Category Archives: Art

SFMOMA PARTY BLASTS OFF

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Video Art by Bill Viola at SFMOMA

We may be a small city, but far from being a cultural backwater, we’re a city that knows how to party in high style. The latest evidence of this came last weekend at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, a place where, against the traditions of stuffy museums everywhere, people were allowed to be part of the art.

The occasion was “RGB,” the electronic-music rave and laser/light show organized by Blasthaus and held Saturday night/Sunday morning, July 10/11 [1999], in conjunction with the spectacular exhibition of video art by Bill Viola. The decision to admit hundreds or possibly thousands of people into the building late at night to dance, drink, and partake of a world-class exhibit was inspired. The sheer spectacle of masses of people talking boistrously, laughing, gesticulating toward the hyperkinetic laser projections high over their heads, and leaping about ecstatically in the usually hushed confines of one of the city’s most prestigious art santcuaries was in itself a fine work of art. Boundaries and etiquette were smashed, while leaving the museum and its art very much intact – though forever changed in the perceptions of those who were there. No longer, for them, can the institution be perceived as aloof or at all indifferent. It became a place of the people, by the people, and for the people.

In the building’s atrium, perched like an emperor on the staircase landing, looking out over the crowd toward the lofty front entrance, DJ Mocean Worker of New York City worked a set of turntables with considerable finesse. He amped the place up, sending beats streaming out at a dizzying rate, energizing the crowd with the latest in techno-trance sounds. The volume was such that you could take a smoke across the street at Yerba Buena Center and still hear the party loud and clear.

In the Be-Calm Transit Lounge, the ambient/experimental music room adjacent to the main dance area, a surprising number of computer geeks sat at banks of terminals, Netsurfing the night away. What they discovered in their journeys, only they can say, but the sight of them was disconcerting. Only the hardest of hard-core Netheads could stay off the dance floor when the likes of DJs Darkhorse, Joe Rice, and Pimps of Atlantis were creating the grooviest of vibes.

But far more than the music, the dancing, the lasers, or anything else, the party’s highlight came in viewing the Viola video installations. People flowed from room to room in the self-guided video journey (a sort of self-propelled Disney ride), repeatedly plopping themselves down to partake of extraordinary imagery and sound effects. Clearly many of those sitting for long periods in front of various video terminals or giant screens were tripping. And the atmosphere was ecstatic. Installations became living rooms, and the people in them family. People sat among friends and strangers, arms clasped around knees, shoulders brushing, everyone bathed in the dim light of video displays. With each mind-tripping sound and image effect, a sort of communal rush ensued.

Truly, “RGB” set a new standard for parties, and created a whole new way of appreciating art. The SFMOMA will never be quite the same, and that bodes well for modern art, modern art enthusiasts, and modern music as they move into the next, undoubtedly electronic millennium.

 

For a related story, see “Light, then … time: Bill Viola at SFMOMA.”

 

This article originally appeared in print in the Bay Area Reporter on July 15, 1999.

 

Light, then … time: Bill Viola at SFMOMA

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Bill Viola at SFMOMA

Just minutes after leaving the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art survey of video art by the masterful Bill Viola, I found myself inside that huge new Sony Metreon monstrosity walling off one end of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. There, in the depths of a crass “futuristic” shopping mall/movie palace, countless video-display images and techno beeps and roars assaulted me as kids played oversized, oversexed video games overdone with gaudy colors and endless bloodlust. I couldn’t wait to flee before I forgot how wonderful video art can be.

The video masterpieces I experienced at the Bill Viola exhibit were inspired not by money, but by soul. The16 installations incorporated into an ingeniously designed room-to-room journey of sight and sound utilize imagery, light, darkness, space, time, distortion, the shock of the unexpected, ambient sounds, hypnotic motion, dub mixes, and an endless variety of explosions and continuous roars.

While video games engage minds, they leave bodies inert. Not so the Bill Viola exhibit, in which the body responds to the artist’s constructions by speeding up, slowing down, turning around, stopping, walking slowly forward toward looming objects, and retreating down narrow passageways from which emanate eerie noises and odd flashing lights. No drugs are required to appreciate this psychedelia. It’s the ultimate in light-and-sound architecture, a virtual passageway through which minds can be transported to many other realities.

My favorite stop came at “The Reflecting Pool” (1977-79), a 7-minute videotape in which a man emerges from a forest to stand naked before a rustic garden pond. Slowly, the pool comes to life, but seemingly occupies a different space and time than all around it. Dimensions become blurred, and what is real and what is reflection rely on the imagination.

What distinguishes Viola’s work from less imaginative video art is the spirit that enlivens it. Viola has drawn inspiration from Zen Buddhism, Christian mysticism, the physics of optics and the mechanisms of perception, Sufi poetry, and the free verse of Walt Whitman. His work is textured, neither muscle-bound nor insipid, but alternately muscular and brainy. In his range of imagination and technique, Viola demonstrates what video-art can be, while putting commercial video art to shame.

“Bill Viola: A 25-Year Survey,” was co-curated by David A. Ross and Peter Sellars, ran through September 12, 1999 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. 

For a related story, see “SFMOMA Party Blasts Off.”

Seth Eisen’s ‘Stitching the Invisible Whole’

SethEisen&RemyCharlipBetter late than never, this past weekend I caught the closing of San Francisco conceptual artist Seth Isen’s impressive solo show, Stitching the Invisible Whole, at the Sanchez Art Center in Pacifica, just a hop and skip away down the coast, and how appropriate was the seaside setting.

Eisen’s work assembles and stitches togther travel pics from Thailand, driftwood and other sea-pummeled flotsam and jetsam, and a few powerful news images, all reflecting the fateful day when he and partner Keith Hennessy were trekking in the northern part of the Thailand when the tsunami struck, killing nearly 300,000 people across eight countries.

In his artistic response, Eisen writes: “Rather than show only the gruesome face of the disaster I have chosen to alter and juxtapose my photographs next to found objects and images from the media to explore the fragility of our existence and complexity of human life.”

Seth did a remarkable job, even stitching images with a machine, as though embroidering them, giving them a vibrant, colorful texture and resonance. His objects fairly drip with thread and string, almost crying, the spindles discarded and scattered as though part of the ocean debris. You see the tragedy reflected in remnants, reminiscent of ancient garments decayed nearly beyond recognition, hanging together by threads or the faint breath of a long-vanished prayer.

The reception drew such long-time, passionate admirers of Eisen as journalist/author Jim Provenzano and dance/children’s book legend Remy Charlip, along with newer admirer Kirk Read, San Francisco’s rising author/open-mic star/performance artist sensation, who has a keen nose for talent and who frequents the new CounterPULSE space at 9th & Mission in S.F. where Eisen and Hennessy are both involved in art-show/performance art organizing.

For those who couldn’t make it to Stitching the Invisible Whole, you can still catch Eisen at the Sanchez Art Center where he maintains a studio. He conducts art workshops there, including mask making with found art. The Sanchez Art Center always has great shows up in its three big galleries, so it’s worth a visit anytime.

 

Leather on parade 

On Sunday afternoon the Dore Alley Fair came off with high spirits and many smiles (at least while I was there) as merry men galore bared chests, butts and more adorned by leather gear ranging from minimal (boots, cockring & choker) to maximal (full body coverage including head & face mask with breathing holes). It was an adults-only scene in the closed-off block, and appropriately the proprietor of LavenderLounge.com was there, checking out the beefcake. It was a great place to sin and be seen.

 

Birthday boy

That night came the lavish 30th birthday party for the adorable Cameron Eng, actor/director/producer, yogi, and loving partner of Terrance Alan, self-proclaimed Mayor of the happening Blue Cube nightclub at 34 Mason St. This tight, sweet couple occupy cool warehouse-like digs South of Market, where the huge wall are adorned with artistic greats including the fabulous Plasticfucker (L.A.’s Doug Murphy), the hot new artist collected by the stars. Cameron, with his perpetual big smile, glistening skin, twinkling eyes and long, silky black hair looked the star that he is. He shared his birthday cake with a host of glamaratti, including Sister Lolita Me Into Temptation, one of the most alluring of the Sisters I’ve encountered (also perhaps the youngest at 24) and the older-but-wiser Sister Uma Gawd, who patiently answered my questions about what it takes to enter the order (if anyone could initiate me, she could). Other revelers on hand to spank Cameron and taste his sweet, juicy pineapple-carrot cake included well-known party host and community benefactor Marty Kahn and faerie friends DolphPun and Baby; the devilishly handsome, gray-bearded, immensely erudite Wyn de Wally, garden designer and theater maven; Theatre Tableau Vivant set designer Dana van Porres; the cast of Whoop-Dee-Doo including Tom Orr, taking a spin to the kick-ass sounds of DJ PussPuss; scene photographer Dan Nicoletta (still looking for funds for that Harvey Milk bust in City Hall) and pal Jordy Jones (artist, writer, curator and community advocate); and so many others.

 

This article appeared in print in the Bay Area Reporter, August 4, 2005.

Anything Goes: The State of Performance Art

The two-dozen or so artists and members of the audience that gathered one night last weekend at 455 10th Street, a performance gallery south of Market, were young and very hip. They were all pretty much insiders in the avant-garde art scene in San Francisco, and though they were expecting to be entertained and entertaining, they were not expecting the evening’s events to be either polished or particularly innovative. The fact that there were glimmers of outstanding artistic achievement was probably more than anyone had hoped for.

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When I entered the gallery, a shabby, converted warehouse, I immediately saw that the far end of the space was bathed in projections of typewritten words — big, bold, black-and-white lettering cast onto three walls, the floor, the ceiling, and all the stage props.

Interesting, I thought; it had the same dramatic impact as enlarged headlines in scandal sheets. The words leaped out, unintelligible but insistent. The projection spoke plainly: it was “art” large enough to fill an entire space with a minimum of investment in materials, time or imagination. It was functional and put me in the appropriate frame of mind: weirdness.

I seated myself in one of the plastic chairs angled toward the back corner of the gallery and waited to see what would take place. A quartet of musicians in another corner, arranged in a circle so that the backs of some of them were toward the audience, separating us from them, was playing a crudely enchanting music, seemingly spontaneous.  They played recorder, violin, mandolin and drum. It was an oddly primitive music, contributing to the atmosphere of ritual that filled the gallery, as if some ancient rite were taking place.

At center stage a sheet was draped over a square metal frame, perhaps a clothes rack. The projections cast over the walls also partially obscured the sheet, making it blend in with its background, camouflaged. At an apparently predetermined point in the playing of the music, a hand from under the sheet reached out and pulled the sheet down.

Ropes inside the frame suspended a man’s slender, naked body. The ropes looped around his side so that he faced the audience frontally, his feet pointing to the bottom angle of the frame, his head pointed diagonally to the top. His nakedness was obscured by projections onto his white-powdered body.

The projections were of clothes and abstract images. So perfectly placed was his body in relation to the projector that the images of clothes, ever changing, perfectly matched his form, neatly dressing him. Then there were bizarre projections, full of wild colors and unidentifiable images that sometimes made his body look ghastly, as though it were a corpse brought out of a terrible battle in the midst of war.

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The gallery presented a potpourri of individual pieces bearing little relation to each other, a feature that much of what is called “performance art” has in common.

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The people responsible for this captivating scene — m.c. schmidt, Wayne Niethold, and Michael Brown — originally devised the concept in New York for the Palladium. It was created, they said, to honor an acquaintance’s death.

“Performance art is just about anything you want it to be,” says Michael Brown, organizer of the events at 455 10th St.  Better known in the city as one of the infectiously good-humored workers at Café Flore, Mike is an installation artist whose vision and energy regularly brings together the works of various artists at the gallery, many of them, like him, recent graduates of Humboldt State College in Arcata, California.

The artists assembled a potpourri of installation, video, film, live music and performance art, individual pieces bearing little relation to each other, a feature that much of what is called “performance art” has in common.

One piece followed another in the course of the evening. The live music ended, and recorded, synthesized music took over, vibrating in deep, eerie, quadraphonic sound, a collection of found sounds and instrumental music with an overall ominous feel.

This was particularly true when the suspended nude climbed down out of his ropes, to be replaced on stage by four video screens pulsing eerily in the darkness with a taped segment entitled “Mechanical Spectacle.”

Created by Bill Smartt, Mykill Misrok, and Mark Misrok, it consisted of a mechanical farm, with mechanical chickens, ducks, farmers, cows, tractors and other such things, all in their proper settings of farmhouses, barns, and corrals, As the camera panned around and through the set, the pieces moved mechanically, as though they were magnetic and a magnet were being run underneath them. This movement was accompanied by strange electronic sounds, including echoes, claps, sticks clacking, and a farmer’s voice singing, in Hillbilly accent, “Jump down, turn around, pick a bail of hay.” It was a freakish and unsettling combination of sight and sound, nightmarish in effect.

This was followed, in startling contrast, by an outrageously funny act performed by Bill Smartt sitting at a desk, his face the center of a giant sunflower. In a Southern woman’s accent, he portrayed Kimberly, the receptionist for Temp Force, the temporary personnel agency.

“Thank you for calling,” she’d answer the telephone, her voice singsong, and then proceed to humiliate, degrade, and condescend to caller after caller seeking employment. The skit was done with great wit and devastating accuracy, even if the sunflower bonnet was something of a funny flop.

The most powerful piece of the evening, however, was Michael Brown’s own video presentation documenting the destruction of the old Falstaff brewery. It began with Mike engaging in a physical demonstration, a sort of rite in which he slowly and painstakingly moved a giant I-beam from the back of the warehouse onto center stage by rolling it on sticks.

At the same time, images of a crumbled building were projected onto one wall, first in black-and-white, then in color. My first thought was that it was the bombed-out embassy in Beirut, but then other images started appearing on video screens on other walls and I recognized the brewery.

The quadraphonic sound system was emitting magnified noises of traffic and jackhammers and the deep, echoing voice of a woman speaking in German. What was being said was never made clear, but the voice gave a documentary-like quality to the images, as though a member of the underground in World War II Germany was narrating an account of the atrocities she had witnessed.

Michael Brown and his colleagues at 455 10th St. did a remarkable job of providing fresh and interesting entertainment to a sophisticated, if not too critical, audience. Their ideas are as representative of the trends in performance art as anything else. Which is to say, in performance art, anything goes.

 

This article appeared in print in the San Francisco Sentinel, April 3, 1987.

Moon Walk, Moon Talk—Michael Light’s ‘Full Moon’

“The NASA archive is a world treasure and obviously what I’ve done is reframed that world treasure into the photo-novel I wanted to build. With 32,000 pictures, you can tell any story you want. Pictures are context dependent. So I told a tale, and I told it my way.” — Michael Light

 

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Photographer Michael Light with one of his “Full Moon” images. Photo by Jane Philomen Cleland.

When NASA officials and employees held a celebration in Washington, D.C. on July 20, 1999 to mark the 30th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s first footsteps on the moon, it was an openly gay man who commanded everyone’s attention.

As astronauts Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin looked on, along with NASA Chairman Dan Goldin, Chief Historian Roger Launius, NASA staff and reporters from around the globe, 36-year-old San Francisco-based fine-art photographer Michael Light addressed them for the bulk of an hour, running through a series of slide images from his new, phenomenally well-received “photo novel,” Full Moon, a lavish photo-art book published simultaneously in North America and Europe this fall by Knopf and Jonathan Cape. In the process, Light managed to do what no one since the golden age of the Apollo missions had achieved: to show the lunar surface in a fresh light, stirring people’s imaginations, reinvigorating even the astronauts’ sense of wonder at the alien landscape they had trod so long ago.

Just two days following his NASA engagement, Light was in London for the opening of his Full Moon exhibition at the prestigious Hayward Gallery of modern art on the South Bank of the River Thames. Many notables from the UK art world attended, as did David R. Scott, commander of the highly successful 1971 Apollo 15 moon mission. Those in attendance were agog the lunar images arrayed on the gallery walls. The Sunday London Times gave the exhibition a glowing review.

“The NASA archive is a world treasure,” declares Light, “and obviously what I’ve done is reframed that world treasure into the photo-novel I wanted to build.”

When Light gave a one-time-only walk-through of the show, Scott turned up in the crowd; Light, taking note of the esteemed explorer’s presence, invited Scott to participate in a conversation about the images. Thus began a crowd-mesmerizing give-and-take about the moon’s topography and exploration – an engaging off-the-cuff exchange about camera positioning, light-and-dark contrasts, soil color, temperature differences, textures, distances, heights, landforms and otherworldly aesthetics.

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Full Moon emerged from the sensibilities of a gay man enamored with but critical of frontier mythology, of wilderness landscapes sought out by explorers, primarily young men bent on testing their mettle, proving themselves in contests against raw nature, and in so doing altering irrevocably the territories they penetrate. “It’s an arena of male bonding,” says Light.
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Most remarkable in all this was the degree to which the two men, Light and Scott, saw eye to eye, despite being from different generations and vastly different backgrounds. They engaged in banter like old friends and fellow explorers. Scott clearly appreciated what Light, as an artist and outsider, not of the NASA fold, had done in revealing to the world the first-rate landscape and exploration photography produced during the NASA missions. Light had arrayed moon shots as never before, determined to tell the story of the moon’s exploration as he saw it, using the astronauts’ photographs to do so – photos that NASA and the public had long since disregarded and relegated to obscurity, unaware of their artistic value.

Displayed on the Hayward’s walls, in a series of interconnected rooms, were huge, black-metal framed, richly detailed and eerily beautiful images of the lunar landscape – all digitally reproduced from master dupes Light had spent more than four years sorting through in NASA’s vaults. There, untouched for decades, lay some 32,000 photographic images from the Apollo missions, none of them taken by landscape photographers, yet revealing landscapes in ways Ansel Adams or, more appropriately, contemporary disturbed-landscape photographer Richard Mishrach could appreciate. The Full Moon images depict what happens to a virgin terrain when men come along with their tools, prodding and poking, sifting and sorting, scarring with their tire tracks, littering with their abandoned machines.

The public at large had seen but a handful of such images, the select ones endlessly recycled in Time, Life, Newsweek and countless other mainstream publications, and many of those images were of poor quality, being third, fourth, or fifth generation duplicates, if not worse. Until Light came along and negotiated with NASA to take the master dupes off-site, no one had seen them, much less replicated them with high-resolution digital scanners. And certainly no one had thought to cull from the archival photographs a book as bold and captivating as Full Moon.

“The NASA archive is a world treasure,” declares Light, “and obviously what I’ve done is reframed that world treasure into the photo-novel I wanted to build. With 32,000 pictures, you can tell any story you want. Pictures are context dependent. So I told a tale, and I told it my way.”

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Image from “Full Moon” by Michael Light.

Full Moon, which utilizes photographs from all of the Apollo missions to convey one archetypal journey to the moon’s surface and back, emerged from the sensibilities of a gay man enamored with but critical of frontier mythology, of wilderness landscapes sought out by explorers, primarily young men bent on testing their mettle, proving themselves in contests against raw nature, and in so doing altering irrevocably the territories they penetrate.

“It’s an arena of male bonding,” says Light, “permeated with homoeroticism, guys guaging themselves against each other.”

However, he hastens to add, “the politics of my work, and the largest issues at hand, are not particularly homo or hetero. What is part of my identity as a gay man is my whole esthetic sensibility. It’s very hard for me to describe why I’m attracted to certain textural images, like the skins of planets.”

Nonetheless, he gives it the old college try: “As an artist, I’m interested in the line between the built and the unbuilt world, the edges of civilization, the point where people begin to think about things much larger than themselves, where self-involvement and narcissism begin to fall away, where we really begin to see the sublime. Vast deserts, or outer space, or the unknown, or the ineffable, or religion, or whatever, versus the tiny human presence, continues to fascinate me.”

Light found a bit of that sublime mystery at Burning Man in Nevada last year, where far out on the desert playa, away from crowded Black Rock City (the temporary encampment of some 10,000 artists and freaks), he installed his Full Moon images for the first time publicly, arraying them end to end, face-up on the seemingly lunar landscape of dried, crusty mud, bordered in the night by tiny white lights, pointing off into infinity between two parallel mountain ridges, looking for all the world like an alien landing strip. People drawn to the lights from far away encountered a bizarre but powerful array of moon pictures, just discernable through a thin coating of playa dust. Overhead, someone had installed an eerily-lit alien spacecraft suspended from giant, nearly invisible helium balloons. When the full moon itself appeared from over a ridge, the total effect of Light’s installation was stunning, causing people to sit for long periods beside the row of photographs, meditating on their metaphysical meanings, or perhaps flying to the moon in their minds.

“My overarching desire in Full Moon was to go there as a landscape photographer,” says Light, who since graduating in the late-’80s from Amherst and then obtaining his MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute has focused primarily on unusual landscape images (his earlier photo-novel Ranch, published by the renowned art-house TwelveTrees Press, depicted a working ranch in Santa Barbara belonging to the family of Edie Sedgwick, saint of the überhip Warhol coterie). “The best way I could do that, since Apollo’s not running any more and I’m not an astronaut, was via the photographs. So when I edited, I edited for a sense of immediacy. I wanted to be there, right down in the dirt. I’m trying to get as close as I can get, putting a viewer right there, straight near the crotch in that classic image of Dave Scott, tool-making, exploring man, with that looming rock-collection tong.”

When asked to hypothesize on whom, if he were able to go to the moon, he would choose to accompany him, Light pauses on only briefly before replying, in his most Hemingwayesque tone (Light grew up in Mauntauk, at the tip of Long Island, enjoying a sort of Great Gatsby meets The Old Man And The Sea lifestyle): “I would want somebody who was really, really rock solid. I would want an engineer, test pilot, unflappable all-American hero so that while I lose my mind and be all overwhelmed by the intensity of it all, somebody is there attending to whatever needs attending.”

And does he know anyone fitting this description?

“I wouldn’t mind going there with Dave Scott. That would be a dream come true, because Apollo 15 has the largest bunch of photographs in my book, and that mission was the first of the big independent scientific missions, and it remains the mission to my eyes that had the most spectacular and insanely beautiful landscapes.”

Moreover, he adds with a wink: “And Dave, you’ve got to hand it to the guy. He’s the nicest guy, for one thing, and he’s probably, what, 70 by now? He’s a really handsome 70-year-old.”

 

This article originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter.

 

 

 

For online information about Full Moon, surf www.projectfullmoon.com

 

Tino Rodriguez —Dedicated to his Tormentors

… being a lengthy, completely superfluous, shocking profile of fabulously demented queer Latino artist Tino.
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“Forever and Ever,” oil on canvas, by Tino Rodriguez

 

Just now, Tino Rodriguez is hot. Some would say he’s always been hot, but consider his art, rather than the 32-year-old San Francisco painter’s vibrant queer sexuality. Even those who don’t regularly patronize art galleries could well run across Rodriguez’s work. Walk into a bookstore carrying gay literature, and there among the new arrivals you’ll see a paperback volume with a striking cover illustration by Rodriguez. The anthology, Virgins, Guerrillas, & Locas: Gay Latinos Writing on Love, edited by Jaime Cortez (Cleis Press; 1999) is adorned with a painting of a young Latino man with dark-shadowed, unblemished features. The youth’s huge, piercing eyes seem to gaze inward as his scarlet lower lip puffs out, as though he were about to cry; thick black eyebrows are accentuated by an ebony choker around the lad’s smooth neck. Most notable is the translucent-white wedding veil adorning the young man’s head, framing his androgynous face.

The image smacks of transgression, a Mexican artist’s slap in the face of machismo, through the somewhat heretical feminization of what ought to be, by traditional Mexican cultural standards, a thoroughly masculine visage. Is this merely a metaphorical portrayal of a virginal boy, no more offensive than a church icon? Or does this figure represent something much more revolutionary: an already thoroughly deflowered Latino youth, veiled to lure the attentions of other, predatory males – a youth who wants to be mauled for the umpteenth time, his lips pried apart and forced to wrap around someone’s monster cock? His apparent sadness, in this view, would be that of a youth torn by his queer desires and the recognition of his outcast status in Mexican society.

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“Erase una vez,” oil on canvas, by Tino Rodriguez

To puzzle out the answer to the image, one must know Tino Rodriguez and his body of work. Fortunately, opportunities to do so are near at hand, with showings of Rodriguez’s work happening first at Bucheon Gallery, located in art-trendy Hayes Valley, and shortly thereafter at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, at the prestigious biannual group exhibition, “Bay Area Now 2.”

The Bucheon exhibition, a one-man showing by Rodriguez entitled Apocalyptic Innocence, features a host of miniature paintings, all realized in the artist’s signature style, a formalist approach to bizarre and often deeply disturbing scenes. The works resemble Renaissance paintings in technique and presentation, yet a close glance reveals twisted themes of decapitation, bloodletting, cock sucking, ass play, boys and adults flaunting their penises, rabbits and fairies at play, and demonic creatures with human torsos, erect, lustful, and sadistic – all rendered as in fairy tales.

“It’s a formal style, yes,” responds Rodriguez when asked about his approach, which he developed mostly on his own, albeit with some training at the San Francisco Art Institute and elsewhere. “I’m painting in a very traditional way a very non-traditional subject matter. Like, one has someone sucking cock, and in another one someone’s sticking his finger up someone’s ass – in a beautiful Renaissance style. This kind of painting wasn’t even done in the Renaissance, and if it was, we’ll never see any of it, because they were burned by that guy Savonarola.”

In one of Rodriguez’s miniatures, “Forever and Ever,” a fanged monkey leers at a genteel, almond-eyed woman adorned in Elizabethan finery. The grotesque creature seems drawn not only to the woman’s body, but to her bodace. Behind the two stretches a hazy, verdant landscape, a sort of dreamscape.

“We have a saying in Mexico,” says Rodriguez, who was born in Guadalajara and moved to the United States at age 12: “When you’re a monkey, even if you wear the fanciest clothing, you won’t stop being a monkey. Meaning people are what they are, regardless of what they wear or how much money they have. I think this [“Forever and Ever”] is a take on that.”

His parents were not artistic, and had little education. The first art that captured his imagination, says Rodriguez, were the religious images adorning old churches in his native country: “paintings, murals, retablos, all the statues with glass eyes. I think all these images are somehow a part of my childhood – a lot of blood, a lot of suffering. But there’s a lot of magic too, all those cherubs and little kids.”

Cherubs, kids, blood, erections, and magic gardens are all reoccurring themes in Rodriguez’s work. One of his signature pieces in the “Apocalyptic Innocence” exhibit, “The Golden Age,” a 10″ x 14″ oil on wood painting, depicts all of these elements. It could be a fairy tale rendered in Renaissance style, but Rodriguez says it was based on no story, but simply emerged from his imagination without connection to any particular story (Rodriguez devours darkly poetic writings by Rimbaud, Genet, Bataille, Blake, and the like). A trio of rabbits dances in the scene’s foreground, their shadows visible against the mysterious metallic ball behind them on the parquet floor, a manicured garden observable through the open-curtained window in the background.

Why the inclusion of rabbits in this and so many other of his paintings, Rodriguez is asked. He replies in typical blunt, forthright style: “I like them because they’re horny.”

Rodriguez places a huge emphasis on sexuality both in his imagery and in his personal life. When he isn’t painting – and it’s rare that he isn’t, because he makes his living solely through his art, which requires enormous discipline and working late into the evenings as exhibitions loom – he fully enjoys the boisterous company of fellow young artists and gay revelers. He’s a dancing fiend, particularly enamored of techno-trance music, and on his nights out at house parties, art openings, bars and clubs, he exudes boundless energy, enthusiasm, and lust. His laughter, rich and full, fills any room he occupies; in conversation, he displays a gentlelness that seems at times at odds with his chosen themes, so often dark and disturbing. Yet that gentleness can be seen in the faces he paints – so often modeled on his own handsome features. His subjects rarely smile, however; most often they betray an odd passivity, whether they’re experiencing orgasm or being beheaded, or they grimace in the throes of unspeakable terrors.

Why, he’s asked, is blood evident in so many of his paintings? “Well, I’m Mexican, hello? I still have the pagan in me. It hasn’t been that far away, the sacrifices in the 16th century.”

But one can’t help think Rodriguez is working through some very personal issues in his chosen subject matter, a fact he confirms in explaining the subject of a self portrait entitled “Broken,” part of the Bucheon Gallery exhibit: “That’s me after being slapped.”

And who slapped him? “Oh, fuck, life. Actually, I was hoping to dedicate ‘Apocalyptic Innocence’ to everyone who had hurt me, which is really kind of cool, because everybody else dedicates shows to people they love, their mom, dad, boyfriends, girlfriends, families, things like that. And I’m like, why can’t I just fuckin’ dedicate this to everybody who’s hurt me?”

 

The opening reception for “Apocalyptic Innocence” took place at Bucheon Gallery (540 Hayes St.) on Friday, October 29, 1999. The opening reception for “Bay Area Now 2” took place in the Grand Lobby of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (701 Mission St.) on Friday, November 19, 1999.

This article originally appeared in the October 28, 1999 Bay Area Reporter.

Circo Zero’s astonishing ‘Sol Niger’

CircoZeroIt was a total eclipse of the heart, just as choreographer/circus master Keith Hennessy sang during a raucous number on opening night in San Francisco of Circo Zero’s “Sol Niger”.

A seemingly moonlit stage at the venerable alternative art space Theatre Artaud served well to showcase a troupe of five performers and the lighting designs of Max, a true master of projections, illuminating a combination of dazzling aerial acrobatics and sophisticated modern dance played out to a wild, original, funky piano/percussion/electronic loop symphony created by a lone, lean, muscular, long-haired musician with a dynamic flair.

Circus master Keith Hennessy has created a masterpiece with “Sol Negro,” his latest in a long line of increasingly sophisticated circus productions. This time he pulled off a total winner, a blend of physical daring on the ropes, modern dance, balancing on a ball, mime, visual projections, and manic piano playing.

Sean Feit, the dazzing pianist, took the keyboard to a whole new level of brilliant if seemingly demented playing, the instruments hammers exposed for extra effect. His playing was muscular, and with his shirt off, it was his rippling back that as much as anything grabbed our attention as he pounded the keys, seemingly intent on destroying the instrument. I half expcted it to fall apart under the onslaught, but all that intense energy, and Feit’s more subtle sound effects tricks, transferred to the other artists, who responded with astonishing artistry.

Aerialists Emily Leap and Brett Womack, dangling from ropes, captured our hearts and made us catch our breaths with their high-level risk taking. Leap, in her most breathtaking segment, dropped precipitously and flailed around on the ropes like a demented rag doll. We watched her fling herself about above the floor as Hennessy belayed her, and it seemed impossible she didn’t fall but in fact she was precise in every move, a masterful aerialist.

Brett Womack captured our hearts with his breathtaking beauty and imposibly perfect, seemingly effortless athleticism and grace. Of all the aerial artists I’ve seen, from Ringling Brothers to Cirque du Soleil, he is absolutely the finest, most flawless. He perched on the ropes like a cheetah stretching out on a branch, pouncing abruptly to startle us. He climbed up the ropes with the effortlessness of a monkey, then would fly down them and swing around with the surety and strength of a mountaineer.

Meanwhile Seth Eisen played the clown, a mime in bizarre drag, always lurking about in the background, ironing dolls, making faces, his white-face a Marcel Marceau mask, his arms akimbo, his expressions a commentary on the politics of the piece. And politics is precisely what pulled the whole production together and made it cohere. As always Hennessy had a point to make, and he made it well with monologues and singing, referring to the insanity of our war-for-profit, oil-drenched world, the insanity of it all. The beauty of the aerialists, the complexity and intrigue of the music soundscape, the dour antics of the disturbed clown, and the circus master control and command of Hennessy all combined to make a statement of what it means to be living in a world gone awry. Amidst the insanity, there is humanity, a realm of wonder worth inhabiting.

Circo Zero’s “Sol Nigher” plays through September 29 at Project Artaud Theatre, 450 Florida St. @ 17th St. in San Francisco. Tickets are $25 (and well worth it!). Shows are at 8pm. Tix: www.brownpapertickets.com, or 800-838-3006. Info: 415-255-2500.

 

This article appeared on Tribe.com, September 23, 2007.