Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

Another day in the sexual revolution

It’s been a cold, foggy, blowy day. The sun never came out, and tourists hurried into souvenir shops and Walgreens to buy crappy beige SAN FRANCISCO sweaters and hoodies. On days like today you wonder how the hell the city ever became known as the capital of free love, unless it was the urge to get back into bed, and when two people had the same idea, then… Yeah, that would work.

This morning I went to my favorite café, Progressive Grounds at 21st and Bryant. As I sat there reading The Savage Detectives I became aware of a woman with a braying voice having a loud phone conversation — unusual at that café. “I’m twenty-six,” she was saying. “I’ve got long hair, almost down to my ass. I’m 36 double-D. I’m real pretty, I work at Centerfolds…”

I looked up. The speaker was a frankly ugly woman with thin, straight shoulder-length hair. She was in her mid-30s at least, fat, and dressed like a Capp St. hooker in a dirty pinkish party dress and a bright pink puffy jacket. She had on weird hookerish tinted glasses and high-heeled shoes, and she was saying “I just got off work at 4:00 a.m. Yeah, I have pictures on disk that I can send you. Well, what are you looking for? No, I don’t have a cell phone camera. Well, why is that important?”

Then the party she was talking to apparently hung up. The woman went to the counter and ordered a complicated vanilla latte with lots of whipped cream. (The staff at the café treated her with as much respect and politeness as they treat everyone, I noticed. Did I say I really like that café?) Then she took her drink back to the table and, with her finger on an advertisement in the back pages of the SF Weekly, phoned another potential employer.

I was thinking two things at the same time: She is atrocious, but also, she is awesome. She had probably never been pretty. Her voice sounded like the dregs at the bottom of a bottle of beer. But she was working that camera-less mobile phone and lying up one side and down the other about how gorgeous she was. What was the point? What were people going to say when she actually showed up at whatever strip club or massage parlor she was calling? Did she look in the mirror and see herself as she described herself? And how much of the way we all present ourselves is mostly bluff and squinting in the mirror and hoping that other people never call us on it?

After the second phone call she checked her messages, collected her things, and departed.

Film: "In a Dream" at the Roxie

In a Dream, which screens at the Roxie starting Friday night, is a film about the mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar, who has become an icon in South Philadelphia due to his long, intensely local career and the massive scale and extent of the mosaics he has created there. They include, by his description, about “a hundred murals” and “seven buildings, top to bottom, inside and out.” His best-known work is Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, which represents the transformation of two derelict buildings into a labyrinthine complex that covers half a city block with winding mosaic-covered passageways and sculptures.

Zagar’s mosaics are bright, colorful, and complex, rich with a celebratory spirit towards physicality and sensuality. But the surface cheerfulness of these mosaics belies the deeper obsession and the narcissism that makes such vast, intricate works possible in the first place, and Jeremiah Zagar — the director of the film and the artist’s younger son — uncovers that darkness here with unrelenting economy. All the father’s past secrets rapidly come out in the open, culminating when one of his most shameful episodes plays out right in front of the camera: his self-centered pursuit of “passion” with his assistant, which ends with a brief separation from his wife Julia, right when their oldest son is separated from his own wife and having drug problems.

Jeremiah describes the moment: “I went home to film my parents as they picked my brother up from rehab. The stress from the situation boiled over, and my father suddenly admitted [the affair] to my mother and me … that same night, my parents separated for the first time in 43 years.” Isaiah’s admission is made directly into the camera, and it’s a moment of remarkable drama. Amazingly, Jeremiah retains his composure — he coughs and the handheld camera shakes for an instant, but that is all — and he goes on to capture every instant of what ensues. “I shot 16 hours that day and hated myself for every minute of it,” he writes. What happens next is unsurprising but not predictable, and the film ends with a brief epilogue, highly effective in its simplicity, that shows how the family continues on into the next adventure.

For all the darkness that Jeremiah reveals, it’s an affectionate film. He shot his footage over the course of seven years, filming “whenever something significant happened,” and he describes the result like this: “what started as an exploration of my father’s life has exposed the secrets of our entire family. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. … We know now how imperfect we really are, but also how much we need and love each other.”

The film is highly recommended. In a Dream screens at the Roxie starting Friday night. [This review was originally published, in somewhat different form, on October 25th, 2008.]

Our City Dreams: The Lives of Five Women in Art

Our City Dreams

[Above, Marina Abramovic and her posse dare the ocean to hit them with its best shot.]

Our City Dreams chronicles the careers and lives of five female artists, now based in New York City, who have been drawn there by everything the city represents — all its chaos, romance, and the advantages of being at the center of the art world. It opens with a view of the Brooklyn Bridge — from a car driving on it, presumably into Manhattan — a jazz soundtrack, and an apt epigraph from Susan Sontag, whose own career was inextricably bound up with the city: “I was not looking for my dreams to interpret my life, but rather for my life to interpret my dreams.” The words well suggest what is to follow: a documentary about five women who have each been able to realize their “dreams,” by which is meant both their ambitions and their artistic visions.

Director Chiara Clemente (herself the daughter of a famous painter, Franciso Clemente) followed each of these artists for a year, documenting some key moments in their lives. One artist opens her first solo show and another opens a 25–year retrospective. The women are profiled in order of age, so that in the course of the film you develop a sense of what an entire lifetime in art might mean for a woman. But since each artist started her career about a decade earlier than the one previously interviewed, we also get a brief history of contemporary art in reverse order, a series of personal views into some of the major currents in art over the past half-century, starting with street art and moving backwards through performance art, art explicitly informed by feminist criticism, and Expressionist art.

More than that, though, we get a clear insight into what it means to be a female artist in our society after the feminist movement — and something of what it meant to be one before. Near the end of the film, the painter Nancy Spero (born 1926) celebrates her eightieth birthday, and recalls, of the 1950s and early 1960s: “I was dying for people to ask me what I was working on,” as it didn’t happen much in those years. That memory makes for a sharp contrast with the first woman profiled, the street artist Swoon (born 1977; incidentally, you might have gone to this recent event) who seems to have the world before her: she says she feels lucky to be working “at a moment when women are being really encouraged” to be artists — and as if to prove the point, we’re shown footage of her first solo show, given when she was twenty-eight, at Deitch Projects. In between these two, we get studio visits and some time spent with Ghada Amer, Kiki Smith, and the self-described “grandmother of performance art” Marina Abramovic.

Altogether it’s a fascinating film and a good introduction to five of the most significant artists of our time.

The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is presenting this film at 7:30 on four evenings starting on April 9th and continuing through the 12th. Tickets and trailer available here.

[Note: When originally published, this article incorrectly stated the opening night as April 8th.]

1930s era SF ‘wonderful creations’ include Alcatraz?

I missed this LA Times travel piece when it came out a month ago — a nice little writeup on how many San Francisco landmarks were built during the Great Depression of the 1930s, from the Golden Gate Bridge and Coit Tower to the Opera House. Here is a beautiful photo gallery.

Other newspapers are still reprinting the piece: for example the Winston-Salem (NC) Journal, whose website today highlights one curious 1930s San Francisco landmark: Alcatraz, which opened in 1934. Their headline says Wonderful creations emerged during the hard times of the ’30s, with a picture of Alcatraz right underneath. Somehow I doubt the copy editor who wrote that headline has been to Alcatraz.

Anyway, the piece nicely totes up the number of Diego Rivera murals in the city, including the one at the San Francisco Stock Exchange (“What were the stockbrokers thinking?”) — and the one at City College.

Places you’re not supposed to see

This morning I’m going to the SFMOMA to meet artist and writer Trevor Paglen and interview him.
        Update: Here’s the interview on
He may be best known because of his appearance several months ago on “The Colbert Report” talking about his short book about the unit patches worn by people working on secret military projects, I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have To Be Destroyed By Me. He’s also the author of “Blank Spots on the Map,” a geographical approach to the black world of secret military projects, and co-author of Torture Taxi, about the Bush administration’s uncharted rendition air flights.

But he’s not just an author and academic — he’s a geography professor at UC Berkeley — but a photographer whose work is hanging at both SFMOMA and the Altman Siegel Gallery in SF. His photographs, many of which use what he calls “Limit Telephotography” or the practice of taking very long range telephoto pictures, peek into places you’re not supposed to see:

Trevor Paglen: Large Hangars and Fuel Storage/Tonopah Test Range, NV/Distance ~18 miles/10:44 am

Trevor Paglen: Large Hangars and Fuel Storage/Tonopah Test Range, NV/Distance ~18 miles/10:44 am

… and pick out needles — secret surveillance satellites — in the haystack of the night sky.

Geek Reading at 111 Minna, Monday the 23rd

From the EFF’s weekly newsletter:

You’re Invited to a “Geek Reading” with Authors Cory Doctorow, Rudy Rucker, Annalee Newitz, and Charlie Anders at 111 Minna Gallery.

Join EFF on Monday, March 23rd, for a fundraising event featuring award-winning writer Cory Doctorow. Cory will be reading from his novel, “Little Brother,” a story of high-tech teenage rebellion set in the familiar world of San Francisco. As he currently calls the UK home, this is a rare opportunity to to hear Cory read from his work in person. He will be joined by fellow writers Rudy Rucker, Annalee Newitz and Charlie Anders reading from their latest works.

WHEN: Monday, March 23rd, at 7:30 p.m.
Where: 111 Minna, SF, CA

Art opening this Friday April 20. Move 18 curated by Rich Jacobs

Cynthia Connolly of Dischord has an art opening tomorrow night.

From her note:

In case you are in San Francisco in the next month.. I have a visual and sound piece in the below exhibit. I am finally using sound that I recorded in Alabama alongside photographs taken there as well. The installation points out the historical political change that Perry County Alabama took at the last presidential election. Not only did they vote for Barack Obama, but the County Board voted to make the second Monday of November a County holiday for Barack Obama. The only way this decision can be changed is a 100% positive vote from the Senate and Congress and the Board of Perry County, Alabama. I need to point out that some people also observe , “Robert E Lee” day, in this county.

Details on the exhibit:

Where: San Francisco, California, (Richmond area) a group show curated by Rich Jacobs: “Move 18: Listen with your Eyes and Ears Wide Open, This Time”
When: March 20 – April 15, Opening Reception March 20th, 7-11pm.
Where: Park Life, 220 Clement Street,, 415-386-7275, hours: Noon-8PM Mon-Thurs, 11am – 9pm Fri & Sat, 11am – 7pm Sun

IndieFest: "Abraham Obama" at the Roxie (Quick Notice)

Today at 12:30, San Francisco IndieFest presents the world premiere of Abraham Obama. It’s a film about Ron English, who created the image of the same name, and the nationwide tour he and a bunch of other artists took in the run up to the Denver convention and beyond, to lend their support to the Obama campaign. Jet Set Graffiti went along on the tour to capture all the shenanigans, and this hour-long film is the resulting product. If you’re interested, you can check out my interview with Ron English over here at Juxtapoz Magazine.

For further reading, check out Jet Set Graffiti and see all the other cool stuff the filmmakers have been up to.

Lawrence Lessig Chats with The Booksmith

Reader Alex Beckstead just left a comment on this announcement from last month about author Lawrence Lessig, who appeared at the Booksmith to talk about his book Remix. The comment points us to this 3–part video interview (there’s also a 1-minute trailer on the page) in which Lessig discusses the main arguments of his book, makes allusion to his appearance on the Colbert Report, and outlines his future work: he plans to move out of copyright law and begin a serious examination of institutional corruption. Total running time: 23 minutes.

San Francisco Graphic Design Presents a Vibrant Picture of Bay Area Design, Past and Present

North Face packaging. Nature’s Gate shampoo bottles. The Prismacolor box. Chances are, you’re already familiar with these items, among many others on display in San Francisco Graphic Design, an exhibit running through April 26th at the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Design (500 Sutter Street). Although you’ve seen these items, and they’ve probably touched your life, you may not know that they were all designed by individuals and firms right here in the Bay Area. From 6 to 8 tomorrow evening, curator Michael Osborne will give a public walk-through of this great show.

During a similar press tour given one week after the opening, Osborne told me that one of his goals with the show was “simply to show people the wide range of everyday products with extraordinary design that they know, but which they might not necessarily know was done here.” To that end, the show begins with a timeline on one wall near the entrance, presenting a history of local graphic design, featuring iconic images that have been produced here, such as the 1969 Gap logo.

However, the show is much more than a greatest-hits parade of Bay Area design. Out of approximately 1,400 graphic designers active in the Bay Area right now, Osborne selected 13 to be specially featured with large displays. His goal with these designers was to show work that is “slightly under the radar.”

Those two goals — demonstrating the ubiquity of extraordinary design from the Bay Area on the one hand, and bringing to the surface work that few are aware of on the other — don’t conflict as much as one might think. For example, few objects are more familiar in kitchens and sitting rooms throughout the Bay Area than the titles published by Chronicle Books. If you’ve spent any time in the cookbook section of a bookstore lately, you’ve undoubtedly seen books like The Country Cooking of France and Simply Organic on the shelf, or maybe you’ve seen the Rex Ray titles in the art section. But it’s likely you’ve never heard of their designer, Sara Schneider, who is the publisher’s in-house design director. The display devoted to her work is even set up like a bookstore, with a chair nearby and a reading light — strictly notional, at 40 watts — hanging above it. I was told that visitors to the museum are invited to sit down and pull a book off the shelf for browsing. I highly recommend you take a good look at Love Hotels: The Hidden Fantasy Rooms of Japan.

Osborne is a good choice to put together just such a show. A noted designer in his own right, he founded his own firm, Michael Osborne Design, Inc. in 1981, and he has designed quite a number of things you’ll probably recognize, not only Prismacolor’s packaging, but also a number of stamps for the USPS: the 2002 and 2004 Love stamps, the 2006 Wedding Stamp set, the 2006 Madonna and Child stamp, and the 2007 Patriotic Banner Stamp.

Osborne said that although his selection is representative of the Bay Area design community, it does not provide an exact mirror image. For one thing, although women are outnumbered in the field at large, this show presents nearly a 50–50 split. And because one of his objects was to inspire students just getting into design, he chose to place a heavy emphasis on the work of designers who are now in the prime of their careers, along with three relative newcomers to keep things fresh.

Two of those relative newcomers are Adam Brodsley and Eric Heiman of Volume Inc, whose work you may recognize from the 2008 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival materials or from the ReadyMade book. (They like yellow. A lot.) The other designers and firms featured in the show are Philippe Becker (Philippe Becker Design, which did the Nature’s Gate design), Josh Chen (Chen Design Associates, which did the North Face packaging), Barbara Vick (Barbara Vick Design), Tom Ingalls (Ingalls Design), Jennifer Jerde (Elixir Design), Mitchell Mauk (Mauk Design), Jennifer Bostic (Paper Plane Studio), Michael Schwab (Michael Schwab Studio), Christopher Simmons (MINE), and Cinthia Wen (NOON).

One of the most intriguing portions of the exhibit was a wall consisting of large, square shopping bags, each one designed by a different individual in the show. Osborne gave them a simple task: use only black and white, and put a statement on the bag that summarizes your approach to design. Perhaps because designers are not necessarily verbally-oriented, the assignment turned out to be more daunting than he supposed, and the display turned out to be the most difficult one to curate in the whole show. However, the effort was worth it: the arrangement of the bags, with all their bold text — advice on how to live and how to design — is really striking where it’s placed, against a back wall between two riotously colorful and busy walls, and it serves as a nice summary of the show itself, as it brings all the designers, with their disparate viewpoints and approaches, together to be appreciated in a single glance.

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