Category Archives: Photography

The Unspoken Reason: Into the Wilderness

From Into the Wilderness: An Artist’s Journey (Artisan/The Greenwich Workshop; 1995). Artwork by Stephen Lyman. Text by Mark Mardon.
“Cathedral Snow,” painting by Stephen Lyman

The wilderness holds answers to more questions
 than we yet know how to ask. — Nancy Newhall


On an especially clear morning in Yosemite Valley, on the north bank of the Merced River, Steve Lyman awakes from a night of slumber and for a long while remains stretched out in his sleeping bag, meditating on the scenery surrounding him. A sublime daybreak, he thinks, especially with craggy old Half Dome already exuberantly awake and busy catching and pitching back the first rays of a new spring sun. It is an image the artist has absorbed again and again on visits to Yosemite—this is his 35th trip to the national park in the last 17 years—but one that, as usual, fills him with an eagerness and anticipation verging on giddiness.

Why the feeling of such elation is hard to say precisely. Perhaps it’s that the monolith’s wise, wrinkled face, beaming down at him, beckons him to begin yet another backcountry adventure, promising myriad discoveries along the way. Or maybe it’s that after too long a period of winter dormancy in his northern Idaho home, he will once more be shedding the trappings of the artist’s workaday life to run and climb free in the wilds, reveling in the majestic Sierra Nevada landscape, testing his mountain-climbing reflexes, regaining his bearings, stretching his senses to the limit.

His body is groggy at the moment, not from sleep but from a winter spent tending to work, family, and community. But soon he will rebound as he treks cross-country toward hard-to-reach places recommended to him by Yosemite National Park historian and good friend Jim Snyder, who has explored pretty much all of the park and knows which hiking challenges will earn Steve the greatest scenic rewards.

Within hours after embarking on the trail, he’ll once again become fully alert, attuned to the subtlest natural phenomena: a tiger swallowtail butterfly emerging from its chrysalis after a long winter spent dangling from a twig, newly resplendent in its lemon-yellow and black-striped gossamer apparel; blossoms of dwarf huckleberry livening a stream side, that will soon be yielding sweet berries for hungry black bears; the long, noisy kaaaaa of a Clark’s nutcracker, flitting from tree to tree in search of a mate, its black-and-gray plumage stark against the snowy ground at timberline.

Perhaps the simplest way the artist can explain his high spirits is to recognize his intense attraction to mountains and all the living things that abound in them, like that of John Muir, his spiritual mentor. Through his explorations and paintings of the wild country of the American West, he exults in the variety and depth of feelings evoked by the Range of Light and its rocky kin in Oregon, Idaho, Alaska, and other rugged states.

Steve never ceases to marvel at the way a Yosemite landscape can emerge and vanish and re-emerge again as clouds and fog roll in and out of the valley. “It’s rather like a dream sometimes,” he says. “You turn your back, and the mountain’s gone.”

Stephen Lyman at work in his studio.

With his artist’s eye, Steve sees the mountains and valleys as Muir did, vivid in shadow and light.

“Pale rose and purple sky changing softly to daffodil yellow and white,” Muir wrote of a sunrise in his first summer in the Sierra: “Sunbeams pouring through the passes between the peaks and over the Yosemite domes, making their edges burn.”

But even the urge to partake of such visual nourishment cannot in itself adequately explain why Steve so eagerly takes to the heights. It’s that old question: Why climb a mountain? The answer is not something that can be adequately expressed in words. The only way to understand what motivates a mountaineer is to seek out and engage the wilderness, for only in climbing the mountain does the answer becomes clear.

Many people have many ideas about what wilderness signifies. To those with a grasp of ancient history, it is the threatened remnants of the disappearing, primeval landscapes that once dominated this earth–Eden before Adam and Eve. For others of a scientific bent, it is a vast research library, field museum, and living laboratory all rolled into one. Legalistic minds tend to conceive of it as roadless areas undisturbed by motor vehicles, harboring particularly fine scenic or biological values worthy of public protection–areas where, as The Wilderness Act of 1964 puts it, “the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Mining, timber, and grazing interests eye public lands as a free meal ticket, a commercial bounty ripe for the picking. Certain politicians beholden to those interests see wilderness protection as an outmoded idea, a prime target for budget cuts. Romantics in the tradition of Muir look upon mountains, forests, deserts, prairies, and wild seashores as conscious, breathing entities, sensitive to the way humans and other creatures touch them. This surely gets close to the heart of the matter, the artist nods to himself, else why would so many people run to the wilderness with such a yearning, as though it were their lover?

For Edward Abbey, wilderness represented nothing less than liberation. “It is my fear,” he once wrote in his journal, “that if we allow the freedom of the hills and of the wilderness to be taken from us, then the very idea of freedom may be taken with it.” Thoreau, who Abbey revered, put it even more concisely: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”

For some unlucky souls, wilderness is no comforting companion. Nature appreciation is a fine art that requires tutoring. Those who have never experienced the solace and grandeur of such untamed wonderlands as Yosemite, Alaska’s Denali National Park, Oregon’s Columbia Gorge, or any of a thousand other untrammeled places may all too casually shrug off the importance of wild country, or even come to fear it. They may consider undeveloped landscapes to be environments separate from and uninviting to human society, places alien, remote, harsh, and inhabited by fearsome creatures.

Such thinking is as old as civilization itself. The very idea of securing hearth and home from the forces of barbarism came about from people’s struggle with a wilderness vastly more powerful than themselves, that seemed always on the verge of overwhelming them. Prior to the marriage of science and technology in the mid-19th century, which gave rise to the industrial age, humans may have shaped the land–as did the Romans, Egyptians, Hollanders, and even Native Americans, in different ways and to varying degrees–but they never never became divorced from it in pursuit of their livelihoods. As individuals went to work in factories and started consuming packaged products, however, many became estranged from it., to the point that they grew increasingly indifferent to it or even contemptuous of it.

Great writers of that time, Thomas Hardy and Joseph Conrad, warned us against our new found sense of superiority over the wilderness, but not against our impending alienation from it. Ultimately, man was an animal and the wilderness a great, untamable beast. Try as we might, it was something we would not overcome.

Technological optimism has changed that idea dramatically. As farmer and philosopher Wendell Berry observes in The Gift of Good Land, until the industrial revolution, the dominant images in people’s minds were organic: “they had to do with living things; they were biological, pastoral, agricultural, or familial.” Now, he laments, people are referred to as “units,” the body as a machine, food as fuel, thoughts as “inputs,” and responses as “feedback.” In such a lexicon, where does the wilderness survive? Ours is a society that thinks it doesn’t need wilderness anymore, that believes people can invent their own life-support systems and artificial environments rather than having to put up with the inconveniences of nature’s cycles.

Yet we are also living in a time when people feel increasingly that something spiritual is missing from their lives, that the natural rhythms and cycles that formerly sustained humanity are breaking down. Correspondingly, there has been a noticeable rise in the number of messengers and their manifestations: Angels, The Light, and even extraterrestrials. Their message, however, is, at the core, always the same: something has been lost, and without it people’s lives can never be full.

To Steve Lyman, once again enjoying the freedom of the hills, what civilization truly needs in order to shore up its crumbling foundation is a universal acknowledgement that wilderness, in the final analysis, may be the ultimate salve for psyches wounded by humanity’s alienation from the nature that gave it birth. Muir himself expressed the notion that wilderness, like poetry, music, art, and religion, nurtures that part of us for which science cannot account. In the mountains, he observed, there are times when a person’s soul sets forth upon rambles on its own accord, without consulting first with mind or body. On such occasions, “brooding over some vast mountain landscape, or among the spiritual countenances of mountain flowers, our bodies disappear, our mortal coils come off without any shuffling, and we blend into the rest of Nature, utterly blind to the boundaries that measure human quantities into separate individuals.


To spend time in the wilderness, observed Marion Randall in The Sierra Club Bulletin of 1905, is to touch something vital at the core of the universe:

For a little while you have dwelt close to the heart of things. . . . You have lived day-long amid the majesty of snowy ranges, and in the whispering silences of the forest you have thought to hear the voice of Him who “flies upon the wings of the wind.” And these things live with you long after the outing has passed and you are back in the working world, linger even until the growing year once more brings around the vacation days and you are ready to turn to the hills again, whence comes, not only your help, but your strength, your inspiration, and some of the brightest hours you have ever lived.

The snowmelt on the rim of Yosemite Valley, Steve observes as he packs his gear and prepares to set out on his trek, has hardly swollen the Merced. The river’s low water line and placid current are what he would expect during summer rather than early spring. But in the wilderness, expectations are often confounded. That’s part of the backpacking allure: the surprise, the serendipitous discoveries. Indeed, Steve has come to understand that the best journeys are often those arrived at spontaneously, without the burden of detailed planning. Rather than plotting every leg of a hike from start to finish and then attempting to follow the route step by step, he prefers to arrive at the edge of the wild country with no clear itinerary, to camp there for a night and let the mountains’ spirit embrace him during his sleep. That way, in the morning, he can embark on a more spontaneous, free-spirited, and fulfilling adventure. The wilderness itself will point the way. He likes to let the mountains be his guide.



The Fall of A Mountaineer Artist
Monday, April 22, 1996
Stephen Lyman

Wilderness painter. photographer, and philosopher Stephen Lyman, with whom I had the honor of collaborating on the book, Into the Wilderness: An Artist’s Journey, died in Yosemite in April, 1996, having met with a freak storm and an unlucky fall from a perch in the Cathedral Rocks area of Yosemite Valley. Yosemite has known many exceptional painters — Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Hill, and William Keith among them — and great mountaineers, from John Muir to David Brower. Steve Lyman ranks among these stellar personages for his love and devotion to the Range of Light, and for his ability to express that love through his art.

Into_The_Wilderness_BOOKAbove is the opening chapter of our book, Into the Wilderness: An Artist’s Journey. The chapter’s title, “The Unspoken Reason,” reflects Steve’s reluctance to say precisely why he journeyed into the backcountry. Such sentiments, he felt, could never be adequately expressed in words. “The Unspoken Reason” also, I feel, speaks to the question of why Steve, at too young an age, met his end in the valley that held such a claim on his heart.

My gratitude to former Sierra Magazine Editor-in-Chief Jonathan F. King for connecting me with The Greenwich Workshop and Steve Lyman.

A Peak Affair: “Ansel Adams at 100” at SFMOMA

“Bishops Pass, Kings River Canyon, 1936,” part of “Ansel Adams at 100” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

I like my mountains to look like men — rugged, hard-bodied, and a challenge to mount. When I see a peak, I see potential routes up to a dramatic climax. The more difficult the climb, the more orgasmic the experience. Of course, prior to any attempt at conquest, the way up must be carefully surveyed, so typically I accord photographs of peaks, whether in mountaineering journals or on the walls of SFMOMA, the same loving scrutiny straight men give pictures of Playboy models. While I’m at it, I also closely inspect the surroundings — the windblown trees, the ice-encrusted streams, the lichen-covered stones — as any man will do in the boudoir of his lover.

Ansel Adams has provided more mountain centerfolds than probably any mountaineering/nature photographer ever, and you can see them all nicely (i.e. conservatively) displayed at the SFMOMA exhibition, Ansel Adams at 100, which opened August 4 and runs through January 13. The work was curated by a great eminence in the photo-art world, John Szarkowski, who was director of the photography department of New Yorks MoMA from 1962-1991.

In his prime, when Adams was most active in the outdoors, he brought a zest for mountaineering to his photographic work, and consistently turned out images of superior technical quality as pure, pristine and crystal clear as the wilderness landscapes themselves, as Adams demanded. He was a master technician, and the key to his success was not just in being the first to photograph a particular peak, but the one who captured the best shots of those peaks, and then developed his prints to the highest possible standards of perfection. His forms are sleek, sensuous, seductive, and presented in all their naked glory at SFMOMA. Adams loved those Sierra Nevada peaks I imagine as women, if he sexualized them at all and worked tirelessly at capturing every nuance of their delicate, subtle forms. Seeing his original prints spread out with great dignity and formality on the walls of SFMOMA reminded me, for some odd reason, of classy peep shows where one views gorgeous body after gorgeous body, the display of beauty leaving you panting.

At times I also like my mountains soft and willowy, warm and completely enfolding. That sort of temperament can only be come upon by chance in the great outdoors, and capturing it on film is an art of the highest order. Adams routinely captured that and countless other mountain moods, as well or probably better than any mountaineering photographer before or since. His name is revered in circles of mountaineering photographers, virtually all of whom in the past 60 years or so owe a debt to Adams. He, more than anyone except writer/naturalist John Muir, conveyed the character of mountains in a way that moved people both spiritually and emotionally, without hammering them over the head with religion. Especially in the early years of his long career, he was exquisitely subtle in his mountain portrayals; in his renderings you could perceive traces of femininity and masculinity where others found only stone and wind-swept vistas.

The problem with Ansel Adams is that his work has become thoroughly cliched and cheapened in value through gross overexposure especially because his images have spread widely among those who have little or no personal connection with the places Adams worshipped. His art is not abstract, it’s enormously concrete, attempting to signify universal truths through attention to specific places and objects. He, like Muir, treated the wilderness as a spiritual home, and mountains as cathedrals. He worshipped idols.

Adams was conflicted, like so many conservationists of his day. On the one hand he worked taking photographs for mining companies and other industrial interests. At the same time, he worked to preserve and protect the wild places he truly love. His art developed to its fine degree because he was driven, as all mountaineers are, to conquer peak after peak, to be the first to a lofty place from which he could look out across creation and claim it as his own. But while his friends and contemporaries David Brower, Dick Leonard, Glen Dawson, and Bestor Robinson were making all the notable first ascents, Adams was making the even more notable and enduring images of the peaks being conquered.

To truly appreciate Adams, you must appreciate how difficult it was, especially in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, to journey deep into the Sierra, often with pack mules and a hundred or so fellow backpackers on a Sierra Club outing, carrying a full load of photographic gear. You must be familiar with the old Sierra Club Bulletins in which Adams work first appeared, with their quaint mountaineering essays and black-and-white plates. You must know that Adams tangled famously with his editor at the Sierra Club, David Brower, who was as wildly liberal and daring in his way of doing things as Adams was conservative and cautious. Together they rocked the conservation world, built a lasting environmental movement, and carried on the spirit of John Muir.

While I adore all the Adams images now on display at SFMOMAs big centennial retrospective of the San Francisco natives work (Adams was born here in 1902), and appreciate them being nicely organized in one section of the museums 4th floor, in that sterile environment, they dont generate a lot of heat. Its hard to look at Adams photographs there without thinking about the publishing/marketing decisions that have led to Adams photographs being massively reproduced and disseminated for decades, so out of context so out of touch with the wilderness realm that inspired them that today they work almost as much as nostalgic kitsch as inspiration.


This article originally appeared in the August 9, 2001 edition of the Bay Area Reporter



billviola copy
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 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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.

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.”

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.




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