This Month at the Galleries
With the exception of Christmas week, Art never sleeps in the city. Whether you'd like to take a break from the madness of holiday shopping or simply escape the onslaught of relatives who have descended on your house this month, here are a few places to take a breather and imbibe some culture.
Varnish Fine Art: "Isabel Samaras: Making a Better Yesterday Today" Like any self-respecting, card-carrying Pop surrealist, Bay Area painter Samaras combines the familiar and the strange in uncanny ways, though many of the dozen or so large-scale oil paintings in her solo exhibition here are just plain strange. For starters, take the creature with the naked torso of the overexposed Kate Moss and the haunches of a faun standing on the edge of a forest; "The Abduction of the Simian Women," an odd group portrait straight out of a Planet of the Apes reboot; or the ungainly red blob of a monster with black-and-white-striped leggings and a dumb-ass expression in "The Assumption of Pigmon." Samaras, a child of pop culture, extracts characters from old TV shows and movies, and inserts them into reconfigured narratives (imagine the crew of Gilligan's Island in a parallel universe), while taking us on a mind-bending magical mystery tour of art history from Renaissance art, the Dutch masters and Middle Eastern miniatures to Victorian ethnography. Women in her paintings have the airbrushed, uber voluptuousness of Vargas girls like the nude Barbara Eden look-alike in her I Dream of Jeannie mode, sitting on a purple bed with the head of a fetching nubile companion resting on her thigh. Steel yourself. It's a heady brew. Through Dec. 22. www.varnishfineart.com
Rena Bransten Gallery: "Hung Liu: Happy and Gay" Drawing on her heritage for paintings that evoke the mutability of cultural memory, Oakland-based, Chinese-born Hung Liu's life and art have been profoundly shaped by Chinese history. She spent 36 years in her native country, growing up under the thumb of Mao's Cultural Revolution, which dispatched her to the countryside and four years of hard labor in the fields as part of her "reeducation." Diluting her paint with linseed oil and dripping it onto the canvas, the past seems to dissolve away, lending her imagery the blurry distortion of distant memory. For her latest show, she once again returns to her childhood with a cluster of oil paintings that comment, ironically, on the illustrated primers of her youth. These small graphic novels were propaganda tools promoting heroism and the joys of manual labor, glorifying soldiers, families, workers and all of the "happy and gay" villagers merrily toiling on behalf of the good of the nation. The show is, in part, a tribute to the countless artists forced to sublimate their individual vision to the demands of the regime, and harness their creative energies in the service of the state. Keep your eye out for a retrospective of Hung's work at OMCA this spring. Through Jan. 12. www.renabranstengallery.com
Robert Tat Gallery: "Pictorialism: The Photograph Becomes Art" The Pictorial movement, which peaked in the early 20th century, declined after 1920 and faded out entirely by WWII, strove to elevate photography from its lowly status as a mere mechanical process whose sole function was documenting reality to a fine art form. And the rest is history. The Pictorialists' most prominent proponent, Alfred Stieglitz, the leader of the Photo-Secessionists, whose members included Edward Steichen, devoted himself to the recognition of photography as an expressive artistic medium on par with sculpture and painting. Inspired by the French Impressionists and seeking a painterly style, they prized mood, emotion, interpretation, painstaking composition and the subjective vision of the artist behind the camera. Pictorialists painted on their negatives, manipulating images with various darkroom processes, soft focus, filters and Vaseline, which they smeared on camera lenses. With these techniques many works achieved the old-world, handmade quality of etchings. Stieglitz, Imogen Cunningham, Annie Brigman, a bohemian known for her staged pagan tableaux and female nudes in primal landscapes; San Francisco photographer William E. Dassonville; Hungarian celebrity portraitist and Olympic fencer Nickolas Muray; and Alvin Langdon Coburn, whom George Bernard Shaw dubbed "the greatest photographer in the world" in 1907, are among those featured. Dec. 6-Feb. 23. www.roberttat.com
SFMOMA "New Work: Alessandro Pessoli" Welcome to the human perversity of Pessoli world. A native of Cervia, Italy, who now makes his home in L.A., the artist meditates on childhood and mythology, filtering personal experience in a selection of graphite drawings, works on paper and experimental ceramics. He draws, spray-paints and sculpts utilizing the Northern Italian Renaissance technique of majolica, as he references a mash-up of art, theater, film, Picasso's character studies, the lacerating caricatures of Daumier, the eccentrics of Fellini's cinematic circus, cartoons and science fiction. A procession of musicians and their instruments, burning candles, masks of ominous deities, ghostly crucifixions and solitary, otherworldly figures haunt Pessoli's hallucinatory scenarios. His first West Coast solo exhibition reveals a restless imagination and a cast of recurring characters that comprise what the show's curator calls Pessoli's "personal commedia dell'arte." The New Work series, whose edgy gallery vibe is enfolded in the bosom of an established museum, continues to be one of the best bets in the city for discovering exciting contemporary work. Through Feb. 10. www.sfmoma.org