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by Abraham Orden
To an easterner like me, the signs of autumn in San Francisco are few and far between -- the homeopathic scent of decayed oak leaves on certain rainy street corners, say, or the decreasing span of the day as the sun dips ever more sharply over the Pacific rim. I happened to watch the sunset last week from the towering observation deck of Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuronís splendid new de Young Museum. It sits in Golden Gate Park like a contemporary castle keep, a sprawling palace of art clad in stippled bronze, fit for a kingís collection -- and built at a kingís ransom, some $135 million.

A great, powerful building, just the thing to reinvent the museum experience. Too bad the de Young has such a pokey collection. It was better served by its old quarters, some say, a musty space in which the art seemed spirited. Now that same art -- works by Wayne Thiebaud, and a big Ed Ruscha -- serves its grand new building like hired help. All its energy is spent guiding guests through the masterpiece space.

The de Young is, as ever, an essentially harmless place, but itís all institution, a condition the new building has made materially apparent.

This is simply to say that, despite the de Youngís new digs, the constellation of important contemporary art institutions in San Francisco hasnít changed. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Yerba Beuna Center for the Arts and the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts are the ones you watch.

Matthew Barneyís "Drawing Restraint"
SF MOMA, for instance, has just closed "Drawing Restraint," its blockbuster Matthew Barney exhibition, now headed for European destinations. The show traces Barneyís work from its origins as latter-day Body Art (of a decidedly baroque sort) to its current narrative overdetermination (also baroque, needless to say) and back again to solo actions by the artist -- like Drawing Restraint 14, for which Barney dangled from the museumís fifth-floor sky bridge just before the show opened.

In the first gallery were Barneyís early action-esthetic props -- things like dumbbells made of Vaseline -- along with video monitors suspended from the ceiling playing tapes of the artistís early drawing performances, in which he undertook fairly awkward and strenuous physical feats in order to inscribe marks on surfaces.

These early works won the young Barney wide acclaim. In 1991, at the age of 24, he had exhibitions at SF MOMA, Gladstone Gallery in New York and Stuart Regen Gallery in Los Angeles. A subsequent gallery at SF MOMA featured more monitors playing Drawing Restraint 7 from 1993, a multi-channel work in which a pair of satyrs -- that is, actors in latex costumes -- struggle for dominance in, among other settings, a limousine driving through New York City. Another room features a grandiose installation of literal flotsam and jetsam from Drawing Restraint 9, Barneyís new film made with Bjork and set on a Japanese whaling vessel.

For his fans, a Barney movie is an ahistorical fantasy space that suppresses all thought, inducing hours of completely engrossed, totally meaningless experience in the viewer, a feat that requires the greatest of visions. The objects, however, fell short, at least they did here at SF MOMA. His toppled plastics and jellies, his twisted plastic sea-objects, read for many as big, boring props at best, and as mannered Richard Serra at worst.

"Cosmic Wonder" at Yerba Buena
Barneyís work borrows heavily from the semantics of ritual, and despite being so wacky and Surrealist, it does come off as resolutely somber. That mood suddenly looks old-fashioned in comparison to the bright and sparkling multimedia installation assembled across the street at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts by the three-person New York team known as Paperrad as its contribution to "Cosmic Wonder," July 15-Nov. 5, 2006, a show of "metaphysical art" by about 20 artists.

Paperrad has crafted a wall-bound, painted effigy of a giant digital cartoon creature, assembled Voltron-style out of sherbet-hued, wavy patterns and paintings of Smurf-like characters, who themselves are given life in a video monitor located in the center of the thingís trunk. As for the sculpture, I could take it or leave it, but the videos themselves are not to be missed. Donning headphones and tuning in to this central video piece -- a compilation of the groupís recent video work -- is to be reminded of the time when the TV, especially through cartoons and video games, was a portal to a promise of infinite possibility.

Paperrad taps into an all-American iconography of electronic diversion, and keeps it running at fever pitch, one thing giving way to the next, never pausing to allow the viewer to gather his or her wits. The effect is totally mesmerizing.

This new kind of absorption is shared by the exhibitionís strongest work, which ranges from the giddy Papperrad installation to the soberly intensive optical experience of Jim Drain and Ara Petersonís Kalleidoscope (2002-06) and the skin-prickling beauty of Takeshi Murata video Untitled (Sliver) (2006).

Not all of the works are well-served by the intense atmosphere. Reed Andersonís large paper cutout, Craftsbury Common II (2006), a delicate and detailed Rorschach-style rendering of birds and flowers in black ink, is a painstaking achievement which stakes claim to both talent and a will that cannot be faked, but it comes out flat in this show. †

The same can be said for Anna Sey How, a sculptor and collagist with a wickedly contemporary touch, whose ambiguously perilous piece, Dreamcatcher Tree (2006), a sculpture of wood, twine and plastic objects, is part shipwreck, part gallows, part intestinal tract -- and of course part dream-catcher. Itís too high-minded, too disinterested to declare itself from within the clamor.

Other works are simply hampered by one foible or another. The James Turrell work looked sloppy, not quite bright enough, not quite calibrated. A big, brash wall-drawing by Hisham Bharoocha, Climb High (2006), was very pretty but overblown; it seemed as though it wouldíve been more bold as the life-sized image it must have been projected from (his small works, not present here, are indeed quite good).

Yukinori Maedaís Eclipse/Eclipse Weeping Rock (2005-06), on the other hand, was reticent to the point of being mute, and perhaps dumb, as was Hanna Fushihara Aron and David Aronís Purifying Structure in a Garden of Light and Sound (2006), a vacuously formal installation of brightly colored pinwheels and clown-colored stones in a Zen Garden-style sandbox. And Yayoi Kusama is always great -- but it was a bad curatorial move to represent her through the few modest prints stashed by the stairway.

"Prophets of Deceit" at the Wattis
As for the Wattis, currently on view there is "Prophets of Deceit," an exhibition assembled by guest curator Magali Arriola with bravura equal to that of "Cosmic Wonder." The entire show is suffused in a psychic darkness meant to mirror our cultural moment. Some works strive to be didactically political, like the London-based artist Rod Dickinsonís Nocturne: The Waco Re-Enactment (2004), an audio installation that excerpts Dickinsonís performance piece in which he barraged viewers in a stadium with the "psychotronic warfare" that the FBI used against David Koresh and the Branch Davidians in Waco in 1993.

One highlight is Raymond Pettibonís delightful, disturbing narrative video feature, Judgement Day Theater: The Book of Manson (1990), a 118-minute-long pseudo-documentary made with Dave Markey (and apparently all shot in one living room) that recounts the early chapters of the story of Charles Manson and the Manson Family. Pettibonís colloquial idiom is of a piece with earlier experimental film efforts in New York and elsewhere, as well as setting the stage for the work of young California video-makers like Michelle OíMara and Julian Hoeber.

Other things are esoteric to the point of abstraction. Melvin Motiís elegant film The Black Room (2005), a slow pan of a black decorative painting, is like watching a Proust paragraph unfold, set to the reading of an interview with Surrealist writer Robert Desnos on the dangers of automatic writing, in French with subtitles.

Within this spectrum lie all sorts of mysterious, dark-eyed pieces as well: Tacita Deanís photogravures of old-timey explosions; Joachim Koesterís documentary photographs of a husk of a house in the woods; a cynically amusing, visually arresting 1992 video by Craig Baldwin titled Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America; a suite of Komar and Melamid posters, We Buy and Sell Souls (1978-83), which documents their classic soul-banking business, and more. I could go on and on; every piece is noteworthy. This show is one to see.

Out at the galleries
What about the galleries? Ratio3 has New York sculptor Robert Lazzariniís new "Sewer Cover" project on view. Two anamorphically distorted New York City sewer covers, about 200 lbs. each, are suspended from the walls of the gallery. Their billowing shapes belie their own weightiness, but they would be sure to put a hole in the floor if they dropped, Iím told. These works from the urban landscape seem especially suited to this town, earthquake-prone as it is.

Anthony Meier Fine Arts is showing new work by Sarah Cain, the young artist who took one of this yearís SF MOMAís SECA awards. Her works on paper, abstractions that combine soft gesture and accident with severe hard-edge shapes, are made in humble materials, incidental and brightly colored. Particularly beautiful is a work installed in Meierís eccentrically stylish fireplace, an iconic abstract emblem surrounded by a flickering mass of blue spray-paint, reminiscent of the work of the German abstractionist Katherina Grosse, but bite-sized.

An old space made new deserves note: TripleBase, in the Mission district, has reinvented itself, under the direction of CCA graduates Joyce Grimm and Dinah Pugh. In addition to holding a regular exhibition schedule, these two have started a "flat file" project which is fast becoming a touchstone for those who want a quick survey of young local talent.

The downtown scene
The downtown scene, centered around the gallery building at 49 Geary Street, isnít offering much food for thought; by and large, these spaces seem more out of touch than ever this fall. Among the exceptions is 871 Fine Arts, a little bookshop and gallery steeped in erudite art history, which had a fine show of prints and collages by the pioneering Bay Area artist Wallace Berman, a mover and shaker in the 1960s.

Berman worked in a rigorously serial mode, repeating ad infinitum his signature image of a hand holding an old AM/FM radio whose face has been replaced with a picture of, well, almost anything. An untitled offset litho from 1965, for instance, says it all, ganging together four images -- a religious leader, a pinupís legs, a rocket blasting off and a young Bob Dylan. According to Marshall McLuhan, radio was a "hot" medium, and Bermanís pivotal work certainly makes this idea clear.

At Rena Bransten are new paintings by Joseph Park, the Seattle-based painter who is known for haunting narrative scenes made with a storybook expertise. His new pictures are friendly, all too friendly perhaps, suggesting an erotic communion with the sea in delicate seascapes done in blue monochrome and, alternately, some kind of chocolate Halloween nightmare via brown- and blue-toned images of crypts, creeping vines and wind-swept trees. Though at first they may look like paint-by-numbers exercises, upon close examination Parkís paintings are clearly lovingly coaxed images, masterful games with viscous oil paint where there is always a chance for things to go wrong.

Finally, there are Sarah Bostwickís wooden vignettes at Gregory Lind Gallery -- a "handsome show," as the dealer himself described it, and one has to agree. Bostwickís meditations on classic interiors, low-relief models of architectural details, installed directly into the gallery wall, are made of hardwoods, slate, even ivory. They at once charm and inspire, the way Charles Scheeler does, or Ralston Crawford, and it is no coincidence that they partake of the Precisionist spirit in their imagery as well.

Perhaps in the artistís next show she will up the ante by stepping across the line from illusionistic perspectival description into something more abstract, more confusing, more urgently now. I, for one, will be waiting to see.

ABRAHAM ORDEN writes on art from Chicago.