one? Our brains start to fill in stories and connect dots even with this small of a sample set. The map information itself ceases to be the point and instead becomes the context for the actual data that changes day-to-day. It’s a neat trick.

There are so many other great groups. A Trevor Paglen star timelapse that reveals satellite movements paired with a map of the Apollo 11 mission is fantastic. Photographs of Christo and Jeanne Claude’s Running Fence paired with maps of the US-Mexico border are similarly great. I love that they found a way to work in Ed Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip. For such a small little show there’s so much awesome stuff.

Cantor Center

Last week I took my annual visit to the Cantor Center. No specific exhibits I was looking forward to but I always enjoy walking through and seeing what’s there.

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The special exhibition this time is an installation of Josiah McElheny’s sculptures. These were pretty cool in a mid-century way. All the multiverse drawings are neat to see and the sculptures themselves are a lot of fun to take a good slow look at.

The main interest to me in this gallery though turned out to be seeing the latest evolution of how museums have to deal with photography. I’ve seen “no flash” turn into “no photo” turn into “please photo and hashtag.” This show is the first I’ve been to with designated photo spots.

This isn’t a complaint (even though my favorite view of the room was not from one of the two designated photo sites), just an observation about how something that’s clearly selfie-bait (complete with signs around the museum encouraging posting to social media) is also too dangerous to let people photograph freely. Too easy to blunder into a sculpture either by getting too close or backing up and not being aware of what’s behind you and despite their size these are clearly pretty fragile.

There’s an awesome point where you can see both one sculpture and the entire room reflected in that sculpture. I spent a while there taking everything in and getting the full multiverse experience.

The other big exhibition is a hang of modern art under the theme The Medium Is the Message. I love the idea. Much of the art itself didn’t move me* but it’s a great concept for an academic museum to have since it digs right into the concepts of how the medium itself informs abstract art and how much of modern art is explicitly provoking how the medium itself behaves. This was one of Matt Kahn’s design prompts and it’s great to see that legacy still at Stanford.

*It is however always nice to see Ruth Asawa.

Two of the sections cover abstraction and the idea of artwork being more than the sum of its parts—often literally when considering assemblage. I viewed these two sections as being very similar since the artwork was always about what it was made of and the disconnect between our expectations of that medium and the way it actually behaves in the piece.

I especially liked the third section though which focused on portraits. While the portraits are all paintings, recognizing portraiture as a medium of its own and then interrogating the concept of what a portrait actually is is great to see. In this specific case the museum calls out who is traditionally depicted in portraiture and the disconnect that results when non-traditional subjects enter the frame.

I found myself thinking of how audience comfort works in to this equation as well since very often what people count as a “good” portrait is one which looks comfortably like a traditional rich white person’s portrait. I also found myself thinking about the way photography’s extension of portraiture to almost anyone is as similarly disruptive to our concept of what a formal portrait should look like.

Much of the other galleries were the same and I’ve covered them in previous posts.* However there are a few standouts. The corner of Yinka Shonibare prints was a lot of fun. I like combining his prints with the paintings of St. Michael. I always like seeing Vlisco turn up although I wish there was more of an explanation given for the fabric since it features prominently in each of the prints.

*Specifically the non-white galleries.

I also liked the small gallery dedicated to providing context to their new Jeffrey Gibson acquisition in that it included samples of items from Sol LeWitt to artisan beading to explain the myriad influences and references that the piece was making.

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And I was happy to get a chance to walk through Sequence again. I much much prefer it outside with strong shadows and the clear blue skies which photograph so white in black and white. It’s great to walk through and let my camera’s restrictions guide what I see. This time I let my iphone direct my eye.

Tolkien

On our big New York day trip, the stop I was most looking forward to was visiting the Morgan Library to see the Tolkien exhibition. As a long-time Tolkien fan* being able to see the actual artwork that I grew up with on the covers** was super exciting.

*Lord of the Rings is on the short list of books my wife had to read when when we got together and I’m in the process of reading them now with my eldest.

**Specifically the Ballantine editions that published in the 1970s.

I don’t have much to say about the book illustrations aside from how great it is to see them in person. It’s always nice to see how he envisioned Middle Earth and being able to see the actual brush strokes is especially wonderful.

The best part of the exhibition though is all the ephemera related to how he developed the books. His working maps with multiple layers of revised geography. His lettering sketches where he’s working out how the fire writing or other illustrations will look. Notes about units and how Hobbits will measure distance or volume. Timelines so he can keep the multiple storylines synchronized.

Much of this information didn’t make it into the Lord of the Rings Appendices. Instead I’ve seen people reassemble and compile it after the fact. It’s fantastic to see that he considered it all during development.

Related to this, I love the production notes and how his desires for the artwork printing was more than the printer was able to do at the time. From the red sun and dragon on the classic Hobbit cover to the silver on black desire for printing the Doors of Durin* it’s nice to imagine what things could have looked like. I can’t help but wonder why no one’s printed a copy of Lord of the Rings which follows Tolkien’s desired artwork reproduction.

*So as to mimic the look of Mithril on rock.

Finally, there were a lot of items that didn’t relate to Middle Earth but which demonstrated Tolkien’s development as a graphic artist. I kind of loved these too. His sketches and doodles are wonderful. You get a sense of his esthetics and his love of lettering and it was great of to see these with my kids so they could see how doodling is a way of practicing skills.

There’s also an amazing letter from his mom—who has the same hand lettering that he uses throughout his books. I’d always thought that his lettering was something he practiced and created himself. It turns out that he owes much of it to his mom. And that’s pretty cool.

We Shot the War

An unidentified soldier examines his C ration meal on May 3, 1969. Photo: OW Staffer, Hoover Library & Archive

An unidentified soldier examines his C ration meal on May 3, 1969.
Photo: OW Staffer, Hoover Library & Archive

I was in California for a week and a half last month. It wasn’t vacation but I did make it to the Hoover Institution to see a small exhibition of photographs of the Vietnam War that were shot for and published by the Overseas Weekly.

It’s an interesting show. Vietnam is kind of seared into photography’s memory as a war which defined what photojournalism is supposed to be. Up-close action. Iconic images. I’ve seen way too many lists of “most-iconic” photos that end up being mostly photos of the 1960 and 70s—at least half of them of the war or related events overseas.

The photos at the Hoover are kind of the complete opposite in that they show a more personal side of the soldiers and capture a lot of the downtime of the war effort. So we see how the soldiers spent their spare time and interacted with the Vietnamese locals. Plus we’ve got interviews with the troops asking them what they think about the war, how race relations are in the military are, and other man-on-street type of questions.

The show also includes bios and information about the photographers and publishers of the Overseas Weekly. The Weekly is notable for being published by women and also featuring a number of women correspondents. It’s kind of fascinating to read about their approach to covering the war and I’m impressed at how the show avoids making a big deal about this.

Spc. 5th Class Jimmy L. Arnold with a village child on Christmas Day, 1965. Photo: Ann Bryan, Hoover Library & Archive

Spc. 5th Class Jimmy L. Arnold with a village child on Christmas Day, 1965.
Photo: Ann Bryan, Hoover Library & Archive

It kind of amazes me that these photos and publications were so controversial at the time. To my eyes they’re the kind of thing that the military would want to be circulated. They show soldiers helping children and families. For a time when many in the anti-war public made the mistake of demonizing the soldiers for not avoiding the draft it seems like anything that humanized them could’ve helped prevent some of the backlash.

In many ways the photos felt so much like propaganda for making the soldiers and mission sympathetic that I couldn’t help but find myself be skeptical of the entire thing. For all the Army’s skepticism of Overseas Weekly it’s clearly intended to be for the troops—both news and comfort food. It’s an inside job which avoids anything that would seriously damage the war effort.

I very much appreciate the additional nuance of seeing who the soldiers are and being reminded that being anti-war is as profound a statement of support for the troops as anything.* But yes when one of the chief atrocities of the Vietnam War is also marked by the photographer admitting that he destroyed any negatives which explicitly implicated US troops I can’t look at any Vietnam War photographs without asking myself what’s not shown.

*Yes I know I’ve previously mentioned that valuing US lives over civilians is how we end up with endless drone warfare.

To the Hoover’s credit, many contact sheets are present and their actual archives only show the contact sheets online. So if I were so interested I could look through everything and see what didn’t make it into the show. Though this still wouldn’t show what never made it onto the contact sheets or what the photographers weren’t allowed to access and yeah, I know more than to just accept these at face value.

Notes

The prints on display are all modern—often on metal—and many appear to be be enlarged scans of the contact sheets based on how frequently the wax pencil markings appear on the image. This suggests that negatives may now longer exists of many of the images. It also treats the images as being about the image itself rather than any artistic statement.

Images on metal don’t feel like prints in a museum but instead like signage. It’s weird. They look fine, I just react to them differently even with the wall texts.

Anna Atkins

After I went to MoMA I wandered downtown making my way overland to Penn Station. My route took me past the New York Public Library so I decided to duck inside and see Winnie the Pooh (and send a photo to my kids). I had no idea what the special exhibition was and was pleased to see it was photography-related.

Also, it was awesome.

I had not heard of Anna Atkins before so I was just interested in seeing a bunch of old cyanotypes. There’s something wonderful about the old photographic processes and the way the images emerge from the exposed, colored paper. So unlike anything we’re used to seeing today while also being simple and tactile.

My son made a cyanotype photogram in school this year and I love it. Just seeing the flowers and the shadows they leave on the paper captures so much of the wonder of photography and the way that real things are transformed by how they interact with light.

Anna Atkins is a master. The exhibition was a small gallery filled with prints and bound books of cyanotypes. All kinds of plants delicately arranged on the paper and printed so you can see both their shadows and translucency. They evoke pressed flowers but also have an elegance in how they abstract things to the simple single-color tonal range.

They’re wonderful to look at and see as scientific observations and recording where you can compare the plants and their structures. They’re also flat-out beautiful prints* which are perfect for something like seaweed which floats in water and plays with filtered light.

*Lots of good examples over at Hyperallergic.

One of my favorite exhibits in the Monterey Bay Aquarium is the one which shows the kelp forest and places the kelp between me and the sunlight so I can get a sense of how magical the light in the forests must be. It’s a difficult thing to capture well with a camera and many of these cyanotypes put my attempts to shame.

It’s not just the plant prints that are great though. Atkins used the cyanotype process as a way to print entire books. Text and title pages are all printed as blue prints. It’s a wonderful way to home-brew your own printing just in general and creates a book where everything feels incredibly consistent.

Yes, book. Many of these prints are bound into large volumes of prints. There’s a book of British seaweed. Another of British flowers. I found myself inspecting the bindings to try and figure out how the heck they were assembled since they can’t be bound signatures.

Some of the books are clearly assembled sheets with the edges sewn together. No edge or face trim has left them looking pretty ragged since the pages aren’t exactly the same size or aligned perfectly. Others though look like proper books with gilt edges and I really can’t see how the pages were assembled. It’s an impressive binding job that the exhibit doesn’t even call attention to.

The other exhibition space in the library is dedicated to contemporary works which are riffing on what Atkins did. So more photograms and cyanotypes and experiments in how the photo paper itself reacts to light. They’re fun to see but none of them match the originals.*

*Collector Daily has a decent write up.

I did however especially enjoy Alison Rossier’s exposed expired photo paper both in the simplicity of the work and how it shows the numerous different responses that paper can have to light.

Also at MoMA

As usual, while I went to MoMA to see the Yugoslav Architecture exhibition, I wandered around the rest of the building to see what else was on display.

Charles White

There was a nice exhibit of Charles White’s work which demonstrates his versatility as an artist. All kinds of mediums—charcoal sketches, woodcuts, prints, paintings, photographs*—with a wide range of styles as continued to produce work from the 1930s through the 1970s.

*Admittedly the photographs weren’t presented as “art” but were still a nice personal set of portraits of White’s milieu.

The change in styles is kind of wonderful to see as it offers a way of learning about American art from the nostalgia-focused 1930s art to the social activism of the 1960s and 70s. Many of the pieces weren’t my kind of thing although I could still appreciate how all throughout White depicts facets of life that aren’t the “standard” image because he’s centering non-white subjects.

I however loved his sketches and woodcuts and also really liked his journey to Mexico with Elizabeth Catlett where he worked with worked with the Taller de Gráfica Popular.* White’s linework is fantastic and working in a print shop allowed him to embrace how prints and distribution are the true disruptive vector in artwork.

*Which while I didn’t mention by name in my Mexican Modernism post is definitely a huge portion of Mexico’s artistic and anti-fascist identity.

Bruce Nauman

The “big” show at MoMa was their Bruce Nauman retrospective. I did not venture to the PS1 location so I only saw part of the show. I walked through but didn’t take a lot of note. I very much enjoy Nauman’s tweaking of the “is that art” question that I can hear my kids asking me. I just didn’t feel drawn to spend a lot of time looking at or thinking about the pieces.

I did enjoy how so many of them operate as selfie-bait. This kind of thing has become the scourge of museums as every exhibition seems to need some sort of social media tie-in now. Many of Nauman’s pieces though create art by intentionally removing people from the piece.* When people insert themselves back in to take their photos, the result is an image which pretty much ruins the point of the artwork.

*The video cameras which show your movement but only if you’re in a location that can’t see the monitor are probably the best example here.

So many selfies inserting themselves back into the artwork. I couldn’t help but smile a little.

Permanent Collection

David Hammons. Out of Bounds. 1995–96.

I always take the time to at least walk through the permanent collection. This time there was a small exhibition focusing on artwork made by artists as they aged. So rather than focusing on a greatest hit, this show organized each gallery around one artists work as a way of showing how their work has progressed.

It’s a fun way to see the art and there were a lot of artists featured who I’ve liked for a long time—Agnes Martin, Helen Levitt, Ellsworth Kelly—and artists I don’t—Philip Guston, Joseph Beuys—but all of whom make up a decent canon of artists you’re supposed to know and recognize. It’s always a good thing to learn more than just the greatest hits of these guys.

My favorite section was David Hammons’s work since I was less familiar with it than I should’ve been.

Then I went to the next floor and hit the greatest hits galleries. They were packed even though this was a Wednesday visit during early January. I walked through quickly but said hi to all the cliches and grabbed a quick photo showing how crowded it was.

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The cliches are good to see and remind myself of what they look like in the flesh. How large—or not— they are. Details I always overlook in reproductions such as unpainted portions of the canvas. The out-of-gamut colors that can never be translated into standard process inks.

It’s good to see them and I found myself being jealous of the school groups who could just come to MoMA and learn about art. My kids are getting close to the right age and pretty sone I’ll be taking them here with a whole different set of eyes and a whole lot of patience.