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Alexander Bigman

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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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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Just Follow the Train of Her Perceptions: “Gertrude Stein’s Reality”

Gertrude Stein’s legacy today is strangely cleft. While her work continues to earn the reverence of a strong academic cohort, most everyone else – even much of the literary community – encounters her most often as the butt of jokes, made at the expense of both her uniquely inaccessible way with words and her eccentric celebrity personage.

Take, for example, Ben Greenman’s “Gertrude Stein Gets Her New iPhone,” or Kathy Bates’ portrayal of her (this actor-role pairing is itself something of a joke) as the brusquely opinionated but unerring cultural sage in Woody Allen’s recent “Midnight in Paris.” These are recognizable as parody and caricature, respectively, but are made all the more hilarious by the extent to which they do seem to approach veracity.

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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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Delicate But Unnerving Patterns: Tahiti Pehrson’s Solo Show ‘Theta Pegasi’


Tahiti Pehrson's "Epsilon Liones" (2011), hand-cut paper, 23 inches by 27 inches

Initially, the works comprising Tahiti Pehrson’s solo show, “Theta Pegasi,” at Ever Gold Gallery appear doubly insubstantial: these monochromatic paper canvases sliced into intricate geometric designs, often layered three-dimensionally toward the production of still more ephemeral shadows, declare their own fragility. Were it not for their glass cases, a San Francisco wind could easily devastate the show. Intellectually, too, the pieces seem to lack heft. They are astounding technical displays – the craftwork of a probably obsessive and detail loving mind – but that’s about it.

Fortunately, before long, Pehrson’s works induce a rug-pull on our perceptions. What begin as innocuous patterns become unnerving. Peaking disquiet gives way to revelation upon reaching the narrow gallery’s deepest point. There, you find a heaping pile of X-ACTO knife blades, and suddenly the surrounding work appears as violent as it is beautiful, as threatening as it is delicate. (With Pehrson’s three-dimensional sculpture pieces in particular, the chilling likening of paper to skin is hard to resist.)

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A Sprawling if Not So Sunny State: ‘New California Writing 2011’

“California,” publisher and author Malcolm Margolin writes in his introduction to the anthology New California Writing 2011 (Heyday, 304 pages), “is a construct of the human imagination.” California encompasses no “definable ecological or cultural area;” we are self-defining, he suggests. If we managed to evade utter disintegration for most of our history, it was thanks to heaps of luck – bountiful natural resources, good climate, driven people.

Unfortunately, around mid century it would seem our luck began to dry up. Writing in 2010-2011, the forty-four featured authors in this anthology (edited by Gayle Wattawa) greet us from the pits. The Central Valley, Mark Arax chronicles in his stunning expose of development related corruption, has become an unsustainable economic quagmire as weak local politicians repeatedly bow to almost cartoonishly Mafiaesque developers. Mojave miners must wage war against what could only be described as the anti-human labor policies of the ever-growing foreign corporate giant Rio Tinto – a David versus Goliath travesty Mike Davis compellingly describes. At least, Margolin consoles, bad times seem to produce great writing.

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Stories of Sex and Intrigue: Robert Gottlieb’s ‘Lives and Letters’

While a good number of undying cultural giants (Harry Houdini, Judy Garland, Charles Dickens) receive coverage in Lives and Letters (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 426 pages), Robert Gottlieb’s collection of biographical profiles largely takes up the lives of once household names and worldwide phenomena who, for one reason or another, failed to achieve lasting impact beyond their generation. Douglas Fairbanks, Minou Drouet, anyone?

Indeed, many generations have passed since the heyday of most of Gottlieb’s subjects (the median cultural peak is somewhere around 1930, with Princess Diana and Scott Peterson being the only real “household names” of the 21st century). Given this particular scope, Lives and Letters was bound to please the folks who were “there,” give or take a generation. The real value of this book is its ability to make those of us firmly planted “here” take interest in these severely dated and faded stars.

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From a Treasured Vase to a Cutout: Stephanie Syjuco’s Solo Show ‘Raiders’


Stephanie Syjuco's solo exhibition "Raiders" (courtesy of Catharine Clark Gallery)

On the back wall of the Catharine Clark Gallery hangs one of the more baffling works from “Raiders,” Stephanie Syjuco’s solo show: a photograph of a pixilated jungle wedged between two patterned linen lumps. Bed sheets cum tropical mountain terrain?

They’re Syjuco’s pillows, and in the valley between them is an image of her birthplace, the Philippines, that the San Francisco artist snatched from a quick Google search and turned into a cutout. The terrain of that country, her dreamscape of a piece leads us to recognize, is only immediately available to her in digital form.

The predominant themes of Syjuco’s show are represented here: namely, the relation of the Internet (a place, the artist thinks, in which “space and time have sort of collapsed,” and in which a seemingly bottomless wealth of images and other representations stand on call) to both her Filipino and American identities. Indeed, Raiders is a supremely personal show.

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