The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was built to lure avant-garde headliners to our fine city, and the plan has been a success, at least judging by the current assortment of shows at the museum -- surveys of work by the Icelandic weather artist Olafur Eliasson, the Scottish conceptualist Douglas Gordon and the Canadian photographer Jeff Wall. No question, this fall the SFMoMA has the right stuff.
Eliasson’s first big exhibition in the United States, dubbed "Take Your Time: Olafur Eliasson," Sept. 8, 2007-Feb. 24, 2008, begins on the catwalk leading to the fifth floor galleries. One of the most intimidating museum entryways ever, the open-grilled walkway is suspended five stories above the granite lobby floor. Across the bridge and through a liminal archway of kaleidoscopic glass, Eliasson has installed an exhibition that flows more like an amusement park than a museum. Wall texts are kept to a minimum, and instead patrons are given maps to navigate through the show, which includes several immersive environments -- including the all-yellow Room for One Color (1997) and the new One-way Color Tunnel (2007), a passageway of prism-like forms at the blue-violet end of the spectrum.
Better than any artist before him, Eliasson has been able to evoke a sense of perceptual awe, passably sublime experiences framed not by nature but by large-scale installations made of artificial and industrial materials. As visitors to "Take Your Time" navigate between the galleries, they collect simulated experiences much like visitors taking in rides at Disneyland. On occasion Eliasson’s experiments in phenomenology seem truly uncanny, though at other times they become perceptual games that rely on a continual suspension of disbelief in order to maintain the sense of wonder.
Exhibition curator Madeleine Grynsztejn has framed the installations with Eliasson’s photographic works, including surveys of the Icelandic countryside presented in grids, reminiscent both of scientific study and the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher. Methodical and encyclopedic, photo series like "The Aerial River Series" (2000) colonize the natural landscape for the art market. Their dry, analytic perspective is in distinct contrast to the emotive intimacy of the installations.
The Douglas Gordon exhibition, titled "Pretty Much Every Film and Video Work from about 1992 until Now," Oct. 27, 2007-Feb. 24, 2008, feels like a control center or command room for popular media. With his signature insouciant matter-of-factness, the New York-based Scottish artist considers the show a single installation, subtitled To be seen on monitors, some with headphones, others run silently, and all simultaneously. The piece fills a darkened room with scores of monitors playing almost 50 individual titles in all, ranging from the acclaimed 24 Hour Psycho to formative early works such as B Movie.
The dense cluster of videos makes it nearly impossible to focus on any one work, as adjoining images constantly tempt your attention, challenging and compounding other images into complex webs of thinking. Appropriated Hollywood cinematics take on a macabre aura as they parallel Gordon’s flirtations with the process of death. Dead Right and Left Dead (both 1998) document durational performances in which Gordon bound tourniquets on his own appendages in visceral close ups. Gordon’s Fuzzy Logic (1995) focuses on the mortal spasms of a dying fly in excruciating detail.
The information-overload approach is a good one, providing a richness of experience that is certainly missing when one has to sit through hours and hours of individual artworks. In Gordon’s cavalcade of video, the works are both lonely and unified in a gestalt that is definitely more than the sum of its parts.
Currently on view at Ratio 3 is a video projection by Takeshi Murata, Oct. 19-Nov. 30, 2007, an artist who had his first solo show at the gallery last year. Murata aptly classifies his semi-abstract vids, in which images slip in and out of viscous oozing color, as "Videoslimes." The new work, Escape Spirit Videoslime, is quite something, beginning with deep primal hues and manipulated jungle sounds and tracing a kind of evolutionary path as images of simians emerge from and dissolve into flowing blocks of psychedelic color, all set to a soundtrack of pulsing ambient music. There’s even a pensive ape, a post-jungle thinker. Framed by the gallery architecture, Escape Spirit Videoslime is an immersive, trance-inducing pleasure. The vid is $8,000, and produced in an edition of eight.
Just down the street at Jack Hanley, the California-based artist Will Rogan’s "A Memory of Shadows and Stone," Oct. 4-Nov. 3, 2007, investigated the metaphor of the magician as an interlocutor in our world. Using both literal and figurative erasure, Rogan explores the shadows and residue left behind by actions ranging from a card trick to the atomic explosion at Hiroshima. In the "Slacker (MUM)" series, for instance, Rogan took the images of magic shows in Magic Unity Might (MUM) magazine and erased the magicians, leaving white silhouettes mysteriously surrounded by the results of their conjuring.
Rogan’s own sleight-of-hand is not invisible; in nearly every work, the image plane is somehow marked or marred, with water droplets on the lens or torn paper replacing sections of prints, as in a work titled After, a rephotographed image of a disastrously bombed cityscape. These interventions highlight the fallibility of representations, providing evidence of their creation at the hands of the artist (or magician). Photos range in price from $1,300 to $1,750.
For last month’s "Albedo," Sept. 29-Oct. 26, 2007, a group show considering global warming, the Eleanor Harwood Gallery invited a diverse group of artists to respond to the looming crisis. While some artists simply presented landscapes -- a rather lazy take on the issue -- several others offered insight into what is arguably one of the more challenging political, economic and environmental issues of this century. Tracy Timman’s Charms to Ward off Global Warming ($350) binds various knobs and thermostats to a wire charm reminiscent of bones on a shaman’s fetish. The necklace is presented in a vitrine, as if it were to be studied as anthropological evidence of a culture past.
In what appears to be an insidious analysis of the world around us, Liz Walsh’s Experiment presents three acrylic tanks of water. One is filled from the tap, one from the San Francisco Bay and the third from the Pacific Ocean. The two tanks filled from the natural sources are brackish and cloudy, but teem with life as micro flora and fauna thrive under the heat lamps in mini-ecosystems. The tap water, meanwhile, is crystal clear and inviting to drink, but nonetheless is creepily void of the dynamism of the other samples.
At the other end of the Mission District at Queens Nails Annex, a space founded in 2004 in a former beauty parlor (keeping the existing name), is Tony Labat’s "Bulk" installation, Oct. 9-Dec. 1, 2007. Purporting to be a site-specific facility for the promotion of social dialogue and community involvement, "Bulk" frames the social activities of people in the gallery as the actual artwork under consideration. What this means in human terms is a speakeasy, complete with bartenders and cocktails, that hosts typical events like poker nights and talent shows.
The gallery hours have been conveniently changed -- it’s now open from 6 pm till midnight -- and the walls decorated with texts from spam email, such as "You can get a bigger erect member," "Viagra no dr visit needed," "Alexis wants you to see her new toy," and "Thanks, we are accepting your refinancing debt request." This odd decoration, strangely enough, marks the gallery as a place where real connection can thrive amid the morass of meaningless communication that characterizes contemporary life.
Labat has been doing this sort of thing since the 1970s, of course, and now heads the San Francisco Art Institute’s "new genres" department. Sadly, framing nightclub activities as gallery fare adds little to their meaning or enjoyment. The idea that the art world runs on networking and inebriation is neither new nor revelatory. "Bulk" is best experienced as only a party -- though admittedly a lively one thrown by a local hero.
Finally, Nathan Redwood’s recent exhibition of new works, Oct. 19-Nov. 21, 2007, at Electric Works, the San Francisco space opened in the Buzzell Building by Trillium Press last spring, was an exultant milestone for the Los Angeles-based painter. His large paintings feature landscapes that contort like pulsating cartoons. Wooden structures struggle to stay grounded as their planks drift into cloudy skies as if levitated by invisible tornadoes. Hills and clouds surge into the sky yet are intertwined by fibers that feel like the landscapes’ own body hair. These works -- done with deft, textured brushstrokes woven into an impeccable surface -- are both lighthearted and refined. The paintings sell for as much as $11,000.
BRIAN ANDREWS is an artist and writer living in San Francisco.