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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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Blurring and Obscuring: ‘Allegories of the Human Figure’ at the Sandra Lee Gallery


"Waiting #102" by Brett Amory, oil on panel, 24 inches by 48 inches

Allegories of the Human Figure, on exhibit at the Sandra Lee Gallery until Nov. 27, showcases a medley of attractive styles and a wide variety of ontological concerns by several artists.

Brett Amory and David Maxim investigate relationships between figure and environment. (Maxim, along with Randy Brennan, was added to the show just before its opening.) In Amory’s “Waiting #102,” part of his ongoing study titled Waiting, he interrogates the human form’s connections with artificial spaces. He blurs a solitary figure amid a murky urban environment, transporting us to a shadow world, a nowhere and everywhere place. Anonymous, box-like buildings drip and smear over each other, dominated by swaths of white or black. It is unclear if the painting’s elements emerge from or consume each other. Amory’s paintings offer an energy betraying neither joie de vive nor pessimism, but rather one of awe.

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Convex Circular Plates as Medium: circlesaints at Johannson Projects

Michael Meyer's "Drumscape," wood, plastic, thread, bells, 7 feet by 11 feet by 5 feet © All rights reserved by johanssonprojects

When an artist adopts a particular device as ardently as Yvette Molina has convex circular plates (25 of her 27 works at Johansson Projects’ “circlesaints” exhibition are painted on these), one has to ask, “What is it doing for her art?”

Molina’s works depict scenes of nature in varying states of abstraction. In the best works, the convexity of the surface serves to privilege the abstract over the representational. In the 3-foot in diameter “Akashic Recorders,” for instance, a refracted sun of magnificently unnatural yellow, emitting stylized, geometric lavender rays into the cloud-streaked atmosphere, occupies the bulging center fore; a nub of carefully rendered forest terrain is relegated to the plate’s lower in-curve. In effect, through a kind of misdirection, the piece successfully conveys a sense of wonder toward the natural world.

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Some Sort of Triumph: Lucas Soi’s ‘We Bought the Seagram Building’

Lucas Soi's "Black Card" (2011), ink on paper, 30 inches by 44 inches

“In 1958 the Canadian company Joseph E. Seagram & Sons commissioned German architect Mies van der Rohe to design their American headquarters in New York City. The skyscraper became one of the most influential architectural designs of the 20th century. In 2000 the Seagram Company Ltd. was acquired by Vivendi, a French conglomerate. In 2009, at the bottom of the worldwide economic recession, Lucas Soi bought back the Seagram Building from its French owners, returning it to Canadian ownership.”

With this condensed, matter-of-fact introduction, Lucas Soi’s solo show, “We Bought the Seagram Building,” invites its audience to partake in an incredible underdog fantasy: when the usual movers of capital lose their grip amid economic crisis, an outsider artist cuts in to regain for his country an architectural marvel with a rich artistic history (Rothko was commissioned to supply art for the building’s interior; Lichtenstein took his place); just when the dust settles, he turns the unlikely transaction itself into art, celebrating his infiltration and sending up the absurdity of the whole situation with ironic cool.

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Deconstructing the Genius: ‘Picasso: Masterpieces …’ at the de Young Museum

Pablo Picasso's "Massacre in Korea" (1951)

The Picasso of the contemporary American imagination and the Picasso of flesh and blood deserve adequate distinction. Because of his universally accepted greatness, it’s easily taken for granted that the same painter could produce both the glowing anthem-portraits of his Rose Period and jagged political commentary such as “Guernica.” It doesn’t help that Picasso’s reputation is so gargantuan as to be nearly self-propagating—nor that his name has not only earned a requisite mention in every elementary- and high school visual arts class, but become a descriptor, synonymous with excessive artistic ability. All of this results in a numbed appreciation for the man himself: a hallowed agreement on his importance that, counter-intuitively, lets much of his richness fall by the wayside.

But when pieces born of markedly disparate periods of his life find themselves side by side in an exhibition, the anesthetizing fog vanishes. In its place is an awe that such a multifaceted talent ever lived, along with many questions—questions that artistic consensus generally put to rest decades ago, but questions worth asking again. Gone, for sure, is any sense of homogeneity; experiment, instinct, and the process of trial and error stand out instead. In Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris, the extensive collection of masterpieces and tangents on display in the de Young Museum in San Francisco, the artist’s body of work absconds from whatever pedestal it’s been placed on in the past half-century to pursue a hundred different modes of brilliance. (The show closes on October 10.)

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The American West, in Norway: Marius Amdam at Trondheim Kunstmuseum

Marius Amdam's "the great train robbery" (120 cm by 120 cm)

A dozen museums dot the city center in Trondheim, Norway. There’s the Museum of Decorative Arts, the Tramway Museum, and the Norwegian Resistance museum, which favors dioramas—plastic destroyers, cotton balls painted black. Downtown is a peninsula, tacked to the mainland with spidery bridges. Cranes swing out over the canals from the tops of boxy warehouses. The buildings, even the new ones, are all in the same style—wide and low painted clapboard boxes, in colors at once saturated and muted: poppy red, ocher, mustard, powder blue, and sage. It has a more vibrant art scene than you would expect in a city of about 175,000 souls: more galleries than you can shake a salted fish at. The current installation at Trondheim Kunstmuseum — “sacro e profano,” which in Italian means, of course, “sacred and profane” (in Norse it’d be hellig og profan) — comprises fifteen paintings and three sculptures by local artist Marius Amdam.

The first thing you notice as you begin to move about the installation is texture: Amdam’s not afraid of it. The second painting clockwise from the entrance, “stor våt hund i øyekroken” (“big wet dog in the corner of my eye,” according to Google Translate), depicts a skeleton dripping with gold jewelry. At the bottom of the panel is a crusted wad of black paint so thick it sticks out from the canvas like a shelf. The next panel, “just like honey,” is three-dimensional in a more subtle way. The canvas is three-quarters filled with a pale, feminine face, her expression vacant and almost moronic, like a still frame of Clara Bow or an anime princess. She wears an impressive, powdery-white, Marie Antoinette updo. Inky tears spill from her enormous eyes. At her throat, a chain of loops and whirls draws the eye downward and to the left. There’s something irresistible about the necklace—you can’t stop looking at it. From a distance it looks like old bronze; up close, you can see that the chain is made up of three-dimensional hoops of black, purple, orange, and mud-colored paint, washed with a thin coat of white that shows brightly against the turbulent colors beneath it, giving an overall look of burnished metal.

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Approaching the Omega Point: Aron Meynell and Erik Otto at White Walls

"Beached" by Aron Meynell, oil on canvas, 36 x 60 inches

The work of San Francisco artist Aron Meynell doesn’t immediately command attention. His tones are muted—“somber” is how White Walls gallery owner and curator Justin Giarla put it—and his subject matter that which might be swiftly passed over in the work of a less-skilled artist: trees, animals, the occasional person. But to round down the quietude of these pieces to silence would be an underestimation of their power. Instead of choosing to shock or scream, the carefully constructed landscape studies comprising Meynell’s first solo show hum along almost inaudibly, their worlds not quite plausible but not easily rejected as fantasy.

Framed inside White Walls’ cavernous space on Larkin Street, Meynell’s interpretations of ruin and renewal amplify themselves. With its extensive canvases and clear mastery of the properties of light, the show creates a cathedral-like vacuum within the gallery. The sense of absence is so magnetic that it warps into a sort of presence. And though the overall palette might be slated as post-apocalyptic, each piece in the collection resists sure definitions; at times, the environments are so surreal as to be alien, while at others they’re clearly the remnants of a realm much like our own. Given Meynell’s background, it’s easy to decode the genealogy of his influences: before graduating from the San Francisco Academy of Art, he grew up in Detroit and became fascinated by the structures left in the wake of the Motor City’s once-booming industries.

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The Same Anxieties: Contemporary Irish Art Group Show ‘this little bag of dreams …’

Aideen Barry's "Spray Grenade SG09/3#01," aluminum, brass, and steel, 6 x 3.5 x 3.5 inches

There seems to be nothing particularly “Irish” about the show this little bag of dreams … at the Catharine Clark Gallery, other than the nationality of its seven featured artists. The art does not overtly perform, assert or attempt to define “Irishness” in a way we might expect, especially when the work is presented under a banner like “Imagine Ireland,” Culture Ireland’s yearlong transatlantic outreach program (and the show’s sponsor). As though to definitively dispel any residual expectations of a culture-on-exhibit show, Mediterranean food was served at Saturday’s opening reception. Guinness was available, but so was Sierra Nevada.

In fact, this little bag of dreams … is, above all, a celebration of the contemporary art coming out of – or, regrettably, often not coming out of – Ireland. The quality of Irish art is impressive, this exhibition shows, and yet it receives disproportionately little attention compared to its English and American counterparts. In this sense, Ireland is something of an artistic reservoir. Co-curators Nathan Larramendy of San Francisco and Dublin’s Josephine Kelliher help expose that.

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