Geographies of Detention in Riverside

This is an exhibition at the California Museum of Photographyin Riverside CA on the theme of incarceration, linking the “detention center” at Guantanamo with the 33 prisons spread across the remote regions of California.  A featured element of the show is the “Prisonation” series of painting by Sandow Birk. He did an oil painting of each prison in the Romantic landscape style of Bierstadt, Church and others.  At first glance we see an idyllic world of nature.  On second glance we see its conversion to a space of incarceration. What pioneers traversed, prisoners don’t. They are out of sight, hidden behind the prison walls and surrounding landscape.  Most of the paintings appear inside 19C frames that Birk found at flea markets and they are 24 – 36″ across, give or take, but a very large painting of San Quentin is on the second floor of the de Young museum in San Francisco where most visitors pass it by as just another example of idyllic landscapes, like so many of the other paintings with which it shares the floor but which are detonated from the inside as Birk undercuts the enchantment with the wary eye of one who sees a modern truth beneath a old delusion.

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The accompanying flyer annouces their panel discussion on the show and presents one of the most haunting paintings in the series: Pelican Bay.  The blue tones and ghostly absences give it a deeply disturbing edge.  I’ve had to put it in my study, behind my desk where I can see it readily but not constantly.  it is far too strong for the living room in its phantasmatic portrayal of incarceration behind watch towers, chain link fence, water sprinklers and the verdant world of green.


The de Young’s Jolika Collection of New Guinea Art: Imperilled by the Auction Block

I have to confess: I had to be escorted out of the space dedicated to the Jolika Collection of New Guinea art in San Francisco’s de Young musuem.

Not for wrongdoing but because the spirits in that space possessed me.  And I hasten to add: as a film professor, author, and modest art collector, I have my feet on the ground.

On more than one occasion a piece in the collection has riveted me in place.  Energy passed between us and I could not move.  The first time it happened I could not pass out of the room on my own and asked a Pacific Islander, serving as a museum guard, to escort me. He did and I was able to leave. I told him what happened and said to him the space was extremely spiritual and he replied, “I know.”

To me, the Jolika Collection is the greatest treasure in the museum.  Not just for its stunning beauty and remarkable range but for its deeply spiritual quality as well. I have seen Maori pass through talking among themselves, in their native language, in what were clearly tones of awe.  I imagine many others have had comparable experiences but perhaps not the museum staff.

They plan to deacquisition significant pieces from the collection at auction to raise funds fofr the museum, which feels a bit like selling off your first born child to add another bedroom for future children.  How can a museum maintain its stature if it undercuts its own strengths with sales of great art?

Deacquisitioning any of this collection would be a huge loss and could easily imperil its unique qualities, aesthetic and spiritual. The auction date is set but there may be time to try to make reason, and spirit, prevail.

Sandow Birk’s New Murals for SF Jazz Center

The amazing new SF Jazz Center, hurtling toward a January 2013 completion date, will not   only house a terrific performance space but also three murals by Sandow Birk and his partner, Elyse Pignolet.  Birk likes to do more than one of a kind.  He translated and illustrated Dante’s Divine Comedy; he is completing a translation of the Qur’an that takes the form of over 300 paintings illustrating the sura (chapters) of the book (each image contains text and image together).  And he did an impressive spin on romantic landscape painting with his Prisonation series, a set of 32 oil paintings, one for each California prison, that mimic the romanticism of earlier painters but always include disturbing reminders of the incarceratory function of the remote regions of the state, usually in the form of distant glimpses of these 2001-like monoliths, though in some cases they all but dominate the painting.

The murals for the Jazz Center have a lighter touch.  Done on tile and painted and fired in Southern California then shipped north, the 2500 or so tiles tell the story of jazz in America. They have a light, airy feel to them.  They allude to famous clubs, performers and eras.  The third mural, which Sandow threw in as an extra enticement during the bidding process, will be in the area of the dressing rooms and is the most humorous of them all: people anxiously wait to see if they will get to Heaven, but those who ascend find only the instruments absent from jazz (harps, violins, and so on) while those who descend to hell find themselves in jazz heaven, which joy and pleasure in every moment.  A wry work that performers will certainly enjoy as they head out for the stage.

Chester Arnold’s Paintings

Arnold works on canvases from large to small to elaborate a theme.  In the show at the Catharine Clark Gallery from Nov. 2012 to Jan 2013, he presents a variety of paintings that revolve mainly around mining operations, small operations by a few people that could be from the 19th century.  They have a haunting quality.  Even with people in the images, something seems missing, some sense of purpose, goal, context. The absence of a horizon is a technical means to this end: we feel flattened against the earth–and the mines that penetrate it–without a way to get our bearings in a larger world.  Using a limited palette mostly of earth tones, Arnold constantly implies what’s not seen: agency, aspiration, human connection, companionship, society.   These men, none more so than the half visible bones of a man who apparently perished at one of these anonymous mine sites, have no one to turn to, no one to relate to, no one to come home to, and the shafts that penetrate from the canvas inward have a vertiginous quality, as if the painting harbored a lacuna within itself. The bottoms of the shafts are sheer blackness, nothingness, somewhere far below.  It is not entirely surprising that Kenneth Baker in the S.F. Chonicle should see one painting, “Small Time Operation,” as reminiscent of Courbet’s “L’origine du monde,” with its shockingly frank depiction of female genitalia. Not at all erotic but disturbing, haunting, pointing to a mystery that Courbet, like Arnold and his small band of miners seem bent on confronting, if not understanding.