Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Experimental exhibitions

Fine Arts

"Voyeur III" (2007), mixed media by Alan Rath, part of NEAT: New Experiments in Art and Technology at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco. Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Hosfelt Gallery, SF
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In the 1960s a series of New York-based projects, Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT ), merged engineering and art, with Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman among the participants. Fifty years later comes NEAT at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, which commissioned nine talented artists from the Bay Area, the epicenter of digital innovation, to take a "new" crack at the seminal concept by creating or updating their visual and sound installations, videos and interactive works. Playful and gimmicky but ultimately insubstantial, the resulting exhibition is not so much rooted as stuck in the 1960s/70s DIY aesthetic that inspired it, even though the technological tools are certainly more advanced than those of a half-century ago.

Take Micah Elizabeth Scott's "Eclipse." Though it may be made of glass, 3D-printed plastics, handmade electronics and software, the nubby crystalline baby-blue ball with the surface of a lava lamp would be right at home in a disco, strobe-light flashing, or serving as a womb for another species' progeny. Other pieces look like inventions cooked up in the garage on a Saturday afternoon, such as Paolo Salvagione's Rube Goldbergesque "Rope Fountain," where what appear to be a half-dozen aluminum sanders are lined up, each connected to a looped automated rope that lifts and drops, coils and uncoils; they're like a bunch of rogue vacuum cleaners gorging on their own cords, or electronic cowboys with no calves to lasso.

Chief curator Renny Pritikin deserves credit for trying new things and stretching the definition of what belongs in a Jewish Museum, but his ventures so far haven't been equally successful. A lot of morphing, flickering and buzzing goes on in the dark rooms at NEAT, but it suffers in comparison to the museum's previous exhibition Night Begins the Day, which was populated by imaginative works by younger artists who skirted the edge of the ponderous in their ruminations on the cosmos and the sublime. Here we get the dated hippie psychedelic of "Entangled" by Camille Utterback, large hanging scrims with a video projection of a chartreuse-and-tangerine dream. When you move in front of the flower-child imagery or in tandem with a partner on the other side of the screens, bluish webbing materializes and recedes. The only thing missing is Iron Butterfly's 1968 hit "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" playing in the background.

It's difficult not to fall hard for the witty salvage missions of Alan Rath, whose interest in robotics and kinetic sculpture has produced endearing contraptions like "Soon," whose parts look like they've been scavenged from a Voyager probe. With its jerry-rigged, motorized base moving in a halting, jerky fashion and an explorer arm that ends in a flirty pink feather that could've come loose from a Folies-Bergere costume, it's a metal salvage version of an ostrich that's lost its way on the moon. Like something out of an old-fashioned optician ad, Rath's "Voyeur III" resembles a pair of jumbo-sized bright red goggles. Their deep rims frame eyes that bat long lashes and follow you around the room. This is an artist who merits a show of his own. Through Jan. 17.

Art and Other Tactics: Contemporary Craft by Artist Veterans and Without Camouflage, two separate shows that opened recently at the Museum of Craft and Design, feature works with political and psychological undercurrents. The exhibition of art by vets covers WWII, Korea and Vietnam, but the biggest section, in which survivors respond to the Gulf War onward, has yielded some of the most visceral artworks; perhaps the experience of it is still comparatively fresh. Giuseppe Pelicano's ceramic "War Pigs," a trophy wall of grotesque, horned pig heads reminiscent of George Orwell's Animal Farm, is an out-in-the-open punch to the gut, while Jesse Albrecht's "Abu G & Me & Jail," a couple of primitive yet affecting ceramic dunce hoods "decorated" with faces and hangman's rope, is a disturbing reminder of a horrifying chapter in American history most of us would rather forget. "The Truth (as filmed)" by Tom Pullin, a black skull on a four-foot-tall circular wood platform, and "See the Truth," a steel sculpture by the same artist of missiles ready to launch, suggest the specter of death and weapons of destruction, while Pam de Luco's slightly subversive 40-page "Paper Doll Book" speaks to fantasies of war through a color photograph of a smiling woman in uniform, off on her big adventure, and cut-outs of a variety of military "ensembles" of the kind girls use to play dress up with dolls.

"Strange Little Girl No. 6 (fox) with Constellation" (2013), kilnformed glass, mixed media by Silvia Levenson, part of Without Camouflage at the Museum of Craft and Design. Photo: Courtesy of the artist and MCD

In Without Camouflage, Silvia Levenson channels a disturbing past and memories of dislocation through the medium of glass. Raised in a politically active Russian-Jewish immigrant family that fled oppression in Argentina for refuge in Italy, and mentored by the French-American, large-scale-installation artist Louise Bourgeois, Levenson deals with her personal history of domestic violence and feelings of childhood estrangement, alienation and fear in a recent series of installations, Strange Little Girls. The life-size glass figures, posed in handmade dresses and animal masks disguising their identity, recall Ralph Eugene Meatyard's disconcerting photographs of masked children in the woods and dilapidated buildings. One such child in a white confirmation dress and fox head stands in front of an inky-blue map of the constellations. In another, "Baby Sheep," she wears the glass head of a gray lamb and a schoolgirl jumper emblazoned with the words "Strange Little Girl," suggesting she's an outcast and everyone knows it. The masks emphasize the innocence of lambs to the slaughter. Works by Israeli artist Dafna Kaffeman, who explores the exasperating complexities of the Arab-Israeli conflict through black wolves made of spiky needles of flamed glass, and Invasive Plants, a series that intertwines botanicals and Arab and Hebrew words, are also shown. Through March 27.


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