Stefanie Victor and Christopher Garrett’s show comprises a study in restraint and bodily intimacy that is disarmingly delicate in physical scale. Using a shared language of personal ornamentation in their approaches to formal in-between states, the artists take on the aesthetics and concept of the fold as something that both covers and opens out onto something else.
Victor’s metal sculptures, vaguely kinetic and often wall-mounted, are domestic in nature and size and also simultaneously intricate and borderline industrial. Both the metal pieces and her cloth sculptures, on which the metal structures are sometimes situated, hover in an understated, suspended identity, as in Sculptures for Margaret #26, 2016, where a geometrically dyed and bleached fabric piece echoes the painterly lines of the pentagonal gold-plated sculpture laid on it.
In a deep exchange with this subdued approach, Garrett’s found moth carcasses, partially painted with bright jewel-toned dabs of acrylic and gouache, immediately recall costume jewelry as much as the fleeting, already-decaying presence of material bodies. What at first seems merely decorative turns out to be both memento mori and another exploration of ambiguous states, this time via shapes of color, as in the safety-orange-coated Even Puzzles Start Small, 2015–16. This effect is intensified by the way that the painted color itself turns out to literally support and prop up the expired organic matter beneath: a hinge between the body and pure form.
From the perspective of artist Leonor Antunes, the gallery is a complete volume. Every inch of the floor, ceiling, and walls plays an active role in narrating the histories reworked by the artist. Newly commissioned for SFMoMA, A Spiral Staircase Leads Down to the Garden, 2016, mines the creative trajectories of pioneering women autobiographically tied to midcentury California but obscured from the era’s modernist cannon, such as architect and interior designer Greta Magnusson Grossman and artists Anni Albers, Kay Sekimachi, and Ruth Asawa. Their outputs are the sources for a series of sculptural pieces that hang, roll over, and illuminate the white box of the museum’s dedicated new-work gallery.
Cork panels cover the entire floor, punctuated by reflective brass rectangles that replicate a pattern from Albers’s 1946 weaving With Verticals. Points from the design also dictate the positioning of leather ropes snaked on the ceiling. Although interested in architecture, Albers was barred from the program at the Bauhaus because of her gender and instead studied textiles. Grossman was also denied formal architectural training, although it did not stop her from creating buildings in California and Sweden. As such, Grossman’s renderings cite her as the “designer,” a fact that made research behind the exhibition a challenge. Large suspended geometric wall partitions inspired by Grossman’s signature lamps cut across the room, casting shadows. Surrounding the visitor, Antunes’s skillful maneuvering of space, material, light, and texture allow the voices of a feminist history largely unsung to resound and become anew.
The community of artists and writers revolving around salonièrre Mabel Dodge Luhan’s compound in Taos, New Mexico, in the early twentieth century provides the fulcrum for this sprawling exhibition. Works by well-known artists, such as Paul Strand, Ansel Adams, Marsden Hartley, and John Marin, occupy space alongside pieces by more obscure figures, including Rebecca “Beck” Salsbury James, Dorothy Brett, and Agnes Pelton. Many artists and writers traveled to Taos at the behest of Luhan, a prolific writer herself. Her fourth husband, Taos Pueblo Indian Antonio Lujan, opened the community to artists and writers, thus fostering a creative exchange between modernist and native traditions.
A highlight of the exhibition is an upstairs gallery where Pueblo artist Awa Tsireh’s watercolors and Brett’s vivid paintings depict native dances. The exhibition repeatedly refers to Luhan’s own complicated relationship with New Mexico’s multicultural heritage; her relocation to Taos was partly motivated by what she believed was a need to “save” the Pueblo culture endangered from American encroachment. Luhan’s exhibition of “primitive” (her term) devotional objects as modern art in a New York exhibition in 1919 likewise points to Luhan’s—as well as many modernist artists’ and audiences’—difficulty accepting the art of non-Anglo cultures on its own terms. A striking visual example of this complex dynamic between modernism and Hispanic art is on view in another gallery, in which Luhan’s own Hispano santos, which she donated to the Harwood after she was criticized for her treatment of the paintings in a 1925 essay she wrote, appear with Hartley’s own riff on a santo. The juxtaposition underscores the ways in which modernist artists often appropriated other cultures’ works, emptying them of original meaning yet creating new meaning as well.
Siebren Versteeg’s “Middle Ages” is a new take on an old tale: Narcissus at the pond, gazing at his reflection, struck and stuck by his own beauty. Three crude steel figures retrofitted with web cameras as eyes view the exhibition and its visitors, producing generative screen-based content. Stand in front of Seer (all works 2016) and a monitor will present pictures of people that resemble your guise. The Secret faces a white wall, mysteriously sourcing images of beaches and blue skies. While Surfer (With Head), with a towel thrown over its top, gazes down at an electronic tablet in its hand, constantly trolling the internet at random. Abstract paintings on the walls were created with similarly random searches, via algorithmic codes that cull a tangle of images. The works are reminiscent of both the giants of modernist painting and the subsequent artists who defied such narrow strategies.
The effect may be experienced as playful or light, even comic, but littered throughout the gallery are cement cinder blocks modified to look like skulls, perhaps hearkening back to those memento moris of medieval times when the Court Fool capped his scepter with a miniature skull. Applied now to our own personal middle ages, with these reminders laid literally at the feet of images of self absorption, Versteeg suggests a warning against the narcissism inherent in our media-bound world; tied to our devices and stuck in a reflective feedback loop, we risk drowning, like Narcissus, in our own reflections. Political, social, indeed all discourse outside the self expires due to our constant desire to gaze back. If you’ve ever Googled yourself then you understand.
“Mercy Hospital,” an intimate exhibition of Ida Applebroog’s work, creates a narrative both poignant and bitterly ironic about illness and institutions. The series “Mercy Hospital,” 1969–70, comprises her private diary created over a six-week stay in a San Diego psychiatric ward. As an alternative to conventional therapeutic methods, Applebroog rendered abstracted images of limbs or alien-like womb forms in pencil, ink, and glowing washes of watercolor. To these she added phrases such as “Not made in America” and “Upside-down Appelbaum”—the latter incorporating her maiden name. (She legally changed her surname from her husband’s, Horowitz, to Applebroog in 1974.) Several large drawings on Mylar, from her 2012 “Catastrophes” series, depict hospital waiting rooms and sinister interactions between patients and doctors.
The exhibition also includes “A Performance,” 1977–81, a series of three staple-bound books Applebroog created as mail art. Related to the Pictures generation’s obsession with the freeze-frame, Applebroog’s books contain simple drawings repeated page after page that gain their power from captions that seem to contradict the ostensible truth of the images. One of the volumes, It Doesn’t Sound Right, 1977, includes static illustrations of a woman in a mourning pose—hands folded over her chest, standing beside an empty bed. Interspersed are pages of text that trace a dramatic arc of a woman’s complaints fatally ignored: “She says, ‘You are killing me,’” “It doesn’t sound right,” “Nobody ever dies of it.” In The Sweet Smell of Sage Enters the Room, 1977, the titular phrase follows repeated images of a man striking a woman kneeling on the ground. These stripped-down stories suggest the mundanity and horror of living under patriarchy and the military-industrial-medical complex.
Filled with fantastical paintings that becloud the currents between humankind and the natural world, this survey of Inka Essenhigh’s work unveils the artist’s gentle progression from flat, graphic works—evocative of Japanese woodcuts and various anime traditions—to more softly articulated compositions that call to mind early Disney and, of course, Bosch and Bruegel: the animator’s narrative forebears. With hot, acidy colors, Essenhigh contrasts the inner beasts of our nature against environmental forces both inevitable and engineered. Green Goddess II, 2009, offers up a ghostly green earth mother—a classically gendered figure—tentacled and gliding through a sensuous forest of blossoming pink and white flowers. The Woodsman, 2012, a darker take on the 1992 cartoon movie FernGully: The Last Rainforest, has an orange-clad man with a chainsaw demolishing trees while a nervous fairy panics in the dark wood behind him. Other works take on the weird, parasitic aspects of person-to-person interactions, too: Essenhigh’s update on Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1882, titled Spring Bar Scene, 2008, has exhausted-looking bar staff serving a morbid mass of emerald-hued ghouls who are losing fingernails, exposing breasts, licking one another, and passing out—so vulgar, so fun.
The artist’s gummy and exuberant characters are lurid, sensual beings, saturated with desire, guilt, and joy, who, unquestionably, share some DNA with the sad, comic, and erotic figures we find in the paintings of Lisa Yuskavage, Dana Schutz, or Nicole Eisenman—like Essenhigh, present-day Surrealists unafraid of plumbing some of our most sticky and harrowing depths.
Eric Avery studied printmaking and later trained to become a physician. His artistic production blends these two practices, resulting in woodcuts that draw on his personal and professional history as a gay doctor to express the HIV-positive experience. In Blood Test, 1985, a woodcut on molded paper shows Avery’s veiny arm during the two weeks he waited for his HIV test results. The pulpy quality of the molded paper makes the background of the print resemble fluffy medical gauze. Most of the prints here also reference a broader visual history of health and disease.
One wall of the exhibition is mainly devoted to prints from his series “The New Face of AIDS – Patient Portraits in Frames of HIV Risk,” 1994–2011, which depict stories inspired by his HIV-positive patients. With permission, the artist made portraits of them and surrounded their likenesses with the type of scenes that may increase one’s likelihood of contracting the infection. At times, this moralizing mission seems to strip context from the subjects—in the piece Compulsive Sex, a frame made up of queer sex scenes does little to distinguish the risk factors between protected and unprotected sex, falsely implying that queerness itself is a factor.
A vitrine in the center of the room contains various artists’ books, including a digital letterpress pamphlet titled Pictures That Give Hope, 2001. While the zine appears to be simple, Avery considers this work his most successful project. It sidesteps the common pitfalls that haunt artistic responses to the AIDS crisis, allowing a directness that escapes heavy-handedness, a call to emotion that is not propaganda, and the display of a sick body that is not alone in its sickness.
For his ongoing collaborative project The Ground, 2009–, the Los Angeles–based artist and book designer Conny Purtill at once plays an upfront authorial figure and gladly fades into the background, letting other artists take the spotlight. This balance comes from a process of exchange that has girded all four exhibited iterations of the project. Purtill first prepares uniformly sized canvases by applying eleven layers of alternating white and toned gesso, creating a painting then sanding it away, and, finally, subtly working the surface with graphite. Once this esoteric process, which he calls “neutralization,” is complete, he gifts the canvases to other artists to use as they like. Each work, then, as well as the exhibition itself, puns on the figure-ground relationship, framing a fundamental principle of painting in a conceptual context.
At Adams and Ollman, where Purtill’s collaborators include Jessica Jackson Hutchins, Josiah McElheny, and Matthew Ritchie, among others, the tension between author and orchestrator permeates the show. The Ground: Sun Ra’s Color Time (Blue Black over Blue), 2015, made with McElheny, offers an abstracted clock face that appears to map non-linear time by hue––it fits perfectly with McElheny’s coolly cerebral, historically rooted work. Likewise, The Ground: K.O. M.A. R.I.P., 2016, embodies Hutchins’s abiding theme of entwined domestic bliss and chaos, as a striped T-shirt and ceramic cup ride a lively surface of collage and smeared paint. Though traces of Purtill’s hand are difficult to detect in many of the collaborative works he presents, his role—somewhere between author and orchestrator—remains critical to their creation.
Michael E. Smith’s installation of small-scale sculptures and one video work was arranged in situ during a weeklong stay in this refined domestic environment. The space is both a residence and the site of an eclectic array of artistic projects, many curated from the collection of founder Sarah Miller Meigs. During his time here, Smith brought a selection of his own sculptures and ready-made materials to the site—including clothing, crustacean exoskeletons, and a duffel bag. A critical part of the artist’s practice consists of painstakingly locating objects that interest and inspire him—often via conversation with people online—and then slowly weaving relationships between them in specific environments over time.
Works are situated throughout the venue like visual poems, beginning with Untitled, (all works cited 2016) his treatment of the stairwell leading up to the interior. He covered the skylight with yellow cloth, imbuing the stairs with a citrine glow reminiscent of old fluorescent streetlights. In the main room, a pair of thin, elongated forms rises from the floor. Comprised of dried corn and urethane, the arcing forms of another Untitled possess a curious dent that makes them appear as if they might spring into action. In the kitchen, in a third Untitled work, Smith removed the covers from the air vents, exposing their metal filter interiors to which he attached large shells covered in sawdust. Sometimes barely noticeable at first glance, these interventions permeate the environment with a sense of delight and discovery, and their unpretentious elegance makes them feel as if they’ve always been there.
One corner of Rick Bartow’s retrospective, organized just before his death earlier this year, features a suite of early drawings and prints dating back to 1979 and a later painting of a male figure with a crow twice its size resting on its torso. The crow in Hunter’s Tale Remembered, 2009, seems poised to devour the man. The painting’s rich black background and the furious marks shading the animal’s body are as ominous as the sinister situation depicted. Bartow consistently returned to this tension between human and animal—the idea that there is an animal inside all of us and that this hybridity lends us power as well as the potential for self-destruction—throughout his nearly five-decade career.
He developed a mastery of pastels and exploited the medium’s velvety textures to portray men as bears and dogs, skull-faced figures sprouting wings amid vibrant colors thickly and almost violently applied to paper. The exhibition’s centerpieces, though, due to their large scale, are his acrylic paintings on canvas and wood sculptures. The sculptures convey a physicality and force through their use of raw wood and hardware: nails hammered into a face or neck, or a hatchet used as a leg on a human-headed dog, as in Man Acting Like Dog, 2009. His gestural style, distorted figuration, and the crabbed, handwritten text on the paintings suggest an interest in artists such as Francis Bacon or Jean-Michel Basquiat. But his content hearkens to the traditions of his Wiyot Tribe ancestors, evoking an exploration of his identity as a Native American as well as a Vietnam veteran and a recovering addict. In this light, Bartow’s composite forms speak to his own desire to represent complex and often conflicting historical narratives.
As true today as when it was published in 1977, Joan Didion’s essay “Holy Water” speaks to the Californian’s obsession with water, a fanatic preoccupation sparked by wildfires on the Big Sur coast and years of drought that have compelled the rising of the land itself. The exhibition “California: The Art of Water” traces a centuries-long struggle––a history of mercurial oppositions––over resources bestowed only grudgingly or in excess. The cerulean volume of David Hockney’s Sprungbrett mit Schatten (Paper Pool #14), 1978, acts as mocking foil to the thirsty void that opens beneath Diving Board, Salton Sea, photographed by Richard Misrach in 1983. Strawberry and peach fields flooded by irrigation networks in photographs by Thomas Hill and Peter Goin are remarkably like Henry Bainbridge and George W. Casilear’s lithographic print depicting catastrophe in Views of Sacramento City as It Appeared During the Great Inundation in January 1850, ca. 1850.
In an effort to survive, real things are made to appear like their surrogates, turning nature into a landscape of wedded polarities. Goin’s Golf Course near Coachella, 2007, shows bare, scrappy hillsides rising behind golf courses cropped into turf-green gingham. In Stephen Johnson’s California Aqueduct Near Tracy, 1984, a waterway is caught stilled to a smoothness that is more like the black uniformity of asphalt than the tempestuous course of a river. As Didion noted, “Water is important to people who do not have it, and the same is true of control.” Documented here is a state’s infinite campaign to wrest both from a reluctant and hostile land.
Eduardo Sarabia’s latest exhibition is a celebration of birds, including the quetzal, a sacred species in many pre-Hispanic cultures. The show consists of one work that shares the exhibition’s title, “Plumed Serpent and Other Parties,” and comprises hundreds of fiberglass reproductions of this iconic bird, as well as of the lovely cotinga, the squirrel cuckoo, and the roseate spoonbill. Centuries ago, feathers from all those species were used to create Montezuma’s headdress, now in Vienna.
Installed in the gallery from floor to ceiling, evoking taxidermy at a natural-history museum, the bird sculptures surround a series of sixteen drawings depicting a revered Mesoamerican tree thought to be the origin of all gods—the ceiba, depictions of which were often historically topped by a quetzal. In Sarabia’s drawings, ceiba species are partnered with women ritual dancers, old coins, and symbols of national political parties and chess pieces—perhaps exalting the tension between nature and modernity, particularly as driven by economic ambition. Throughout this colorful and ornamental panoply of birds, “Plumed Serpent and Other Parties” acts as an admonition and commentary about deforestation and the continual loss of natural habitats, a threat faced by these species and many more around the world. Sadly, this seems to be an irreversible trend, whereby our knowledge of avian diversity will soon come only from artists’ re-creations that render birds as mute and flightless as they are beautiful.