Patrick Kelly and the Quirky Look of Things

An exhibit at the de Young museum in Golden Gate Park, a building of fantastic design in my view by Herzog and de Meuron, the Swiss architects who did the Olympic arena in Beijing several years ago and many other astounding works, portrays the career of Patrick Kelly, a gay, Mississippi-born African-American of extraordinary talent who took Paris by storm until AIDS took him away at far too young an age.

Unlike the leaders of the fashion world who created out-of-this-world designs that sprang from their inexhaustible imaginations, Kelly, a bit like de Laurent and Gauthier, took familiar objects and fashions from dice or buttons to bolts of fabric or flags, and wove them into works that were distinctly his own. He invited us to see how simple things could be elevated to high fashion by the work of creative repurposing, and, along the way, subvert the often racist intent of many familiar icons from images of Aunt Jamima to the golliwog and even “Darkie” toothpaste. He did not try to escape his roots but to transform them, deploying a camp aesthetic to political ends but doing so with a whimsical, joyful zest that was rare in the refined world of high fashion. His work stands apart and always will.

A dice pattern repeats on the dress
A vast space but one the blends into the park as a monumental work of steel and glass never would

Document or Art?

A friend is making an art project by shooting each flight of stairs in a five story building. There is a quiet, haunting quality to the work that struck me as quite impressive. It made me wonder if this casual, random shot I took of a new stairway railing to document its existence might qualify as art?

Does intention matter? Might something done for one reason fulfill another? Did Mr. Campbell think his soup cans would wind up in museums?

Heady questions and perhaps unanswerable, but there’s something worth pondering in all this.  Anyway, here’s the photo I took; what do you think?

stair railing

Wayne Thiebaud: Master of Cupcakes and More

Both SFMOMA, with an expansive show of work curated by Thiebaud and of his own work, and the Oakland Museum of Art, with a single painting among their excellent collection of work by California artists, remind us that Thiebaud did more than paint desserts. [The next post is on Ray and Charles Eames and their work, also written today.]

He also did portraits and landscapes.

The landscapes remind of Diebenkorn, another Bay Area artist who focused on flat depictions of landscape and sometimes people. Neither artist had much use of Renaissance perspective; they preferred to stress the flat surface on which the work appeared as the sum total of its depth, even if hints of a greater depth also appeared. Reminiscent of some of Magritte’s work, where, for example a painting of the cone-shaped turret of a tower mirrors the receding image of a road, except it is on an easel within the painting and the road is “really” outside the artist’s studio in the world. (I can’t recall the title so send a note if you know it!)


At SFMOMA this work is in the show:

At the OAM this work appears:

Both works feature black strips of road that seem to rise from top to bottom without receding into the distance, like Magritte’s tower. The same effect plays out with walls and rooftops. Thiebaud, like Diebenkorn, reminds us the true (flat) nature of the painting even as he also teases with hints of a representation of a recognizable landscape. Now you see it (a patchwork of color assigned to a canvas) and now you don’t (an illusory piece of world pasted on a canvas sheet).

These works are just a good reminder of how artists play with the medium and the form to give us the many pleasures we enjoy.

Scenes from Budapest

i’m back in Budapest, teaching in the DocNomad program, a grad program where students spend the year going from Lisbon to Budapest to Brussels making docs along the way. It’s a great program.  And here are some impressions from the city where Orban’s rubber stampers just voted to close the Central European University, a great university too liberal, it seems, for Orban and his far right policies.

outside the Parliament Bldg where the right wing prevails

parliament with the protest.

The Grand Stairway, and Red carpet but it’s not the Reds who rule but the modern day Arrow Crossers

A mural inspired by Chagall outside a cafe named after him. There is still the charm to hide the lessons in darkness

And the oddities: Albanian Liver? I didn’t get to try it.

A provocative show of anti-totalitarian art from the Eastern bloc in the Soviet era.

Marina Abramowic doing her thing: all wrapped up and ready to go

Another part of the show


More protest. The large statue references Hungary’s occupation by Germany near the end of WW2 but the foreground items all denounce the soft pedaling of government collusion with the Nazis throughout the war, including, near the end, the Final Solution

Frank Gehry’s Bilbao

This is truly an impressive work. After seeing Sydney Pollack’s doc on Gehry where they mainly interact and Gehry talks about his career, I came away more convinced than ever that it is one of the great architectural achievements of modern times. And Pollack is generous enough to give screen time to Hal Foster who plays the Blue Meanie: it’s just not that good, not that important, and if it were, it’d be too important because museums are about the art. He should have told that to Frank Lloyd Wright before he built the original Guggenheim with its insane spiral gallery that has proven a wonder ever since!

But enough on Meanies. What struck me is the balance and proportionality of it, and the intricacy of the surfaces that curve, bend, fold and refuse to obey the rectilinear dictates of most architecture. In fact, a vast number of columns, including staircases and elevator shafts as well as the more thematically inspired columns that soar upward from the central open space within, are freestanding: they do not begin at the ground level or end at the ceiling but usually do just one or the other, or neither. It gives the whole thing a lightness and giddiness that belies its monumental size.

And the curves seem to mimic the enormous gallery of Richard Serra’s great freestanding steel sculptures that also appear unanchored in any traditional sense. See this photo below of Gehry’s sculpted space and compare it to the permanent installation of Serra. It’s just one of the many ways in this museum is a true gem and will remain so for a long long time.

Bilbao 45

Bilbao Serra

Coit Tower and Its Murals

Workers of the WorldHere is a small detail from the great murals of Coit Tower, San Francisco.  A tribute to the firemen of the city, and designed to resemble a fire hose nozzle, or other things more phallic if one prefers, the tower would be merely a tourist attraction were it not for the murals.  Created during the Great Depression by a group of local artisits who were, for the most part, friends or students of Diego Rivera, the murals capture the harshness and diversity of American life in stunning panoramas of great proportion.

The first two images below contrast the news of the day with the information that makes fortunes, and the well-heeled who absorb it. The news isn’t happy making but the library provides little joy either, it seems.

The third below, of a family panning for gold, washing clothes and of the daughter(?) sawing an enormous log, probably for cooking, contrasts this sample salt of the earth group with the leisure bound family of gawkers above them who stand near their car taking in the “picturesque” scene, as some who stroll by the murals today still do.

Cars are less a means of transportation than a threat to human life for the masses, it seems and the fourth image–all these shots are but segments of quite large murals–captures the horror of an automobile accident and the carnage it causes.

To the right of it is a man on the dock. He sits looking off to the left, waiting, hoping, expecting? We can’t tell but the large ship behind him is clearly of less interest than something yet to be seen, and perhaps done, something that will transform this world of contrasts and contradictions, misery and privilege.  Like him, it seems we’re still waiting.

News, Dreary News in Hard Times
Boys and Their Books, away from the newspapers
Tale of Two FamiliesDeath Comes, as it must to allOn the Dock

Palm Springs Museum of Art

The sculpture captures the feel of a waterfall, in metal, which seems apt for a desert setting

The sculpture captures the feel of a waterfall, in metal, which seems apt for a desert setting

I stayed in Palm Springs to go to the Indian Wells tennis tournament and see the top players in action so wandering over to this museum was an afterthought but an inspiring one at that.

The museum reminds me of how much good to great art is outside the hallowed walls of our uber-institutions, our cultural meccas like the Louvre or the Met. PSMOA, to abbreviate, has an excellent collection of modern/contemporary art with not just examples from Anselm Keifer and Henri Matisse, or from Mona Hatoun and Deborah Butterfield, but they have situated in a site that is supremely well designed for its display.

A site specific work in the sculpture garden

A site specific work in the sculpture garden

Located just a block away from a vastly touristic main street the museum invites a return to something more enduring and engaging than the routine souvenires and predictable snack foods. A full-blown commentary on many of the works are needed to do justice to the museum’s achievements, but this post is merely a whet-the-appetite sort of thing so that if you happen to be in the Coachella Valley you can see for yourself what a treat this museum is.

Positioned at the top of the staircase to the second floor, this work causes a lot of double takes and creepy feelings.

Positioned at the top of the staircase to the second floor, this work causes a lot of double takes and creepy feelings.

Deborah Butterfield creates  animal figures from driftwood

Deborah Butterfield creates animal figures from driftwood

Part of a large set of panels, this is one of my favorites

Part of a large set of panels, this is one of my favorites

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.