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May 22, 2008

Necking in San Francisco

Aberdeen, Washington's other artistic native son, the photographer Lee Friedlander, has spent his long career capturing people doing what they do, especially when they are unaware of their doings. He shoots the moments after events, the reflections, side angles, shadows. He shoots the rhinos humping at the zoo while onlookers stand anxiously waiting for something more zoo-like (and please, less animal-like) to occur. He shoots the last hour of the cross-country road trip, the last act in the street parade. His recent retrospective, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, showcases Friedlander's almost pathologocal social voyeurism. And it showcases his fascination with that most awkward and vulnerable of our human parts, the neck. The vantage point in many of his photographs is that of a dog or a child; he shoots from what seems like the subject's knee level, and shot some of his self-portraits from this up-body stance as well. Its a funny angle. But Friedlander is a funny guy. His shot of 1980's cubicle workers in a Boston office is hilarious, revealing coiffed professionals in nice office clothes sitting and staring blankly at the computers in front of them, as if these strange new machines are holding them in a force field while slowly sucking every thought from their brains.

Friedlander gets close enough to touch, in his engaging images, and stays just far enough away to let us see the strange and the goofy. Which meant that for this viewer, seeing his show at SFMOMA was disconcerting. That angular, segmented museum space is filled with offputting dark corners and sharp edges. It felt cool, pretentious, unwelcoming.

I recently bought The Architecture of Authority, by photographer Richard Ross, and found myself (to my own dismay) mentally noting, as I wandered SFMOMA, all the integrated control systems in this supposed center for artistic and intellectual exploration. I would expect that of, say, a jail or courthouse, or even an airport, but not a civic museum space.

And then I went to see the artwork at the San Francisco International Airport, and my head got turned completely around. First off, I saw work on display in the small and quiet SFO airport museum and library by Herb Lingl, the aerial photographer (who prefers a far loftier vantage point than Friedlander.) Lingl's crisp, highly saturated photographs of the Baylands restoration in Sonoma and of SF Bay salt ponds were creepy and offputting, but where they were displayed was anything but.

I completely lost time in the contemplative museum space. I also saw an installation at SFO of sculptures of the Buddha, about one dozen sculptures created in various centuries and from various Asian countries. The installation was just feet from the security lines in the International Terminal, yet it was quietly mesmerizing. The airport people-watching was also delicious.

But, back to necks - - I ended the day watching John Edwards not really stick his neck out for Barack Obama (as it seems the nomination fight has been called) on a big screen television in a hotel lobby while chatting with Milton, who was on his way from Yosemite to an elderhostel up on Orcas Island. And after talking politics for about 20 seconds, Milton volunteered to me that life is about protecting yourself from vulnerability, about covering your neck, and that was why he usually carried a gun while at home in Arizona. Milton said there were three kinds of people in the world: sheep, sheepdogs, and wolves. I was (obviously, since I am female) a sheep, and he considered himself a sheepdog/protector of the flock (see above: gun carrying). He was on the fence about Obama, because he was not sure how Obama would be on torture.

Then Milton asked me very directly if I would waterboard someone if my husband's life was at risk. I kid you not. I tend to have these kinds of conversations with people, where they reveal and revel in the philosophies they have hard-baked for themselves. Needless to say, when I stuck my neck out and told him that I was an artist and painted abstract oils, he quickly defined me for me: "Oh, ya mean those paintings where you can't tell what they are about just by lookin' at them? I just don't get that."

Right back at ya, Milton.

May 1, 2008

Consolation Prize

Agatha Christie wrote a a funny piece of dialogue in one of her very early books, a quote I like to re-read often: "A man who has shot lions in large quantities has an unfair advantage over other men." Just so. Another favorite quote is from a play by Christopher Fry, The Lady's Not for Burning, where a character pleads "When I think of myself, I can scarcely believe my senses! But there it is - - all my friends tell me I exist." This can be a doubtful proposition, as personas shift in differing contexts, and who you are (or what your work is) to others is morphed by those very others. This kind of thinking smells metaphysical after a while, and that is not my intent; I just am engaged by the way a mind attaches itself to an idea, and like so many other creative types, I dig painting about that.

Christie wrote her characters as absolutes, which is precisely the comfort and the appeal of her mysteries. It is a relief to read about known and unchangeable qualities in (fictional) others, a true mental relief. Because engagement in our here-and-now belies that. Sound bites change perception, and character is splayed out on cable shows, one relentlessly morphing interview at a time.

The pleasure of painting, by contrast, is the pleasure of a completed internal conversation, at least for the artist. I loved seeing the RBC Canadian Painting Exhibition at the Emily Carr University in Vancouver last fall for that reason; it was a room of finished thoughts expressed by young, emerging Canadian artists. The thoughts varied, of course, and some were more challenging. Some were pristine. I found the acrylics by Elizabeth Grant particularly compelling. But funnily enough, Arabella Campbell, the winner of the competition, had a lot of nothing to say about the nothing that inhabits a lot of art. Her winning composition presented the structure beneath a painting. It was also seemingly about the inner state of nothing that often precedes the work (because honestly some of the best stuff comes from a blank mind) and the blankness you are left with after you get a composition out of you and onto canvas.

What struck me as funny is that compared to the other work in the show, Campbell's did not take me anywhere other than where I was - - namely, in a big white room at Emily Carr looking at (or in this case for) paintings. Her work was silly and pleasing, as if the painter herself was somehow like the Fry character, assured of her existence only through others telling her there is something to her, since her senses are unreliable. The idea she seemed to want the viewer to attach oneself to was not self-awareness, or the wonder of creativity, or even the basic comprehension of the structure of a painter's canvas. The idea my mind attached to, upon seeing Campbell's work, was that she is an artist who thinks very easy, knowable, concrete things.

And no, I am not going to follow that with a Seinfeld-esque "not that there's anything wrong with that" sentiment. There IS something wrong with that, especially if your compatriots in the same show are grappling with ideas like the fear of overloading oneself with sensory experiences, or the eeriness of nocturnal suburbia, while also displaying dexterity with paint and color and some intellectual discernment. I don't perceive that a work of art does anything much in and of itself, but it is good when you as the viewer can find in the work evidence of that artist's internal conversation - - or an idea or image to attach oneself to, an attachment that lingers after the viewing, and changes one's own mental lineup.