London Bridge Is Falling Down

For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, I am often drawn to art that chronicles urban decay.  I particularly love the abandoned buildings that dot the waterfront in San Francisco and the artist studio buildings that have taken root in that landscape, from the Noonan Building at Pier 70 to the Shipyard at Hunters Point.  It is not clear if Jenny Robinson’s choice to locate her studio at the Shipyard was cause or effect.  It is clear that her work is deeply rooted in that, and similar, urban landscapes.

With particular emphasis on the ordinary features of her city surroundings, Jenny chronicles the “cycle of decay and renewal” that impact our bridges, highway interchanges, billboards and, my favorite, the under-maintained industrial buildings.  She notes that “by exploring the dichotomy of these often abandoned structures, at once monumental and fragile, unsightly yet beautiful, I aim to bring attention to the drama of the over-looked and abandoned corners of the world”.

Jenny’s journey began in Borneo.  Her father was an expatriate engineer.  She spent much of her childhood growing up there; and later, traveling between Southeast Asia and Britain when she, like many children of expatriates, attended boarding school in London.  From early on, she exhibited a facility in drawing.  She carried a sketchbook everywhere, fascinated by the differences in light and shadow.  From these early experiences. she developed a taste for travel that persists to this day.

In the 80’s, she formally entered art school in West Surrey.  There she was exposed to every possible medium and technique.  Britain was a great place to study art.  All of the material costs were covered.  Art students could freely explore their world and find their voice.  Jenny found that printmaking (and to a lesser extent, photography) was where her creativity best flowed.  That was where she took her “foundations”.  After college, she worked in the commercial art worlds of design, illustration and animation.  In the later, she had quite fortuitously made a connection through a friend with film and video producers.  She worked on films creating special effects.  The work was project-oriented and it paid well.  With each project, she would save up; then use her savings to go traveling.  As was her habit, everywhere she went, she carried her sketchbook.  She would also bring a camera for “back-up” photographs.  The art that she produced was, in her own words, “popular, but a little too romantic”.   Before she became a captive of her own success, she changed directions.  The early work had focused on light and shadow, but it was, in her opinion, overly pretty.  She started to sketch grittier, urban subject matter; and her color palette began to focus on the ochre’s and gray’s that dominate her current works.

Jenny’s work continues to evolve.  At first, she tended to rely more heavily on the photographic references.  Stylistically, the work was very detailed.  More recently, she has made a conscious decision to rely more heavily on the sketches.  The result has been work with a more painterly quality.  Technically, the work has also evolved.  Printmakers are, according to Jenny, a very generous community.  They attend workshops together and share techniques.  So her work is always growing technically.  I am particularly intrigued with her current printmaking technique, which owes a lot to both monotype and dry-point.  She actually creates her images on cardboard, illustration board to be precise.  After creating the image, she seals the illustration board with varnish.  She then carves into that sealed “plate” from which she prints, in a process similar to dry-point.  This allows her to create the detailed drawing of the infrastructure which is her subject.  Then, to achieve the more painterly quality, she adds the color washes in 4-6 passes, in a technique that owes more to monoprinting.

Jenny has taught at the Academy of Art and Chico State.  She is currently a resident artist at Kala in Berkeley.  She teaches workshops regularly at ICA in San Jose and at the San Francisco Center for the Book.  She also participates nationally in various residency and workshop programs, including this past summer at the Cabrillo Arts Summer Santa Cruz Workshops.  She has exhibited nationally and internationally.  Currently, she has gallery representation at Davidson Gallery in Seattle & Warnock Fine Arts in Palm Springs.  This weekend you can see her work during San Francisco Open Studios Weekend Four.  And, her studio is also open by appointment.

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Curiosity Dissected the Cat – Sandra Yagi

Earlier this year we visited the studio of Sandra Yagi in San Francisco’s SOMA area.  Her studio is in an industrial building in the shadow of the Bay Bridge, but it has great light – very important for an artist whose work is rooted in life drawing.  While Sandy’s work often has a surreal feel to it, an exploration of her studio reveals the references that inform that work.  She is a diligent student of nature.  There are books on botany and anatomy.  There are taxidermy forms.  There is a skeleton named Frederick.

Sandy’s life as an artist was a dream deferred.  While she was always interested in making art, that was not an education that her father, ever practical, was going to pay for.  Instead, she started out with a business degree and a career in finance.  After Bank of America relocated her here to San Francisco from Denver, she began seriously studying and making art on the side.  With her business/finance background, she developed a formal plan to transition to art.  She and her partner settled into a very frugal lifestyle, saving towards the goal of being able to support themselves with Sandy pursuing art.  There was an actual business plan.  They worked with the most conservative assumption that there would be no revenue from art initially.  And, they set a standard of living for themselves that allowed for that.  This gave Sandy the time she needed to find her voice as an artist.

And, it is a fascinating voice, indeed.  Sandy is intensely interested in how things work.  And, at the same time, she is very interested in how different societies at different times have tried to unravel those mysteries.  Much of her work explores both the modern world’s scientific discoveries and the ancient world’s mythology looking for similarities and disconnects.

In one series of work, she specifically explores myth and symbolism.  She scientifically illustrates horses with detailed anatomy in one painting that is based on the myth of the Mares of Diomedes – horses with an unnatural appetite for human flesh.  The story resonates in the modern world as parable of nature punishing man.  She paints skulls with reptiles crawling around in the cranial cavity.  The paintings are not just a little disturbing.  And, it is not an accident that one of these paintings is in the collection of Axl Rose.  But the symbolism is again very modern.  It is a direct reference to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This is a representation of man’s reptilian brain taking over.  Consumption of the bird in the painting symbolizes consumption of freedom or the soul.

In a more recent series of paintings, Sandy has focused specifically on the skeletal forms.  She shows skeletons having sex – an amusing reference to Petit Mort.  She illustrates Madonna and Child, where the child is a skeleton of conjoined fetal twins – the opposite of perfection.  And, there is a whole series of dancing skeletal conjoined twins, appealing to her desire to intensely study how the body works, but in a slightly twisted and highly amusing way.

Recently, Sandy produced a series of sixteen small works for an exhibition at ARC Gallery in San Francisco, “FourSquared”, that I had the honor of co-curating.  The concept of the exhibition was to showcase sixteen artists in sixteen articulated grids, effectively creating sixteen small separate exhibitions.  All of the works were small and affordable.  Sandy embraced the concept enthusiastically and characteristically.  She used the exhibition as an opportunity to embark on yet another series of works exploring the world both scientifically and surrealistically.  The question she asked was “What if evolution took a different path?”.  With obsessive detail, she imagined hybrid creatures:  Mandrill Demons, Feathertail Possums, and PigeonRats.  In meticulous rendered small oil paintings, she not only imagined these creatures, she also created entire worlds for them to inhabit. SpiderMonkey now graces my personal collection.

Everyone has a wonderful opportunity to visit Sandy in her studio this weekend as San Francisco Open Studios moves to SOMA for Weekend Two (October 15-17).  Her studio is in the South Beach Artists Studios at 2nd & Bryant Streets.  And, if you miss her this weekend, she will be featured in a solo exhibition at the Bert Green Fine Art Gallery in Los Angeles in January 2011.  You can also arrange to see Sandra Yagi’s studio by appointment.