Bodies of work
by Sura Wood
When the art exhibition Bring it Home: (Re) Locating Cultural Legacy through the Body was taking shape, it looked as though its thesis would center on how a group of 10 Bay Area artists expressed coming to terms with their religious upbringing. Instead, the show, which inaugurates the opening of the San Francisco Arts Commission's expanded, newly renovated main gallery in the War Memorial Veterans Building, is focused on the body, fractured and transmuted into art. The body has long been a battleground for gender, power and politics – and given the complicated, ambivalent attitudes and outright aversion some religions have toward the body, not to mention the legacy of fear, shame and repression, the connection makes sense. Not surprisingly, the inquiries into the burden imposed and source material provided by cultural/religious heritage, and the presence of the past, infiltrate the show's most intriguing artworks.
These ideas certainly have preoccupied Carolyn Janssen, who grew up in the Pentecostal church. She probes an intense and troubling personal history in invigorating and creative ways with "In any case, you are always there," where emotionally potent memory skews visual perspective and gender. The youngest artist in the show, Janssen contributes a sophisticated, psychological piece that liberally references Renaissance painting, complete with a triptych attached to an expansive background landscape of snow-capped mountains floating in pools of darkness, and white trees turned into filigreed ice sculpture. The serenity is unsettled by digitally rendered images freighted with religious ritual and suggesting destruction of identity. Half the fun is searching for them and pondering their meaning: Are those burning bushes or erupting mini-volcanoes in the middle distance? Is that watery oasis for sensual pleasure or a Baptism? Mini self-portraits of the artist are scattered throughout. Janssen represents herself in many guises: shrouded in a black ceremonial robe surrounded by a pink aura; long black hair covering her face, hiding her identity; in a bust marred by clay and mud, positioned next to a rock that's a repository of recently extinguished cigarettes. Whether she's the naked figure on the cold ground devoid of sexual characteristics, or she's standing over her own broken body as if she had stepped outside herself, it's clear there's more here than immediately meets the eye.
Jeremiah Barber, the son of Baptist ministers, made a fragile rice-paper cast from his own body for his uncanny sculpture "Half Mass," an extraordinary work that will remind some of Manuel Neri's haunting plaster sculptures. Like those sculptures it has a recessive magnetism and a compelling, oddly melancholy presence. The mostly white figure, whose head and hands are mottled with black ink, lays collapsed on its side like a deflated balloon on an ebony slab, its torso seemingly wrapped in bandages, a delicate black hand flattened like an empty glove resting on the smooth, chilly surface. The figure resembles a frail elderly relative convalescing quietly on the couch, or a spirit with unfinished business returned from the other side.
Ranu Mukherjee traverses the permeable membrane between past and present in her HD video loop "Home and the World," projected so close to the wall it feels as if you can step into the cinematic scenario and break the fourth wall. It's Mukherjee's take on Indian filmmaker Satyaji Ray's 1984 film of the same name, a reflection on her sojourns in India, and a vehicle for contrasting the country's entrenched poverty and its rapidly growing consumer society. The piece opens inside a foyer whose brightly colored geometric elements magically fall away. Silhouetted women in yellow move toward the viewer, as does a headless female; yet another woman, her fist raised, is a nod to the protest spurred by a brutal gang rape.
Combining news stories and ancient mythologies, Zeina Barakeh's stop-motion animation "Homeland Insecurity" speaks to the violence and mechanics of war, in particular her first-hand experience of the civil conflict in Beirut. While the piece is original if a tad too long, and the abrupt, rhythmic cutting becomes repetitive, it's in her loaded imagery that Barakeh excels. The artist, dressed in black, wears a horse's head reminiscent of a Greek warrior. The horses multiply, evolving into an equine chorus line, a detachment of centaurs invades the scene, puffy white clouds descend from the sky and disappear, and steles inscribed with text of indeterminate origin are moved around like stage sets. In a recurrent theme, the horse-like Sisyphus pushes a rocky mound up a hill, a futile task it's doomed to repeat.
Playing with the theme of the divided body, Dana Harel's site-specific installation "Around My Head" is the Israeli-born artist's most directly autobiographical work to date. Layering clay, photography and printmaking in a textured drawing applied directly to the wall, it depicts the lower half of her body diving head-first into a flowering branch; at a 90-degree angle hangs a framed photograph/drawing of a vase with the upside-down visage of the artist, an expression of aesthetic beauty searching for an elusive mind-body connection.
Works by Vic De La Rosa, Guillermo Gomez-Pena, Summer Mei Ling Lee, Ramekon O'Arwisters and Tsherin Sherpa are also included.
Through May 7 at SFAC, 401 Van Ness Ave., SF. (Tues.-Fri., 11 a.m.-6 p.m.)