After decades of pretty colors and Bay Area concepts, San Francisco art got gritty several years ago with the folksy, do-it-yourself "Street Art" movement, whose best-known artists are Barry McGee, Chris Johanson and the late Margaret Kilgallen. Since then, the movement has gained its share of international momentum. Right now, in fact, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA)is hosting "Beautiful Losers: Contemporary Art and Street Culture," a show that mixes artworks with graffiti, skating and collectibles like stickers, skateboards and T-shirts.
Located across the street from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the YBCA is a heavyweight nonprofit that rarely shows losers, beautiful or otherwise. With maybe two dozen artists -- including the aforementioned plus Brian Donnelly (KAWS), Phil Frost, Mark Gonzales, Spike Jonze, Harmony Korine, Ryan McGinness and Steve Powers (ESPO) -- the show seems almost star-studded. Several of the artists have been in the Whitney Biennial, and Jonze, otherwise known as Mr. Sofia Coppola, is Us Magazine material. To quote Chester A. Riley from TVs early sitcom The Life of Riley, "What a revoltin development this is!"
You cant knock the shows clubhouse atmosphere, and theres some pleasing art, particularly Johansons video work. But for a better pulse I direct your attention elsewhere.
Over at the Luggage Store/509 Cultural Center, for instance, where many Beautiful Losers cut their teeth, is "A Spoonful of Sugar," a kind of politico-military funhouse put together by artist Jackie Sumell. It offers a caustic take on the wreckage were managing around the world. The show was a natural fit for Mike Arcega, whose painstaking dedication to just this sort of humor is evident in the of hundreds of handmade balsawood Hotwheels tanks spewing from a hole in the floor like roaches. The man takes his jokes seriously; he was sleeping on the floor of his studio for weeks for these things.
Another highlight was a performance by Linda Ford and Pam Martin. The two blonde bombshells stood around looking cocky in police uniforms, periodically cornering gallery visitors behind their handheld security cages. A live feed from video cameras in the girls helmets was shown on two monitors on a pedestal. It was funny and sexy and an exceptional poke at surveillance. The show also included works by Packard Jennings, Steve Lambert, Kristin Lucas, Mads Lynnerup and Julia Page.
A slightly older crowd gathered the same night at New Langton Arts for Kota Ezawa and Michele OMarahs show "Version." Ezawa, who had a much-praised work in a spring show at Haines Gallery on Geary Street, contributed a three-channel projection entitled Lennon, Sontag, Beuys. Three short clips (none over two minutes long) show the title characters at press conferences. The images are so clear and somehow lush, the public speech so rhythmic, that we are lulled into a trance. Its a masterful work that distills the recent past of pop culture and procures a measured soulfulness.
OMarahs video lies on the other end of the gallery, playing on three monitors. She has stage-managed reenactments of some 1970s films with amateur actors, and she has an eye for people with that certain glow -- in any case, theyre a pleasure to watch, especially when the real person inside the character shows through. Around the room are bits of prop from the film, notably a felt pillow bright with blood that characters rest their heads on time and again as they pretend to die violently.
Art video with roots in film is also of interest to the Swiss-born New Yorker Christoph Draeger, who is having a show up at Catherine Clark Gallery. Draeger has taken two versions of Psycho, Hitchcocks 1960 original and Gus Van Sants 1998 shot-for-shot remake, and superimposed them. A clever idea, the ghostly effects begin to telescope time if one watches long enough. Still, compared to the fresh and hopeful work of Exawa and OMarah, Draeger is all stringent deconstruction, a little familiar.
Also featured at Clark is an installation by Reuben Lorch-Miller called The Forget Room, a medium-sized black room adorned with Victorian wainscotting and moldings. The chamber is lit only by the words "Forget it," spelled out in white neon in gothic typeface. Lorch-Miller describes the text as "a cynical command, a dismissive response, and. . . a guide to transcendence." Writer Paul Auster critically defined cynicism as our epochs answer to Victorian sentimentality. My head is still spinning -- good work, Reuben!
Down the street, Heather Marx Gallery is showing paintings by Paul Mullins. As a fellow Appalachian in California, I couldnt help but feel a touch of envy. Here I am, failing time and again to work the Southern charm angle, and this guy trumps me with a smart body of romantic paintings. "Peckerwood Baroque" is what he jokingly terms his cotton candy clouds of barnyard animals and iconography of muscle cars and cowboy hats. Pastel masculinity, a hilarious idea. References abound, and I pick Constable meets Boucher.
Later that night another farm boy, Christian musician and artist Daniel Smith, performed as Brother Danielson, a musical phenom, alongside local band Deerhoof, with whom he is currently recording. Art fans might recognize him from his participation in Harrell Fletchers collaborative work in the 2004 Whitney Biennial.
While were on the subject of the Whitney, former museum staffer turned San Francisco dealer Chris Perez is showing The War of the Roses, new work by Alameda based artist Ben Peterson. Perez worked closely with former Whitney curator Larry Rinder for many years before launching his gallery Ratio 3 in his Williamsburg apartment, which he later moved back to California.
Perez is well served by his New York connections. At the sacrifice of a living room, he does a brisk business representing Jose Alvarez, Rachel Carns, Michael Velliquette and Peterson. He also handles Ryan McGinley for the West Coast.
Petersons show here is outstanding. The 27-year-old CCA grad has developed a deadpan architectural drawing style that has matured deeply both technically and conceptually. Of the four large works in the show, my favorite is Connected (2004), a spacious, skeletal rendering of a housing project in development, or is that demolition? The closer you look the harder it is to decipher what stage of life the building is in.
The components are all idealized -- perfect 2x4s, perfect sod, perfect roofing tiles, perfect sandbags -- so they offer no clues. As one turns to the pragmatics of construction to piece it together, things really get wacky. The planes become nonsense, the elements dont relate. Peterson has invented his own geometry but made it look real. The piece effectively speaks about perception, about the minds necessity to simplify and catalogue information; it exploits our hardwired assumptions and literally defies both time and space. Trippy.
Another neat show is up at The Lab Gallery on 16th Street, where the results are in on Xylor Jane and Jeff Kaos month-long residency -- a sparkling thing called "Blue Max." This was an opening that felt good -- bright colors, cool music, sharp painting. Jane, who splits her time between San Francisco and Brooklyn, uses simple mathematic algorithms to pattern her abstract paintings, but the real engine is an old- fashioned artists magic touch. Her paintings are torrential outpourings of sensibility in the classic mode of American art from the first half of the 20th century; shes Cy Twombly channeled through a Commodore 64.
Kao is similarly blessed, and hes got brains to boot. At The Lab hes continuing his exploration of macho glamour with paintings derived from WWI German Air Force camouflage. Kao also had a couple of cardboard sculptures from a continuing series involving something called Tata the Puppet, a shell-shocked WWI veteran. See www.jeffkao.com for more about that.
After this weeklong flush of youthful exuberance I decided I could use a little perspective, something in a flavor over 40. So I peeked in at Sol LeWitt at the Fraenkel Gallery -- excellence came as no surprise -- and headed to the opening of "Uli Universum" at Ampersand International Arts, down on Tennessee Street in the Dogpatch district. The show is a mini-retrospective of Uli Gassmann, an aged German living in Paris with close ties to San Francisco.
The show catalogues Gassmanns diverse efforts, which include a notably original career as an art director in European dance and proposals for large architectural projects in Berlin. Also on display are the artists photos and drawings dating to when he was seven years old.
A special treat was the appearance Gassmanns friend, David Ireland. The venerable NorCal Conceptualist has recently had his own large retrospective at the Oakland Museum of California. Everyone was well dressed at Gassmans lively party, and Ireland was escorted by upwards of four dazzling women in eveningwear. At the end of the event I saw him -- the man I revered in college for throwing 20 pounds of wet concrete from hand to hand for eight hours -- with the ladies again, being shepherded down the stairs, installed into a substantial, gently humming German car and driven off into the crisp night.