Semi-formal Art and Visual Crit

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For my most up to date reviews and art observations, please see SFAQ Online for a weekly blog post by yours truly. Also, find me on Twitter @armchaircritsf

Archived posts under Kathryn McKinney.


Artists, The Working Poor

Culture, Jan Fabre

At this point in history there is tremendous disparity in the art world, just as there is in the “real” world.  Art world success and record auction sales have become common public knowledge; the classic archetype of the starving artist has been replaced by the millionaire, business savvy, brand collaborating artist, with loosely interpreted “hipster” youth moving in on the role of bohemian society (and a carefully crafted, consumer oriented bohemia at that).  As some artists achieve great fame and fortune, realizing the American dream in an industry that used to subvert the very concept, the contrast against the reality of what it is to be a working artist in America is stark.  Unfortunately, the success of a few has not translated to the betterment of the industry as a whole.

 Art is consistently amongst the least unemployable degrees (see this CNBC article) with above national average unemployment.  Tuition at art schools usually comes in around $30,000, with little in the way of job training and placement, leaving its graduating classes financially crippled from the burden of student loans, with little in the way of practical work skills.  To be fair, few freshly graduated college students have practical skills whether they studied business or culture, unless they studied in the trades.  An irony as art itself used to be considered just that–a skilled trade.  As Chris Cobb pointed out in his SFMOMA blog post “Is Art School A Scam?” artists are among the last of our society who actually make anything in their work.  This campaign season has seen President Obama push the need for a return to a manufacturing based economy, but I’m certain he doesn’t include art in this category.  So where does art fit in our economy, and is it possible for society (especially a financially crippled one such as ours) to make it a financially stable career?

Artists themselves, as well as the public in general, almost bristle at this question.  Artists want to make clear they didn’t choose it for the potential profit, they chose it because they were compelled by their talent and vision to do so.  Society almost wants to punish anyone who doesn’t choose the corporate 9-5; making the trade-off for artistic pursuit poverty, or at the very least, strong financial insecurity.  Never before have there been such opportunities for artists to be able to achieve middle class stability.  Technology, and the break down of the traditional “company man” career path means freelance workers are becoming more of the norm.  The cultural zeitgeist demands that aesthetics and design be considered in all areas of our lives to an unprecedented degree.  Information and media bombards our society with more data than we can process, and we latch onto the visual interpretation of current events to a greater degree than ever before (think of Shepard Fairey’s Obama “Hope” posters, or Banksy’s bouquet throwing rioter).  And still, most artists enter their careers unprepared to harness this.

This is a complex issue, it relates to our broken academic system, the poor economy, and the role of artists in society.  The art world itself is democratizing, but the remnants of the high-culture modern art era still cling.  More curators, gallerists, and dealers are coming from working class backgrounds, even developing countries, breaking the staid tradition of the debutante who earns an art history degree, and works in galleries until she gets married.  Perhaps having more people like this behind the careers of artists will put an emphasis on the need for fair pay, unionization, and representation.  Artists themselves are turning increasingly to socially active work, in the course of which they are empowering themselves.  But still, the institutions lag.  This is to be expected, as institutional change will always be slow coming, but this lack of progress is increasingly looking like tone-deafness on the part of schools, museums, and non-profits.  Art school is still vitally relevant to the career of an artist; it fosters a community of developing artists who challenge and collaborate with each other.  As evidence, this year’s SECA award cycle has seen a majority of CCA graduates; as clear a track as any for an emerging artist.  But, only a few can win that award, just as only a few will go on to see financial stability in their careers.  Many aspects of our society are up for consideration this political season; the 99%, the working poor, and discrimination are all increasingly receiving media attention.  Let’s hope that the fate of working artists is tied to the betterment of all classes of people, and that the work they do will come to be recognized as the socially beneficial and nationally productive act it is.

Field Installation


Installation shot from SFMOMA’s upcoming Field Conditions show opening Sept. 1st.  This Tauba Auerbach tile floor and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer ceiling grabbed me instantly, and it’s not even finished!  I find the art/architecture dynamic so interesting, especially since the impact of land and conceptual art, when some of the most revolutionary works were examinations of space and place (thinking particularly of Richard Serra’s Casting).  One of the true pioneers in this, Sol LeWitt is also featured.  A really promising show to kick-off the fall art season.

Bay Lights

Just learned of the proposed Leo Villareal project of an LED lit Bay Bridge.  You can view the proposed work here in the super slick webpage simulation.  Personally, I’m really excited for it to grace our cityscape.  Not often enough does public art transcend plop art to become authentically about the place in which it is, a celebration fitting the Bay Bridge’s upcoming 75th anniversary.  The running, twinkling lights run along the elegant curves of the structure evoke the movement present and made possible only by the architecture and space created in the bridge itself.  It has the mesmerizing effect of sound bar lights and champagne bubbles, and reads absolutely cosmopolitan cool.  Everyone knows our fair city is a beauty, this would make it chic.  Like a beret, a bob and a cigarette; unsurprising since Villareal is well known for his similar work sur le Tour Eiffel.  There was a semi controversy over that light show, but then, Parisians are snobby, and honestly, the disco inferno aesthetics of that show don’t seem as seamlessly compatible as the bridge proposal.  If the necessary $8 million are raised in time expect to see this sometime later in the year.

The Best

This past weekend was the art fair season for San Francisco (it’s short).  I was at the Art Pad opening at the Phoenix Hotel Thursday night and got a little sneak peek, and went back on Sunday to take a better look and visit art MRKT.  It was absolutely worth it; to see some familiar favorites, and be introduced to some incredible new (to me) artists.  Also, a fun pool side party (a real rarity in SF) on opening night!  Today I came across a best of list from San Francisco Magazine and I thought I’d put my list up against it, if only because it’s the first one I saw.  The “Eight local artists to watch” are…

Michael Bernard, with Creativity Explored

Creativity Explored, at Art MRKT, was for me the first exciting and satisfying room that I saw.  Well known as the gallery of developmentally disabled artists, the collection they presented needs no “qualifier” pre-fix to artist.  Bernard’s installation I saw at the preview, and totally missed the interactive element of “posting” your own fears.  The artist I spent the most time looking at I sadly forgot the name of (and was before I thought to start photographing what I saw and liked), but remember his amazing collage-like drawings centralized around tv schedules and other listings.  Forgetting everything.  That’s one of my fears.

Francesca Pastine, with Eleanor Harwood

Absolutely agree, and admittedly I am biased to Francesca.  I met her while I was working for Eleanor, and her and her husband Albert are super charming and neighbors (and the one and only piece of art I’ve sold is a Pastine–heading straight to Dealer city, you bet.)  If you haven’t already been “watching” Francesca, get started.  No newbie, she’s been on the San Francisco art scene since the 1970’s and has many series, just one of which are the ArtForum Excavations.  These are truly stunning, and have achieved a new level of meta craftsmanship and commentary in her newest work.  They will be viewable at her upcoming show May 26th.  Go.  To.  It.

Rene Garcia Jr., with Project One

Certainly, there’s something to be said for the right amount of too much stuff.  And definitely the strongest piece at Project One, the full length windows of the Phoenix’s rooms really displayed the piece as the wonder crowd pull it is.  Any more?  Hard to say, but for me the shiny, sparkly thing that got my full attention was Lyndi Sales’ Holographic Universe.  The elegant, glittering arcs of the expanding universe will always top chix on bikes for me, but I’m just a nerd like that.

Stephen de Staebler, with Dolby Chadwick

Admittedly, I didn’t see this, or more accurately I avoided the Dolby Chadwick booth entirely.  Knowing nothing about the artist, I couldn’t really give an opinion, but superficially I find it unexplainable, dour, and too derivative of so many modern isms.  Better, were Misako Inaoka’s carved wood animal-furniture creatures, so strange and dark and Baroque against the beauty and finish of their shiny surfaces.  Fell in love with them immediately, and am desperate to own one.

Elisheva Biernoff, with Eli Ridgeway

These stunning, small, photo-real “photos” were an absolute stand out, calling out with their serene calm, and gentil nostalgia amidst the flashy fair art. As an overall installation they provoked a kind of memory lane, to pass by and think and feel for another place and time.  Gorgeous and masterfully rendered, instantly favorites for me upon sight.

Michelle Pred, with Jack Fischer Gallery

I passed by this piece at the fair, dismissing it as a bit art-school, which I realize was probably a mistake.  After learning the scissors used were airport confiscated, the entire work takes on another layer for me, and opens it up to all sorts of literal and illusionary interpretations, honestly it’s just funnier too.  The piece of surreal commentary that caught me instantly were Jeremiah Jenkins’ desktop vanity statues and trophies at Ever Gold Gallery; noble and tragic and a perfect foil to the corporate achievement they once represented.  Jenkins himself occupied the art fair, a welcome and apt performance for the times.

Gail Ragains, with Hang Art

Again, not something that captured me at the fair, but entirely inoffensive, painterly, and serious enough to not be purely decorative.  The painting I loved looking at was Sherin Guirguis’ Untitled (maad wu gazr) a large-scale triptych rooted in the natural and supernatural realms.  Biological, and messy in part, and equally formal, and traditional it ambitiously marries parts at odds with themselves in the beauty of an inordinary mix.

Gordon Smedt, with Hamamjian Modern

Uh, in this case, maybe best not to say anything at all.  Pretty?  Well executed?  Yes, and an accomplishment for an art student, but if this is an artist’s professional contribution, I have little to say about that.  For me, the truly joyful, haphazard still-life achievement went to Rose Eken’s ceramic rock n’ roll detritus at Unspeakable Projects.  Her hand rendered bottle caps, amp cords, guitar picks, and cigarette butts were impulsive, spontaneous, and exciting in a way that this pile of crayons can only be a sort of shorthand for.

Full disclosure, I realize not all the artists I picked as “better than” were local, which was part of this list.  But, they were all represented by local galleries, which in my opinion means something more than what just individual artists are doing.  Here’s to more San Francisco art events in the future, and I don’t just mean openings with cans of Tecate!

Blinded Me With Science

Mycotecture, Phil Ross

Last night I attended a talk by the artist Phil Ross at Southern Exposure.  The focus was his work with fungi as a medium and his development of something he’s named “mycotecture” or architectural fungus.  He’s envisioned and is working towards creating a structure large enough to shelter a group of people entirely made of fungus.  His prototype of a “tea house” in which he built a structure (above) and served it to visitors in the tea brewed from it, offers insight into this project to create a holistic, organic architecture that can shelter, and if you abide by principles of Asian medicine, heal too.  The tea served at the talk tasted much like I’d imagine a building would.  Since the mid 90’s Ross has been working in his lab, perfecting the cultivation and casting of fungus into different forms, most of which take the block like, carved stone form of classic brick and mortar construction.  There is something entirely satisfying about seeing his work; the larger organism, grown and developed, configured back down into the elemental blocks of not only building, but of cells and nature itself.  A full cycle spectrum of the natural world, of which people and art inhabit a place within, not apart from.  As his opener, J.R. Blair, President of the SF Mycological Society, surmised in his over view of fungal life, “in nature there’s a lot of redundancy.”  In art as well.

Admittedly, the talk was a little dry, but in listening to Ross discuss his technique and interest in the medium, some very relevent and interesting issues are raised.  One of the first points he made was that in working with fungus, the individual is not so important.  This was in describing the ways that fungi will bond with each other, but this applies to the art world too.  The myth of the individual artist, the Genius, is central to the western canon, and defines how many think about the creative process.  Of course, reality is that most artists worked in guilds, or now with assistants, and in the increasing proliferation of collectives, groups, or anonymous bodies.  Artistic evolution is dictating that the individual is not so important anymore as well.  Again, an evolution in art that matches the natural order.

Near the end, Ross briefly hinted at how mycology is being applied to super computing and algorithmic technology, based upon the understanding that fungi (even a single celled organism) is able to make future predictions based upon past experience.  Not mind blowing, likely because he barely brushed the topic and I’m so ignorant of both subjects I can only guess at how they overlap, but certainly enticing in the junction between science, technology, and Ross’ artistic contribution to this field.  At one point he explained how, due to the slow process of working with fungi, his drawings often serve as the only reality for his work, in a sense the act of drawing brings the unseeable or microscopic functions of the natural world into being.  Artists are often this link for society, drawing into reality the intangibles of the world, and like fungus and super computers, attempting to predict the future for us based on what we’ve already seen.

Is Curator a Dirty Word?

I will not, Eleanor Harwood

A recent article from Berlin Art Journal begs the question, what is the role of curator, and what makes a great one?  Something I think about a lot since I have aspirations of developing my career in that direction, but how does one become one?  (Other than going to grad school.)  Currently there’s a very strong trend to treat it almost like being an artist, where you’re no longer expected to complete a long education and become, the unholy word, an expert.

I’ll confess, as much as I think this is what I want to do, something has held me back from just doing it.  Grab some art, put it in a shop/gallery/basement/hallway, crack open a case of Tecate and have your friends over — you’re a curator!  Part of it is my institutional inclination; I’d like to have the credentials of _______ (fill in gallery/museum) below my name that say I know something.  This is obviously completely against the DIY ethos that has become the flag post of most post modern (and now post-post modern) discourse and work.  But hey, I’m old fashioned.  Noted in the article is the newness of the independent curator, and whether this is a position that will endure.  I’m guessing it will be around long enough that I’m going to have to learn to get on board with it.

What stood out to me especially was the concept of a curatorial methodology where, much like a scientist, a curator implements a framework for their practice.  This is slightly different from what I see as standard form curating; part tour guide and part story teller, the curator is meant to entertain, as well as layout the outcome expected in viewing the artwork.  This leaves very little room, not just for the viewer’s personal intellectual application, but it sets up a system in which the curator is both judge and jury, and where does that leave the art?  As defendant?

We scoff at the idea of a collector who buys art to match the sofa, because it denies the larger implications and ideas that make art great–elevated above design and decoration.  Doesn’t a curator who forces narrative arbitrarily upon a show demonstrate as much disregard for this as the matchy collector?  The real issue at center of this is whether art has autonomy in itself, or if like theater, or a tree falling in the forest, someone must be there to experience it into existence.  Post modern denial of universality has become a benchmark, but does that also deny an artwork’s autonomy?  And when I say “autonomy” what I mean is a sort of fitness of interpretation and application, meaning a curator could get it wrong when they apply the meta of their show to the individual work.  To me this autonomy exists, because as much as the visual beckons to me, it is always the ideas, the innovation, that hold my attention.  This is the reason a four-year-old could not make a Jackson Pollock drip painting, or why there is merit in studying the differences between twenty different crucifix paintings of similar composition–from the artist’s brain, through their hand, something has been breathed into the art that makes it itself.  It is the curator’s role to recognize this for what it is, and not allow it to be confused with what they may want something to be.

Read for yourself, here.