In the Galleries This June
Memorial Day weekend is the official launch of summer, and though the same might not be said for the local galleries, there’s plenty to check out around town. Boutique exhibitions at major museums, those smaller, less publicized shows, are another place to discover exciting work. Herewith, a brief survey of what’s on view.
New Work: Katharina Wulff A Berlin-born artist based in Marrakech, Wulff brings the exotic and the macabre to bear in paintings, charcoals and oils inspired by literature, Old Masters and magazine photographs. Drawing on eclectic sources - Matisse, William Blake, the dark satire of George Grosz, the bleached North African light of her adopted home, the sunny frivolity of Gertrude Stein collaborator Florine Stettheimer - she constructs imaginary universes, off-kilter tableaux, desolate alien landscapes exploding with a shock of primary color, and populates those surreal worlds with strange animals, odd, ill-at-ease personages and disfigured faces. We’ve arrived in expressionist territory. Color and setting are key, and are often dissonant; trees are yellow, the burnt ground is tangerine as if it had burst into flames; images of a Dark City’s alleyways conjure a crumbling Weimar Berlin, a waning cabaret in the shadow of the coming apocalypse. There’s a dated 1930s-40s feel of the Depression and wartime in some works, and a sense of otherness in all of them. A Hitchcockian dread that things are not what they seem pervades her tantalizing, unfinished narratives. It’s like struggling to make sense of fragments of sentences, overheard from a distance. Characters play their parts; one wonders who they were before they entered her paintings, and the tales they’d tell if they could talk. Through Sept. 4 @ SFMOMA.
Wayne Thiebaud: Paintings and Pastels What better way to kick off the season than with cake and pie master Wayne Thiebaud? No one has painted the high cholesterol American diet better, which might account for why he has been affectionately dubbed "the poet of the food counter." The 91-year-old Northern California artist, a courtly man, partial to bow ties, strong opinions and self-deprecating humor, may like to say, "I’m just an old painter - I don’t give a damn about art," but despite its mundane subject matter, his painting is not as facile as it appears. His work is characterized by brilliant color, shimmering light, thick, creamy brushstrokes so lush they seem three-dimensional, and by a sly, deadpan wit, emblematic of the man himself. Culture critic Adam Gopnik once described the Thiebaud oeuvre as "made from [a] strange alloy of de Kooning and the five-and-dime," while leading a dual existence "in the worlds of Euclid and Betty Crocker." Although for the last several decades he has painted precipitously hilly San Francisco cityscapes, rural landscapes, and more recently, the Delta near his home in Sacramento, paintings that are seductive in their complexity, Thiebaud remains best known for his pinball machines, pastries, hamburgers, hot dogs and ice-cream sundaes, a brand of old-fashioned Americana that has all but vanished. The 30 works in this show comprise a mini-retrospective of his 60-year career, from the early 1960s through the early part of the 21st century. Hey Mabel, while you’re up, bring me a plate and an extra fork. Through July 7 @ John Berggruen Gallery.
Lee Friedlander: Mannequin Over the course of a mighty productive half-century, Friedlander has photographed the spectrum of American life in nudes, still-lifes, portraits, and workers toiling at various jobs, often grouping his pictures together in series after the fact. Still going strong in his late 70s, Friedlander is out there, perhaps in a neighborhood near you, gazing at people with camera in tow and prowling the streets with a "hungry eye." The 30 recent black-and-white works on display here were shot with a hand-held 35mm camera over the last three years by a man who clearly knows his instrument, and understands how to use it. His surreal, collage-like photographs of inert, soulless, expressionless mannequins, enshrined in store windows and petrified in a permanent Twilight Zone, are not photo-shopped, and though they appear at first glance to be double exposures, they’re not. The elegant compositions are achieved in the camera and anticipated in the mind of the photographer in the process of shooting. Mannequins are bisected or beheaded, their upper-stories replaced with reflections of buildings across the street; one such reflected edifice looks like a tornado sprouting out of a model’s neck. Taken in L.A., San Francisco, New York and, yes, Tucson, the pictures are reminiscent of Eugene Atget’s Parisian shop windows shot nearly a century earlier. Atget was an important influence for a host of photographers, including Friedlander and Walker Evans; his "Magasin, Avenue des Gobelins, 1925," which hangs in an adjacent gallery, provides an interesting point of reference. Through June 23: www.fraenkelgallery.com.
My White Friends Growing up in the ethnic melting pot of New York City, African American photographer Myra Greene’s best friends were white. But as she reflected on her social circle and traveled the country, Greene uncovered a different America that led her to calibrate her understanding of racial politics. The experience sparked a project about whiteness, photography and what constitutes identity, and produced the posed color portraits of friends, peers and mentors in a show that’s likely to spur further conversation. June 20-July 15 @ Rayko Photo Center: www.raykophoto.com .
Brian Rutenberg: Eight Landscapes The walls of this compact gallery are ablaze with color that could induce a trance-like state. Rutenberg’s latest work, informed by poetry and music, has urgency, an irresistible pull like a rip current. Juxtaposing bottomless earth tones that threaten to suck you in, with saturated, textured color you want to reach out and touch, his large abstract textured landscapes, a shout-out to the impenetrable backwoods and kaleidoscopic thicket of light and flora of his native South Carolina, set the stage for some primal initiation rite, an orgy of nature that transpires in the wild and promises transformation. Through June 30 @ Toomey Tourell Fine Art: www.toomey-tourell.com .