Wanxin Zhang: Artist Whistling

Wanxin Banner.2013 artist at his studio in San Francisco.

In 1976, for a young, aspiring artist from Northern China, a crack appeared in everything and the light began to seep in.  During the previous decade, the Cultural Revolution had imposed a communist orthodox hegemony.  Mao had called on Chinese youth to purge “impure” elements from society and revive the revolutionary spirit. Not only was access to Western culture blocked, so was access to thousands of years of Chinese culture.  It did not bode well for artistic freedom of expression.   Then, Mao Zedong died.  And, with his death, most of the final vestiges of the Cultural Revolution were discarded.

This was the political backdrop of Wanxin Zhang’s student days at Lu Xun Academy of Art.  Possibilities for freedom of artistic expression were2000, Made in China,Fired clay with pigment 12x14x42'' essentially non-existent just before he started his studies. Then, the rigid control began to crack.  Catalogs from contemporary Western exhibitions began to circulate at Lu Xun.  The light of possibilities began to brighten.  In 1985, Robert Rauschenberg had an exhibit in China.  Abstract expressionism had arrived.  And, around the same time, Wanxin made a field trip with his school to the burial tomb of China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang which had opened at Xiàn where 7500 terra cotta warriors and horses had been unearthed from four excavation pits. He made endless drawings.  Two of the three key elements of vocabulary that would inform Wanxin’s art over the next 30 years were now in place.  The terra cotta warriors provided the ostensible subject matter of his signature series of work:  Pit # 5; and, abstract expressionism gave him the freedom to use the subject improvisationally to explore a broad range of cross-cultural  observations.

Zhang_Warrior with Color Face-2009_Press
In 1992, after establishing himself as a successful artist in China, Wanxin got the opportunity to study in the MFA program at Academy of Art in San Francisco.  Here the third element of vocabulary would fall into place.  After completing his studies at Lu Xun, Wanxin started working in metal sculpture.  However, in San Francisco, he had the opportunity to revisit his roots in clay.  He was able to work briefly at the Foundry in Berkeley as an artist assistant to Peter Voulkous and he became acquainted with the work of Robert Arnesan.  Both of these artists would greatly influence his subsequent work:  the use of heavy slabs of clay, Voulkous; and the use of humor, Arnesan.

I recently interviewed Wanxin about his upcoming exhibition at Catharine Clark Gallery, Totem, and about his journey from his early student days in China to his homeZhang_Boxer-2014_Press here in San Francisco. We talked about the defining events of our youth – for me the turmoil surrounding the Vietnam War in the late 60’s and early 70’s; for him, the collapse of the Cultural Revolution in the 70’s and the gradual opening of a window on the West.   We also talked about cultural assumptions.  We are all victims of propaganda.  In Wanxin’s case, the propaganda in China during the Cultural Revolution was overt and ideas were rigidly controlled.  In my case, growing up in New England, it was more subtle.  I went to Japan in my early 20’s, and it soon became apparent to me that the things we “know” to be universally true are not.  Many of the underlying assumptions that form our world view are culturally specific, not universal.  In Wanxin’s journey to the United States, the culture shock was much more extreme.  He started to question everything – something he continues to do with his art even now.

Zhang_Special Ambassador-2011_PressWanxin noted that his work is about questions, not answers.  In his signature series:  Pit # 5, the terra cotta warriors are a surrogate for the Chinese subordination of the individual to the needs of society as whole.  The addition of humorous, anachronistic elements to his versions of the warriors allows him to comment on society.  One might make the assumption that he is criticizing the historical lack of individual freedom in China and lauding the individual freedom here in America.  That would be a mistake.  He noted in an earlier interview with Richard Whittaker in 2012:  “Yes, there is great freedom here.  The artist can do anything.  The question is what?”.  I imagine that there was a twinkle in his eye when he said that.  Humor draws you into his work.  It is easy access.  Then, gradually it becomes disconcerting and it makes you question what you know.

The current exhibition at Catharine Clark Gallery gives you a look at a broad range of Wanxin’s work.  It is not just a continuation of the Pit #5 series.  One gets a real sense of the importance of medium.  I asked Wanxin about what drew himZhang_Melting Landscape-2009-13_Press back to clay.  It is the physicality of the medium.  There is a direct, physical connection between the artist and the art.  Emotions are directly transferred through the hands of the artist into the clay. If you could run your hands over the surface of one of his sculptures, the electricity would be palpable.

The exhibition itself is stunning.  Catharine Clark has laid out her spacious gallery sparely.  The lighting is beautiful.  The works have room to breathe.  I will focus here on just two of the works.

Zhang_Pink Warrior-2013_Press“Pink Warrior” is displayed together with some of Wanxin’s “Bricks”.  It is an interesting juxtaposition by the gallerist.  The bricks are strewn behind the pink figure.  Each has a story of its own.  Some are broken pieces of the Great Wall.  Some are pieces of the wall with western graffiti.  There is a price tag that comes with freedom.  It is not all good.  And, then there is the warrior, himself.  The emotion is raw; the coloring incongruous.  The calligraphy is deeply personal.  Wanxin’s mother-in-law is a poet.  When Wanxin first arrived in America and was struggling, he began to question whether he should be pursing art at all.  Her poem reminds him how strong his voice his and how important his art is as a medium for that voice to be heard.  It was a poem that allowed him to continue as an artist.

“Spring Whistling” is perhaps my favorite work in the exhibition.  It has the basic elements that we have come to expect in Wanxin’s work:  the traditional Chinese figure with its anachronistic Western sunglasses.  Humorously, the crotch of the figure bulges inappropriately.  It isZhang_Spring Whistling-2014_Press a reference to a Chinese joke about what goes on under a monk’s robes. Then, there are also decals of traditional Chinese landscape and poetry that have been added to that surface in a third firing. And, the surface treatment of the sculpture itself is compelling on a purely abstract level.  The raw, emotional treatment of the clay is undisguised.  The work is not just about one thing.  It does not have a single point of view.  It is serious.  It is humorous.  It is anti-establishment.  It celebrates cultural legacy.  It is figurative.  It is abstact. It is, for me, the best of what Wanxin has to offer.

Totem will be on display at through January 3rd, 2015.  The opening reception is on Saturday, November 8th from 4-6pm.

Catherine Clark Gallery

248 Utah St.

San Francisco CA 94103

All exhibition photographs are courtesy of the gallery.  Thanks to Leonard Cohen for the cracks allowing the light in.

“Subsurface Continuum ” – William Swanson

William Swanson/ “Subsurface Continuum ” at Eleanor Harwood Gallery

review by Michal Gavish

Subsurface Continuum is an exhibition of new works by the San Francisco-based painter William Swanson at Eleanor Harwood Gallery. His new works of abstracted landscapes seem vast although he is painting them on small to medium size canvases.  Using economical marks, he conveys images of extended terrains interrupted by urban elements. Swanson layers his seamless painted areas and covers his surfaces with perfectly smooth monochromes. In some cases he extends his technique to reveal his brushstroke patterns, creating color gradients and softening their edges.  In the new series Swanson builds his compositions from sharp edged shapes of color, outlining specific landscapes of golden forest silhouettes, dramatic slopes or steep hills. He leaves much of his surfaces unpainted, turning them into foggy and flooded scenes. He then encloses these natural views by architectural geometries, interrupting their organic continuity. Michal Gavish Eleanor Harwood 1

His clean style gives an impression of coded landscape design where he assigns a color to each element, mapping events of architectural expansions over natural lands. But although his work is so meticulous, it is not lifeless. Swanson creates dramatic tensions in his architectural structures, such as the single lamppost illuminating a flooded road in Terraform Floodplain. In Sunburst Radiant, dark squares are accumulating to block the radiant sunlight from the forest behind it. Another example is his painting Luminary Phase, where Swanson constructs a multi-perspective space of excavated urban landscape against a dark backdrop. This futuristic archaeology exposes a series of radiant hi-rise structures flashing fiery light from behind a fractured derelict neighborhood foreground.

Michal Gavish Harwood 2 s

While his work takes a clear environmental stand, its strength is in its abstracted subtlety. Rejecting slogans, Swanson conveys his message by including the menacing urbanization in his peaceful landscapes. His abstracted shapes create a language that narrates the collision between the geometrical and the organic, leading his viewers to experience their unavoidable collision.The story that Swanson is telling us is not new. He is alerting us to dangers that we are well aware of. Yet the simplicity of his strokes and his concise narratives are effective, when he delivers his important message through elegant quality. His new paintings become part of a long tradition of American landscape painters, whose narrative is currently shifting from romantic calmness to environmental anxiety.

The works in Subsurface Continuum are literal landscapes and abstract compositions at the same time. Swanson allows the two genres to coexist and even gain from each other. By abstracting his paintings he makes his landscapes infinite, while the abstract absorbs a narrative perspective, turning into an ecological prophecy.Michal Gavish Harwood 3 s


On View until Nov. 1st 2014
at Eleanor Harwood Gallery, 1295 Alabama street, San Francisco

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Lauren DiCioccio: Familiars

Familiars –  review of Lauren DiCiccio’s solo exhibition at Jack Fischer Gallery

By Michal Gavish

michal gavish LD Jack Fisher sThree skirted cloth sculptures stand in the entrance to the Jack Fischer Gallery in San Francisco. Well-known Bay Area fabric artist Lauren DiCioccio stitches these large stuffed figures from scrap cloth. In an elaborate process she prepares their fabrics out of colorful cloth straps and weaves them into checkered warp-and-woof patterns. She then tailors the woven cloth over an armature and stuffs it with leftover material. The sewn group poses in an intimate setting, gesturing with irregular limbs at one another. They are caricatured but their interactions are personal and touching.Michal gavish Jack fishe exoskeletal LD sm

In the second part of the show, separated by a dividing wall, the artist arranges long backstage tables with an assortment of stitched variety. The colorful array displays small creatures of unusual shapes and strange extremities. Their fantastic features create a pseudo-scientific set of exotic breeds. Made of many types of fabrics, some of the figures appear with their armatures exposed, creating strange, exoskeletal species. Others are only partially covered, exposing their gobbled-up cloth innards. DiCioccio does not resolve her shapes. She lets her audience wonder about the nature of her fictional species as their inner and outer surfaces become indistinguishable.

LD groupThe small statues on the tables look like they came out of a toy-box. Their bizarre shapes trigger the imagination: some look like old handmade toys, others invoke extraterrestrial monsters and still others remind of fairytale creatures. This room shows the matter of imagination. It is out of these objects that the artist creates and imagines the scene presented in the entrance.

This exhibit provides an opportunity to see DiCioccio extending out of her comfort zone. She abandons her objects in favor of figuration and moves from groupofsmallsrepresentation to semi-abstraction. Abdicating her familiar and safe practice of embroidering ready-made objects, she now sews her invented figures from scratch. Instead of interpreting she fabricates new figures, shifting her practice to sculpting in cloth.

On view until October 18th, 2014

at Jack Fischer Gallery

311 Potrero Avenue, San Francisco




Alicia McCarthy: New Paintings

Alicia McCarthy:  New Paintings

by Michal Gavish

Geometry has become the latest wave of abstract art to overtake the Oakland art scene. This summer, several galleries are exhibiting shows ranging from contemplative poetic geometries to sharp and mechanical op art. Of these, the new, unassuming paintings by Alicia McCarthy at Johansson Projects are outstanding. In this new, mixed-media series on found wooden panels, she transforms her temperate punk symbols into a new, formal language.

McCarthy has been painting in Oakland since the 1990s as an integrative part of the Mission School Tradition. She has had six solo shows with Jack Hanley in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, where she exhibited punk-painting installations. In her recent project she maintains her spontaneous aesthetic of vivid colors, while arresting them in geometric grids. However, her lines are not perfectly rigid, as they are drawn by hand, without the aid of any guidance tools or rulers.

Michal Gavish McCarthy1 Johanesson sEven McCarthy’s black and white pieces release an iridescent glow that suggests a vivacious undertone. In the first – Untitled (1) – two stylistically different panels hang adjacent to each other. The left-hand panel displays a single word, which pops out against a dark background. The second panel displays a painted latticework, which suggests a carefully worked, woven structure. The striking presentation of a calligraphic text besides the separate image of an obviously hand-made pattern extends the work beyond the Mission School aesthetic into a wider, art-historical context, evoking the form of ancient manuscripts.

Michal Gavish McCarthy JOhanesson 2 sIn other works, McCarthy confines her patterns to partial areas of the panels. This constriction turns the patterned sections into awkward objects that stand out from the simple ground. The object in Untitled (2) is a strange, checkered pattern, corralled by a lopsided triangle at the panel’s center. In Outside/Inside, McCarthy creates a similar oddity, drawing in pencil and house paint a hive constructed from piled rectangular cells. Most of the panel, however, is left empty, resulting in a strange architecture that appears to grow from the bottom edge in a geometric mass of neatly arranged cells against a rich, greenish background.

The magic in McCarthy’s new works lies in their suspension between the scientific and the handmade. These original pieces show an artist mediating between these two poles. By using her grid as a direction rather than a constraint, her slightly meandering but confident contours become organic and genuine while maintaining the purpose of creating geometries. With her approximated straight lines, she redirects her gentle punk and gives it new frame and formal content.

Among the many abstract-geometrical interpretations now on exhibit in Oakland, McCarthy’s contemplative shapes stand out in the handcrafted and irregular layouts of their invented geometries.


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Amy Ellingson: Iterations and Assertions

Iterations and Assertions

by Michal Gavish

Following the opening of Amy Ellingson’s new exhibit, Iterations and Assertions, at the San Jose Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA), the San Francisco-based abstract artist gave an eloquent talk describing her work. Walking in the gallery, the viewer is struck by a collection of bold shapes and colors jutting from around the room. Already known for her paintings based on computer-generated graphics, Ellingson impressively extends her practice to include three-dimensional sculptures and a monochromatic mural.Michal Gavish Amy 1

She begins by describing her complex painting process. A laptop serves as her sketchbook as she shapes and distorts colorful geometric fragments. The pieces are then manipulated and compiled, resulting in a multi-layered composition. Finally, she reproduces the digital image by laboriously painting it, layer by layer, in oil and encaustic onto the panels.

With her new exhibition at the ICA, Ellingson describes the opportunity to move beyond her established painting repertoire. She recreates her myriad painted fragments as 17,000 individual encaustic pieces and places them on a long pedestal parallel to the panels. The three-dimensional pieces appear extracted from the painting, creating an impression of color transforming into substance.Michal Gavish Amy 2

On the opposite wall, a monochromatic mural of similar dimensions halts this celebration of shapes and colors. Grayish, pixilated lines contour throughout the expansive, bare mural. Echoing the painted panel and sculptural installation, Ellingson describes how they are intended to imply a sculptural grid. Stripped of color and shape, the mural suggests a simple, authentic essence to the variegated exhibit.
Examining the length and details of the installation inspires a contemplative interpretation, which is especially powerful in the parallel setting. Ellingson’s iterations of her abstract elements cover a large range. In her sculpture she renders her abstract color elements three-dimensional while in her mural she completely eliminates her color into a system of contoured lines. This inspires associations ranging from archaeological findings to topological mappings. Walking along these three works, the viewer surveys the colors and shapes, weighing their dimensionality against their linearity as if moving along on a conveyor belt, taking in the marvelous procession of this multitude.Michal Gavish Amy 3


On view Jun. 7 – Sep. 13, 2014

at the San Jose Institute for Contemporary Art

560 South First Street San Jose, CA 95113

Kristina Quinones – Emotional Sojourns

KristinaQ_Portrait_byBryanSunWEBMark Rothko wrote “I am not an abstractionist … I am not interested in the relationship of color or form or anything else. … I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions ― tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on”.  The work of Kristina Quinones falls squarely into this tradition of the so-called “color-field” painters – painters such as Rothko, Clifford Still, Helen Frankenthaler, Barnett Newman and Morris Louis, among many others.  What was revolutionary about their work at the time was that it aggressively and specifically separated itself from any reference to objective context and sought, instead, to convey emotional complexity solely with the paint itself, both with color choice but also with technique – how it was applied.Justice_WEB

When I recently met with Kristina for this interview, we danced around the question of what the work was about.  When someone visits your studio, I asked her, do they want to know what the work is about or do they want to know how it was made?  In a somewhat resigned manner, she said that most of the time they wanted to know only about process.  As I have thought about this for a while, I realize that I asked the wrong question.  The question implied that the process of making her work and the context of her work were two entirely separate things.  And, in the case of Kristina’s paintings, nothing could be further from the truth.

In the continuing evolution of color field painting, paths are forged with new and innovative ways of using paint itself.  The work is very much about the materiality of the medium.  New paths can also be forged more subtly in context – the way that emotional states are described sub-consciously in the work.  Kristina’s work breaks new ground in both of these areas.

Relic_WEBThe process itself is innovative.  Acrylic mediums are poured over a wood panel and gently mixed by rocking the panel, creating the swirling effect.  The movement itself is almost a dance.  No brushes are ever used.  Kristina describes entering an almost meditative state, but not in the classic at peace kind of way.  Rather “meditation” allows whatever emotional state she is in at the moment to be translated directly into the movement of the paint and the choice of the colors. Her work consists of multiple layers.  Each layer must be allowed to dry completely before another layer is applied.  The layers vary in opacity – some are more transparent, some more mysterious.  There are typically 10-12 layers; each layer interrupted by 3-4 days.  There is a constant battle between control and uncertainty.  And, each time a layer is applied the emotional state that is transcribed can be different.  The range of emotions in any given work can be narrow or wide.Breed_WEB

What would meditation look like if it was visually represented?  What if the meditation did not dampen emotion, but rather created an efficient conduit?  What if the journey that was described was not simply a reflection of emotional state, but also a reflection of emotional direction, not strictly a transcription, but also aspirational?  Kristina’s work is a complex emotional sojourn memorialized.  Process and content are inextricably interwoven.

Forgiveness_WEBI first met Kristina shortly after she graduated from San Francisco Art Institute, where she studied printmaking.  She was already transitioning to painting.  Although, even when she was printmaking, her process was non-traditional – eschewing the traditional implements of the printmaker in favor of more direct applications of ink fields.  The paintings were a natural extension of those studies.

Since 2010, Kristina has been widely exhibited, with exhibitions in that year at Nieto Fine Art and Mina Dresden Gallery.  I invited Kristina to be part of the inaugural “FourSquared” exhibition at Arc Gallery in 2010, where she was one of 16 artists who created 16 micro-exhibitions.  In 2011, her work was featured in “Shine” at the Berkeley Art Center. She had a prestigious residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts and was in their Affliate Artist program from 2010-2012.  Then, in 2012 she began working with Joan McLoughlin who has since featured her work in her 2012 exhibition: “Who’s Afraid of Color”;  and exhibited her work in art fairs in San Francisco, Miami and Houston.  Her second exhibition at The McLoughlin Gallery  “Sugar High” will open this Friday, November 22nd in San Francisco.


To arrange a studio visit or to see additional work, please contact The McLoughlin Gallery here.

Touchstone – The Art of Linda Connor



Linda Connor has had a distinguished career as a photographer.  She studied with Harry Callahan at the Rhode Island School of Design; then went on to study with Aaron Siskind in Chicago at the Institute of Design’s Master Program.  Since 1969, she has taught photography at the San Francisco Art institute.  Her work is in important collections, both museum and individual, nationally and internationally.   Articles abound. 

I recently had the good fortune to visit Linda in her home in Marin County.  It is a magical place filled with treasures from her travels; art from her friends, colleagues and mentors; and, quiet nooks and crannies to sit and reflect on all of these things.  It is hard to know if the place is, in and of itself, intrinsically a magical place; or if it has been transformed by Linda and made so.  My guess is that it is a bit of both, because Linda is both an explorer and an alchemist, roles that are reprised in her photography. 

Visiting her home, there is a strong sense of connection.  The house and the gardens are rooted in Marin and they firmly connect you to what makes it a special place.  Linda’s famous collections are not random.  Each of the objects that have been collected connects you not only with its maker, but with its purpose.  Linda showed me a marvelous assemblage of Tibetan molds used for making amulets to ward off evil or cast out spirits.  She pulled out some molding wax and made me an ephemeral zodiac dragon. The objects are beautiful in their own right, but more importantly, once again they connect you not only to a place, a time and a purpose, but also to mystery that transcends that place, that time and that purpose.  Whether you are exploring her home or exploring her impressive body of work from the last 40 years, you begin to realize that you are surrounded by transcendent touchstones. 

The current exhibition of Linda Connor’s work which opens at Haines Gallery on November 1st provides an interesting opportunity to explore these touchstones.  There are several separate bodies of work represented in the exhibition.  Each series is very different from the others, but all of them explore how we connect not only to the world around us but also to mysteries that transcend the world around us.

Most of the photographs are from Linda’s Olson House portfolio, a series of 28 works commissioned by the Cincinnati Art Museum in 2006 to serve as an artistic dialog with early works by Andrew Wyeth of the same house and grounds.  The exhibition also includes more familiar works from her many trips exploring places steeped with “sacred structure”.  These include examples of her work taken with a large format 8×10 camera and printed both traditionally and also on silk banners.  And finally, there is a large accordion book of photographs which pairs images from a mural depicting the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteśvara from a meditation cave in the Ladakh region of India with images of the surrounding landscape. 

In my conversation with Linda, she shared the initial apprehension she felt when she received the commission to photograph the Olson House.  Commissions were uncharted territory for her.  She had always chosen her own subjects and she was concerned about how she would make the work “Linda Connor” work.  She need not have worried.  The photographs, like all of her photographs, explore connections directly and transcendently.  Works like “The East Side … after Walker Evans” are, on one level, explorations of her personal connection to her photographic lineage.  However, on another level, they also capture the quiet, spiritual quality of the place.  This is even more apparent in “Door and Windows … after Charles Sheeler”.  Once again, the work is on one level an homage.  However, it also explores a subject that Andrew Wyeth frequently painted in his work – the subject of looking into places from outside through multiple doors.  It very much captures the spiritual nature of The Olson House.  One feels the presence of Andrew Wyeth and his muses, Christina and Alvaro Olson.

The gallery is also exhibiting a large accordion book which explores the connections between human renderings of the sacred and their natural echoes.  The entire accordion is unfolded and properly exhibited – standing, with images on both sides displayed.  In the book Connor pairs images of a sacred bodhisattva with natural echoes in the surrounding landscape.  And, in the process, the book itself not only explores connections to the mysteries that surround us, but becomes, as an object, a connection in its own right.

The Haines Gallery has also chosen to hang an older work, “Tomb Doorway, Petra, Jordan”.  This is one of my favorite works since it combines in one image, connections that Linda often explores separately.  The photograph captures the sense of spirituality inherent in the place itself.  There are the semi-ruins of an elaborately carved, darkened doorway. Over the centuries, the wind has changed the structure creating a hallucinatory framing of the doorway.  There is the human structure purposely created as a sacred touchstone.  Then, there is nature creating its own, even more beautiful variation on that touchstone, wrapping itself around the tomb’s doorway.  And finally, there is the photograph.  It memorializes the tomb and the wind.  But, in the process, the photograph itself becomes a touchstone apart.

“Two Worlds”, Linda Connor’s sixth solo exhibition at Haines Gallery runs from November 1 – December 22, 2013.  The artist will be present at the opening on November 1st.  Inquiries about works in the exhibition and other work by Linda Connor should be directed to the gallery.


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