San Francisco

San Francisco

Various Locations

A few years ago Manuel Neri’s carved plaster figures were a familiar sight in San Francisco. He was a sculptural relative of the broad-brush figurative painters who enjoyed a period of ascendency in the Bay Area. The new work is still often in stucco plaster, and the carving is still there in places, but the human figure is entirely absent, and the new form is a low, wide ziggurat, looking much like some monument from the past still showing its basic form, though ruined and eroded. Some are exhibited on the floor, some on the wall, and perhaps all could be used either way. One group of three are dispersed on a leaden rug. In another group called Five Stages of Persepolis, which hangs on the wall, the plaster has been replaced by semi-transparent fiberglass laid on the steel lath just as the stucco might have been, resulting in a hint of the form underneath. They are perhaps the ground plan of an archeological dig. We are informed that Neri flew to Peru to view some forms within the earth that can be seen in considerable detail from the air though very little suggests its presence when approached from ground level. These forms are quite mysterious and have been the subject of a variety of far out speculations such as UFO fields, and another Atlantis locale, not under the sea but up in the mountains.

These pieces are small but project bigness––the idea suggests acres. The objects do not have any decorative felicity, they would not make a room look smart or blend with the wallpaper, but at the same time that the viewer is wondering why the artist made them, his mind might be wandering to reveries about mysterious sites of ancient cultures. The mnemonic function of opening the mind of the viewer to a facet of information or for consideration, not to persuade someone about a point, but to put him on the track of a thought, is the artist’s purpose.

Neri shares the new cement monument exhibition chamber of the San Francisco Art Institute with Bill Geis. Whereas Neri’s sculpture is not gauged to gratify beauty lovers, Geis’s molded fiberglass monsters were specially devised to appall them. The piece entitled Ah’ll Shave Your Image, No Eulogy Me is two three-dimensional gnome sculptures, with a bare two-dimensional canvas between them. The fairy tale, or more correctly gnome tale, which this piece might illustrate would go something like this: The gnome Apollo has erected a large thing, and is standing back smugly regarding his achievement. He has the insignia of order, dynamism and perfection in scribed on his pointy brow and his marvelous erection is entitled “me thing,” so that no one could misunderstand. Across a stretch of canvas is the gnarled gnome Dionysus (who is better known by his alias, Untitled), sprawled out with his back turned to his small thing in its cluttered environment. Dionysus is furiously bad-mouthing his enemy Apollo, and is making a broad gesture to signify his point. The worst aspect of Geis’s work is that it is as much art criticism as it is sculpture, and what could be worse than that?

In the Reese Palley Gallery’s stark basement beneath Frank Lloyd Wright’s splendid hall with spiral rampway and monumental entrance (which one enters primarily to get to the balcony or the basement), are the very plain, unadorned concept sets of Lou Fox. They are not only nondecorative, and non-literary, but when he decides to go fishing he will undoubtedly take the fishing pole out of its bracket on the piece called Fishing For Ideas. Then the work of art will be nonexistent. Another Fox image is a complex of five slats about three-quarters of an inch apart with a blackish rectangle behind it. This image is realized on canvas as an illusionary painting, and again with real slats fastened to a flat pedestal on the floor to give it old-fashioned sculptural reality. It projects concealment. It represents an unwillingness to illustrate an idea (or it illustrates the unwillingness to represent as an idea). There is also a set of sandals made of little cubes of wood thonged together, in case anyone wants a work of art to jump on.

Concept art had one of its finer hours at Intersection’s church-become-theater-and-coffeehouse when James Keilty and friends enacted his Game Play in Three Hands. He had written a speech for each card in the deck, diamonds for possessiveness, hearts for love, clubs for authority, and spades for saturnalia.
The three participants had learned all speeches, but the cards were shuffled and dealt randomly. The speeches fell together in remarkable though utterly new, and unanticipated sequences, often with as much intelligence as reality, and sometimes with very suggestive and symbolic results. The audience, though they were the sort of people who might be viciously critical of much theater of the absurd, were madly enthusiastic, and demanded a fourth hand encore which the players dutifully and drolly performed. Visual artist Nemi Frost was credited with the sets; she was observed after the performance stuffing the foil palm tree in a trash can.

Down the Sawyer Gallery’s iron sconced ramp in their glassed garden room were the acrylic, plexiglass, foil and X-ray photo assemblages of Lynn Lester Hershman. Her subjects are guns, violence, women, politics—the topical preoccupations of the day, collaged together with facelessness and coolness. Her people often have unusual plastic prosthetic parts, and there is no evidence of pristine nature in their environments. The work has a primitive cartoon quality, but I sense no sense of humor in these funnies; they are dreadfully serious.

In the commodious suite of the Triangle Gallery is a very perfectly executed set of acrylic spray gun paintings by Michael Diven. This series of more than a dozen paintings uses one brief profile as the motif. The profile is young but in other respects is undeveloped. It expresses no particular emotion and illustrates no act. The sex of the profile is indeterminate. The lips are slightly ajar as from wonder—or adenoids? In two of the several variations the profile is horizontal, as in sleep, with a band of camels slow-motion lurching through a half dozen repeat frames, the camels replaced by plodding elephants in the other. Targets, graphs and atmospheric or gaseous frames share space with the profile in some variants but the profile is the only element that obtains in all. In the first paintings that Diven painted in the series, the message was coldly graphic, the technique as impersonal as a diagram in a physics textbook, but as the serial process continued the mysterious nuance grew, the tonality became very muted though retaining the crispness of the edges. The variant that he painted after the Kent State incident has a small red dot in the corner of each repeat in the five profile frames. The dark presence of war is increasingly evident, and the obsession becomes clearer, emptier. The closely tuned grays and shades reverse negatives in the several conceivable ways, exploring with game-like thoroughness the next logical move or combination. As the practice of work continues the subtlety and craft grows; there is no relief from the statistical inevitability. These later paintings are very elegant though it seems almost inappropriate to mention the fact, like applauding the performance of a hymn. Here too, one should not expect to integrate the picture with the wallpaper, though it is very finished painting.

I had determined that I would not review group shows because the column would become hopelessly diffuse, but if a single artist in a group captured my fancy I would review him. Such a case can be made for the four pieces of kinetic sculpture by Bryan Rogers in chrome, glass and liquids in the group show at Hansen-Fuller Gallery’s business-like loft. Fluids of different consistencies are pumped, agitated, or moved from one end to the other by mechanically reversing the tilt of the glass container. This latter act made a slightly gelatinous blue liquid move up its tube like a liquid stairway, moving back to its place on top in upside-down waves.The four pieces were integrated into an automatic control which switched them on and off in sequence. Rogers was trained as a chemist and studied sculpture after taking his chemistry degree. Art is usually closer to magic than to science, but when science can be made to perform in a very axiomatic way the results can be quite magical.

I went to the new gallery in the black ghetto to see if that would make the picture closer to whole. It is in a storefront and its name is the Up Against The Wall Gallery. So far the name is the most impressive part. But then I went to the Galeria de la Raza, a cooperative gallery of Mexican and Spanish-American artists who feel that they are discriminated against by establishment galleries. Their gallery has a spacious, barn-like interior with a rude floor and lived-with furniture. The exhibition was of richly colored and textured paintings by Gustavo Rivera. Schooled in Mexico City and Monterey, Rivera’s painting seems firmly rooted in the modern French tradition with particular attention to the paint quality, which is both earthy and refined. His colors often run to the lavenders out of the Impressionist palette, though in concert with vivid greens and reds. It is strong painting, quite divorced from the tendencies that activate most artists in the US.

In the San Francisco Museum’s palatial hall are the new paintings of Nell Sinton, who has forsaken the found object and has returned to Abstract Expressionism. There is an occasional lapse into what is essentially Dadaism, for example The
Great EWS Handkerchief Hoaxe
which is part collage with embroideredinitials in the corner, not hanky sized initials but large embroidered initials to the scale of the painting; where are such things to be found? The paintings are quite feminine. Steam Beer is a very light-hearted painting with lavender-grays and beiges; in some of these there are hooligan faces that might annoy an interior decorator. It shouldn’t be considered surprising that Nell Sinton, who was born in 1910 and enjoyed a vital engagement with the Expressionist movement, should be painting like this; it is natural, but I wonder if the museum is using good judgment in making this show one of only three one-man shows by Bay Area artists which are scheduled for the whole year!

Has the Museum seceded from the local art world? Don’t they need the artists or want them any more? There is no reason why a city with the amount of ferment and experiment of this place, with the vast number of artists working in every vein of art, with some basis to the reputation for being the incubator of the avant-garde, should not have a Bay Area artist mounted in at least one of the Museum’s rooms every month of the year. Any provincial museum should want to engage in and give space to whatever vital activity their place affords, as well as importing shows and displaying its collection. This will be the centennial year of the San Francisco Art Institute, of which the Museum is a part, I would remind them. There w ill be a large four-museum show, but one picture each by vast groups of artists is less than the artists have a right to expect. Some of the nation’s most honored and respected artists have lived and worked here for long years and have had to go to another place to enjoy any recognition, to say nothing of success.

Knute Stiles