Geneva Anderson digs into art

“Hilma,” the new biopic about Hilma af Klint, screens Thursday/Sunday at SIFF26 in sunny Sonoma

A scene from Swedish director Lasse Hallström’s “Hilma.”  Image: Juno

Many of us made a beeline to New York to the Guggenheim in 2018 for the amazing and long overdue exhibition “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future” a celebration of the Swedish artist’s strikingly original abstract paintings. The focus was on her innovative works completed just after the turn of the 20th century (1906-20), when she created incredibly imaginative non-objective paintings that were largely ignored by the art world.  Now considered masterpieces with great mystical depth that invite a re-evaluation of the development of modernism, we decry that she, like many women, was sidelined by the art world and hunger for more information.  “Hilma,” three-time Academy Award nominee Swedish director Lasse Hallström’s (“The Cider House Rules,” “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “My Life as a Dog”) new biopic promises answers about her lifelong interest in mysticism which had a negative impact on her career and is shot against the backdrop of some of her most famous works. This is the first biopic about af Klint. You’ll meet the Five, the group formed with four other women in the 1890s. Calling themselves the Five, they hold seances and meditations and collectively complete artworks; when Hilma paints, she believes higher spirits are directing her brush. The film is a family affair: Hilma is played at different ages by Tora Hallström (‘Hachi: A Dog’s Tale’), and Oscar nominee Lena Olin, Lasse Hallström’s daughter and wife. The films screens twice at the the 26th Sonoma International Film Festival (SIFF): Thursday, 1 pm at the Sebastiani Theater and Sunday, 7:30 pm, at Prime Cinemas. (115 minutes, in English)


The 26th Sonoma International Film Festival is March 22-26, 2023, with more than 110 films slated during the five-day festival, details in the SIFF Festival Guide.  Individual tickets are available and should be purchased online in advance.

March 23, 2023 Posted by | Art, Film | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Say Cheese! The 17th California Artisan Cheese Festival is March 24-26— new events and locales

Stuyt Dairy Farmstead Cheese Company’s “Tuscano” will have its debut on March 26, at Sunday’s Artisan Cheese Tasting and Marketplace.  So new its label hasn’t been formalized yet, it will be available in very limited quantity.  This wine-marbled beauty is an Italian-style cheese made with pasteurized cow’s milk, combines wine and cheese all in one bite.  It sports an elegant red rind from soaking in wine and pumice. Image: Stuyt Dairy

Love cheese? It’s front and center at the 17th California Artisan Cheese Festival (CACF), March 24-26, taking place all around rural Sonoma County and beyond. After pared-down pandemic versions, this year marks the return of the full experience—farm and producer tours, seminars and pairing demos, marketplace, and a new event on Saturday evening, the cheese crawl—all geared towards tasting and celebrating cheese and having some fun after the storms.  From new small-batch and very rare artisan cheeses to those that have already garnered international recognition, the spotlight is on the vibrant hues, bold aromas, and surprising new flavors of cheese. Sunday’s marketplace will include the debuts of a few new cheeses and will introduce people to a myriad of new gourmet products that pair with cheese. All tickets are sold individually on the website:

This year’s events have been curated by executive director, Judy Groverman Walker, who’s been running the event for the past 11 years and has strong roots in Sonoma County agriculture.  “The goal is to bring all these great California cheeses together, to help promote artisan cheese making, and to keep our diaries alive,” said Groverman. CACF is a 501c3 non-profit and proceeds support the California Artisan Cheese Guild which provides training for cheesemakers and helps them through the hurdles of establishing their businesses. People who attend the festival come from all over the country. Groverman estimates that only about 35 percent are from the Bay Area. “Now that we’re back to three days, we hope to see a lot of people back who haven’t traveled due to Covid 19.” If you haven’t been to the festival before, Groverman recommends Sunday’s Marketplace. “I really enjoy pulling all these cheeses together and the great products that go with cheeses and being able to showcase them all under one roof. ”

Friday, March 24, Farm and Producer Tours:

“Cows, Goats, Cheese and Wine!”(Tour A), is one of four local tours, and includes a visit to The Achadinha Cheese Company (Osh-a-deen-a) on the 230 acre Pacheco Family Dairy on Chileno Valley Road, West Petaluma.  It’s owned and operated by Jim and Donna Pacheco along with their four children William, Daniel, Elizabeth and David.  You’ll taste their specialty cheeses, like the nutty caramel flavored “Cowpricious,” made from pasteurized cows & goats milk, handrolled and aged for 6 to 12 months. And you’ll meet and snuggle with their girls—50 goats and 100 cows. Image: Achadinha

This year, five full-day themed tours are offered, including one out of the area to Anderson Valley. Each tour has three stops—local farms, creameries and artisan purveyors. Besides having fun and tasting, the emphasis is getting a personal glimpse into the vital role of the farmers and producers in our rich Northern California farming area, hearing their stories first hand and learning techniques of artisan cheese making.

Saturday, March 25: Seminars and Pairing Demos

The seminars and pairing demos, a convergence of expertise and passion, offer an opportunity to learn from some of the industry’s most knowledgeable experts at great wine country destinations and to enjoy generous samples of elite cheeses, wines and accompaniments. Expect to make friends: the mutual love of cheese can be a great bonding experience. Photo: CACF

The seminars, a 75 minute blast of education, tastings and ideas for inspired pairings, have traditionally been held at a hotel, most recently Santa Rosa’s historic Flamingo Hotel.  This year, there are four seminars and they are at wineries, all with gorgeous settings. “This is not cheese school; it’s a lot of fun,” says Groverman, “it’s the wine country experience people are looking for—tasting cheeses and drinking wines in the country.” This years offerings—“Cheese and Wine Pairing” at Kendall Jackson Wine Center with KJ Chef and cheese expert, Tracey Shepos Cenami ; “Cheese and Wine Pairing” Bricoleur Vineyards with cheese expert Laura Werlin; “Cheese + Charcuterie Cone Building Workshop”at Baletto Vineyards with Alyssa Gilbert, Owner of Graze + Gather Co; and “Cheese and Chocolate” at the new Sugarloaf Wine Company with chocolatiers Jeff and Susan Mall of VOLO Chocolates.  New: each seminar features an add-on experience at the winery, such as wine tastings, a gourmet lunch with wine pairings, or wine club privileges.

Tracey Shepos Cenami, Kendall-Jackson Chef and cheese expert, specializes in wine country cuisine and artisanal cheeses.  She will lead a seminar on the ins and outs of pairing different wine varietals with different style cheeses. A three-time winner of Food Network’s Guy’s Grocery Games, she rose to national prominence with the award-winning cooking and lifestyle book, Season: A Year of Wine Country Food, Farming, Family and Friends (2018), co-authored with JK’s Justin Wangler.  Her personal favorite pairing is Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Pinot Noir with bacon almonds and Valley Ford Cheese and Creamery’s handmade Estero Gold cheese.  Photo: Kendall Jackson
Charcuterie Cones are trending for good reason: sophisticated looking, they can substitute for laid out cheeseboards and are safely-contained individual servings.  Alyssa Gilbert, owner/founder of Graze + Gather Co.,will lead the festival’s first “Cheese + Charcuterie Cone Building” seminar at Balletto Vineyards’ beautiful new event center in West Sonoma County.  You’ll learn how to craft your very own Instagram-worthy cheese and charcuterie cone along with Gilbert’s tried and true techniques for slicing, arranging, plating, and garnishing.  Gilbert’s  artisan cheese shop and catering company in Downtown Oakland specializes in 100% American-made cheeses from small batch makers and local charcuterie.  Throughout the workshop, you’ll be enjoying seasonal ingredient pairings with Balletto Vineyards estate grown and bottled wines.  Image: Graze + Gather Co.

Saturday afternoon, 4 to 6pm: Cheese Crawl

In this new event, participants receive a treasure map and set off across Sebastopol’s Barlow complex in search of cheese booty.  Each designated stop has a cheesemaker offering samples of their precious handcrafted cheeses plus a featured snack or beverage from one of festival’s non-cheese creators, and an additional special.  Crawlers who check in at all 11 stops along the two hour crawl will be entered to win even more treasure—2 tickets to the 2024 Sunday Artisan Cheese Tasting & Marketplace. 

Sunday, March 25: Artisan Cheese Tasting & Marketplace

The heart of the festival remains Sunday’s Artisan Cheese Tasting & Marketplace at Sonoma County Fairgrounds’ Grace Pavilion which always concludes the weekend of cheese, offering a chance to taste and buy the cheeses presented in the various events and all sorts of fabulous accompaniments, including wine, craft beers, cider, spirits. “I really enjoy being able to bring this together under one roof,” said Groverman, who added that the vibe is special, like a big friendly farmer’s market. Upon entry you’re given an insulated tote bag and a wine glass and you’ll meet and talk with the cheesemakers themselves, most of whom work behind the table selling their cheeses. This year, over 15 cheesemakers are participating, offering dozens of award-winning cheeses and new small batch offerings for tasting and sale, along with all sorts of accompaniments and artisan products from Argentinian alfajores to wood cutting boards. This year’s participants are listed here.

Cheese debuts: Stuyt Dairy Farmstead Cheese Company, of Escalon, is bringing “Tuscano,” their new wine-infused Italian Style cheese, from cow’s milk, which is marbled throughout with a red wine blend. Tomales Farmstead Cheese Company will be debuting “Out Like a Lamb,” it’s fresh, seasonal all sheep’s milk cheese. Cypress Grove will be sampling its new Meyer Lemon and Honey goat cheese, released in the summer of 2022. After a several year absence, Occidental-based Bohemian Creamery is back for the first time with their fabulous small batch cheeses.  

“Out Like a Lamb” is Tomales Farmstead Cheese Company’s latest fresh, seasonal all sheep’s milk cheese—rich, creamy, nutty and spreadable.  Tomales Farmstead Creamery has won competition medals from the American Cheese Society and the Good Food Foundation, a San Francisco-based organization that honors the nation’s organic and sustainable producers. The farmstead’s “Atika,” a Manchego-like aged cheese named after the Coast Miwok word for “two,” is a regular winner and can be sampled at the Sunday Marketplace. Image: Tomales Farmmstead Creamery
Humboldt County-based Cypress Grove will be bringing its popular Meyer Lemon and Honey chevre, released last summer, to Sunday’s Artisan Cheese Tasting and Marketplace. “Floral Meyer lemon slightly sweetened with delicate alfalfa honey mixed into our fresh goat cheese— tangy with a balanced sweetness and the brightness of California sunshine.”  Image: Cypress Hill
Occidental-based Bohemain Creamery, one of our area’s most creative artisanal creameries , which will offer a variety their goat, cow, sheep and water buffalo milk cheeses. Their their inspired descriptions are musings which ignite the imagination: “La Bomba” (pictured above) is a “nugget of stink and ooze that is loosely fashioned after the (in)famous French Époisses soft-paste cow’s milk cheese.  As this cheese ages, it is carefully washed in Russian River Consecration Ale, promoting a custardy texture and powerful flavor that fills the aging room with its signature odor. Some freshly-torn baguette should temper the assault. The average weight is one-quarter pound per lump.” Image: Bohemian Creamery

Having recognized how wonderfully their two products pair, Bohemain Creamery and Big Spoon Sauce Company, both from Occidental, will have tables beside each other at the Marketplace and sample some bites incorporating both their products. Big Spoon Sauce Company, a first time participant, is the creator of a line of spicy sauces which are vegan, gluten and MSG-free and pair especially well with cheese.

“Farm to table, spoon to face” is Big Spoon Sauce Company’s catchy motto.  A first time participant, the company of two, Lani Chan and Nate Bender, produces a line of crunchy, savory go-with-everything olive-oil based sauces that have a cult following among those in the know. “Dragon’s Booty” is a chile crisp meant to light a fire under your booty —it’s loaded with habanero peppers for a base heat, then topped with a touch of Carolina Reapers and Chili de Arbol for a more complex burn that evolves over time, while guajillos add earthiness and depth. Apples and orange zest counter the dragon’s burn with a soft citrus and floral sweetness.  This “super hot” sauce screams for grilled cheese and is the perfect accoutrement for any cheese or charcuterie board.  If mild to medium heat is more your speed, “Chile Crisp,” Big Spoon’s flagship sauce, is a crunchy, salty, sweet, smoky, tingly, all-purpose burst of flavor with a mild tingling heat from Sichuan peppercorns that pairs exceptionally with cheese. In addition to peanuts and roasted garlic, they layer in smoky and sweet flavors with four varieties of dried ground chiles. Photo:  Nathan Bender

New wineries and breweries:  Adobe Road Winery, Anderson Valley Brewing Co, Bricoleur Vineyards, Golden State Cider, and Goldeneye Winery.  

Golden State Cider, a new participant, will bring a variety of its apple-driven dry ciders. “Save the Gravenstein” is a full bodied, aromatic unfiltered cider made exclusively from Gravenstein Apples sourced from Randy Robert’s 65 acre Sebastopol apple farm, “Lyngard Orchards.”  Bold, juicy Gravenstein apple notes are supported by orange blossom honey and citrus with mineral complexity from the terroir, creating a long, refreshing finish. In the 1940’s there were over 9,700 acres of Gravenstein apples; today, there are less than 600.   Golden State Cider’s mission is to educate the public on heirloom varieties, support farmers, and keep apple trees in the ground.  Image: Golden State Cider

Sweet tooth?

Mara Promanzio and daughter Melissa. “We had a beautiful experience last year,” says Mara Promanzio of Amapola, who specializes in Argentinian Alfajores and will be bringing all her flavors—pistachio, limonata, pb&j, pink lotus and more—to the Marketplace. “Argentinian alfajores are the perfect sweet treat to balance savory cheeses and fine wine.  Our homemade buttery cookies filled with creamy dulce de leche are a great addition to your next charcuterie board.” Image: Amapola
Amapola’s Argentinian alfajores. Image: Amapola
Charlotte Walter of Charlotte Truffles, will be returning this year. She specializes in delectable chocolate bites, truffles and bon bons, many of with flavors representative of different cultures—Vietnamese Coffee (dark chocolate with a forward flavor of coffee and a sweet finish from condensed milk); Kiss Me I’m Irish (the creamiest of Irish cream ), Raspberry Yuzu (yuzu, the citrus used in Japan cuisine, helps accentuate the sourness of the raspberries); Rose Water Saffron (a flavor combination is commonly found in Indian sweets is enhanced by warm notes from green cardamom); Hibiscus (inspired by hibiscus tea typically served in Mexican restaurants with the flavors highlighted in a soft jelly and a caramel).  Image: Charlotte Truffles


California’s 17th Artisan Cheese Festival is March 24-26, 2023 at various locations throughout cheese country.  Tickets for all festival events are sold individually online and are capped, so buy early to lock in your experience.  Do not show up at an event without a ticket, with the exception of Sunday’s Artisan Cheese Tasting and Marketplace where tickets ($65) can be purchased at the door.   Fifty early entry (11 a.m. vs. noon) tickets have been released and are available online now for no additional charge.   For more information and to purchase tickets, visit:

March 14, 2023 Posted by | Food, Wine | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Berlin and Beyond’s 27th festival of new German cinema is March 23-28—sehr interessant!

A still from Martin Persiel’s “Everything Will Change,” starring Noah Saavedra, Jessamine-Bliss Bell and Paul G. Raymond, Wim Wenders.  Persiel is known internationally for his award-winning documentary “This Ain’t California” (2012) about skateboarding culture in the 1980s GDR, which screened at Berlin and Beyond 2012. 

As if we don’t know where we’re heading as a planet, Martin Persiel’s ecological drama, Everything will Change” lays it out in an ominous eco-drama set in 2054. Wildlife has disappeared from Earth and three friends, who inhabit a bleak concrete world, set out on a time-travel road trip to find out what happened.  They learn their answer lies in the decade of the 2020’s when people knew how fragile biodiversity on Earth was but failed to take action.  Persiel’s unconventional knitting of fact and fiction has garnered him many awards and this latest drama, a blatant call for action, opens this year’s Berlin and Beyond festival on Thursday March 22 at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater. This beloved festival of new German cinema includes ten features and four short films and runs March 22-25 and the 28th at the Castro; March 26th virtually, and the evening of March 27th at Berkeley’s Rialto Cinemas Elmwood. 

Two huge breaks with tradition: This is first time that the festival is presenting an opening night film that is not in German—Persil’s film is in English. “The Forger,”(“Der Passfälscher”), the more traditional period drama that follows on Thursday evening at 9 p.m., is in German as are all of the other films in the festival. So there’s ample opportunity to have that undeniably special experience of immersing yourself in crisp German. The venue has also changed, from the Castro Theater, the hub since inception, to the historic Roxie Theater in San Francisco’s Mission District. As the 2023 festival opens a new era of sorts, Festival director, Sophoan Sorn, now in his 13th season, remains committed to providing cinema with exceptional storytelling, intense drama and an almost complete abandonment of Hollywood special effects. The festival is still securing guests, so check the website for updates.

Here are a few films that grabbed my attention:

Thursday, March 23, 9pm: “The Forger” (Der Passfälscher) :

Louis Hofmann in “The Forger.” (“Der Passfälscher, “), 2022. Image: DREIFILM

Berlin and Beyond always includes a riveting period drama, usually set during the Halocaust.  Maggie Peren’s “The Forger,” unfolds in Nazi-occupied Berlin in 1942-43. Louis Hoffmann (Neflix’s “Dark” series 2017-2020) stars as 21-year-old Cioma Schönhaus, a young man with an incredible zest for life who has the misfortune of being Jewish when the hunt for Jews is in full swing. Drawing on his art school background as a graphic artist, Cioma, along with his friend, Det (Jonathan Berlin), joins a network of underground rescuers and forges brilliant IDs that allow hundreds of Jews to escape deportation. At the same time, he re-creates his own identity, as a marine officer, and he and Det embrace Berlin’s night life with gusto, living extravagantly in plain sight of the Nazis as if there were no tomorrow. Cioma’s talent lands him in trouble and his survival will depend on one last great forgery. Based on a true story and adapted from Cioma Schönhaus’s 2008 novel. (Germany, 2022, 116 minutes German w/English subtitles)

Friday, March 24, 8:30 pm: “Family Affairs” (Der Nachname), US Premiere

A still from Sönke Wortmann’s “Family Affairs” (“Der Nachname”), 2022. Image: Constantine Film.

What was intended as a lovely family gathering on the beach of Lanzarote, in the Canary Islands, soon dissolves into mass confusion and arguments when the matriarch, Dorothee (Iris Berben), 68, drops a scandalous bomb on her middle-age children and their partners.  She announces that she and René, her adopted adult son, have just married and she has taken on his name and is now Dorothee König.  The siblings are appalled that their mother has married their adopted brother and, even worse, rejected their name: Böttcher.  With Sönke Wortmann at the helm you can expect family drama at its wittiest and a deep dive into cultural norms. The translation of Der Nachname is, “The Last Name, and the film is a sequel to Wortmann’s highly successful first film, Der Vorname 2018 (“The First Name”), which was based on the French play Le Prénom.  All the members of the original cast are back again.  Wortmann’s pitch perfect satire, “How about Adolf?”(2019) was a smash at Berlin and Beyond 2020 (87 min, German w/ English subtitles)

Saturday, March 25, 1 pm, “Radical Dreamer,” Northern CA Premiere

Werner Herzog, in a still from Thomas von Steinaecker’s documentary “Radical Dreamer,” (2022)  Image: © Copyright 3B Produktion

For some 60 years, Werner Herzog has traversed every corner of the globe in search of the most rapturous dreams and captured them on film, over 80 so far—fictional features and documentaries often so bizarre, they have trumped his fiction. Once again, the camera is turned again on the charismatic Herzog by director, novelist and journalist, Thomas von Steinaecker in “Radical Dreamer.”  The documentary includes never before seen archive footage, captivating anecdotes from Herzog about his filming exploits and eternal search for beauty, and conversations with luminaries who know and have worked with him: directors Chloé Zhao, Joshua Oppenheimer and Wim Wenders; singer Patti Smith; and actors Nicole Kidman, Christian Bale and Robert Pattinson.  Iconic excerpts from his feature films and documentaries, and his cameos in cartoon series such as “The Simpsons” have been selected with care, creating a portrait of this illusive subject.  (103 min, German and English w/ English subtitles)

Saturday, March 25, 8:45 pm: “Rhinegold,” North American Premiere

Emilio Sakraya (L) as Giwar Hajabi in a still from “Rhinegold,” 2022. Image: Warner Bros. Entertainment, Gordon Timpen.

Opera fans will recognize the film title’s apt reference to “Das Rhinegold” from Wagner’s Ring Cycle, about the legendary gold in the Rhine river that will grant immortal life to whoever owns it and, as long as the gold stays at the bottom of the river, all is well with the world.  German Turkish director Fatih Akin’s new film is a loose adaptation of German rapper Xatar’s autobiography “All or Nothing” which traces the path of refugee Kurdish/German rapper Giwar Hajabi’s  (aka Xatar) life from a rough childhood and involvement in the drug underworld to the top of the music charts.  His story turns on a gold heist gone awry. The music is phenomenal. Fatih Akin won the Golden Bear at the 54th Berlinale, 2004, for “Head-On” (“Gegen die Wand” 2004) 138 min. Arabic, Dutch, English, German, Kurdish, Turkish w/ English subtitles.)

Tuesday, March 28, 6:30pm, “All Quiet on the Western Front in 35mm,” Closing Night, special presentation

Felix Kammerer in “All Quiet on the Western Front,” (2022) Netflix/Reiner Bajo.

Edward Berger’s “All Quiet on the Western Front in 35mm” (2022), nominated for 9 Academy Awards and 7 BAFTA’s, is the sobering saga of an idealistic young German soldier on the Western Front of World War I. This is a German’s director’s first stab and the first German language adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s world-renowned bestseller of the same name. The story follows Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer), a bright 17-year-old just out of high school, who, along with other classmates, was inspired by an ultra-nationalist teacher to join the German army in its crusade to conquer France.  The naïve new recruits excitedly sing their way to the front lines and then descend into utter terror as they discover the nightmare of trench warfare. Everything about this sensory epic is extravagant, including its full-on assault of incessant violence. A soon-to-be disclosed Special Presentation follows the screening. (147 min., German with English subtitles).


Thursday, March 23 – Roxie Theater, San Francisco:
6:00 PM: Everything Will Change 93 min.
9:00 PM: The Forger 116 min.

Friday, March 24 – Roxie Theater, San Francisco:
10:00 AM: The Ordinaries 112 min. (invitation only/at capacity)
6:00 PM: Piaffe 86 min.
8:30 PM: Family Affairs 87 min.

Friday, March 24 – Vogue Theatre, San Francisco:
11:30 AM: The Ordinaries 112 min. (invitation only/at capacity)

Saturday, March 25 – Roxie Theater, San Francisco:
1:00 PM: Werner Herzog – Radical Dreamer 102 min.
3:15 PM: Golden Years 92 min.
6:00 PM: Rabiye Kurnaz vs. George W. Bush 119 min.
8:45 PM: Rhinegold 138 min.

Sunday, March 26 – Virtual:
8:00AM-11:00 PM: Axiom 98 min. (Viewable in select NorCal counties)
8:00AM-11:00 PM: Shorts Program 100 min. (Viewable in California)

Monday, March 27 – Rialto Cinemas Elmwood, Berkeley:
6:00 PM: Everything Will Change 93 min.
8:30 PM: Family Affairs 87 min.

Tuesday, March 28 – Roxie, SF – Closing Night:
6:30 PM: All Quiet on the Western Front in 35mm 138 min.


The 27th Berlin and Beyond is March 23-28, 2023, main venue is Roxie Theater, 3117 16th Street at Valencia, San Francisco.  Parking is difficult in the Mission District. Allow AMPLE time to find parking if arriving by car.  March 27: Rialto Cinemas Elmwood, 2966 College Ave at Ashby, Berkeley

Tickets:  Opening Night Film (Roxie Theater)$25.00 general (no senior discount); Single Tickets (Roxie and Elmwood screenings, excluding Roxie Opening Night Film and Youth 4 German Cinema) $16.00 general, $13.00 senior (62+) & ADA, $9.00 student (at door with ID. Single tickets for each film can be purchased via individual film pages.

Roxie Priority Film Pass (priority entry to Roxie screenings on March 23-25, excluding Youth 4 German Cinema screening. No admission for special events.)
$125.00 general public.  Click here to purchase.

Virtual Programs: $12.00 per virtual program (24-hour viewing window)
Purchase Virtual Rental: Axiom | Shorts Program

Youth 4 German Cinema screening of “The Ordinaries”: By invitation only. Now at capacity.

March 7, 2023 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

SFMOMA’s “Joan Brown” retrospective—relatable works exploring everyday experiences, closes Sunday, March 12  

Joan Brown, Self-Portrait in Studio, 1984, Oil and acrylic paint on canvas, 2.4 × 2 m. Courtesy: © Estate of Joan Brown, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven.

Highly talented but “unserious” is how Bay Area artist Joan Brown (1938-1990) was long categorized by the fickle art world which celebrates artists for their originality IF it fits the reining definition of contemporary art. Brown’s exposure suffered when she stepped back and forged her own path. Now, thirty-three years after her death, the defiantly independent Brown is the subject of the fascinating SFMOMA retrospective,“Joan Brown,” which examines her career with fresh eyes. She is lauded as a highly influential painter who forged her own marvelously distinctive style.   The exhibit includes roughly 80 important works and is the most expansive presentation of her art in nearly a quarter century, covering the 31 years between 1959 and 1990. It closes soon, Sunday, March 12, and is well worth a visit.

Curated by SFMOMA’s Janet Bishop and Nancy Lim, the exhibit spans SFMOMA’s seventh floor and traces the arc of Brown’s life as an artist. It’s always a treat when SFMOMA celebrates a Bay Area artist whose works reference our local stomping ground and when it honors a female who held her own in a sea of male colleagues. That’s Brown. She was born in San Francisco in 1938 and grew up in the Marina district and lived most of her life in the City before her passing at 52 in India in 1992. In addition to being on the art faculty at UC Berkeley, Brown was an important mentor to many artists, particularly women artists, and she was a mother, a committed athlete, an animal lover and she had been married four times. All of this made its way into her art.

The exhibition opens with canvases from the 1950-60’s, made during Brown’s student years at California School of Fine Arts (CSFA)—later the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI)—where she met artist Elmer Bischoff, an influential mentor who she said “spoke my language, although I hadn’t heard it before.” He encouraged her to paint things from her everyday life and to trust her own instincts. She began gaining recognition for her large paintings that mixed figurative images with thick colorful paint. In 1960, at age 22, she was the youngest artist exhibited as part of the Whitney’s Young America 1960 (Thirty American Painters Under Thirty-Six) and was selling nationally. By 1964, her works had been featured on the cover of Artforum (with an accompanying feature naming her “Everyone’s Darling”) and were in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York and SFMOMA, among others.  

Then, in the mid-1960’s, to the dismay of her peers, Brown stepped back and broke ties with her New York gallery and radically changed course, painting for herself, not sales or the attention of critics.  She abandoned thick paint in favor of enamel house paint and forged a vibrant new style that came to define her iconic works of the late 1960’s and 70’s. The curators highlight this complete break in style in her eerie 1968 work, Grey Cat with Madrone and Birch Trees, which leans on the style of Henri Rousseau. The subject, a large gray cat, is behind a tree trunk and a sense of overall sparseness and separation prevails.

Over the next years, Brown’s style solidified in this uncluttered direction. She employed bright colors and patterns masterfully and delved into self portraiture, rendering human subjects other than herself in outline. She created an offbeat body of work that embraced autobiography, fantasy, whimsy, and frequently incorporated the familiar backdrop of San Francisco’s skyline and bridges. A vital through-line is self portraiture which Brown embraced decades before the obsessive selfie mania of today. The exhibit includes seminal portraits of a gradually aging Brown swimming, traveling, painting, dancing and living her life…and surrounded by an ever-expanding symbolic language which reached its peak in the 1980’s as she immersed herself in spiritual pursuits.  

“We’re following Brown’s intuitive, totally unabashed journey,” said curator Janet Bishop, “this is an artistic vision marked by limitless curiosity and lust for life that resulted in colorful, personal, relatable, funny works.”   


Joan Brown, Thanksgiving Turkey,1959; The Museum of Modern Art, New York. (© Estate of Joan Brown; Photo © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY)

When Brown was just 22, this turkey, which exemplifies her early abstract figurative work in dense paint, was purchased by MoMA in New York.  Drawing from her mentor, Elmer Bischoff, who advised her to paint everyday objects and on inspiration from Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox (1655), she positions the bird precariously on the edge of a table with its belly exposed in defiance of the laws of physics. “A strange sense of space and perspective ends up being a hallmark of Brown’s paintings,” explains curator Nancy Lim. “Everything seems to lay nearly on top of each other, there’s a lot of flatness, and space doesn’t quite make sense. Thanksgiving Turkey is the first time you begin to see this in her work.”

Joan Brown, The Bride, 1970; University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, bequest of Earl David Peugh III; © Estate of Joan Brown; photo: Johnna Arnold/Impart Photography

In this full-on-frontal portrait, one of Brown’s most powerful and well-known works, we see the development of her personal artistic language. Her symbolic vocabulary was drawn from wide-ranging cultural traditions, art history, and from her vivid imagination. The Bride breaks down into five pictorial elements: the bride, her leashed rat outlined in sparking gold glitter, her cat head, the field of poppies she is standing in, and various colorful fish that float in the sky or water above the poppies. The vibe is intense, unsettling.

“This is a painting where everything just evolved,” Brown told an audience at her slide lecture at SFAI on April 18, 1971. “I was doing a series of paintings of Adam and Eve…and it started out as a nude in the center, dead center, of Eve, and then it went from there ….”  (cited in Jacquelynn Bass, “To Know This Place for the First Time, Interpreting Joan Brown”)   Among many things, the painting addresses the bride’s power which comes from both innocence and experience and her openness to life which also entails embracing darkness. The rat, beginning with Brown’s iconic 3-D “Fur Rat” from 1962, also on display, was Brown’s most consistent and pervasive image. Here, the large and cowering leashed rat at the bride’s feet may represent Brown’s attempt to engage with her persistent fear of rats or her acknowledgement of the wisdom and intelligence associated with the rat in Chinese astrology.

The Dancers in a City, #2, 1972.  Enamel paint and fabric on canvas, 84 x 71 3/4 in. SFMOMA, gift of Alfred E. Heller. 

Brown married four times. While married to her third husband, artist Gordon Cook, the couple went to local ballrooms and the one depicted here has the San Francisco skyline in the background.  The composition features a range of techniques, from the heavy impasto of the large charming dog to the male dancer’s linear silhouetting.  After struggling to paint the woman’s dress, Brown found a improvised solution in collage and she used fabric she had on hand to cut out the shape of the dress and glued it to the painting. The work was a success and, after seeing the painting in a exhibit in 1974, influential art dealer Allan Frumkin offered to represent Brown, and she accepted.

Joan Brown, The Room, Part 1, 1975, oil enamel on canvas, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, purchase, gifts of Paul Chanin, Samuel Kootz and Dr. and Mrs. Laibe A. Kessler.

Going from gallery to gallery, you may begin to place yourself in Brown’s paintings and that relatability makes her work memorable. The Room, Part 1, from 1975 ,stuck an instant accord in me.  Like many of Brown’s artworks, this painting pays homage to a historical image that she long admired, a ninth century depiction of nomadic Khitans hunting with eagles.  Brown was deeply attracted to Chinese art and culture and its sense of exotic beauty. She had obviously read about the Khitans who, from the 4th century on, dominated much of northern China, Mongolia and the Manchurian plateau. And her work in the mid-1970s marks a transition in her focus—she began to research non-Western cultures and religions in her quest for spiritual enlightenment. In the sparse but immense gray foreground, a languorous Brown dangles her leg with its white sock and yellow shoes from an armchair while she studies the Song dynasty painting.  (The yellow shoes are a constant in her self portraits.) By contrasting her own body into near invisibility, she directs our focus to the painting, suggesting the subject here is not the herself but instead the artwork on the wall and the contemplative act of taking it in.

Joan Brown, The Night Before the Alcatraz Swim, 1975, GUC Collection, Highland Park, Illinois, @Estate of Joan Brown, photo: Michael Tropea.

An avid and accomplished open-water swimmer, Brown cherished the ideas that came to during her swims in the bay, often at sunset, looking out towards the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz.  The Night Before the Alcatraz Swim, from 1975, is related to a series of introspective self-portraits about Brown’s frightening near-death experience during a race from Alcatraz to Aquatic Park in 1975.  During the course of the race, a freighter unexpectedly passed the swimmers, producing thirteen-foot waves and large eddies.  Brown became hypothermic and had to be rescued from the water, alongside several other struggling swimmers.  Here, Brown appears warm, calm, and contemplative with the island displayed behind her. Also notable are the Matisse-like colors and energy; she drew great inspiration from Matisse.

Joan Brown, After the Alcatraz Swim #3, 1976, Collection of Palm Springs Art Museum, gift of Steve Chase; © Estate of Joan Brown

Joan Brown, The Long Journey, 1981; di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, Napa, California; © Estate of Joan Brown; photo: Robert Berg Photography; courtesy di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, Napa.

Brown’s long-held fascination with Egyptology manifested into a trip to Egypt after she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1977. The trip ignited a passion in her. During the late 1970’s and into the 1980’s, she made a number of trips to Ecuador, the Amazon, Machu Picchu, China, India and Mexico. She often traveled alone and made a point of accessing remote destinations. She said the purpose of these journeys was to study ancient belief systems and she became increasingly focused on commonalities between symbols and spiritual pursuits.  She once reflected, “I’ve always thought of my fierce side as a tiger or jaguar or lion.” The tiger was Brown’s Chinese astrological symbol.  In The Long Journey, which is on loan from Napa’s Di Rosa Collection, Brown wears a sari and depicts herself triumphantly riding a tiger as does the goddess Durga in some Hindu traditions.  The scene references transcendence and a seamless passage into the next life.

During this period, Brown visited India frequently with her fourth husband Michael Hebel and they studied with their spiritual guru, Sathya Sai Baba. Brown had an intuition that her life would be short, and it was. Nine years after painting The Long Journey, Brown died at age 52 when a concrete turret collapsed on her and two assistants as they were installing an obelisk at Sai Baba’s Eternal Heritage Museum in Puttaparthi, India. Reflecting on the exhibition, I have deep admiration for Brown who was clearly self-made. She met professional success early on, at a time when women artists faced all sorts of barriers, but wasn’t satisfied. She succeeded by stepping back and embracing a unique artistic style that incorporated her own experiences and helped her process her growing quest for enlightenment. In her own words: “I’m not any one thing: I’m not just a teacher, I’m not just a mother, I’m not just a painter, I’m all of these things, plus.”

If you go, the wall texts are the most engaging I’ve experienced at SFMOMA—they’re rich with fascinating autobiographical details which make Brown’s paintings come to life, such as her experience being audited by the IRS after declaring her cat, Donald, as a tax write off for being the model in her 1982 painting Joan + Donald. (Brown won.)


“Joan Brown” closes Sunday, March 12, 2023 at SFMOMA.  Free entry with general admission. Tickets: free for SFMOMA members; $25 adults; $22  65 and older; $19 19-24 years; free 18 and under.  Save time and buy tickets online before coming to SFMOMA.  

Ragnar Kjartansson’s beloved ethereal video installation The Visitors (2012) is back at SFMOMA. This is a surcharged exhibition. For guaranteed entry to The Visitors, choose “The Visitors with GA” tickets. A limited number of additional tickets for this exhibition may be available onsite, capacity permitting.

March 3, 2023 Posted by | Art, SFMOMA | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment