Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Infantas of Manolo Valdes

Close to a dozen large sculptures by the Spanish artist Manolo Valdes have suddenly sprung up in the Civic Center Plaza and greeted us on our way home from Palm Springs.

The large women's heads with fanciful metal headgear will be standing there through the summer in another "temporary" public art exhibition put on by the San Francisco Arts Commission.

It seems to be a similar arrangement to the Louise Bourgeois spider on the Embarcadero (click here), where an art dealer in New York, in this case the Marlborough Gallery, lends out a famous artist's work to sit in the open air in San Francisco in the hope that a rich collector will buy it for themselves or the city at large.

On Tuesday afternoon at 5PM, with the winds whipping through the plaza, various dignitaries like PJ Johnston congratulated themselves...

...and other commissioners for bringing "world-class" public art to San Francisco...

...while praising the "visionary, forward-looking, and impatient" Mayor Gavin Newsom, who showed up late to the ceremony.

The General Manager of San Francisco's corrupt and ineffective Rec & Park Department, the Nigerian Yomi Agunbiade, also joined in the hosannahs for our brilliant, forward-thinking Mayor...

...and was followed by Newsom, who uttered a few cliched banalities that were painful to listen to. What was fun was waiting to see if his industrial strength hair gel would stand up to the ferocious winds in the plaza, and it did, just barely.

The most charming moment arrived with the short speech of the 66-year-old artist himself (above left), which was haltingly translated by the gentleman on his right.

It was obvious that Valdes was tickled pink with having his work displayed in this very public "espacio," and I look forward to getting to know his Velasquez-inspired Infantas over the summer.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Life is good. For illiterates.

The only bookstore in downtown Palm Springs closed their doors a couple of months ago...

...and in its place a retail outlet has opened selling "Life is good." merchandise.

The brand was started by a pair of Boston brothers, Bert and John Jacobs, in 1994 (click here for their company history)...

...and it's a weird melange of "The Power of Positive Thinking" and whimsical, graphical childishness...

...printed on cheap cotton clothing and just about anything else one can think of that usually features a logo, such as golf balls.

For this Palm Springs grand opening, the brothers had arrived with two whimsical race cars covered in positive slogans...

...and they were also signing copies of their $20 cutesy book with little drawings and positive sayings, which was sincerely depressing since they were doing so in front of a recently deceased bookstore.

The message and its presentation obviously appeals to people since the company is now a $100 million plus enterprise, though Bert (above left) still looks like a Southern California surfer.

My favorite moment was the next morning, when the woman who had opened the store (looking seriously at the camera above), was in front of me in a line at a coffee place across from her store. She was decked out in "Life is good." merchandise from head to toe and was obviously in an impatient mood because whatever she said to the young Goth baristo was so nasty that he reeled back as if struck. When it was my turn, I gave him an amused look and said, "Life is good. Not." and I think I may have a new friend for life.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Julius Shulman: Palm Springs

The Palm Springs Art Museum currently has a smashingly good exhibit of the Palm Springs architectural photography of Julius Shulman, who I had never heard of before, even though just about every iconic photograph of Southern California Modernism was taken by him.

In concert with the exhibit, a Rizzoli coffee-table art book has just been published that's the most beautiful book about Palm Springs I've ever seen, focusing on Shulman's collaborations with eight modernist architects, including Richard Neutra and Albert Frey, along with the work of a few significant others.

The book was written by Michael Stern and Alan Hess (above) and includes graceful essays on Palm Springs' architectural history and how it was conveyed to the world at large through Shulman's commercial lens, which include some of the most gorgeous black-and-white photographs I've seen in my life.

Since so much of the architectural work has either been torn down or rehabbed in disastrous ways, the book also has the feel of an artistic and political manifesto.
"There is still much of Palm Springs that is not well known. It should be, though. Shulman has been regularly adding to his exploration of Palm Springs for seventy years. The story of Palm Springs architecture has been sitting there that entire time, and yet it has been only in the past decade or so that the architectural community (let alone the wider world) has begun to glimpse the fullness of that story. The small desert resort town, we now discover, is a textbook of California Modern architecture...No other town of its size can boast such a range. It's as if Palm Springs was created as a summary, an exegesis of all that's important about California architecture in the twentieth century."

What's even cooler is that Julius Shulman at age 97 is still alive and kicking (above left), and was atttending the Palm Springs Art Museum for a panel discussion and a Q&A after a showing of a documentary about his work.

His brain is mostly still there and his humor is sharp and delightful. He had retired after fifty years in the business back in the 1980s, but a young German named Jurgen Nogai approached Shulman and convinced him to get back to work with Jurgen as his partner.

"In truth, Jurgen is who's been keeping me alive, and I can't thank him enough," he graciously announced at one point, before going upstairs and signing copies of his new book.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Madama Butterfly at the Castro Theatre

The San Francisco Opera has been experimenting with showing recorded opera performances in movie theatres, and the fourth in the series was last winter's "Madama Butterfly" starring Patricia Racette, Brandon Jovanovich and Zheng Cao. I checked it out with my friend Louisa on Monday afternoon because I was a supernumerary in the production and wanted to see if they had managed to capture the extraordinary power of those performances (click here for my take on it at the time). Plus, it was probably my one and only chance to see myself on the big screen at the Castro Theatre.

Unfortunately, all the experience reminded me was that I'd rather watch opera live in the opera house or listen on a radio broadcast rather than watch a performance on television or movie screen. It's rather like professional baseball in that respect. Also, there was a problem with the SurroundSound at the Castro Theatre according to an opera employee, and the crappy tinniness of the very loud sound was frankly inexcusable. This is a musical medium and the sound shouldn't be shrill, particularly when the performers themselves were in such fine form. Racette's performance was still thrilling, but unlike Cao and Jovanovich who in terms of their looks could have been provided by Central Casting, the aggressive closeups of Racette were really jarring. She's a beautiful woman in real life but the wig, costume and makeup departments' attempt to transform her into a 15-year-old Japanese girl was woefully inadequate in closeup, and at times she looked disconcertingly like a middle-aged matron on her way to an afternoon game of mah-jongg.

In the 1970s, there were live radio broadcasts of the San Francisco Opera every Friday evening on the defunct KKHI-AM station that went out to the Bay Area. It felt like listening to the home baseball team and encouraged a wider local audience to feel as if the opera company was their own. So instead of worrying about being the latest and greatest with technology, the San Francisco Opera should consider a simple live feed every week over the radio, which would be an insanely effective marketing tool and retro all at the same time.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Cherry Blossom Parade 1

The annual Cherry Blossom Parade assembles in the Civic Center Plaza before marching up Polk Street and hanging a left on its way to the Japantown complex.

When I first started documenting the parade back in 2001 for the FotoTales project, I was probably the only digital photographer out there...

...but this year the photographers almost outnumbered the participants... they cartwheeled in front of City Hall.

One thing that hasn't changed is the traditional photo op with politicians and festival beauty queens...

...that also included the disastrously ineffective Chiefs of San Francisco's Police and Fire Departments...

...Heather Fong and Joanne Hayes-White respectively.

Winning the best ethnic wardrobe of a politician award would be Supervisor Ammiano who put on a robe before getting into his yellow convertible for the parade.

The Cherry Blossom Parade 2

Another change over the last decade is that the parade has become less monocultural...

...with blonde drummers in marching bands...

...and sword enthusiasts...

...of all races.

Admirers of anime animation also come from all cultures...

...and the urge to dress outrageously in public seems to be very much a San Francisco value.

My favorite group, actually, was a group of old gringos promoting Segways. What that has to do with Japanese culture or the Cherry Blossom Festival is a mystery, but they certainly were theatrical.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Bill Selby's Bloody Birthday

All theatrical troupes that have been around for any period of time become something of a family, and that's particularly true of a group called The Thrillpeddlers who have been specializing in Grand Guignol plays in their own theater South of Market on 10th Street (click here for their site)

The social unit they seem to most resemble is The Addams Family with their relentless fascination with the macabre mixed in with what can only be described as an essential sweetness.

Their current theatrical offering is a potpourri of French horror and "blue" erotic skits preceded by none other than an American premiere of a lost 1921 Noel Coward one-act called "The Better Half" which he wrote for London's copycat Grand Guignol theatre. It's directed by "Czar of Noir" Eddie Muller (above)...

...and is nicely acted by a trio that includes the dimpled Jon Ingbretson above who looks like the perfect Coward leading man. For a nice appreciation of the evening, called "Flaming Sin," click here for Chloe Veltman's review in the SF Weekly.

Last Saturday also featured a very Addams Family event, which was a birthday party for my friend Bill Selby sandwiched in between all the horror that included cake and ice cream for the entire audience. It couldn't have been nicer.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

SOMA Artist Studios: Nancy and Flora

In a huge warehouse near the corners of 5th and Bryant Streets, a warren of artist's studios were holding their Spring Open Studios this weekend.

I stopped by last Friday evening during the opening reception because one of the penpals I've made through this blog, "namastenancy," was one of the featured artists...

...and I thought it was time to meet her in the flesh.

Plus, I like her paintings, particularly the figurative ones of strangers in cafes.

Nancy also has a photoblog (click here), mostly dedicated to her own artwork, which is delightful.

There were hurried preparations going on for the masses of people who would be arriving for the opening reception, including lovely layouts of wine and goodies.

"I love it when people to come to look at our work," Nancy explained, "but we also have to deal with the professional moochers who couldn't give a damn about our art and who never seem to leave the food and wine tables."

She pointed out one of the more famous moochers, who was making his way through the hallways above.

On the other side of the warehouse, I ran into Flora Davis, above, who I worked with in a graphics department at Wells Fargo Bank thirty years ago. She was always one of the more gifted graphic artists I've known, but she decided to focus on her fine art and scrape by financially in that difficult field.

Over the years, she has migrated from painting to complex sculptural works to her current medium, folded sheet metal, which is quite wonderful. For more of her work, check out her website by clicking here.