Community-focused SOMArts Cultural Center’s comprehensive, museum-quality group show brings together installations and work from dozens of Bay Area artists and artist-run spaces, with archival material and ephemera from historical alternative art spaces past and present. Focused on the legacy of politically oriented independent spaces, with an emphasis on the social-justice movements that underpin and activate the work, curators Melorra Green, Sandra Ramirez, and Roula Seikaly strike a balance between activism and institutional histories, and between theoretical underpinnings and material artifacts.
Highlights from individual artists include Marlon Ingram’s conceptual marketplace of alternatives to technology in the installation Indigenous Tips for a Modern Now. 2009, Ant Farm’s satirical video piece Media Burn, 1975, with its iconic burning televisions; Emory Douglas’s 1970s-era mass-produced graphics for the Black Panther Party; and an altar installation by curator René Yañez, one of the early introducers of Dia de los Muertos into gallery settings. But the show is especially charged where the concept of an art space itself is challenged or negotiated, as in Kathleen McDonald’s Museum of the West Indies, 2015, in which the artist presents the rift between the indigenous culture of her ancestors and her own contemporary practice through the form of an imaginary museum, with didactic text stitching together histories lost because of colonialism. These tensions are intensified by the glaring presence of the 2015 South of Market neighborhood—ground zero for San Francisco startups—just outside the walls; at a time of impossibly high rents and ever-solidifying tech monoculture, what can an alternative space be now?
A box containing a small Walkman-like plastic device emerges from a computer screen and into the hands of Shana Moulton’s anxious alter ego, Cynthia, in the video MindPlace ThoughtStream, 2014. This machine is the central element in the artist’s comical multipart exhibition “Picture Puzzle Pattern Door,” which includes recurring images of Cynthia by the Pacific Ocean, audio clips from TED talks testifying to life-changing experiences, and videos of multiple Shakiras gyrating in an Activia yogurt commercial—symbols of Cynthia’s quest for spiritual enlightenment and a flawless appearance. Outside the main gallery, collages of images advertising women’s products hang above a display of gaudy props from the videos and other garish relaxation objects. Items such as battery-operated glow candles and neon plastic massage implements indicate a hapless embrace of consumer culture. Elsewhere, in a faux doctor’s office waiting room, visitors are invited to try out the actual MindPlace ThoughtStream biofeedback machine, which claims proficiency at stress management through mind control.
Here, Moulton’s ongoing engagement with superficial spirituality extends to include technology, a particularly apt angle for the California-raised, New York–based artist’s first major exhibition on the West Coast. Unlikely as it may seem, the origins of cyber culture were closely aligned with the hippie ethos of the 1960s, yet both digital technology and the New Age movement have since mutated into capitalist industries. Cynthia’s faith in kitschy purchases now expands to interactive electronic devices, yet despite its grandiose promise, even technology cannot help this satirized American suburbanite find the inner peace and outer beauty she so desperately seeks.
An image from a promotional photo shoot for Ray Johnson’s book The Paper Snake (1965) shows the famed artist blithely holding up the real thing. It’s a compelling portrait in this exhibition, which shares a wealth of Johnson’s original and related materials for the project; throughout, the snake is a master of riddles and a phallic symbol.
Fluxus pioneer Dick Higgins divined The Paper Snake from Johnson’s assorted mailings and in 1965 printed the fifty-page book in cyans, browns, and brick reds for his fledgling Something Else Press. The volume includes rubbings that suggest snakes slithering, line drawings showing laid-back topless studs, and Johnson anecdotes such as “I went to the sea and peed and kept peeing and a mermaid threw a big green turd at me.” Other texts are absurdist microplays that feature characters such as a talking candle with an identity crisis (it doesn’t know whether it is a candle or a carrot). There are jumbles that resemble concrete poems zigzagging to tell two stories at once and reduced-size reprints of early Johnson multiples—one of which, hisses the repeating text “Mississippi, Mississippi, Mississippi.”
Records recently unearthed in the archive of art critic William Wilson—a friend of Johnson—reveal that an unknown prankster accomplished a shade of Johnson humor, filling out an order for one hundred copies of the book to be used as toilet paper in Grand Central Station. But Johnson’s achievement surpasses this kind of buffoonery. Just take his snakes. As conjured here, they are coy, changing, ridiculous, and capably menacing.
Filling two galleries are nine blurred photographs of national parks interspersed among thirty-four sharply focused chiaroscuro portraits. In a conversation with the writer, Catherine Opie explained that these groups are complementary: the claustrophobia of the studio portraits, whose subjects often press up against the edges of the picture plane, are tempered by the breathing space of the luminous outdoor scenes. Usually twenty-four to fifty inches high, the photographs of authors, artists, and Opie’s close friends (including Ron Athey and Idexa Stern, memorable subjects of earlier portraits) smolder within black-framed ovals and rectangles of impenetrably dark backgrounds, readily evoking the Renaissance models she so admires.
References to blood occur frequently, recalling Opie’s early cutting self-portraits. Miranda July and Hamza Walker wear red, as does Opie’s son, with a mouse in his breast pocket and assuming the pose of Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine. In Friends, 2012, Pig Pen feeds a needle and thread through Julie Tolentino’s bleeding lips, while the naked man in David, 2012, looks down tenderly at his penis, which bleeds without evident cause as he cradles it in his hands. Opie details how the two decades of advances beyond the culture wars that paralleled her early work, and contributed to its intensification, allow these images to be less confrontational. Moreover, her newfound experience of menopause has induced in her work a more rueful representation of blood.
Invariably gazing off-camera, spotlighted and in shadow, Opie’s sitters appear deeply introspective. She unflinchingly scrutinizes the effects of age and experience on skin and tissue to invite a deeper reflection on temporality and a more intimate encounter between the viewer and the subject.
While once thought unusual, sculpture constructed from unpretentious, everyday objects is now deeply familiar to art viewers. Sarah Sze, Jessica Stockholder, and Thomas Hirschhorn are just some of the recognizable names of this ubiquitous genre. Phyllida Barlow, as senior stateswoman, belongs at the head of this list. In her playful installation at the Nasher Sculpture Center, Barlow describes her approach as being analogous to a ship in a bottle—the proverbial bottle in this case being Renzo Piano’s graciously elegant architecture. Yet unlike a delicate model ship encased in glass, Barlow’s sculptural interventions prove unruly, with their raucous and unwieldy forms that demarcate the constraints of the light-filled space.
For the series “Untitled:stiltedcrates2015,” Barlow has constructed polyurethane foam and polystyrene-encased container boxes held aloft with wood and steel to create abstract, animal-like edifices that suggest nonsensical building construction sites. With the works gathered at the entrance, one is forced to walk under these heavy and seemingly precarious structures in order to enter the larger space of the exhibition. Highlighting a basic property of large-scale sculpture, this work uses its imposing presence to create a powerful link between person, object, and building. In the most dramatic work of the show, taxonomically named Untitled:100banners2015, the artist deploys a forest of flags or quasi-protest banners lacking slogans in the single downstairs room. As one descends the wide staircase, a coppice of cheap lumber that’s paint splattered and held upright by sandbags raises contrasting colored fabric and beckons one to enter, or perhaps threatens with riot and complaint.
When America sneezes, the world catches cold. In this show of five new bodies of painting and sculpture by Nate Lowman, that cliché of superpower economics summons the spirit of the American working class. For instance, front and center is Untitled, 2013–15, a colossal installation of a map of the United States with each state made out of a bit of soiled drop cloth wrapped around a shaped stretcher. Excepting Alaska and Hawaii, all are installed on a wall inclined away from the viewer. The best seats in the house for this work are atop a set of found bleachers that Lowman chose for their ubiquity in Texas.
Moving through, Lowman’s air-freshener paintings—canvases shaped after the rearview mirror’s best friend—playfully introduce modernism’s nonrectilinear substrates to the zingy forms of cartoons. Accompanying these are seven works with titles such as Mellow Yellow and Ghost of Indiana, both 2014, for which the artist stitched together the scraps of canvas leftover from the air-freshener works using unscented dental floss.
Eight paintings of Lowman’s studio’s ceiling flank the final gallery’s walls. Made by filling in areas traced from projected photos with dapples of latex, these works—all titled after his studio’s address—pair with the drop-cloth pieces to represent the upper and lower boundaries of an artist’s workplace. They radiate in the light cast by the central installation of makeshift lamps, Rave the Painforest Again, 2015, which fuses blue-collar materials such as construction boots filled with cement, Gatorade coolers, and coffee cans stuck with leprous Garbage Pail Kid decals with vintage lightbulbs containing hand-wound tungsten thread, illuminating once again the artist’s déclassé alchemy.
The spacious, light-drenched galleries of the School in Kinderhook, New York, provide an ideal setting for El Anatsui’s current retrospective surveying his prolific fifty-year-long career. One senses an increasing self-reflexivity in his latest output, which is perhaps most apparent in works such as Generation Mix, 2014, wherein the shimmering metal fragments used in his most celebrated series of the last decade are affixed to wooden assemblages that recall his “Old Cloth” series of the 1990s, examples of which are also on view.
Anatsui’s “Broken Pots” series, first shown in 1979 at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, reflects on cultural fragmentation and resilience. Inspired in part by Nok terra-cotta sculpture, works such as Chambers of Memory, 1977, and Gbeze, 1979, invoke the chaos of colonization and affirmed the promise of independence for new African nations. Thirty-five years later, echoes of this series are legible in the artist’s metal constructions. One such sculpture appears as a giant suspended orb punctured with gaping holes, marking a departure from his flattened wall hangings. Titled Womb of Time, 2014, it also links the global unrest felt during the postwar era to that of our present day.
While only a small number of works are directly figurative, many of the artist’s most abstract sculptures are treated as bodies that may be wounded or healed. Stressed World, 2011, one of the largest works on view, appears worn and neglected, as if embodying the strain placed on our natural environment. Anatsui’s handling of found materials is both violent and conscientious, consistently evoking themes of disorder and reinvention while inviting an awareness of the consequences of ecological and cultural destruction.
Full of productive juxtapositions and sight lines that bring together Conceptual, Fluxus, Neo-concrete, and classic Pop works from four continents, “International Pop” presents a complex interpretation of postwar art. The works exhibited are surprisingly heterogeneous, with one common denominator: a desire to reimagine everyday life in an era transformed by consumerism, media, and new forms of political domination and liberation.
Viewers first encounter Shinohara Ushio’s Oiran, 1968, a portrait of a courtesan whose face has been left blank. Hanging nearby are a few dozen plastic coats on Thomas Bayrle’s Clothes Rack 1 and Clothes Rack 2, both 1968–70. In each, the model is missing. This might seem like an odd, ghostly overture for an exhibition bursting with flesh, from Marjorie Strider’s pinups and Jana Želibská’s veiled nudes to David Hockney’s prone lover. But even in the lustiest, most corporeal works something’s absent. They reduce the human figure to a silhouette, a caricature, or a fragment. Expressions are hard to read, and skin extends into the commodities that surround it, as in Richard Hamilton’s Hers is a Lush Situation, 1958, whose painted curves simultaneously outline a car and a woman’s body. By showing us half-present collaged and appropriated bodies, these works reveal that the true subjects of Pop art were ways of life that hadn’t yet fully coalesced and that pointed beyond their present toward the beginnings of something stranger.
“Social,” a group exhibition of Charlotte Potter’s glass cameos, Ariel Brice’s ceramics, and Lucy Louise Derickson’s repurposed pewter, asks the viewer to reconsider communication and relationships in the digital world. For example, Potter’s wall installation Message Received, 2015, is a series of cameo lockets and pendants that each open to reveal a text or a Facebook message between the artist and a former boyfriend, all connected by a looping metal-chain. The narrative follows the rise and fall of most romantic relationships, first stilted and formal, becoming more candid, followed by miscommunication, and finally, an uncertain future. A pile of necklace chain gathers on the floor after the last pendant marked with “. . .” While Potter critiques the so-called immediacy of digital communication, the installation’s appeal lies more in its ability to evoke voyeurism and the sentimentality of historical ephemera.
Derickson’s I Look Forward to Seeing You Again, or for the First Time, 2015, consisting of 606 pocket-size pewter vessels—each corresponding to a specific Facebook friend of the artist—placed on individual wooden mountings, addresses object fetishism. She invites her friends to take an object—housing a personalized note from the artist, only retrievable after destroying the work—and pose for a picture with her. The picture is then posted online, available to viewers through a QR code. Together, these pieces poignantly consider the traps, benefits, and emotional investment of any community—IRL or digital—to provoke a reckoning with the value of the people in our lives.
“It Takes a Village,” Alejandro Diaz’s latest solo exhibition, pulls together a seemingly disparate variety of references from Minimalism, Conceptualism, Abstract Expressionism, and even British Pop to unapologetically expose the reality of quotidian life in the artist’s own personal interest in South Texas, and specifically San Antonio.
Immediately, three sculptures steal the polemical spotlight. Together titled Muebles Diaz (Furniture Diaz), 2015, they comment on the power structures governing migrant labor in South Texas by mimicking the methods of objectification in the sculptures of British Pop artist Allen Jones. Rather than depicting hypersexualized women in submissive poses, Diaz’s sculptures shed light, specifically, on class’s relationship to power, evoking situations where money buys physical labor in the form of a human body. His sculptures represent presumably Mexican American laborers: one man who might be a gardener for a wealthy family supports the glass of a coffee table on his back, a woman supports a chair with the back of her thighs, and another woman—the exhibition’s central figure—extends her arms out indifferently, suggesting her own body for the role of a hat stand.
Acting as a backdrop for the three figures is a bright-yellow monochrome titled Color Field, 2015, under which sits a line of papier-mâché flowers ubiquitous in celebrations among Mexican American communities in South Texas. While there seems to be a sense of play among the myriad references, the cultural allusions to the racial, class, and hierarchical issues that exist in South Texas become transparent.
As people gathered for the opening of “Monomito” (Monomyth), Dr. Lakra’s second solo exhibition at this gallery, one thing became clear: Lakra is an artist who straddles two worlds—of underground, punk-oriented transgressors and the contemporary art scene—simultaneously and with great success. No coincidence, surely, since “the tattoo is primal parent of the visual arts,” as Kathy Acker writes in Empire of the Senseless (1988). One could imagine Lakra uttering a very similar phrase.
The adjective primal certainly comes to mind when entering this show as both a welcome surprise and a congruent development of Lakra’s practice. His avid collecting and his research on tattoos have led him to an entirely new body of three-dimensional work. Focusing on the taboos, myths, and rituals that surround not only tattoos but also pop culture, he offers here seventy totem-like sculptures in bronze and wax casts of layered objects that might have been found in any flea market from Mexico City to Pyongyang.
Blurring the boundaries between fetish and pastiche, art and folklore, these sculptures are calmly poised in vitrines and on pedestals against large black-and-white wall murals of photographs of the newly created deities for our global village: ancient masks from all over the world atop classical antique sculpture bodies or classical antique heads over bodies that belong to a different culture entirely, Mexican over Thai, African over Greek, and so on. Overall, the exhibition gives a double meaning to monomito: no longer just the single myth of the mono or primate that we are, but also ironically anything but. This show is as poly as they come.