Jim Sienkiewicz's Blog

Jim Sienkiewicz's thoughts on his own and others' photography

Category Archives: Exhibition Reviews

Robert Williams at the Sonoma County Art Museum

“Slang Aesthetics: The Art of Robert Williams”
June 5 – September 20, 2015

How about we start with a scenario that seems reminiscent of the classic lead-in to a joke: “three guys walk into a…” (in this case) art museum. Said three gentleman come from different backgrounds and walks of life and upon entering the exhibition space each man reacts differently to the art he sees before him. There are three possible responses these men will have to the large collection of work created by Robert Williams, former artist for Zap comics and the founder of Juxtapoz magazine. The first chap, your average middle class suburbanite out for a little dash of culture, may find himself taken aback by the subject matter at hand. While he might be able to understand the imagery and its representational quality more easily than the seemingly unintelligible series of lines and paint splashes characteristic of the “high art” he has previously been exposed to, he still comes to the determination that the gaudy color schemes, depictions of nude females and general references to the low brow are in poor taste and perhaps obnoxious in their lack of subtlety. The second museum-goer is young, hip(ster), and open to the experience. He confronts these same icons with a sense of humor and finds many of the pictures quite funny and sarcastic in their less than tongue in cheek suggestions. Refreshed by an artist who in his 70’s still manages to seem relevant and tuned into the world around him, this attendee walks away with a strong appreciation of William’s approach. The third and undoubtedly most troublesome of these exhibit goers is that of the informed and art educated personage ready to pounce on the assault of cultural aesthetics he came to the gallery to witness first hand. Prone to flamboyant confabulation on subjects of this ill-reputed ilk, he readies to launch his wellspring of academic criticisms on the paintings but ultimately finds himself unable to utter any tirades with an honest tongue. It seems as if the pulp imagery confronting him is visually alluring and witty in its parade of tropes and societal taboos. The man, now thoroughly nonplussed, manages to eke out a reluctant grin, as if to say to the artist “well done, well done”. With this signal of surrender the gentleman proceeds through the gallery and continues to glance behind the dark veil he has found pulled back before him.

The 52 paintings, works on paper, and sculptures on view in “Slang Aesthetics” provide a chronological sweep of the last thirty years of Robert Williams’ artistic output. The three-dimnesional objects in particular demand a great deal of attention, especially the two large fiberglass pieces that occupy the central and furthest reaches of the gallery. “The Rapacious Wheel” is a cartoon behemoth come to life, conjuring up imagery from Little Shop of Horrors. After having recently read “The Langoliers” I can also imagine this static yet fearsome pop creature as a representation of the earth swallowing monstrosities that populate the alternate reality created by that story’s author Stephen King. Another sculpture on a grand scale entitled “Errant Levity” similarly calls to mind other media references, in this case Ren & Stimpy and Beetlejuice, and hybridizes the forms of an ecstatic jockey with that of his steed, the tongue of the rider merging into the corpus of the horse generating a 21st century centaur of ignoble birth. Curiously a small puff of dust rests behind the figure (suggesting movement), repeating the motif found in “The Rapacious Wheel”, which also emerges from a cloud of torrential activity.

Robert Williams, "The Rapacious Wheel", 2013

Robert Williams, “The Rapacious Wheel”, 2013

There were many interesting paintings in this show and they benefited from the substantial number of captions written by Williams himself. A 1985 painting of a nude female poised next to a skeleton exposing himself (the reveal being his intestines rather than his genitals) cleverly pokes fun at the sanctity of both the subject matters of death and artistic nudes as well as the mock seriousness often accompanying discussions of art. Williams has offered up three titles for the piece. The actual name of the oil on canvas is “A Star-Crossed Liaison Punctuated By The Display Of Each Other’s Best Parts”. An alternate “academic title” is given as “Pamela Mistakes The Geometric Dance of Death For The Aztec Mummy Salute” and additionally a common/everyman’s epigram of “Mooning The Dead”.

While Williams’ pictorial references to surrealism are abound, an attack against abstract art in general and Abstract Expressionism in particular is also communicated through the narrative sequences and captions accompanying the iconography. An audio interview with Williams provided on the museum’s website features the artist’s discussion of how his early art school education of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s held up the Abstract Expressionists as the ultimate paradigm of modern painting. The realism and craftsmanship evident in Williams’ work led to his becoming an object of derision from his teachers and peers, calling Williams “the Illustrator” and debasing his technique as commercial and mundane. A touch of poetic justice/revenge is discernible in many pieces but in 2013’s “The Decline of Sophistication” perhaps the artist sets up his most biting visual and linguistic counterblow. This tableau bases its central theme around good taste and the various symbols of it, or against it: the university facade with the carnival tent exterior, the salacious depiction of the entwined couple, the white trash junkyard set against a virtual “desert of the mind”. The evolutionary nod to the scholarly monkey being the current manifestation of old world civility and the specific dates listed on the tombstone even reference the founding of Williams’ own publication Juxtapoz in 1994. The clever caption for the image never approaches the sardonic, even if the painting does. One great line amongst many in this title card is the parting shot at the end of the statement, delivering a punchy summation of Williams’ larger body of work’s own mélange of classic craft and materials with the common and trite subjects of his own time. This phrase also serves as a fitting end piece to the experience of seeing this exhibit and the thoughts that are generated in viewing it: “Let he who has not seen the ram mate with the sow stand omnipotently above us, for he shall never know the taste of mutton bacon”.

Robert Williams, "The Decline of Sophistication", 2013

Robert Williams, “The Decline of Sophistication”, 2013

Pop Art at the Sonoma County Museum

“Andy Warhol to Kara Walker: Picturing the Iconic”
Sonoma County Museum, Santa Rosa, CA
April 12-May 24, 2015

Now that my teaching duties have wrapped up for the spring semester I took the opportunity this past week to view the current exhibit at the Sonoma County Museum. I was lucky to see this show in its final days as many of the artists and pieces are difficult to view in any one place at one time outside of a major collection such as the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art or the Museum of Modern Art in New York. For a small venue like the Sonoma County Museum to put on a show of this scope (thanks to the loaned artwork of the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation) is quite a coup and the body of work amassed is impressive.

While the show is not quoted as such, this is ostensibly a “Pop Art” collection of imagery. While a few of the more recent artists such as Kara Walker float outside of that categorization, the themes and lineup of artists are strictly within the milieu of said genre. The entire original band was represented: Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, Ruscha and Oldenburg amongst others. While I myself am not an acolyte of the late Andy Warhol I did enjoy his series of classic soup cans as I had never before had the opportunity to see more than one of them displayed together in a single showing. The quality of the silkscreening is superb and the metallic luster of the tops of the cans is a feature that grants these seemingly generic typological objects a presence in the gallery that is lost in media such as the book or online.

Andy Warhol, "Campbell's Soup Cans"

Another pairing of graphic works that I found curious were architectural blueprints created by Mark Bennett in 1997. These lithographs detailed the floor plans of the fictional homes of Genie from I Dream of Genie and The Flintstones respectively. The Genie diagram included both an overhead layout and an exterior elevation of the lamp that houses the single chamber dwelling within. I was bemused that while there are several couches and areas where one might relax and lounge away the long periods of inactivity that accompany the genie lifestyle, there was no inclusion of a sink or any “toilette”. I guess we are not meant to go that deep as casual viewers. The abode of the Flintstones was more detailed and complex in its mapping of the famous cartoon’s living quarters. I thought these pieces rather clever in how they appropriated the traditional pop culture subject matters of the larger movement but also added more of a witty commentary and personal flare than the often cold and objective treatment granted by artists such as Jeff Koons or Richard Prince. Speaking of Prince, who has recently been selling enlarged screen shots of Instagram user’s postings in galleries for upwards of six figures, one can trace how the evolution of Pop Art blended with the conceptual priorities of the late 1960’s/early 1970’s American art scene and led to, along with other more fertile territories, the intellectual and cultural wasteland represented by millionaire garbage artists such as Koons, Prince, Richard Pettibone and British contemporaries like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emins. These individuals are the unfortunate afterbirth of an unctuous system of reciprocal art world fellatio that has seen record prices commanded for artifacts of increasingly poor and sophomoric tastes. It was my specific displeasure to spy a photographic representation of Koon’s infamous Michael Jackson and Bubbles sculpture included in the show. I dared not linger too long in viewing it as I could sense my brain cells cannibalizing themselves in response to the optical stimuli I had unintentionally inflicted upon them.

Mark Bennett, "Home of Fred and Wilma Flinstone", 1997

Ending on a brighter (yet topically more serious) note, the exhibit culminated in works by more recent artists such as David Levinthal and Kara Walker. While Walker’s oeuvre is stylistically appropriate to the company it finds itself in, her silhouetted stage plays related to the history of slavery and racism in the United States are by far the strongest social commentaries featured in the show. The great majority of the exhibition relies on strictly aesthetic or tongue in cheek references to the image and media culture we have become so saturated by over the past half century, but Walker’s pictures harken back to not only an older period (antebellum America) but also utilize the stark convention of her silhouetted figures to force the audience into a confrontation with its nation’s history and morality. This is a fitting finale to a collection of images that at first aim to only aestheticize the residue of mass media and entertainment and progress towards art as an intervention of social conscience and contemplation.

Kara Walker, "The Means to an End...A Shadow Drama in Five Acts", 1995

Georgia O’Keefe at the deYoung

Georgia O'Keefe-Storm Cloud, Lake George-1923

Exhibition dates: February 15-May 11, 2014

I recently visited the deYoung Museum to see the Georgia O’Keefe “Lake George” retrospective and walked away having enjoyed much of the work. There were a few pieces that seem included but for their reference to the stated theme alone, but in general the exhibition was strong and insightful with concern to the seeds of natural exploration that had been sown during O’Keefe’s time in New York and later brought to fruition in the artist’s best known paintings of the New Mexico years.

Coming off of the massive David Hockney show that had previously been on display at the museum, it was hard not to conceive of the O’Keefe exhibit as intimate in scale. There were essentially five rooms of various sizes that displayed the artist’s Lake George paintings as well as contemporary photographs and images by other artists that shed light on the themes and intellectual currents present in the canvases of O’Keefe. I must say that while most museums and the deYoung in particular always pay great attention to the arrangement of the artworks and their lighting, the quality of light present in this exhibition is quite beautiful and produced an effect akin to a glowing window in many of the pictures. The watercolors especially seemed to radiate light and generated an impression of transparency.

I was happy to see towards the finale of the exhibition that some of O’Keefe’s early “Precisionist” style work was included. This period is probably the least known of the artist’s oeuvre, but one look at classic New York moodscapes like “Radiator Building” and other urban abstractions enhances the reputation and range of this great painter. I have chosen to include two specific landscape paintings in this blog entry as they are the two images from the show that struck me with the greatest intensity. The dramatic tonalities and subdued color palette of “Storm Cloud, Lake George” (1923) functions similar to a warmtone Romantic style Western landscape in its gravity and emotion while the quiet sunset (or sunrise) depicted in “The Chestnut Grey” (1924) reminds me of my own quiet reverence for the simpler daily recurrences of the natural world and the complimentary play of cyan and peach hues lends an aesthetic aura to an otherwise seemingly cold and distanced formal design.

Georgia O'Keefe-The Chectnut Grey-1924

David Hockney-“A Bigger Exhibition”

de Young Museum of San Francisco
October 26, 2013-January 20, 2014

Both in scale and quantity of imagery, “A Bigger Exhibition” lives up to its title in this massive survey of painter David Hockney’s work of the past two decades. Outside of a few examples from earlier periods that establish context, this exhibition program almost exclusively features work from the 2000’s and displays the diversity of the artist’s range in several media in his continuing evolution of style as well as engagement of contemporary technology. Hockney’s investigations and adaptation of photographic techniques and principles dates back to the death throes of Pop Art and Modernism, but the ways in which the painter turned conceptual photographer has embraced such novel platforms as the iPad and digital video are stunningly refreshing and also a promising sign of technology not signaling an inherent end to creativity, but rather a chronological extension of it.

David Hockney-%22More Felled Trees on Woldgate%22-2008

David Hockney-“More Felled Trees on Woldgate” (2008)

While the exhibition press releases and catalog make continued mention of Hockney’s consummate virtuosity of “draftsmanship”, I found this statement to be an unfit description considering the often purposefully rough and slightly unfinished qualities of the works included in the exhibition. This is not to say that Hockney isn’t gifted in his ability to manipulate line and paint, just that the emphasis on this aspect of the artist’s practice seem at odds with the lack of pictorial delineation the painter so often employs to thoroughly evoke texture and atmosphere. One may argue that these are in deed attributes of impeccable drafting, but when a large part of both the show as well as Hockney’s oeuvre concentrate on painting’s relationship to photography, this argument gets lost in some of the points the artist has repeatedly broached over the course of his career.

Take for example the room which displays Hockney’s own camera lucida drawings juxtaposed against a large multi-wall mural of reproductions that depict the evolution of the painted portrait over the course of eight centuries: “The Great Wall”. Beginning with the pre-Renaissance work of Cimabue and cycling through an ever-greater sense of photographic realism in the masters of the following epochs, both the accompanying text statement and the organization of the imagery suggest the potential use of aids to draftsmanship that may have produced the realistic fidelity of painting throughout art history. Hockney ushered in a controversial debate a decade ago with the publication of his “Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters” and its suggestion that artists from Van Eyck to Vermeer utilized camera obscuras and lucidas in order to master perspective and perfect verisimilitude of their subjects. For those unaware, the camera obscura is the forerunner of the contemporary camera and is either an opaque room or box that projects an image from the outside world into the dark interior through a small aperture (without or without glass). This basic principal of optical physics would allow an artist to construct a tent in the landscape or utilize a smaller apparatus and then project and trace an image onto a mounted canvas or support. These techniques date to the Renaissance and the smaller and more portable camera lucida was first introduced in 1807. While Hockney does have strong evidence for his claims that many artists have made use of such tools as aids to their artistic practice, the over-simplified account detailed in the exhibition makes too broad of an assumption. Renaissance figures such as Paolo Uccello created incredibly complex spatial studies that relied heavily on mathematical formula and spatial observation, not the use of a camera obscura. Jan Van Eyck’s “Arnolfini Wedding” (1434) signals a massive breakthrough in the life-like delineation of the human form not only for its photographic perspective and clarity, but also for that master painter’s landmark introduction of oil paint rather than tempera and the resulting vivid colors and textures that render greater illusionistic depth. Even the statement’s assertion that the great Frenchman Ingres was exploiting the camera lucida bears little consequence upon close examination of his famous odalisques and the obvious ways in which the painter has elongated the female form and “mannerized” the human body. Even in the 20th century abstract artist Willem de Kooning was able to so faithfully render a portrait that both his sitters and contemporaries were amazed by his gifts of draftsmanship, often comparing him to Ingres in his absolute mastery of line. While one is less apt to take issue with the claim that many artists have incorporated photographic aids into their work over the centuries, it becomes a specious argument the way in which the exhibition states it, and one that is especially speculative and perhaps politically motivated given the 20th and 21st century painterly practice of using grids (see Chuck Close), slide projectors (see Richard Estes) and even computers and Photoshop (see the scores of realists of the past 20 years) as means of making paintings appear photo-realistic.

David Hockney-%22The Great Wall%22

David Hockney-“The Great Wall” (detail)

On a less contentious note, let us take into consideration the beauty of David Hockney’s recent large-scale landscape paintings in oil and the gorgeous plays of color that make them successful. Hockney is truly a master of color, and this is a feature of the work that should have been played up more than the quality of his draftsmanship. In several canvases the medleys of chroma remind one of Gauguin or Van Gogh and this kinship bears out further likeness in the linear movements created in several pieces. The 2008 painting “More Felled Trees on Woldgate” seems especially reminiscent of some of Van Gogh’s canvases both in their sense of color contrasts and implied spatial dimensions. Many of the charcoal studies and works on paper also evoke similar sensations of texture in the style of Charles Burchfield. The implication of tactility was marvelous and the ways in which Hockney has allowed the negative space and lack of defined contours to create a greater suggestion of substance shows his aptitude for knowing how to utilize a minimal rendition for maximal effect.


Comparison of Charles Burchfield’s “Pine Tree and Oriental Poppies” (1955-60) and David Hockney’s “Kilham to Rudston” (2008)

I was also very pleasantly surprised by Hockney’s iPad drawings/paintings which proved to be some of the most interesting work in the show. Both the portraits and landscapes were successful in their manipulation of this new technology (which the artist has used since its inception in 2010) and these pieces seem to glow with a wonderful sense of interior illumination. It is almost as if the backlit projection of the mobile device has been embedded into the reflective surface of the physical prints on dibond that were mounted for the exhibition.

In my opinion the “cubist movies” which Hockney has recently created really stole the show. These pieces were crafted using several digital video cameras mounted to an armature so that a larger scene was captured with multiple perspectives. Calling to mind Paul Cezanne’s disintegration of one-point perspective as well as the Cubist movement in general, these multi-screen installations were stimulating in their off-kilter registration of the same scene as well as their inherent emphasis on perception. A piece with jugglers throwing their implements across a panoramic space was perhaps most dramatic in displaying this re-organization of spatial realities but the landscape pieces were breathtaking for their immersion of the viewer into the space(s) as well as their conceptual structuring. In the same downstairs galleries as the artist’s largest works on canvas, there is one room which exhibits the same East Yorkshire bucolic locale in all four of the distinct seasons. Each piece occupies its own individual wall and all the videos are synchronized as to generate an enveloping encounter with time and weather creating an almost sublime experience. Even with other museum attendees present the pieces create an intimate space for the viewer to become a part of. These digital videos serve as a fitting compliment not only to the nearby painted landscapes but also to the continuing fascination that David Hockney has had with photographic media over the course of his career and his desire to both adapt and go beyond this medium as a counterpart to his oeuvre in painting.

3 for 1 review: 49 Geary Street Galleries, San Francisco-December 2013

This past week I had the opportunity to visit the galleries at 49 Geary Street and view a few photography exhibitions that warrant discussion. While at times the shows were mixed in their success and impact on the viewer, all three of these exhibits provided their own unique take on photographic approaches to a specific subject.

Let’s begin with the Robert Koch Gallery and the display of images by the late Hungarian photographer János Szász (1925-2005). The Koch gallery is typically a staple of high quality contemporary and historical photography, and this show presented an artist who was unknown to myself prior to the viewing of the work. The high contrast black & white prints display the strong emphasis on abstraction latent in much of Modernist art photography and Szász’s pictures attest to the international influence of contemporary practitioners such as Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind. The photographs appear to be the result of extreme underexposure and then severe push processing of the film to achieve an all but bi-tonal separation of values that render even mundane subjects like a movie theatre or soviet-era blockhouse into crisp, rhythmic designs. The photographer utilized potassium-ferricyanide bleach (a chemical applied with a paintbrush to brighten highlights or shadows) to augment the richness of his monochromatic separation and the results create a striking level of non-objectivity despite the all-too everyday interest implied by his chosen subjects. The prints in this exhibition were vintage, and this was an element of the presentation that was readily noticeable in the varying paper types, creases and dents in the prints, as well as the multi-colored and roughly retouched dust spots and scratches visible in the imagery. As a darkroom instructor myself, the utter sloppiness of the attempt at concealing the imperfections of the photographs would normally begin to detract from the refinement of the pictures, but here the effect was less pronounced and even arguably something that lent to the humble nature of the simplified designs. (To be fair, this is an arbitrarily applied axiom that often accompanies older, historical photographs.) The most striking image in the show was perhaps the one heavily reproduced by the gallery in their promotion of the exhibition, a picture of couples dancing and captured with their movement dragged across the plane of the film’s negative. The effect is reminiscent of Italian Futurism and their adoption of motion to impart both energy and formal dynamism to their artworks. For myself the most interesting picture and the one that seemed to best handle the heavily manipulated contrast was a simple image of a herd of sheep contoured in intense chiaroscuro, thus elevating a common rural scene into one of strong pictorial values.

János Szász-“Herd”-1971
Janos Szasz-Herd-1971

Next up was the Stephen Wirtz Gallery and Sean McFarland’s body of work entitled “Glass Mountains”. This exposition was the most conceptually oriented as well as thematic of the three galleries being reviewed, and perhaps some viewers might not take to the loosely applied criteria that often determined which pieces were chosen to amalgamate the exhibit. The title and subject matter of McFarland’s work is derived from a particular location in the Inyo National Forest of California that constitutes the locale for most, but not all of the pictures included in the gallery. There were a variety of different photographic media on display, from the contemporary archival pigment print to traditional gelatin silver images as well as cyanotypes and minimalistic multiple media collages. There were also several small-scale black & white polaroids presented both as singular images as well as multi-panel grids, and while some of these particular pieces were interesting in their abstract allusions to various aspects of the natural landscape, the process being detailed on the title cards as “monochromatic dye diffusion transfer print” might seem obnoxiously grandiloquent. Even to the most high-minded of gallery-goers this may seem pompous considering this description is a blatant financial pampering of “instant print” or “polaroid”. That said, I do believe that keeping an open mind when viewing this work allows for the audience to appreciate the cosmopolitan approach McFarland brings to his subject matter, and I found the diversity of mediums refreshing considering the strong emphasis on an uniform theme. Some of the photographs do depict actual mountain landscapes while others suggest similar formal and even emotional resonances with constructions created by McFarland that echo features of the natural environment. The pigment prints were dimly exposed and de-saturated in their palette, but this artistic choice not only generated a strong mood for these pictures but also unified these pieces with the remainder of the imagery, while an alternate take on the capture process might have made these more straightforward documents of the terrains incongruous. As a total effect, “Glass Mountains” evidences the vision of an individual clearly interested in themes of nature and its illustration, but with the unique perspective of a photographer less concerned with the purity of any one medium and more for the impact derived from the manipulation of materials towards their own conceptual goal.

Sean McFarland-“Untitled (Blue Glass Mountain)”-2013
Sean McFarland-Untitled (Blue Glass Mountain)-2013

Finally, we must discuss the Arbus retrospective at the Fraenkel Gallery: “DIANE ARBUS: 1971–1956”. This show is a must-see and a perfect example of why Fraenkel remains the premier institution at 49 Geary for seminal and groundbreaking photography. While a case for the importance of Arbus in photographic history hardly needs to be waged, this presentation of both lesser and well-known images provides for a wonderful assessment of the photographer’s oeuvre. Chronicling a 15-year period, the included portraits attest to Arbus’ continuing interest in persons on the margins of society as well as her aptitude for normalizing these individuals at the same time that she seems to debunk the status quo of civilized archetypes that she also chose to highlight. The aesthetic of Arbus breaks every rule of both traditional as well as academic approaches to composition, lighting and printmaking, but as has been long remarked, these are the often charming qualities that generate the reality and impact of her pictures and make them stand out against the peers of her own time period. While brought to a level of prominence during her lifetime with her inclusion in the landmark 1967 MOMA exhibition “New Documents”, it is largely the posthumous notoriety she has received that has firmly cemented her in the annuls of photographic history. What a sensitive and perceptive artist she was. She understood that technique or style could not supplant her empathy for humanity, and that ultimately this is why she was a great photographer. Interestingly enough the print quality in the Fraenkel prints is quite good, while still in keeping with the anti-aesthetic associated with Arbus’ work. The most telling images were the more obscure inclusions, such as the “Backwards Man” in his NYC apartment and especially a completely non-sexualized portrait of an older gentleman and his hired dominatrix. Pictures such as “Kid in black-face with friend, N.Y.C. 1957” not only project the prejudices of a bygone era, but also the overarching manner in which Arbus was able to deflate the “normals” of society while at the same time ennobling the so-called “freaks” that she humanized repeatedly. While I had seen the large survey of Arbus’ life and work that SF MOMA put on several years ago, honestly the impact is almost greater when viewing this more modestly sized collection of images. The genius of the photographer is subtler and at the same time more potent in how the pictures display her recurring themes over the multiple decade approach to her chosen iconography.

Diane Arbus-“The Backwards Man”-1961
Diane Arbus-The Backwards Man-1961

Rose Mandel- “The Errand of the Eye” at the de Young Museum

I took some of my students on a field trip to the de Young Museum this past week with the express aim of viewing the Rose Mandel exhibition of photographs that is up until October 13, 2013. I had never seen any of Mandel’s work before viewing the show and frankly, had never heard her name come up in either the broader history of photography or discussions about the local San Francisco Bay area artistic milieu. I was delighted however to get to see this collection of images for the first time and learn more about Mandel’s life and work (1910-2002). This survey of the photographer’s oeuvre was in conjunction with the Richard Diebenkorn exhibit also on display, and while most of us are readily familiar with the painter’s imagery, his friend and colleague Mandel was much less widely known to the larger Bay Area audience.

It may be that Rose Mandel’s name has slipped into some obscurity, which makes the de Young’s retrospective of her work all the more valuable some 60 years after her first exhibition there, but the artist was firmly rooted in the high Modernist photographic tradition. As an émigré from war-torn Poland, Mandel was forced to give up her practice as a child psychologist and start anew upon being naturalized in San Francisco in the late 1940’s (after several years of residence in the U.S. previous to that date.) The lingering impact of her homeland’s state of devastation and emotional resonance is visible in her work, even though at first many of the pictures seem to be mere formal abstractions. As a pupil of Ansel Adams, Mandel was able to adapt her printing and large format capture technique to that of her teacher, but rather than simply mimicking Adams’ dramatic landscape iconography, Mandel instead chose to merge these aspects of her craft with a more probing and psychologically intimate vision of everyday life. The great majority of the pictures in the exhibition are contact prints (primarily 4 x 5″) and the small scale and beautiful textures of the non-enlarged negatives creates an experience for the viewer that goes beyond pure, F.64 straight photographic principles. Her use of extreme soft focus surrounding a point of clarity as well as her concentration on reflections as subjects establishes a link between her work and that of the Surrealists as well as other artists who provoke us to go beyond mere visual recognition of objects, but instead to exercise more mental acuity in its deciphering.

Besides a strong presentation of the photographs (one wall of roughly 40-50 images contained the small 4 x 5″ contacts framed and arranged in a typological format) there was also the inclusion of some of Mandel’s personal documents and other written correspondences. Of particular note were the response she received on Museum of Modern Art letterhead from John Szarkowski (that institution’s renowned photography curator) regarding his enthusiasm in requesting to purchase one of her prints for the standard rate of $25 but also Mandel’s typewritten Guggenheim fellowship application that she authored in the 1960’s. The photographer did win the fellowship and it was a remarkable example of how times have changed in the professionalism of the artist and their personae. The one paragraph long proposal contained numerous “x”-ed out typos and could not have more simplified in its description. Mandel had already by that point been given prestigious exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as well as having work in the collection of several other museums, but the stark directness of her application to make a body of work on the people and places of Berkeley, California clashes with the hyper-verbal artistic theory and vocabulary that is so omnipresent in the universities of today. It was therefore rather refreshing.

Rose Mandel-On Walls and Behind Glass #20-1948

Rose Mandel-Jay DeFeo-1949

“Impressionists on the Water” at the Legion of Honor

Exhibition: 6/1-10/13/2013

I recently had the pleasure of viewing the Impressionist show running at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, and like many a guest found myself delightfully overwhelmed with the wealth of work that was contained within it. There are paintings and various media by Monet, Renoir, Signac, Pissarro and a host of others and the quality of the included selections is quite high.

The theme of the show is “on the water”, which coincides with the America’s Cup race that annually takes place in San Francisco. Besides the range of styles and artists working in this theme, there were also writings, graphic works and even a pair of Gustave le Gray albumen prints from the 19th century which served as a fitting counterpoint to the subjectivity imbued in the Impressionists recording of similar motifs. It should be noted that le Gray is famous for his combination prints that surpassed the technical limitations of wet-plate collodion photography and allowed him to dramatize and romanticize his well-known seascapes. There was a large survey of painting that included the giants of the movement and on the occasion of my visit the Renoir’s and Pissarro’s occupied the most popular and congested segments of the galleries. Nevertheless this gave me the opportunity to see some of the Paul Signac’s up close and while I had seen some of his and Seurat’s Pointillist works before at the Musée D’Orsay previously, this viewing seemed to pack more of a wallop in the pictures’ technical virtuosity and aesthetic appeal. I also was able to see a couple of Emile Vuillard canvases that glowed in their play of complimentary color contrasts but also reminded myself of my cabin and its environs on the Russian River in Sonoma County.

Another interesting observation for the museum-goer is the noticeable influence of Impressionist pictorial devices on future “realist” painters and how they would come to define highlights and shadows in oil. I have always loved the work of Edward Hopper, whose themes of loneliness and aloneness display an existential current of American life in the first half of the 20th century. One of the aspects of a Hopper painting of a pastoral or cityscape that helps crystallize his beautiful sense of light is his application of warm hues to the highlights and then the corresponding/complimentary cool tone hues to the shadows. This development might not sound all that revolutionary in and of itself but it was truly the Impressionists that initiated this effect and perfected it as a means of creating the often dazzling displays of color and brilliant light that are so famous in their works. Even with a good deal of white mixed into the colored pigments (thus lessening the saturation and creating more of a high-key, pastel palette) these contrasts of warm and cool still energize the imagery in a way that painters had not achieved before. For myself it is the landscape artist’s equivalent to how Leonardo invented “sfumato” and changed the course of Renaissance painting with his famous dissolving contours and thus less cut-out and immovable figures.

It is rare for a show of this kind, one which highlights the great masters or a popular Modernist movement, to not seem trite, cliché or overly broad in its appeal but this exhibition was wonderful. I would recommend that you be sure to catch this show before its closing this coming October.
Gustave Caillebotte-Regatta at Argentuil-1893
Gustave Caillebotte, Regatta at Argentuil-1893

Garry Winogrand at SFMOMA

The Garry Winogrand retrospective at SFMOMA is closing and I wanted to convey my appreciation for the exhibition and how pleasantly surprised I was to enjoy it. Not being a street photographer myself, and only half-heartedly accepting Winogrand’s status in photographic history previous to viewing the show, it was probably my profound lack of expectation that created the new enthusiasm I came away with for the work.

The photographer’s shoot from the hip, catch anything that moves approach resulted in perhaps 1 out of every 50-100 frames of 35mm film capturing something interesting, and with the constant barrage of mindless imagery produced by the masses today for countless purposes, it would seem that Winogrand was merely famous as an oracle of what would follow in his wake. While I was thoroughly familiar with the majority of his canonical images and had seen another grouping of his work previously about a decade ago at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona it was really the all-encompassing bombardment of visuals that allowed for the greater receptivity of the exhibit’s impact. When studying the hundreds of photographs in the exposition one gets a deeper sense that Winogrand was similar to Cartier-Bresson in his quest for decisive moments, but instead of resulting in the often design-based études of the great French photographer, Winogrand pictures display subtle and pensive narratives that provide us with clues, but rarely with answers. The decades worth of work on view reaches its pinnacle early on in the New York and cross-country photographs of the 1960’s but taken as a whole the effect is that of an operator who gave us glimpses of reality through the nuanced subjectivity of the camera and its wielder.

I have chosen to isolate the single photograph here because it was beforehand unknown to myself and was the picture that caught my eye from a distance and continued to intrigue me after my departure from the museum. In this 1969 image captured in New York we see the subject of the photo staring out towards the viewer (via Winogrand) and registering his anger and contempt for either the photographer or some other person not discernible from the framing. I love this picture because it sums up the nerve and bravado that accompanies street photography and the ability of the photographer to get the shot even at the expense of potentially having their arse kicked in. That kind of daring is half the reason that the show is so successful with the remainder lying in that this person did have a great eye for a picture (even if it first needed to edit down from thousands of them before refining it).

Garry Winogrand-New York-1969