Archive for May, 2009

William Kentridge: Last Days in San Francisco

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contains Video Elements, Drawing, Film & Video, Fine & Decorative Arts, Installation, Liz Hager with tags , , , , , on May 29, 2009 by Liz Hager


Only two more viewing days remain before “William Kentridge: Five Themes” at SFMoMA moves on to its next venue.

It has taken me 6 weeks and 4 viewings of the show to feel as if I’ve even begun to appreciate this artist’s profound and wondrous imagination. It’s not that Kendridge’s work is hard to access; it’s that there is so very much to absorb. (The performances of The Magic Flute and Black Box, not to be missed under any circumstances, require 50 minutes alone.) More important, because Kentridge deals with non-trivial topics—tyranny, suffering, our notions of the heroic, seeing and perceiving the world, the destructiveness of modernity—it’s necessary to dive deeper into the work than one session permits.  Though the process of discovery takes time, ultimately reaching ever-deeper layers of meaning in this show has been supremely nourishing to the soul. This is art of the best kind; it has caused me to think about not only how the world is, but how it could be.

Kentridge’s exquisite drawings are ends in themselves, rather than means to an end in another medium.  Charcoal (the burnt stick so emblematic of Africa), black gouache and ink are his dominant tools. Black & white fits his subject matter well, and not just in terms of darkness and light, evil and hope. In their use, one sees an evocation of apartheid, a topic which has inhabited Kentridge’s artistic life for decades. Or the apposition of everything (black) with the reflection of everything (white), which speaks to the nature of perception, another Kentridge’s signature themes.

True, the drawings are exceptional works in their own right. But theater is embedded in Kentridge’s DNA, so it’s films and theatrical pieces that really make this exhibition sing. (Kentridge refers to his film as “drawings in four dimensions.”) Most of them are conceived as cells for his animated films or projections for his performed pieces.  Kentridge has no allegiance to the work; drawings are constantly erased and images re-invented. It’s a refreshing departure from the contemporary practice of holding every scribble sacred. (Picasso famously said: “Who am I to destroy what God’s gift has allowed me to create?”)

The emotional content of the installations covers broad ground. On the one hand, merriment is much in evidence (amidst angst) in the films of Kentridge at work that run in endless loops in the room designated “Artist in the Studio.” Papers fly through the air with the greatest of ease; creator melds seamlessly with his drawing; landscapes fall to the bottom of the page in heaps; the artist tries to leave his studio on a voyage to the moon. These films are simple (though not simplistic) and mesmerizing. We meditate on the joys and tribulations of making art.

On the other hand, Black Box is a dense and disturbing darkness. The artist has conjured up a multi-media interpretation of the German conquest and subjugation of present-day Namibia. Paired with The Magic Flute installation, Black Box is the dark side of the Enlightenment; it brings to life the 19th century Euro-centric (racist) view of non-Europeans as undeveloped in need of colonial oversight. It’s a view that hasn’t entirely disappeared from the world.

Elegant mechanized figures perform their lament to animation and music. If you have been through the rest of the exhibition before arriving at Black Box, many of the characters and images here will be reassuringly familiar. They are Kentridge’s icons, windows into his complex cosmos.

Though the subject matter is dark, Black Box is not all darkness. There’s a small measure of comfort in the hand-drawn animation; against the backdrop of anonymous history, the artist (an individual) is ever present.  Further, in its execution Black Box evokes what modern eyes have come to see in silent movies, a naiveté all but occluded by 20th c. technology—edited sound, special effects and computer animation.


William Kentridge, What Will Come (has already come), 2007,  steel table, cylindrical steel mirror, 35mm animated film transferred to video, 8:40 min, 41 1/4 x 48 x 48″ (courtesy Norton Museum of Art).

What Will Come (has already come) contains its own thematic darkness. Kentridge conceived it as a response to the Italian Fascist invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia), a conflict notable for the failure of the League of Nations to protect member state Ethiopia against aggression, the Italian’s illegal use of mustard gas, and the Ethiopians’ opposition despite the most primitive munitions (including spears). Though about a specific conflict, this piece recreates the horror of every war.

Animated drawings have been projected from the ceiling onto a circular disk. The first images emerge from drafted primordial soup. As the disk picks up speed, images fly around its core: birds morph into planes, figures explode only to be reconstituted in the next revolution, a gas mask floats above the ground like an elephant dirigible. The cyclical nature of the projection is reinforced by the title, and one is reminded of George Santayana’s oft-quoted phrase: “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

In an inventive twist, the drawings are anamorphic—that is, they appear in a conventional manner only when viewed through the mirrored cylinder in the middle of the disk. The anamorphic technique, which dates back to the 16th century and has been widely used in motion picture lenses, has long been an interest of Kentridge’s, playing as it does into his fascination with machines and our modes of seeing. The two image planes, conventional and distorted, make the viewing experience chaotic. That’s only fitting for this subject matter.

“William Kentridge: Five Themes” is the most exciting display of imagination in recent memory.  Do not delay, run to MoMA before Sunday’s close.

From San Francisco, “Five Themes” travels extensively:
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth—July 11-Sept 27, 2009
Norton Museum of Art (West Palm Beach)—Nov. 7, 2009-Jan.17, 2010
Museum of Modern Art (New York)—Feb.28-May 17, 2010
Jeu de Paume (Paris)—dates TBD
Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam)—dates TBD
Albertina (Vienna)—dates TBD
Israel Museum (Jerusalem)—dates TBD

Wider Connections

You Tube—William Kentridge videos

John Coleman—Art as it Really Is

Richard Lacayo —Artist William Kentridge: Man of Constant Sorrow

The Art of Anamorphosis

Kipling “Take Up the White Man’s Burden

On the Grid: Plain Weave, Crosswords and the Paintings of Agnes Martin

Posted in Christine Cariati, Contemporary Art, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Textiles with tags , on May 28, 2009 by Christine Cariati


Plain weave is the simplest of weave structures. Warp and weft alternately interlace, forming a tiny checkerboard pattern. Plain weave is elegant, strong and wears well. If unadorned with a surface pattern, there is no right or wrong side. In its simplest form, when the warp and weft are of equal weight, tension and spacing, all the threads are equally visible. It is a model of harmony and balance. It is also the underpinning of the more elaborate overshot weaves–plain weave is the grid underneath the floating pattern that holds the whole thing together. Plain weave is incredibly versatile–variations in yarn weight, fiber content and spin, spacing and tension create infinite textural possibilities. Vary the color in warp or weft and you have stripes, checks, plaids.  One of the most interesting possibilities of plain weave is called color-and-weave, in which various arrangements of color in warp and weft create intricate patterns–equally effective in black and white as in color.

Ann Sutton, Structure of Weaving (color-and-weave)

The designing of color-and-weave patterns is often done on that other elegant and deceptively modest substrate–graph paper:


A piece of empty graph paper is simplicity itself yet it provides a way to sort and work out a lot of very complex ideas. Like plain weave, it provides a jumping off point, gives us a stable, reliable background to build on.


Weaving charts have a lot in common with the crossword grid. Another backdrop, this time for words and associations, not pattern and color. A good crossword clue will set off a chain of memories, associations and retrieved scraps of information–as you fill in the answers, the grid changes and shifts, the answers form their own unique pattern.


Thinking about the ways we perceive, design and visualize patterns brings to mind the work of Agnes Martin, whose entire oeuvre since 1961 involved the magical intersection of horizontal and vertical lines. Large or small, these paintings have a monumental grace. There is an expansiveness to her work, a sense of completeness, stability.

Martin said: “my paintings have neither objects, nor space, nor time, not anything–no forms. They are light, lightness, about merging, about formlessness, breaking down form.” In her work, the patterns interlock–viewing one section, you see the whole. Her grids are anything but static. Martin’s canvases are always somewhat rectangular, so whatever grids they contain are thrown slightly off balance. Her grids and patterns can evoke textiles–stitching, quilting, pleating–and particularly weaving. Many years ago, at an exhibit of Martin’s work, I was standing in front of one of her large paintings, a luminous grid in soft blues and browns. I stepped back to see what happened when I moved a bit further away, and a man came and stood in front of me. To my extreme delight, he was wearing a wool sports jacket, woven in a subtle plaid in exactly the same colors as the painting–it seemed as though a piece of the painting had popped into another dimension. The man was loudly complaining to his companion that it was a painting about nothing, it was just a bunch of lines. He was oblivious to the magical connection between his jacket and the painting and, sadly, completely unable to see the serenity and power in the beautiful painting in front of him.

Agnes Martin, Starlight, 1963

Agnes Martin, Starlight, 1963

Recommended reading:
Agnes Martin (Dia Foundation)
Agnes Martin: Recent Paintings 2000

Agnes Martin by Barbara Haskell, Anna C. Chave & Rosalind Krauss
In Pursuit of Perfection: The Art of Agnes Martin, Maria Martinez and Florence Pierce by Timothy Robert Rodgers

Dark Day Picks

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Book Review, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Illustration, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , on May 25, 2009 by Liz Hager

On Mondays Venetian Red celebrates the day of the week when galleries and museums are closed. Every Monday we highlight a few current exhibitions, new installations, or art world tidbits. Get a jump on a week filled with art.

Gottfried Helnwein—Sleep 27

Modernism, 685 Market, SF—Gottfried Helnwein, The Murmur of the Innocents, through June 29.

San Francisco Center for the Book, 300 De Haro, SF—Once Upon a Book (illustrators Elisa Kleven, Remy Charlip, Maira Kalman, David Macaulay, Chris Raschka and Brian Selznick), through August 7

Greg Renfrow—Ivory Black

Toomey Tourell, 49 Geary St, SF—Gregg Renfrow, Atmosphere through May 30.

Bay Area FAV—George Rickey at the Main Library

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contains Video Elements, Liz Hager, Public Art, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 22, 2009 by Liz Hager


We’ve hunkered down into an indeterminately long recession. We’re tightening our belts, in the process shifting our discretionary dollars to less expensive entertainment options or forgoing some culture/entertainment items altogether.

Currently, most Bay Area art museums charge entrance fees in the double digits (the Oakland Museum is a notable exception). Not more than the climbing prices of movie tickets, to be sure, and still a deal, when you consider the amount of content that is available for the price.  And yet, with scores of art galleries closed or closing, the opportunities to consume art are shrinking. These are exactly the kind of times that ought to make art lovers appreciate San Francisco’s commitment to art in public spaces.

Venetian Red has covered some pieces in the “public domain,”  both permanent works (such as Michael Stutz’s Peplos Kore at SF Airport) and temporary installations (such as Patrick Dougherty’s Upper Crust resident in the Civic Center plaza until November). Today we initiate a more formal round up, periodically posting on the many of our Bay Area FAVs (aka Free Art Views).

George Rickey’s Double L Eccentric Gyratory sculpture (one of several versions he created) is located rather inauspiciously on the northwest corner of Larkin and Fulton at the edge of the Main Library’s footprint. Given the crowd of street habitués usually in residence on that corner, one might be forgiven for passing that point as quickly as possible, head down, etc. Still, we say, brave the crowd, pause and watch, Double L will make you forget (at least temporarily) its less beauteous surroundings.

One of two major American sculptors to make movement an integral part of his works (the other was Alexander Calder), Rickey produced kinetic sculptures as early as the 1950s and was the first to move his sculptures into outdoor environments. The stylistic influence of his early teachers Fernand Léger and Amédée Ozenfant on Rickey’s later sculptural work seems self-evident; Rickey was heavily  interested in the geometric minimalism practiced by the Constructivists (e.g. Malevich, Tatlin, Gabo, et al.). He wanted to make public art that could be appreciated by people who understood the beauty of machines, although his machines don’t have a work purpose.

Double L is executed in Rickey’s signature style—braised and polished stainless steel geometric forms, whose movement is facilitated by a system of pendulums, fulcrums, rotors, gyros and pivots. Propelled only by the action of gravity and wind (lots of that in SF), the two giant heavy “L”s twirl almost inconceivably in effortless synchronicity, appearing to come close to, but never once colliding. (Of course this adds a lot of drama to the experience of viewing.)  After a few minutes in front of this sculpture,  you will realize that the pair is engaged in an ancient human rite, the courtship ritual.  It’s hard to believe that two large beams of steel could generate such a profound and ethereal experience.

Wider Connections

My SA Entertainment—“George Rickey’s moving sculptures make a stir in McNay retrospective”

Flickr—McNay retrospective

George Rickey in Indianapolis

Pink Martini—La Soledad

Dark Day Picks

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contemporary Art, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Photography, Sculpture with tags , , , , , on May 18, 2009 by Liz Hager

On Mondays Venetian Red celebrates the day of the week when galleries and museums are closed. Every Monday we highlight a few current exhibitions, new installations, or art world tidbits. Get a jump on a week filled with art.

Ranjani Shettar SFMoMA8 of 8

SF MoMA roof garden—Ranjani Shettar, Me, no, not me, buy me, eat me, wear me, have me, me, no, not me, 2006-2007.

Michaëla Gallery, 49 Geary Street SF—In Camera (Taliaferro Jones, Douglas Freed, Josh Herman), through June 27.

Caldwell Snyder, 341 Sutter St, SF—Greg Miller, through May 31.

A Woman Rewrites History—the Venus of Hohle Fels

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , on May 14, 2009 by Liz Hager



The Venus of Hohle Fels. (Credit: Photo by H. Jensen; Copyright: Universität Tübingen)

Uncovered last fall in a cave in the Swabian province of Germany, the Venus of Hohle Fels has caused quite a stir in both the anthropology and art worlds since her official unveiling yesterday.  Made at least 35,000 years ago, she is the earliest known example of carved figurative art, predating her more famous cousin, the Venus of Willendorf, by some 10-15,000 years.

In unapologetic school-boy titillation style, some reporters succeeded in embuing a venerable and sacred ancient notion of fertility with debased modern-world associations. Egregiously, The Huffington Post headline screams out—Venus of Hohle Fels: PREHISTORIC PORN. Lest we be too hasty in our condemnation, however, let us note that even normally staid Nature captioned its picture of the figurine as “Prehistoric Pin-up.”

All the tittering generated by this depiction of a “traditional model” female (to steal a well-turned moniker from Mma Precious Ramotswe, owner of the  No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency) is in danger of overshadowing to the public the truly revolutionary nature of this find—that one tiny woman (she’s only about 2 1/2 inches long) has radically changed our views on the origins of not only Paleolithic, but figurative art.

Venus of Willendorf, stone figurine,
approximately 25,000 years old (courtesy Naturhistorische Museum, Vienna)

Given the strata in which she was found, scientists conclude this Venus was made in the earliest part of the Aurignacian period (for the Aurignac cave site at the foot of the Pyrenees where Paleolithic paintings artifacts were first discovered in 1860s). Often touted as the first “modern” humans, the Aurignacians were a clever people, whose development of a wide range of innovative tools guaranteed the survival of their genes and their culture. Relatively sophisticated tools allowed them to create the bold monumental paintings of Altamira/Lascaux , as well as tiny body ornamentation—pendants, bracelets, and talismans—found throughout the caves of France, Spain, and Germany.  The hook where her head should be makes this figurine a fertility amulet. But worshipped and worn by whom, woman or man or both?

Until the discover of the Venus of Hohle Fels,  female imagery was entirely unknown among the Swabian Aurignacian peoples. Animals and human/beast figures have predominated among the small caches of articles of adornment from this area, naturally leading anthropologists/archeologists to speculate that the Swabian Aurignacian culture was aggressive and male-oriented.

This Venus throws that notion onto its head. One hopes that the study of this relic will shed more light on the early cult of Magna Mater, Mother Earth, equally important as a force in human life.  We moderns have a lot to learn from this diminutive woman.

Photo: Courtesy The Martian Chronicles.

The Venus of Hohle Fels forms a center piece for a major exhibit Ice Age Art and Culture
September 18, 2009 – January 10, 2010.
Stuttgart, Germany

Connections Beyond

Venus of Dolní Věstonice

Venus of Brassempouy

Venus d’Aix

Ivar Lissner—Man, God, and Magic

Don’s Maps—Paleolithic figurines

Dark Day Picks

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contemporary Art, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , on May 11, 2009 by Liz Hager

On Mondays Venetian Red celebrates the day of the week when galleries and museums are closed. Every Monday we highlight a few current exhibitions, new installations, or art world tidbits. Get a jump on a week filled with art.

Scott Nichols Gallery, 49 Geary Street, SF—A Tribute to Don Worth (1924-2009), through May 30.

Bernd and Hilla Becher—Cooling Towers, 1983

Fraenkel Gallery, 49 Geary St., SF— Bernd & Hilla Becher: A Survey: 1972-2006, through July 3.

Robert Koch Gallery, 49 Geary, SF—Kenneth Josephson, through June 27.

%d bloggers like this: