Monday, July 25, 2022

Carlos Villa at the Asian and Elsewhere

The Asian Art Museum's new exhibit, Carlos Villa: Worlds in Collision, is being trumpeted as "the first major museum retrospective dedicated to the work of a Filipino American artist."
Carlos Villa was also a San Francisco homeboy, born in 1936 and raised in the Tenderloin. There is an utterly fascinating 1995 interview with the artist for the Smithsonian Institution by Paul Karlstrom that runs for 69 pages (click here). I ended up reading the whole thing because it captures a Bay Area art world that is literally disappearing with the closure of the San Francisco Art Institute and possible closure of Mills College in Oakland, the two art schools Villa attended at a wildly vibrant time in the late 50s/early 60s, with teachers like Diebenkorn and Bischoff and fellow students like Joan Brown and Robert Arneson. (Pictured above is Ritual, 1971.)
He lived in poverty with his family in a basement apartment and was restricted by race from most neighborhoods besides Chinatown and the Fillmore District, but he had good grades and was accepted to Lowell High before enlisting in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. With his GI Bill, he enrolled at the California School of Fine Arts on Russian Hill which was renamed the San Francisco Art Institute in 1961, just as he was graduating and going on to Mills College. He followed his beloved cousin and fellow artist Leo Valledor to New York City in 1963, where they both had successful runs in the Minimalist movement. Villa burnt out in Manhattan after six years, and a bad romantic breakup along with substance abuse spurred him into a return to San Francisco. (Pictured above is My Roots, 1971.)
He was offered a teaching post at his alma mater, the SF Art Institute, and dived into Bay Area ethnic social justice movements of the time, while his art veered from minimalism into artistic shamanism. (Pictured above is Maturing, 1980.)
The materials for Maturing, by the way, are acrylic, feathers, mirror fragments, Rhoplex acrylic binder, and blood on unstretched canvas. The blood, he mentions in the Smithsonian interview, was bought in Chinatown and mixed with acrylic.
From all accounts, Villa was an inspiring teacher, organizing legendary performance art happenings and gallery shows for other artists. In a small room, there are a few pieces inspired by him, starting with Chatsilog Revisited, 2010/2022, by the Mail Order Brides (Eliza O. Barrios, Reanne Estrada, Jennifer K. Wofford).
Across the way is the working Karaoke jeepney, TNT Traysickel, 2019-2022, by Michael Acega and Paulo Asuncion.
This exhibit originated earlier this year at the Newark (NJ) Museum of Art and it looks like a great installation (click here for their 360-degree tour). Newark's exhibit is a retrospective of Villa from his 1960s minimalist sculptures through his entire, eclectic career. San Francisco decided to break up this exhibit into three different installations at three different institutions and the result is scattershot. The Asian Art Museum features one confusing room of work from the 70s, and two blocks away the San Francisco Art Commission Main Gallery is displaying a confusing collection of work from the same period.
The SFAC Main Gallery is open for what I think of as Junior League society hours, which means it's open to the public from Wednesday through Saturday, noon to five. In my experience, there are never any visitors because very few people even know the gallery exists.
The final installation of the trio, dedicated to his early work, was scheduled to open at the San Francisco Art Institute in September, but that ancient institution bit the dust last week. Villa deserves better from his hometown.

Monday, July 11, 2022

The USS Potomac on the Fourth of July

In most of the United States, Fourth of July is as much a pagan celebration of midsummer as it is a patriotic festival. In San Francisco it's usually a nothingburger, possibly because it marks the midfog season. Over the years I visited Midwestern and Eastern cities on the 4th and loved the heat and communal barbeques and fireworks (Chicago's Lake Michigan and Boston's Charles River tied for lights-and-music extravagance). This year I impulsively booked a 4th of July Cruise on the USS Potomac around San Francisco Bay, and the experience was a happy surprise. (Photo above is of a recently retired Chicago dad who was visiting his East Bay daughter.)
The USS Potomac was designed as a Prohibition-era patrol boat for the U.S. Coast Guard. Christened Electra in 1934, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had it transferred to the U.S. Navy and remodeled as his presidential yacht for relaxation, discreet political business, and entertaining. "How did this boat end up in Jack London Square in Oakland?" I asked the new Executive Director of the nonprofit in charge. "It's sort of a crazy story. Let me give you the short version..." he began.
There are a number of histories on the internet of what happened to the USS Potomac after FDR's death, but the best account is by Sam Gnerr in a 2020 article for the Redondo Beach Daily Breeze: "After FDR’s death in 1945, the Potomac was returned to the Coast Guard, which then decommissioned it in May 1946. For the next 14 years, the state of Maryland used the boat as a fisheries industry enforcement vessel along its coastal areas. In 1960, the state of Maryland sold the Potomac to a private owner. The buyer moved it to the Caribbean, where it was used as a ship ferrying passengers between Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.The deteriorating Potomac’s next owner, the Hydro-Capital Co., acquired the ship in 1962. Its plan included renovating the ship at a cost of $500,000, then mounting it in the newly constructed King Harbor in Redondo Beach as a tourist attraction."
There were weather problems, harbor problems, insurance problems, lack of maintenance problems, and somehow Elvis Presley's mother got involved and called her son telling him he needed to buy the USS Potomac. He did so and then donated it to Danny Thomas and the St. Jude's Hospital for Children charity, which auctioned it off. After a number of different owners, it was purchased by sleazy Stockton bailbondsman Aubrey Phillips in 1971, who parked it at San Francisco's Pier 26 as a tourist attraction that nobody visited. I vaguely remember seeing it on the waterfront during that decade and it always looked dodgy.
Sam Gnerr continues: "In 1980, the Potomac, adorned with a banner for a phony, nonexistent children’s charity — was raided by U.S. Customs agents, who had seized it after determining it had been acting as a headquarters for a marijuana dealing ring. The ship reached its lowest point when the feds towed the boat to Treasure Island, in San Francisco Bay, where it sank unceremoniously six months later, probably due to a leaky hull."
A 2017 SF Chronicle article by Bill Van Niekerken continues the story: “It looks like she died of old age,” said Lt. Cmdr. G. Ray Olsen. “Her hull is corroded and very rusty.” “I’d scrap her — the whole bottom’s rotten,” added Tim Hinkster, a Pacific DryDock employee. The Coast Guard wouldn’t be deterred, and raised the ship out of San Francisco Bay and again put it up for auction. No luck. Another try, and a drop in price, produced a taker, Walter Abernathy, a Port of Oakland executive. He was also the only suitor, and he bought the Potomac with a minimum bid of $15,000. Abernathy took some razzing, with his purchase called Wally’s Folly, but he remained optimistic. “I figured anything that attracted that much attention had to be valuable,” he said. “So I thought, ‘Let’s do it.’”
The article ends with: "According to Chronicle reporter Sandy Zane, the restoration of the presidential yacht cost $5 million. Half the money came from a federal matching grant, and the rest was raised through private channels, in large part due to Roosevelt’s son James and his grandson Michael, who lived in Berkeley.."
I looked at the Executive Director's nametag closer after his history recitation and it read Ford Roosevelt. "Any relation?" I asked. "Grandson," he replied. "I used to run an educational non-profit for underprivileged youth in Los Angeles for a few decades and they ran out of money. So I then saw the posting for Non-Profit Executive Director for the USS Potomac last fall, and I moved here with my wife to Alameda last November. And it costs fifty cents with a Senior Clipper Card to get to work."
Hanging out with an honest to goodness Roosevelt link while cruising on this presidential yacht was wonderful enough, but the ship itself was magical. You could feel all of the vessel's history from the highest to lowest, and also the love that has gone into its restoration.
USS Potomac cruises have a 120 passenger maximum which meant the evening was not crowded and fellow passengers were an odd, delightful mixture.
The $125 price included "snacks and beverages," which consisted of water and good wine and a snack pack that sent one into instant 6th grade field trip nostalgia.
There are two-hour cruises four times a month, on Thursday and Saturday mornings, which are a bit pricey at $75, but it is worth every penny (click here for the schedule). I was afraid we would be subjected to a loudspeaker historical narration, but instead the volunteer docents will give personal tours or just allow you to sip wine and absorb the vessel's atmosphere while looking at incredible views. This may be the best tourist activity in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Going around the Golden Gate Bridge on the Fourth during a fog storm was exciting and spooky, but the fireworks on the bay were absurd, explosions followed by colored fog. The Gay Pride Parade recently projected rainbow lasers up Market Street over a long weekend and its refractions in the ever-present fog was beautiful. My advice to whoever is sponsoring the San Francisco Fourth of July celebrations is to commission a laser light artist to create a piece specifically designed to create impressionistic laser shows in the fog. It could be a double play of ecologically forward-thinking (no explosions and animals harmed) plus extraordinary artistry.
My advice for the USS Potomac is to consider ditching San Francisco and having a Fourth of July cruise next year to the South Bay where Oakland, Fremont, Foster City and other Bay Area cities have local fireworks shows that can actually be seen. It would also be a specific acknowledgement of the East Bay where the USS Potomac has found a loving home.

Monday, July 04, 2022

Pocket Opera's The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein

Last month Pocket Opera performed founder Donald Pippin's English translation of Jacques Offenbach's 1867 operetta, The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein. It was the composer's most successful work financially, a satire of mindless militarism and Catherine the Great's penchant for strapping on any handsome man before appointing him to a lofty position. Mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz played the Grand Duchess "who loves the military" and bass Kirk Eichelberger played General Boum, a buffoon who believes in his own military genius.
Tenor Chad Somers played Fritz, a simple, low-level, handsome soldier who catches the eye of the Duchess. She promotes him until he outranks the tyrannical General Boum, before going off to war with a neighboring country where he triumphs by getting the opposing army happily drunk and cruelly hungover.
Performed well, farce should have precision, absurdity, and be lighter than air, but the staging by director Bethanie Baeyen felt a bit plodding. Many of the principals appeared to be stranded on their own, which turned out not to be such a bad thing, because the cast was mostly superb. Chad Somers's sweetly stupid soldier was delightful with one brilliant deadpan reaction after another, and Nikola Printz looked great and was in beautiful voice.
Michael Mendelsohn as the Duchess's would-be fiance Prince Paul, Kirk Eichelberger as the idiotic General Boum, and Joseph Meyers as the scheming Baron Puck were all very fine. Their patter songs are direct forerunners to Gilbert & Sullivan and the fun, frothy music is the father of Viennese operetta.
The work was written to coincide with the Paris Exhibition of 1867, when the city was filled with tourists, and royalty from all of Europe jammed the small theater to see the satirical take on their own world. Bismarck, the Prussian Prime Minister, was reported to have said of the military satire: "C'est tout-à-fait ça!" (That's exactly how it is!)". Three years later, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 broke out, and the operetta was banned in France for a number of years afterwards for its antimilitarism, and on account of Offenbach's confusing identity as a German-Jewish-Frenchman. The piece has managed to hold the stage ever since, though, because the music is so good and the libretto is genuinely witty. I saw the work at the San Francisco Opera House with Regine Crespin in the early 1980s, but it works better in a small house like the Gunn Theater at the Legion of Honor Museum.
The ending has an oddly dark twist, where poor Fritz (Somers) is stripped of all his medals after being violently pummeled in a nasty trap set by all the upper-class characters. Meanwhile, the Duchess (Printz) has moved on and is trying to hook up with tall, handsome Baron Grog (an amusing Chris Langton). In some kind of happy ending, Fritz's peasant fiance Wanda (Chelsea Hollow) finally gets to drag her man back to their village, away from the stupidity of armies and royalty.

Friday, July 01, 2022

SF Symphony Season Finishes with a Bang

Last weekend Esa-Pekka Salonen finished his first season as San Francisco Symphony's new Music Director after a one-year-plus delay due to the COVID pandemic. The orchestra and its support staff have been heroic over the last year, somehow managing to be flexible and vigilantly safe, while offering some amazing concerts with music and composers new to San Francisco.
The final concert was for three large orchestral pieces, which meant that all my favorite players were onstage, including principal viola Jonathan Vinocour above. The evening started with Steven Stucky's Radical Light, commissioned by Salonen and the LA Philharmonic in 2008 for a Sibelius festival. The 20-minute piece started ascetically and I was afraid it would be stuck there, but about halfway through the scoring blossomed and the piece turned into a thoroughly absorbing work.
It was totally upstaged, though, by Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson giving the SF Symphony debut of John Adams's 2018 piano concerto with the whimsical title, Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?.
The work is frenetic and manic in the extreme, sounding a bit like honky-tonk piano mixed with heavy metal rock performed by an acoustic orchestra. There is a lovely oasis of calm in the second movement, but this is one of Adams's more hard-driving works, with constantly changing time signatures for both pianist and orchestra, which sounded hellishly difficult to perform and terribly exciting to hear. No wonder Ólafsson and Salonen fell into each other's arms at the end of the performance in what looked like exhausted relief.
The tall, nerdy-looking, 38-year-old pianist Víkingur Ólafsson was an absolute wonder at the keyboard, and the composer John Adams came onstage to congratulate him at the finale.
After intermission, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted Sibelius's Symphony No. 5. The performance wasn't quite up to the perfect standard of fellow Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki with this same orchestra back in 2015, but it was pretty close, and there were transitional moments in the performance which were purely magical.