This fall, the 34-year-old painter Laura Owens has taken her place alongside Chuck Close, Alex Katz and Wayne Thiebaud as one of the artists working with the blue-chip Crown Point Press in San Francisco. Collaborating with printers Catherine Brooks, Emily York and Dena Schuckit, Owens produced five prints in her two weeks at the press, including a depiction of a chicken spooked to find itself high on a tree branch (chickens can't fly). Capaciously textured with wet wash and dry line, the image is borrowed from a Japanese brocade in the Huis ten Bosch in the Hague -- the kind of cross-cultural borrowing that Owens has made her specialty.
Best is her print of a girly indigo horse cavorting on a swipe of rolling grey landscape, the air speckled with colored leaves and wind-blown specks. Owens has embraced the language of aquatint, all soft forms and fruity tropical colors. In the other four prints, Owens produces relatively complex patterns and spaces. Here she doesn't bother -- the horse is bold and bare; under her guidance, the wide blue expanse of its body simply breathes life.
Owens' new prints, done in editions of 40, are priced between $1,800 and $3,000. Also on view at Crown Point are works by British painter Peter Doig and New Yorker Mary Heilmann.
San Francisco Ab-Ex Frank Lobdell, a major Californian of a somewhat earlier generation, currently has new work on view at Hackett-Freedman Gallery on Sutter Street. Now 83, Lobdel moved to San Francisco after WWII and became part of the lively California Institute for the Arts crowd in the 40s, a group that included the high-falutin' Clyfford Still. The school's heyday was short-lived, but Lobdell has stuck to San Francisco through thick and thin, and locally is considered every bit as influential as Wayne Thiebaud and Richard Diebenkorn.
A purebred Abstract Expressionist, Lobdell believes art is a means of catharsis. Indeed, he has said that he "painted his way through" much of the apprehension and pain that he felt after the war, "unloading on the canvas." But if his work of the 40s and 50s is brooding and dark, his more recent painting is liberated from much of the gravity that defined his early career.
The bright and tight pictogrammatic abstractions that Lobdell is now known for -- the show at Hackett-Freedman features work made since 1990 -- are done with a confidence that strips away residual baggage. Lobdell's brightly hued arrays of looping shapes and symbols are like amusement-park dramas and comedies of shape and color. They are his bread and butter, the reason he paints seven days a week (and the explanation for the quarter-million-dollar prices his new works can command).
A more Minimalist branch of Ab-Ex is found at Patricia Sweetow Gallery on Geary Street, where the 68-year-old German artist Joachim Bandau presents a careful selection of monochromatic watercolors and drawings and geometric lead sculptures. In his works on paper, Bandow achieves a rich black surface from a meditative process of layering. The artist switched from graphite to watercolor after he developed acute Lateral Epicondylitis (tennis elbow) from all the physical labor that the drawings required. At once simple and specific, the watercolors educe an uncommonly placid depth.
Also on Geary is Brian Gross Fine Art, which is presenting a collection of political drawings by the celebrated political ceramist Robert Arneson (1930-92). Originally known for his witty "art-about-art" sculptures and drawings, Arneson became increasingly political after his memorial to assassinated San Francisco mayor George Moscone was rejected for being too racy. With unparalleled energy and irreverence, Arneson attacked the Cold War, parodying the arms race and its participants with a jagged sense of humor born of his own sense of humility.
By the time of the 1991 Gulf War, Arneson was fighting a personal battle with cancer, and his work crescendoed in the feverish Oily Bush of 1991. Easily one of Arneson's master works, this drawing depicts Bush senior as the Tar Baby, his head covered in oil, which drips off his face, around his eyes and into his big open-mouthed grin. The former president looks hungry and crazed, like a beast from a David Lynch film.
The work could be saying that Bush Sr. wants to feast on oil, or the artist could be imagining grabbing our leader by the hair and plunging his head into a barrel of crude -- an idea with some appeal today.
A few laughs
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is hosting the only U.S. stop of "Roy Lichtenstein: All about Art," a retrospective organized by the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark (and accompanied by a show at the John Berggruen Gallery). In retrospect, Lichtenstein looks like a man who took things easy. His attempts to lampoon high art with the comic-book language of ben-day dots is all so sincere. That's part of the problem with Lichtenstein: his work is supposedly such a clever joke, but he's so damn humorless.
Now Erwin Wurm, there's a gentleman who is funny. With a large exhibition on view at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and a show at Jack Hanley Gallery -- Wurm's fourth there in the last 15 years -- even the densest observer should be able to understand the value of balancing markers on one's shoes, or the complex humor of a nun with her fingers inserted into a dinner roll.
Wurm's best work partakes of an impalpable humor, which coats the layers of resonance in the mature work like a gossamer skin. Fat Car, for instance, is a slick plastic miniature car that has gotten a bit of the bloat. Fat House is a full-sized walk-in cottage, also possessed by a peculiarly suburban swelling. Wurm's work is heartfelt, a little dirty and reflective, all at once.
Also at Hanley are several wall drawings and a group of small works on paper by Xylor Jane.From a distance, they look like highly organized stipple drawings of abstracted patterns based in nature, i.e., water or leaves or windblown sand. Up close they loosen up; more of the hand shows, and the grid on which the dots are organized is obvious.
Jane and several other local artists participated in a recent auction to benefit Adobe Books, the city's premier alternative space. The auction included many of the Mission's best: Tauba Auerbach, Simon Evans, Robert Gutierrez, Cliff Hengst, Sean McFarland, Keegan McHargue, Shawn O'Dell, Amy Rathbone, Margaret Tadesco. High sellers were Evans for $1,200 and O'Dell for $550 -- impressive sums, considering most of the bidders arrived on their bicycles.