Thursday, June 28, 2012

Stretch and Expose at City Hall

The dreary basement of City Hall hosts some of the best art exhibits in San Francisco, but nobody seems to pay any attention to them as they are walking down the halls.

The current show is called Stretch and Expose, a catch-all title for contemporary screen-prints by local artists such as Angus Haller above.

The lead curator for this San Francisco Art Commission funded show is Bert Bergen, who is about to make the big leap to the center of arts commerce and distribution, New York City. Above is one of the many prints he created for the show in collaboration with other local artists, in this case Andy Vogt.

Part of what makes the exhibit so interesting is how varied the close to two dozen artists deal with the medium, such as Mark Taylor above.

The exhibit website explains:
"Today, screen printing by hand is considered obsolete for large-scale industrial printing runs, but is still utilized in the production of small run posters and t-shirts. When developing the concept for this exhibition the curatorial team considered featuring the history of Bay Area music posters, or activist posters, however in the end we decided to focus on something much more curious – fine art screen printing."
The above is printed on brass by Jonathan Runcio.

The site continues:
"Why would artists still choose to screen print when the prevalent method for printing has become digital? When the curators posed the question to the participating artists, each answer was different, however there seemed to be common ground rooted in both the desire to control the work through a particular physical process, and also enjoying the random inconsistencies the process produces. Additionally, screen printing is an economical way to produce duplicates, and it allows for a myriad of experimental possibilities."
Above is one of an amusing series of prints involving the same comic character by Gina M. Contreras.

One of my favorite pieces was Camo Yeti above and below by Aaron Terry.

It's funny and spooky at the same time.

The most amusing title and execution of concept was Waiting in Line for Dim Sum by Chelsea Wong above. It reminded me of the Act I Banquet Scene in Nixon in China across the street at the Opera House.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Pakistani Buddha

Sometime around the Fifth Century A.D., the above Buddha was carved in the Peshawar Valley in what is now Northern Pakistan, and somehow ended up in the hands of the Chicago builder and real estate magnate Avery Brundage, who was an Oriental art collector, and whose collection through many twists of fate ended up being housed a couple of blocks away from where I live.

For this, among many other reasons, I am feeling blessed.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Covered in Blood at the San Francisco Symphony

Last week was devoted to Hungarians at the San Francisco Symphony with Liszt's First Piano Concerto and Bartok's one-act "semi-staged" 1911 opera, Duke Bluebeard's Castle, being performed.

The Symphony opened its current 100th season with Lang Lang performing the Liszt First Piano Concerto, so it seemed a little strange to be featuring it again so soon. However, pianist Jeremy Denk was an interesting alternative to Lang Lang's brasher style, and the often garish, bombastic concerto sounded delicate and beautiful in his hands. The performance was a nice surprise.

Never having heard Bartok's early opera before, partly because of an aversion to stories about men murdering women, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. The hour-long score for a large orchestra and two singers turned out to be extraordinary music, brilliantly played by the orchestra under Tilson Thomas (second from left above), and superbly sung by mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung (above center) as Bluebeard's inquisitive fourth wife Judith, and bass-baritone Alan Held (second from right above) as her possible serial killer new husband, Bluebeard.

According to Janos Gereben, the Hungarian libretto is brilliant while the English translation that was being projected was dreck, and I'll take his word for it, but allegorical or not, the story is a very creepy tale involving torture chambers, a dark, depressing castle with wet walls, lakes of tears from unhappy women, and so on. The semi-staging meant lots of mimed props and continuous projections on the turreted set, that could have been worse, but which featured a few unintentionally hilarious moments, such as the water-spackled castle walls starting to pulse as if we were in a Gatorade commercial.

It was a pleasure hearing such a rarity, though, especially since the performance made such a good case for the musical score. When the huge Davies Hall organ started booming along with the brass during the Fifth Door section where Judith sees the vastness of Bluebeard's (bloodstained) kingdom, it was utterly thrilling. And no, the previous wives turn out not to be dead, but are instead locked behind Door Number Seven and are zombies or memories or something symbolic. He still looked like a Violence Against Women Serial Killer to literal-minded me.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Straight Pride Saturday

The San Francisco Gay Pride Parade has gradually morphed over the years into a whole month of activities, including an added "celebration" day in Civic Center Plaza on Saturday prior to Sunday's parade.

The event includes free entertainment, corporate and nonprofit giveaways at booths, liquor sales, and an opportunity to wear outrageous costumes, get drunk in public, and ogle people in skimpy outfits.

In a trend that's reminiscent of the old, shuttered Gay Halloween event in the Castro District, more and more of the participants are young straight people from the suburbs out for a cheap good time in the city.

The mood at 3 in the afternoon was peaceful and ebullient...

...but it was easy to see how it could get nasty fast, with a lot of young people not knowing how to hold their liquor.

I asked the young women at the San Francisco Symphony booth to confirm my impression that there were more straight people than gay at this "Pride" event, and they said that was their impression too. "It wasn't what we were expecting at all," they said.

In a sense, Gay Pride has come full circle, if young straight people of every color have no problem being part of the party. Still, it's very strange.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Dolores Park Trans Afternoon

The typical foggy June gloom of San Francisco gave way to hints of a sunshine-filled Gay Pride weekend as the Trans March gathered at Dolores Park Friday afternoon.

Though there are too many speeches from the small stage, most of the crowd doesn't pay any attention to the speakers, but instead uses the occasion for impromptu socializing.

The photo above should probably be entitled The Fluidity of Gender.

Friday, June 22, 2012

National Summer Learning Day

On a typical cold Summer Solstice day in San Francisco, there were dozens of kids running around Civic Center Plaza having their faces painted...

...having fun with arts and crafts...

...and rolling around in plastic Giant Hamster Balls on the lawn.

The afternoon's activities were part of National Summer Learning Day, a program that started at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore as an attempt to offer summer learning and fun to poor kids whose parents can't afford summer camps.

According to the national website:
"The National Summer Learning Association began as the National Center for Summer Learning at Johns Hopkins University--but the story really goes back to 1992, when Johns Hopkins’ student Matthew Boulay recruited his fellow undergraduates to provide tutoring and academic support to Baltimore City public schools students during the summer months. Boulay’s summer project grew into a successful summer program called Teach Baltimore that helped boost students’ reading scores."

"At the same time, mounting research documented "summer slide,” a cumulative loss of academic skills over the summer months that disproportionately affects low-income students, contributing to high drop-out rates and a persistent academic achievement gap between richer and poorer students. As a result, the need emerged for a national organization devoted to making summer learning available to all children, but especially those children trapped in poverty without access to high quality summer learning resources, such as lessons, summer camps, educational vacations, and other enrichment opportunities."

The fancier activities at Civic Center were provided by an outfit called Games2U, which even included a Laser Tag game that looked equal parts fun and disturbing.

Most of these kids live in the Western Addition and Bayview neighborhoods where real teenage gunplay is an unfortunate reality.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Attila at San Francisco Opera

There are very few operas where the title role is written for a bass. You have the Russian Boris Godunov and Khovanschina but that's about all I can come up with, except for the 19th-century Italian operas Mefistofole by Boito and Attila by Verdi. The latter two roles have been owned for about the last 30 years by Samuel Ramey, who sang them in productions all over the world. Ramey's old now and his voice has a major wobble, but when he came out for a cameo as Pope Leo at the end of Act 1 of Attila this evening, he gave the San Francisco Opera/La Scala co-production a dose of superstar energy that was most welcome.

The direction by the Italian, Gabriele Lavia, was borderline awful like his miserable Don Giovanni with all the monster mirrors of last year, but it didn't really matter. The conducting by music director Nicola Luisotti was fun and thoroughly oom-pah-pah, and the principal singers were all good, though none of them conveyed the charisma of Ramey in his wobbly five-minute cameo. The best thing about the performance was the San Francisco Opera Chorus who sounded like one of the great musical ensembles of the world.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Seeking SAFE Supervisor Endorsements

The SAFE California campaign to abolish the death penalty in California has collected enough signatures for a proposition vote this November, and now the real work begins.

Alex Cárdenas, above left, has been working for the campaign this summer and one of his tasks was to secure endorsements from various public officials, including individual San Francisco Supervisors. Weiner, Campos, and Avalos have already endorsed the proposition, so on Monday morning Alex visited the City Hall offices of the other supervisors to follow up on information he had sent them earlier via phone and email.

If the aide to Supervisor Mar in the top photo and the aide to Supervisor Kim above are any indication, the SAFE Campaign hasn't been very good at getting the word out about the upcoming vote because nobody in any of the offices had heard anything about the issue.

Each supervisor's office has its own individual layout, decorative scheme, paid staff and unpaid volunteers/interns, and it's always interesting to see how one is treated when walking in the door unannounced. The young lady above seemed to be holding down the fort by herself at Supervisor Farrell's office, and initially looked a little alarmed that leftists were trying to lobby her conservative boss on an issue, but I explained that the very Republican Ron Briggs, who helped his father craft the death penalty initiative in 1978, has now gone on record repudiating his own handiwork and supports the proposition. "That's very interesting," she replied, as she leafed through the information packet Alex handed her.

The entrance to David Chiu's office was staffed by an alert group of young people who promised to pass along the information...

...and the aide to Supervisor Carmen Chu above was polite but quite honest that nothing would be done until the crunch of San Francisco Budget Committee hearings were over.

In fact, the annual Budget Committee Kabuki Ritual Meetings were being held at that very moment in the Board chambers down the hall.

The kindest and most welcoming reception came from Supervisor Olague's aide above, who asked intelligent questions and promised to pass the endorsement request on.

The most bizarre reception came from the aide above in Supervisor Malia Cohen's office. "It's illegal to campaign or politick in City Hall offices, so we can't talk to you about this. You're going to have this same problem at every other supervisor's office because it's the law." Alex was much too polite to tell her that we had already been to everyone else's offices and had heard no such thing. She finally gave him the phone number of Cohen's "political consultant" who would talk to him about the issue, while I thought, "I hope the Supervisor isn't as clueless as her staff."

Sunday, June 17, 2012

5th Floor Modern Art

"Where do you want to go? Do you think there's anything new on the fifth floor?" Patrick Vaz asked as we jumped into an elevator at SFMOMA earlier this week. An elderly lady who seemed to be in the know jumped in, "Yes, there is an exhibit up there," and so there was. Instead of the usual vague, thematic display, the top floor was filled with remarkable pieces from the last 50 years that have recently been rotating through storage.

In a witty reminder that the museum is soon going to be destroyed in order to expand it for the Fisher Collection, Sandow Birk's 1995 Scene from the Destruction, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art greets the viewer on one of the first walls.

Around the corner, Warhol's 1962 Red Liz couldn't hold the attention of the mobile device lady...

...while Jess gave his 1965 Beatles bathing painting the unwieldy title, Fig. 4 - Far and Few...! Translation #15.

A museum guard above was chastising a young couple who had ventured too close to Wayne Thiebaud's 1963 Display Cakes, possibly because they were hungry.

Hanging nearby was one of my favorite Diebenkorn paintings, the 1963 Cityscape I. If you have ever looked at a closeup in Google Maps satellite view on your computer, you'll realize that the world really does look like a Diebenkorn painting when seen from above.

Figure with Two Owls, Study for Velasquez, a large Francis Bacon painting also dating from 1963, is hung in its own alcove for maximum creepiness.

Facing each other around the corner are 1971's Untitled (Rome) by Cy Twombly above, and Sigmar Polke's 1988 The Spirit That Lend Strength Are Invisible II (Meteor...) below, with a couple looking like a Duane Hansen sculpture while listening to their art appreciation headsets.

Patrick confessed that he loved the Polke painting the first time he saw it, but that on a subsequent visit it reminded him of an oven interior that was overdue for cleaning, an association he can't get out of his mind.

Patrick also expressed his distate for the artist Julie Mehretu, represented by her Stadia I from 2004 above, who espouses holier-than-thou leftist politics while being paid a hefty sum to create an 80-foot mural for the newly built New York headquarters of Goldman Sachs. As one letter writer to The New Yorker put it after reading a 2010 Calvin Tomkins article about the artist, "The writer and activist Meridel Le Sueur once wrote, in reference to artists feeding at the corporate trough, 'They just want you to perfume the sewers. They need artists to bring perfume to the terrible stench of their death.' "

The final room near the sad rooftop sculpture garden was filled with some of the most recent paintings in the permanent collection, and though I was not very impressed, Patrick liked the display. "That's because your taste is more discerning, adventurous and elevated than mine," I told him, and he did not disagree.