San Francisco

San Francisco

The seemingly unlimited capabilities of the wizards of polymer chemistry to synthesize molecules not found in nature, and thus to create substances not only displaying unique properties, but often fusing, in strange, startling and hitherto impossible and uncontemplated combinations, properties once thought exclusively and inimitably special to certain types of animal, mineral or vegetable substances and by-products—is producing not only for industry but for today’s artists, an apparently inexhaustible variety of highly versatile materials. Popularly designated as plastics, their potentialities as art media (other than as new paints and specialized pigmentation vehicles on the one hand, or as synthetic simulations of traditional ceramic clays and patinas on the other) have only begun to be explored.

At the Hansen Gallery last month a show promisingly titled Recent Developments Developments in Plastic 1968 seemed a somewhat hastily assembled and anti-climactic follow-up to this gallery’s carefully organized, well documented and spectacularly successful Plastics West Coast exhibition of slightly over a year ago (Artforum VI/5), but contained nevertheless some striking pieces, outstanding among which were Peter Gutkin’s large, sinuous plant and snail forms, elegantly executed in lacquered, mother-of-pearl textured fiberglass and paraphrasing some of the more fantastic extravaganzas of exotic Art Nouveau. The absence of any work by Mowry Baden, whose monumental Irish Position, now standing in the courtyard of the University Art Museum in Berkeley, was part of last year’s plastics show, and whose work then revealed a calibre of technical and conceptual invention stimulative of sustained anticipatory interest in its further evolution, constituted a conspicuous disappointment for which such inclusions by gallery newcomers as Doug Edge’s transparent sheet acrylic box, pedestaled on what appeared to be its own packing case, was hardly compensatory. This piece was simply another one of those tiresome and obvious wisecrack charades on the Art/Environment (package/content) ambiguities of contemporary cultural semantics. It relates in style to the sort of neo-Dada “anti-art” posturing characterized by emphatic accents of athletic masculinity and gritty, workshed proletarian vernacularity and spiritually reminiscent of some of the gestures of that post-World War I generation of artists and intellectuals, the social climate of whose youth urged on them the burden of protesting that artistic and literary pursuits were not “sissy stuff.”

Other artists in the exhibition seem to be evolving conservatively and undramatically within the framework of plodding continuity and of fidelity to a single style or concept showing but little further elaboration on work exhibited previously. Solidly within this category is Sam Richardson who now extends his plastic “relief-map landscapes” in a vertical direction to encompass meteorologically active “skyscapes” in which thick segments of cloud-strata are carefully modeled. One feels that in fashioning these clouds of opaque, rather than of milky-hued, semi-transparent plastic material Richardson was possibly a little too evidently and consciously avoiding what must have seemed to him the banality of succumbing to the easily accessible literalism so temptingly “obvious” and inherent in the simulative versatility of polymer media. Yet one is inclined to speculate that perhaps the artistic possibilities, in terms of subtle optical effects that were forfeited by this avoidance, would have been more than worth the risks; for, in spite of their velvety expanses and smoothly graduated modulations of rich spray-painted acrylic colors, these pieces, with their woodenly heavy clouds and monotonously uniform, slick opacity of texture, seem as lifeless and pedantically schematic as the relief maps and scale models of the natural science classroom. The subject matter of these works, as well as their long titles with allusions to weather report meteorological jargon, have strong affinities with the themes and captions of paintings by Robert Hartman, recently reviewed in these pages.

Clear as well as tinted sheets of transparent acrylic, as commercially available under such trade designations as “Lucite” and “Plexiglas” were probably among the earliest of polymer materials to come into general use among artists in contriving assemblages and multimedia sculpture of various types, yet the poignantly economical constructions by Vladis Zarens recently exhibited at the Arlene Lind Gallery, in which rectangularly cut sheets, and solid, cast cylindrical rods, of transparent acrylic, form a binary matrix of elements, or basic units, for combinative variation, assuredly rank among the more uniquely conceived artistic employments of polymer media seen in the Bay Area this season. In fact, part of the power and impact of these exquisitely simple and elegant exhibits stems from that moving quality of recognition so often evoked in the viewer when some commonplace medium, the basic potentialities of which are frequently either obscured or squandered in trivial or vulgarly extravagant employments, is suddenly seen afresh, with its inherent properties realized in a concentrated and vitally elemental way. Latvian born, Mr. Zarens, long a resident of Seattle, and an alumnus of the Art Department of the University of Washington, where he taught for some time, has been recently appointed to an assistant professorship at Chico State College in California.

The consistent suggestion of miniaturized architecture which pervades Mr. Zarens’ best work, the traces of Bauhaus heritage in its schematic asperities and tellingly manipulated linear metricism, as well as the skill and insights implicit in its carefully engineered explorations of the optical properties peculiar to transparent acrylics, all bear the stamp of Mr. Zarens’ considerable specialized experience at a teaching level with problems of design as related to materials. Indeed, most of his work reflected a propensity for isolatively emphasizing and elucidating specific relationships of esthetic and physical phenomena—for postulation through acuity of focus, and demonstration through systematic variation—which made this exhibition didactic in the best sense. Mr. Zarens has a predilection for austerely simple quadrilateral compositions of his chosen basic units of construction, in which verticality predominates: the Plexiglas cylinders, whether free-standing or set in a base, are used as upright columns, while the greater lengths of the oblong, sheet-acrylic strips are vertically oriented.

However, the quasi-prismatic, optically dynamic interactions induced in these severely simplistic geometric arrangements of clear acrylic panes and rods by a single color element—usually a thin strip of tinted Plexiglas placed either centrally or tangentially to the arrangement in such a way as to be an integral part of its formal design—transform them into entrancing photomechanical microcosms in which light transmitted through the colored pane is captured by the cylinders, where it is alternately condensed and diffused, bent into loops, coiled into spiraling ribbons, or refractively multiplied in various ways, dissolving and reforming in a kaleidoscopic continuum of shifting images as one moves relatively to the construction. While the light relied upon for all of this optical magic is sometimes simply the environmental lighting incidental to the gallery, it is often directional, and otherwise specially modulated illumination, generated from sources concealed either in a pedestal or in a canopy joined to the lucite columns.

There were a few elaborate pieces in Mr. Zarens’ show, including an amusing, quasi-kinetic hydraulic device in the form of a pair of periodically gurgling and bubbling columns of water in large transparent cylindrical tubes, but these were in the nature of flamboyantly entertaining gadgets, involving mechanical rather than esthetic engineering, and were thus in marked contrast to the austerity and beauty of the more contemplatively conceived works.

At the Quay Gallery pen and ink drawings from two new series by John Altoon were exhibited. Turning from the quasi-abstract cartoon charades of his recent Harper Series to a more explicitly figurative idiom, his current series entitled The Princess and the Frog presents a Freudian fableland of absurd but sensitively inflected erotic imagery, priapic fantasy, and subtly lewd whimsicalities, in which sensuously depicted young women cavort nude in a rustic setting, while one fondles a leapfrog in her cupped hands and yet another, seated on the grass, gazes with a heavy-lidded expression of orgasmically rapturous narcissistic contemplation at her own genitals, from the orifice of which slithers one of the phallically delineated frogs. These drawings, which are saved from being merely quaintly obscene in their lubricious grotesquery by the lyrical cast of Altoon’s fluently articulate draftsmanship and the Pan-like elfin sprightliness of his tongue-in-cheek wit, reaffirm mannerisms of technique and imagery found in the fable drawings which have engaged Altoon intermittently over the years and which, in ways tending to be composite and attributable more to generalities of disposition than to specific stylistic allusions, seem to be audaciously priapic parodies––satyric satires––on such familiar and bibliophilically venerated styles of turn-of-the-century fantasy book illustrations as those of Tenniel and Rackhim. The second series represented in this exhibition, entitled Cowboy and Indian, comprised a number of unsatisfactory drawings which seemed like tentative doodlings in an unresolved search for new thematic and stylistic ideas.

Following the Altoon show the Quay Gallery installed a large array of collages by Emerson Woelffer, all of which were of uniform size and orientation and shared a common matrix of textured construction papers and a common spectrum of bright colors in which canary yellows and vermillion reds predominated. These collages ran in two series, The Lip Series and The Head Series. The Lip series elaborated centrally placed Cupid’s bow lipstick-impression shapes in those casually slapdash accents of parodied Rococo valentines which have become clichés of the commercially contrived “sophisticated femininity” of advertisement formats for prestige-brand cosmetics in slick fashion magazines. Any one of these collages might make it as a “cute” epitomizing touch of decor in a boudoir cluttered with “kitsch” from a 1920s cinema set. None of the Head Series would make it in any context.

The Arleigh Gallery recently featured an extensive selection of paintings in acrylics on canvas by Erle Loran. Mr. Loran essays a series of monumentally stated, heroic female nudes, the curves and planes of whose bodies are stylistically articulated and integrated with such geometricized contexts as obelisk shapes and silhouetted architectural facades, steps, and sine-wave drapery folds, or with severely cubic grid-accented room interiors characterized by flat, hard-edged arrangements of checkerboard-patterned fabrics, circular cushions and square pillows. The paintings thus exhibit muralesque architectonics of massive simplification and static equilibrium. The planilinear organization of forms in these pictures is adroitly emphasized in sharply defined chiaroscuro contrasts realized in the interplay of white areas with the bi-chrome or tri-chrome of an incomplete photo-lithographic color reproduction, skillfully simulated on a massive scale by carefully chosen values of violet, yellow, and green acrylic paint applied with the spray gun—a novel effect which Mr. Loran exploits with sensitivity. Optically vibrant juxtapositions of color are also introduced in ways meticulously planned to enforce the plotted geometric tensions and thrusts. Mr. Loran is a consummate academician; his paintings are crisply intellectual in their contrived and often technically didactic formalism. They are thus rewarding of study and contemplation and usually highly satisfying in their unambiguously stated terms. This exhibition presented a cohesive selection of work embracing interesting cross-references suggesting that certain groups of canvases had been executed as related studies, the painting entitled The Book of Tantra, for example, elaborating orientational varients of the figure and motifs postulated in The Glass of Sherry. Some pencil drawings appended to the exhibition presented consummately executed academic nude studies in traditional modes of draftsmanship. A few of these drawings experimented with architectural background forms and motifs later modified in some of the paintings, but only one or two of them were directly related to any of the exhibited paintings as preliminary studies.

Palmer D. French