Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 11 / 15 March 2018

Wild imaginings in the galleries

Fine Arts

"La Lecon de Botanique," oil painting by Argentine/Italian painter Leonor Fini, part of Realisme Irreel at Weinstein Gallery. Photo: Nicholas Pishvanov, Estate of Leonor Fini, Weinstein Gallery
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Women rule as authors of their art, which doesn't mean that men don't make solid showings, in gallery exhibitions running through December. Take a look.

Theatrical and fiercely independent, a woman in a man's world who slept with a harem of famous men and dressed in such a flamboyant manner as to render onlookers speechless, Leonor Fini was an iconoclast in art and in life. The wildly imaginative Argentine/Italian painter, stage designer and illustrator of texts by Poe, Verlaine, Baudelaire and Shakespeare – she was costume designer for Fellini, whose films she could have stepped out of – once said she painted the way she dreamed. (Though she mined her subconscious for material and was labeled a surrealist, she was not, in fact, a member of the tribe.) Fini's outsized high-priestess persona and the company she kept anchor Realisme Irreel, a show at Weinstein Gallery. It includes works on paper and paintings completed between 1938 and 1992, rich with Renaissance, Medieval and gothic motifs, eroticism, Marquis de Sade-inflected fantasy, and scenarios where women often dominate submissive men. The artworks are augmented by Fini's writings, selected correspondence with Dali, Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington, among others, and rare photographs of Fini taken by the likes of Dora Maar, Cartier-Bresson and Man Ray that help explain what all the fuss was about. Through Dec. 5.

Sophie Calle is a very tricky girl. In pursuit of her art, the transgressive agent-provocateur has invited strangers to sleep in her bed, elicited responses from a range of women to a kiss-off email from her lover, worked as a chambermaid, and asked her mother to surreptitiously hire a private detective to follow her around Paris and supply proof of her existence, to name just a few of her notorious escapades. You have to admire the way her mind works. Skating on the edge of danger while going wherever her curiosity takes her, she instigates narratives and slightly twisted treasure hunts that question the role of the voyeur; for Calle, process is as if not more important than the end-product. A new exhibition at the Fraenkel Gallery pulls from four bodies of work that incorporate her poetic, allusive text, whose strength can in some instances overshadow her video and photography.

Two series investigate violation: the collection of images in Cash Machine come from time-stamped ATM surveillance footage – one of them could be you; Collateral Damage, Targets consists of mugshots of criminals the police used for target practice, complete with bullet holes, a practice that doesn't inspire confidence in law enforcement. In "Suicide," a cryptic message accompanying photographs of rippling black water reads: "They say police can distinguish between people who drown themselves for love and those who drown themselves for money." Through Dec. 24.

"Lecture Series/Abstract Mass" by Chris Johanson, from his exhibition Equations (2015) at Altman Siegel, San Francisco. Photo: Courtesy of the Artist and Altman Siegel, San Francisco

Chris Johanson is the self-taught artist who grew up in San Jose and moved to San Francisco, where he became part of the Northern California punk/skateboard zine scene and the Mission School movement in the early 1990s, though he has since relocated to L.A  Known for vibrantly colored paintings and collages characterized by an almost childlike exuberance, thick impasto, simple cartoonish figures and graffiti-inspired imagery punctuated by humorous scribbled messages, he has often been concerned with urban issues, utilizing recycled materials retrieved from dumpsters and abandoned construction sites. Recently, he has cultivated a more abstract conceptual approach, evident in Equations, a show of 10 of his latest works at Altman Siegel. In Johanson world, playful figures operate within narrative frameworks that can be jam-packed with characters and action, and the site of multiple storylines that unfold simultaneously. People live adjacent but separate lives, and scenes occur indoors and out in the same panting. The view of a green lawn in "Infinity," for example, is also seen on a flat-screen TV or through a window inside a roofless house. In the dreamy nocturnal collage/painting "I am in my Body Again," an indigo sky is interrupted by crumpled gold-foil clouds floating above the dark horizon and hills in the distance, while in the lower-right foreground, a lone figure sits in an interior space edged with a strip of wood that adds dimension. Johanson toys with scale and skews perspective, sometimes flattening the picture plane, as in hand-drawn animation. In the top tier of "Lecture Series/Abstract Mass," a pink, jaunty fellow in swim trunks balances on one leg, singlehandedly holding off the rush of an incoming wave; below him, students trudge down a steep diagonal to a class. Steering away from a traditional presentation, works of various sizes are mounted on custom-built, freestanding three-dimensional wooden structures, or simply rest on the floor or jut out from a wall. Through Dec. 19.

The Mapmaker's Dream at Haines Gallery assembles five artists who chart known and fictional worlds. Maurizio Anzeri, for example, sews designs in colored threads directly onto vintage photographs, producing unfinished grids of unknown origins in "On the Lake," a 16-piece suite of embroidered, black-and-white summer Alpine scenes. The real and the fantastic merge in a 1950s Hollywood of the mind in Romanian painter Marius Bercea's "Recipe for Tuesday Sunsets," where palm trees sway against a backdrop of unnatural violet skies that signal a brewing storm you'd only see in movies. For her 2009 digital animation "Dying Oak/Elephant," L.A. artist Pae White used 3D scanning technology to create what she calls "a death mask" of a fragile 800-year-old California oak tree that remains standing (on gallery owner Cheryl Haines' Nevada City property), a witness to history and an embattled veteran of the vagaries of the environment. As the imagery pitches and rolls, it reveals the tree canopy, and penetrates the surface of what appears to be the distressed hide of an ancient elephant, who hasn't forgotten. Through Dec. 23.


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