San Francisco: Anthropomorphic Sculpture and Gastonomical Delights

Our correspondent in Northern California walks us through some of the best museum and gallery exhibitions on view in San Francisco this month, including an all-female group show at Mills College that rechannels the whole of art history; Jon Pylypchuk’s anthropomorphic sculptural creatures at Jack Hanley; and a solo exhibition by Li Jin full of gastronomic delights.


Mills College Art Museum
“Take 2: Women Revisiting Art History”
Through March 15, 2007


Sampling, dubbing, riffing, overlaying, cribbing. Whether postmodern redux, overt homage or ironic allusion, appropriation has become the coin of the creative realm. In “Take 2: Women Revisiting Art History,” Janet Bishop (curator of painting and sculpture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), reveals how wonderfully varied, poignant and thought provoking the “repurposing” of art can be.

In the galleries at Mills College, marquis names—Sherry Levine, Cindy Sherman, Sam Taylor-Wood, Kara Walkershare wall and floor space with emerging and mid-career local artists, including Stephanie Syjuco and Catherine Wagner. Meanwhile rising stars Janine Antoni, Beate Gütschow and Shahzia Sikander (recent winner of a MacArthur “genius grant”) round out the panoply of talent and genres that use art historical precedents as fodder for critical issues.

Some cite specific works while others utilize conventional genres as catalysts for contemporary dialogues. Sherman, for instance, inserts herself into photographic recreations of period paintings; Gutschow recasts 16th-century landscapes into digitally manipulated c-prints; Levine mimicks the Old Masters; and Taylor-Wood literally activates a still-life.

Syjuco too uses technology to reframe: Her digital prints deploy the tropes of scientific or natural history illustration—and all of its imperial implications—to describe species of the newest frontier: computer accessories and peripherals. Similar investigations of diasporic identity and visual tradition pervade Sikander’s gouaches, which update miniature painting by remixing its traditional form and content, and Walker’s black-and-white cut paper silhouettes, which shadow slavery’s legacy.

However, it is Antoni’s sculptures and installations that manifest the most diverse, personal rechanneling of art history. Umbilical, a sculpture of a spoon with a mouth on one end and traces of fingers on the other, was cast from her family silver. This cheeky piece transcends pun—“biting the hand that feeds,” “born with a silver spoon in her mouth”—to investigate the traditions of religious imagery, as well as the daily objects that shape and define generational relationships.

All these works are predicated by tension—between painting and photography, figurative vs. representational, historical vs. contemporary, patriarchy vs. feminism. And by taking the dirty word “derivative” by the horns, these artists swallow their source material whole and regurgitate fresh new renditions that comment as much on art history as neo-feminist practices and contemporary culture.


Jack Hanley Gallery
“Jon Pylypchuk”
Through Feb. 24, 2007

At the Jack Hanley Gallery, a panoply of DIY critters make their home amid apocalyptic landscapes of stained and polyurethaned wood overlaid with highly textured, spattered paint in earthy browns, silvers and oranges. Their cartoony dispositions—wide-set eyes and fake fur coats—are offset by nasty quips: “I’d rather see you suffer than thrive,” says one fur ball to another.

Schadenfreude or dark humor? The answer lies in Jon Pylypchuk’s sculptural installations. In his latest collection of works, the artist’s anthropomorphized species—hybrid walruses, sheep and cats—seen patched together from fake fur, socks, felt, fabric scraps and wood, appear less threatening than usual. Perhaps it’s the lack of offending speech bubbles, but their Frankenstein-like craftiness, bizarre vignettes and humorous titles (Your life is a mess and Watch it sucker now I have two husbands) are as benign here as they are disarming.

In one piece, a tall walrus, with beer can in hand, braces himself against a pillar to relieve himself, while a smaller walrus looks on, the pool of acrylic paint urine gathering at his feet. Pylypchuk has given his creatures less-than-desirable human qualities, but by doing so, he offers a cautionary tale on the tendency to “cutify” all animals. Be careful, these ones have a really biting sense of humor.


Ratio 3
“Mitzi Pederson: thirtythree days”
Through March 6, 2007

Mitzi Pederson, a recent winner of the SECA Art Award from SFMOMA, relies on three simple strategies to deliver surprising, dynamic sculptures: physical tension, contrast and everyday materials.

The wall works at Ratio 3 are variations on a theme: reflective paper bent into half-pipes or demi-funnels, the open edge bridged with sheets of clear colored acrylic secured with aluminum tape. In the larger pieces, this unit is mounted to the top edge of a plywood rectangle and features a dangling acrylic strip, a sheet independently affixed or bulwarked from the funnel to the plywood.

Other smaller pieces work within similar parameters, but instead of using wood are affixed gingerly to the wall by single pins. These few points of security serve as the source of great energy, heightened by the sense of the imperative suggested by titles such as Then do what you must and I wish I may. Similarly, the contrast between the hardworking plywood and the glossy chromatic and reflective surfaces create another visual paradox.

The ubiquity of Pederson’s chosen materials underscores the contrast between (and current art-world obsession with) high and low art, and craftwork and fine art. The paper’s distortion, emphasized by its reflexivity, suggests different ways of seeing everyday materials—both literally and metaphorically.


Haines Gallery
“Li Jin: Eat Drink Man Woman”
Through Feb. 24, 2007

Food and relationships continue to dominate Li Jin’s art and life. The artist’s most recent suite of watercolors at Haines Gallery conflates traditional Chinese painting with modern imagery, particularly imagery associated with Western culinary practices. Instead of quiet distant landscapes, Jin fills his scrolls with recipes, brightly colored produce, sumptuous meals and the gentrified people who enjoy them.

Within the mixture of menus, clothing and expressions, one senses a cultural negotiation: Grey mandarin jackets appear next to fur coats, whole steamed fish are paired with French wines, dour faces are offset by surprised ones. But the ambiguity of the details and the current rage for vintage vogue make it unclear whether Jin is depicting Shanghai in the 1920s or 2007.

What emerges, though, are the similarities between these two periods of Chinese history in which bourgeois Western styles and habits flourished like oyster mushrooms after a rain.