Since 2016 the handbasket that is the United States has been on a non-stop flight to its proverbial destination.1 The landing gear is down and our seats are in the full upright and locked position – I advise strapping in and bracing for impact.

There have been some terrible years for the US during my lifetime: in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, and Andy Warhol were shot, and nearly 17,000 troops were killed in Vietnam; in both 1994 and 1995, over 49,000 people died from AIDS-related complications; in 2001, there were the September 11 terrorist attacks, in which nearly 3000 people died, and their aftermath. Eventually we’ll see how history will view 2020, although I’m confident I know without the benefit of hindsight what the results of that exercise will be. Up to this point, we’ve seen over 226,000 deaths from COVID-19 (“their new hoax”); over 8.5 million acres burned in wildfires (“… you got to get rid of the leaves”); social unrest of a magnitude unheard of in decades (“[Black Lives Matter] is a symbol of hate”); and complete and utter ineptitude, amorality, narcissism, nepotism, bigotry, and corruption in the highest levels of government (“No, I don’t take responsibility at all”).2

On a personal level, one of my closest friends passed away in July. For me, 2020 has been the worst year ever –  that includes 2001, when a friend’s body was found and the police called me because my phone number was in his wallet. I was asked to call his family to tell them to contact the “hospital.” It includes 2004, when I was laid up for months following a car accident and I had to learn how to walk again. It’s been worse than 2013, when a friend was killed by a tow truck that ran a red light and hit his car, and a month later my grandmother passed away. As horrible as all those things were, they were at least knowable; they allowed for an emotional process. 2020 has been worse because of the uncertainty of it all, the knowledge that our health is reliant on other people doing the right thing, and the profound dread of what could happen next Tuesday.

News From Home show announcement (2020).

One often hears from artistic people that “[my vocation] saved my life.” I’ve never really thought that, but during these recent months, I have felt that painting has kept me on the good side of the mental health line. It’s kept me busy, given me something on which to focus, allowed me some sense of accomplishment while isolated. Even so, I haven’t had an easy time of it3, and the resulting show is not the one I had envisioned a year ago. I had been exploring ideas while working on three-dimensional mixed media constructions, ideas which I had planned on integrating into paintings for this show. Unfortunately, due to my scattered state of mind, I was unable to deliver on that – only one piece in the show is made with anything beyond paint on canvas. None of the pieces are connected conceptually; they too are scattered, so perhaps this is a perfectly appropriate show for me to mount as we near the end of this shattered year.

News from Home will run from November 5 to December 5, 2020 at Archival Gallery in Sacramento CA.

 

1 Mixed Metaphors “R” Us.

2 Four actual quotes from he who is currently squatting in the White House. Squatting in more ways than one.

3 I am very aware that a lot of people have had it much worse than I.

What is the relationship between activism and art? I believe it is the responsibility of everyone to be socially engaged; for an artist, that may or may not include creating work which addresses the issues of the day. Either way, one can be pushed to the point where action is required – where one is compelled to say something using any available forum. Art is another platform in which to make one’s voice heard.

Barbara Kruger is an artist with something to say and the ability to make captivating art to say it. Her work is as quotable as it is visually arresting; the phrases “Your body is a battleground” and “I shop therefore I am” are familiar to people who wouldn’t recognize her name and have never set foot in an art gallery. In 1999, I twice saw a retrospective, titled simply Barbara Kruger, of her work at the LAMOCA; it was one of the most aggressive and audacious shows I’ve ever seen.

Kruger arranges a relationship between her work and the viewer with phrases regarding different power structures: sexual/gender-based, political, economic. The words come from different “narrators” and are by turns accusatory (“You substantiate our horror”), questioning (“Who dies first?”), exclamatory (“Hate like us”), aphoristic (“Doubt tempers belief with sanity”). These terse, confrontational phrases, along with her visual acuity, combine to make some of the most provocative art of the last forty years.

Barbara Kruger leaflet (1999). LAMOCA.

In addition to the silkscreens, the show also featured photographs, engravings, lenticular works, sculpture, video, and, perhaps most notably, an installation. One wall was covered, floor to ceiling, with two black and white photos of a screaming face, mirror images of each other, and the words “All violence is the illustration of a pathetic stereotype” in white type on a large black rectangular ground. In a red strip between the photos was a long list of epithets – racial, sexual, religious – which evoked the violence cited in the main text. The other walls, floor, and ceiling were all covered with images and text. Being surrounded by, to be immersed in the piece, had a very visceral impact. Kruger’s work is emotionally hard-hitting, but also invites an intellectual examination of beliefs and behaviors. Incidentally, she can also be very funny.

If you believe in science, civil rights, saving the environment, a woman’s right to choose, taxes for the 1%, healthcare for everyone, if you believe we have the right to peaceful assembly, brownshirts don’t belong in the oval room, Black Lives Matter, immigrants don’t belong in camps – the list goes on and on – please make your voice heard. Please vote.

Back in 1992, I was asked to participate in an art festival which had started the previous year. Although I was unfamiliar with the event, I had several friends who were on the board of directors and/or were artists for it, so I agreed. That year, Chalk it Up to Sacramento! took place outside La Raza Galeria Posada on O Street; the following year, the festival moved to Fremont Park, where, until this year, it had been held every Labor Day weekend since.

Businesses and individuals sponsor the “squares,” large chalk drawings on the walkways at the site. That first year mine was done for local rock band Tattooed Love Dogs, who were favorites of mine. The money raised is distributed in the form of grants to benefit children’s art education, an important cause to me personally, as I really had no art education at all in elementary school or junior high. Furthermore, the festival was a lot of fun, so I decided to continue participating.

Polaroid of artwork for Chalk it Up! poster (2002).

In June of 2002, I was asked to do a chalk drawing in the parking lot of Page Design; it would be used as the basis for the Chalk it Up! poster that year. I remember festival president Rick Best bringing lunch to me that afternoon; it was a hot, windy day, and he also provided a large canopy to protect me from the sun. While I was working, I could hear the legs of the structure moving, scraping against the concrete – suddenly it lifted off the ground, flew over my head, across the parking lot, and into Page Design’s glass door, which shattered. I ran to the door and my surprised face was met by the surprised face of a man working in the office.

Sadly, a few weeks later, Rick was in a car accident, and he passed away that December, having never left the hospital. In his honor, a tree was planted in Fremont Park, where he had spent so much time during Labor Day weekends over the years. He is missed by the many friends he left behind.

In September 2004, I was in my own serious car accident, which effectively ended my Chalk it Up! career. My back could no longer take my sitting on the concrete for three days in the Sacramento heat. In truth, my tenure was probably near its end, anyway. Most, if not all, of the artists with whom I started had ceased participating years before. Drawing elaborate pieces in chalk on the sidewalk really is an activity for younger bodies. I do still attend to see the art, hear some music, and maybe run into some people I haven’t seen since the previous festival.

This year, Chalk it Up! will again take place Labor Day Weekend, Saturday through Monday, September 5-7, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it been retooled as Chalk it Up Around the Town! Instead of being based at Fremont Park, artists will create their squares on sidewalks, parking lots, and driveways throughout the greater Sacramento area. Musical performances will be streamed online during the weekend. Chalk it Up and stay safe!

In the autumn of 1994, I made a trip to see an Egon Schiele retrospective at the San Diego Museum of Art; it was a rare opportunity to view a sizable body of his work without going to his native Austria. The previous comprehensive solo show to come to the United States took place in 1960, so I was very much looking forward to seeing this one.

Schiele became one of my favorite artists when, in my teens, I discovered his work through my studies of turn-of-the-century Vienna. The art of Gustav Klimt had piqued my interest in the subject, which I found as fascinating as sixties Swinging London or seventies Max’s/Mercer Arts Center/CBGB NYC. Vienna at that time was a hotbed of activity in many areas, including, most importantly for me, the visual arts. Austrian Expressionism, even its rawest examples, had a grace not present in its German counterpart, thus it was more aligned with my sensibility. This approach was due to the influence of Klimt and the Secession group, which emphasized design, ornamentation, and a cross-pollination among disciplines.

The Schiele exhibition was comprised of perhaps a dozen paintings and over sixty works on paper – drawings, gouaches, and watercolors. Although Schiele was an accomplished and ambitious painter, more notably he was one of the 20th century’s preeminent draftsmen, and that is where the strength of his oeuvre lies. Untethered from the need to make a statement, his works on paper are more direct and immediate in their expression. With the actual work, one can see what a confident hand Schiele had – next to no erasing and very little redrawing is evident; his surety was staggering. His quality of line gave the whole an elegant framework while his use of color and masterful sense of composition, especially in the employment of negative space, heightened the intensity of his psychologically and sexually charged imagery. In the years since I saw this show, my appreciation of Schiele’s paintings and drawings has not waned; if anything, it has grown – especially for his later, more naturalistic output.

Schiele had only a little over a decade to produce his life’s work. The influenza pandemic of 1918 killed over twenty million people worldwide; Egon Schiele died on October 31, three days after Edith, his pregnant wife, succumbed to the same disease. He was twenty-eight years old.

One of my earliest memories is my mother reading George Orwell’s Animal Farm to my older brother and me; I was about three years old. In junior high school, when I read the book myself, it all came back to me. I asked my mother about it, and she confirmed that she had, saying “It’s kind of like a children’s story – it’s a fable; the animals talk.” She also told me, “I used to read all kinds of stuff to you – not just books for kids.”

Storytime (2011).

Orwell’s tale made a big impression on me – it revealed the lying, the backstabbing, the lengths to which some pigs (or people) will go to gain power, how that power is abused, and how some sheep (or people) are so easily led around by the nose. It could have been the beginning of the distrust of authority figures that has stayed with me my whole life.

That distrust was fueled by the behavior of some teachers and school administrators. As a child, I attended a small elementary school with only one class for each grade. When I was in fourth grade, there was a new fifth grade teacher who was a bully and a jerk – among other things, he once told several of his students to beat up a younger boy. I told my mother I wanted to go to a different school the next year. The other school was a lot bigger and at first a little scary, as I didn’t know anyone, but I was happy my parents entrusted me with making my own decisions about the teacher and which school to attend.

Things weren’t any better in junior high and high school. I was treated to a vice principal announcing, at an assembly regarding the dress code, that “Jap flaps” were not acceptable footwear. I saw a teacher grab a student by the hair and stick his hand in the kid’s mouth in an attempt to find some non-existent gum. One teacher called on me to ask what the price of tea was in China. Two female friends of mine were told by a vice principal that they couldn’t hold hands on campus. I was repeatedly asked by a teacher what day it was, before he finally hissed “It’s Pearl Harbor Day!” Things like this happened all the time.

It seems I’ve always known that just because someone is in a position of power, it doesn’t mean s/he is competent or has anyone else’s best interest in mind. I was still young when I’d seen enough to know that no mere title deserved any respect from me. It’s possible the seed of that knowledge was inside Orwell’s little book, or, given my background – my family was interned by this country – maybe it was just built into my DNA. Either way, Animal Farm spoke to me, and over the years, I’ve re-read it several times. It is always emotionally engaging because it is always pertinent. Some animals continue to be more equal than others.

Like a lot of people, I haven’t been leaving home much the last two or three months. Fortunately, I have had things to keep myself busy, not the least of which has been working on a show (now tentatively scheduled for November 2020). I also have no lack of books and music lying around; I can watch Citizen Kane, Don’t Look Back, or Rear Window; and there’s always Jeopardy! and reruns of Murphy Brown.

Theoretically, it’s been ideal for me – I’m at home, have a lot of time to paint and next to no obligations outside my four walls. However, for someone who even under normal circumstances spends a lot of time at home, I do miss going out. Different environments allow my mind to go in different directions; I’m often writing notes for prospective paintings while at a café or the laundromat, ideas often coalesce while I’m just walking around. As much as my painting reflects my interior life, the world outside also contributes to how I work. So, while I’ve had more time to paint, my process has been disrupted. Add this to the stress and general sense of dread I’ve felt during this time – I wouldn’t say I’ve been depressed, but I haven’t been sleeping well, an emotional toll has definitely been taken – and I’ve probably not done much more work than I would have ordinarily, despite having had quite a bit more time to do it.

Often, when I start working on a show, people will ask if I have a theme. I never do, although after I’ve finished several pieces, a through line which links at least some of the work will often present itself. This has not happened – I believe my thought process has been more disjointed, less fluid; as a result, working on one piece hasn’t led directly to an idea for another, as is usually the case.

What affect this will have on the finished show has yet to be seen. We’ll find out together.

In November 2014, I had plans to go to San Francisco to see a show of skulls at the California Academy of Sciences. As an afterthought, I checked other SF museums for shows I might also want to see while I was there, and found a retrospective called Keith Haring: The Political Line had just opened at the de Young. I bought a ticket, thinking it would be a nice diversion, a fun show.

When Keith Haring came to prominence in the early 1980s, I really didn’t pay too much attention. I was aware of him, of course, and thought his baby, dog, flying saucer, and batman imagery was playful and amusing, but lightweight. I think the fact that it reproduces so well – I had certainly seen enough of it on buttons, t-shirts, greeting cards, refrigerator magnets, et al. – made me think I knew, and contributed to my reading of, his work. The day I saw The Political Line, I realized how wrong I had been.

The show was startling; I was taken aback by how powerful it was. Reproductions of Haring’s art, like those of Roy Lichtenstein’s, look great but can’t convey the formal aspects which give the works much of their strength. Seeing the actual paintings made me realize how important scale is in Haring’s work, and allowed me to see them as not just cartoons – to recognize their abstract qualities. His bold, confident stroke frequently possesses as much visual weight as the object it delineates. He also often utilized an all-over compositional style and created tension by minimizing the distinction between the figure and the ground until they became almost interchangeable. The push-pull results of these components contribute to his work’s signature pulsating energy.

The Political Line’s focus also made clear the gravitas of Haring’s oeuvre, which I had previously not considered. His unwavering dedication to his sociopolitical concerns continues to inspire. Drug addiction, nuclear proliferation, children’s issues, apartheid, and AIDS (another public health crisis exacerbated by presidential ignorance, ineptitude, and inaction) were some of the causes he took on in his work. If his “radiant child” image symbolizes hope, we could use Keith Haring now. We could use his hope and his activism and his drive, and we could use his anger.

Keith Haring would have turned 62 today; he died on February 16, 1990 of AIDS-related complications. He was 31 years old.

All artwork © The Keith Haring Foundation

Ross Bleckner is a contemporary New York artist whose work I’ve admired since 1983. I remember seeing a magazine article (I think it was in Art in America) about his Weather series and being intrigued by what I saw – abstract quasi-landscape meditations on light and shadow. A few years later, I read about his dark, obscured interiors with chandeliers, urns, and flowers, which evoked loss and mourning in the age of the AIDS crisis. It was these paintings which convinced me Bleckner was someone I should watch, and I have been following his career since then.

Over the years, stripes, domes, birds, dots, flowers, and other imagery have appeared and re-appeared in Bleckner’s work, which straddles the representational/non-representational line. In the late 1990s, he started a series of Cell paintings which are simultaneously realist and completely abstract. Although he has referenced many different styles and movements during his career, he has never fit into any one box – he is on his own path. I’ve only seen a handful of his actual pieces, but he is an artist I hold in very high esteem.

The last several weeks, I’ve thought about Bleckner often, as every time I see an image of the coronavirus, it reminds me of his Cell paintings, which he started the year his father died of cancer. Bleckner is known for the elegiac feel of much of his work; it all seems to fit.

During this trying time, please stay home, be good to each other, be safe, and, as your mother told you, wash your hands. This too shall pass. I hope.

Deborah Oropallo and Andy Rappaport: still (detail) from FLOOD (2019). Video installation.

I recently saw FLOOD, a video installation by Deborah Oropallo and Andy Rappaport at the Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco. Oropallo is one of my favorite contemporary artists; I’ve been following her work since the early 1990s, when her paintings were actually made of oil on canvas. However, even then she was not a traditional painter – her conceptual bent has always been strong, and she used silkscreens, rollers, and other tools in lieu of brushes. Her work has continually evolved, building on previous ideas while taking in new techniques and technologies. Since 2000, she has been utilizing digital imagery, which she manipulates on a computer and often works into on the canvas or paper itself. In 2017, she began collaborating with Rappaport on video projects which retain her painterly aesthetic without, obviously, being made with any paint at all.

Oropallo and Rappaport have been working with the theme of climate change and its impact on our population. Between 1995 and 2015, 2.3 billion people worldwide were affected by flooding. In this incarnation, FLOOD consists of three video screens, set in line horizontally, showing still images culled from internet news sources. Flooded streets appear and are gradually overlapped by photos of people in the deluge. The images continue to accumulate, the waters continue to rise, and the frame fills with more and more people. Rappaport’s score builds along with the images, from the musique concrète sounds of water to a pulsing beat – the impact of the whole is hypnotic, poignant, and affecting – a poetic call to action.

I’m not very learned re video art, but, as always, Oropallo excels here. The layering/montaging in the video is an extension of what she does so brilliantly in her paintings, expanded to epic proportions through the added dimension of time. Over the course of about 20 minutes, hundreds of individual images are seen. In this age, when information is so quickly forgotten in favor the next new story, to spend that amount of time contemplating a single subject is nothing short of revolutionary.

FLOOD will be on view through Saturday, March 28 – spare no pains to see it.

Corey Oada standing in front of Wayne Thiebaud's Water City mural
With Wayne Thiebaud’s Water City mosaic (1959) at SMUD Headquarters building, Sacramento (2020).

Wayne Thiebaud was almost certainly the first contemporary artist of whom I was aware. I was four or five years old when my mother brought me to the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) headquarters to show me the building’s exterior mosaic, which depicts the city’s skyline and its reflection in the river. I imagine we made the excursion because my mother knew that even at that young age, all I wanted to do was draw and look at art. The experience must have made an impression, because I not only remember her telling me that the artist lived nearby, but also that the tiles came all the way from Italy.

In the late 1950s, when Thiebaud was commissioned by some savvy individual to do the mural, he was teaching at Sacramento City College. Ten years later, when I saw it for the first time, he was at UC Davis and a famous artist. By the late 70s/early 80s, when I was a teenager, I had become fairly well-versed in his career and as a young adult, I saw large shows of his work in Sacramento and San Francisco. I must admit it was a bit of a thrill when he attended the reception for one of my early shows. I didn’t see him, but as the evening was winding down, the gallery owner excitedly showed me the guestbook, and there was his name, alongside his signature heart.

To commemorate Thiebaud’s 100th birthday, the Crocker Art Museum will be presenting a show titled Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints, and Drawings, which opens in October. It’ll be an opportunity to view a good representative sample of his work, much of it apparently previously unseen, together in one space. I wish my five-year-old self were here to see it. I’m sure my current self will enjoy it, as well.