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June art gallery walk

by Sura Wood

CatchLight Fellow Tomas van Houtryve, "Anastacio Bonnie Sanchez and San Geronimo Church Massacre Site" (2017), diptych gelatin silver prints. Photo: Courtesy of SF Camerawork
CatchLight Fellow Tomas van Houtryve, "Anastacio Bonnie Sanchez and San Geronimo Church Massacre Site" (2017), diptych gelatin silver prints. Photo: Courtesy of SF Camerawork  

June is the official start of the summer gallery season. Here are a few outstanding choices to check out this month.

Hosfelt Gallery: "Frankenstein's Birthday Party" arrives just in time for what may be the summer of Mary Shelley, the author and unconventional woman behind the monster that's haunted us for centuries. This provocative show coincides with the 200th anniversary of the publication of Shelley's prescient, gothic novel about hubris, science run amok and a reanimated corpse, and the release of "Mary Shelley," a new bio-pic opening this Friday. Through a bevy of macabre, fascinating, bedeviling and alarm-sounding works, (which, full disclosure, are right in this writer's wheelhouse), the exhibition's artists address themes raised by the tale: advances in technology, the drive to overcome limitations of the body and mortality, and the inability to control what human ambition has unleashed.


Patricia Piccinini, Egg/Head (2016), silicone, human hair, edition 1 of 3. Photo: David Stroud, courtesy of Hosfelt Gallery, San Francisco  

"Bombhead" (2002/1989), Bruce Conner's surreal portrait of a man whose head has been replaced by the image of a nuclear blast, for instance, speaks to the book's core idea; a monstrous creation with the power to annihilate its creator, while Edmund Clark's chilling documentary picture "Camp 6, Mobile Force-feeding Chair, Guantanamo" (2009) offers a horrific reminder of inventions harnessed for diabolical purposes. Cornelius Volker's "still-life" oil painting "Reck Goliath" (2009) is a rendering of a handgun whose cold, gleaming, blue-steel surface is so seductive it dares the viewer to pick it up and take it for a test drive. Kiki Smith, a sculptor long obsessed with functions of the body and its various parts, is represented by "Answer" (1996), the ceramic "fossilized" remains of a forearm connected to a detached hand with exposed wire - or is it her take on a primitive prosthetic limb? Then there's Patricia Piccinini's wiggy, simultaneously repellent and compelling "Egg/Head" (2016). The squat, oval-shaped silicone sculpture, with the unsettling appearance of pinkish flesh, has a belly button, stringy hair and intestinal innards whose tiny openings are sucked closed, at least for the moment, protruding from its back. It's the kind of grotesque hybrid creature that might have been hatched in a mad laboratory experiment gone wrong, though, by this point, a litany of late-night, low-budget horror movies was cranking through my brain. The piece is actually a cross between a human belly symbiotically attached to a bicycle helmet, and a real animal called a Sea Squirt that has a bizarre backstory all its own. Sometimes it's better not to ask too many questions. June 23-Aug. 11; hosfeltgallery.com

SF Camerawork: "Focal Points," the first show launched by CatchLight, a Bay Area-based nonprofit supporting photography as a vehicle for social change, is an exhibition noteworthy for both the high quality and timely nature of work by the three photographers awarded fellowships by the organization. San Francisco photojournalist Brian L. Frank, whose photo essays have been published in The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker and Rolling Stone, drew on his personal history - he was in and out of juvenile facilities from the age of 14 for theft and violent crime before turning himself around - for "Out of Bounds: Coming of Age in Gang Territory." His beautifully composed color images, complemented by descriptive captions, examine the criminalizing of minority youth and the brotherhood and loneliness of teenage inmates at Pine Grove, a prison camp located in the foothills of Lake Tahoe. Frank is definitely a talent to watch.

For her illuminating series "Beckon Us from Home," New York-based documentary photographer Sarah Blesener visited patriot camps and clubs across the country to photograph some of the 400,000 children receiving a mix of religious and military-style instruction. She found that for many of the young, vulnerable-looking attendees she captured on camera, the strict regimentation imposed by the camps was a welcome relief from the responsibility of developing their own individual identity.

In "Lines and Lineage," Tomas Van Houtryve documents an alternative visual history of the U.S./Mexican border, which, before 1848, was located 700 miles farther north than it is today. He imagines how the area, once home to indigenous people of the region, might have appeared under Mexican rule, a period from 1839, the year photography was invented, to 1848, when the US attacked Mexico and seized half its land. Using wet plate-glass negatives and a 19th-century wooden camera, he took antique black & white photographs displayed in a diptych format. Retaining scratches and detritus of the chemical process, they freeze time in a zone where the imagination is free to roam. Through June 30; sfcamerawork.org.

Fraenkel Gallery: "The Poetry Machine and Other Works" features several collaborative projects from the ingenious husband-and-wife team Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, who share an interest in the properties and possibilities of sound and the menace of machines. For those lucky enough to have experienced it, Cardiff's installation at Ft. Mason in 2015, "The Forty Part Motet," a recorded choral performance of a reworked 16th-century composition by Thomas Tallis, was an ecstatic tour de force. Among the pieces on view here: the U.S. debut of "The Poetry Machine," the duo's interactive homage to the late Leonard Cohen. Its components include a vintage organ, an assortment of speakers and the unmistakable sound of Cohen's voice reciting a catalog of poems from his "Book of Longing," which the couple received six months after he died. Seated in a conveniently placed chair, visitors can reconfigure the poet's voice and texts for themselves. Like a bewitched character out of a dark fairy-tale ballet, the robotically manipulated marionette of "Sad Waltz and the dancer who couldn't dance" appears to play a miniature grand piano, providing "onstage" accompaniment for a woe-be-gone, human-like puppet who dances, as if possessed, to a score by Armenian composer Edward Mirzoyan. Through July 5; fraenkelgallery.com.


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