Best Of: Glen HelfandAugust 15, 2011
Desirée Holman, Heterotopias/MATRIX 238, BAM/PFA, June 26–September 18, 2010
“Serious play” is a term floated in the brochure for Desirée Holman’s MATRIX exhibition, and while that has been a consistent aspect of her work, the balance of each keeps getting more complex and satisfying. The three-channel video and drawing installation illustrates ideas of layered perception and multiple identities with a mixture of live action, computer-generated animation, gamer-inspired costumes, music, and choreographed dance. These have also appeared in Holman’s work before, but this piece, her slickest to date, is one of her most solid. Part of this stems from a near-perfect merger of form and content—our physical and psychological fusion with our personal laptop space. In beautifully shot sequences, Holman captures the ubiquitous image of her actors in the private reverie of web surfing or other keyboard interaction—a situation in which we all engage but in poses that we can rarely see ourselves assuming. I can’t claim to be particularly interested in cosplay, but the use of costuming here offers undeniable visual interest and is an effective means to playfully filter and fragment her complex themes. Heterotopias is an apt, if earnest, Foucauldian title for such a buoyant, timely installation. It might be one of the few barriers to this otherwise mesmerizing, thoughtful, and witty work.
Francois Ozon, Potiche (2010)
I have great admiration for artists who are brave enough to take risks and reveal how questionably successful projects lead to truly interesting ones. Film director Francois Ozon is prolific and wonderfully unpredictable; his work is compelling even when he fails. Since emerging in the 1990s, he’s worked in various genres and degrees of earnestness; he can veer from puerile satire to moody mystery to sex farce and then address difficult emotions with uncommon incisiveness. Ozon’s films are erratic—a number of his recent works weren’t even released in the United States but are available on Netflix streaming—so I approached his latest, Potiche, a feminist fable set in the candy-colored, Abba-coiffed, French Provincial ’70s, with low expectations. Thankfully, there was no reason for trepidation. Smart and silly, as nostalgic for political chic as for French film legends—Ozon pairs ageless Catherine Deneuve with bear-size Gerard Depardieu as flame and foil—Potiche was the kind of breezy comedy that had enough intelligence and social relevance to keep it from evaporating. It had a gracious, sometimes goofy, sometimes winking wit that keep me smiling for weeks.
Miranda July, The Future (2011), 2011 San Francisco International Film Festival
A friend recently admitted to me her allergy to Miranda July. It’s understandable, as July and her work often come off as cutesy, prickly, twee, and annoying. Allergies, however, provoke reactions, and The Future generates powerful, productive ones. July clearly knows how to deploy stylistic elements in confident measures and in the service of poking at uncomfortable conditions. Many of those are ripe for her thirtysomething generation but also for all of us living in a world faced with horrific stasis—think of the debt ceiling stalemate and our obsessive tracking of its inertia online. It’s difficult to discern just how she so effectively alternates between surrealistic non sequiturs, comedy, and pathos, but it may have something to do with an unerring focus and awareness of cultural allergens. It took me a while to recover from this film. It left me rattled and introspective, navigating through difficult feelings that Claritin thankfully won’t alleviate.
Stephanie Syjuco, ShadowShop, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, November 20, 2010–May 1, 2011
Everyone seems to have had their quibbles with Shadowshop, Stephanie Syjuco’s deceptively straightforward reworking of the concept of museum store. How were people included? Did it denigrate artists by having them make inexpensive product? It was questions like these that made the project smashingly successful as a dialogue generator. I can’t recall there being more conversation about any local art event since the demise of New Langton Arts. Syjuco’s act of mobilizing a broad swathe of the local artist community was a surefire strategy to tap into a group spirit. Similarly, commerce is a universal topic, and Shadowshop became a ubiquitous topic at art openings, at lectures, in MFA seminars, and at house parties before, during, and after the run of the piece.
The first of the Open Space Thursday “Shop Talks” (March 24, 2011, cosponsored by Art Practical) impressed me with its ability to be a cohesive, respectful, and lively conversation between a group of people large enough to grow unruly. The structure of presentations, respondents, and comfortable furniture worked surprisingly well. It was thrilling to be part of civil public conversation. Subsequent talks may not have been as effective, but the fact that one artwork could spawn this kind of programming speaks volumes.
Koki Tanaka, Nothing related, but something could be associated, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, September 25–November 28, 2010, with some thoughts on YBCA
Koki Tanaka’s video works and paintings, housed in an ingenious plywood maze, had a breezy, deceptively slapdash energy. His work is an entropic vision of globalism, infused with the pratfalls of physical comedy. The rafters were consciously accented with used paper coffee cups and the installation’s construction tools—a consciously created mess. Tanaka scrapes at the nature of collapse, making him an heir to Jacques Tati, particularly Tati’s fabulous imploding restaurant party scene in Playtime.
Tanaka’s show was a recent high point in YBCA’s inconsistent programming. If I may address the venue for a moment, each show presented here, more than in other galleries in the area, raises questions of motivations and the trajectory of its programming regardless of the quality of the work. This may have something to do with the venue’s history and civic associations, which suggest a community focus, but as it moves toward more international projects, YBCA has somehow seemed to lose sight of giving local context to the exhibiting artists. That question of “Why here?” arises more than it should, particularly in relation to YBCA’s Big Idea rubric, which presumes our investment in the institution’s overall project and our readiness to track its offerings carefully. Instead, the structure of the programs is difficult to parse in text and design. And while not quite the usual Best Of testimony, these observations suggest that frustration with YBCA’s problematic exhibitions does not overshadow the opportunities for the productive critical dialogue they provoke. The Bay Area is a place where people come together in the embrace of larger goals—we’re that hotbed of social practices, after all—and I for one keep hoping they’ll manage to tap into that spirit in a way that will make the venue truly a center of activity instead of an occasionally interesting place to engage with art.
Wayne Koestenbaum, The Desire to Write, Phyllis Wattis Distinguished Lecture, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, June 2, 2011
Pleasure isn’t a concept that enters into art dialogues as much as it should. Wayne Koestenbaum titled his literary response to SFMOMA’s The Steins Collect exhibition “The Desire to Write”; the material he delivered for his Phyllis Wattis Distinguished Lecture was securely and fittingly situated in the realm of wants and a sense of joy in his craft. While there was certainly plenty of sweat that went into composing his text, the material, as much of his writing tends to be, is sensuous, colorful, rich, and delivered in manageable portions that go down smooth and continue to inspire. Koestenbaum’s introduction revealed his biases and intentions, the conditions within which he wrote this text. He told his audience about the themes and concerns that were bouncing around the process of selecting paintings from the show. The transparency impulse may not have worked well in the White House, but here, it had the very real effect of generating a sense of inclusion, as if the writing was a gift to all involved. I left the auditorium with an urgent, very tangible desire to write.