Among the 160 Han artifacts on display at the Asian Art Museum’s dazzling new exhibit “Tomb Treasures: New Discoveries from China’s Han Dynasty,” many of objects in wood, bronze, and jade representing animals and mythical beings tap into powerful primal impulses and mythological associations we carry from many cultures, not just Chinese. In the Asian’s Osher Gallery, a bronze oil lamp in the naturalistic form of a crouching deer with its head raised to the heavens (2nd century BCE) seems deeply familiar. With its front mane extending almost all the way to ground and curved tail, this splendid creature evokes earlier heavily stylized Scythian deer except for the absence of looped antlers. We are left to ponder the influences of art created by early Eastern Eurasian nomadic tribes on Chinese art and what exactly is uniquely Chinese in this creature. The deer is an important motif for the Chinese, symbolizing longevity and wealth and this lamp is one of many examples of oil lamps with animal-like motifs from the Han era found in Han tombs. These exquisite lamps also played an important role in court life. Aside from their decorative allure, they provided illumination and, with better light in the evenings, people were able to extend their period of activity and entertainment began to thrive.
China’s Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), like the Roman Empire, forged one of the most powerful, advanced civilizations of the ancient world. Ruled by 29 emperors for over 400 years, the Han dynasty represents the first “golden era” of development in Chinese history, a time when China’s diverse ethnic groups experienced relative stability, social development and harmony. Tomb excavations are ongoing in China and, every so often, they unearth a major find. In 2014, Chinese archaeologists in Jiangsu province, Eastern China (somewhat near Shanghai), unearthed more than 10,000 objects from a cluster of more than 100 Han tombs, untouched for some 2,000 years. Jiangsu was the birthplace of Liu Bang (Emperor Gaozu, reigned 202-195 BCE), the founding emperor of the Han dynasty and Jiangsu was a center of concentrated wealth and culture. There, Han royalty lived extravagantly. They perceived of the afterlife as a form of existence much like their earthly one, requiring that basic subsistence needs be fulfilled as well those for spiritual enlightenment and entertainment. Many of the most fascinating possessions from this rich find and earlier Han excavations are on display at the AAM.
Co-curated by Jay Xu, director and CEO of the AAM, and Fan Jeremy Zhang, the museum’s senior associate curator of Chinese art, the Asian has outdone itself again offering three galleries of tomb treasures, many of which have never traveled outside of China. The show’s opulent lay-out, though, has people buzzing about its sheer design beauty. Marco Centin, Director of Exhibition Design, has placed these many of these precious objects in cases which afford 360 degree viewing and against rich Chinese red backdrops, symbolizing prosperity and good fortune.
The exhibition is organized into three areas themed according to popular Han-era adages found on various artifacts:
- Everlasting happiness without end (長樂未央): Luxurious life and palatial entertainment. Daily life, banquets and pastimes of the Han elites are accompanied by the music and dance of the court.
- Eternal life without limit (長生無極): Worship of jade and search for immortality. A tomb-like atmosphere allows visitors to explore ancient ideas about the afterlife.
- Enduring remembrance without fail (長毋相忘): Private life and intimacy at the court. Affairs of the heart expose secrets from the innermost chambers of men and women fascinated by pleasure.
There seems no limit to the Chinese mastery of jade and Han royalty took ancient China’s fascination to extreme belief that jade, a kind of amour for the afterlife, could protect human flesh from decomposition. The Hambrecht Gallery has transformed into a tutorial on Chinese Han burial culture and front and center is an an extremely rare jade burial suit fashioned for a ruler from over 2,000 linked rectangular jade tiles joined together with gold thread and affixed to a silk backing, a project that would have taken the most skilled jade smith over a decade to create. The suits are so rare because tomb looters would burn the suits to retrieve the gold.
Also on display is a huge coffin, thought to be the largest jade coffin the world, that was excavated recently at Dayun Mountain and reconstructed. This coffin has a patterned jade lining on its inside to protect the deceased. This stands in contrast to a similar coffin that was discovered some 20 years ago in the Jiangsu region’s Chu mausoleums which had elaborate patterned jade on its exterior. An “inside or outside” debate has raged among scholars as to whether the use of jade was consistent or different due to regional variations in coffin construction. In the same gallery, there are also evocative smaller jade dragon pendants which would have adorned the coffins of elite rulers.
In the Lee Gallery, the exhibit explores the interior spaces of the Han court and its plush amenities for personal hygiene including a toilet found in the Tuolan Mountain mausoleum and intriguing strap on bronze phalluses.
Free Performances: Music for the Afterlife
In celebration of Tomb Treasures, local instrument inventor group Pet the Tiger will team up with Gamelan Encinal, a musical ensemble, for a presentation featuring three centuries of instrument building. Custom-built instruments by musician Bart Hopkin, designed with the same tuning as the Han dynasty Bianzhong bronze bells, create a contemporary “orchestra” (or “gamelan”).
Each performance features percussion and wind instruments in rearrangements of traditional gamelan melodies, the graphic score of “Yantra Meditation” by local composer David Samas, and new compositions for special guest artists.
On March 19, at 12 noon and 2 PM, in the North Court, local instrument inventor Peter Whitehead performs haunting melodies for voice and overtone flute.
On April 16, Pet the Tiger and Gamelan Encinal perform new works for pipa (Chinese flute) and the Han bronze bells by Sophia Shen and Stephen Parris, with Ms. Shen as pipa soloist.
On May 7, the two ensembles will join forces with the Cornelius Cardew Choir to perform composer Brenda Hutchinson’s work “Last Words,” an inquiry and meditation that asks what we want to take with us to the afterlife — and what we want to leave behind. Guests of all ages are invited come early to so that they can join the orchestra by building their own instruments from everyday objects in the Education Studios: You can construct a soda straw oboe or boba straw pan pipes that can be tuned to the ancient scales of the bronze bells.
Details: Tomb Treasures: New Discoveries from China’s Han Dynasty closes May 28, 2017. The AAM is located at 200 Larkin Street near Civic Center. Parking is easy at Civic Center Plaza garage which offers a discount with your validated AAM ticket. (Get it stamped upon entry to the museum.) Hours: Tues-Sun: 10-5; Thursdays until 9 (end Oct 8); closed Mondays. Admission: General admission $20 weekday, $25weekend; Seniors, students, youth (13-17) $15 weekday, $20 weekend; 12 & under are free. 1st Sundays are free thanks to Target. You can pre-purchase your tickets, with no processing fee, online here.
A palm-sized white ceramic cup with two fine blue lines encircling its rim depicts colorful chickens tending their chicks and proud roosters amidst groups of rocks and flowers. At first glance, the cup appears to be a run-of-the-mill item that someone who liked chickens might pick up at a charity thrift shop and place in their kitchen window. But this is the renowned “chicken cup,” the most extraordinary type of early Ming multicolor porcelain in existence, which for centuries has been coveted by emperors, literati collectors and connoisseurs of Chinese art. It bears an imperial seal in a cobalt blue underglaze on its bottom indicating it was created during the reign of Ming Emperor Chenghua. Of course, it’s impossible to put a price on the priceless, but the 500 year-old Meiyantang Chenghua chicken cup, very similar, sold at auction in 2014 for $36.3 million. For the untrained eye, such are the surprises that await in the 150 objects on display at the Asian Art Museum (AAM) in their summer show, Emperors’ Treasures: Chinese Art from the National Palace Museum (June 17-Sept 18). Those more grounded in Chinese art will revel in the nuances of the crème de le crème of Chinese Imperial art selected by Jay Xu (AAM director) and Li He (AAM associate curator), co-curators of this show.
Considered the world’s top collection of Chinese art, the National Palace Museum was founded in 1965 and contains hundreds of thousands of the Imperial family’s extensive collections of artworks, artifacts and palatial treasures. In order to protect them from the ravages of war, these treasures were relocated to Taiwan from the National Palace Museum, in the Forbidden City, Beijing, in 1947 and from other hiding places in China at other dates. The collection rarely travels outside Asia and roughly 100 of the paintings, calligraphy, ceramics, jades, bronzes and textiles have never before been seen in the United States. The other 50 were shown at the Metropolitan Museum in the spring of 1996 when Jay Xu was a young curator there.
The exhibit spans 800 years of Chinese history, covering Han Chinese, Mongol and Manchu periods from the early 12th century Song dynasty though the Yuan, Ming and early 20th century Qing dynasties. The structure is chronological, following the reigns of nine monarchs, eight male and one female, each of whom heavily influenced the artworks of their respective eras. The team at the Asian, in close collaboration with Taipei, has done a wonderful job presenting the many aesthetic currents that ran through Chinese imperial art as Chinese emperors expressed their personal tastes and embraced various foreign innovations and influences. Wall placards provide rich context and full Chinese translations, while the audio-guide and catalog provide even more information.
“This is not a typical blockbuster art show in its scale,” says Dr. Richard Vinograd, Christensen Professor in Asian Art, Stanford, “but it’s very rich in terms of objects and art forms that are included over a very broad span of time. The value of these objects can be distinguished between their pure artistic value and connoisseurs’ or collectors’ values, which are attached to Imperial patronage, transmission, and technical innovations embodied in the works.” Indeed, some of these artworks are like people you meet who, initially, may not seem very interesting but once you get to know them, become thoroughly engrossing.
Emperors’ Treasures opens with an exploration of Emperor Huizong (r.1101-1125 AD), who sought escape from the affairs of state through the arts and letters. His connoisseurship had a formidable impact on the study of antiquities in China and he collected over 6,000 paintings, thousands of antiquities and bronzes, many of which were lost when the Jin army, which he was once in alliance with, invaded in 1127. A brilliant and dedicated calligrapher, Huizong invented the “Slender Gold” style of calligraphy, unlike anything that preceded it, which had such unique energetic brushstrokes that they are often described as the legs of dancing cranes. Huizong was enamored by anthropomorphic rocks and stocked his imperial garden with them, giving them names which were engraved on them. A Daoist poem he composed, which is in the show, praises the form of a particularly unique rock. Equally fascinating is Huizong’s back story: he sired over 65 children.
The well-known but quiet Southern Song dynasty painting “Walking on a Path in Spring,” illustrates important unresolved issues that apply to many paintings of the Song period and beyond. This ink drawing on silk is by Ma Yuan, one of the more famous court-affiliated artists of the fourth Southern Song dynasty emperor, Ningzong (r. 1195-1224). It depicts someone strolling and twisting his beard, his view extending into a misty void. A smaller figure (lower left) seems to be following him and carrying something. A bird sits on a branch and another is in flight, directing the viewer’s eye to the imperial couplet in the upper right, for which there are a variety of translations.
“The most interesting question is: what is the relationship between the poem and the painting and which came first?,” says Richard Vinograd. Even for the painter Ma Yuan, whose work is well known, very little is known about his life or about the status of court-affiliated artists during this period, explains Vinograd. “We do know that Ma Yuan had a big impact with his own work and was part of a multi-generational family of artists that were active in the Song Dynasty. Their stylistic mode was important for centuries thereafter as a model for later artists to refer to or imitate.” Vinograd will speak about the exhibit at the Asian Art Museum on Saturday, August 25, and will further explore the relationship between painting and calligraphy appearing in early paintings.
Emperors’ Treasures gives ample evidence of the great diversity of Chinese culture, highlighting non-Chinese rulers who were exceptional leaders and introduced new practices. The Mongol, Kublai Khan, grandson of Gengis Khan, become China’s first non-Chinese emperor in the late 13th century and founded the Yuan dynasty. The history is fascinating: the Mongols came in from the northwestern steppes around 1237 and finally overtook China in 1276, toppling the Song dynasty in the South. They also invaded what was then Iran, so the world’s two oldest cultures were under one rule. This expansion and unification of China led to a massive influx of artisans and craftsmen from all over the vast Mongol empire and great cross-pollination which had reverberations even in Italian art of the fourteenth century. Unlike other emperors in the exhibit who created art, Kublai expressed his taste through administrative acts that supported the arts. His unsigned bust portrait, likely produced by a court painter, is executed in the style of most all Imperial portraits: it depicts a flat two-dimensional, forward facing, remote leader. In plain Mongol dress and headdress, with a hairstyle of three braided loops hanging from behind the ear, Kublai is presented unambiguously as the emperor of China but as something foreign at the same time.
Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) porcelain reflected the craze for fine cobalt blue pigment which came from Iran and was used prevalently in Islamic art. Another quite ordinary looking treasure, important not for its style but for its exquisite deep blue color, this rare wine cup and saucer set came from the porcelain center in Jingdezhen. There, artisans mastered the use of cobalt for monochrome glaze and underglaze decoration and developed a new decorative element which involved applying gold over the vivid blue. Originally, the cup and saucer were decorated with gold motifs which have long since fallen away. Residue reveals that plum branches surrounded the exterior of the cup; these were a symbol of faith and self-esteem and were an important motif in Yuan art.
The use of cobalt would reach new heights during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) as would the fineness of porcelain explaining the enduring craze for Ming. Innovation in clay recipes allowed for vessels to become thinner and thus lighter. New body and glaze recipes produced a purer, more translucent white and a glossier finish which were even softer to the touch. The variation of shapes expanded too and Islamic influences crept into bottles, flasks, jugs, candleholders and boxes. Aside from the palm-sized chicken cup, several exquisite examples are in the exhibit, including a very large celestial globe vase with an imposing three-clawed, heavily-scaled flying dragon encircling the vase’s body. The vase’s neck and background are of delightful array of lotus flowers and leaves.
The richest art collection in Chinese history
Of the nine Imperial rulers covered in the exhibition, a stand-out is the fifth emperor of the Qing dynasty, Qianlong (r.1736-1795), a contemporary of George Washington. He reined for 60 years and together with his grandfather, Emperor Kangxi, and his father, Emperor Yongzheng, created the last and most prosperous of Chinese feudal dynasties. Even though Emperor Qianlong was thoroughly versed in Chinese and composed some 40,000 poems and enjoyed calligraphy, he was not Chinese but was a Manchu, like his father and grandfather. All were masters at deploying culture through patronage but Qianlong became the greatest art collector in Chinese history, amassing a collection of art and jewels that had been acquired by China’s leaders since the first century BC. There is no agreement by scholars about the exact size of his collection but the catalog (p.16) gives one estimate of 490,000 by Tsai Mei-Fen, the chief curator of the Object Division of the National Palace Museum.
“If you look over the broad span of this exhibit,” says Richard Vinograd, “the later examples of porcelains or objects from the 18th century Qing dynasty are often tour de force examples of structure or interesting enamel decoration. Their innovative shapes begin to reference other kinds of objects and are quite interesting historically.”
During Qianlong’s reign, revolving vases appear to have been introduced under the supervision of Tang Ying, the gifted director of the imperial factory. The yellow reticulated vase with revolving core and eight-trigram design in Emperors’ Treasures is one of the most complicated pieces of porcelain produced in Jingdezhen, a feat of artisanship and technical virtuosity. Each component was fired individually to create an inner vase of exquisite design which rotates when the neck of the exterior vase is turned.
Interestingly, Quianlong’s seals and poetry appear on a number of objects from different eras in the exhibition. A short poem dated fall 1776 and his Imperial seals “be virtuous” and “eloquent and fluid” are carved on the base of a deep blue Song dynasty ceramic pillow, called a “ruyi,” (wish-granting wand) referencing its graceful mushroom-shape and the magical powers of mushrooms. There’s no easy re-write when it comes to composing on a ceramic pillow but Qianlong made an error that has become permanent─he misidentified the pillow as coming from the Ru kiln and it did not, proving that he was misinformed. He also carved an eight-line poem on the base of a particularly gorgeous celadon glazed ru-ware vase from the Northern Song dynasty praising its “fresh blue” glaze, its tiny “nail like” spur marks, its “radiating fragrance even with no flowers present,” and its ceremonial function of the Hall of Ancestral Worship. One of his beloved personal objects, a stacking, multi-storied red-lacquered box of treasures, with special compartments for 44 of his prized objects, is a design feat. It is small enough to be carried and yet contains an ingenious series of compartments and drawers, nineteen of which housed special pieces of jade dating from ancient times as well as a compartment for its own small catalogue recording the contents and their location within.
After closing in San Francisco, the exhibition will travel to Houston Fine Arts Museum, with a slightly different set of treasures.
Richard Vinograd lecture, August 27, 10:30 – noon: “Emperors as Patrons, Participants, and Producers of Paintings” Richard Vinograd, Christensen Fund Professor of Asian Art, Dept. of Art and Art History, Stanford University and an advisor to the AAM’s Society for Asian Art will explore Emperor’s Treasures by examining the relationship between painting and calligraphy in early paintings, examining ways that painting can be said to have poetic qualities or to be illustrating poetry, an unresolved issue which has led scholars to propose many answers. Through case studies of several of the rulers and works represented in the exhibition, he will explore the sponsorship, design and fashioning of paintings from the 11th through 18th centuries. Dr. Vinograd completed his dissertation at U.C. Berkeley in 1979 on the Yuan dynasty artist Wang Meng (1308-85) whose scroll “Thatched House on the East Mountain” (1343), is part of the exhibition. He spent two years in Taipei (1972-74) studying Chinese and combing the archives of the National Palace Museum. $20 general public; $15 Society members (after Museum admission). Register online here to be guaranteed a place, or pay when you arrive.
Exhibition catalogue: A 272 page catalog, edited by Jay Hu and He Li accompanies the exhibition. Each of the essays by leading scholars in Chinese art and history stands on its own. Extensive object descriptions by AAM associate curator He Li constitute an easily understood and enjoyable journey into Chinese dynastic and visual culture.
Details: Emperors Treasures: Chinese Art from the National Palace Museum, Tapei closes September 18, 2016. The AAM is located at 200 Larkin Street near Civic Center. Parking is easy at Civic Center Plaza garage which offers a discount with your validated AAM ticket. (Get it stamped upon entry to the museum.) Hours: Tues-Sun: 10-5; Thursdays until 9 (end Oct 8); closed Mondays. Admission: General admission $20 weekday, $25weekend; Seniors, students, youth (13-17) $15 weekday, $20 weekend; 12 & under are free. 1st Sundays are free thanks to Target. You can pre-purchase your tickets, with no processing fee, online here.
interview: curator Karin Breuer─“Ed Ruscha and the Great American West,” at the de Young through October 9, 2016
Sixty years ago, Ed Ruscha, moved across country from Oklahoma to Los Angeles to study art at what would become Cal Arts. Ever since, the celebrated artist, now 78, has been exploring the West’s expansive cultural and physical landscape. “Ed Rusha and the Great American West,” at the de Young Museum through October 9, 2016, examines Ruscha’s fascination with the Western United States, shifting emblems of American life, and the effects of time on this restless landscape. Ninety-nine of the artist’s prints, photos, paintings, and drawings fill the de Young’s Herbst exhibition galleries on the bottom floor, giving us an opportunity to see the originals of artworks we all know from prints and posters, including his mythic Hollywood signs and Standard gasoline stations.
“Ed Ruscha defies easy categorization,” says Karin Breuer, who curated the show and is curator in charge of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, where she has worked for over 25 years, succeeding Robert Flynn Johnson. “He’s known as a pop artist, conceptual artist, surrealist and, early on, was identified with the West Coast pop movement, the so-called “cool school” of art. He’s adept at painting, photography, printmaking and has created wonderful artist’s books. He’s well known for using words as subjects in his imagery and letter forms.”
At the show’s press conference, I spoke with Breuer about Ed Ruscha and her framing of this expansive exhibit and our interview is below. I also spoke with Max Hollein, FAMSF’s new director, who headed Frankfurt’s Städel Museum and the Liebieghaus Sculpture Collection (2006-16) and the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt (2001-16). After 15 years in Deutschland, this German headed West to helm FAMSF, the largest public arts institution in Northern California, and officially began work on June 1. His impressive skill packet includes overseeing the Städel Museum’s expansion and its digital initiatives platform which entailed collaborating with the tech industry to make the museum’s collections fully and pleasantly accessible online. Naturally, he’s quite interested in working with the Bay Area’s tech industry as well. I asked him what attracted him to the Bay Area─
San Francisco is one of the most beautiful cities in the world and, right now, it’s filled with so much energy. There’s a real transformation occurring as it moves to an even higher level and our two museums will be a part of this rising tide. Basically, museums are not places that you visit; they are gathering places. I want to make our museums even more welcoming and relevant and part of that is making our education efforts even stronger and more connected to the contemporary culture.
There’s no better welcome to the Bay Area for Hollein, who says he has loved Ed Ruscha’s Hollywood signs “for ages”, than a huge show exploring Ruscha’s wry and poetic take American contemporary culture.
Here is my conversation with the savvy Karin Breur whose long-standing dialogue with Ruscha and hard work have produced a show with depth that is a delight to behold─
Why frame this show around the “Great American West”?
Karin Breuer: It was an easy and purposeful decision. I wanted to reverse a trend I’ve observed in exhibits with artists of Ed’s caliber─staying away from their ‘regionalism’ for fear that leads to a provincial look at an artist’s work. Instead, I thought, why not examine this. He’s been an artist who by choice went to school in Los Angeles and has lived there for 60 years and has depicted aspects of the West often in his work. As I kept looking more and more at the work, I realized there’s a story there from the very beginning, when he came out to art school at the age of 18 and traveled West from Oklahoma, all the way up to today where he’s looking at his Western environment and observing change. The show contains works from 1961 to 2014, a huge expanse of time, but it’s not a catch-all retrospective.
Has he drawn on the Bay Area at all?
Karin Breuer: No, not at all; it’s mostly the Southwest that has been his focus and stomping ground. Last night, however, I heard him say that it’s only recently that he’s come to appreciate San Francisco and the Bay Area. He’s decided that it’s the most beautiful city in the world but, he said, it may be ‘too beautiful’ for him to handle as subject in his art. There was kind a stay-tuned aspect to that though. He’s created a very interesting portfolio of prints called “Los Francisco San Angeles” where he combines street grids from both cities into one image and I think that’s the one effort that he’s made so far to connect the two cities. These are not in the exhibit.
Do you have a personal favorite?
Karin Breuer: I always thought I did but, every time I walk into the galleries, I seem to change my choice. I’m still very much in love with “Pyscho Spaghetti Western” and it’s because it depicts a roadway with a lot of garbage, trash, and debris that he has treated as beautifully as a still life. I find that so evocative of not only his quirky subject matter but also of the West and how it’s changed since he first took to the open roads in 1956.
What is the FAMSF’s collecting relationship with Ruscha? When did you really start building the collection?
Karin Breuer: Our relationship goes back to 2000, when we acquired Ruscha’s print archive and we came into a collection of over 350 prints at that time. He continues to contribute to this: each time he makes a print and it’s published, we get an impression of that print. He’s very prolific and we love that. We now have about 450 prints, one drawing, and one beautiful painting. For the new de Young building, we commissioned Ed to create a tripych─two panels that would be added to his 1983 painting “A Particular Kind of Heaven,” which we already had in our possession. You will see a lot of these works in the galleries.
What was his reaction to the show’s concept?
Karin Breuer: I pitched it to him early on and he liked it and he lent us works from his personal collection and helped facilitate loans from private collectors. Now that the show is up, he’s been very positive. This is a very appropriate time for this show as its Ed’s 60th anniversary in California.
Do you know if he has a favorite word?
Karin Breuer: No, and I think if you ask him, you won’t get a straight answer either. There are some words that appear in different forms. The word “adiós,” for example, also “rancho” and “rodeo”…those are three words that appear in different forms in my show, that he took on the in the 1960’s. I wouldn’t say that he continues to use them but they percolate in his vocabulary.
When did his fascination with words begin?
Karin Breuer: I know that in college, he had a job in a topography workshop and later he worked as a graphic designer, so words have been a part of his thinking for a very long time. He keeps lists of words that have captured his attention in notebooks and has said that words have temperatures and when those words become really hot that’s when he uses them in his art.
Now that you’ve spent a lot of time with his work, what makes it so powerful for you?
Karin Breuer: I think it’s the sense of humor that is in almost every single image; it’s wonderful─very dry, very laconic. He’s that kind of a personality too. I never cease to be amazed when I see something new coming from him─he’s got such a fertile mind, always thinking, always looking and discovering, and then reacting. Some of his latest paintings feature exploded tire treads that are called ‘gators’ by truckers. He treats these as beautiful objects and they almost look like angels’ wings. I just think to myself, that’s really unexpected, brilliant.
What sparked your interest in becoming a curator?
Karin Breuer: I’m the curator of prints and drawings and the inspiration came in college. I was a college as an art history student during the Vietnam War and there was a lot of social protest on campus. I was scratching my head thinking what does art history have to do with this? The world is changing, am I doing the right thing? A beloved professor of mine showed slides of Goya’s “Los Caprichos” and “The Disasters of War” and the light bulb went off. I said to myself ‘prints!’…they can have a political impact and everyone can afford prints…this is a very democratic medium. So, I went to graduate school to focus on prints and drawings, a realm of socially relevant art history.
What about your career at the de Young?
Karin Breuer: I’ve been here 31 years. When I joined in 1985 as an assistant curator, it was a pretty sleepy institution, as many museums were back in the day. I stayed on and worked my way up, which is kind of unheard of in the younger generations now days, but the Achenbach has only had three professional curators (E. Gunter Troche (1956-71); Robert Flynn Johnson (1975-2007), including myself. We’ve changed dramatically and dynamically and I have to say that I am absolutely thrilled about Max Hollein’s arrival here. Already, his energy and enthusiasm are having an impact on us.
Details: “Ed Rusha and the Great American West” closes October 9, 2016. Hours: The de Young is open Tues-Sun 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. and on Fridays (through November 25) until 8:45 p.m. Admission $22; with discounts for seniors, college students. Audio guides: $8. The de Young Museum is located in Golden Gate Park at 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive. Street parking is available for 4 hours and there is a paid parking lot with direct access to the museum.
“Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life” at The Broad, Los Angeles—ARThound interviews guest curator Philipp Kaiser
The Broad’s first special exhibition, Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life, up through October 2, 2016, explores the art world’s long-reining chameleon of identity, Cindy Sherman. Representing all phases of Sherman’s four decade career, the exhibition features 120 of Sherman works, drawn primarily from the Broad collection, with a few key works from other lenders. Visitors are greeted with two massive floor-to-ceiling murals created by Sherman especially for The Broad, reproductions of images from her “Rear Screen Projections” from the early 1980’s. The show proceeds in loose chronological order and takes up almost all of the spacious first floor galleries. Highlights include a wonderful wall of Sherman’s well-known 8 x 10 inch black and white “Untitled Film Stills” (1977-80) and, in a gallery featuring her classically composed “Historical Portraits,” there’s a lesser known Limoges porcelain tea set from the late 1980’s adorned with images of Sherman as Madame de Pompadour, Mistress of King Louis XV. Sherman’s only movie to date, “Office Killer,” the campy 1997 horror feature starring Molly Ringwald, plays in a small gallery. The exhibit concludes with Sherman’s newest work, created this year, shown in LA for the first time, which is inspired by silent film stars from nearly a century ago. On one hand, it is a rich survey of her work; on the other, it focuses on Sherman’s deep engagement with mass media, popular film, movie culture and the cinematic. What better place for these themes than LA, home of the movie industry.
There couldn’t be a more stunning backdrop for this exquisite tribute than the Broad itself, LA’s newest art museum, which opened in September 2015. Located in downtown Los Angeles on Grand Avenue, just next to Walt Disney concert hall, the Broad’s angular, honey-combed structure—the “veil”—and its striking central oculus, was designed by architects Diller, Scofido + Renfro, to the tune of $140 million. It showcases the 2,000 + contemporary artwork collection of philanthropists Eli and Edy Broad. At capacity at all times, the museum has become such an LA phenomena that its stand-by line has its own twitter account.
The Broads are Cindy Sherman’s most prolific collectors. She was the first artist that the couple collected in depth. At the June 2016 press conference for the show, Eli Broad recalled the first time that he and his wife encountered her work, at Metro Pictures in 1982. He was so impressed that he snapped up 20 photos, recalling they went “far beyond photography” and “reflected what was going on in society.”
Joanne Heyler, the museum’s founding director, explained that the couple essentially had a standing order for her work as it was created. “Their collection is the most comprehensive Sherman collection in existence, containing examples from every body of work she has made during her four decade career.”
Arthound jumped on the opportunity to interview guest curator Philipp Kaiser, former director of Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany and former senior curator of MOCA (Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art). The Swiss-born Kaiser works as an independent curator and art critic in Los Angeles and will curate the Swiss pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale. In addition to putting together the most comprehensive exhibit of Sherman you are likely to ever see, Kaiser made sure the show’s finishing touches reflect LA culture too. Hollywood notables Jamie Lee Curtis, Molly Ringwald, John Waters, and others contributed to the audio tour (download the app online here.) The catalog features Sofia Coppola (who went to Cal Arts and wanted to be an artist) in a casual conversation with Sherman about Marie Antoinette and Sherman’s history portraits. Now, on to the conversation with Kaiser—
What is the origin of the title “Imitation of Life” and who picked it?
Philipp Kaiser: Cindy picked it. I encouraged her to go for a cinematic theme and she came up with this title which refers to the 1959 Douglas Sirk melodrama with Lana Turner. Identity is at the core of this film. On a formal level, Hitchcock and Sirk, were very influential directors. All the artists of the 70’s—the so-called pictures generation—were looking at these filmmakers. Douglas Sirk was a big fascination for David Salle too. What artists liked about Sirk was the theatricality of his work. For example, whenever there was an outdoor scene, it was lit in blue and the indoor scenes were yellow. Sirk came from theater and, when you look at Cindy Sherman’s “Rear Screen Projections,” you see she appropriated these from film. Hitchcock, of course, relied on theatricality.
Was this your first time working with Cindy Sherman? What surprised you about her personality?
Philipp Kaiser: Yes. We had a lot of interaction—this is all collaboration, ideas going back and forth and they are then honed. The ideal exhibition is a perfect collaboration between artist and curator. She’s very insightful and there’s such depth but I found her very funny too in her own special way.
Explain the flow of the show.
Philipp Kaiser: It’s loosely chronological beginning in the first gallery with the fashion photographs from 1983 to 1993 and then you go back to 1982 in the next gallery and there’s a sense of this back and forth throughout. When you get to the dark room we’ve created, you see it respects the different series and the narrative of her career but it was very important for me to show how much these series are linked together and to point out connections. Sometimes, when things are shown separately, you lose sight of this. There are very interesting ‘hinge pieces’ in between the different series that link them.
Can you give an example of a hinge piece?
Philipp Kaiser: There are many fashion photos that serve that purpose. In one of the last galleries, there’s this piece that she made as a commission, with an outfit provided from the Chanel archives. You see so clearly that this Chanel landscape has a lot to do with the society portraits and with the older ladies who are the supporters of these museums and institutions. Also, when you look at her “History Portraits” from the late 1980’s which were created when she was so successful, that next thing she did was these big landscapes of vomit. That’s a very reactive series.
How much does she rely on digital technology to enhance her images?
Philipp Kaiser: She started to use digital technology in 2000 and you can really see this in the Chanel piece where the backdrop is very artificially constructed. The background landscapes are photos that she took on the island of Capri and in Iceland in 2010 during a volcanoic eruption. She manipulated these and gave them a painterly feel. The clowns on the green walls, which look like a green screen, are obviously made with digital backdrop. She still does that─she take pictures and uses them for backgrounds but they are digitally manipulated.
Is she doing all this work herself with no assistants?
Philipp Kaiser: Yes, she prepares herself and takes the photographs herself but has help manipulating the photos from young, computer savvy kids.
How did you emphasize her rootedness in the LA film culture and Hollywood?
Philipp Kaiser: From the very beginning, it was clear that this presentation in LA, the heart of the filmmaking industry, had to offer a very distinct perspective on the work. This is the first big Sherman show in Los Angeles since MOCA’s 1999 retrospective and it was created for LA. This exhibition starts in 1975 and goes all the way up to 2016 and you can see the influence of film from the very beginning. When you look at the gigantic murals reimagined from her “Rear Screen Projections” and at her “Untitled Film Stills” series from early in her career, you see her fascination with movie culture and the cinematic in terms of the narrative on many levels. Her work is about representation and mass media and representation is most powerful in the movies, when different roles are played. And it all ends with her newest works, inspired by the stars of the last century’s silent era.
Has she shifted her position about whether or not her works are autobiographical or not and if so what do you think might account for that?
Philipp Kaiser: I don’t think they are autobiographical. Of course, it’s always Cindy Sherman but it’s not about the self portrait. She’s not suggesting that there is a real Cindy Sherman; it’s more about the hall of mirrors Cindy Sherman showing herself in a play of roles. One day, she appropriates the role of desperate housewife and the next day, it’s another role. That’s how identity is being constructed and tested.
And these are parts of herself or parts of a broader cultural self?
Philipp Kaiser: The work is about the cultural self. A lot of people ask me if Cindy Sherman’s work is so successful because of the selfie culture and I would say it’s just the opposite. Seflies are about narcissism and about showing off your body or some feature. Her work is about something else, cultural stereotypes in mass media. What is really interesting about the new work is that that the society portraits are about aging. This is the reality of the artist getting older and that’s very interesting. It’s self-referential and she will talk about herself but it’s not about her.
Do you view the arc of her work as a search for the self? Early on, it didn’t reveal much—it was a tightly controlled act of putting on all these other faces and experimenting with them. Later, it seems that she is coming more to terms with herself and with the aging process.
Philipp Kaiser: I wouldn’t say it’s about a search for the true self but showing off how many selves there are and how constructed we are. It’s also about how we find our identity, or define ourselves, in fashion which you see clearly in the fashion photographs. The history photos all address representation on a different level─they talk about history, class, aging. There are many different levels. It’s not a search for identities but rather an acknowledgement or acceptance that our identities are pluralistic. It’s also very interesting that in her latest work Cindy Sherman is posing as a silent screen actress. So the work gets older as she gets older. These are very self-confident portraits.
Do you think she will move away from these photo series that she is so closely associated with?
Philipp Kaiser: She’s mentioned several times that she wants to work on a second movie and that’s very interesting. Her first movie, “Office Killer” (1997), is here in the show.
How has she influenced younger generations of photographers?
Philipp Kaiser: She uses photography but actually her work is very performative and what we see in the gallery is a photograph or an artwork but the process to get there is performative. Many artists can relate to this post feminist deconstructive aspect where she really takes things apart. She has been highly influential for two or three generations of artists now.
Details: The Broad
Admission to The Broad is free, but admission to the special exhibition “Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life” is $12 for visitors over 18. The show runs through October 2, 2016. It is recommended that visitors book tickets in advance online to ensure a specific entry date and time. For more information about ticketing: https://ticketing.thebroad.org/
If you go…Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Room, a mirror-lined chamber housing a dazzling and seemingly endless LED light display. This experiential artwork has extremely limited capacity, accommodating one visitor at a time for about a minute, and requires a separate free timed same-day reservation which ticket holders are able to reserve, pending availability, after arrival at the museum at a kiosk in the center of the lobby. Time in the Infinity Mirrored Room cannot be reserved in advance of your visit. Due to the limited capacity of the installation, not all visitors are able to experience it, as the queue for viewings usually books up early in the day. This installation will be on view through October 2017.
Details: Travel to/from Los Angeles in one day
Air Transportation: Both Alaska Air and American Airlines operate nonstop flights from Santa Rosa’s Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport to LAX. ARThound departed from Santa Rosa at 6 a.m. on an Alaska Air flight ($109 each way) and arrived in Los Angeles at 7:30 a.m. I flew back at 8:30 p.m. and arrived in Santa Rosa at 10:15 p.m. Short-term parking was $14 at the Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport.
Los Angeles ground transportation is easy: Upon arriving at LAX, I walked outside the terminal and took an “LAX FlyAway” bus from the curbside for $9 to Union Station. FlyAway buses depart every hour and go to all terminals and take roughly one hour to get to Union Station. At Union Station, I took the metro. I purchased a TAP card and loaded it up with $10 for the day, which left me with plenty of money for my next visit to LA. I used the online LA Metro Trip Planner to pre-plan getting from Union Station to The Broad and from the Broad to the Getty Center in Santa Monica and back to LAX in the early evening. Each metro ride is $1.75 and transfers to buses are allowed. I took the Metro Red Line to Pershing Square Station, exited and walked roughly .25 miles to The Broad, and arrived just before it opened.
I departed The Broad at noon in order to also visit the Getty Center in Santa Monica. Using public transportation required a metro ride and a bus ride and took almost 1hour and 45 min. I arrived at the Getty Center at roughly 2:40 PM which gave me 2.5 hours to see two shows before their 5:30 p.m. closing time. I saw Cave Temples of Dunhuang (closes Sept 4) and Robert Maplethorp: The Perfect Medium (closes July 31). The Dunhuang exhibit featured three scale replica caves, a virtual immersive 3-D experience that guides you into the 8th century Mogao site, and an exhibit of documents and artifacts discovered in the Library Cave along with paintings and sculptures from other caves that shed light on the history of Buddhism.
On the way back from the Getty, I took a 5:30 p.m. bus from the Getty Center to downtown Santa Monica and caught the Santa Monica FlyAway to LAX, arriving just in time for my flight. The Santa Monica FlyAway will be discontinued effective September 6, 2016 which means a taking an alternative route. Ample bus service is available.
What! You’ve never heard of artist Tyrus Wong? The Asian Art Museum and CAAMFest will honor this living legend starting Wednesday, March 9, 2016
Unless you caught his wonderful retrospective at the Walt Disney Family Museum two years back, Tyrus Wong is a name that most people can’t place readily. At 105 years young, this pioneering Chinese American artist has touched all of us through his innovative art for films like Rebel Without A Cause and Walt Disney Studio’s classic 1942 animation film Bambi. Wong’s impressionistic conceptual art grabbed the attention of Walt Disney himself and Wong became essentially responsible for the evocative style that we associate with the beloved Bambi and he created much of the film’s background landscapes. But that was just the beginning of this exceptional artist’s diverse artistic career as a painter, illustrator, calligrapher, muralist, designer, Hollywood sketch artist, ceramicist, and kite maker. At 105, he is Americaʼs oldest living Chinese American artist and one of the last remaining artists from the golden age of Disney animation. On Wednesday, March 9th, at 4:00PM in the Asian Art Museum’s Peterson Room, CAAM (the Center for Asian American Media), the Asian Art Museum and the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation will ensure that Wong is long remembered in the Bay Area. San Francisco District 1 Supervisor Eric Mar will present a Tyrus Wong Day proclamation in honor of the artist. The next day, CAAMFest 2016 celebrates Wong on the big screen with the Bay Area premiere of Pamela Tom’s award-winning documentary, Tyrus, selected as the opening night film.
On Wednesday, Tyrus, will also be signing one of his unidentified large paintings, which had been unattributed for decades, “Chinese Jesus.” The 85 x 75 inches painting was rediscovered recently by CAAM board member David Lei in the attic of the Chinese Methodist Church in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Wong will be joined by his daughter, Kim, and Tyrus director, Pamela Tom. The painting will be on display at the Asian Art Museum on Thursday, March 10th, for one day only. The public is invited to view the signed piece during regular museum hours and during CAAMFest’s Opening Night Gala, which takes place at the Asian that evening at 9:30 p.m., following the screening.
“That it was first in Los Angeles in late 1920’s and made its way here is an amazing discovery,” explained CAAM, Executive Director, Stephen Gong, who spoke with ARThound at the CAAMFest press conference in February. “This came to our attention some 5 years ago. Tyrus was in the process of being made and our board member, David Lei, was poking around the Great Star Theatre in Chinatown, looking at old opera scenery backdrops, and his memory was triggered about a painting he had seen as child in a local church of a Jesus that he felt might have been done by the same artist. He did some research and spoke with scholar Mark Johnson at San Francisco State, who told him that Tyrus Wong was around at the time and might be able to identify the artist. When Tyrus’ daughter, who was about 80, spoke with him about it, he said it ‘might be’ one of his. I was flabbergasted. It took David several months to investigate this. The next time Tyrus came to town, he brought him to the Jesus painting, which he had found, and it was confirmed.”
Right now, Stephen Gong explained, the painting is “in between lives.” The Chinese Methodist Church in Chinatown stills owns the painting but they have loaned it to the Asian Art Museum, where CAAM board member, David Lei, is also on the board. Lei is trying to drum up interest to get it restored and to place it in a Bay Area museum, like the de Young or the Asian.
“Tyrus could well have been a major figure early on, but no Chinese artist in the 1930’s was going to be recognized by the art establishment especially when it wasn’t recognizing West Coast artists of any background, ” added Stephen Gong.
Pamela Tom’s Tyrus opens CAAMFest 2016: Tom’s emotionally inspiring documentary paints a beautifully intimate portrait of Tyrus Wong, eloquently exploring his childhood arrival at the Angel Island Immigration Station, the evolution of his voice and legacy and the formation of what he views as his greatest achievement, his family.
CAAMFest 2016─an 11 day celebration of Asian-American and Asian film, food, music opens this Thursday, celebrating its 34th year with a program that celebrates and explores the breadth of the Asian and human experience. This year’s program all things Asian includes no less than 10 world premieres, 23 narrative features, 16 feature documentaries and dozens of other films and thoughtfully-curated events that run for 8 days in various locales in San Francisco and then move on to Oakland for a long final weekend. Learn more about Tyrus and CAAMFest 2016 at www.caamfest.com/2016
Straight from the designer’s mouth─Charles Renfro discusses the new BAM/PFA building opening January 31, 2016
ARThound was delighted to attend Charles Renfro’s talk today to a full house at Berkeley’s First Congregational Church which covered the conception and design of the new BAMPFA, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archives. The new space opens this Sunday, January 31, 2016. Renfro is partner at New York interdisciplinary design studio, Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) and lead partner for his firm’s participation in the $112 million five-year long project which has transformed a 1939 printing plant on Berkeley’s Center Street into a multi-layered museum complex boasting gentle curves and a haute steel skin that catches the light and casts intricate shadows. Renfro spoke about the new BAMPFA in the context of the firm’s numerous global projects and resonances with the inaugural exhibition, Architecture of Life, which explores the ways that architecture—as concept, metaphor, and practice—illuminates aspects of life experience.
It’s always fascinating to hear artists and designers talk about their work. Renfro scattered his talk with fascinating references to the principles (risk-taking, generosity) that excite him and that DS+R aims to impart in their projects and a great deal of his personality comes through in the clip I’ve posted. I haven’t had a chance to tour the museum yet; that comes later in the week, so I’ll save my comments on the inner core until I’ve had an intimate encounter. Here’s Renfro.
More free talks: A series of free Wednesday noon lectures “Perspectives on the Architecture of Life” will be held through April 20 at the new BAMPFA Theatre. These two hour sessions (roughly one hour lecture and Q&A) include a variety of wonderful guest artists, curators, and scholars covering fascinating topics under the themes of exhibitions and performance; performance and place; and place and nature. For more information, visit http://www.bampfa.berkeley.edu/program/perspectives-architecture-life.
Project overview: The BAMPFA project repurposes the Art Deco–style former UC Berkeley Printing Plant at the corner of Center and Oxford Streets in downtown Berkeley, and integrates it with an entirely new modern stainless-steel-clad structure. At roughly 83,000-square-foot, the building features serene spaces for experiencing art and film, including 25,000 square feet of gallery space, two film theaters, a multipurpose performance space, four study centers for art and film, a reading room, an art-making lab, and an external LED screen and plaza for outdoor film screenings.
Architecture of Life, January 31–May 29, 2016: BAMPFA’s inaugural exhibition in the new building is Architecture of Life, which explores the ways that architecture—as concept, metaphor, and practice—illuminates aspects of life experience. With an international selection of over 250 works of art, architectural drawings and models, and scientific illustrations made over the past two thousand years, the exhibit will occupy all of the gallery spaces in the new BAMPFA.
Details: BAMPFA is located at 2155 Center Street, Berkeley, 94704. The official opening is January 31,2016. Visit the website http://bampfa.org/visit for information on special programming associated with the opening of the museum and film programming.
Review: “Looking East,” tracing Japan’s impact on 19th century Western artists─at the Asian Art Museum through February 7, 2016
When US Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Japan’s Edo Bay in 1853 and forced Japan to sign trade agreements with Europe and North America, the island nation opened up to the West after been virtually isolated for two centuries. This set off a frenzy for all things Japanese, particularly art. European and North American collectors and artists went crazy for the sophisticated woodblock prints of artists such as Utagawa Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai and Japanese aesthetics had a profound impact on Western artists who were hungry for inspiration. Meanwhile, the French coined the term “Japonisme” to describe works made in Europe and the U.S. that incorporated motifs and aesthetic principles from this new imagery from Japan.
Looking East: How Japan Inspired Monet, Van Gogh, and Other Western Artists, which opened at the Asian Art Museum (AAM) on October 30, is a fascinating travelling exhibition organized by Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFAB). It was just in Tokyo and makes the final stop of its international tour at the Asian. It features over 170 artworks and decorative objects from the MFAB’s exquisite collection of Japanese art─the finest in the world outside of Japan─as well as its Impressionist and post-Impressionist masterpieces from painters Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, Mary Cassat, Edgar Degas, Paul Gaugin and others.
The novel thing about this exhibition is that the curators have placed Japanese and American and French artworks side by side so that viewers can evaluate how Western artists assimilated these new thematic and formal approaches, making it very engaging for all ages and experience levels, which the Asian excels at. The exhibition is organized into four thematic areas─ women, city life, nature and landscape─ which explore the hallmarks of Japanese art around the turn of the century. Dr. Helen Burnham, the MFAB Pamela and Peter Voss Curator of Prints and Drawings, is the head curator, while Dr. Laura Allen, curator of Japanese art, and Dr. Yuki Morishima, assistant curator of Japanese art, are the AAM curators responsible for its installation here in San Francisco.
“This is the first major exhibition from our collections to examine the profound impact Japanese art and culture had on Western artists around 1900,” said Helen Burnham . “This was a seminal moment in Western and European art─both artists and collectors came to Japanese art with fresh eyes and a readiness to move past conventions.”
“What we’re doing at the Asian is exploring Asia’s global reference and Looking East is a perfect example,” said AAM director Jay Xu, who has made it his mission to rebrand the Asian, shifting the emphasis away from museum and more towards an exciting environment where people can discover their own personal connections to Asian art and culture.
Xu pointed out that many people love Claude Monet’s familiar 1900 painting “The Water Lily Pond” and are even aware that Monet had an actual Japanese style arched bridge in Giverny but they’ll be surprised to see that the bridge in the Monet is “almost a copy” of the bridge in Utagawa Hiroshige I’s “Bamboo Yards, Kyobashi Bridge,” from his 1857 series “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo.” With the artworks next to each other, such comparisons are possible. In the landscape section of the exhibition, you’ll also see how Monet was inspired by a wind-blown tree from a Hiroshige print and used it in his “Seacoast at Trouvelle,” (1881). Monet moves away from the Western established tools of perspective and shading and uses the tree to block out the composition’s vanishing point and bands of vibrant color to activate the painting’s surface.
Vincent van Gogh too was heavily inspired by Japanese art, particularly the small unpretentious woodblocks, snapshots of everyday life in Japan, that arrived in droves in France in the 1860’s often as wrapping for porcelain products that were exported to Europe. These prints depicted kabuki actors, geisha and famous landscape scenes, like Mt Fuji. When Van Gogh arrived in Paris in 1886, the Impressionist revolution was in full swing and he realized how important the Japanese influence was on the experimental Impressionists who rejected the rules of the French art academy. Van Gogh built a collection of some two-hundred woodblocks prints and began to copy these compositions on with oil on canvas.
At the Asian, you’ll see van Gogh’s “Postman Joseph Roulin” from 1888 hanging with an Edo period woodblock from Utagawa Kunisada I of a Kabuki actor. The influences here are subtle but the inspiration is clear, according to Asian curator Laura Allen who pointed out that Van Gogh and other Impressionists were increasingly interested in scenes of everyday life and that the physical surface of the woodblocks were fascinating to these artists. “These woodblocks prints were produced quickly with layers of color─it would have taken too much time to use too many colors or patterns─so the compositions lacked depth, had large areas of flat space and relied on strong lines,” said Allen. Van Gogh’s composition has a very flat background, an angularity in the arms and is a portrait of a common working man in society, just like the Kabuki actors.
American born Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) left the U.S. at age 22 to study art in Paris where she developed an interest in the techniques of the Impressionists who were painting everyday scenes that stressed the importance of natural light and shadow in clear color. She too was an avid collector of woodblock prints by Harunobi, Utamaro and Hisoshige. In the 1890’s, she created a series of ten color etchings that permitted her to imitate the simplicity found in Japanese composition and color techniques. At the Asian, her, “Maternal Caress” (circa 1902), an informal portrait of a child clinging to its mother’s neck as she brushes its cheek with a kiss, employs a high vantage point and the intimacy and affection between mother and child. Both of these were common in Japanese art according to Helen Burnham. Hanging close to the Cassatt is Kikugawa Eizan’s woodblock of a mother and child in a similar pose and we can feel the tender bond between them.
Tis the Season─the catalogue is gift worthy: At 127 pages, the exhibition’s stylish and informative catalogue Looking East: Western Artists and the Allure of Japan (about $26, 2015) is full of large photographs with chapters authored by curator/editor Helen Burnham, Sarah E. Thompson and Jane E. Braun, all from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, that reflect on the phenomena of Japonisme and its rich contributions to the West in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Details: Looking East closes February 7, 2016. The AAM is located at 200 Larkin Street near Civic Center. Parking is easy at Civic Center Plaza garage which offers a discount with your validated AAM ticket. (Get it stamped upon entry to the museum.) Hours: Tues-Sun: 10-5; Thursdays until 9 (end Oct 8); closed Mondays. Admission: AAM Members: free. Adults: general admission w/Looking East $20 weekdays, $25 weekends; Seniors, students, youth (13-17) $15 weekdays, $20 weekends; child (12 and under) free. Reserve your tickets online here.
The horses of Cavalia’s Odysseo are so enthralling they seem to have stepped right out of a dream world. With more horses, performers and acrobats than ever, the internationally acclaimed show opened November 19, in San Francisco, just in time for the holidays. Eight years in the making, this is Normand Latourelle’s latest extravaganza and the Cirque du Soleil and Cavalia co-founder has outdone himself. Odysseo, the second Cavalia Inc. show, had its premiere in Montreal in 2011 and has travelled the globe to be seen by over 4 million fans. The show combines 45 riders, gymnasts and aerialists with 65 magnificent horses on a sweeping arena of sand and dirt, performing stunningly choreographed vignettes that will have you on the edge of your seat. Odysseo takes the audience on a soulful journey to some of nature’s greatest wonders, moving from the Mongolian steppes to Monument Valley, from the African savannah to Nordic glaciers, from the Sahara to Easter Island, and even to a lunar landscape. While the show is a lavish spectacle of beauty, muscle and grace, it never loses touch with the heart-touching affectionate connection between human and horse. Stay tuned to ARThound for an interview with rider Spencer Elizabeth Rose, a native of Exeter, (Tulare County) California.
Performance Details: Odysseo opens Thursday, November 19 and closes January 10, 2016.
Location: All performances at the Cavalia Big White Top Tent, adjacent to AT&T Park, San Francisco.
Tickets: General Admission: $44.50 to $154.50. VIP “Rendez-vous” package: $229.50 to $264.50 includes the best seats in the house, pre-show buffet dining and open wine bar, desserts during intermission and a post-show stable tour. Special pricing for children (2-12), juniors (13-17) and senior citizens (65+). Call (866) 999-8111 or www.cavalia.net
Parking: On site parking is available for a charge.
Artist Janet Cardiff’s “The Forty Part Motet,” a musical sanctuary for the soul, at Fort Mason Center’s new Gallery 308
There are several spine-tingling moments in the 16th century court composer Thomas Tallis’ devotional choral work “Spem in Alium” which expresses man’s hope and trust in the Lord. Canadian sound artist Janet Cardiff’s immersive sound installation, “The Forty Part Motet,” quite literally teases them out. Forty speakers on six-foot tall stands are arranged in an oval. Visitors can walk throughout the installation and hear the individual unaccompanied voices─bass, baritone, alto, tenor and child soprano─one part per loudspeaker─ of 40 choir singers, who were recorded in England’s Salisbury Cathedral as well as the melded symphony of choral sounds, altogether creating a transcendent experience.
Last Thursday, installation was unveiled at Fort Mason Center’s new Gallery 308, making it the space’s inaugural exhibition and first time the installation has been shown in California. Cardiff’s exquisite layering of the voices creates a profound and intimate experience even within a public space. I can’t recall the last time I slowed down enough to be still and quiet for any significant length of time. As I took in the music, the hairs rose on my arms and tears welled. I stayed for four playings. ( The 14-minute piece is a continuous audio loop, comprised of 11 minutes of singing and a three minute interlude.) With the horror that unfolded in Paris over the weekend and uncertainty about what might follow, and the march of the pending holidays, centering oneself in this immersive musical experience is nurturing and healing. I can’t wait to go back.
Cardiff’s contemporary re-working of this classic was created 14 years ago, in 2001 and the piece has since travelled the world. Cardiff originally studied photography and print-making before experimenting with sound and moving image. She grabbed the attention of the art world in the mid-1990s with her site-specific works which explored the sculptural and physical attributes of sound and often had actual physical impacts on the viewers. Born in Canada, she currently lives in rural British Columbia, and works in collaboration with her husband and partner, George Bures Miller. Cardiff and Miller’s pivotal moment came in 2001, when they represented Canada at the 49th Venice Biennale and won the Biennale’s Premio Prize and Benesse Prize. Their artwork was “Paradise Institute” which recreated a 16 seat movie theatre and entangled viewers so that they became witnesses to a possible crime playing out on screen and within the audience─an idea that was cutting edge at the time. The couple’s work has been included top-tier exhibitions and biennales ever since. Recently, they participated in Soundscapes at London’s National Gallery, the 19th Biennale of Sydney in 2014, and dOCUMENTA (13).
“The Forty Part Motet’s” appearance in San Francisco marks a pivotal time for its two co-presentors─Fort Mason Center and SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). It marks a new beginning for Gallery 308, which is a gorgeous light-filled 4,000 square-foot gallery space with views of the San Francisco Bay and the Marin neighborhood. The space originally housed Fort Mason’s maritime trade and repair shops and its three-year renovation was undertaken by Jensen Architects, the creators of SFMOMA’s acclaimed roof-top garden.
“Fort Mason Center has been around for 40 years and it’s been viewed as a rental space,” said Mark Tao, CFO, Fort Mason Center. “We’ve gone through a re-imaging process to put contemporary art at the forefront. Gallery 308 was once ‘military building 308,’ so we’ve reclaiming something from the past in our name which fits our industrial chic look. We worked for over two years to bring this work here and we’re very proud.”
Other changes are in the air at Fort Mason Center too. The San Francisco Art Institute, which currently has campuses in Russian Hill and Dogpatch, is moving to Pier 2 and will start construction there next year. FLAX art and design store recently opened a 5,000-square-foot store in Building D, after losing their space downtown.
Cardiff’s installation marks the grand finale for SFMOMA’s On the Go programming—the museum’s dynamic off-site art events while its building is closed for expansion construction. (Click here to read about SFMOMA’s 2013 collaboration with the Sonoma County Museum.) The new SFMOMA will open in spring 2016. Cardiff’s installation is actually on loan from Napa collectors Pamela and Richard Kramlich’s world-renowned holdings of video and media art. Rudolf Frieling, curator of media arts at SFMOMA was pivotal in orchestrating the loan.
Cardiff’s solo works have long been a part of SFMOMA’s collection and the museum additionally commissioned two audio and video works by Cardiff: Chiaroscuro 1 (1997), made for the exhibition Present Tense: Nine Artists in the Nineties; and The Telephone Call (2001), featured in 010101: Art in Technological Times.
ARThound chats with Janet Cardiff and George Miller
I had a chance to chat privately with Janet Cardiff just before Thursday’s press preview and with her husband/collaborator George Miller in the gallery while the work was playing. Here’s our conversation─
You’ve installed this work in so many spaces now, from those that are overtly spiritual to those that much more secular; what is special about this space here in San Francisco, set against the backdrop of the Bay?
Janet Cardiff─What first and foremost matters to me is the acoustics of the space, how the voices sound to me in the space and it works quite nicely here. The visual is beautiful but the power is in the sound. I like this space because, when you’re looking out, the music serves as a backdrop, like a filmic score of the city and the water. I also like the roughness of the space, its rawness that echoes what it used to be. Because it’s painted white, it’s also very pristine, very contemplative which works with the spirituality of the piece, its whiteness and a light
Is this a spiritual artwork?
Janet Cardiff─Oh yes, Thomas Tallis most definitely wrote this for that purpose with words like “I put all my faith in you, my Lord.” When he was writing, he was very aware of the voices going up into the cathedrals like angel voices. It’s inspired me in many ways, on many levels. I’ve learned so much about absence and presence. Every single speaker is an individual recording of a singer, so each speaker in the space becomes that person. The choir was recorded singing together in a room but the singers were spaced apart and every singer had a microphone. So, it does become very anthropomorphic and a virtual representation of those people. It’s like these people, too, are stopped in time. This setting brings me right back to PS1, its first showing, with these windows overlooking the city. I was reminded of the potency of music to move you and of such a brilliant composition from Thomas Tallis which creates such an emotional release for people. Also, the whiteness of the space adds to the spiritual quality of the piece.
Do you have a particular interest in old music? How was this particular piece brought to your attention?
Janet Cardiff─I was recording in England and one of the singers I was working with gave me a cd of Tallis because she recognized that I liked three-dimensional sound. And that always been an interest of mine, this idea that sound is an invisible media but, at the same time, it affects you emotionally, actually going into your body in a way that something visual can’t. It’s also fascinating that you also aware of it subconsciously in a sculptural way….I immediately saw this as all around me and became so fascinated with the piece. With a lot of finesse, expertise and hard work and with the help of my husband and my producer in England, we were able to record it with the Salsbury Cathedral choir, who were not all professionals. I wanted to work with children for the soprano voices. We brought in singers from all over England for a recording session that was very intense. We had about three hours of recording material and edited it down to the price it is today. I found it very interesting, from the very beginning, to make this virtual choir of a piece from the 1500’s. I knew the piece was written in a religious context, like a lot of music then, but I really did not know that it would have the type of effect that it has on people in all these different environments.
What is the best way to describe it?
Janet Cardiff─Sound is very sculptural for me. I don’t usually make definitions which tend to limit how people might experience the work but this is an installation, a virtual choir.
As a technician what does it mean to be happy with the sound in this space?
George Miller─I’m pretty happy right now. Actually, Titus Maderlechner tuned this piece, I’m just a collaborator but I used to set this up before Titus came on. Every space absorbs the frequencies in a different way so when it moves to a new place, tuning is required to make sure that it feels right, right being appropriate to the piece. At first, the bass (the lower register voices) weren’t coming through because glass in this space was absorbing the sound and they weren’t getting the presence they needed. We brought those voices up to fill the space more. The space also responded to the sopranos and sounded too harsh, so we had to work with that too.
Everyone talks about the Cloisters as “the place” but Janet and Titus set that up and I wasn’t there. For me this is as good as it gets, the sound is so clear. I was tearing up and I’ve heard this thousands of times. For me, it never gets boring and it always gives me a reaction. If I don’t get that reaction, which is a tingling up and down my spine, then I know I have to make it do that.
Details: The Forty Part Motet by Janet Cardiff runs through January 18, 2016 at Gallery 308, Fort Mason Center, Landmark Building A, 2 Marina Blvd, San Francisco, 94123 (Greens Restaurant is at the other end of this building.) Hours: Wednesday-Saturday: noon to 8 PM; Sunday: 11 AM to 5 PM. Closed: Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day. Tickets: Admission is free but complimentary tickets are required for entry and can be reserved at motettickets.org. Due to high demand, visitors are advised to reserve tickets well in advance. A limited number of same-day walk-up tickets will be available to visitors throughout the installation. Follow #40PartMotet for availability. Parking: ample paid parking is available on an hourly basis at Fort Mason Center and payment is via credit card in machine.
Venice’s Biennale Arte 2015 closes with a full weekend of events that will take place from Friday 20th to Sunday 22nd November, at the Central Pavilion, Giardini, Arsenale and Giardino delle Vergini. This was my first time to attend the sprawling exhibition which opened May 9 and included over 80 national shows and a main exhibition curated by Nigerian-born Okwui Enwezor. Generlly, the national pavilions are where politics play out but, this year, Enwezor’s general theme “All the World’s Futures,” which involved 136 artists from 53countries, turned out to be highly political with a large number of artists lobbing harsh and complex critiques of the forces behind the global economy. Look for my article on ARThound just after the event closes.