Doodles in Space – The Art of Lauren DiCioccio

Despite Lauren DiCioccio’s relative youth, “what a long, strange trip it’s been” seems apropos.  An eclectic mix of life’s side alleys and back roads have informed and transformed her art. She has both sought and embraced opportunity at every turn.

Shortly after graduating from Colgate University a decade ago, she decided to travel, making ends meet with itinerant employment along the way.  Off she went to Sydney, where a chance posting lead her to hitch a ride into the Australian Outback. She worked as a short order cook at the end of a long and dusty road.  I cannot help but hear refrains of Jevetta Steele’s “Calling You” from the movie, “Bagdhad Café” rattling around my brain.  Much like a character from that movie, she is both social and not.  The isolated existence was a low-cost, contemplative place to make art.  Quiet interludes offered the opportunity to focus on abstract paintings that, at that time, continued the work she had been doing at university.  Twice weekly all of the local residents would gather to share newspapers, letters and other news, albeit slightly time warped.  Thus, the café offered socializing as well on a limited basis.

When she returned to the States, she began a requisite job search.  Once again, an “outside the box” opportunity appeared and off she went to spend six years as a resident manager at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program.  It was another job that embraced the yin-yang of her social and hermit natures.  Djerassi, which is located in Woodside, is definitely down a back road; with no television and very limited internet.  There was, however, a rotating cast of resident artists.  Here, like in the Outback, the arrival of mail and the newspaper was a call to socialize.  The newspaper, in particular, became a touch point with the outside world – in a way defining her relationship with it.  She was drawn to employ it physically in her art. She started by using the newspapers to make a quilt.  This was the major turning point in her work.  Her art became more physical.  It detoured into an exploration of materials that were being being used.  The materials that appealed were materials with a particular transient quality.  Not only were the materials ephemeral, in and of themselves; they were also representative of a transience in our world; a world where we transition away from books and newspapers and slides and plastic bags.  Initially she would transform the materials, beautifully embroidering newspapers that were destined to decay.  Later, she began to meticulously reproduce the objects, in the tradition of trompe l’oeil; objects like her Chinese take-out “Thank you” plastic bags, replicated in bridal organza embroidered with silk thread.  She took books and embroidered over the letters on the page, using color-coding to create a secret language; presciently forecasting a time when the letters themselves will likely fade into a secret language accessible only to a small cast of scholars.  Like trompe l’oeil, with Lauren’s work, what you see is not necessarily what you get.

Lauren is a collector.  However, in a life lived out of a suitcase, physically collecting objects is not really feasible.  So her collections are not collections in a box or drawer.  Rather they are collections of memories.  There is a nostalgic, wistful quality to those memories.  With Lauren’s art, the process of remembering how things used to be distills them into something more profound.

The current exhibition at Jack Fischer Gallery is an amazing opportunity to see yet another turn in her road.  The familiar objects are there.  There are the trompe l’oeil objects:  playing cards and U.S. currency in various denominations.  There is a collection of color-coded books.  Then, the exhibition detours with some wonderful new surprises.  There are embroidered pages of sheet music and recipes.  These are indirectly explorations of our senses.  They explore the yin-yang of “sense” deferred then realized.  The objects are encoded sensory journeys where, once de-coded, the sound, smell and taste leap off the pages.  There is also a collection of white mice and rabbits that been eviscerated.  The appeal here is a yin-yang exploration of cute and grotesque.

The separate explorations intersect with a particularly important piece:  “Cookbook with Braised Veal Heart”.  In dissecting her eviscerated rabbits and mice, Lauren pulled out the organs as separate works.  These are not anatomically correct organs; rather they are what she feels the organs should look like. When she pulled out (created) a veal heart, she decided to combine it with a cookbook page containing a recipe for braising the heart.  It is one of the most powerful pieces in the exhibition.  And, while many of the pieces in the show are available separately, Jack Fischer explained to me that Lauren felt strongly that this was a singular piece and that it needed to stay together.  One cannot help but agree.

It was the creation of these fantasy internal organs that led her back to her roots in abstract art.  As she was fashioning the organs, her subconscious would take over.  Objects took form of their own accord – representing no specific real world objects.  She and I agreed that it was almost like doodling.  And, when I mentioned it to Jack, he too embraced the idea, christening them “Doodles in Space”.  It’s an amusing idea.  However, the objects are not simply random doodles and they are not randomly assembled.  As with traditional still life, each pedestal in the exhibition is a still life composition.  Like traditional still life, there is a celebration of collecting and displaying things.  Also, like traditional still life, there is symbolism embedded in many of the components of the composition.  And, like traditional still life, there is a level of technical mastery.  While the individual pieces can certainly stand-alone, the compositions are greater than their component parts.  One cannot but hope that some curator will decide to give one or more of the collections the home that they deserve.

This is Lauren DiCioccio’s third solo exhibition at Jack Fischer Gallery (49 Geary St., San Francisco). It will be on display through September 8th.  There will be an Artist Reception this Saturday, August 11th from 3:00 – 5:00 pm.  It is a great chance to meet a wonderfully articulate artist.  For inquiries about her work, please contact Jack Fischer Gallery here.

Burnt Offerings – The Art of Judy Stone

Artist or artisan?  Throughout recorded history, the arts were passed down from master to apprentice, sharing techniques that were often closely guarded.  This was true for weaving, pottery, glass and metalworking – all now generally classified as “craft”; but also for drawing, painting and sculpture – now generally classified as “fine art”.  Culturally the distinction is very much Western and very much modern.

I recently visited the studio of Judy Stone, an East Bay artist working in enamel.  Judy is a very well-known enamelist, both nationally and internationally.  This is partly the result of her enamel art; and, partly a result of the extensive work that she has done in studying enameling and, to a certain extent, resurrecting the technical knowledge base of enameling.   Her studio is filled with scientific books, some written by her.  She teaches both the art and science at The Crucible in Oakland.  For a short time, she taught a course on enameling at the California College of Arts & Crafts (now the California College of Art).  With a certain undertone of glee, she pointed out that the course was short-lived because the science was too difficult for the students and A’s were hard to come by.  Still, she is a natural teacher and listening to her talk about the technical challenges inherent in creating her abstract enamel color fields, is fascinating.

Enamel was a detour in life.  In the late 60’s, Judy was studying German literature in Bochum, West Germany on a Fulbright scholarship.  She took a study break to check out a kiln that the University had purchased for enameling.  The beauty of the process was addictive.  It is no accident that the annual conference of The Enamelist Society features workshops entitled “Alchemy”.  The transformation of glass powder into enamel is indeed magical.  The academic in her became obsessed with knowing everything that there was to know about how it worked.  She soon realized how much of the traditional knowledge base had been lost.  It has become something of a life mission to both preserve the knowledge of people like Fred Ball, Bill Helwig, Margaret Seeler, Jamie Bennett, William Harper and Martha Banyas who were and are working in the medium; and to resurrect (or even reinvent) techniques that have been lost.

I was very interested in seeing her workshop and getting a rudimentary understanding of the science and the craft.  And, we spent quite a while there discussing the technical challenges of the medium.  Then our discussion moved to the works themselves and we started to talk about those in the context of fine art.  In the process of becoming a master of technique, Judy also became an artist.  In fact, in a traditional culture, it is only after one has truly mastered a discipline that one is allowed the freedom to unshackle from that discipline.  Her work is outstanding because it is rooted in great technical mastery.  It is art because it extends beyond that technical mastery; explores the boundaries of what is possible; and, incorporates elements of both intent and chance.

What has drawn me to her work is its treatment of color.  Much of enamel craft uses bright colors that are clearly delineated.  It is almost color-by-number.  The most well-known enamel technique, cloisonné, is all too often a good example.  Judy’s work is more sophisticated.  Her medium is the stage where she chooses to express herself.  Given her interest in German culture, it is no surprise that there is a clear influence of the German Abstract Expressionists, particularly Emil Nolde.  Her abstract compositions are very much rooted in landscape.  And, the colors bleed into each other, in an almost watercolor-like way.

With her series, “Burnt Offerings”, she lays her compositions which look like aerial landscapes on twisted, patchwork copper vessels.  They seem like beautiful fields overlaid on an apocalyptic, scorched earth.   She encouraged me to pick up a piece.  Visually it is a patchwork, like a Frankenstein landscape.  It is a quilt of pieces with subtle color variations.  Then, the form is all sharp edges and barbed wire.  Close your eyes and hold the work, and it changes.  It is surprisingly soothing – like holding a raku-fired tea ceremony cup.  It is work filled with contradictions.

Her vessel, “Accrual Bowl: Atlantis” is more serene.  It is a wistful memory of utopian times.  Again the form has subtle ridges and valleys only apparent if you hold the bowl.  The pastel colors are laid down in multiple firings.  In between firings, each of the layers is sanded down and polished, creating subtle variations that bleed into themselves and each other.  A work like this can take up to two months to complete, start to finish.  It is a technical tour de force of enameling.

For those of you who may be have a further interest in the history of how Judy Stone became an enamelist, there is an article by Brian Kluepfel, “All Fired Up” that is reprinted on her website.  The article originally appeared in The East Bay Monthly, Volume 35, No. 4, January 2005.  Brian does a wonderful job of tracing her journey into the world of enameling and chronicling the legacy that she has created there.

Judy Stone will be exhibiting in the American Craft Council Fair at Fort Mason in San Francisco, next weekend, Aug 3rd – 5th.  And, she will be at the Sausalito Art Fair for Labor Day weekend, Sept 1st – 3rd.  You can see her work on her website and she can be contacted there.

Meditation: The Art of Ada Sadler

Her paintings are meditations. All of Ada Sadler‘s recent works are oil paintings. All are painted on panels, either 6″ x 6″ or 9″ x 9″. The subjects are all ordinary objects. More often than not, she paints chairs. The settings are exceedingly quiet. The works are repetitive, almost like a Buddhist chant. And, in a similar way, they allow for focus – both for the viewer, and even more importantly, for the artist.

I recently saw a movie about a renowned Japanese sushi chef: “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”. It is the story of Jiro Ono, widely considered to be one of the greatest sushi chefs in the world. The movie is a wonderful study of “character”. Not to over-simplify, but his entire life has been an exercise in repetition: reproducing the same thing again and again, but not in a mechanical way – rather in a way that has allowed for small, incremental changes in the pursuit of excellence. Counter-intuitively, by constraining his subject matter and maintaining an almost ritualistic daily routine, his creativity has been unleashed. This is what made me think of Ada Sadler’s work – the constrained subject matter, the attention to detail and the process of refinement, all sustained over a long period of time. Her precise renderings of chairs and bathtub toys are journeys of creative exploration, more meta-physical than physical.

The works that first caught my eye were a series of small works featuring wind-up bathtub toys. However, her better-known, larger body of work features chairs. In both of the series, there is nothing exceptional about the physical objects. They are specifically, even overtly, ordinary. They are quintessential examples of the modern evolution of still life. There will be an exhibition later this summer opening at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, entitled “Significant Objects: The Spell of Still Life”. The curator of that exhibition, Gloria Williams Sander, has done a wonderfully succinct job of organizing that exhibition (and the genre of still life, in general) from four perspectives: “Depiction & Desire” – the wonder and magic that collections of objects can inspire; “Virtuosity” – the technical mastery of medium that astonishes all of us; “Decoding the Still Life” – the symbolism imbedded in still life compositions; and “Still Life off the Table” – the more expansive definitions of what constitutes still life that have emerged in the last century. While Ada is not in that exhibition, all four of these perspectives apply to and inform her work.

In her two signature series of paintings: “Bathtubbie Collection” and “Chairs” (which include several different sub-series), Ada Sadler demonstrates virtuoso control of light and color. The objects themselves are rendered in exquisite detail; and, like some old master paintings, the hand of the artist is disguised. The works are not “painterly”. The unadorned objects are front and center – stars of the paintings. The Chairs are not collections in a classic sense; rather they are surrogates for collections of memories. The Bathtubbies, on the other hand, are specifically collectibles. Unlike classic still life, these are not arranged collections on a table top. Ada photographs her objects – sometimes arranged, sometime not; then, she transforms her photographs in the paintings. The paintings may superficially appear to be literal renditions, but they are not.

I met with Ada over coffee recently. We discussed her background – studying art at the University of Kansas; detouring into administrative work to make ends meet; then, re-emerging as an artist in the late 80’s and early 90’s with pastels. Initially she showed at alternative venues, such as The Right Spot Bar and SF Open Studios. Her work was discovered and championed by a local San Francisco gallerist, Joe Chowing (now retired). She was juried into ArtSpan’s prestigious “Selections” exhibitions in both 1997 and 1998. Along the way, she transitioned to oil painting. Works that had featured populated landscapes with palm trees and swimming pools, began to lose the people. The compositions became simpler and more focused. Eventually, they ended up with just chairs.

We discussed still life in general. We discussed how it is tempting to characterize her works as photo-realistic, but how they fall squarely into the classic tradition of still life. In line with that tradition, I asked if the objects in the paintings were symbolic. It was a loaded question and they are. In a sense, she pointed out, the works developed into obsessions: 30+ works of souvenir cups & saucers; nearly 100 works featuring collectible bathtubbies; and 200+ works featuring chairs. The works are explorations of loss, but not in an anguished way. She recalled listening on the radio to a song in which the writer had talked about loss and the need to let go. She disagreed. She does not need or want to let go. Her paintings are touch points: the cups and saucers – a conversation with her mother; the bathtubbies – a conversation with children that never were; and, the chairs – a conversation with her father whom she lost to Altzheimer’s. There is a reason why the paintings, which are devoid of people, have such a powerful sense of presence.

Ada Sadler’s new works will be in an exhibition at Dolby Chadwick Gallery which opens this Thursday from 5:30-7:30 pm. The exhibition will continue through July 7th.  This is Ada’s seventh solo exhibition at Dolby Chadwick Gallery, who has represented her for the past 14 years.  Inquiries should directed to the gallery.

Night Eyes

While fully half of our life passes in the night, still it remains in many ways foreign to us. We take for granted that what we are seeing in the daytime is what is there. At night, however, that same place can be completely transformed. There is a sense of something just out of view, lurking. We become hyper-aware as we stretch our sensory muscles. Edward Hopper in an interview about his iconic painting “Nighthawks” said that the painting had more to do with the possibility of predators in the night than with loneliness. And, it is that sense of possibilities that night photography seeks to explore.

For photographers, Manu and Greta Schnetzler the night is an adventure. Not all places are equally transformed by the night. It takes night eyes to see the potential for magic and mystery in a place that seems quite mundane in the daytime. So, when a candidate is discovered, re-visiting the place at night is a must. Photography is uniquely qualified as an art form to capture the emotion that the qualities of night evoke. We always feel that there is something unseen just outside of our perception; and, the camera actually captures a piece of that. Michael Kenna observed that the photography at night “has an unpredictable character – our eyes cannot see cumulatively, like film. So what is being photographed is often impossible for us to see. Certainly it’s a good antidote for pre-visualization”.

Manu and Greta have both been photographing since childhood. Their paths crossed paths nearly twenty years ago at Stanford. There, appropriately enough, they bonded over a Hasselblad. On an early adventure to Zion and Bryce National Parks, they first began photographing at night. Night photography is technically quite challenging and lends itself well to collaboration. Often there are multiple cameras, all shooting with different exposures. Lighting is jury-rigged. And, at the end of the shoot, it can be difficult to identify who authored any particular shot. The resulting arguments over who authored which images were soon resolved by simply declaring all images to be collaborations.

Over the years, they have been drawn to what they describe as “unnoticed places”. Always they are places that have a very different presence at night than during the day. As with the Potrero Hill gas pumps in the banner image, they often end up photographing things that “have been left behind to decay or to be destroyed”. I asked Greta Schnetzler to describe a favorite photo shoot. She showed me a photograph that they took near Bode in the desert. It was a group outing with The Nocturnes, an amazing group of loosely affiliated night photographers here in the Bay Area, founded by Tim Baskerville. The group came across an abandoned trailer. Greta and Manu were certain that everyone would come back that night to photograph it, but astonishingly they were the only ones. The Schnetzler’s are very “old school”. They use an old Hasselblad camera, a few Holgas and recently an 8 x 10 view camera. The photograph on Fuji Velvia film. For this shoot, they lit the trailer with hand-held flashlights and gels. Otherwise, the image is unaltered.

Many times the subject is a very ordinary object – such as a simple park bench in their San Francisco neighborhood. In an article by the French poet, Laureline Amanieux, the resulting image was described: “What does a bench do in the night while I sleep? Does it suffer from its sudden solitude or does the bench live much more without the trace of a body?” This anthropomorphizing of ordinary objects is a power that the night possesses. Film, as it slows the light, uniquely captures that. In the hands of the Schneltzer’s, the camera is a tool for exploring their environment. It is a way to see beyond what is immediately visible; capturing images that, at their best, reveal not only what is seen in these night places, but also what is felt. Manu & Greta Schneltzer participate annually in the San Francisco Open Studios with The Noctournes. They have shown in numerous exhibitions here and abroad. Their work was recently featured in B&W Magazine. Studio visits can be arranged by appointment.

“Ok to Burn” – John Fitzsimmons

On the afternoon of October 25, 2003, a hunter in the Cleveland National Park became disoriented.  He lit a small fire to signal for help.  By the time that they announced the fire had been contained a week and a half later, almost 300,000 acres had burned, nearly 3000 buildings had been destroyed and fifteen people had lost their lives.  It was the largest fire in California history.

In 1970, John Fitzsimmons and Kat Flyn drifted to San Diego from New York City.  It was not part of any real plan, but John got a job as a teacher and Kat started the first vintage clothing store in that city.  The store was successful and John soon joined the business.  Some of the customers wanted to rent the vintage clothing rather than buy it.  The next thing you know, a small costume spin-off business was born, ultimately swallowing up the original business.  It was quite successful and thirty years later, they began planning their retirement.  They built their dream home just outside of San Diego, surrounded by towering pines, near the national forest, in the town of Cuyamaca.

As part of their business, Kat had designed some of the costumes and John had photographed some of the models.  It was artistic to a degree, but both dreamed of seriously pursuing art.  Kat, who was and is a talented assemblage artist, had taken boxes and boxes of materials from the business, storing them in the basement of their home.   A lifetime of artist supplies was assembled and ready to go.  Then, on October 27th and 28th, the fire reached Cuyamaca and all 120 homes in that community were incinerated.

Remarkably, both John and Kat not only physically survived the fire; emotionally, as well, they rose from the ashes like the proverbial phoenix.  John photographed the aftermath of the fire.  He took the photographs to a local gallery and had his first solo show.  It was a new beginning.

With no trees and no real prospect for trees, they decided not to rebuild in Cuyamaca.  Almost arbitrarily, they moved up to San Francisco.  They loved it right away.  Artistically, they moved to the SOMA Artist Studios, where they still maintain a studio, and they began making art.  Kat produces wonderful assemblages.  She also collaborates with John on his photography, making the trademark frames that work so well with his photographs of urban decay.

I have always been particularly drawn to that body of John’s work.  Last year, in the “Guerrilla Show” at Arc Gallery, I was ready to buy “Green Trailer, Salton Sea” when someone snatched it off the wall just in front of me.  I went to Open Studios in October hoping to find a similar work.  Then I noticed a photograph of three abandoned homes in Atascadero.  I had to have it.  The work, shown here in the banner for this story, was called “Ok to Burn”.  At that time, I did not know anything about their personal story.  It was only when I began writing this profile that the significance of the work become apparent.

John’s photography divides into two broad categories of work:  urban decay and fantasy.  The fantasy work has a staged element to it.  It is a touchstone back to the costume design business.  John cites contemporary influences such as Maggie Taylor and Jerry Uelsmann.  Overtly manipulated, the photographs are visual collages of imagery that explore themes of sex, bigotry, drugs, global warming.

The other works, which explore themes of urban decay, will be prominently on display next week in the Arc Gallery exhibition “FourSquared”, where John will be one of the sixteen featured artists.  These works have a political edge.  They revisit American glory, now left behind and rotting away.  Cars are abandoned and rusting.  Drive-in movie theaters are overgrown.  Houses are ok to burn.  Even the landscape itself is allowed to deteriorate from willful neglect in a series of works photographed in the Salton Sea.  The images are powerful, yet somewhat ambiguous; nostalgic, yet somehow bittersweet.  They evoke memories of the longing in Charles Foster Kane’s plantive last word: “Rosebud”.

You can see John Fitzsimmon’s work in the upcoming Arc Gallery exhibition: “FourSquared”, opening on Saturday, August 27th and continuing through September 28th.  He will be participating in San Francisco Fall Open Studios, the weekend of October 14th.  You can also contact John directly for a studio visit by appointment.

Marks Left Behind – The Work of Camilla Newhagen

What is the nature of art?  That is, of course, the subject of endless debate and many books.  For me personally, what elevates some art is an element of exploration in the work that transcends or informs the object that is produced.

Growing up in a small, socialist enclave just outside of Copenhagen during the politically active 70’s, Camilla Newhagen was surrounded by intense intellectual discourse about the world around her.  The discussions were challenging and engaging.  She developed a heightened awareness of the world that was rooted in that experience.  Her formal education was in art and design at the Danish design school, Desingskolen Kolding.  So, it was a natural progression for her to combine her socially-engaged childhood with her art.  When she moved to America in the late 1990’s, she began exploring the stark differences between American culture and Danish culture.  Art was a vocabulary for that discussion.

I recently met for coffee with Camilla and we discussed the topic of cultural differences.  I spoke a lot about the differences between Japanese and American culture.  For Camilla, it was the somewhat more subtle, but still substantial differences between Danish and American culture.  And, more recently, it has been differences within those cultures in how men and women are perceived and how they interact.

After the meeting and in response to the lively discussion that we had, Camilla sent me some of the ideas and quotes that she was posting on the wall of her studio by way of helping her to formulate an artistic statement for an upcoming exhibition at Jack Fischer Gallery.

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards” – Kierkegaard

Much of Camilla’s work grapples with the idea of making sense of our world by examining the marks that are left behind as we pass through life.  There is this idea that memories are embedded in the objects that we have touched; physically manifested and preserved in these materials.  And, somehow, in ways that are not entirely clear, by utilizing the materials – found objects – in sculpture, those experiences are transmitted and become a part of the piece.

“Psychological scars interest me, taboo and the impact they have on our physical bodies”

Camilla had a studio in the Mission district of San Francisco.  It was an area of San Francisco that was frequented by a lot of prostitutes.  She was fascinated by the physical impact that this life had on its participants.  Aging was not uniform.  From the back, the bodies of many of the women remained attractive.  However, close up, the horrible impact on their faces could not be ignored.  Housed in the same building as her studio was a second-hand store.  Camilla would purchase second-hand women’s undergarments from the store; deconstruct the garments; and re-assemble them into soft sculptures.  The result was an exhibition: “What Women Want” which is more of a question than an answer.

“Identity crisis interest me, new beginnings and transformation”

Moving to America in 1998 after becoming newly married, Camilla started to explore what it was like to be a man vicariously through her observations of her husband.  Her starting point in many of her explorations is specific.  Her process is to study some something specific – in this case, her husband and her father – as a means of understanding something more universally – in this case, men.  The study of her husband resulted in a 2009 exhibition:  “My Husband”.  And, that study continues in a more generalized fashion in her current exhibition which features works re-constructed from recycled men’s suits and dress shirts.  She studies the burdens that men carry in their lives and the marks those burdens leave behind in their unofficial uniforms.

“Things unsaid”

I asked Camilla if she started her work with a specific idea in mind, or if she simply started sewing her pieces together and they took their own direction.  For her, it was both.  There is always an idea that she has in mind when she starts the piece, but she also allows the media itself to exert a measure of control.  The finished piece often continues to have a mind of its own.  Once finished, there is always the question of whether or not the piece is successful.  Does the piece have a voice?  What is it saying?  She will place the piece off in the corner of the room and stare at it for days.  And, interestingly the piece continues to evolve.  Reinterpretation often takes her in a unexpected and different direction.  The pieces do not speak but they have a voice.

Camilla Newhagen is currently studying in the MFA program at Mills College.  She recently exhibited one of her works, Dominatrix, in an exhibition at ARC Gallery in San Francisco:  “Dollhouse” – that was juried by Jack Fischer.  That work led to her upcoming exhibition at Jack Fischer Gallery: “Coupling” where she and John Hundt are the featured artists, that is opening this Saturday, March 12th from 3-5pm.  You can see Camilla’s work in that exhibition through May 7th.  You can also arrange to see Camilla’s work by appointment.

Play – The Art of Audrey Heller

Earlier this year, my gallery partners and I came up with a concept for a juried exhibition for the holiday season at ARC Gallery: “Dollhouse”. We were hoping for artistic visions that took the concept of dolls and dollhouses to unexpected places. One of my favorite works, selected by the juror, Jack Fischer of the eponymous downtown gallery, was a photograph by San Francisco artist, Audrey Heller entitled “Measure”. In the photograph, Audrey has created a fully realized world where two figures pass time waiting on rulers reminiscent of the rulers I used back in elementary school half a century ago. What is being measured? Is it the time that they are spending waiting? Is it the longer passage of time from the 50’s and 60’s until now? Is it something altogether different? Audrey creates a world that implies a story, and then allows us, the viewers, to fill in the text.

One of Audrey’s most prized possessions, as a child, was a miniature farm set complete with a barn, animals and people.  Her form of play was to carefully stage tableaux and leave them up for weeks.  It was not a surprise when, as a young adult, she went on to study theater, and more specifically set and lighting design, at UC Santa Cruz and Northwestern University.  Much of her work has a distinctly theatrical feel.

Recently I sat down with Audrey over a glass of wine and we browsed through her book, Overlooked Undertakings.  The images in this book are all staged with German miniatures.  Each seems like a snapshot of a scene in a play.  While Audrey does not supply the narrative, one distinctly has a sense of a pause in the action.  There is something that has happened leading up to this moment; and shortly one feels that the action will resume.  For me, it is that feeling of a pause that makes the work special.

One of the pieces that Audrey specifically chose to talk about was “Walkers”.  It is not an obvious choice.  It is a deceptively simple image: a small girl follows after a group of adults disappearing into the shadows.  However, because the image is ambiguous, the possibilities of a story are myriad.

I particularly enjoy some of the recurring characters.  A number of images feature scuba divers who seem to be constantly in search of open water.  In one work, a diver is poised over a small pot in a watercolor set.  In another, a diver searches for the ocean in a bag of goldfish crackers.  My personal favorite in this series is “Red Sea” where a pair of divers has climbed up a watermelon in search of the sea, only to be once again thwarted.  Her characters are underdogs.  They strive and they fall short.  But they persevere. Undeterred, they strive again and again.

Another series of works has figurines polishing and touching up roses.  It is hard, behind the scenes work that goes unnoticed and unappreciated.  It is both clever, but also subtly political.  One understands why Fotofolio publishes some of Audrey’s work as greeting cards.  The images are amusing and accessible.  But, for me, it is the slightly subversive back stories that take the work to another level.

You can currently view Audrey Heller’s photography at DeLaSole Footwear in the Castro.  She also is in the current group exhibition at ARC Gallery:  “Dollhouse” in SOMA.  She will be participating in the Artists Talk there Saturday, January 8th from 1-3pm.  And, she will be at the Juror/Artists’ Reception on Thursday, January 13th from 6-8pm.

This spring, Audrey will be showing her work at two Texas art festivals:  The Bayou City Arts Festival in Houston – March 25-27th and The Main Street Fort Worth Art Festival in Fort Worth – April 14-17th.  You can also see Audrey’s photography at her studio here in San Francisco by appointment.

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