Spencer Keeton Cunningham

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Farewell for Now: Spencer Keeton Cunningham Departs San Francisco

by Matt Gonzalez

Spencer Keeton Cunningham has been on the road for the last 28 months, but is back in San Francisco for a send-off show at Heron Arts, “Farewell San Francisco: A 12 Year Retrospective”. The exhibit, which ran from October 8 to 30, 2016, presented work from the last dozen years, including pieces made before he attended the San Francisco Art Institute. Facing eviction and escaping a mold-ridden Western Addition apartment, Cunningham is preparing to join Sioux and other Native American activists opposing the Dakota Access pipeline at the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. Surprisingly, after over a decade in San Francisco, this is Cunningham’s first solo show in the city.

The breadth of work is impressive. Works on paper, paintings, ceramic sculpture, installation, and photography. The themes running through the work focus on gentrification, skateboard culture, environmental degradation, contemporary native identity, endangered species, and most importantly, indigenous people’s rights. Wall to ceiling artworks filled with iconography comprising his own visual language fill the 4,000 sq foot space, with some paintings measuring as large as 77 x 77 inches.

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Spencer Keeton Cunningham, “Red Country”, acrylic on canvas, 73 x 73 inches.

While Cunningham says goodbye, he hasn’t actually been anchored in San Francisco for some time. Yes, he has strong ties to San Francisco, but he is now a global artist having travelled and painted murals in Mexico, New Zealand, Japan, China, Tasmania, Australia, Cuba, The Netherlands, Canada (British Columbia and the Yukon), Hong Kong, Argentina, and various cities in the United States. The departure from San Francisco is real, yet somehow more symbolic than anything else. It provides a historic moment to present a cohesive body of work that is long overdue for exposure and appraisal.

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Spencer Keeton Cunningham, “Mexico / Estados Unidos”, acrylic on canvas, 73 x 73 inches.

There is a simple mark-making element in the works, Lascaux-like, yet seemingly very modern. Cunningham utilizes a Keith Haring-esque line in many of the works, an obvious homage, and cartoony renderings suggesting childhood influences (Mickey Mouse and Mighty Mouse cartoons among them), and drawings reminiscent of the Mission School. The combination, particularly in terms of subject matter, are his own however. Cunningham’s imagery captures the political immediacy of contemporary issues, such as artificial nation-state borders, our society’s fascination with sports and pop culture, his on the road lifestyle, and a critique of capitalism, particularly oil production and tech gentrification. Regarding Keith Haring’s influence, it is worth noting that Cunningham painted a mural over 20 advertising billboards, in support of aboriginal rights, in Melbourne next to a mural Haring painted in 1984.

A kind of semiotics is at play in these works, as Cunningham embeds meaning in symbols and asks the viewer to contemplate their striped down meanings. Depictions of oil rigs, sports helmets, dollar signs, a microphone referencing Hip Hop culture, teepees, chicken wings, tomahawks, feathers, paint cans, knives, pizza slices, envelopes, wavy arrows, a wagon on fire, a glass beaker referencing drug manufacturing, WiFi symbols, broken glasses and pencils, and the rendering of sacred animals like horses and coyotes, all litter the art works. Also notable are a triangle in a bowl, which evokes shark fin soup, and logs burning inside of a computer, in reference to the progress of technology. All of these comprise a personal hieroglyphics. The marks have a deeply embedded context that cross language and cultural boundaries, allowing the reader to visually read meaning in the work.

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Photo of Spencer Keeton Cunningham taken during the installation at Heron Arts.

The line work itself is often rendered as a flat, two-dimensional image. He uses black paint on a white canvas or saturated colors against a colored background, and outlines many of the symbols he paints with thick brush work, suggesting emphasis and a kind of kinetic movement, even reverberation. There isn’t any text based messaging in the large paintings; he doesn’t need it, given the force of the symbols he employs.

In one grouping of paintings, most of them 52 x 52 inches, including “Gentrification of a Pharaoh” and “Gentrification of Indian Land”, Cunningham deftly layers the painting surface, in effect, making three separate paintings. The triple-layered symbols move from lighter colors (yellow and green in one instance), to a confident black acrylic on the top surface. These works convey gentrification by suggesting a deeper presence of meaning beneath the surface layer of things. In effect, Cunningham proclaims that gentrification and displacement doesn’t erase what stood before just by adding a fresh coat of paint.

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Spencer Keeton Cunningham, “Gentrification of a Pharaoh”, acrylic on canvas, 52 x 52 inches.

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Spencer Keeton Cunningham, “Gentrification of Indian Land”, acrylic on canvas, 52 x 52 inches.

One wall is devoted to his close collaborator Haitian-American artist Erlin Geffrard who is known for presenting racially-charged work (under the aka Kool Kid Kreyola), including appropriations of the KKK moniker and clansman hood, which he once wore in a pop-up performance at the SFMoMA. Geffrard’s wife, Daisy Ortiz, and 4-year old child Daylin also contribute to the wall with their own drawings and ceramic artwork, now comprising artifacts of a heart-wrenching story of family displacement.

During the closing reception Cunningham erected a teepee in the middle of Heron Arts, something he had done previously at group shows in the Diego Rivera Gallery at SFAI and at the Luggage Store Gallery. Significantly, he made the current structure contemporaneously with the unrest at Standing Rock, during which time police and security guards were using tasers, rubber bullets, and pepper spray against native people as they were evicted from their make-shift campground. Notably, artists and native activists protesting the Dakota Access pipeline (including sometime collaborator Richard Bluecloud Castaneda) were sending real time messages to Cunningham as he offered his performance/installation in San Francisco, thus linking disparate tales of displacement and unrest.

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Installation photograph.

The teepee, made of plastic and cardboard, had a ramshackle quality referencing homeless structures throughout cities in the United States. The construction materials resemble trash, signifying the prevalence of pollution. The teepee itself was painted in fresh red/purple acrylic paint, still wet to denote fresh bleeding and suffering. An eagle pattern on the teepee itself was split by dollar signs and splatters of paint. Cunningham added LED lights to adorn the inside of the structure, which conveyed a futuristic element and respite from the chaos. The neon element also functioned in dialogue with the faux space helmet that Cunningham wore during the reception, as he cruised around the exhibition floor space on a 9-foot skateboard made by Payson McNett.

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Spencer Keeton Cunningham at Heron Arts.

Hovering nearby his teepee, Cunningham placed his painting “Made In Outerspace” , which posed the question of the role technology plays in our contemporary challenges. It’s worth noting that Cunningham is from the Colville Tribe which is one of 12 tribes of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation in Northeastern Washington. His blood quantum is 1/4th and he affiliates himself as mixed Native and European heritage. Cunningham’s Native-American ancestors knew something about displacement and he poignantly suggests that the next frontier may be where they will finally find a peaceful home. Cunningham is already dressed like an astronaut, as if in anticipation.

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Spencer Keeton Cunningham, “MADE IN OUTERSPACE”, acrylic on canvas, 73 x 73 inches.

The quickly put-together show, drawn out of necessity and quick planning, meant that it didn’t receive the promotion and attention it deserved. The gallery was open by appointment only. This important exhibition will nevertheless live through photographs and the memory of the few who experienced it. It’s message and the work itself remains vital, as well as sadly relevant.

 

Matt Gonzalez

 

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Spencer Keeton Cunningham, “Hip Hop History 101”, acrylic on canvas, 73 x 73 inches.

 

 

EVA HESSE

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Eva Hesse, paper collage, 9 1/2 x 6 1/8 inches (1959). Private collection.

EVA HESSE AND THE COLOR COLLAGE FROM 1959

by Matt Gonzalez

“Eva was a very good collagist, a great arranger; she could take anything and arrange it.” Ellen Leelike Becker, artist who was Hesse’s first-year roommate at Yale Univ. and a classmate at Cooper Union.

This multi-colored paper collage by Eva Hesse was made while she was an art student at Yale University. Hesse inscribed it, the month she graduated in June of 1959, as a gift to the infant daughter of fellow artist Elliot Offner who was also in the art program. It marks a critical moment when Hesse is exploring texture and color and still under the influence of Josef Albers (1888-1976) the well-known Bauhaus professor who was her professor at Yale and who had also previously taught at the experimental Black Mountain College.

Eva Hesse (1936-70) earned her BFA from the School of Art & Architecture at Yale University in 1959 after studying at New York’s School of Industrial Design, Pratt Institute, Art Students League, and Cooper Union. Her studies at Yale had begun in 1957. Like Hesse, Elliot Offner (1931-2010) also was a protege of Josef Albers, earning both his BFA and MFA at Yale. He received his MFA in 1959 and joined the faculty at Smith College in 1960, remaining there until his retirement in 2004.

Hesse and Offner both studied color theory and advanced painting with Albers who retired from teaching in 1958, the year before both students graduated. Thereafter Albers remained active as a painter and lecturer. In 1963 Yale University Press published Interaction of Color, his seminal exploration on color relatedness, which presented ideas he had been formulating for decades and which were prominent in his Yale lectures. Revised and expanded editions were published in 1975 and 2006.

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Detail of inscription: “for helen offner, Love eva hesse, june 1959″.

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Josef Albers and Eva Hesse at Yale, c. 1958. Photographer unknown.

Although it is generally accepted that Hesse found Albers’ teaching rigid, his influence on her work has been the subject of much critical discussion. Art historian Jeffrey Saletnik has written Josef Albers, Eva Hesse, and the Imperative of Teaching (Tate Papers, Spring 2007). He notes: ”When one reflects upon the pedagogic practice of Josef Albers, it is his colour instruction that likely first comes to mind. The former Bauhaus master’s 1963 publication Interaction of Color and its subsequent paperback editions have long been standard texts and the significance of his perception-based model of ‘color action’ in which visual relationships are developed rather than taken as given cannot be understated in terms of its importance both to art making and art instruction. Yet several of Albers’ students are known for their innovative use of material (like fibreglass and polyester resin in the case of Eva Hesse) despite having been brilliant colourists in their own right.”

“This seeming anomaly” wrote Saletnik, “can be addressed, in part, by looking more deeply at the principles that underscored Albers’ teaching.” Saletnik observed: “For Albers, colour was in constant flux. In his instruction he emphasised its relativity as material and its role in creating visual relationships, especially those causing optical estrangement. But in doing so Albers taught his students more than the interaction of colour; he instilled in them a general approach to all material and means of engaging it in design. In his teaching Albers put practice before theory and prioritised experience; ‘what counts,’ he claimed ‘is not so-called knowledge of so-called facts, but vision – seeing.’  His focus was process.”

Despite Albers’ well-known inflexibility, his Bauhaus training afforded Hesse the elbow room she needed for her own explorations, whether over color or form. Wrote Saletnik: “The Bauhaus-indebted pedagogic tenets that underlay Albers’ teaching were flexible enough so that Eva Hesse (among other of his students) could draw upon his approach to material and design in the making of vastly different work. Indeed, aside from pieces in which Hesse utilised a rectilinear format strikingly similar to Albers’ own iconic use of squares, there are few immediate visual similarities between student and teacher. Hesse’s polymorphous, tactile forms that seem to confront viewers with their materiality and the process of their crafting bear little in common with Albers’ rigid compositions. Rather, affinities between the two are expressed in terms of the process-oriented, material-based mode of instruction that constituted a major aspect of the Bauhaus Preliminary Course, dominated Albers’ teaching in the United States, and was key to Hesse’s experimentation with unconventional material. How incongruous that teaching methods often tethered (albeit superficially and in some instances erroneously) to the harsh, machined aesthetic of so-called Bauhaus Modernism might have contributed to making objects so different in appearance. The significance of Albers’ teaching to this end has been largely underestimated.”

The color collage from 1959 is a playful experiment in color and texture. Hesse created a visually appealing collage for the child of a close friend, composed of matte-colored paper strips, in tones of yellow, pink, orange, and turquoise resembling a vertical candy cane. Yet from a mature artistic vantage point, Hesse builds up the texture of the paper into a tactile three-dimensional experience, that promotes precisely the optical estrangement Albers appreciated. The composition is less controlled and direct than Albers’ own work, but Hesse’s use of colors and their interplay evokes a calmness and invitation. Albers’ influence is evident.

Although she was critical of the education she received at Yale and even of Albers, we should be careful not to give too much weight to sentiments that may not have persisted had Hesse had the opportunity to advance in age (she died in her early 30s). It is not uncommon for students who are already imagining more for themselves to find teaching stifling, yet in later years applaud it. For his part Albers considered Hesse his favorite pupil at the time, although his disdain for Hesse’s abstract expressionist painting was not disguised. Hesse is quoted, speaking of this relationship, in Catherine de Zegher’s Eva Hesse Drawing (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006)“I was Albers’s little color studyist — everybody always called me that — and every time he walked in the classroom he would ask, ‘What did Eva do?’ I loved these problems but I didn’t do them out of need or necessity. But Albers couldn’t stand my painting and, of course, I was much more serious about the painting. I had the abstract expressionist student approach and that was not Albers’s”.

Hesse spent over two full years at Yale engaging with other emerging artists and experienced teachers in aesthetic inquiries culminating in her ability to articulate and defend her own artistic preferences. She left Yale confident that she could be an artist. Lucy Lippard writes of those years in her 1976 biography Eva Hesse saying: “Although Yale was not an easy time for Hesse, though at the end of two years there she said they had been the most eventful of her life, “most traumatic–with the greatest changes inside myself.””

While the color collage from 1959 doesn’t employ Hesse’s use of polyester resin, latex, fiberglass, and other industrial materials for which she ultimately become best-known, the sculptural effect hints at her future interest. She also utilizes the glue residue as a separate material to create an opaque effect on the paper itself, again suggesting her future preoccupation with materials and a reliance on various substances in her work. The color collage is a perfect bookend to her formal art education. She concludes her academic career at Yale, and with Albers, with a collage gift that is made to a child who is likewise at the beginning of a new path.

The color collage from 1959 dates from a moment Hesse was in transition.  After leaving Yale, Hesse went to New York City and obtained work as a textile designer in 1960. In 1961 her first show, a three-person show Drawings: 3 Young Americans, featuring Hesse, Donald Berry, and Harold Jacobs opened at the John Heller Gallery.  In 1963 she had her first solo exhibition comprised of drawings at the Allan Stone Gallery. In 1965 she had her first sculpture exhibition, in Düsseldorf, Germany, at the Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen.

Four years later, after reaching critical acclaim, her artistic production was cut short when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor.  She died the following year on May 29, 1970 at the age of 34.

At her core Eva Hesse was a process-oriented artist who understood deeply the importance of materiality in a work of art; an idea evident in this early collage from 1959.

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Helen Offner, c. 1959. Photographer unknown.

RESTORE HETCH HETCHY VALLEY

The Hetch Hetchy Valley as it looked in 1913. Photo from the archives of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

RESTORE HETCH HETCHY VALLEY, VOTE YES! ON PROPOSITION F

by Matt Gonzalez

A fascinating challenge facing today’s environmental movement is how to best approach the reversal of past decisions that altered once-pristine environmental spaces for the sake of urgent man-made needs.

There is one school of thought that says, leave it be, let’s move on to the next battle to save this space or that resource. But there is another very compelling view that urges fighting to win back the right to restore once unique and diverse ecosystems.

Some types of environmental restoration projects are well-known; restored wetlands, for instance, or coal mine reclamation projects. Recently though, larger dam removal projects have started, a number of them in Washington state. These include the breaching of the 120 foot Condit Dam on the White Salmon River to finally allow access for Pacific salmon and steelhead runs. Also, Washington boasts the largest dam removal project in history which includes both the over 100 foot Elwha Dam and the 210 foot Glines Canyon Dam which will allow passage by migratory salmon and trout species for the first time since the dams were built about 100 years ago.

San Francisco voters will get a chance on November 6th to take a similar step toward studying the viability of restoring the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park when they vote on Prop F, the Water Conservation & Yosemite Restoration Initiative.

First authorized by a Congressional Act of 1913 to primarily provide drinking water to the San Francisco Bay Area, the O’Shaughnessy Dam was built on the Tuolomne River in 1923 which flooded the Hetch Hetchy Valley under 300 feet of water. While it destroyed the valley’s ecosystem it created the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, located 65 miles northeast from the city of Merced, which since 1934 has provided water to the San Francisco Bay Area, recently estimated to serve 2.4 million people yearly.

The Hetch Hetchy Reservoir also serves to provide energy in the form of hydroelectricity, with a capacity of over 200 megawatts a year. The water is transported from the reservoir by the Hetch Hetchy Aqueduct which is made up of 170 miles of gravity-driven pipelines, dams, and other reservoirs. Hydroelectricity is produced by the Kirkwood and Moccasin powerhouses, which have capacities of 118 and 100 megawatts, respectively.

Can it be restored?

At first glance the very idea of trying to restore what John Muir once called “one of nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples” seems impossible, maybe just downright wishful thinking.

But many experts are starting to see renewable energy as the game-changer. If the city could harness solar and wind alternatives to make up for hydroelectricity losses and address water needs by simply collecting and storing the same water at a location downslope from Yosemite, perhaps the equation becomes more balanced and achievable. Also pursuing water recycling and utilizing the advancing science of desalination are just starting to be explored. But a serious, and well-funded, study is needed to truly begin exploring all of our options.

21st Century engineering advancements provide the opportunity to start discussing and evaluating whether restoration of this natural treasure is possible. Of course, it will be a large undertaking with a variety of concerns that must be considered. But there is no doubt that the project will attract the most creative and ambitious minds in areas encompassing many disciplines.

There is a preliminary belief that Tuolumne River water could be captured by other reservoirs that are downstream from Hetch Hetchy, the Cherry and Don Pedro reservoirs for instance. Furthermore, any shortfalls could be supplied via greater conservation efforts, newly discovered groundwater supplies, and water purchases when necessary. Voters should keep in mind that it’s the Tuolumne River that provides San Francisco’s water, the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is simply one of nine reservoirs used for water storage within the greater Hetch Hetchy Acqueduct.

There’s also the issue of better conservation. San Francisco is notorious for not recycling any of its water. We treat rainwater as sewage and wash our streets and flush our toilets with drinking water. By contrast Orange County, not known for progressivism, recycles 92 million gallons of water a day.

Any loss in hydroelectricy could be made up by increasing our investment in renewable power such as wind and solar, which we should be doing anyway. Already renewable energy advocates are noting that the 42 miles of above-ground right-of-way between Yosemite and the city could be fitted with enough solar panels to generate at least 40 megawatts per year—a proposal the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has never seriously considered because they currently aren’t required to do so. Who knows what other ideas will emerge by studying the issue?

Opponents say that such a study will cost too much. But Prop F supporters have proposed that a restoration study be paid for by committing 0.5% of bond monies voters approved in 2002. $8 million of the $1.6 billion dollar bond would be sufficient to get a reliable plan together voters could consider.

Former Secretary of the Interior Donald Hodel has proposed restoring the Hetch Hetchy Valley, as has the national Sierra Club and three former superintendents of the Yosemite National Park. A 1988 report prepared by the Bureau of Reclamation for the National Park Service states: “[The Hetch Hetch Valley] restoration would renew the national commitment to maintaining the integrity of the national park system and keep in perpetual conservation an irreplaceable and unique natural area.”

When the O’Shaughnessy Dam was first constructed, water management technologies were in their infancy. Now that these technologies have evolved, studying alternatives is highly attractive to environmentalists who see these major restoration projects as finally possible in the 21st century.

Despite the optimism, many are skeptical. After many ongoing legal controversies and broken promises, they should be. But this measure simply asks that the issue be on the table, and studying its viability will at least result in enhanced dam removal understanding that will benefit better ecology everywhere.

Voting yes on Proposition F will compel government to explore the alternatives. Nothing can be implemented without a further vote of the public in 2016, after a plan for action has been made available for public review, discussion, and debate.

Help give John Muir the victory that eluded him 100 years ago, vote yes on Proposition F, and take one step toward restoring the once pristine Hetch Hetchy Valley.

Matt Gonzalez is a former president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

BARRY McGEE

Crushing the Non-State!

Matt Gonzalez questions Barry McGee

Editors note: This interview took place at a secret location on York Street in San Francisco during 2005.

Q: Let’s start off with an easy one – how would you describe your sexuality and the sexuality of your ideal lover?

A: I think I’m mostly gay but act straight when I need to. I sometimes think my tags are the sexiest things on Earth. As for an ideal lover, I have one, Lydia Fong.

Q: Many octogenarians have tips for how to stay young as they get older – so a related question – how do you maintain street credibility in the midst of your success?

A: Um…I try to surround myself with kids that are making a lot of noise on the streets. Also I lost my street credibility about 15 years ago so credibility and respect are both concepts that have become somewhat foreign. I’m a bit weary of the idea and preconceptions of success. I mean a etch tag on a Nordstrom window has a certain feeling of achievement and success also.

Q: Most artists return to familiar images or signature elements in their work as they go from one work of art to another. Are you comfortable with that or do you try to unlearn aspects of your style that have become safe for you?

A: This is a bit tricky. I think a person can develop a style that people become familiar with and can recognize at 65 mps on the freeway. In a gallery setting it becomes a bit more safe and controlled. I have been in a rut for sometime with certain images, but have buried others. I am fascinated right now removing images altogether.

Q: Do you think success in the art world is accidental like getting hit by lightening – or is it based on talent or something else? What advice do you give to young artists trying to find their way in galleries and on the street?

A: I’m uncomfortable with this society’s idea of success. Look at commercial radio or what I’ve heard is successful television. If that is what is success I want nothing to do with it. I believe it is a bit accidental and luck. I’m not quite comfortable with the notion of doing graffiti or street art or whatever it’s called for two months then go marching into the galleries, trumpeting success. Like I mentioned before, success is defined by the individual not by the art world or gallerist. How do you define success? As for the younger generation, I would say build with a group of friends a world that no one has ever seen then destroy it.

Q: Do you care what young people think of your work? Do you want to stay connected with or relevant to the next generation of graffiti writers?

A: Yes, this is very important to me what young people think. At the same time I would like a 65 year old to understand and appreciate my work also. The next generation of kids doing graffiti and whatever should make work that confuses and upsets the older generation of writers. I applaud the outcast in the subculture, stirring the pot of crap and making the elder generation uncomfortable.

Q: When do you know a work of art is finished? Have you ever looked at a piece you did years ago and wished you could do more on it?

A: Finished is when its smoldering in a pile of embers. I myself have trouble with finishing. It can be ten minutes before an opening and then I will understand the meaning of finished. I have many pieces from the past that I would buy back and burn to the ground – whereas there’re many things on the street that I wish were still running. I recently had the opportunity to rework some pieces I did from the mid nineties, that belong to the SFMOMA. It had so many pieces that needed reworking. I would sneak pieces into my bag at night and returned them the next day finished. Until we meet again.

Q: Does the role of the artist change during wartime?

A: I’m not sure what wartime means anymore. Most of my life we, or our country, has been involved in some covert activities and meddling in other countries. I was in high school during Reganomics. Wartime is constant as far as I know it. And rocks have been thrown as long as I can remember.

Q: Does your daughter Asha influence your work? Do you ever watch her draw? Take ideas from her?

A: Yes. She pops and deflates the bubbles and complexities of both the art world and life. The eye and hand are at the purist they will ever be in both directness and complexity. Kids are fantastic for creative blocks.

Q: How do you think you’ll respond when your teenage daughter comes home in police custody after crushing the city – in the way you have?

A: Okay, this will come up. I can only imagine the political landscape at that point, but I hope she will be on our team. If not, she will need to post her own bail. Ray Fong Bail Bonds will certainly be used.

Q: Hey, maybe you’ll finally meet Lydia as a result!

A: I’m already married to her, Peggy Honeywell, and Clare Rojas.

Q: One final question, what will we do after the state is smashed?

A: We will swim in our clean ocean and drink water from our unpolluted streams – then crush the non-State, Matt. Smash the system!

The end.

Andrew Schoultz and Paul Klee at SFMOMA

Partial installation of Images in Dialogue: Andrew Schoultz and Paul Klee. Flickr photograph by My Love For You.

ANDREW SCHOULTZ AND PAUL KLEE AT SFMOMA

by Matt Gonzalez

Today closes an important exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) pairing two artists, born roughly one hundred years apart. Artists Andrew Schoultz and Paul Klee exhibit side-by-side in the second floor gallery normally reserved exclusively for works by Klee from the Carl Djerassi Collection, in the exhibition Images in Dialogue: Andrew Schoultz and Paul Klee.

Three Crying Horses (acrylic and ink on paper) by Andrew Schoultz, 2011. Photograph by Marx & Zavattero.

Curated by John Zarobell, who until recently was an assistant curator of collections, exhibitions, and commissions at SFMOMA, the exhibition has been an opportunity to reengage with Klee works on view by the San Francisco public over the years, with the intent to present them in a new light, through the juxtaposition with contemporary artist Andrew Schoultz. Both artists’ works contain strong narrative elements, though nondescript to the extent that they invite viewers to imagine their own storylines; so the pairing offers a chance to see the effect each has on the other.

Swiss-German Paul Klee (1879-1940) is a renowned artist within the early 20th century expressionist group The Blue Rider. Painter, draughtsman, and printmaker (working with etching, drypoint, and lithography), Klee taught at the Bauhaus, lecturing on ideas about color and abstraction.

Old Man Reckoning by Paul Klee, 1929. Photograph SFMOMA.

Andrew Schoultz (1975-) is a native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who has resided in San Francisco, California, for over a decade. He is an internationally-known artist, well-known in contemporary circles, whose work is rooted in political concerns. Lauded for its versatility, his work ranges from large murals (most recently at Art Basel Miami) to smaller pieces, highlighting Schoultz’s tendency toward fine detail and adroit use of ink, acrylic, and collage.

Untitled (Telephone Poles) (acrylic and ink on paper) by Andrew Schoultz, 2011.

John Zarobell, Assistant Professor and Department Chair of European Studies at the University of San Francisco, conceptualized the show. Under Zarobell’s direction, Schoultz viewed the entire Klee collection in the SFMOMA’s holdings, approximately 100 pieces, and selected twenty that particularly moved him and which he felt could inspire new works. Zarobell subsequently selected nine of the new Schoultz drawings he believed worked best in concert between the two artists, and presents them in conjunction with Schoultz’s gallery, Marx & Zavaretto, in the Djerassi Gallery.

It should first be noted that the comparisons are not literal. Schoultz did not attempt to render what Klee had already done. Rather he uses Klee’s pieces to explore his own oeuvre of images and allows them to be obliquely informed or influenced by Klee.

To be sure, the exhibit is not a conversation between artists either, as Klee cannot respond to Schoultz’s work, but it does present a re-invigoration of the Klee collection and encourages Schoultz to go in directions he might not have otherwise. Zarobell stands in for Klee, as an editor having selected nine of the fifteen works Schoultz made during this project, and in that way, while it’s not Klee himself, the artist does have an indirect say in the pairings. Ultimately, the works themselves must be the focal point.

Detail of Dark Horse Apocalypse by Andrew Schoultz, 2011. Flickr photograph by My Love For You.

Klee is primarily known for the pictorial symbolism he used in his small, idiosyncratic, and playful works. He lived during one of the most tumultuous periods in Germany, yet always seemed somewhat distanced from and aloof to surrounding political circumstances. He did participate briefly in a revolutionary art council during the fleeting German communist government of 1918, but otherwise his political activism is not generally highlighted. Even his inclusion in the famed Nazi degenerate art show of 1937, while he lived in exile, seems more a product of his adherence to modernist aesthetics than it did to any narratives professing political allegiances or ideals.

In parallel, Klee’s work reads more political standing next to Schoultz. Rather than just the playful little drawing of marionettes we are accustomed to expect, one sees an artist informed by an apocalyptic image of the world and its future. Schoultz’s adjacency enlivens Klee’s political statement, by contextualizing it among Schoultz’s more visually powerful artworks which project turmoil and chaos. Now the subtle unfinished structure with ladders seems a remnant of battle or destruction of some kind. What would have otherwise simply been a device in which to place figures, even a whimsical one, is understood by the clear messages of upheaval that Schoutz’s own work more directly conveys.

Installation photo of works by Paul Klee and Andrew Schoultz. Flickr photograph by My Love For You.

Juggler in April by Paul Klee, 1928. Flickr photograph by My Love For You.

Detail of Broken Bridge by Andrew Schoutz, 2011. Flickr photograph by My Love For You.

Andrew Schoultz’s work, on the other hand, paints a world nearly always devoid of people. Riderless war horses, carrying banners, run amidst flying arrows. Tornados and whirlwinds throw bits of money around as if it were confetti. An all-seeing eye, the Eye of Providence, is now rendered as a seer ominously letting you know that your actions are chronicled, and become historic. Broken bridges and barren telephone poles suggest an environment that is desolate and wasted, setting the stage for a post-apocalyptic moment.

Unlike Klee, Schoultz has always been seriously engaged politically, living the life of someone who comes from and chronicles the challenges of the American experience in the last quarter of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century. From the recent economic collapse to the death of industrial cities and the loss of jobs, Schoultz’s adult life has witnessed a nearly constant presence of undeclared American wars on various continents and growing corporate greed that has endangered human beings and the environment. His work, often masked by bright festive colors, warns of, if not directly predicts, the coming desolation.

Large Beast by Paul Klee, 1928 and Three Caged Beasts by Andrew Schoultz, 2011.

Detail of Large Beast by Paul Klee, 1928. Flickr photograph by My Love For You.

Three Caged Beasts (acrylic and ink on paper) by Andrew Schoultz, 2011.

As a result of the pairing with Klee, Schoultz’s work takes on a clearer narrative quality and broadens the historic prospective of his work. Schoultz often cites the Nuremburg Chronicle (1493) as an influence. The Chronicle was an early book that paired typography with hundreds of images retelling the story of the world, contextualized in part by the Bible. Schoultz’s canvas generally seems to be a chronicle of the future. Part warning, part prediction, that globalization will render the world people-less, although also hinting toward some future existence where Nature may persevere.

Mostly, Klee’s work has the effect of emphasizing the cyclical nature of Schoultz’s historical chronicle. Rather than give off solely a future impression, standing next to the older images, particularly the yellowing of Klee’s paper, reveals that Schoultz’s work is not just one forecasting our future, but one that has been repeated throughout history. Embedded in these images is a narrative opposed to war and Wall Street greed. But now it isn’t limited to late 20th century globalization. With Klee along-side his work, Schultz’s chronicle now begins at a much earlier moment in history and is as much about the past as it is the future.

Detail of Cloud City (acrylic and ink on paper) by Andrew Schoultz, 2011. Flickr photograph by My Love For You.

Klee, whose playful images abound, also strengthens an alternative reading of Schoultz’s work, allowing it to convey less desolation. There is a “look here” quality, as the viewer enjoys finding some occurrence: dancing tigers, or even horses in a kind of funnel of energy that might otherwise intuit more ominous. Something about sharing space with Klee allows war horses to be reinterpreted as horses on a carousel; the broken bridge to be an invitation to work or build something anew without necessarily revealing what caused the devastation. Also, the absence of humans depicted in Schoultz’s work is now populated by Klee’s people, who can easily walk, in this small gallery, from one canvas to another. Klee, it can be said, emphasizes Schoultz’s playfulness, which is doubtless already present in the work.

Ultimately, this pairing works, not because of a conversation between artists or because of commentary by one artist, but because the viewer sees each artist anew. The show is a way for Schoultz to showcase his vision, and when juxtaposed against Klee’s, the world he paints comes into focus and the breadth of his chronicle becomes apparent.

Just as the SFMOMA show reaches its end, Schoultz has embarked on his next public project “the Boneyard Project” organized by Eric Firestone in Tucson, Arizona. A select number of artists, Schoultz included, are currently painting air planes and exploring their cultural significance while applying their graffiti and mural practice to this uncommon canvas. The show opens at the Pima Air & Space Museum on January 28, 2012. Specifically, Schoultz’s assignment is to paint an old spy plane. Coincidentally, Klee too once painted war planes during World War I. He camouflaged them.

Images in Dialogue: Andrew Schoultz and Paul Klee, curated by John Zarobell. Exhibition runs: August 13, 2011 to January 8, 2012. SFMOMA, 151 Third Street, San Francisco, CA.

NOTE: Curator John Zarobell says that the idea to pair Klee’s work with a contemporary artist is not an original idea: “Six years ago, then-Curatorial Associate Tara McDowell worked with Simon Evans, who selected a show of Klee works from our holdings and added a piece of his own. In 2007 Apsara DiQuinzio paired drawings by Klee with those of Devendra Banhart, who had a long-standing fascination with the modern artist.”

Gustavo Ramos Rivera

Gustavo Ramos Rivera, Sin titulo, oil on canvas, 48″ x 48″, 2011.

GUSTAVO RAMOS RIVERA AT ELINS/EAGLES-SMITH

by Matt Gonzalez

Since the early 1900s when Xavier Martinez settled in San Francisco, there have been many Mexican-born artists working in the region. Today the list includes Enrique Chagoya, Jet Martinez, Calixto Robles, Juvenal Acosta and Gustavo Ramos Rivera. Rivera (known as Ramos Rivera in Spanish) has been working in San Francisco the longest — over four decades — and is internationally known.

A native of Ciudad Acuña, Coahuila, Rivera has shown in many Bay Area venues, including Charles Campbell Gallery, John Berggruen, Smith Andersen Editions, Hackett-Freedman, and the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art.

His second solo show at Elins/Eagles-Smith, “Gustavo Ramos Rivera: Paintings and Works on Paper,” runs through Saturday, Dec. 31. The show features eight large paintings, one a diptych measuring 7 by 7 feet, and a number of gum prints (a form of monotype) made while working at Atelier Tom Blaess in Bern, Switzerland, earlier this year.

Most art critics have noted Rivera’s Mexican or Latin American palette and place him in a lineage of painters whose work tries to  approximate the Mexican landscape, meaning, it is dominated with bright primary colors, particularly reds and yellows. But Rivera’s abstract work also belongs to a tradition of Bay Area painting among artists such as John Grillo, Richard Diebenkorn and Frank Lobdell.

The paintings at Elin/Eagles-Smith are composed over areas of compartmentalized color fields, with spontaneous brushwork and palette knife application that relies heavily on under-painting seeping through the top-coat of paint. It is coupled with a wandering line of paint as if Rivera is drawing with it, rendered straight out of the tube or with the pointed back end of a brush. This drawing work doesn’t seem confident or premeditated, rather it recalls the Surrealist efforts at automatic writing. In many places the resulting canvas looks as if Rivera is just scribbling, reminiscent of child’s play, suggesting further connections to the accident and scramble so critical in Dada and Surrealist aesthetics.

Nevertheless, Rivera’s finished canvases reveal a formalism that indicates a mature artist who both juxtaposes and combines intention with spontaneity.

Gustavo Ramos Rivera, Portal de Luz, oil on canvas, 60″ x 60″, 2005.

Rivera outlines forms on the canvas with black or other colors. The results are hardly recognizable. Sometimes you can see part of a cross, a wheel with spokes, a crescent moon shape on its side, or a desolate tree. But these symbols, which some have called a “personal hieroglyphics,” are so obliterated by the process of abstraction that the work can just as easily stand as non-objective. Yet some kind of landscape is strongly suggested in these works and the partial signage Rivera uses offers a glimpse into his subconscious.

The finished paintings look as if Joan Miró, Mark Rothko, and Cy Twombly collaboratively painted over Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series, with Rothko and Twombly taking turns with the final pass.

Installation photograph of Bulerías and Sin titulo at Elins/Eagles-Smith Gallery by Alan Bamberger, November 3, 2011.

Gustavo Ramos Rivera, detail of Bulerías, oil on canvas, 84″ x 85″, 2009.

The most impressive painting in the show is the diptych that measures 7 by 7 feet, titled Bulerías, which refers to the well-known rapid flamenco rhythm. Rivera sustains the composition despite a central vertical line separating the two canvases. The painting is comprised of separated color fields joined with lines and the collision of vibrant primary colors over black under-painting. Although non-objective, the work suggests the patterns of a dance movement or even a contraption of some kind, fully equipped with mechanized levers and extension cords.

It is worth noting that Rivera’s art-making of the 1960s was in a more traditional, figurative style of painting that depicted the human condition, in the manner of Jose Luis Cuevas and Francisco de Goya. Later, Rivera passed through a period where his palette was often darker, and merged his figurative work with abstraction. During this time he was preoccupied with texture and color experimentation. In those mid-career works, landscape emerged as a predominant element in the painting.

The work at Elins/Eagles-Smith features elements of obliterated symbols which hint at the earlier, transitionary period of Rivera’s work, where the fragmentary language now present took a more direct and recognizable form. These transitional paintings feature figurative elements and signage that directly reflect the landscape of Rivera’s birthplace. They include representations of the sun and moon, trees, festival banners, rivers, church steeples, crickets and dirt paths. These forms are often combined with a visionary poetic context, made up of dark and brooding images that emphasize the mythologist in him. Comparisons to the Surrealist work of Manolo Millares, Joan Ponç and Modest Cuixart, of the post-World War II Catalonia group, the Dau al Set, come to mind.

Gustavo Ramos Rivera, Arrecife, oil on canvas mounted on wood, 48″ x 48″, 2011.

In time, Rivera evolved into full abstraction in the tradition of Antoni Tàpies, also a founding member of the Dau al Set. Gestural, eschewing figuration, yet retaining formal elements in the work. These are the paintings on exhibit at Elins/Eagles-Smith.

By burying nearly indecipherable signs throughout the work, Rivera unconsciously references events and places in his life which ultimately withstand the artist’s turn to abstraction. The explicit figurative element have disappeared, but shapes remain: crosses, trees, and organic forms such as one might find in a Miró.

Like the Russian Futurist who believed zaum poetry had meaning because it used syllables of words to suggest them, Rivera is implying meaning through the obliteration of the image. Or like Franz Kline, who used a Bell-Opticon in the late 1940s to magnify drawings and thus understand how a part of a drawing could stand alone as a painting, Rivera’s painting gives little hint of its origin.

Regrettably, the current show does not include any of Rivera’s wood sculpture, which the gallery previously exhibited in 2009, and Ben Bamsey has referred to as “abstract totem poles.” Made from discarded wood scraps, tree limbs, broom handles, and milk cartons, they are fastened with nails and wire and painted in bright colors and sometimes even equipped with wheels.

But otherwise this is a perfect show.

As a boy Rivera fondly recalls being asked to paint a chair. His father presented him with brush and paint and let him go. There he discovered a love of covering something in paint. The walls of the family home became his next canvas. This current show presents decades of what is at its root a childish impulse to play. But it also conveys the artist’s very personal and individual relationship to the world. Rivera succeeds every time because he is pure of mind as he faces off with the canvas. He isn’t trying to paint something any more than he did when he painted his first chair. The painting is all self-expression.

Kurt Schwitters

Portrait of Kurt Schwitters by El Lissitzky, 1929.

GOODBYE KURT SCHWITTERS

by Matt Gonzalez

“I use any material the picture demands.” Kurt Schwitters, 1920.

Today marks the conclusion of an important Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) retrospective, the first in the United States in over 25 years. Limited to three exhibition venues: the Princeton University Art Museum, the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, and finally the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA), Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage presents over 80 works by the 20th Century German born artist whose versatility spanned a variety of artistic mediums including painting, collage, sculpture, assemblage, and typographical work.

Although associated with Dada throughout his life, Schwitters resolved to be his own movement. He called it Merz from a fragment of a phrase, which originally spelled Kommerz und Privatbank, he had cut out of a newspaper advertisement and incorporated into one of his art pieces. As with much of his work lost or abandoned during the rise of Nazism and the ravages of World War II, the collage painting which named his movement was removed, and likely destroyed, from a Dresen gallery by the National Socialist who deemed it degenerate art.

It is all the more reason to celebrate this show which collects diverse works from various collections that span the entire length of his art making, from his earliest abstract collages made in 1918 to the final works which date 1947 after Schwitters had fled the Nazi invasion of Norway for England. Artists Jasper Johns and Ellsworth Kelly both loan multiple works to the exhibition.

[Mz 601, 1923.]

The show, which was organized by the Menil Collection, is curated by Isabel Schulz, executive director of the Kurt and Ernst Schwitters Foundation (and curator of the Kurt Schwitters Archive at the Sprengel Museum Hanover), along with Joseph Helfenstein, director of the Menil Collection. Berkeley Art Museum director Lawrence Rinder deserves credit for securing this superb exhibition for his museum and presenting it to West Coast audiences.

After achieving some success as a landscape and portrait painter in Hanover, in 1918 Schwitters began making collages from discarded paper and incorporating a variety of objects into his abstract paintings. He sought to combine “all conceivable materials for artistic purposes” and did so by mixing oil and paper with objects made of rubber, cloth, wire, and wood. Schwitters utilized bus tickets, newspaper fragments, correspondence, packaging labels, tissue papers, cigarette packaging, and chocolate wrappers among other discarded items. He then reconfigured this found detritus to make abstract and non-objective artworks. German Dadaist Raoul Hausmann remembered the night Schwitters introduced himself in the Café des Westens, in Berlin. “I’m a painter,” he said, “and I nail my pictures together.”

Schwitters work adheres to a greater political emphasis than one might think at first glance. To the extent that Dada was a reaction to the chaos and inhumanity of World War I, Schwitters’ own abstract collage making, the picking up of disgarded paper and objects to make new things, is rooted in this conflict: “In the war, things were in terrible turmoil. What I had learned at the academy was of no use to me and the useful new ideas were still unready…. Everything had broken down and new things had to be made out of the fragments; and this is Merz. It was like a revolution within me, not as it was, but as it should have been.” As a result his art broke with convention and his affinity with the Dada movement was cast.

His method was fluid. In addition to nails and bone glue, Schwitters used flour and water as a paste adhesive and also to create an opaque coat that nullified and muted certain color elements in the work. German-American art historian and dealer Charlotte Weidler watched Schwitters work in his studio:

“He spread flour and water over the paper, then moved and shuffled and manipulated his scraps of paper around in the paste while paper was wet. With his finger-tips he worked little pieces of crumbled paper into the wet surface; also spread tints of watercolor or gouache around to get variations in shadings of tone. In this way he used flour both as paste and as paint. Finally, he removed the excess paste with a damp rag, leaving some like an overglaze in places where he wanted to veil or mute a part of the color.”
Quoted in Harriet Janis and Rudi Blesh, Collage: Personalities, Concepts, Techniques (Philadelphia: Chilton, 1962).

[Untitled (Black Merz Drawing), ca. 1925.]

Schwitters worked his collage pieces laying them flat, which is particularly evident in those pieces signed in different places, which suggested they be exhibited in multiple orientations. The Untitled collage (Black Merz Drawing) is one such example, signed to allow for both a vertical and horizontal presentation, it underscores the pure essence of non-objective art. The piece dates from around 1925, yet its color is still crisp, with a dark background, and overlayed with blue, red, and yellow color fragments scattered around the picture plane. The composition presents the tumbling of paper downward, as if in movement. It is reminiscent of Jean Arp’s Collage with Squares Arranged According to the Laws of Chance (ca. 1916-17).

We must be careful not to judge Schwitters’ work solely from a contemporary vantage point. While it retains experimental elements, at times viewers struggle to conjure up his notoriety as a radical artist. Art critic and historian Kenneth Baker has noted the paradox of seeing the work today: “We have become so adjusted to visual scramble in art and to the repurposing of materials that we can scarcely imagine the challenge that Schwitters’ early assemblages and collages posed to respectable taste in their day.”

In addition to presenting collage, lithography, sculpture, and paintings, a replica of Schwitters’ famous Merzbau (Merz building) accompanies the exhibition, the Merzbau being, in effect, Schwitters effort at creating a total aesthetic installation by building out interiors of his home utilizing the angles and hard edges so prevalent in his collage work, which one could live and work in. Beginning in 1923, on three separate occasions Schwitters worked on a different Merzbau. The first, made in Hanover, was destroyed by Allied bombing. The second Merbau created by Schwitters in Norway after he fled the Nazis in 1937 was accidentally destroyed in 1951 by children playing with matches. The third, begun in 1947 in England never saw completion. However in 1983 set designer Peter Bissegger completed his reconstruction of the central portion of the Merzbau, and this is on display at the Berkeley Art Museum.

All exhibitions of Schwitters work in the United States are indebted to those collectors and curators who sought to promote his work during his lifetime. In particular, Katherine Dreier, an art collector who founded the Société Anonyme, Inc. with Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, was the first in America to express interest in Schwitters’ work. Although her plans to give him a one-man show never materialized, she was responsible for the Brooklyn Museum’s 1926 show International Exhibition of Modern Art which included four paintings, 25 collages, and one sculpture by Schwitters, thus introducing him to art connoisseurs in this country.

[Mz x 19, 1947.]

Although Schwitters never reached America, he was prescient enough to know his work would be well-received here. In a 1941 letter to his wife Helma, who remained in their native Hanover, Schwitters wrote “I shall enjoy great renown in America.” He died January 8, 1948, one day after being granted British citizenship.

Schwitters’ work lives on. In addition to his visual art, he left experimental stories, poems, and plays, including his famous poem An Anna Blume (commonly translated as To Eve Blossom), which first attracted an international audience in 1919 for its originality and inventiveness, and various sound experiments including a 40 minute “primeval” sonata, Ursonate, which he composed between 1922-32, and which is still performed today.

Kurt Schwitters epitomized the avant-garde in his day, and continues to do so.

Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage. Through November 27, 2011. Berkeley Art Museum, 2626 Bancroft Way, Berkeley, California.