Quasi Una Fantasia: A Summer Trio From San Francisco
Report from… San Francisco
This summer the axis of art in San Francisco runs between two museums: the De Young, which temporarily houses one hundred Picassos from the Musee Picasso; and the Museum of Modern art, currently exhibiting dozens of works by Cézanne, Picasso and Matisse collected by Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo [both exhibition reviewed at artcritical by Bill Berkson]. With the current staging of Wagner’s Ring at San Francisco Opera, art-hungry masses are getting a full meal from the matrix of modernism. In the galleries, meanwhile, older living masters are showing some of the most notable work.
Paul Kos is among the most accomplished of Bay Area conceptualists. His varied body of work spans over forty years and self-consciously filters Sol LeWitt’s programmatic statements of conceptualism through a concern with recovering the poetry of natural processes. In his most characteristic works, some non-semantic but evocative dimension of nature is revealed—recalling Adorno as he heard the rustling beneath meaning in the language of Borchardt’s poetry. Kos’s extensive oeuvre allows him to stage his newer works within the context of his long career. Upon entering the gallery, one encounters a series of drawings from 1969 depicting an unrealized project to set lines and semi-circles of red salt pillars in the salt flats of Utah. These images would not be out of place in an archeological reconstruction of henges and causeways. The pillars are set up in the order that they might dissolve, leaving only slightly less impermanent red stains.
This concern with the poetry of undoing and erosion frames the central element of the show: a visual and aural tunnel created by two formidable newer works, Aspen, 2009 and Beethoven Piano Sonata #13, 2009. Aspen shows a dense thicket without background, while Beethoven depicts a piano’s hammers striking the strings in performance. Both project an image onto canvas, which is then loosely painted using the image as a template. The painted surface seems to disappear where the projected image is still, but where the wind rises or the hammers move the surface becomes just visible, as if the image were dissonant with itself –the material surface a ghost of the virtual reality. In this installation, the sounds of nature and the sonata alternate in sections of a few minutes. The effect, perhaps intended, is the decrescence of the sonata to a mechanical gurgling, then a natural rustling. Kos thereby renews something of the Romantic project of overcoming the one-sidedness of rationality, in the service of attracting to his work otherwise inaccessible resonances—quasi una fantasia, as Beethoven characterized the sonata.” [Paul Kos at Gallery Paule Anglim, May 4-June 11, 2011]
Jim Melchert is a revered figure in the Bay Area, as much for his personal generosity as for his unusual attempt to bring the tradition-bound skills of a ceramicist to the project of Bay Area Conceptualism. His poetics are rooted in a moment half a generation before Kos’s, when in the late 1950’s Peter Voulkos challenged West Coast ceramics as Pollock did for New York painting. For Kos, the conceptualist moment is the point of orientation, whereas for Melchert it’s a moment, but only a moment, in a synthetic practice. Melchert’s current show offers nearly two dozen square tiles, 3/8ths of an inch thick with sides measuring 1-1/2 or 2 feet. The course of treatment is easily recoverable: the tiles are shattered, then reassembled and mounted on plywood. The larger shards are treated as pictorial backgrounds upon which Melchert outlines forms in dark glazes that hover between the organic and the inorganic, between potatoes and river stones. Finally, he inks in a background grid of evenly spaced circles, which, in each case, end at the irregular forms—ostensibly occluding the grid. The results are reminiscent of John Cage’s later graphic works, wherein nature in its lawless guise appears somehow both beneficent and accessible, its violence overcome by visual alertness and acceptance.
A couple of the tiles result from a slightly different procedure, and their great difference in expressiveness speaks to the delicate balance of the heterogeneous elements in the main body of work. In one, Melchert allows the glazes to run to the edges of the shards, as well as to fill the interiors of the irregular shapes. This small change, together with the dark glazes set against the whitest of backgrounds, seems to raise its voice to a shriek. In the other (perhaps a piece of leave-taking), Melchert replaces the grid with a mysterious numbering of the individual shards, as if each were catalogued archaeological finds, or sections of the sky on a star-chart. This piece is the sole one given an evocative title: How It Is, the allusion to the inaugural work of Samuel Beckett’s late phase perhaps intended to darken the sense of sublimity. This is as deeply satisfying a show, both in the individual pieces and the over-all conception, as any in recent memory. [Jim Melchert at Gallery Paule Anglim, June 15-July 16, 2011]
Shahzia Sikander’s show at the San Francisco Art Institute’s Walter McBean gallery recalls an overly familiar scenario: an artist of substantial gifts and great intelligence, searching for a theme, confronted with a curator who’s installation of the show would make Procrustes blush. How does the work fare? Worse than one might have hoped. Besides the perverse arrangement and the supposed one-size-fits-all theme of being an individual under post-colonial conditions, the works are accompanied by the curator Hou Hanru’s texts, the philistine literal-mindedness of which is not their greatest fault. One is alarmed to learn that “China and the U. S.” are continents; that the motif of transformation “has preoccupied artists and writers since classical (?) times” (fairy tales? Kwaikutl masks?); and that China was once dominated by “Anglo-Saxons” (perhaps a hitherto unrecorded conquest of East Asia by King Ethelred?). In the past decade Sikander has produced a number of digital animations, and most recently video works, while continuing to make her well-known works on paper, two small series of which are exhibited. Here, Sikander characteristically submits both figurative and abstract motifs to fantastic calligraphic elaborations, interweaving the burgeoning arabesques, filigrees, and cells to the point of fissure. The elements flow together into a whirlpool wherein the distinctions among old compositional opposites of figure and ground, abstraction and representation, and positive and negative space become moot. The problem for Sikander for the past decade has been a certain sameness of effect in the results, along with the increasing pressure for a more direct way of addressing contemporary issues—a problematic close to that of Philip Guston in the mid-1960’s. The urgencies of elaboration and intertwining repeatedly result in a rough circle against a blank background, like a ball of twine set in the center of a small, unfurnished room.
Sikander has said that she turned to animation in order to present the temporal unfolding and transformation of her elements, and that in doing so, the problem of the intelligibility of the dissolving figures might be overcome. In Hou’s selection and arrangement, the animations crowd out the works on paper while offering little compensation. The animated elements are subjected—over and over—to a process of whirling, multiplication, dispersion, and dissipation, with no gain, as far as I can see, in intelligibility or thematic density. Of the videos, Gossamer, which shows the composer, Du Yun, allegedly dancing both in a ‘classical’ style and gyrating under a fright wig, is unspeakable. But a recent work mostly documenting South Asian military bands does contain a promising sequence of paragliders, each in a different bright color, one after another slowly twisting downward, against the cropped head of a soldier. Behind them is billowing reddish smoke, presumably marks the landing target. Here might be a theme, and a new expressiveness, that could charge Sikander’s drawings. [“Shahzia Sikander: The exploding company man and other abstractions”, Walter and McBean Galleries, 800 Chestnut St., San Francisco, April 23-June 25, 2011]