San Francisco

San Francisco Artists

One of the most persistent sources of criticism of San Francisco’s three museums has been that each seems to plan its policies as if the other two did not exist. One of the most glaring examples of the waste of time, effort, and money that can result from this singular inability of each museum to come to terms with the reality of the other two are the two exhibitions, a contemporary Japanese art shown side by side, one at the San Francisco Museum of Art (sponsored by the International Council of the Museum Modern Art) and the other at the Young Museum (sponsored by the Japanese Embassy). Many of the artists are shown in both exhibitions, and since both shows have generally the same focus, there is no apparent reason for the overlapping. One can only hope that this latest absurdity will make; Bay Area citizenry even more aware that the time is more than ripe for, some system by which the left hand’ can be apprised of what the right doing.

The larger exhibit of the two is,at the San Francisco Museum of Art and contains 106 works by in the United States and Europe. When viewing such a large and varied group of works one becomes aware of how really international certain styles haver become in just the last ten years. For example, Jiro Yoshiharo, represented in both shows, paints in a manner that has strong affinities with the work of Frank Lobdell who in turn shares attitudes about painting with Asger Jorn. Yoshiharo uses paint heavily, working his surfaces up over long periods of time and revising his simple ellipsoid images as he paints. His handling is not fluent but rather tentative and clumsy as if each change were accompanied by anxiety and doubt as to its validity. The anxiety is really what keeps the surface tension in Yoshiharo’s pictures. The brushy tension between the black ground and the white image forces the eye to consider the possibilities of change inch by inch where black and white meet. Free gesture is eschewed in favor of painful deliberation. Yoshiharo is a mature painter and his pictures represent a deep regard for art and its possibilities.

Another artist who, like Yoshiharo, works in an Abstract Expressionist style and with real authority is Kazuo Shiraga. His large untitled oil painting is gestural in quality and contains two frontal shapes sweeping from upper left to lower right comprised of hot yellows, reds and maroons.

These two artists along with Kumi Sugai, Sadamara Motonaga and Toshimitsu lmai, continue the tradition of Abstract Expressionism in a strong way. Their canvases are traditional in the sense they neither add objects to the support or build material out from the support in relief. They remain painters dealing with the two dimensional plane in an orthodox fashion.

Hard Edge is well-represented by Tadasky, whose concentric circles work optically on the retina, Shinjiro Okamoto, Soichiro Tomioka and Takeshi Kawashima. Okamoto, one of the youngest artists in the exhibit, is also the most curious. His paintings are brightly colored and wed a certain Pop quality to abstraction. The humorous forms go with titles like “The Big Laugh,” “A Western Dog” and “Ninth Little Indian.” The brutality and vulgarity of American Pop art is nowhere found in Okamoto’s painting; he maintains esthetic distance (one of the few all-inclusive characteristics of the total exhibit) in the sense that the forms and colors used are perceived as beautiful forms and then recognized as elements in a humorous or vaguely sexual visual drama. He differs from, say, Warhol or Lichtenstein in this respect since both these artists engage the viewer on an immediately emotional level and in many instances an extra-visual level. (Lichtenstein can be “read” and not looked at. Warhol is easy to notice and hard to perceive.) If one were to generalize further regarding the whole exhibit it could be said of all the artists including the most nihilistic that the art-ness of all the works is the first thing noticed. There is never a question posed by any object regarding its value as an art object. Nobuaki Kojima, a thirty year old Tokyo artist, comes the closest in posing that question with a group of painted polyester and plaster figures standing mutely with plastic-stiffened, striped cloth over their heads. One is moved to ask why they are like that, but not if they are art.

The sculpture is rather dismal, with the exception of Kojima’s figures and Hisao Domoto’s relief screen made of rectangular pieces of polished aluminum set evenly in rows to reflect and distort the objects surrounding it. In the category of Assemblage the nine-inch polyester eggs containing bits and pieces of machinery, clock springs, gears and other sundries by Natsuyuki Nakanishi are intriguing objects.

The exhibit at the De Young contains the work of just eighteen artists all but two of whom are painters. Five of the artists are in both exhibits. Soichiro Tomioka’s gentle canvases, made up of small incisions in white paint washed in black and wiped dry leaving the black in the incised areas are fascinating for their visual complexity, given such limited means. The metal reliefs of Shinkuno bring together the tradition of good design so much a part of Japan’s cultural legacy, and the power inherent in heavy metal forms.

Both exhibits point out strongly the influence that Western art, particularly French and American, is having on young Japanese artists. The use of fully-saturated color in both painting and sculpture is in full evidence now where a few years ago it was rarely seen in the works of Japanese artists. Traditional materials are being challenged by plastics, cloth, plaster and found materials used in conjunction with paint. In a country such as Japan where the weight of tradition hangs so heavily on its artists, it is perhaps more difficult to break through to a modern expression than it is for their American counterparts. The desire and the talent to do so are certainly there, and it will be interesting to see what the next few years brings.

The three artists exhibiting in the gallery adjacent to the Japanese exhibit at the San Francisco Museum are exhibiting under the title of Kinetic Forces. In reality only the sculptures done by Fletcher Benton actually move. Since his last exhibit at the Hansen Galleries, Benton has perfected the craft aspect of his work and improved on the motion potential. The piece reproduced rolls on its metal platform when the switch is tripped by the onlooker’s foot. The plastic elements inside the shallow barrel shape shift as it moves to and fro on its platform. The most fascinating piece in the show is the beautifully designed kaleidoscope electrically driven and lighted to produce a constantly changing color spectrum housed within the metal body of the piece. The pieces all have individual merit that is difficult to really comprehend in the large museum space. They are better in more intimate circumstances. Art Grant’s plastic collages move if the viewer moves. They are difficult to describe in terms other than what they are made of, which is certainly not an indictment of the pieces. On the contrary, they are the finest things Art Grant has exhibited to date.

The material used is a type of opalescent plastic of a translucent nature that reflects light on one hand and has a prismatic effect on the other. Grant manipulates the sheets in various ways and in various depths to obtain the desired colors and reflection combinations. The finished pieces are small, not over twenty inches in any direction, and are a radical departure from the traditional Cubist collage. Knute Stiles’ bright, up-tempo collages are rooted firmly in the tradition Grant is moving away from. Stiles’ objects are formally witty juxtapositions of paper to cloth to photo to jewelry and in one case collage to collage. The largest object in the show is made of a number of small collages arranged on a black canvas ground to make one large work. The small elements are grouped together into larger areas and played off against other clusters throughout the piece. The effect is as if a jeweler became tired of viewing his precious baubles and installed an exhibit of collages in his up-tilted showcase.

Still another artist who makes new use of a fundamentally collage sensibility is Eugene Courtois whose work is to be seen at the San Francisco Art Center. His piece entitled “Fortune Telling Box” does just that. The viewer reads the question painted on the lucite lid and to answer the question lifts the lid and reaches for a card and the card gives a visual answer to the question. The question “Who is my real father?” is answered by a Darwinian nightmare image of the most bestial ape imaginable. The box itself combines photography, painting and sculpture into one form and although the piece is not as well constructed as it could be, it remains as an unusual and interesting work.

James Monte