Arts » Art

So Long, 2017 Bay Area Art World!

by Sura Wood .
Sunday Dec 31, 2017

With 2018 just around the corner, it's time to pause and reflect on the year that was in art. During a period that, for many, has been a daily litany circus of public vulgarity, ugliness and deceit, art was, and remains, a refuge and a corrective.

The Berkeley Art Center's "Resistors: 50 Years of Social Movement Photography," a visual record of Bay Area grass roots agitation and progressive politics, put viewers on the front lines, while the de Young's "Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire" reached back to a once-flourishing Mexican metropolis established in the first century to lend a dimension of wonderment to our 21st-century existence.

Local institutions moved away from touring extravaganzas towards internally generated or partnered shows. The Fine Arts Museums' elegant, radiantly competent director Max Hollein has fully assumed his role and been making his presence felt, helping to finally push those distracting and embarrassing headlines about Dede Wilsey off the pages of The New York Times. For "Klimt & Rodin," he engineered something of a coup: The first California exhibition of the great Austrian painter Gustav Klimt, whose splendid artworks rarely travel. Though the show was regrettably scant in the Klimt department and didn't include "Adele" or the "golden" paintings for which the artist is most famous, what arrived was a joy to behold.

This was the summer of Sophie Calle, when the French femme terrible brought her ruthlessness, wicked humor, and unique combo of fearlessness, voyeurism and penchant for violating boundaries to Fort Mason in her largest U.S. exhibition to date. The conceptual artist famously transformed romantic rejection into triumph when she took a blithe kiss-off letter from a former lover and invited 107 women from different professions to perform, read aloud, comment on, analyze and gleefully trash the letter's contents. The object of all this amusing derision penned a 1,800-word rejoinder, proving that writing is the best revenge, unless your correspondent is Sophie Calle.

The gallery scene continued to reshuffle and decentralize. SFAI launched a new venues at Ft Mason; Chronicle Books CEO and local photography collector Nion McEvoy opened a 5,000-sq. ft. nonprofit space at Minnesota Street Project; and the shrewd, forward-thinking Wendi Norris announced the upcoming closure of her relatively new Jessie Street space, opting for a city-based headquarters and a flexible model more attuned and responsive to the demands of a changing art market. And a good word for the Chinese Cultural Center Gallery, whose thoughtful, community-sensitive projects don't get nearly the attention they deserve.

It's a given that San Francisco is not New York, but no matter your preferences, 2017 was an interesting year to be a Bay Area art lover.

Best museum show: "Revelations: Art from the African American South" at the de Young, a truly outstanding, long-overdue exhibition that addressed race, class, gender and religion from a vantage point absent from most museum collections, simultaneously filled a void in the annals of contemporary art, and reminded audiences of what they've been missing. It has been a long time since this many original, gut-wrenching works have been gathered in one place. (Through April 1.)

A close second is "Robert Rauschenberg: Erasing the Rules," a home run that closed out SFMOMA's winning streak this year with a bang. The late gay artist, who lost none of his verve or nerve over the course of a daring and prolific 60-year career, had affairs with Jasper Johns and Cy Twombly, when not devouring images that he translated into forms of his own devise. (Through March 25.) In case there was any doubt that SFMOMA had its groove on, 2017's all-star lineup included "Matisse/Diebenkorn" and "Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed."

Rauschenberg wasn't the only gay artist showcased this year. Inveterate New Yorker Cary Leibowitz, aka Candyass, had his first-ever solo museum show, which, despite its popularity, was a sugar high a trifle too superficial for my taste. Homoeroticism met social realism in BAMPFA's "Martin Wong: Human Instamatic," an exhibition focusing on the self-taught Chinese-American ceramicist-turned-painter who grew up in SF's Chinatown, moved to New York's Lower East Side, and infused his landscapes of urban blight with firemen fetishes and fantasies of buff prison inmates beckoning behind bars.

Most fun at a museum: CJM walks away with this accolade courtesy of two undeniably enjoyable shows. "Jewish Folktales Retold: The Artist Maggid" was a real trip, but "Roz Chast Cartoon Memoirs," a scream - well, maybe, more like a hilarious whine in the wilderness from the puckish, adorably kvetchy, long-time New Yorker magazine cartoonist - stole my heart. Unafraid to summon her inner crabby-appleton, Chast has an uncanny knack for being right on target, giving pithy voice to thoughts you've harbored but were too polite to express. Communing with Chast's cartoons is like hanging with your best bud, the one who knows the worst, really gets you, and is a riot even when it hurts; an unqualified blast.

Best gallery shows: "Tiny Bubbles" at SFAC, curated by Steven Wolf; "Rabble-Rousers: Jennie Ottinger + Megan Reed," in which two delightful artists were double the pleasure together, at Johansson Projects.

Best photography shows: "Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing" (OMCA); "Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument," a provocative examination of race and the shaping of journalistic choices that engendered an even deeper appreciation of the triple-threat photo-essayist, filmmaker and musician (BAMPFA).

"The Thrill is Gone" plaque goes to "The Summer of Love: Experience: Art, Fashion and Rock and Roll" at the de Young, a calculated concession that, despite having no other reason to be, attracted scads of visitors. The 1960s keep coming back, like the bad boyfriend you can't give up.

Most unjustly overlooked exhibition: YBCA's "Civic Radar," a more-timely-than-ever survey of work by Lynn Hershman Leeson, the Bay Area feminist, interactive media and performance artist, filmmaker, and photographer. Leeson's critique of the invisibility of women and how they can inadvertently serve as canvases for projections of male fantasy is as stinging and resonant today as it was 40 years ago. Her thematic content has held up so well it's difficult to know whether to be impressed or to weep. So much has changed for women, yet so much remains the same.

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