4.12 / Review

Overturn the Artifice

By Mark Van Proyen March 26, 2013

I could not help but note that in last month’s Art in America, Raphael Rubinstein ended an article about the art of the 1980s with this confession: “Maybe we shouldn’t be so certain about who won the Neo-Expressionism vs. Pictures Generation bout. Lately, I have sensed MFA students responding to the oeuvres of Sherman and Prince with yawns and sneers, but when I bring up Schnabel, their curiosity awakens.”1 I have noted a similar trend among younger artists, but I have simply chalked it up to the rise of stylistically diluted art-fair art and the concomitant fall of anything giving off even a faint whiff of conceptual academicism. But maybe there are other more subtle forces at play.

Enter the group exhibition at SOMArts titled Overturn the Artifice, curated by Jack Leamy. Included within it are thirty-one works by twelve artists, in almost every imaginable medium, and an additional section given over to collaborative projects emanating from the Friendship House Youth Arts program, a San Francisco–based organization focused on the Native American community. The exhibition displays an old-style manifesto that makes the salient point that “to overturn the artifice is to explode conformity and aesthetically transcend oppressive, exploitive socialization.” In other words, it is an exhibition that seeks to advance a kind of imagism that was defined by the poet Amy Lowell, who said “Art, true art, is the desire of a man to express himself, to record the reactions of his personality to the world he lives in.”2 (Before we get preoccupied with Lowell’s pronouns, we should remember that she wrote the statement in 1917, three years before women could vote in the United States.) I think the point of Overturn the Artifice is its guileless celebration of a kind of subjective realism that runs the gamut from Symbolism and Expressionism to romantic realism.

The opening reception included two performances that could be characterized as mythopoetic. In Krisztina Lazar’s Cocoon (2013), the artist crocheted herself into a yarn enclosure, later emerging, Persephone-like, from the artificial underworld of her own compulsive manufacture. For M. Ryan Noble’s You Destroy Me, I Destroy You (2013), the artist assumed the persona of a battered boy conducting a wrestling match with a large plaster portrait bust of a much older man, presumably a reference to an emotionally distant father figure. The compelling psycho-dramatic overtones in both performances seemed rooted in mythological traditions.

Alexandra Chowaniec. Growth (Oyster), 2013; charcoal on paper; 50 x 38 in. Courtesy of the Artist.
Kristen van Diggelen. Untitled, Phantom Sentry I (Apparition series), 2013; oil on canvas; 58 x 36 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Paintings and drawings predominate in the exhibition. Alexandra Chowaniec presents a pair of delightful charcoal drawings, elaborate fantasies that make graceful sport with the tension between convoluted surfaces and shadowy depths. Kristen Van Diggelen’s paintings similarly have notes of Baroque romanticism embedded within them, but they also veer in the direction of Caravaggio-like luminism: witness the stunning chiaroscuro of Phantom Sentry (2013), which shows a female figure who resembles a large doll festooned with dozens of burning candles. In contrast to the seductive spaces in Chowaniec and Van Diggelen’s work, Michelle Foyer presents a quartet of modestly sized square abstractions that evoke impressionist landscapes. But there is also something subtly fractured about their compositions; they seem to be either on the verge of, or in the aftermath of, some unknown upheaval.

Leamy, in addition to curating the show, also contributes the most expressionistic paintings in the exhibition, eight large ones at that, and two of them—Asphalt Thinker (2013) and Leaf Blowers (2013)—are particularly remarkable in the way they present the human figure as an absurd Beckett-like actor caught between substance and absence. Nonetheless, while I think it very important that artists curate exhibitions, when they do so they need to be held to the same standard that we expect from curatorial professionals. Leamy’s featuring of his artwork in this context rather obviously looks like a gratuitous gesture of self-promotion dressed up as curatorial purpose, undermining whatever faith in the exhibition’s premise the viewer might have. It would be fine if the exhibition were of a more informal nature, such as the Cottage Industry Painting Salon shows that Van Diggelen organized some years ago in a storefront space on Fillmore Street. But this exhibition is the product of an annual curatorial fellowship endowed by SOMArts, the third in an ongoing series. There might be times when a community of interest is a more important consideration than a conflict of interest, but in the case of this exhibition, a more selfless curatorial posture would have better served its claims on our attention. 



Overturn the Artifice is on view at SOMArts, in San Francisco, through March 29, 2013.


  1. Raphael Rubenstein, “Neo-Expressionism (not) Remembered,” Art in America, February 2013, 88.
  2. Quoted on Carter Ratcliff’s blog, http://carterratcliffblog.wordpress.com/2013/03/05/amy-lowells-definition-of-art/.

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