Friday, December 30, 2011

Marching Systematically to Silicon Valley

Besides the occasional beautiful sunrise, a Caltrain trip south to Silicon Valley takes one by Brian Barneclo's stupendously huge Systems mural near the San Francisco station.

Riding Caltrain is really the only way to see the mural up close since the railyards are fenced off to the public for obvious safety reasons, and even while riding the train, there is no way to see the entire System at one time. It's rather marvelous.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Caltrain Sunrise

Not being a morning person, arising at 6AM to commute to Silicon Valley on Caltrain for a month is almost the definition of painful.

There are compensations, though, besides money...

...including a spectacular sunrise this morning as we headed south down the Peninsula.

The photographer Donald Kinney (click here) has long claimed that sunrises are more spectacular than sunsets, and he may be right.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Boxing Day in Sharp Park

In the British Commonwealth countries, there is an official holiday the day after Christmas called Boxing Day, which has something to do with giving servants boxes from gifts and has morphed into a serious public shopping holiday over the years.

Three of us shunned the shopping experience and joined a horde of other cheap municipal golfers on Monday at the recently reprieved Sharp Park Golf Course in Pacifica, where it was easy to pretend we were golfing on Scottish seaside links, even though it was probably about thirty degrees warmer.

The course has been the subject of extreme controversy over the last four years because a consortium of "deep ecology" groups have decided that pristine nature is preferable to an inexpensive municipal golf course in one of Pacifica's main valleys, even though the exquisitely laid out Alister MacKenzie track has been there close to 100 years, and its presence has preserved the land from commercial development.

Mike Wallach above has been writing about the absurdist politics of the situation at his MW cellphone photoblog (click here).

He had an up and down day but managed to par the last hole, which as you can see made him happy.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Happy Heidimas

Being raised a Southern California beach boy, Christmas has never had quite the same primal pull for me as for most White Northerners, and this week's gorgeous, drought-stricken, California weather has only been a reminder of that essential cultural estrangement.

The only person I still know from high school days, Heidi, is a California beach girl who became a Tibetan Buddhist woman.

She had the (mis)fortune to be born on December 25th, so let us all dedicate tomorrow to her, when the Buddhas will be celebrating Heidimas.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Western Addition Fire

Shortly after noon today, I noticed a plume of smoke that looked as if it was coming from my neighbors a block away.

The fire turned out to be about eight blocks away on the corner of Pierce Street and Golden Gate Avenue near Alamo Square in the Western Addition.

The large corner structure above was a four-story apartment building...

...and the word on the street was that at least two large residential buildings were destroyed.

There were stunned looking refugees wrapped in blankets being interviewed by the ghoulish looking local media...

...while a small group of neighbors and onlookers watched from a block away on Golden Gate Avenue, next to the Missionary Temple Christian Church where the Red Cross had set up a temporary shelter.

At a certain point, the San Francisco Fire Department retreated from trying to save the building and concentrated on containing the blaze instead.

Onlookers were equipped with everything from camera phones to iPads to record the event...

...and the San Francisco Police Department, to their credit, were actually being kind to everyone.

One of the few people who didn't look to be in a state of utter shock was the neighbor above from three buildings away on Golden Gate Avenue, who had hurriedly packed a suitcase full of valuables for a quick getaway in case the fire spread to his home. "If I hadn't managed to save my wife's camera, she would have killed me."

Condolences to the poor burned out apartment dwellers who have probably lost everything.

Solstice Homeless Requiem

The Tenderloin-based San Francisco Network Ministries... collaboration with the Coalition on Homelessness...

...held their annual "Interfaith Memorial for San Francisco's Homeless Dead" Wednesday evening in front of the Christmas tree in Civic Center Plaza while marking the Winter Solstice.

It was a small, solemn crowd that listened to various religious leaders give short homilies before reading the names of those who died this year while living in the streets of San Francisco.

After each name was read, the lady above would chime on a bell... their souls would be acknowledged publicly... an attempt at bringing light to darkness.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Kiddie Christmas Snow in Civic Center

In his final days as San Francisco Mayor last year, Gavin Newsom hosted a public holiday party in Civic Center, complete with manufactured snow on a hill for a children's sledding adventure (click here for an account).

Though not a big fan of Newsom, I thought the event was charming and hoped it would be continued as an annual event.

Evidently the administration of Ed Lee has been listening to me, even though I did not support them for election, and they just brought the holiday party back for an entire weekend.

The event was still fairly unpublicized and underpopulated, which was just as well for those waiting in lines with their kids and grandchildren to sled down the hill.

The rules were simple and explicit.

You had to be a little kid to sled down the hill...

...but also big enough that you could make the scary ride on your own.

If you have children, keep an eye out for the event next year.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

New Century Chamber Orchestra Celebrates the Holidays

The San Francisco chamber orchestra's second concert of the season, heard at Herbst Theatre on Friday evening, was divided into Serious Music in the first half, and Holiday Bon Bons in the second, although the division turned out not to be as extreme as advertised. The evening started off with Prologue and Variations for String Orchestra from 1983 by Ellen Taafe Zwillich, the composer who used to be a mainstay of the old Bay Area Women's Philharmonic. She's the featured composer for the NCCO this year, and this piece sounded like everything I've heard before from her, which is well-made, pleasant in a mild Shostakovich way, and doesn't seem to go anywhere. Maybe a closer listening with the New Century this season will improve acquaintance.

The early Haydn violin concerto in G major with soloist Krista Bennion Feeney above was another story altogether. Feeney was the previous music director of NCCO, from 1999 to 2006, and her playing was lovely but what took the performance to a whole other level was the ensemble playing by the chamber orchestra, now under Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. This was some of the finest live Haydn playing I have ever heard, with all his humor and richness fully present. With apologies to the "original instruments" ensembles, this is what Haydn's music should sound like.

The same was true of Arcangelo Corelli's "Christmas" Concerto Grosso from 1690 which looked as enjoyable to play as it was to hear. The perfectly clear interplay between the various string sections and individual players was delightful to watch.

Presumably as a nod to New Years Eve in Vienna, the three final pieces were transcriptions of a couple of Brahms Hungarian Dances (Johannes Goes Gypsy!) and the overture to Strauss' Die Fledermaus. This felt almost like putting up Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving which mitigated some of the pleasure.

The signage in the photo above, by the way, was for an event on the second floor, and we were all tempted to check the event out just to determine whether it was a bash for professional baseball fans, extremely tall people, or simply an ambitious holiday event.

Friday, December 16, 2011

A Deanna Durbin Noir City Xmas

The Noir City film festival was gearing up for its tenth anniversary this coming January 20-29 at the Castro Theatre with a Christmas-themed double bill last Wednesday. Both films starred the 1930s child superstar Deanna Durbin in 1940s attempts at "adult" roles, before the actress married her French director from "Lady on a Train" and moved to a suburb of Paris where she lives to this day, outlasting Greta Garbo in the Star Who Wants to Be Alone sweepstakes.

Eddie Muller, above right, the Czar of Noir and founder of the festival, is fighting a self-described losing battle against time and the digital age, which only makes his attempts at preservation more heroic. Muller's passion for 35mm film projected onto a large screen is shared by a wide range of Film Noir cultists and cineastes worldwide, and they tend to sell out the festival at the Castro Theatre every year.

"Lady on a Train" turned out to be a fascinatingly bizarre mixture of murder mystery, comedy, and musical. Seeing it in a pristine 35mm print on the huge 4:3 aspect ratio Castro Theatre screen, as it was intended to be shown, was a genuine San Francisco treat that exists in few other places in the world. Click here for Noir City X details, with highlights that include an appearance by Angie Dickinson in person, a restoration of the 1949 version of "The Great Gatsby" with Alan Ladd and Shelley Winters that hasn't been seen since the early 1970s, plus a Dashiell Hammett Marathon finale.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


The Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art (SECA) is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year with the publication of an art history book detailing the award winners it has encouraged over the last half century, along with an exhibit on the fifth floor of SFMOMA.

At the press preview last week, Alison Gass (above left) and Tanya Zimbardo (above right), who edited the book Fifty Years of Bay Art: The SECA Awards, gave short speeches about the award's history and the four 2010 winners who were being given a concurrent exhibition of their own on the fifth floor. The women spoke in fluent ArtSpeak, dropping phrases such as "quotidian materials" and "ongoing modernist dialogue," and when director Neal Benezra went to the podium afterwards he asserted, "Those two are amazingly articulate." They were also perfectly comprehensible if one were fluent in ArtSpeak jargon but if not, not, as Gertrude Stein would say.

The book they edited is attractive, with lots of pictures and interesting historical tidbits, but the fifth floor exhibit is something of a misconceived mess. Instead of simply attempting a chronological look at award winners like the book does, somebody has decided to break various rooms into ArtSpeak thematic spaces with the signage above.

Some of the work is superb on its own, such as Heap of Elements for a Body, About to Act or Finished Activity by 2006 SEC Award winner Leslie Shows above...

...but much of the exhibit is later work by previous winners which doesn't make a lot of sense, such as the 1999 Loom by 1992 Winner Hung Liu above...

...or the 2004 Japanese Maple II by 1996 Winner Anne Appleby.

There is another problem, which is that the once-every-two-years SECA Awards go to anywhere from one to 5 artists, but the pool of nominees starts at around 250 and is slowly whittled down to 30 finalists. At that point, curators and members of the Association get into a chartered bus and visit the various finalists in their studios, who they then proceed to reject in favor of The Big Winners. This sounds much more like Discouragement than Encouragement of Contemporary Art. (The painting above is the 2003 Bronze Cowboy by John Bankston.)

In a footnote in the accompanying book, the authors admit:
"In contrast to the shows organized for the ICA Boston's Foster Prize or the Tate's Turner Prize, SECA exhibitions do not include the work of artists shortlisted for the award. The SECA shortlists were historically confidential and are largely absent from archival materials related to the group. The names of finalists appear in SECA publications from 1990 on. Since 2008 the shortlist has been included in the press release announcing the award recipients and posted on the museum's blog."
That must make the rejected artists happy. (Above is a small sculpture from 1977 Winner David Best before he started making temples at Burning Man.)

Here's a suggestion. Show the work of all thirty artists who make the finals every two years, and give prizes and more exposure to the Award Winners. Art is subjective as can be, so that one person's Best is not going to be somebody else's Best. For instance, the four 2010 winners are a strikingly anemic bunch, with the 2009 Twill Series (Jet Black) above by Ruth Laskey being one of the more vibrant pieces. A greater contrast among various artists would make everyone look better, and it might even encourage rather than discourage contemporary art