From the perspective of artist Leonor Antunes, the gallery is a complete volume. Every inch of the floor, ceiling, and walls plays an active role in narrating the histories reworked by the artist. Newly commissioned for SFMoMA, A Spiral Staircase Leads Down to the Garden, 2016, mines the creative trajectories of pioneering women autobiographically tied to midcentury California but obscured from the era’s modernist cannon, such as architect and interior designer Greta Magnusson Grossman and artists Anni Albers, Kay Sekimachi, and Ruth Asawa. Their outputs are the sources for a series of sculptural pieces that hang, roll over, and illuminate the white box of the museum’s dedicated new-work gallery.
Cork panels cover the entire floor, punctuated by reflective brass rectangles that replicate a pattern from Albers’s 1946 weaving With Verticals. Points from the design also dictate the positioning of leather ropes snaked on the ceiling. Although interested in architecture, Albers was barred from the program at the Bauhaus because of her gender and instead studied textiles. Grossman was also denied formal architectural training, although it did not stop her from creating buildings in California and Sweden. As such, Grossman’s renderings cite her as the “designer,” a fact that made research behind the exhibition a challenge. Large suspended geometric wall partitions inspired by Grossman’s signature lamps cut across the room, casting shadows. Surrounding the visitor, Antunes’s skillful maneuvering of space, material, light, and texture allow the voices of a feminist history largely unsung to resound and become anew.
Lauren Marsolier’s photographs are unreal. Or perhaps too real. The LA-based artist deconstructs and then reassembles photographs of various places—including industrial sites, gardens, roads, and office parks—to create fictive places. The seven composites on view defy the laws of nature: impossibly bright, but few shadows. More Citizenfour (2014) than film noir, these pictures promise transparency but reveal nothing. Even the messy evidence of humans is curiously sterile: Stained mattresses outside a building in Two Roads (Diptych) and spray-painted plywood in Empty Pot and Shadow, both 2015–16, are emptied of physical substance.
Like Lewis Baltz’s 1970s industrial parks, Marsolier finds aesthetic satisfaction in sharp corners and sparse landscaping. This visual pleasure is undercut by an eerie anonymity. What happens in these buildings? Baltz said they could be manufacturing anything, “pantyhose or megadeath.” Today, the blank stare of white stucco and black windows suggest drones and other covert ops.
Marsolier’s technique is flawless. The composites form a convincing, if uncanny, picture of the world, while the high-resolution prints seem to disappear behind Water White glass in an experience of unmediated vision.
The gallery also presents fourteen unique gelatin silver prints by San Francisco–based Rachelle Bussières. The chemical colors and hard edges recall Alison Rossiter’s cameraless experiments with expired photographic paper, but Bussières’s images begin with negatives. “Strata” refers to the geologic features that Bussières photographs and to the darkroom manipulations that give these images a collage-like feel. In contrast with Marsolier’s cut-and-paste fictions, Bussières layers a fairy-tale realm on top of the real world. Together, the two shows test the limits of photographic realism.
“Grace Jones is everything I ever wanted to be as an artist . . . an experimental, progressive, avant-garde shapeshifter,” Xaviera Simmons asserts in one of this show’s wall labels. Contextualized by original album covers, fashion shoots, and music videos, the exhibition examines the influence of the model, actress, and singer on twelve contemporary artists. The powerful beauty and bold sexuality of the transgressive pop star defied heteronormative gender conventions and celebrated blackness during the 1970s and ’80s, when many of these artists were coming of age, and the works in the exhibition range from idolizing Jones to reclaiming agency over her sometimes contradictory persona.
The strength of the image in the digital age resonates in Cauleen Smith’s Living Grace’s Life in the Google, 2013–16, a slideshow of photographs of Jones collected from the Internet, and in Harold Offeh’s Covers: Arabesque, After Grace Jones, 1978, 2008–2009, a humorous one-minute video of the artist trying to re-create the physically impossible pose Jones adopted (with the help of photo-editing) on the cover of her 1985 album Island Life. Several works engage with sexualized posthuman cyborgs presaged by Jones, such as Jacolby Satterwhite’s CGI-animated futuristic narratives in an excerpt from En Plein Air: Music of Objective Romance: Track #1: Healing in My House, 2015, and Wangechi Mutu’s collaged hybrid forms in Sick Planets, 2013. Other artists consider the paradox of Jones, who both embodied and subverted stereotypes. Rashayla Marie Brown’s photograph The Island Pose, 2013, perhaps best sums up the complexities of Jones’s legacy. Like Offeh, Brown attempts Jones’s graceful arabesque, but here she is dressed in tight white garments and photographed against a green screen, holding a copy of The Black Atlantic (1993) by Paul Gilroy and standing on Black Popular Culture (1992) by Michelle Wallace.
The community of artists and writers revolving around salonièrre Mabel Dodge Luhan’s compound in Taos, New Mexico, in the early twentieth century provides the fulcrum for this sprawling exhibition. Works by well-known artists, such as Paul Strand, Ansel Adams, Marsden Hartley, and John Marin, occupy space alongside pieces by more obscure figures, including Rebecca “Beck” Salsbury James, Dorothy Brett, and Agnes Pelton. Many artists and writers traveled to Taos at the behest of Luhan, a prolific writer herself. Her fourth husband, Taos Pueblo Indian Antonio Lujan, opened the community to artists and writers, thus fostering a creative exchange between modernist and native traditions.
A highlight of the exhibition is an upstairs gallery where Pueblo artist Awa Tsireh’s watercolors and Brett’s vivid paintings depict native dances. The exhibition repeatedly refers to Luhan’s own complicated relationship with New Mexico’s multicultural heritage; her relocation to Taos was partly motivated by what she believed was a need to “save” the Pueblo culture endangered from American encroachment. Luhan’s exhibition of “primitive” (her term) devotional objects as modern art in a New York exhibition in 1919 likewise points to Luhan’s—as well as many modernist artists’ and audiences’—difficulty accepting the art of non-Anglo cultures on its own terms. A striking visual example of this complex dynamic between modernism and Hispanic art is on view in another gallery, in which Luhan’s own Hispano santos, which she donated to the Harwood after she was criticized for her treatment of the paintings in a 1925 essay she wrote, appear with Hartley’s own riff on a santo. The juxtaposition underscores the ways in which modernist artists often appropriated other cultures’ works, emptying them of original meaning yet creating new meaning as well.
In the installation Brown Brilliance Darkness Matter (all works 2016), a maze of curtains suspended throughout the gallery periodically opens upon tableau of stoneware ceramic sculptures set atop custom variations of bright turquoise Acapulco furniture. Tropes of domestic spaces give way to further explorations of interior headspaces, as Maria Gaspar explores the ways that a museum’s collection and archive might be incorporated into one’s inner life. The translucent curtains are digitally printed with collages that weave images owned by the museum with photographs of the artist’s family and from her personal life, resulting in grids of shifting gray tones out of which the occasional face peers. The ceramics glazed in brown interpret the institution’s holdings from across history, ranging from an ancient Mesoamerican head fragment to several references to Arturo Romo’s 2005 “Crystal Brilliance Manifesto.”
Mining the museum, in much the same fashion as Fred Wilson has done since 1992 in order to suggest alternatives to canonical histories, Gaspar works within a particular establishment that has, since its founding more than thirty years ago, taken as its mission an engagement with race, heritage, national identity, and social justice. Her responses to its objects and images—accompanied by a series of docent performances in which she has invited other artists and cultural workers to blend personal storytelling into historical accounts—serve as reminders that identity categories, such as Latino and Hispanic, are never monolithic, always veering into abstractions and productive problems of legibility.
In a talk she gave at the gallery on May 14, Kiki Smith cited the medieval French Apocalypse Tapestry and the weavings of the “hippie movement” as examples of the long tradition to which the eleven tapestries in this show belong. “Woven Tales” displays a mythical world wherein human and animal forms entwine with natural phenomena: A woman floats in the heavens among the stars; a man sinks below the earth amid tree roots, fossils, and ants. Smith made each tapestry in collaboration with Magnolia Editions, a studio that specializes in producing textiles with contemporary artists. To produce these works, a computer scanned Smith’s large mixed-media collages to scale (each tapestry is more than nine feet tall) and then a digitally programmed jacquard loom wove a draft of each composition. Some tapestries underwent a dozen or more iterations before Smith declared the works finished. As she became more adept at the process, her designs became more delicate and subtle. For instance, Earth, 2012, is a rather stiffly framed composition with bright and contrasting colors, while Sojourn, 2015, features a carefully rendered depth of field and soft, naturalistic colors.
Ultimately, each tapestry is otherworldly in its own way: A pair of eagles flies across a violent lightning storm; rays of light (or energy) connect a female form to a congregation of animals; and human eyes emerge from tree trunks as the viewer takes time to look closely. Using a marriage of digital and analog techniques, Smith has created a body of work that follows but modernizes the tradition of textile production—a practice that spans almost the entire history of humanity.
Vanessa Maltese has chosen the tondo, a circular panel common during the Renaissance, as the shape for her latest suite of four paintings. Circles are important. Recall the mandala, crafted to represent the universe. Nature makes things round: fruits, planets, and stars. Maltese too is making things round. In Aware of Surroundings (all works 2016), for instance, circles repeat abundantly: Small tondi pepper the panel and frame, squishy rings of lavender rattle in the background, and a cartoon hole recedes to what feels like infinite circular blackness.
With only four paintings and a pair of shoes, the minimal configuration of the show allows for space to take in the abundance of details parading across Maltese’s panels. Capacity for Self Control is set in a striking steel frame composed of hot-red asymmetrically arching tubes. Floating in the foreground is a patterned scarf-like shape with a section of coral-pink pulsing out and then back as black rectangles hover above. In the background, concentric circles push the eye outward, snapping you again to the frame where the artist has playfully attached a red claw hair clip. The only ready-made in this skillfully crafted exhibition, the accessory pulls you from the painted world back to the realm of people. Meanwhile, the shoes—a pair of sneakers titled Self Portrait (Company)—are engaged in a game: At first they seem real, but upon inspection, one realizes they are cast. Noticeable brush marks reveal that the white shoelaces are painted, too. Indeed, all of the masterfully applied oil paint in this show achieves surfaces akin to tempera—it is a great development in the artist’s oeuvre.
“When you are two-to-one, then the work becomes easier,” a woman’s voice intones as a pair of hands gingerly places documentary photographs of political protest in front of the camera in one of the untitled videos (all works 2016) that make up Annie MacDonell’s exhibition “Holding Still // Holding Together.” Blending practical instructions from nonviolent civil disobedience training (“Stretch your body out to achieve maximum contact against the ground beneath you”) with meditations on the slippery nature of embodiment (“To be lifted by three men is to feel like an oversize object: a stuffed chair, or a rolled-up rug”), the video offers a taxonomy of possible encounters between police and protestors. Drawing on an archive of photographs that span 1940s-era labor demonstrations to recent antiglobalization movements, MacDonell’s multichannel installation examines the implicit violence that subtends these bodily configurations, proposing passive resistance as the only form of refusal possible in late capitalism.
Across the room, another video, projected life-size on a diagonal wall, elaborates on this paradox by documenting six dancers restaging scenarios from the same source imagery. In one scene, a couple sits with arms and legs tenderly wrapped around each other when two others arrive to drag them apart and away, tugging awkwardly on a single arm or leg. Multiple takes of the same choreography superimposed over one another produces a ghostly composite of limp bodies and contorted limbs, suggesting that the same gestures that foster intimacy in one scenario can dehumanize in another. Juxtaposed with the violence of the archival documents, MacDonell’s lyrical restagings raise questions about which kinds of bodies can perform nonviolent resistance and which can expect it from others in return. As movements like Black Lives Matter demonstrate, the protestor’s expectation of fair compliance continues to be dictated by the color line.