Nandan Ghiya. Download Error, DSC02065, 2012.
Nandan Ghiya. Download Error, DSC02065, 2012
Pushpamala N. Toda (after late 19th century British anthropometric photograph). From the photo-performance project Native Women of South India: Manners and Customs , 2000-2004.
Pushpamala N. Toda (after late 19th century British anthropometric photograph)
Gauri Gill. Urma and Nimli, Lunkaransar, from the series Notes from the Desert, 1999-2010.
Gauri Gill. Urma and Nimli, Lunkaransar.
Annu Palakunnathu Matthew. An Indian from India.
Annu Palakunnathu Matthew. An Indian from India

As has become somewhat standard*, the San José Museum of Art put together a show featuring non-white modern artists in a way which works as both an introduction to another culture while being tremendously relevant to the existing San José community. In this case, it’s their Postdate show of Indian photography.

*Off the top of my head, Rising Dragon’s Chinese photography and Mexicanismo’s Latino art are both relevant here.

Walking through this show reminded me a lot of Princeton’s Itinerant Languages of Photography show in how it features a highly visual culture which is using and remixing old images into new artwork, creating pieces that not only reference the old meanings but also evolve the imagery into something that’s currently relevant. In this case, a lot of the old imagery references India’s colonial past and got me thinking a lot about photography as it applies post-colonial cultures dealing with the legacy of colonialism and colonial images.

Despite photography’s (correct) description as being a democratic medium, there’s also its history of tropes and power dynamics which still informs a lot of the way we approach and react to images. As point of view gathers historical momentum that it’s good or noteworthy, it becomes increasingly difficult to break away from it and see other points of view. This isn’t a function of copying as much as there’s momentum built up in the idea of “good” that most people can’t escape or don’t know how to break. It’s one thing to be able to represent yourself. It’s quite another to do so in a way which breaks free from all of what you’ve learned is the “correct” way to view yourself.*

*Something I explore a bit in an older post on self representation, this time involving American Indians. 

Postdate breaks out of the traditional views. While none of the photos at San José explicitly reference The People of India, they reference similar works, or works which grew out of the stereotypes in there, or the stereotypes themselves which have become the face of India in the West. This isn’t just photography as self-representation, it’s reappropriation of non-representative works. Which is very cool to see.

Pushpamala N.’s photography in particular is relevant and notable here in how, similar to Cindy Sherman and Carrie Mae Weems, she’s actually performing a lot of the cultural baggage which she absorbed and grew up with. But these themes are in a lot of the photography on display. I especially liked Guari Gill’s work and how, in addition to addressing the representation issues in how India and Indians have been photographed by the west by showing non-trope images and collaborating with her subjects, a lot of her work is also evoking the physical history of photography by being printed on glass and becoming a physical object which feels more like an ambrotype or glass plate than a photographic print.

I also really liked Madhuban Mitra and Manas Bhattacharya’s work of photographs of the National Instruments factory and how, while it looks like ruin porn, it explicitly looks at the history and infrastructure behind producing cameras made by, and made for, Indians.* It’s not just seductive aging textures. What was made here, who it was made for, and the implications of the manufacturing (and its cessation) matter. In this case, these photos ask what it means to produce your own tools of self-representation as well as what it means to no longer have those tools available in the modern globalized world. Does it matter where a camera is made?

*That the National 35 appears to actually be a King Regula Sprinty because National Instruments purchased the production equipment from the original German manufacturer adds a whole new layer of interesting complications and food for thought here.

I saved Annu Palakunnathu Matthew for last. Partly because her work was very funny. But mainly because she loops in Native Americans and tries to deal with what it means to be Indian in a culture which defaults to a very different image of what “Indian” means. Her reenactments of the Edward Curtis photos work on so many different levels. When displayed in an American museum, they remind us of our own colonial history while also calling out the falseness of the supposed truth in those images. They also draw parallels between how elements of both cultures are appropriated by progressive white Americans. And they capture the humor that results in trying to distinguish which kind of Indian we’re talking about.

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.


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.


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.


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.

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.

David Levinthal

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.


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.

Around the table

Rosemary Williams. Supermarket. 2008

After viewing Hidden Heroes, I went upstairs to check out Around the Table. I was pleasantly surprised even though I should know better by now. The San José Museum of Art takes risks which pay off more often than not. This show was no exception. Was it a mixed bag? Of course. But there is more good than bad and the good that’s there is all stuff I enjoyed very much.

Food is a tough concept to base an exhibition on. It’s so loaded and personal and wide-ranging that you can go anywhere and everywhere and fail to satisfy everyone. Lots of pieces which use food as a medium. Some work better than others but they don’t really explore the concept of food for me.

Where this show works best is when it touches on how food impacts people and places. Angela Buenning Filo’s Orchard photos  and David Burns and Austin Young’s Fallen Fruit in particular stand out for the way they reference Silicon Valley’s past of fruit farms and canneries and pull that history into the present day.

I also really liked Karla Diaz’s Prison Gourmet and the War Gastronomy Food Cart.*Both of these pieces address how food and recipes are more than just sustenance. They’re creativity and survival and tradition which we adapt and create for whatever our current situations are. Sharing recipes, making due, the way food impacts our memories of time and place. It’s important to explore all of these aspects of food and realize how rich and complicated it is.

*Something that I’d seen previously at YBCA but hadn’t fully digested at the time.

Other pieces I liked?

I could have spent a lot more time with Rosemary Williams’s Supermarket than I did. It’s great. It’s a combination of Gursky and Adbusters. It demonstrates how abstract and corporate the food we purchase is—especially when displayed just across the room from works which show actual food sources. It makes us think about how our food choices are dictated by brands and placement on shelves. It forces us to confront how little choice most people have regarding their food sources.* I’d love to know what supermarket and where in the country this is because I think it would be absolutely fascinating to compare regions and chains.

*Worth noting that the ethnic aisle is full of choice brandwise.

And Jitish Kallat’s Epilogue is a moving memorial to a life. Illustrating each day of someone’s life is already a provocative memorial. Doing it with moon phases touches something deep and primal in us; I’m never fully aware of the moon, but I also know that I look for it and notice it each day. Illustrating the moon phases with roti seems more clever than interesting, but it’s abstract enough that it becomes more of a meditation on life, time, and what sustains everyone. I wasn’t expecting to like this but I did.


There’s also a gallery which is intended to provoke more interaction and make visitors rethink food and our usage of it. A lot of good things in there. One of the factoids in particular struck me though.

Specifically, it claims that food waste makes up 21% of landfills now. This is presented as a bad thing. At the same time, I remember being a kid and learning that paper waster was ~80% of all landfills. So my initial reaction was more of a, “holy crap, this is GREAT, look how much recycling has helped!” than any rue about how much food we waste.

Hidden Heroes

Hidden Heroes

The Hidden Heroes show at San José is a difficult one for me to review. At one level it’s an extremely exciting concept to select a number of mundane everyday objects and highlight them as design classics in a museum. The choices of what to include and what to exclude make for fascinating discussion and thought. At another level, the actual displays here are just not that interesting. There’s a ton of potential hinted at in each display but the follow-through leaves me frustrated.

First, the good part. Since the complete list is the most interesting part of the show, it’s a good thing that there’s a comprehensive online verison of the show. I don’t disagree with the items which are selected. They’re all things we’re familiar with but have never really considered. It’s great to be forced to confront them as designed objects.

Too many museums ignore design completely. The ones which do cover design tend to focus on design brands* while making the assumption that we’ll connect the dots in comparing the designer things to the generics. I don’t think most people make that leap as I still remember viewing Mood River at the Wexner,** mentioning that I’d love to see the exact same show only using generic components instead, and receiving some odd looks.

*Named designers or firms making conscious decisions to distinguish their objects from the generic pieces.

**Yeah, that’s an awful exhibition page. The Amazon listing of the catalog is a little better.

Mood River’s actually a good comparison to this show since it was about the collective effect that all these designed products could produce but never established what the baseline mood should be. Hidden Heroes meanwhile calls out the generics and suggests that we should appreciate them more for what they are.

Where Hidden Heroes fails is that it doesn’t enough beyond the identification of the objects. There’s a little history presented but generally not enough to satisfy. It’s important to know where these items came from and what problems they were attempting to solve. Especially when we take them for granted now than we can’t image them not existing.

If you’re lucky you get old advertising or a manufacturing video. But this isn’t consistent and a lot of what makes these design classics isn’t the actual common product but instead the manufacturing process which allowed this version to become standard.


It’s not a coincidence that some of the most-fondly remembered Mr. Rogers episodes are the factory visits.* Seeing how things are mass-produced, and the specialized tools used to do this is fascinating stuff. And the simpler and more ubiquitous the object the better. Pencils, crayons, paperclips, tetrapaks, etc. are so simple yet the machines which make them are design marvels in their own right.

Seeing how these common, everyday objects are made efficiently and cheaply is as much a part of the genius of their everydayness as their actual design

*The crayon factory in particular.

The other part which I’d like to see more of is an acknowledgment that a large part of what makes these things so common and genius is that they’re cheap and disposable. If we’re going to anoint things as hidden heroes, we also need to recognize their hidden costs too. It’s a glaring weakness that that the exhibition doesn’t address the ubiquity of these designs and how we may have selected them based on a certain set of values which we may no longer fully agree with.

Are they justifiable design classics? Absolutely. At the same time, a large part of modern design are attempts to improve on these classics in order to address the disposability side of things. Design is no longer just about creation. Cradle to Cradle is over a decade old now and it’s important to call out the blindspots of past classics.

Best of 2013

Instead of the top-10 list I did last year, I’m just picking one favorite/best for different categories. Also, I haven’t done a writeup on everything yet so I’ll be updating this post well into 2014 with links to the relevant reviews.

Best exhibition overall: Jay Defeo

Jay DeFeo at SFMOMA was the first thing I saw in 2013 and set the bar so high that I’ve been comparing everything since to this show. Her work is all over the place. In the best way possible. It was fantastic and exciting to see how she jumped from medium to medium, constantly taking on new and different projects while at the same time referencing all her past work and never putting a foot wrong. She deserves to be treated as the master that she was rather than merely as the creator of The Rose.

Other non-photography* shows in the running here: James Turrell at LACMA which blew my mind by making me geek out on color more than I thought possible. Lebbeus Woods at SFMOMA—a show I’m still incapable of writing about because my brain exploded while viewing it. Flesh and Metal at the Cantor Center (by SFMOMA on the Go) which put photography, sculpture, and painting together to force me to see some of my favorite pieces in completely new ways.

*I’m splitting things up this way since I’m finding that I’m viewing them with different mindsets. While DeFeo and Flesh and Metal both involve photography, neither of them are photography exhibitions. I’m basically keeping three categories (photography, non-photography, online) running in parallel. If my best overall was a photography show, I’d have a best non-photography category listed later.

Best Photo Exhibition: Garry Winogrand

Garry Winogrand at SFMOMA, as obvious a choice as this is, is also my favorite photography show I saw this year. Part of this is because I love the photographs and slice of American history they show. But a large part is due to the fact that, more than any other show, Winogrand spurred a lot of discussion about photography, editing, ethics, etc. and anything which gets us all talking like that is a great thing.

Also in the running: Carrie Mae Weems at the Cantor Center providing a much-needed non-white perspective on art, photography, and representation. Itinerant Languages of Photography at Princeton addressing how photos change meaning as their context changes. Richard Misrach at the Cantor Center making us ask serious questions about our modern lifestyle.

Best Online Exhibition: Form and Landscape

The Huntington’s Form and Landscape project represents the kind of thing I’d love to see more of moving forward. The concept of unleashing multiple editors on a single archive and then collecting the results is what the web should be great at. That this exhibition also manages to tell the story of LA as well as explain a lot of the myths of the US is the icing on the cake.

Other noteworthy online exhibitions this year: Flak Photos Making Pictures of People is the latest foray into demonstrating how curation itself is a creative act. SFMOMA’s Rauschenberg Research Project shows how a museum can take its existing holdings  online in a ways which not only enhances the collection but also keeps the museum relevant when the collection itself is offline.

Best individual artwork: Let’s Play Ancient Greek Punishment

Pippin Barr’s Let’s Play Ancient Greek Punishment was part of San José Museum of Art’s Swans, Swine, and Sirens show. It’s awesome. The only thing more fun than playing the game is watching other people play, fail, and not get it.

I also enjoyed Christian Jankowski’s Silicon Valley Talks as part of SFMOMA’s Project Los Altos. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry with it though. And sitting inside Turrell’s Breathing Light at LACMA is not an experience I’ll forget.

Also at SJMA

Pippin Barr, Let’s Play: Ancient Greek Punishment

I went to the San José Museum of Art to see two photography shows* but wandered through the rest of the museum as well. I never really know what to expect here but am frequently pleasantly surprised by something. This visit was no exception.

*Rising Dragon and Leibovitz’s Pilgrimage.

Swans, Swine, and Sirens consists of art inspired by greek myths. Nothing quite as elaborate as Sandow Birk’s take on Dante* but it’s a fun show which hints at the myth-referencing Leibovitz is doing. We’re supposed to recognize all the references here and it’s interesting to see how they inspire artists to translate them into art which is relevant today.

*Yes, I know Dante is not Greek myth. 

My favorite piece by far—both of the exhibit and my entire visit to the museum—was Pippin Barr’s Let’s Play Ancient Greek Punishment. The implementation of the myths cracks me up but I also have a soft spot for unwinnable video games like these too.* I watched and tried not to laugh while some kids tried to play the games without getting the joke. Then I went and wasted too much time making sure that the games worked correctly.

*I love, LOVE, Futilitris.

The Prometheus game in particular is brilliant. But the math nerd in me still prefers the Zeno game.

There’s also a Hung Liu exhibition which I can’t really do justice to since I missed the companion exhibitions in the area. The pieces on display here are nice and worth seeing. Especially the giant mural. I’d like to be able to step back a bit further though in order to take it in better.

Annie Leibovitz Pilgrimage

Annie Liebovotz, Pilgrimage, Annie Oakley

I’ve never been an Annie Leibovitz fan. While I’ve liked a lot of her work, I’ve always felt that her portraits relied too much on the charisma of the sitter. She’s a fantastic celebrity photographer,* but that was all I saw her as.

*both meanings fully intended.

After seeing Pilgrimage at the San José Museum of Art, I’m quite happy to reevaluate my sense of her. These are photos which are almost best viewed without knowing or thinking about who the photographer is. Instead of the celebrity and the glamour which dominate her photos, we have quietly powerful portraits of people—or the myths about them—via their things and environment.

I’ve seen some Leibovitz photos like this before but they were all personal portraits filling out that side of her photographer’s life. It’s one thing to see photos of her partner’s or parent’s belongings. Those photos, while providing a sense of the person, also provide a sense of Leibovitz’s relationship with that person. In the same way that I only show my things to people I know and trust, her photos show how she’s been trusted.

It’s quite another thing to photograph the possessions of famous figures from history in a way which both capitalize on the myths and add background details.

Annie Liebovitz, Pilgrimage, Sigmund Freud

We know who these people are. More importantly, we know the myths about them. As a result, the photos do have the same sense of “name that subject” that most of Leibovitz’s photos do. There’s a playing card which Annie Oakley has shot through the pip. There’s the TV Elvis shot. Lincoln’s top hat.* There’s Freud’s couch. There’s the River Ouse. There’s Walden Pond. Etc. Etc. Looking at a lot of these photos produces the same feelings of familiarity and recognition that walking through the Smithsonian does. Except that by being photographs, it’s possible to mix objects and locations

*Which he was wearing when he was shot. Come it think of it, there’s a lot of gun culture embedded in our mythologies.

The photos aren’t just of icons though. Each “portrait” consists of multiple photos—some iconic, others filling in the gaps and providing some new details. It’s nice to see the groups of a handful of photos working together to present a myth rather than one photo per person.

While the exhibition consists of Leibovitz visiting her heroes and mythology, much of her mythology is consistent with the general American/western myths. Which means that the parts of this show I like the most are when I see portraits of people who (or whose work) I particularly care for.

Annie Liebovitz, Pilgrimage, Ansel Adams

Her Ansel Adams group includes a number of photos of Yosemite but is notable for the photos of his darkroom. This appeals to the backstager in me in general as well as the photographer, and photography commenter specifically.

As much as Adams’s photos are familiar and, to a certain degree, an aspiration for all photographers, it’s important to emphasize how much of what makes an Adams an Adams is the post-exposure work. We get too worked up about digital manipulation and the idea of photographic ethics. Showing Adams’s shop and implying that the darkroom is as important as actually taking the photo just makes me happy.

Annie Liebovitz, Pilgrimage, Georgia O'Keeffe

The Georgia O’Keeffe photos are also great. I love New Mexico and it’s easy to see the environment which inspired her. But it’s also nice to see photos of where O’Keeffe lived, items she used for her art, and how they all interacted. The handmade pastels and collected bones. The way the light hits and dramatizes everything both man-made and natural. The uncomplicated way of living. The O’Keeffe photos work together better than any other portrait on display.

Annie Liebovitz, Pilgrimage, John Muir

I also liked the John Muir photos. But I couldn’t help but think that a lot of their impact had been stolen by an exhibition the Sierra Club put on a few years ago.* John Muir’s legacy is best experienced by going out in nature and enjoying and exploring it on our own.

*I saw Nature’s Beloved Son: Rediscovering John Muir’s Botanical Legacy in San José in 2011. I did not blog about it at the time as I didn’t have a chance to fully get my thoughts around it after viewing. I should probably try and find the book at the library now.

It’s interesting though to see how much work it took to explore and document nature in the past. The amount of effort and scholarship it took to document and share his travels is amazing. Nowadays we just snap a photo and match the plant using a field-guide app. It’s important to see the old field notes and specimen pages to remind us how much we take for granted and what we could have lost had no one before us cared.

Other people may find they have different heroes in common with this show. Some may like Pete Seeger or Elvis, others Emily Dickinson or Louisa May Alcott. In all cases though there are interesting things to see and find here.

What I find doesn’t work as well are the landscape photos which are not tied to specific myths.* I understand how they fit with the general premise of the show. But they don’t hold the same power as the portrait groups and I found myself sort of skipping over them while I viewed the show.

*That the Niagara Falls photo which is used as the cover image for the show is one of the photos which I don’t feel “fits” suggests that maybe I’m the one with the problem.

At their best, I can grant the landscapes a sort of ruin porn power (in a good way) where they reference or evoke some past use or mythological event. The Gettysburg photos in particular work well in this regard. But in general, I just couldn’t make them fit with true portraits.

And the portraits are my biggest takeaway from this exhibition. Leibovitz is capable of taking portraits of people when they’re not even present in the frame. This is quite a stunt and blows away my prior perceptions and critiques of her. I’m not sure I’m a full-on convert yet, but it’s nice to have had my mind changed.

Rising Dragon

Yao Lu, New Landscape, Part I-V, Clear Cliff Shrouded in Floating Clouds, 2007

I managed to make it to the San José Museum of Art just in time to catch Rising Dragon: Contemporary Chinese Photography before it closed. I’m glad I did. It’s extremely easy to put your blinders on and just look at art by people who are from your own culture. I all too rarely go and explore things where I’ve no preconceived notion of what to expect. To have such a show in my backyard is a great thing.

Of course, to go to such a show is to be willing to put up with a higher percentage of misses in order to see the hits. To be clear here, misses are photos which get the, “it’s nice, but doesn’t grab me” kind of boring reaction. There wasn’t much which triggered any immediate ignore reaction.

But there was a decent amount of stuff in this show which just didn’t grab me. Quite a bit of the photography are things which struck me as falling into the clever isn’t good enough bucket to the point where I found myself thinking that I’d probably prefer the show if it were a flickr slideshow. For example, Huang Yan, Maleonn, Li Wei, and Wang Jin are all photos and photographers which I liked but just didn’t strongly respond to. Maybe it’s cultural and I lack the historical references. Or maybe I’m just getting old and am no longer responding to coming-of-age-in-a-more-complicated world problems.

In any case, there were a number of photos which I did really like. In particular, Yao Lu’s garbage landscapes* are fantastic in how they reference, evoke, and subvert traditional forms of landscape depiction. Many of the photos in the show reference myth and legend. Few do it as well as these though where it’s not just a clever idea but is instead executed to perfection.

*More at Slate and at Bruce Silverstein

Wang Wushen, Mt. Huangshen (A124), 2004

It’s especially interesting to see the garbage landscapes displayed right next to Wang Wushen’s black and write prints of Mt. Huangshen. Both describe the same landscape tradition with the same mists, peaks, and silhouettes. Both even take the same ancient tradition into modern technology and methods. Yet the results are so different.

There are also a lot of photos which document the changing China. The rate and amount of change in China means that are tons of projects documenting change or capturing what is about to be lost. We’re talking Robert Adams on fast-forward with an additional level of helplessness in the face of massive government power.* Many of the photos capture landscapes as cities sprout skyscrapers over the course of a few years. Others capture people who are about to be displaced and ways of life which are being phased out.

*There are a number of photos from the Three Gorges region which brought to mind Linda Butler’s work.

Adou, Witch and Chicken, 2006

I particularly liked Adou’s photos as they manage to be both portraits of a person and of an entire culture. And these aren’t human zoo images either. The photos of people manage to convey a sense of cultural pride along with the sense of impending loss.

Like with the landscapes, these portraits manage to strike the delicate balance between being beholden to the past and looking toward the future.

This balance is probably the common thread for the exhibition and is my biggest takeaway from the show.

Zhang Huan, Family Tree, 2000

As a westerner, I find myself looking at China and wondering how they can be so willing to just pave over and destroy centuries-old traditions and structures. Zhang Huan’s Family Tree photo series* suggests where my misunderstanding is based. It’s not about the external traditions and structures. Rather it’s about the internal traditions that are passed down generation to generation.

*Successive self-portraits as more and more of his ancestors’ names are painted on his face.

This isn’t something which we put much stock in in the West where everyone dreams of being rich and reinventing themselves. It seems to be a novel concept to the new generation of Chinese. That much of the art doesn’t grab me could be exactly the point. So much of the dealing with the open-ended freedom of young-adulthood seems familiar because it’s a western thing. To see it so often in contemporary China suggests we’re not as far apart as we think we are.