This spring-break post is not about a road trip, but about a BART trip to San Francisco. With the current price of gasoline, even in Mom’s memorial Prius, we must keep our adventures a little closer to home. So, Oola and I headed out to see a show at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.
Oola insists I that I ‘fess up. We tried to see this show last Tuesday, only to get to the door of the CJM and be reminded by a sign in the window that last Tuesday was Passover. The museum was closed. (I knew that. I had seen it on the calendar.) Doh!
But the art was well worth the return trip.
We got off BART at the Montgomery station, our sense of direction much addled by the Market Street intersection. We found a little park that turned into one of those tiny SF streets, and on Oola’s whim we turned left toward the relative quiet. A block later we discovered a treasure: the Frey Norris Contemporary and Modern.
We wandered in, a big ? floating between us. In a large room to the left we saw “Contrabandos”, by Julio Cesar Morales.
I was immediately sucked in by the beauty of four pieces that looked like architectural drawings but were much more. Physically, the textures and line qualities were ethereal, the surface quality at once translucent and not. I began reading poetry into the works, each of which depicted a building above and an underground passageway below. Associations of “The Great Escape”, Hillerman’s Sinister Pig, and Joaquin Murietta’s tunnels in San Juan Bautista, CA came to mind. But having read — but not really read — the title (just as I did with the calendar) I wasn’t really “getting it”.
Oola had wandered behind a curtain and was watching a video. Filmed in black and white with an intensity that comes with the use of the close-up shot, it presented a sculptor working on what appeared to be one end of a tremendously heavy length of tree trunk. Coming into the film late, I saw, from the point of view of the craftsman, the hands meticulously packing bags into holes in the end of the trunk. I thought of Lana Bobele and how she puts secrets into her sculptures. What was he packing into those pockets…bags of ground coffee, gunpowder? The craftsman then meticulously covered the pockets with a chiseled slab of wood, packing the broken pieces in tightly. Then, visual amazement, he painted that wood with fire, which in video produced an utterly beautiful image.
Beautiful as it was, I still didn’t “get” the exhibition, though it was written in clear Spanish, “Contrabandos”. Oola did, but she was uncharacteristically speechless! I moved on to the next group of watercolors, which at first I took for some post modern silliness about Sponge Bob SquarePants and other recent movie animation characters. I was about to dismiss it when the deckle on the paper said, “This is important”. So I looked closer, and each cartoon character/pinata had a child crammed into it, to claustrophobic – even terrifying – effect. I started to “get it”.
Out of this room and on the other side of the gallery there were works by other artists which I found also totally entrancing:
A stalagmite/stalactite looking sculpture, by Lionel Bawden from Australia, made of white colored pencils meticulously epoxied together, sanded into form, and mounted on a pedestal of white drawing paper.
The painting “Portrait of Dr. Ignacio Chavez” by Remedios Varo. This is part of the show “Exultation: Sex, Death and Madness in Eight Surrealist Masterworks”. Is he locking or unlocking their hearts?
Still, we came to see the Charlotte Salomon show at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, so after chatting for a bit with the totally friendly people behind the desk at Frey Norris, we moved on.
Around the corner and down Mission Street a bit we found it. And this time it was open!
In case you aren’t familiar with the wonderful artist, and I certainly wasn’t, Charlotte Salomon was a young upper-class Jewish woman living in Germany, then France, during the rise of the Nazis and World War II. After the suicide of her grandmother she learned of a history of suicides in her family. With an incomprehensible world closing in around her, she made the decision to fight madness and suicide in herself through her art. And in the last months of her life, she created more than a thousand gouache paintings and a story of an epic time. She named the work “Life? or Theatre?”. Then, in 1943, newly married and four months pregnant, she with her husband was arrested by the Nazis, sent to Auschwitz, and murdered.
Charlotte had academic art training, but chose to paint these pages in a way that looks naive and outside. As I previewed the work online, I was a little put off by what looked like the muddiness of the gouache. But seeing the work in person I was taken by the poetic way she used opacity and light – an indistinct restaurant focuses down to the lovers hands on a white table cloth, a white clock glows on a wall.
Moving through the three hundred pages chosen for this exhibition, I saw the work grow looser and more abstract, possibly because Charlotte knew that she was running out of time. Grandmother huddled by the radio and Grandmother throwing herself out of the window are wrenching images.
Then there are the wonderful pages where the character Daberlohn talks about art. He is all red horizontals. Referring to the story of Jacob wrestling with God Daberlohn says
” ’I will not let thee go, except thou bless me’ that is one of the main commandments for an artist.”
That caught me right between the eyes. I had never thought of the process of art making, both physical and conceptual, in that light before.
I whole-heartedly recommend this show. If you are in the Bay Area, you can visit the Contemporary Jewish Museum at 736 Mission Street (between 3rd and 4th Streets), opened Daily 11 AM–5 PM, Thursdays 1–8 PM, Closed Wednesdays. Only $5 entry through May 11. http://www.thecjm.org/
You can see more about Charlotte’s work at http://www.jhm.nl/collection/themes/charlotte-salomon/leben-oder-theater which is an interactive site displaying all the images Charlotte included in this masterwork,
and http://venetianred.net/2011/04/17/life-or-theater-at-the-cjmsf/ a wonderful artists blog I just discovered.
But, that reference to the Jacob wrestling with the God would not let go of me. And Oola wanted to return to the Frey Norris Gallery. So, we revisited Julio Cesar Morales’ show. I watched the beginning of his video and saw the craftsman struggle with the big auger and the log, the twists in the grain of the tree threatening to throw his body aside. And like Jacob, the goggled and masked sculptor would not let go. As I watched more, the sense of the whole show became both clearer and more multi-leveled. The architecture could be seen as mystical poetry, but also with the social, economic, political layer of tunnels for smuggling drugs under the border, and the child-stuffed pinata, a way to smuggle a human being. The secret packets in the tree trunk, drugs. Under these circumstances, your notions about the nature of “Art” is guaranteed to shift.
You must experience this work. “Contrabando” will be at the Frey Norris Contemporary and Modern until May 28.
Lionel Bawden: will have a solo show at Frey Norris in October.
and Remedios Varo will have a solo show at Frey Norris, “Indelible Fables”, November 5th through December 22nd.
Gallery address: 161 Jessie St (at New Montgomery)
What an AMAZING Day! Drained, Oola and I got off the BART and found this sign welcoming us back to Oakland:
If you have suggestions of places you would like to see Oola visit between Spring and Summer semesters, please feel free to send them to me. Thanks, Jan