One on One: Erin Hyman on Barbara Stauffacher Solomon

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, Palazzo Rossi/Pontecchio, 1986; architectural drawing; graphite and colored pencil on vellum; © Barbara Stauffacher Solomon

This is called an architectural drawing, but is it really? To look at it, the architecture seems almost spectral, while the landscape pulses with vitality. We are used to thinking of architectural drawings as prospective — putting to paper a structure that does not yet exist, detailing precise instructions for its realization. There is, of course, a long tradition of visionary drawings whose features will never be actualized in three dimensions. But Solomon’s work is something else again: studies of existing buildings where the primary concern is not the building in itself, but rather the integration of a structure into its site, into a landscape.

These drawings bring new emphasis to architecture as a topographic feature, just as they seek to reveal the perception that site itself — the grid of fields, their rigid furrows — is a “built” environment. Landscapes like this are profoundly un-natural; although some of their features, such as the meandering stream in the distance, retain some character of the haphazard and unconfined, the rest of the highly manipulated flora makes up what Solomon would call green architecture. Her book Green Architecture and the Agrarian Garden, in which this drawing appears, focuses on these unstable margins between built and unbuilt.

I am drawn to this work because of the way the buildings seem not so much like places to live, but alive themselves, part of an ecosystem, embedded among growing things. My own grandfather, an architect of a more pragmatic strain, used to call architecture a practice of “environmental expression.” Solomon’s approach gives primacy to the environmental context and to a rich perception of place as returned to repeatedly over time. She creates densely layered views of multiple perspectives simultaneously, as in this image, where the palazzo is seen on approach, then in plan from above in a bird’s-eye view. I find that looking at it once and then again, pausing to reconsider it, is like hearing an unexpected echo, one that puts my first perception in question. I toggle between the rigidity of tree-lined lanes, green rectangles of garden, the orderly agricultural geometry, and the dreamier evocativeness of stream and vegetation in the background. The multiple perspectives invite different kinds of viewing: aesthetic contemplation, the eye of the tourist, then formal analysis, the eye of the cartographer. This technique of drawing renders the formal specificity of a site and yet provides an experiential mapping of place through time.

No one else draws like this. I asked Solomon once where she learned this technique, and she replied, “I didn’t” — meaning that no one teaches you this in architecture school. It developed out of her unique trajectory: having started her career as a graphic designer, she gained renown for creating building-scale graphics for the Sea Ranch development and other projects, then abandoned that course to study architecture and committed herself to landscape design. The hard-edged graphic style she had developed in her Swiss training persists in her exacting attention to line, but there is also softness and generosity — an architectural drawing that gives more than what’s asked for. Much in it remains elusive — how does this building function? Who occupies it? What stories does it tell? — yet it offers an intuited and evocative portrait of the different modalities in which humans shape a particular place.

Erin Hyman is a writer, editor, and sometime curator. Her cultural commentary on topics from wine to Oscar Wilde can be found in journals, essay collections, and blogs, and she is contributing to a forthcoming book surveying the history of architectural installations.

Our One on One series features artists, writers, poets, curators, and others from around the country, responding to works in SFMOMA’s collection. You can follow it here.

Diary of a Crazy Artist: Art in America Is Just Like the Khmer Rouge

NYPD van called to MoMA Friday night when an Occupy Wall Street protest was going on in support of union workers.

Last week, when Art in America compared an Occupy Wall Street speaker to the Khmer Rouge, I thought maybe they just lost some of their credibility. Come on. One day Occupy Wall Street is all filthy, dirty, homeless hippies, and the next day they are a cult of genocidal maniacs? You can do better, Art in America. For your information, here’s how Time magazine described the Khmer Rouge:

The Khmer Rouge killed nearly two million Cambodians from 1975 to 1979, spreading like a virus from the jungles until they controlled the entire country, only to systematically dismantle and destroy it in the name of a Communist agrarian ideal.

So, OK, maybe some might think I’m taking it too seriously. But am I? What makes this comparison especially poor is that the the Khmer Rouge actively sought out intellectuals, artists, and writers to murder in their Killing Fields. Hell, there’s even a movie about it. It’s easy to find, too, because it’s even called The Killing Fields. But the Art in America author might not have known that. Of course, there’s the possibility that the author of the piece didn’t know who or what the Khmer Rouge was and they just didn’t know what they were talking about.

It all came about when an Occupy Wall Street offshoot called Occupy Museums was supporting the Sotheby’s art handlers’ union by doing unwieldy and loud protests at MoMA. No one had a gun. No one advocated violence. No one was hurt. There was no vandalism. Yet they are like the Khmer Rouge.

So on one hand Art in America can breathlessly report on Damian Hirst‘s fabulous spot paintings, and on the other it says artists that stand up for union workers are like rampaging murderers. So is it appropriate to say things like that in an art publication, or what? If I don’t like Jeff Koons because he makes giant puppies out of flowers, is it OK for me to say he’s just like Adolf Eichman or Heinrich Himmler?

Here’s what I’d like to see in Art in America (and while we’re at it, Artforum, Flash Art, Art Newspaper, Art News, Frieze, etc.): for them to actually do some investigative journalism for a change. Maybe a series on the wisdom of art schools recruiting 18- and 19-year-olds and encouraging them to get BFA degrees costing $125,000 or more. Or how about exploring the issue of thousands upon thousands of young American artists who live with crushing student loan debt? Or how about some investigative journalism on art education and how many artists end up abandoning art because they never learn how to translate it into even a middle-class living? All of these are huge issues, and they get very little press.

Can I ask out loud who else besides Occupy Wall Street is bringing these issues up? Who else is making economic unfairness in the arts an issue? I mean, is it right and natural that many artists will be doomed to a life of poverty or have to choose to abandon their interests as makers of things so they can become secretaries, waitresses, or accountants instead? Or do we only want to worship the successful and the famous and pretend that all that other stuff doesn’t exist? Is it crazy to talk about this stuff?



Life in the Archives

E. G. Crichton, Poster for Lineage: Matchmaking in the Archive

More than a repository of objects or texts, the archive is the process of selecting, ordering, and preserving the past — in short, making history. Artists, scholars, and activists have been rethinking the politics of what archives preserve (thus, what constitutes cultural memory). A growing list of exhibitions, conferences, panels, seminars, and publications give play to archival practices. The most interesting initiatives, I think, depart from the premise that archives constitute that which they purport to document (that archives are, in a word, performative). This avenue of approach opens onto questions about how archives shape or reshape belief systems and power structures. What do unauthorized, shadow, or dissident archives look like and how do they operate? How do we engage with archives critically, as representational forms? Can we imagine archival practices that exercise poetic license to make the invisible visible, render the unthinkable intelligible, and articulate the unspeakable?

These questions animate the work of E. G. Crichton, artist-in-residence at the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transexual Historical Society of San Francisco. Crichton confesses that she has always been “a sucker” for archival mysteries and has found “the visual evidence of a person’s life uniquely compelling.” This artist’s work suggests that archives (and the mysterious objects they preserve) resonate with particular poignancy in outlaw cultures and communities — queer communities, in this case. Quite ordinary things that people usually throw away or overlook may create, for queers, empathic links to enigmatic pasts. A matchbook, a softball mitt, a bow tie, or feather boa may shed light on the queer past’s obscure terrain.

Crichton describes herself as a “matchmaker.” She introduces living artists to queer precursors whose effects are housed in the archives. These “matches” engender the creation of all manner of artifacts, paintings, photographs, installations, performances, videos, poetry, scholarship, and music. Through these creative engagements, transhistorical bonds of affection and affinity form. Crichton sees these connections as “a kind of lineage, one that resides outside bloodlines and marriage contracts and often outside identity boundaries.” The artist has made twenty-six matches to date — some across geographical as well as well as temporal frontiers. For each matched pair, she creates a formal portrait.

E. G. Crichton, Portrait of Terry Berlier with H. Drew Crosby, 2010; photo: permission E. G. Crichton

She was just an everyday person, no fame or extraordinariness. She was a box of contradictions, closeted and cantankerous. I wonder if she would want to be in the archive at all? —Terry Berlier

E. G.Crichton, Portrait of Jamil Hellu with Guy Duca, 2010; photo: permission E. G. Crichton

I was drawn to Guy Duca’s archive because of his family albums. The photographs of his childhood reminded me of my own photographs as a gay boy.  —Jamil Hellu

E. G. Crichton, Portrait of Elissa Perry with Pat Parker, 2010; photo: permission E. G. Crichton

Pat is the long lost favorite Aunt I never met. She is my rock star, longed for and better left in myth. —Elissa Perry

E. G. Crichton, Portrait of Elliot Anderson with Claude Schwob, 2009; photo: permission E. G. Crichton

How do we penetrate open secrets? This is the question that stands out for me when I think about Claude and his work. He never married, he had relationships with men, he shot erotic photos, and yet worked in the most secretive of military research — the Manhattan Project. —Elliot Anderson

E. G. Crichton, Portrait of Tammy Rae Carland with Jo Daly, 2010; photo: permission E. G. Crichton

Jo, I have been told that you were vivacious, loved a good argument, and had a laugh that could call down the goddess. I have no doubt. —Tammy Rae Carland

E. G. Crichton, Portrait of Tina Takemoto with Jiro Onuma, 2009; photo: permission E. G. Crichton

Jiro Onuma is my gay Japanese American role model, queer accomplice, and friend. —Tina Takemoto

Queer theorist Ann Cvetkovich observes that, for queers, the “‘archive fever’ catalyzed by the silencing, neglect, and stigmatization of queer histories is a particularly powerful force, echoing the ferocity and perversity of queer sexual desire. Queer archives,”  Cvetkovich affirms, “are often ‘archives of feeling.’” This is doubly so: queer archival practices are not only propelled by strong feelings, they also aim to preserve the residue of historically suppressed sentiments.

Sentimental suppression, for many of Crichton’s archival subjects, is the overdetermined consequence of several discriminatory forces. Take Tina Takemoto‘s match, Jiro Onuma, who lived the life of a gay bachelor and dandy in San Francisco until he was incarcerated in the Japanese American Internment Camp at Topaz, Utah, in 1942. Takemoto, after studying the contents of Onuma’s archival box and conducting collateral research, created a “Gay Bachelor’s Japanese American Internment Survival Kit.” She threw her match a lifeline from a queerer, if no less xenophobic, future.

          Tina Takemoto, A Gay Bachelor’s Japanese Internment Camp Survival Kit, 2009; photo: permission Tina Takemoto

“I grew up hearing family stories about the Japanese American Internment Camps,” Takemoto, a fourth-generation Japanese American, explains, “but no one ever mentioned the gay and lesbian experience of imprisonment … I try to imagine how Jiro survived the isolation, boredom, humiliation, and heteronormativity of internment as a dandyish gay bachelor obsessed with erotic male physical culture magazines. From Onuma’s archive, I discovered that he enrolled in Earle Liederman’s 12-week correspondence Physical Culture School program. Was Onuma receiving letters from Liederman and following this program in camp as a way to keep his queer imaginary alive?” Takemoto would be the first to admit that Onuma’s bachelor memorabilia has enlivened her own queer imagination.

Tina Takemoto, Looking for Jiro, 2011; photo: permission Tina Takemoto

Takemoto’s archival muse inspired the creation of a performance piece, in which the artist incarnates Onuma, and then a film, Looking For Jiro. The film premiered at MIX 24: New York Queer Experimental Film Festival last fall. By “looking for Jiro,” and interpreting clues of his queer Japanese American history, Takemoto sets Onuma free from archival internment.

Tina Takemoto, Looking for Jiro, 2011; photo: permission Tina Takemoto

This is exactly what E. G. Crichton has in mind. She wants what’s in the archives to come out and the ghosts that haunt our queer memories to circulate freely among us. In galleries, cultural centers, lunchrooms, and libraries on four continents, Crichton has staged exhibitions and presentations featuring her archival collaborations with the living and the dead. She was recently awarded an Alternative Exposure grant by Southern Exposure gallery to finance “roving archives”: the installation of archival displays in storefront windows all over San Francisco. Meanwhile, Crichton’s expanding population of “matches” follow their own artistic itineraries. This constellation of enterprises, with Crichton at its generative center, trains creative focus on people who are underrepresented in official archives and histories — queers, women, people of color — while bringing their stories back to life.







Diary of a Crazy Artist

“Scribble on grid,” an expression of existential anxiety.

Once upon a time artists mostly produced art. These days, however, artists are supposed to put on shows; curate shows; deal with media, with marketing, with galleries (and with gallerists!), with designing their own websites, with photographing their work, with not dressing like a slob, with paying rent for both their apartment and their studio; buy supplies for their art; do their own carpentry; know their own cultural context; understand art history; be hip to whatever current famous European philosopher is popular (was Derrida, now it’s Slavoj Žižek); be aware of what’s going on in the art scene (extra points for knowing what’s going on in the literary scene, too); maybe speak at least one other language (two is better — and having basic working knowledge of a guitar or piano is another plus); be able to outdrink other artists and, if need be, have enough stamina to stay up all night at parties. Oh, and to be really popular, an artist should be a good cook and throw fun dinner parties (hint: chicken is universally liked, as well as homemade bread, and lots of booze, if possible).

As you get older, throw in the need for a decent job to pay the bills so you can make your art, learn to jog or get into that weird fake rock climbing stuff they do at some gyms, get a dog or a cat, be able to discuss important books like Moby Dick, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Love in the Time of Cholera, Infinite Jest, and Being and Time. It’s enough to drive you crazy.

If you get your MFA and then are lucky enough to get a teaching job, well then, get ready — not only is there almost no job security, but most art schools don’t pay that well for part-time teachers. Expect to run around and maybe teach at two or three schools at a time as you build up your teaching résumé. Of course, for that you’ll need a car. And the car will need gas. But if you don’t get your teaching experience you will probably never get a solid & regular teaching job. Based on my personal experience, many schools pay from $35 to $55 an hour for part-time teachers. Unfortunately, if one class is, say, three hours long and you teach three classes a week, that means you are only working nine hours a week & making between $315 and $495. That’s $1,260 to $1,980 a month — before taxes. That sucks. You can’t live on that! It’s enough to drive you crazy.

Worst of all, you could do all of the above and not be making the kind of work that sells. You might feel your art is really amazing but then not have a gallery. Or you could be doing work that sells but not have a gallery that sells very much art. Or you could have a good gallery representing you but are too busy running around teaching to produce enough work to make a living. At this point in their careers, inexplicably, some artists I’ve known have decided to have children. Or they had children right in the middle of their MFA program. Then they juggle having a child while they hunt for a job or try to finish school. It’s not wrong to want a family, but it is enough to drive you crazy.

So where is the work/life balance for artists in this country? No artist health care, no artist unions, no artist retirement pensions. Very few stable art jobs. So what happens when we get old? If we don’t get famous will we be forced to eat cat food while we live in low-income hotels on Broadway and the Tenderloin until we die? When is all this supposed to get better? If anyone finds out, let me know.


SECA 50th Anniversary Artist-on-Artist Talks, starting THURSDAY with DAVID BEST

David Best, _Untitled_, 1977; porcelain with feathers, dead mice, birds, shells, toys, bottle, and necklace; Collection SFMOMA, gift in memory of Floyd Douglas Conkey and Evelyn Blunt Conkey, 78.12

Tomorrow night sculptor David Best (1977 SECA Art Award), well-known for his fantastic art cars and immense temporary temple constructions at Burning Man, kicks off a new iteration of our One on One talks with an in-gallery chat about Joan Brown’s Noel in the Kitchen. It’s going to be awesome.

In conjunction with Fifty Years of Bay Area Art: The SECA Awards, we’ve temporarily restyled our weekly curator talks with a superb lineup of past SECA Art Awardees, who will give us their particular takes on something on view. Mark calendars — I think these will be fantastic, intimate, smart, and fun:

Jan 26: David Best on Joan Brown

Feb 2: Squeak Carnwath on Vija Celmins
Feb 9: Kathryn VanDyke on Agnes Martin
Feb 16: Maria Porges on Janine Antoni
Feb 23: Shaun O’Dell on Kamau Amu Patton

Mar 1: Chris Finley on Vija Celmins
Mar 8: Josephine Taylor on Mitzi Peterson
Mar 15: Jordan Kantor on On Kawara
Mar 22: Rebeca Bollinger on artist TBD
Mar 29: Hung Liu on Rosana Castrillo Díaz


Thursdays at 6:30 p.m. Talks last 20 minutes and are free with museum admission — which is half-price Thursday eves, or of course, totally free if you’re a member. If you can’t make it into the galleries, check back here on Wednesdays: we’ll record and post the audio to Open Space each week.

About Fifty Years of Bay Area Art: The SECA Awards:

Celebrating the unique and long-standing role of SFMOMA’s SECA award program, this presentation brings into dialogue works by a number of past award recipients. In concert with an oral history project and a comprehensive book, the exhibition marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the museum’s distinguished art interest group SECA (Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art), which honors the achievements of Bay Area artists. The exhibition offers a lens onto some of the key artistic approaches that have contributed to the vitality and breadth of contemporary art here. Artists include William Allan, Hung Liu, Chris Johanson, Barry McGee, Laurie Reid, and Kota Ezawa, among many others.

Congratulations, Alla Efimova!

Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, 2121 Allston Way, Berkeley

The institution formerly known as the Judah L. Magnes Museum reopened last Sunday in a new format. The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life invited the community to view its splendid new quarters in downtown Berkeley, a site once used by the university as a printing plant.

2911 Russell St., Berkeley; former home of the Judah L. Magnes Museum


The 25,000-square-foot building is three times the size of the Magnes’s former home, a charming clinker brick house built at the turn of the last century on Russell Street. The old Magnes, although a scene of exceptional cultural vitality, was much harder to access (even find). Its galleries were comparatively cramped. Its library and archives were cluttered at best, and at worst not navigable.


Opening festivities at the Magnes included Klezmer concerts and a performance by the UC Berkeley Marching Band.



Under Alla Efimova’s direction, the Magnes successfully negotiated a merger with UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library in 2010. The Magnes holdings, one of the largest collections of Judaica in America, encompass over 15,000 manuscripts, artworks, letters, documents, graphics, photographs, ritual objects, vestments, all manner of ephemera, and even a cemetery. UC has now nominally absorbed these holdings. Nonetheless, a plethora of historical treasures present themselves freely for consultation in the elegant open storage displays at the Magnes’s new Allston Way facility. The new building also incorporates spacious galleries for temporary exhibitions, and a stage for events and programs.


Open storage at the Magnes


The Holy Spirit of the Sea

“The only thing you have to hold on to is your own natural savagery, and your ability to recognize your own natural savagery has been given to you by this art, which in turn is the cause of your anxiety about not being able to recognize anything but yourself. And that is the last thing one wishes to recognize.”
Frank O’Hara

There were several portraits of Christ stationed around Veronica De Jesus’s studio. The light coming through the window kindly let the walls disappear a while (one hand of blinding white light washes another). These faces were let loose as apparitions for the length of my visit. They seemed apart from any series, single occasions that had since piled up. I had planned to write about these works without a single thought to Veronica’s last name. If I had I might have backed away from this premise. Obvious puns have always been lost on me. The image of Christ could stand for some reclaiming anyway. Upon seeing these pieces I immediately felt that even I had come to villainize his image, as one might villainize a corporate logo or the image of the president.

On the cover of Veronica’s latest edition of memorial drawings, Christ is rendered in a paint that dries more like red and green sealing wax. You can sense tiny bits of golden hash and moss crying up from between the cracks, suggesting the weathered face of a fountain in Tivoli Gardens. It’s as if a large key would fit inside his mouth. Another piece is a quick portrait in black made into a mask by cutting out both eyes. In one, Christ appears more classical, with “skin of burnt bronze and hair of lamb’s wool”; in another, he has fetal alcohol syndrome. He wears a T-shirt in my favorite portrait, looking like a young Matt Dillon, his broad shoulders blocking a view of the sunset. In one piece he even resembles Juno, the wife of Zeus, or a Medusa that’s been misunderstood (same hair). (more…)

Victoria Gannon on Francesca Woodman

Francesca Woodman, Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976 (click for larger view)

When I was 22 I couldn’t imagine life going on any longer. It wasn’t because I was sad or depressed, though I probably was. It was because I could not see beyond that year, at the end of which I would graduate from college. That event — my graduation — had loomed for so long as a destination, I could not fathom that it could also be a starting point.

The summer before my final fall semester I had a conversation in a bar on Cape Cod with a boy who woke up every morning that August and drank vodka with cranberry juice, refilling his glass as the day wore on. He was the same age as I was. “Doesn’t it feel like things are just supposed to stop now?” I asked him. “Like nothing comes next?” He agreed, as I thought he would. Time’s progression felt like diving off a pier.

I saw Francesca Woodman’s photographs for the first time that winter. Several were included in the exhibition Mirror Images: Women, Surrealism, and Self-Representation, on view at SFMOMA in January 1999. I went to the show with my mom and my brother over Christmas break. I remember stopping to stare at the work of this artist who committed suicide at 22. I was transfixed: she was swallowed by fireplaces, blurred in movement, draped over mirrors. The images of tumult and motion, disintegration and transformation, held me in place.

In Untitled (1976), a contact sheet of 11 photographs, Woodman physically articulates the experience of transition. Black frames, hand-drawn over the prints, function as borders and entryways, dividing the room into zones and facilitating her passage through them. In the two bottom images in the center column, she experiments with her body’s boundaries. With her feet on the right side of the passageway, her arms thrust through the opening while her torso hangs in between. Divided, her identity a blur, she is counterpoised between the past and the future. Standing before her photographs, suspended in a young adult purgatory I thought I would never leave, I felt the same way: illegible, pulled in two.

Moving toward my own undetermined future, drawn to images of transition and instability, I spent my last spring semester writing a paper for my art history class on Sally Mann’s At Twelve, the photographer’s portrait series of 12-year-old girls. In the book, Mann depicts the pregnant moment between childhood’s end and adolescence’s beginning. With jutting hips and cocked elbows, arms and legs bared in the Virginia heat, the girls evince a palpable restlessness; they seem to outgrow their skin, their surroundings, right before our eyes. Though they stand motionless, change hums beneath their surfaces. Unlike in Woodman’s Untitled, the harrowing moment here takes place after the photo is taken. In the space of these images, the world is a stable thing. And it is this juxtaposition — between the girls’ temporary poise and our knowledge of the tremendous changes awaiting them — that gives Mann’s series its sense of foreboding.

Sally Mann, Julet in the White Chair, 1983–85

Describing her subjects’ metamorphoses, Mann writes, “As in all transformations, there is an element of sadness. Something very familiar, very comforting is being left behind for the unknown, which beckons her, siren-like and irresistible. She is, as Rilke once observed, seated before her own heart’s curtain. Intolerable, the waiting and the melancholy. All changes, even the most longed for, must have their melancholy.” Her words paraphrase those of French poet Anatole France (1844–1924), who wrote, “All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.”

Both passages convey the boredom and urgency, the failing of foresight, that accompany a transition. Each insists that change is a cyclical process, requiring that we “die to one life before we . . . enter another.” We become certain of the next step only after letting go of the previous one, and oftentimes, neither is a fixed site. We move toward supposed endings that, once reached, simply push us forward onto new trajectories.

Photography is often credited with having the ability to stop time. In a photograph, running water becomes a clear wave, and a stampeding mob becomes a motionless crowd. In a photograph, a girl rapidly transforming into an adult can pause her own evolution, if only for a frame. Nearly all photos contain this illusory stillness, despite the unrest of the actual. But Woodman denies us this temporary serenity. In her refusal to stay still before the camera, she asserts the primacy of the transitional moment — the one when we are in motion, separated from the past but not yet integrated into the future. For although we want to believe our experience is structured into an itinerary of stable departure points and destinations, her version is closer to the truth: we spend much of our time in between.

Victoria Gannon is a writer and editor living in Oakland who is interested in the ways that autobiography can intersect with aesthetic experiences. A senior editor at Art Practical, she writes a monthly column for Art21 and works as an editorial associate at SFMOMA.

Our One on One series features artists, writers, poets, curators, and others from around the country, responding to works in SFMOMA’s collection. You can follow it here.