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by Brian Andrews
It was all about politics in San Francisco galleries this winter. The presidential election, climate change, globalization and more were subjects of artworks in university and commercial spaces across the city. At the Walter and McBean Galleries of the San Francisco Art Institute, for instance, an exhibition by the Danish artist Jens Haaning (b. 1965), titled "United States of America and Other Stories," looked into the points of contact between the personal and the political via dramatic yet simple conceptual art works.

Organized by the peripatetic curator Hou Hanru, who most recently oversaw the Istanbul Biennial -- he was brought to the school to help internationalize its program and put it on the global art map, so to speak -- the show consists of five works sparsely spread in the cavernous galleries. The main space is occupied by a single work, United States of America, consisting only of the words of its title printed large in black block type across the wall of the oblong room.

Viewers are dwarfed by the text, forced to look up at its immensity, which radiates a sense of political omnipotence. Yet the work itself has no physical presence, leaving the gallery empty and essentially devoid of any tangible physical effect upon the world. Haaning’s presentation, then, highlights the friction between an abstract political idea and the concrete realities of the lived world.

A second gallery held a single small work in a simple white frame, which despite its modest size radiated real power. American Passport, Valid until 29.7.2012 is simply that, a U.S. passport unaltered in any way by the artist except to present it as a readymade. As a key to the privileges of citizenship, its value seems beyond esthetics, fashion or art history. Art typically occupies a zone of symbolic and imaginary meaning, but Haaning’s readymade ups the ante considerably, by manifesting the very real cultural and economic power of the United States. American Passport is one of the most transgressive artworks I’ve seen in years.

Abject Art superstar Paul McCarthy has installed the first half of "Low Life Slow Life," Feb. 7-Apr. 12, 2008, at the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood (part two is due next year). Interestingly, the show features McCarthy’s own works alongside art that influenced him, focusing on his output as a student and emerging artist in the late ‘50s and ‘60s. As a result, the exhibition serves as a textbook on the development of conceptual practice on the West Cost, including work by Allan Kaprow, Bruce Nauman, Yoko Ono and other seminal figures.

One notable example is the 1953 Peace Flag by Wally Hedrick (1938-2003), a small, folkishly done image of the American flag overlaid with the word "peace" in flowing black script. The painting is a precursor of dozens of "peace flags" since, not least the rainbow "pace" banners that sprouted all over Europe after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. A veteran of the Korean War and a life-long pacifist (who was included in Dorothy Miller’s famous "Sixteen Americans" show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955), Hedrick made his original flag painting not during any of the innumerable conflicts of the American imperium but at the end of the Korean War.

Nearby are two large figurative paintings from 1968 by the veteran East Bay painter Mike Henderson, depicting police brutality and political repression with animalistic intensity. The paintings feel contemporary and relevant, despite being over 40 years old, revealing the cyclical nature of political protest.

Nicholas Graham, the founder of the Joe Boxer underwear empire and a widely recognized marketing guru, has moved on to become a painter, among other things, and under the name of Nick Graham has just had his first exhibition at Ampersand International Arts in the city’s Dogpatch neighborhood. In "Popoganda: Images from the Early 21st Century of New China," Graham appropriates the visual motifs of Maoist Chinese political propaganda and mixes them up with icons of 21st-century global capitalism. Under his hand, everyone from Angelina Jolie and Rachel Ray to George W. and Steve Jobs don the colorfully idealized vestments of the Cultural Revolution.  

In Untitled (Gore), a uniformed Al Gore looms over a wintery landscape, saluting a column of Hummers traversing a frozen landscape. Turning the tables on one of our best known political satirists, Stephen Colbert, Graham depicts him as a smiling Chinese girl sitting at the feet of a skull-capped Bill Clinton. The art world hardly escapes this critique: Andy Warhol leads a parade for the people’s navy, carrying a child-sized Damien Hirst in his arms.

At his opening, Graham, whose current activities can be viewed at, happily distributed underwear ornamented with a blue prize ribbon to all comers. Somehow, the gesture underscored the interdependence of the Chinese and U.S. economies, an irony in this case, in that China mass produces American branding.

Also at Ampersand -- typically the gallery hosts two solo shows at a time -- was "Something Wicked" by the Los Angeles artist Albert Reyes. The walls were filled with hundreds of drawings, prints and photographs, all made on the inside covers of hardcover books, which had been detached and installed in grand overlapping arches. The images form a diary of Reyes’ life, depicting the L.A. hipster social scene and larger political climate of the city.

In 2006, Reyes made something of a splash with his "spit art," in which he would fill his mouth with water, kneel down on the city sidewalk and "spit-draw" large-scale cartoon-type images right on the asphalt. The choreography of this "action drawing" is impressive in itself, though it was doubtless its odd-ball entertainment value that got him profiled in the New York Times and invited onto Jimmy Kimmel Live. Reyes performance has become a favorite on YouTube, with nearly 2,000,000 views.

Reyes has a distinctive, graphic drawing style, and in his Ampersand show, viewers can see the way that macro-politics and culture impact the microcosm of the artist’s life. Materialism, corruption and vapid celebrity culture infect works that seem to begin with little more than an earnest desire to draw. A drawing of a polar bear and her cub on a tiny iceberg is captioned, "Don’t worry son all the humans will burn in hell," linking natural perils with the hubris of man -- more intimately, perhaps, than in Graham’s grandiose icons in the next room.

At Catharine Clark Gallery, which has recently moved to a new space on Minna Alley next to the San Francisco MOMA, the San Francisco artist Packard Jennings (b. 1970) unveiled his personal brand of political dissent via a series of animations and posters, many of which encourage viewers to participate in their own little social interventions. In the center of the gallery was a computer workstation and assorted graphic materials (mat boards, razor blades, etc.), that allowed visitors to make their own advertising circulars, say, that could be inserted in brochures for Wal-Mart and other chain stores.

Jennings also does a little "reverse shoplifting" (a prank involving putting fake products on store shelves, popularized by the Barbie Liberation Organization) with his Anarchist Action Figure, a doll that comes complete with gas mask, bolt cutters and zippo lighter, all in splashy packaging. A video shows Jennings at a chain-store checkout, attempting to purchase the item like ordinary merchandise. His critique of global capitalism is lost on the cashier, who struggles to ring up an item without a barcode. The work is available at the gallery, however, for the fine-art price of $2,800.  

Jennings is known for his graphics in the style of airplane safety placards, and his show at Clark includes posters made in collaboration with Steve Lambert that reimagine San Francisco with all its famous landmarks transformed into a utopia. These works push progressive visions to the point of absurdity. Candlestick Park, for instance, is converted into an organic farm, while karate classes and cocktail lounges occupy BART train cars. The entire city becomes a wildlife refuge for zoo animals.

These works -- archival pigment prints priced at $750 each, in an edition of 12 plus two artist’s proofs -- were originally displayed in kiosks on Market Street as part of a San Francisco Arts Commission project. The question remains: Does Jennings’ work provide any incitement to actual social change, or does it merely offer escapism and fantasy in the socially normative form of consumable contemporary art?

Minneapolis-based photographer Paul Shambroom (b. 1955) made a splash in the 1997 Whitney Biennial with hard-hitting color photographs of nuclear weapons installations, and has made the notion of "power" central to his work ever since. The Stephan Wirtz Gallery exhibited a series of lush images from Shambroom’s "Security" series, showing workers posing in hazmat suits and other military and safety gear, as well as scenes from exercises in disaster preparedness.

Printed on canvas and paper in editions of eight, the figures exist in an uncertain space between fashion photography, anthropological diorama and a Halliburton trade catalogue. Both surreal and mundane, Shambroom’s images betray a theatricality of homeland security as an exotic ideal somehow disconnected with the mundane grit of the work required to maintain true safety. And, of course, such protective technology can’t help but appear paranoid and sexually fetishized as well.

Speaking of disaster, a two-person exhibition of photographs by Debbie Fleming Caffery (b. 1948) and Larry Schwarm (b. 1944) at Robert Koch Gallery in the gallery building at 49 Geary Street documented the disasters of hurricane Katrina and the lesser-known tornado in Greensberg, Kan. Caffery’s images pull our gaze beyond the numbing news images of Katrina, to an aftermath where crocs lie face up in yards caked with a three-inch-thick carapace of cracked dried mud.

Schwarm’s photos of tornado devastation get their power from the sense of shock that comes with the realization that disaster strikes suddenly out of the blue. In several photographs, the walls of a typical home are cleaved away and directly face the surrounding land, which feels inappropriately intimate. The result looks as if Gordon Matta-Clark and Mother Nature had a drunken brawl, leaving the privacy of someone’s home gutted for all to see.

The vulnerability of such a calamity is underscored by the obscurity of the Greensburg natural disaster in comparison to the media coverage of large-scale hurricanes, tsunamis and earthquakes. These torn buildings carry a sense of dread that a personal apocalypse can happen anywhere and anytime, and literally invert the boundaries of our lives.

BRIAN ANDREWS is an artist and writer living in San Francisco.