Best of 2012

My top-ten list of best/favorite exhibitions I saw this year. These are shows which got me thinking and which I recommended, without reservation, to anyone (and everyone) I knew.

10. Looking at the Land

Looking at the Land by Flak Photo shows suburbia all grown up. The suburbia I know. The photos feel right to me. Also, this is the best example of our new world which recognizes curation as a creative act. The promise of more of these online exhibitions is very exciting.

9. The 1968 Exhibit

The 1968 Exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California reminded me of how far we’ve come and provided me with context and information which helped me understand my parents’ generation better. This was a very ambitions show which came very close to achieving everything it set out to do.

8. Rineke Dijkstra

Rineke Dijkstra at SFMOMA was a textbook example of a show which was more than the sum of its parts. And how art isn’t always supposed to be nice to look at. This was art which is hard to look at, but worth seeing. Very powerful. Very raw. Very true.

7. South Africa in Apartheid and After

South Africa in Apartheid and After at SFMOMA was beautifully timed to open right after election day. This show was a gentle, but powerful, reminder of how what looks respectable and desirable can mask enormous injustice. And how mistreating a population of workers to achieve that society leaves long-lasting wounds.

6. Walker Evans

Walker Evans at the Cantor Arts Center showed all of Evans’s work and not just his FSA depression-era photos. It was great to see and a nice reminder of how talented Evans was. As a design major, Evans’s consistent search for the functional in his photography excites me. As a photographer, his crisp composition and eye still stand out.

5. Mark Bradford

Mark Bradford at SFMOMA was a bit of a surprise for me. I didn’t know what to expect and was very please to find fantastic work which revealed new things no matter how close or far away I stood. Individually they’re all great. Together, they’re even better. So many layers of history and personal reinvention in them.

4. Monuments of Printing 2

Monuments of Printing at the Stanford University Library showed all kinds of rare/fine books. Catnip to this typography nut. A Kelmscott Chaucer? A Doves Bible? Excuse me while I geek out.

3. Less and More:
The Design Ethos of Dieter Rams

Dieter Rams at SFMOMA meanwhile was catnip for this design nut. While his products are starting to lose relevance, Rams’s design principles have not. It’s always great to see the actual objects when talking about good design.

2. Richard Misrach:
Oakland-Berkeley Fire Aftermath, 1991

Richard Misrach at the Oakland Museum of California presented photos which are powerful, beautiful, and personal. Ruin porn without being voyeuristic. That it was local images presented locally means everyone in the exhibition was probably affected somehow too.

1. Mexicanismo

Mexicanismo at the San José Museum of Art was my favorite of the year by far. Cool and obvious while also being smart and subtle. Extremely insider-friendly while also being accessible and descriptive of the culture to outsiders. I only wish there had been a catalog available so I could show it to other people.

Other notable artwork this year

Dora García’s Instant Narrative in SFMOMA’s Descriptive Acts exhibition was probably my favorite single piece I saw. I also gained a newfound appreciation for ceramic art through David Gilhooly’s work in San José’s Renegade Humor show and SFMOMA’s acquisition of Robert Arneson’s Portrait of George.


A nice hashtag on Twitter yesterday and tons of museums were on board. I figured I’d toss a few items into the mix. My tweets (plus one I wish I’d tweeted) and any responses I received:

This is something which I see all to rarely. The Fogg Museum* is the only one I’ve visited where I remember seeing a clear commitment to show as much about the process behind as much of its collection as possible. Occasionally an exhibition will have some of the process** but it’s not nearly as common as I’d like to see.

*when I visited it over a decade ago

**SFMoMA’s Robert Frank and Diane Arbus exhibitions both included contact sheets.

This is interesting. While I have noticed how SFMoMA often display related material from its collection when exhibiting a traveling exhibition, I sort of assumed that the traveling exhibition would be mostly consistent. That each museum applies its own curatorial spin—while keeping the intent— is a new wrinkle.

Similar to the re-curating of traveling exhibitions. If the artist specializes in curation, is there also a museum curator involved?

Sadly, no replies to this one. Which is a shame since I think the marketability balance is one of the most interesting things about any arts group.

Was disappointed that no one replied to this either. How to approach art and the hangups people have about liking—or having to get—art is a huge challenge to a museum. People don’t like to feel stupid but a lot of times, this is what visiting a museum feels like.

Mainly curiosity. But it would be interesting to know if there is an intended pace that exhibitions are designed to be taken at.

Something I have noticed which the San José Museum of Art does very well. I really like the idea of multiple museums working in concert to present related exhibitions.

Mainly grinding my art, craft, and function axe. It would have been nice to hear whether this is me in crazytown of it’s something which is actively considered.

Sandow Birk

While I went to the museum for Mexicanismo first and Renegade Humor second, that Sandow Birk’s Divine Comedy was also on display was a nice bonus. In many ways a logical follow up to R. Crumb’s Genesis,* it’s interesting to see something so canonical be taken into the present day.

*I’m fully expecting a modern take on Milton next year.

The lithographs feel correct with the source material.  The modern settings and look are enough to make things more pertinent. It’s also nice (and appropriate) to translate Dante into the current vernacular.

I don’t have a lot more to add but I’m interested now in reading the books. The exhibit only has some of the pictures and text and I’d like to see how the entire piece fits together. I just don’t know when I’ll have the time to do so since reading the complete Commedia is a bit of a commitment.

Renegade Humor

Melt by Walter Robinson

My trip to San José to see Mexicanismo also meant that I could take in the Renegade Humor exhibition. It’s a spottier exhibition consisting of some pieces which I really reacted to and others which didn’t grab me much. But that’s to be somewhat expected from a bunch of work which is expected to be earthier and flippant. Flippancy doesn’t always age well.

Those pieces I reacted to though I tended to really like. I have a wry sense of humor which appreciates the obscure and the dark.* There’s definitely a lot of that here. Some of the newer pieces such as Walter Robinson’s Melt, or Brian Goggin’s Desire for the Other are especially interesting in this regard as they use dark humor to comment on the state of things today. Those two pieces are also the two most visible in the exhibition.

*Yet another reason I enjoyed Mexicanismo.

David Gilhooly
#10 Sampler by David Gilhooly

The most interesting part of the exhibition for me though was getting a better appreciation for Robert Arneson as I only just realized how non-functional ceramics are still fighting to be included as real art. They’ve been around as long as I’ve been alive but I still find myself not really reacting to most ceramic sculptures.* It’s nice to be made aware of my blinders. I may not dismiss ceramics as “not art” but I’m motivated now to think about why I react the way I do.

*I do react well to pottery, stoneware and other functional stuff.

Some of my reaction is due to the fact that most of the non-functional ceramic art I’ve seen is in the context of student or community center art. A lot of it is based on how museums still aren’t sure how they fit in with other pieces. It’s definitely still an emerging medium which makes photography* look like the establishment.

*Photography is still in a weird position in the museum and we’re still seeing confusion about what kind of photography is art.

If you want to get in on an art medium at the ground floor, consider this a recommendation to embrace non-functional ceramics. They’re not cool yet. And you’ll be able to make jokes about David Gilhooly chocolate frogs the next time you read Harry Potter.


Betsabeé Romero
Espiral sin Fin por Betsabeé Romero

This past weekend, I finally used my San José Museum of Art membership card in San José* and took in their Mexicanismo show. It’s almost always a joy to visit this museum since they seem to both have my number and to really really get it when it comes to picking and exhibiting art which is relevant locally.

*I usually use the reciprocal benefits for admission to SFMoMA. I figure that San José needs the money more and that I usually end up buying a catalog from SFMoMA anyway.

While this exhibition in particular is very interesting to see and compare to SFMoMA’s Photography in Mexico, it really deserves to be evaluated on its own. Throwing the comparison in this post risks making it a rehash of my review of the SFMoMA show. And that’s not fair to a show this good.

To attend this show is to get a sense of how Mexico sees itself. There is respect for the past and its traditions and crafts. But not so much respect that you can’t make fun of it at the same time. There is tremendous creativity in the use and appropriation of anything and everything. The results are a tremendous mashup of traditions, cultures, crafts, and materials. Often funny. Often serious. Often both at the same time.

Installation by Natalia Anciso
Installation by Natalia Anciso

Most of these pieces also invite and reward extra inspection. They have that immediate impact—either graphically or emotionally—but they pull you in and make you look more closely. God is in the detail.

Jamex and Einar de la Torre’s glass work. It’s not just what these pieces look like, it’s what they’re made of. The more you look, the more you recognize the components—crystal virgens, bottle caps, lotería, pinto beans, etc. The more components you discover, the more the humor and intelligence of the pieces come through. Mexican pop iconography made of mexican material goods.

Máximo González’s woven currency. Or, in this case, the trimmed edges of banknotes woven together. This appeals to me as a printing nerd. But it also takes trash and turns it into something beautiful. That it does so by referencing one of the most-traditional of mexican crafts is the icing on the cake.

The same goes with Gabriel Kuri’s woven receipt rugs. Traditional weavings of untraditional subjects—in this case supermarket receipts—result in giant enlargements of objects which most of us take for granted and throw away. Oldenburg crossed with Droog, then gentefied. Very cool.

Betsabeé Romero’s Espiral sin Fin takes a similar approach. The idigenismo is clear in the imagery. But by making the carvings out of automobile tires, we have a fantastic mashup which also references the car culture of modern Mexico. Old and new together. Highbrow and lowbrow together.

Seeing Natalia Anciso’s installation immediately felt familiar and comfortable. It’s Lita’s casa, time for pancakes, but in a museum. And then you look closer and see that the huipil embroidery has paño figures mixed in among the flowers. Not as comforting any more. But definitely a reminder how those two very different traditions are both very familiar to the culture.

I could go on since the whole exhibition is like this. Look, see. Look closer, see differently. That there’s no catalog available is deeply frustrating. There’s no way to spend as much time looking at these as I’d like to and much of the art isn’t even visible online. I’m just going to have to drag as many people as I can to the museum.



When the San José Museum of Art contacted me asking for permission to use one of my photos for their Lunar New Year Community Day, it took me a few days of thinking before I came around to saying yes. As much as I don’t like the idea of letting people use photos in exchange for just a photo credit, I’m also sympathetic to non-profits—especially when it’s one I already support and enjoy.

I’m not sure I would have agreed if it was for anything besides one of their free community days. I’m looking forward to taking my son to these once he’s old enough and it’s pretty clear that the community program is not the one which gets lots of funding.

So when I agreed, I did it from the point of view that this was essentially a donation to a cause which I am already in support of. I certainly appreciate the photo credit but it’s in the same way I appreciate seeing my name in a list of donors.

R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis

The San Jose Museum of Art is quietly becoming one of my favorites. I can’t really describe what its focus is except to say that it truly knows what kinds of shows will appeal to the locals. It totally has my number.

The current exhibition is R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis. It’s exactly what you’d expect. And exactly not what you’d expect. It’s funny and irreverent. It’s also honest, literal, and serious*—an illustrated Bible for adults where the stories are not glossed over the way they are in kids versions.

*Because I’m obligated to defend my use of “serious,” in this case, I mean that the intent is to play it straight. No jokes. No dumbing down. Nothing sacrilegious. 

I’d like to spend more time really reading each page and going through the drawings. It’s hard to read the complete text of Genesis in one thorough museum trip. It’s also exhausting to read a graphic novel in the same amount of time.

Mapplethorpe Portraits

This weekend, I went to the San José Museum of Art for the exhibition on Robert Mapplethorpe portraits. Over the past couple years, I’ve enjoyed exhibitions of portraits from Richard Avedon (at Stanford and at SFMoMA) and Annie Leibovitz (at the Legion of Honor). The Mapplethorpe exhibit provided an interesting comparison.

Portrait exhibitions are always a little weird and tend to tread a fine line between being subject-dominated or creator-dominated. Leibovitz and Avedon are possibly the best examples of each case.

Leibovitz excels at taking pictures of famous people and channeling their charisma through her lens. I’m not convinced she’d be able to coax a good photo out of someone non-charismatic. Public reaction during her exhibition is also all about who the photo is of.

Avedon meanwhile is so distinctive that, whether his work is printed in a magazine or occupies an entire wall, it’s both instantly identifiable as his work and suggests that you should recognize the subject. At Avedon exhibitions, you can feel people relax when they come across a recognizable subject since the iconic (in a Roman Catholic way) nature of the photo becomes acceptable.

Mapplethorpe fits nicely between those two extremes. He definitely has a certain look in terms of his lighting and direction.  At the same time, he also does a very good job at making each portrait seem very personal and is able to get some remarkable results out of his sitters (e.g. Alice Neel and Louise Bourgeois). Most of his subjects are famous, but not recognizably so (usually other artists) and so while you may recognize names, the subjects aren’t inherently charismatic.

In terms of curation, there’s a lot of extra information provided on each portrait. Some of it is background on the subject. This is nice and helps us in situations where the subject isn’t recognizable to a general audience. Most of the rest of the information concerns details from the contact sheet and how those reveal the process of the photoshoot. While I wish I could see the contact sheets, it’s still good to see them referenced.

One other interesting aspect of the curation is that there was also quite a bit of lighting information provided for each portrait. It’s fascinating to see how his lighting setups got more sophisticated. Between the lighting information and the create your own portrait activity room where you can play with different lighting setups and backgrounds, there’s an obvious attempt to educate people how much more is involved in making a professional portrait. It’s always good to see a museum try and educate people that photography is more than just a camera.

San José Museum of Art

Just a quick shout out to my local art museum since it seems to get ignored by the big boys in San Francisco.* I’m consistently impressed with the exhibitions that the San José Museum of Art puts on. They do a great job of piggy-backing on exhibitions at SFMoMA, the DeYoung, or the Legion of Honor. And they also have a great eye for newer art.

*The last time I was at SFMoMA, I got to take a survey which included the question, “which other Bay Areas museums have you visited in the past year?” and then proceeded to give me a checklist of only San Francisco and Oakland Museums. I wrote in San José and the Cantor Center.

Some of my favorite museum experiences have been at San José. When I go to San Francisco, I do so with certain expectations about what I’m going to see and I’m usually seeing an exhibition of art which isn’t in fact new (modern, yes; new, no). In San José, I can experience the joy of seeing something completely unexpected and cool. I enjoy describing Listening Post to all kinds of people and discovering Il Lee is still one of the more amazing museum experiences I’ve been through.

And the best thing about the San Jose Museum or Art? It has the best reciprocal benefits in the Bay Area. The $150 membership level gets two people into SFMoMA, the DeYoung, the Legion of Honor, the Asian Arts Museum, the Yerba Buena Center, and the Oakland Museum. Plus many many others. Plus discounts at the gift shops.