“Proximities 1: What Time Is It There?”
May 24-July 21, 2013
Curated by Glen Helfand
Asian Art Museum
200 Larkin Street
By John Held, Jr.
I believe that visual art is a universal song best sung in Esperanto, available to the understanding of everyone regardless of background. That being said, I regard art museums that are devoted to ethnic and sexual identity with suspicion. Diverse city that it is, San Francisco has a slew of them, including the Jewish Contemporary Museum, the Mexican Museum, Museo ItaloAmericano, Museum of African Diaspora and the Asian Art Museum, among them
I comprehend and sympathize with the underrepresentation of diverse populations in the artistic canon and recognize the desire for fuller participation by those that have been all but ignored by our more stately cultural institutions. So, it is both a bit ironic and a sign of goodwill, when a significant curatorial program like the Asian Art Museum invites various other ethnicities to express their viewpoint in critique of the institutions’ mission.
Glen Helfand, organizer of, “Proximities,” has been on a curatorial roll of late. He curated the exhibition “Primary Structures,” earlier this year at the San Francisco Art Institute, has recently presented Creativity Explored in association with Jack Fisher Gallery and has previously collaborated with the De Young Museum and the San Jose Museum of Art. All the while reviewing for Artforum with teaching stints at CCA and SFAI.
Helfand has secured a who’s who of on-the-scene San Francisco artists, many of whom like Tucker Nichols, Elisheva Biernoff, and Ala Ebtekar, have been cherry picked from strong showings at local galleries like Gallery 16, Eli Ridgeway, and Gallery Paule Anglim. They, along with several others, were asked for their impressions of Asia, be it from personal travel (Lisa Blatt), imagined journey (James Gobel), stereotypical impression (Andrew Witrak) or heritage (Ala Ebtekar). They range in execution from a drawing installation by Tucker Nichols, to photography by the late Larry Sultan, video projection by Blatt, and the literal centerpiece of the exhibition, Andrew Witrak’s sculptural installation of cocktail umbrellas. Both demeaning and beautiful, Witrak makes the strongest contribution to the show in terms of direct confrontation of the proximities between an imagined “us” and “them,” edging up against the boundary where links and disparities are found between cultures.
This is the first of a three-part exhibition conceived by Helfand, which runs in its entirety through February 2014. Other artists participating in the series of shows under the “Proximities” framework include Barry McGee, Kota Ezawa, Rebeca Bollinger and other artists of varying ethnicities in following thematic displays titled, “Knowing Me/Knowing You,” and “Import/Export.” One reason for the staggered appearance of successive showings is the limited Atsuhiko Tateuchi and Ina Goodwin Tateuchi Gallery space devoted to “Thematic Exhibition.” Nestled between Korean and Japanese galleries on the westward section of the second floor, the space is apparently too cramped to contain all the ideas Helfand had in mind.
This first section has more than enough bang for the buck. In addition to the aforementioned cocktail umbrella work by Witrak, which stands out for its flashy bombast, I’m a sucker for Lisa Blatt’s video projection, her camera focused on the reflections of a Shanghai river bathed in flashing neon on the periphery. It reinforces my notion that patterns in nature untouched by human conceptions of composition are often more fruitful than human intervention. Her photographic work, also included, is departs from her more familiar minimalistic offerings but are just as effective. Elisheva Biernoff’s trompe l’oeil painted postcards of extinct Japanese animals are indistinguishable from the genuine article. Tucker Nichols childlike yet iconic depictions of Asian art objects found in the museum continue his pattern of mixing the everyday and high art. Sultan’s dramatic photograph of cherry blossoms have nothing to do with Asia and everything to do with remembrances of home, no matter the locale.
Props go to the Asian Art Museum for opening up their institution to cultural critique. As director Jay Xu relates, “the aim of the series is to illuminate ideas and viewpoints, and to invite a lively dialogue among artistic, ethnic, and cultural audiences.” Kudos also to Helfand in his selection artists who have articulated distinctive voice to the proposition set before them. This is a not- to-be-missed show by one of the strongest curatorial voices in the area.
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