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The Truth About Harmony: Gordon’s ‘It Only Happens All of the Time’ at YBCA

Jacqueline Kiyomi Gordon's "IWYTWMTWYTWM (I Want You To Want Me To Want You To Want Me)," 2014, courtesy the artist

Jacqueline Kiyomi Gordon’s “IWYTWMTWYTWM (I Want You To Want Me To Want You To Want Me),” 2014, courtesy the artist

In one of the finest supermarket scenes in Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise (1985), the narrator, Jack Gladney, walks with his daughter past the exotic fruit bins where he suddenly becomes aware of the sounds of the space, the confusion: “I realized the place was awash in noise. The toneless systems, the jangle and skid of carts, the loudspeaker and the coffee-making machines, the cries of children. And over it all, or under it all, a dull and unlocatable roar, as of some form of swarming life just outside the range of human apprehension.”

“Dissonance,” Theodor Adorno famously remarked, “is the truth about harmony.” In DeLillo’s novel, listening, as distinct from something purely passive, reveals the dissonance that consumer America (“Kleenex Softique, Kleenex Softique,” “Coke is it, Coke is it, Coke is it”) obfuscates and conceals. DeLillo points to sound as that which manipulates and controls spaces and information. (As Hannah Arendt might have said, totalitarianism was the bastard child of modern technologies such as the microphone, the loudspeaker, and the radio.) It’s little wonder, then, that dissonance has become a favorite instrument in popular political demonstrations. In 2010, Cambridge University students used speakers to blast noise into the Vice Chancellor’s office in protest of budgetary spending cuts. More recently, in Kiev, thousands of protestors created uproar outside Parliament by pounding on oil drum containers and lampposts. Officialdom, however, is no stranger to the uses of dissonance either. Noise grenades were used on protestors in Kiev, for example; and “white noise torture,” first documented in the 1970s, when twelve suspected IRA terrorists were subjected to hissing sounds, is still rather common.

Los Angeles- and Oakland-based sculptor and sound artist Jacqueline Kiyomi Gordon’s small multimedia show It Only Happens All of the Time (March 7-June 15, 2014) at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) is a modest but no less engrossing display of work that addresses the tactical and violent implications of sound, its potential to both connect and alienate people, and its effects on space and the physical body. As Ceci Moss, assistant curator of visual arts at YBCA, observes, “Her practice…is an exercise in dissonance.” This is true; dissonance, at least, as Adorno understood it. Gordon consistently shows that harmony, in the realm of culture or politics, is distortion and subterfuge. It Only Happens All of the Time, which is an installment in YBCA’s program on technology called “Control” (curated by Moss), recalls the artist’s installation at the Pro Arts Gallery in Oakland last year. Gordon fixed transducers to the windows of the gallery and filtered sound from Frank H. Ogawa Plaza into the gallery. She blurred interior and exterior space, shifted visitors’ orientations, and nodded, it seemed, to the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations that took place in the plaza in 2011. For Gordon, both to listen and not listen is potentially dangerous; what you do not hear is equally as important as what you do.

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Stories of Resistance: Paz Errázuriz’s ‘La manzana de Adán’ & ‘Boxeadores’

Paz Errázuriz's "La Palmera, Santiago," from the series "La manzana de Adán," 1982; gelatin silver print; 19 2/3 x 23 ½ in. Photo courtesy the artist and Galeria AFA, Santiago.

Paz Errázuriz’s “La Palmera, Santiago,” from the series “La manzana de Adán,” 1982; gelatin silver print; 19 2/3 x 23 ½ in. Photo courtesy the artist and Galeria AFA, Santiago.

At the heart of a dictatorship is the ability to control a country’s narrative, to embed an authoritative view into the personal, to elide difference in favor of a universal meta-story. Characters and subjective viewpoints judged “out of line” are relegated to the margins where they are placed in an ontological vacuum. Against this totalizing force, art finds potency in its ability to assail the putative objectivity of the dictatorship’s narrative, to create new stories, to offer the gaze of the individual free from hegemonic forces.

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Rural Doesn’t Equal Empty: Lisa M. Hamilton’s ‘I See Beauty in This Life’

Lisa M. Hamilton’s “Almond Hulls. Lost Hills, Kern County” (2011)

I See Beauty In This Life, photographer Lisa M. Hamilton’s exhibition of her own work as well as images she pulled from the California Historical Society’s vast archives, attempts something seemingly impossible: in Hamilton’s words, to “cover a history dating from 2012 all the way back to a time when California was essentially nothing but rural” in about 150 pictures. This presents a gargantuan curatorial challenge. How do you address California’s geographical vastness, the scope of its industries, and the numerous complexities of its rural labor history?

“Rural” is different than “empty,” and the exhibition’s images nearly all emphasize the vast abundance of this land. Hamilton’s photograph of almond hulls piled into gravelly mounds (“Almond Hulls. Lost Hills, Kern County”) defeats any sense of a horizon, while an image from 1921 documents what seems to be hundreds of feet worth of sacks of C&H sugar. Even the trees, turned to props in jokey logging portraits, stretch both ways within the frame. Fields stretch and roll like oceans. Whatever you can say about California, it sure isn’t small.

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An Ever-Evolving Chameleon: Cindy Sherman Retrospective at SFMOMA

Installation view of "Cindy Sherman," San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; organized by the Museum of Modern Art, New York (photo by Ian Reeves)

The long-standing queen of conceptual portraiture, Cindy Sherman is the art world’s daring chameleon and its fiercest critic. Known for her bold pieces that often question identity, self-perception and established gender norms, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City has curated an incredibly thorough traveling retrospective of Sherman’s work—more than 150 of her photographs, film projects, as well as a special series of film screenings that have inspired her creatively—that’s on exhibition until October 8 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Portraying herself as everything from a harlot to a housewife, Sherman embodies the narrow gender roles offered to American women and spits in the face of stereotyping. A fantastic visual parodist, her work is purposefully garish and brash, filled with images of the artist bearing caked-on foundation and wearing dollar store get-ups that reveal their own artifice, exposing the fraying hems and loose seams underlining the expectations of an “ideal” women.

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Do Not Linger at the Gate: David Shrigley’s ‘Brain Activity’ at the YBCA

David Shrigley's "I'm Dead" (2010), photo by Alexander Newton (courtesy of YBCA)

No one can fully appreciate the comedy and the strangeness of David Shrigley’s work without first becoming acquainted with his drawings. As bizarre as they are funny, these drawings are the Shrigley staple, a primer for his sculptures, photography, paintings, and installations. Rather than simply a display of artistic talent (it seems that anyone witty enough with a black Sharpie and a piece of paper could reach a similar end), they reveal his ability to make comic sense of the absurd and the obvious.

The British artist’s current exhibition at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Brain Activity, starts in a room bearing a gate at its entrance, the instruction, “Do Not Linger at the Gate” wrought into the steel. Past this threshold, the walls are covered in drawings. Many bear inscriptions that, without the context of the other illustrations, might be quite disturbing. (“WE ARE RULED BY THE DEVIL” claims one such piece of paper.) Some speak to potentially legitimate truths (a man holds a flag that says, “Ants Have Sex in your Beer”). Because of their sheer number, the drawings contain sentiments that will appeal to anyone who takes five minutes to scan up and down the walls. Shrigley has a talent with words, which he uses to evoke laughter and recognition at those inner sentiments we perhaps would not want to express ourselves.

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Ghosts in the Archive: Five Notes on the Asian Art Museum’s ‘Phantoms’

Howie Tsui's "Mount Abundance and the TipToe People # 2" (2010), Chinese pigments, acrylic and ink on mulberry paper 37 inches x 75 inches (courtesy of the artist)


The first thing I see when I enter the Asian Art Museum on opening night of “Phantoms of Asia”—before the scrolls, the photographs, the paintings, and the artifacts—is a sculpture of an upside-down “A” crawling with graffiti.

Who’s the artist? I ask a staff member. Everyone, I’m told. The freestanding letter serves as a meeting point for the museums’ thousands of guests, each of whom can add to the piece. Some sign their names, others draw hearts. Dates and initials on white. From a distance, nothing’s legible; all that comes through is the letter itself. BE A CITIZEN OF THE WORLD, wrote one anonymous adviser. Much like the exhibit I’m about to walk into, an exercise in curation that cross-pollinates the past with the present, the sculpture stands as a signpost at an intersection: of strangers, of tourists, people who will touch the same totem only once. There are cursive tags, illustrations. A James Michener quote interrupts the ravelment: “If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home.”

The quote would make more sense as I viewed the work of ancient potters alongside contemporary artists whose works crossed the Pacific for these pedestals. Not all of the art in the exhibition is comforting, I learn; much isn’t. And while all put Michener’s aphorism to the test, perhaps the dark showing room of Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s 2005 video installation The Class does so most. In the film, she stands before a blackboard on which the word DEATH and some notes have been written. Her audience? Six cadavers sheet-covered on the floor, listening as if the living knew more than they. Later, food and customs and religion aside, I’d watch the people there later: the artists and patrons, suits and dresses, who passed in and out of the room. There, projected on the wall, was their one shared destination.

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An Unknown Future: ‘Stand Your Ground, The Sun Is Rising’ at Old Crow

Shadi Rahimi's "Women Are the Red Line" (2011), 14 inches x 11 inches (courtesy of the artist)

“This is actually the first time that my parents have seen these photos. I didn’t want them to fear for what I was doing.” – Shadi Rahimi

In May 2011, freelance photographer and journalist Shadi Rahimi spent two weeks in Cairo. There, through a series of short videos titled Voices of Egypt, the young Iranian-American chronicled the range of Egyptian perspectives surrounding the ongoing uprising. She left the country so creatively and emotionally transfixed that within days of returning home to Oakland she quit her job and worried her family by buying a one-way ticket back into the tumult-ridden capital. She stayed, remarkably, for seven months, immersing herself in the humanity of the conflict. Stand Your Ground, The Sun Is Rising, a striking photography exhibit on display at the Old Crow Gallery until June 18, is part of the end result of her experience.

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Integrating the West with the East: ‘Phantoms of Asia’ at Asian Art Museum

Aki Kondo's "Mountain Gods" (2011) Oil on panels. © Aki Kondo.

Last year, Chinese scroll artist Zhang Daqian raked in $506 million in auction sales, surpassing Andy Warhol by a good $175 million. This is significant.

Asia’s appetite for art has expanded in direct proportion with the region’s rapidly developing economy, which has been largely unfazed by the U.S. financial and European debt crises. China, which is opening museums at a rate of about 100 a year, now accounts for 41 percent of total world art revenue, up from 33 percent in 2010, and shows no signs of slowing. At this point, it is not unthinkable that New York might give way to Hong Kong as the world’s art capital.

While this market boom and the artistic excitement it has stoked is certainly thrilling, it also saddles museum curators, especially in the West, with a gigantic responsibility: to tell a story of contemporary Asian art independent of the one the market does (and media broadcasts), delving into the nooks between the numbers and exposing phenomena to which the metrics may be blind.

Phantoms of Asia” at the Asian Art Museum is a historically significant show in this regard. With 60 contemporary works by 31 artists, it is the largest contemporary exhibition to date at the museum—one of the largest institutions devoted entirely to Asian art in the Western world. As such, the exhibition had a number of important choices to make and questions to answer: among them, how to delimit the show thematically (if at all), and how to define Asia in the first place.

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Pulling Back the Layers: Adrian Wong’s ‘Orange Peel, Harbor Seal, Hyperreal’

Adrian Wong's "Untitled (Wall II)" (photo courtesy of the artist)

Adrian Wong’s three sculptural works comprising Orange Peel, Harbor Seal, Hyperreal, now on display at the Chinese Cultural Center in San Francisco, would likely not exist if it weren’t for a bit of stubbornness on Wong’s part: his refusal to own a smart phone.

The accomplished young artist and academic, who splits his time between Hong Kong and Los Angeles, excels at a deliberate kind of urban wandering—one that involves scrupulous attention to a city’s spatial organization, architectural forms, and idiosyncratic stylistic details. It also means frequently getting lost. Having the option to mediate his experience through the two-dimensional layer of a GPS map would ruin things, Wong explained. The city is a layered enough place, culturally and physically, as it is.

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Irish Art in America: ‘Amid a Space Between’ at SFMOMA Artists Gallery

Detail from Katie Holten's vitrine installation "A Collection (from some places I've been on my way here)" (photo by Amanda Boe)

The SFMOMA Artists Gallery permits its exhibitions to puzzle and play with viewers in a way that its more pedagogic big sibling would not abide. The current occupant of the Fort Mason space, Amid a Space Between: Irish Artists in America, departs from museum code in a couple of ways: it intermixes the works of its six featured Irish ex-pats rather than presenting them sequentially, and it forgoes wall text and title cards altogether, so the viewer must piece together for herself what art belongs to whom.

In effect, the exhibition unfolds fugue-like, the sculptures, paintings and installations playing off of one another to the tune of an unraveling mystery: what is really Irish about this art? Being sponsored by Culture Ireland, one must assume that Irish identity, or, more specifically, the identity of Irish art in America, is a central thematic tenet of the show. However, wandering amid Helen O’Leary’s Arte Povera sculptures, Katie Holten’s museological installations, Nuala Clark and Helen O’Toole’s abstract paintings, and Alen MacWeeney and Richard Mosse’s photographs of middle America and the Congo, respectively, the underlying netting of Irish self-examination is far from immediately obvious.

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Juxtaposing California: Caroline Baudinet’s ‘Feelings’ at ArtAbout Davis

Poster for Caroline Baudinet's exhibition "Feelings"

Homeland Security has a hard time buying Caroline Baudinet’s love for the West Coast. Arriving in San Francisco last week, the French artist said she was interrogated about her repeated visits to California. In her jeans, black work boots, and black leather jacket, Baudinet reenacts the scene with the humorless officials at SFO: Where are you going? Who are you staying with? How do you know these people? We are browsing at Riki Design in downtown Davis, where her photographs will be part of the Davis ArtAbout, and I’m noticing how customers stop to listen to her cut-gravel French accent. It’s hard to imagine the outspoken Baudinet playing the part of the obeisant tourist, but she assures me she kept her tongue in check so that she wouldn’t miss the opening of “Feelings,” her California debut.

The love affair with America started when Caroline was a teenager, and her father’s role in the Orchestre National de France provided her with several opportunities to visit the States. On her first trip to New York City, Baudinet insisted the family explore Harlem and the Bronx, as well as the usual tourist traps. She describes how her uncle locked the doors of the car when she tried to photograph black men rapping on the streets.

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Bending Time and Music: Celebrating ‘Masters of Venice’ at the De Young Museum

Photo by Larissa Archer

Gerhard Richter’s enormous mural Strontium glowered over Wilsey Court. The mural, made from a collection of blurred photographs representing the atomic structure of strontium titanate (a substance used to make artificial diamonds), might have been interpreted as a bit of a symbolic downer on the festivities, which celebrated both the high and the low fruits of early-Renaissance wealth. Projected on an adjacent wall was the flashier and less demanding 1964 Vincent Price horror flick, Masque of the Red Death. Downstairs, the lauded exhibition, “Masters of Venice: Renaissance Painters of Passion and Power” was open to any partygoer who wanted to view it, and at any other time that might have been more tempting, especially considering these were its last days in San Francisco. After all, how often can one see Titians, Tintorettos, Giorgiones, and Veroneses in this hemisphere? But the people who came out for the masked ball at the De Young that night seemed reluctant to defer to any artwork other than that which they had made of themselves. People concocted different “fancy dress” iterations of the past 400 years, and wore or even painted on elaborate carnival masks, a combination that evoked the formal glamour of opening night at the opera with the DIY exuberance of Halloween. There were tables holding different kinds of brie and bars serving pink and orange drinks with edible flowers and blood orange slices. Caterers with trays of mini tiramisus dodged patrons whose peripheral vision was mask-obscured; there was a lot of “Pardon me,” “oops, so sorry,” and “oh dear, can I get you another one of those?” that night.

The crowd was young—most looked to be in their 20s and early 30s—and though DJ David Carvahlo seemed to have tailored his repertoire based on the assumption that his audience had a short-term memory for pop music, the floor was packed throughout most of the night. (I attribute this in part to some guys being more willing to dance, and being much better dancers, if their faces are concealed. Likewise, women last longer on the dance floor if their dates aren’t visibly perishing from awkwardness.) Patrons not only danced but sang along to Gaga, Beyonce, and RiRi, and didn’t even object when the music occasionally degenerated into dubstep. There were very few nods to music from further back than five minutes ago. But when older tunes did play, they were either unflatteringly remixed, as in the case with Prince’s When Doves Cry (rendered near-unrecognizable via a monotonous techno beat and superfluous synth), or expertly transmogrified into songs one would have thought them to be insurmountably incongruous with, in terms of melody, tone, and even rhythm. How did Don’t Stop Believin’ slowly turn into Billie Jean? And why did it seem so natural? Many of the more recent songs were simply compounded to mystifying effect. Having told most of the popular music of the past 150 years to get off my lawn, perhaps I am less informed than most, but I was unsure whether these were arrangements Carvahlo created himself. Or is there some factory in China that produces forced and unholy (but admittedly brilliant, doubly-danceable, and ideologically confounding) mashups like All the Single Ladies/Back That Ass Up?

Few partygoers were curmudgeonly enough to resist the pull of the dance floor, and as the night progressed so grew the collection of kicked-off platform stilettos at the foot of Strontium. In one of those occurrences that are not rare but nevertheless always surprising, there was a spontaneous moment of poignancy, as if leaked in from another world: Whitney Houston had died that afternoon; most of the maskers had probably heard the news while dressing for the ball. What better tribute to the lost diva than a floor full of revelers dancing (and singing) with the abandon of the unwatched to I Wanna Dance with Somebody?

Read more from Larissa Archer at her blog,

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