San Francisco

“Introductions 75”

San Francisco Art Dealers Association

The San Francisco Art Dealers Association is about as together as you can get without building a Drop City geodesic dome from old Oldsmobiles and starting a tomato patch together. None of that New York subterranean, velvet-knife internecine guerilla warfare, and none of that L A sitting languidly around the pool in the dog-days smog pissing and moaning about howcum somebody else doesn’t do something. Those guys band together like Conestoga wagons around the ol’ press release machine, and run a cooperative rain dance against the doldrums of July, called “Introductions 75” (a title only slightly less hokey than “Peppermint West,” a decade ago). This is the second edition of a fête giving “many young artists the opportunity to show in the seventeen member galleries of the SFDA,” and it was kicked off by a benefit bash for the San Francisco Art Institute at which they raffled off “two fabulous dinners at Trader Vic’s, a weekend for two at Pajaro Dunes (south of Santa Cruz), and a day’s session for two at Esalen in San Francisco.” I suppose the touchy-feely gives you the inner calm to stomach something like the Artists Soapbox Derby, a previous Fun Thing. It’s a little thick for my taste, but it does get some nice art out under the fluorescents, and that’s all that counts. (Last year I made a chart about almost all the stuff in “Introductions 74,” largely misunderstood, I gather, as an attempt to belittle the whole operation. It wasn’t. It just seemed that the benevolent “everybodyness” of “Introductions” begged a response in kind; and the estimated chances of success expressed in crass percentiles will appear in retrospect to have been, if anything, a mite generous.)

Again there are about forty artists on view and most of the produce falls limply into the predictable slots: “tough” late color-field painting edging into Brice Marden, ritualistic feather-string Stinson Beach enlightenment talismans, late Pop-Funk hot from the kiln, artereosclerosized realism, and mannerly hard-core post-Minimalist formalism. I found the last batch most interesting, and the best show (at Weinberg), disqualified because the artists (Jared Bark and Judy Rifka) are New Yorkers (Boy, are they New Yorkers!). Also, the first “Introductions” had a peculiar impact; the raucous, graduate-student naivete and liveliness of ’74 sounded the alarm: “You know it’s comin’ again next summer now, so get your shit together.” Thus the new version ’is suffused with an expected professionalism which will probably up the sales a little, but which has sapped the vitality to some extent. (Why is it you can really do something only once?) The danger is that by ’76, “Introductions” will have mellowed into part of a topographyless eleven-month exhibition calendar.

Nevertheless, it’s interesting. John Berggruen has Robert Colescott and Leslie Lerner. Lerner puts a little magic back into realism with quietly enigmatic cropped images of, for instance, the studio floor with paint splotches or the trunk of a figure whose waist is wrapped with masking tape. On second look, however, the images disintegrate somewhat, and the angles/croppings start to look less like visual discoveries (“. . . have you ever noticed the way two sheets of paper on the floor cover over some spots and arrange them . . . ?”) and more like in-house mannerisms. I think the problem is hedging: a little more risky painterliness with the tinned liquid, and a little less worry about looking figuratively “right” would do it. Colescott makes the ensemble exhibition a nice entity, but suffers from a similar middle-of-the-roadness: not slick enough handling for really good ribald illustration, and not enough painterly guttiness for any visceral substance. He takes cutely “unthinkable” funny premises—a pubescent girl’s thrill over her budding bubs, the van Eyck wedding portrait redone as miscegenation, a dutiful Dutch boy with his finger in the dike angrily eyeing another who’s petting a girl and has his finger . . . well, someplace else, and George Washington Carver crossing the Delaware with a boatload of racist stereotypes including a shoeshine boy, a minstrel, and a mammy giving head to the navigator. Colescott is black and purports (I assume) to be doing a dusky Lenny Bruce number—“confronting” us with our politely suppressed red-neckisms and dirty-old-man wet dreams so we can “learn to laugh at ourselves” and become better liberals for it. He gets a couple of laughs which would be funnier with more complicated complicated use of inscriptions and wrier painting.

Hansen-Fuller generously overdoes it and divides the space among four artists. Carol Eckman is, for my money, the best, the best in the whole “Introductions,” and pretty good in any company. She makes corrugated board sculptures in an AE sensibility with the same aggressiveness with which Richard Serra chews up steel plate. The most successful of these are the blockier, juke-box types; she’s weaker doing more linear (small arms of cardboard) and more decorated work (the Serra-esque plate markings become out-of-place Diebenkorn scaffolding, nice in an oil painting, but dross on a sculpture). It’s hard to pinpoint the appeal; her stuff just has punch to it.

Witt Ingram is almost there, and I appreciate his collages—doing exactly what you’re always told not to do with the medium (which happens to be what comes most naturally to it): taking the unrepresentational “torn” collage mode which always wants to look like something (in this case a seacoast) and bringing out an allusion by combining it with cut-out associative figurative material. They’re hard to look at, flip-flopping between formalist collage and the nitty-gritty prime Surrealist element, and they succumb to no pictorial clichés. His sculpture is another matter, taking the wire, bead, cantilever, and float convention of almost-post-formalism to the arbitrarily compositional extremes of Bay Area funk (’cuz what’s “composition” when you’re manifesting dreams?). Nice-looking in an affable way (I have a -hunch the artist hopes they’re more “difficult” than that), they’ve nevertheless contracted the number one killer among young artists’ diseases: overarticulation.

The other two artists are Bob Brown and Rudy Serra. Brown is a photographer stepping into the general “art” arena without hiding behind a category (unlike all those photographers and craftspeople who whine because their work is segregated from “art” as a whole, while steadfastly clinging to their respective, protective milieux). He makes actual-size photographs of various rectangular omnipresences like rubber mats, ventilation ducts, areas of glass brick, and pushpins them to the wall. The real-unreal pun comes off weakly because, perhaps, Brown bows too much in the direction of objects for a gallery wall—pieces so hiply “straight” they bend. Suffice to say that in order for Serra—an intense, talented artist—to throw off the yoke of his better-known brother, he’s going to have to throw off the yoke of his better-known brother. Especially in the drawings.

Like last year, William Sawyer mounts the strongest show. Richard Feese, James Ford and Robert Hernandez are all formidable (in part), and the staging is, if somewhat cluttered, energetic. Ford does small fieldlike works—singular backgrounds torn and repositioned, or taped, or cut and stitched, or (on dark grounds) erased to a glowing bruise. At times the work is a little sweet (the tearing,in particular, is Leon Polk Smith without the élan), and the titles—something about “ritual scarification” and similar ominous twaddle—attempt to alibi the obvious formalism (which Ford handles in a manner requiring absolutely no apology); but he gets a floating, lightly Surrealist poesy into it and, for intimate works, that’s enough. Hernandez is, for me, the standout in the group: corrugated board pieces dealing with (in part) silhouettes of isometric boxes in negative, either “missing” from the rough-edged, lead-foiled relief, or indicated (in part) by tape on the wall. True, the work drifts at cross-purposes—the “idea” of those buoyant gestalts vs. the delectable configuration/surfaces of the peeled and coated cardboard. It’s another case of overarticulation. And, since it looks a lot like a guy named Renfrow from last year, you could deduce that Sawyer has a penchant for materials-type sculpture with a flavor somewhere between real knockdown destruction and one of those Mill Valley redwood hideaways. They’re nice, though.

The most arresting single work belongs to Feese: a stack of horizontal layers of latticing, separated by ribs, through which, the silent legend goes, “something” has fallen like the plummeting strongbox from the office upstairs. A companion piece gives you the meteorite: a finely crafted wooden box which contrasts nicely with the scruffiness of the lattice. God knows why Feese couldn’t keep from including pieces like Suitcase No. 2, one of those tightly packed, quasi-memorabilia boxes looking like the most retardataire European assemblage or a decoration in a Ghirardelli Square fin de siècle tavern; they’re miles behind his newer stuff. More overarticulation, this time curatorial.

All in all, “Introductions” is a good thing: it brings in the crowds like no other show, produces an acceptable ratio (one in a hundred would be better than par) of “discoveries,” livens up the summer, gives San Francisco center stage again (the SFDA has even gone so communally far as to pitch in for a jointly sponsored space, “80 Langton,” for tougher-to-market video and performance). There are another thirty artists present but to cover ’em would require . . . well, a chart.

Peter Plagens