Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Looking for Book Art at SFMOMA

Within their website, the history of SFMOMA is slightly hidden. It opened in 1935 on the fourth floor of the War Memorial Veterans Building at Civic Center. I spent the most time there, in that building, in the 1980s, when I was a wandering art student. Their newer, bigger building that belonged just to them opened in its present location in 1995, and it expanded and re-opened in 2016, after being closed for three years for renovations and remodeling. All of this means I hadn't been there since 2013. We went on my birthday. The architecture feels much more open and lighter than the previous incarnations. I think it's a keeper.

It's also much bigger, which can be daunting, but just keep walking. Because it was a special exhibition with a timed entry, we visited the Edvard Munch show first. And fastest. It turned out he was a creepy dude who painted creepy paintings. I can take them individually, and many are so beautifully done, but whole rooms of works dealing with death and dying were too much for me, although obviously not for the crowds through which we navigated. His mother died when he was young and his sister died when she was a girl, so I can say that I do appreciate that death was on his mind.

After that, I began looking for book-related works that I could share with you. In the 2017 SECA Award show (SFMOMA's Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art), there were several lively artworks, but I found Sean McFarland's photographic work the closest to what I was looking for. He not only works with cyanotypes in the usual two-dimensional way, but creates little constructions as well. I liked this little (it was miniature) almost-tunnel book, and this little box. The wall text said he made a photogram of a moon into a bottle cap, but I must have missed that. 

The website says he "reckons with the challenges of representing the landscape." In this series, the whole arrangement is far more interesting than just one framed piece. And this is the second area where the idea of the book enters the picture: these feel like pages, related imagery, sequence, with a sculptural element in how they are displayed. The works together make a new physical landscape.

Below: detail of an original photograph and its cyanotype version. In this case, I find the idea of variation on a photo in a different medium and with a different shape and format very appealing. One is traditional and centered. The other bleeds to the edge, among other things. Totally different feel as the blue one puts you off balance, has a definite relationship with the one next to it.

The next collection is much more meaningful if you know what is behind the process. It is called "Echo," and according to the wall text, the work makes "connections between seemingly unrelated people…suggest a collective consciousness." He seems to be exploring reality as well. Which is real? What is nature if it is transformed into a photo? Is a photograph real? While the function of a photograph may be in part to capture something that may not exist again or to replicate something that once existed, by putting all these different views together, McFarland reveals something new.

McFarland is referencing Ralph Eugene Meatyard's and a U.S. Forest Service ranger named Rockwell's photographs of nature, several of which were published. McFarland is restaging, but creating his own version of the compositions. (I wrote previously about Meatyard here, in 2011.) In this frame the image on the left is a representation or hint of a book with pages, but not an actual book itself. It works as a symbol.

And a photo of Meatyard's notebook, "Book of odd names," rather like Magritte's "Ceci n'est pas one pipe." Not a notebook, but a picture of a notebook. Is a photograph of a notebook real when you cannot see the notebook anymore? We may even question if the notebook existed at all. Meatyard was a huge reader so I believe it did, but photography has the power both to insist on and to make us doubt reality, too.

On the photography floor upstairs, Mike Mandel's exhibit Good 70s, was a wonderful mix of nostalgia, invention, book art sensibility, and humor. Here, he asked his neighbor "Mrs. Kilpatric," if he could photograph her every day. He gave her a copy of each photograph. A selection is shown. Mostly she poses in front of her house. Sometimes she is gardening, coming home with groceries, or hugging a dog. Displayed in a grid 7x4, his project is like a book, capturing a sequence of moments in time.

When he was a photography student at San Francisco Art Institute, Mandel wrote to all the Edward Westons he could find in the phone book and asked them a few questions, one of which was had they ever taken a photo they thought was outstanding. He put together the responses from all the Edward Westons in a book. (If you did not know: the Edward Weston Mandel was thinking about originally was a renowned photographer. He thought this would be a kind of joke, but it turned into something more meaningful as he received heartfelt answers from the other E.W.s.)

And there, amidst the Mandel work, was work by his teachers, friends, acquaintances, which included cards from photographer, educator, and noted book artist Bea Nettles' Mountain Dream Tarot deck. She sells her work at her website. A few years ago, I featured Bea's photographic collaged, two-part poem called Hawk/Dove in issue 2.2 of Star 82 Review. She's been photographing words on gravestones for years, and she uses them the way you might play with magnetic poetry, creating whole new texts from the parts.

Also appearing, is an altered Newsweek magazine from 1974 by Robert Heinecken, where he "intervened with convention" by cutting through some of the pages to reveal other images, making new stories, much the predecessor of Doug Beube and other book artists of today.

Elsewhere, not to be missed in the Soundtracks show on floor 7: "clinamen v.3 2012-ongoing" by Céleste Boursier-Mougenot. It will be there until January 2018. This is a large
installation. You can sit around it as if you were at a park by a pond. In this pond with brilliant blue water float bowls of varying sizes that are in slow but constant motion. When they touch they make a tone. This is spontaneous music to contemplate as the bowls glide through the water.

If you cannot get to the museum, you can experience the work somewhat in the video here. According to the online notes, the artist has a background in theater, always loved music, but he did not want to be the performer. So, the bowls perform his piece for him. The title "is derived from a Latin word used by the Roman philosopher Lucretius in his poem De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) to describe the unpredictable nature of atoms." (More about this poem, the word "clinamen" and the book The Swerve in this 2014 post.) Another video of his work that features an aviary with 88 live zebra finches who perch on instruments to make the music, "From Here to Ear" is here.

Outside, the wall of ferns, "The Living Wall" by David Brenner, is really nice, too.

What art comes down to for me is: how do we use our materials? how do we and how can we transform the materials into objects and compositions that wake up or soothe the soul, spark new ideas in others, and make our spirits soar? The new incarnation of SFMOMA contains some of that. Sometimes you have to search for it. Sometimes you have to spend more time with it. I find I learn even more when I try to write about it.

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