Legacy in Continuum: Bay Area Figuration

The "Bay Area Figurative Style" goes back to the year 1950 when David Park submitted a heavily brushed painting of a jazz band -- "Rehearsal" -- to a group exhibition at San Francisco's De Young Museum. His representational painting looked so out of place among the field of Abstract Expressionist entries that it was thought to be a joke. It wasn't: it was a serious attempt at something new, a recognizable image painted with a vigor and spontaneity borrowed from abstraction.

At the time, San Francisco was then considered an artistic backwater, at least according to Clyfford Still who taught with Park at the California School of Fine Arts in Oakland. "Here I continue to paint in world of lethargy to art that is worse than outright death," Still wrote melodramatically to his friend Barnett Newman in late 1949. A "my way or the highway" abstractionist, Still couldn't understand that in fact a historic style was about to be born, one that both incorporated abstraction and repudiated it.

Park's fresh approach opened up a vibrant artistic conversation, a dialogue between abstraction and representation, that continues to this day. "Legacy in Continuum: Bay Area Figuration," on view at the Bakersfield Museum of Art from March 22 through May 27th is an exhibition that demonstrates the continuing impact of a very engaging, flexible style.

The show pairs the work of some early Bay Area notables -- Elmer Bischoff, Joan Brown, William "Theophilius" Brown, Richard Diebenkorn, Nathan Oliveira and Paul Wonner -- with a selection of artists who have benefited from their examples. If there is one real lesson that Bay Area Figuration has taught American painters over time, it is that nothing should stop a painter from playing the range between painterly figuration and painterly abstraction.

The term figuration is defined as "of, relating to, or characterized by the naturalistic representation of the external world." Certainly the hybrid style that Park opened up had its roots in naturalism, but several of his friends -- Diebenkorn, Bischoff and William Brown -- bounced back to abstraction at some point in their careers. In "Continuum" many of the current painters play the range, all the way to what Richard Diebenkorn called "the ends of the stick."

The exhibition includes works by William "Theophilus" Brown, who died this past February, and his partner Paul Wonner (1920-2008) that seem to bracket the stylistic range of the show. Wonner is represented by "Nude and Indian Rug," a 1961 oil featuring buttery brushstrokes that evoke the impasto style of David Park's late works. Brown's 2002 acrylic/collage is abstract, but hints at references to the landscape. Unfortunately, Brown's piece was not able to be loaned for the show, although it does appear in the catalog.


Paul Wonner, "Nude and Indian Rug II," 42 x 60 inches, oil on canvas, 1961,


Theophilus Brown, "Untitled #4," 9 x 7 inches, Acrylic and Collage, 2002

The show's working painters -- Dennis Hare, Suhas Bhujbal, Waldemar Mitrowski, Kim Frohsin, Brook Temple, Mitchell Johnson, John Goodman, Siddharth Parasnis and Eduardo Alvarado -- contribute a diverse roster of works including images of the nude, still-lives, and city views.

Mitchell Johnson, who effortlessly walks the tightrope between representation and abstraction, demonstrates a deft touch and lyric color sense in his Tuscan townscape "Torrenieri." Kim Froshin's "Picnic Window" is a crisp, smart acrylic/and collage that nods to Diebenkorn but also has just a slight infusion of Thiebaud. Dennis Hare's "Still Life" has a craggy impastoed elegance that David Park would have admired.

"Martyrdom," an oil on canvas still life/stele by Eduardo Alvarado, speaks quietly about spiritual and historical references in a tone that Nathan Oliveira would have admired. In fact, Alvarado lives in Spain, but Oliveira was a very important painter for him. With the help of his friends Kim Frohsin and John Goodman, Alvarado was able to visit with Oliveira for 2 hours in 2009, just a year before the revered artist's death. "It was one of the most important moments in my life," Alvarado recalls.


Nathan Oliveira, "Seated Woman Fur Coat," 54 x 50 inches, Oil on Canvas, 1961
Private Collection

Oliveira, who is represented in the show by a 1961 oil portrait of his mother, was a friend of Polish-born Waldemar Mitrowski whose small canvas "Outdoor" is enigmatic and poetic, and a mentor to John Goodman whose "Figure #29" is sensual and singular

"Legacy in Continuum: Bay Area Figuration" honors and celebrates a way of thinking about painting that continues to touch a new generation of artists, both in the Bay Area proper, and across the Atlantic. It has been more than 60 years since Park brought back the figure, and the style he gave birth to still has legs.

Legacy in Continuum: Bay Area Figuration

March 22 - May 27, 2012

The Bakersfield Museum of Art

Ai Weiwei's "Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Gold" at MCASD Downtown

"Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Gold," a group of sculptures by the Chinese artist/provocateur Ai Weiwei, is now on view in the Strauss Gallery of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego's Downtown Jacobs Building. The installation consists of 12 gilded bronze heads -- a rat, an ox, a tiger, a rabbit, a dragon, a snake, a horse, a sheep, a monkey, a rooster, a dog, and a pig -- each a representative symbol from the Chinese zodiac.

The heads, which are between roughly 20 and 30 inches tall, display some striking stylistic discontinuities. The sheep, for example, is credible, almost naturalistic. Another head, the monkey, has a streamlined brow and stylized round eyes. "Is that Curious George?" a child might ask. The snarling antlered dragon is instantly identifiable as the characteristic fantasy animal of ancient China. Their immaculate gilded surfaces raise a question: are these heavily restored antiques or high end reproductions?


Installation View: Ai Weiwei, Zodiac Heads/Circle of Animals: Gold, 2010
Gold-plated bronze. Courtesy of a Private Collection. Photo: Pablo Mason.

Assembled in a circle, atop custom-made huali wood pedestals also constructed by the artist, the heads glimmer in the building's lobby, easily visible to passengers arriving on local commuter trains. Seen in a hurry -- in a passing glimpse -- the heads may be hard for the locals to place: "Honey, I saw a golden grinning rat head on a pedestal when I was getting off the train today."

Anyone who slows down to peer through the window longer -- or who enters the museum -- is going to find that the longer they look, the trickier things get. The Zodiac heads are aesthetic banana peels meant to trip up viewers, and send them sliding down the slopes of complex historical, political and personal references. "However absurd his (Ai Weiwei's) works might appear to be," cautions Adrian Searle of the Guardian U.K., "he understands the place of the artist, recognizing that his work exists in a global world of social, cultural and economic relations."

According to Kathryn Kanjo, the MCASD's chief curator, Ai Weiwei the artist is "playful and shrewd, elliptical and poetic." As a political and social activist he has shown the world some of his other qualities: bluntness and tenacity. After his November 2011 release from 81 days in prison, he vowed to fight charges of tax evasion "to the death." An unapologetic critic of China's repressive government, Ai Weiwei recently stated that "The biggest crime of a dictatorship is to eradicate feelings from people."

Ai Weiwei has built his reputation by channeling his own feelings into a diverse range of artistic expressions. While in the U.S. he created conceptual works in the form of readymade objects while also gaining a reputation as a top flight blackjack player. Since his return to China in the mid-1990s he has published a series of art books, created performance pieces, dabbled in architecture and even co-curated a show, "Fuck Off," in 2000.

His large scale works of the past few years have included his 2007 "Template" a monumental outdoor sculpture assembled from Ming and Quing era windows and doors. In 2010 he scattered ten tons of hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds on the floor of the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall to poetically conjure up issues of Chinese everyday life, hunger, and collective work.

For a 2010 installation in Munich, he had 9,000 children's backpacks arranged to spell "She lived happily for seven years in this world" in Chinese characters. That phrase was a quote from a mother whose child died in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. Ai Weiwei's piece was intended both as a form of remembrance for thousands of children who died in the quake and whose lives, in the artist's words, "disappeared within the state propaganda." His works, observes Kathryn Kanjo are "a conflation of art and politics."

In the case of the Zodiac heads, the dual strands of art and politics reach back more than 150 years.

In October of 1860, the British diplomat James Bruce, the 8th Earl of Elgin, ordered the complete destruction of the Yuan Ming Yuan (Old Summer Palace) a monumental complex of gardens and palaces northwest of Beijing. The destruction, which was a retaliatory gesture, and the closing scene the Second Opium Wars, involved 3,500 British troops who lit fires that burned for three days. An estimated 300 eunuchs, maids and workers who had been locked behind the palace gates perished in the inferno.

As the fires raged, Lord Elgin and his troops looted considerable treasure, much of which made its way back to Europe. International collecting ran in Elgin's family: it was Bruce's father Thomas, the 7th Earl of Elgin, who famously obtained the permission of an Ottoman sultan to export the ancient marbles of the Greek Parthenon to Britain where they remain to this day.

Charles George Gordon, a 27 year old captain who took part in the razing of the Summer Palace, later lamented; "You can scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the places we burnt. It made one's heart sore to burn them." The sense of cultural loss would linger for generations both in China and in Europe.

When a group of visitors from the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, visited the Beijing studio of the artist Ai Weiwei in November of 2010, they came across a work in progress; a dozen gilded sculptures of animal heads. "They were on the ground, not even on blankets," recalls curator Kathryn Kanjo. "There they were; so ornate, decadent and garish."

Ai Weiwei, Dragon from Zodiac Heads/Circle of Animals: Gold, 2010
Gold-plated bronze. Courtesy of a Private Collection. Photo: Pablo Mason.

The heads, as the San Diego delegation would learn over time, were Ai Weiwei's attempt to reconstitute a set of Zodiac heads that had once been part of an ornate clock and fountain on the grounds of the destroyed Summer Palace. The original heads had been made by Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), an Italian Jesuit who while living in China had executed commissions for the Chinese emperor in the 18th century.

In other words, Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist who has been considerably influenced by Western Postmodernism and who lived and studied in New York for over a decade, had recreated works made by a European who had lived and worked in China in the 18th century. What had spurred Ai Weiwei to make another Zodiac?

In 2009, the Chinese government -- Ai Weiwei's nemesis -- had tried to block the sale of two of the original heads, a rabbit and a rat, being offered at auction by Pierre Berge, the partner of the late Yves St Laurent. Berge then infuriated the Chinese government by offering to return the heads to China, where they would join five others that have been brought to Beijing in recent years, if government would apply human rights, and give Tibet its freedom.

Of course the Chinese government refused, and the two heads were auctioned. The winning bidder, Cai Mingchao, a member of China's "Lost Cultural Relics Foundation" bid $19 million dollars: then he refused to pay.

In this brouhaha Ai Weiwei saw an opportunity. Here was a chance to do what he does so well, to make a work of art that would shape a tangle of uncomfortable cultural, moral and aesthetic questions into the physical form of a work of art. By resurrecting the set of Zodiac heads, and reconstituting the missing ones to his own liking he eventually came up with some zingers.

Here is one: Are the works in San Diego "fakes" or "copies?"

A few more: To appreciate the work, is it important or inconsequential to know anything about the Chinese Zodiac? What is the role of ancient cultural symbols in a Postmodern work of art?

Finally: Who "owns" the original, looted Zodiac heads? Does a government in power, whatever its legitimacy, "own" the culture it governs and its artifacts?

These thorny questions have no clear answers. The poetry that results from that uncertainty is an essential ingredient, and also a reminder of Ai Weiwei's quiet, Postmodern despair. His own engagement with political power has given him a lesson in the inherent theatricality of art and culture. "At the end of the day," comments Kathryn Kanjo, attempting to sum up Weiwei's position, "it's all a fake."

"Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Gold" is really a work about the freedom of the imagination, and the persistence of ideas. It was conceived by a courageous man who has put his life and career at risk by asking inconvenient questions. It is worth nothing that Ai Weiwei, who was born on May 18, 1957, was born under the sign of the rooster, an indication of a cautious, skeptical and perceptive mind.

Compelling as the Zodiac heads may look in San Diego, wouldn't Ai Weiwei's second, larger set of Zodiac heads, recently shown at the LA County Museum of Art be very powerful if they were set up in Tianenmen Square? As Ai Weiwei continues to demonstrate, works of art live and die in the context of power and politics.

Ai Weiwei: Zodiac Heads/Circle of Animals: Gold

Feb 23, 2012 through Jul 29, 2012 at MCASD Downtown, Jacobs Building

A Conversation with Sangram Majumdar

I recently had the opportunity to interview painter Sangram Majumdar, whose exhibition NEW WORK was on view at Steven Harvey Fine Arts, New York, from January 12 through February 19, 2012. Majumdar, who has been teaching painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art since 2003, has described his paintings as being "conversations between the notion of the familiar and the questions it raises through the medium of painting."

I also was in touch with Steven Harvey who was able to give me his observations concerning Majumdar's works. The two conversations follow below. - John Seed


John Seed Interviews Steven Harvey

JS: How did you discover Sangram and his work?

SH: I first heard about Sangram from the painters Stanley Lewis and Will Reed in 2008. I met him at an art fair I was doing and he showed me a catalog of his work for an upcoming show. I was particularly taken with one image of a still life on a mantelpiece. I thought that this painting effectively built upon the foundation of Lennart Anderson and Edwin Dickinson.

I thought "what an interesting place to start from." When I saw Sangram's paintings in person I loved the way they were made, their very complex and individual 'factura.' In his second show at my gallery, Sangram's paintings continue to evolve in myriad directions from their starting point; what are the outer limits of what can be done in painting based on observation.

JS: Can you tell me something about what you see in Sangram's paintings?

SH: In as if... there is a figure bending forward looking through fabrics in a suitcase. It all takes place on something that resembles a creamy snow-covered futon. Intriguingly although the figure is boldly rendered in perspective with flowers in her hair, viewers often miss seeing the figure at first, just as in smoke and mirror, viewers often miss seeing the head of a woman who is holding the top of a turquoise colored coat rack as if she were assembling (or disassembling) it.

Sangram Majumdar as if, 2012 oil on linen, 66x72

So the viewer has to work a bit to figure out what is there. Even then it is ambiguous, an image of a woman in a mirror trying to connect the top section of a coat rack to the rest of that coat rack which is standing in front of the mirror. It is an impossible event, but on top of that, on the right side of the canvas, there is a yet more obscure indication of something that resembles a dark Indian wall painting. The way that delicate bright color drawing floats on the dark surface evokes for me, Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau.

Sagram Majundar, smoke and mirror, oil on linen, 84 x66 in, 2011

I see a strong interest on the part of young painters in the conversation that Sangram is having in painting and I think this is representative of a very interesting moment in painting that is happening now.

John Seed Interviews Sangram Majumdar

JS: Can you tell me about your early years in India?

SM: I started drawing at an early age (4-5) and was highly encouraged by my father and grandfather. I drew everything, from still lives, to copying paintings, to cricket and soccer (football) games and Hindu gods/goddesses that are a big part of Bengali cultural identity. Looking back what seems to be a common thread is my interest in complex spatial environments. More has always been 'more' for me.

JS: You came to the U.S. in 1990, along with your family, at the age of 13. Has this experience - of being born in India and coming here as an immigrant - affected your work as an artist?

SM: Everything filters into my work, the old and the new, and sometimes I pull on something that is specifically biographical while other times my work has really nothing overt about it. I am not someone who likes to localize himself to a specific historical/ethnic temperament, other than the existing banner of 'painting' which is complicated enough.

JS: Tell me a bit about how your interest in art emerged. What about important influences, mentors and experiences?

SM: My time at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) was highly influential, most specifically the painter Gerald Immonen. Gerald (Gerry) was my freshman year 2D design professor and someone who until last year when he passed away, was an amazing mentor and friend. We talked about painting non-stop and his ability to see, think, and talk deeply and thoughtfully continues to have a profound impact on my painting and teaching practice. In the most circuitous way, his interest in Asian art and early Renaissance painting led me to see the shared affinities and pictorial logic between them.

I live in Brooklyn and work in Baltimore, and feel lucky to have access to see some of the most amazing paintings ever made within an hour or two's notice. And based on past experiences, I am aware that artists/paintings that seem awkward or problematic to me initially are the ones that eventually win me over. Most recently I traveled through India studying architectural motifs and temple sculptures and I intend to return again for a more sustained visit.

Simultaneously I am drawn to periods within specific artists or in artforms when multiple influences are visible. The early formative works of DeKooning, the Matisse paintings from 1914-1917 and the moments when Persian, Deccan or European influences weave through Indian Painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, all of these are places I return to repeatedly.

I consider some of my favorite paintings to be my mentors, and I am amazed how they hold up to sustained looking and exploration.

JS: Have you always been committed to art that begins in observation? Can you say a few things about the evolution of your art?

SM: I have always been an image-based painter, regardless of the source, be it photography, working from life, or pure invention. Often the reason I start with something physical and actual is because it gives me something to fight against. There's an immediacy to the experience that gets actualized through paint. But I also work from photos, memory end maquettes. Over the last couple years, I have been doing a series of paintings that take everyday objects and 'cast' them in a theatrical manner in my studio - a place I often think of as a stage-set. Basically, I am open to all sources. Painting for me becomes a way to undo the logic, and create a space that is interstitial and ephemeral.

I have a voracious appetite for all types of art, including paintings, and in my own studio I tend to jump around a range of work. I try not to be programmatic in my search, and love to play with historical, visual, and thematic conventions in painting. So, I could have a painting in progress that is a studio 'fiction' while another that is done straight from life. In my most recent solo show there were paintings that could fall into a range of visual conventions - from portraits, to still lives, to studio interiors, and allegorical narratives and of all sizes. I like the idea of a visual 'echo' in my work, one where certain actual forms or objects reappear or are re-presented in different contexts. I am interested in spaces that break logic, but hold together nevertheless.

Recently, I have found myself returning to the still life genre, especially because historically it always got the raw deal, but also because it's an 'other' that can project hybrid spaces, and has the potential to play with pictorial conventions of the figure, landscape or pure abstraction. And working with found, 'nameable' forms against hand-altered and built forms simultaneously I enjoy the conversation it promotes between recognition and the strange.

JS: You have mentioned that your paintings are "conversations." Can you explain this?

SM: Going up to a painting is about starting a dialogue that is codependent on both the viewer and the viewed. Information is passed, ideas spring up, and feelings and memories of all types pass between the two, from the past to the immediate present, and in the best-case scenario they linger long afterward. There are a few paintings, art objects and spaces that I return to over and over again, often finding something new or surprising that I hadn't considered.

In the studio I work on multiple canvases and I am always looking at what a painting that might be 'hanging out' in the corner is saying to something that I am working on. I like indirectly running into an idea, and often I leave a painting around in my studio for months in between stages before I know what it needs. It's easy to always 'talk' and think that if I keep painting, it will work. But paintings do talk back, and it's important to listen.

On the other hand, my paintings often end as being a series of fragments parsed together from disparate sources, 'conversations overhead' so to speak. It's akin to how I felt when I first read Italo Calvino's novel, "If on a winter's night a traveler." In the book, the author and the reader are complicit in the experience of reading a book, a linear progression that keeps being interrupted with the reader searching for the book itself. As the book progresses, the story seems to shift as the reader realizes that there are multiple versions, translations, and possible authors. What I love about this experience is how the notion of the familiar, or 'real' keeps shifting and yet a narrative unfolds nonetheless, even if it isn't one that the reader expects.

JS: What keeps you committed to painting and how do you see yourself in a contemporary context?

I like Willem DeKooning's quote to Philip Guston about painting being about 'freedom' - freedom to directly go wherever the eye and the hand takes you, and also the freedom to carve out a narrative that is as personal as it is singular.

The phenomena of Facebook and Twitter, is in line with the exponential nature of how we are able to find information in any form, any time. For me, choosing to be a painter is an intentional decision to work on the other side of this streaming data- the slower and the tangibility of direct human experience. But apart from being anachronistic or foolhardy, I am curious as to how our understanding of our own immediate lives, when slowed to the measure of a heartbeat, compares to our daily intake of virtual experiences. What is real?

I also believe it's important to know what's going on around us. It's the same as reading the newspaper or watching the news. However I think it is equally important to know or constantly evaluate where one belongs in it and stake out one's position. I have always been interested in artists who worked against the grain or the popular strain, from Giorgio Morandi, to Alberto Giacometti, to Philip Guston.

I've been looking at R.B. Kitaj, an artist whose language and vocabulary is terribly expansive, to the point that he seems to embody multiple personalities and ways of seeing. Recently I saw a show of Magnus Plessen's paintings which I'm still mulling over in my head. Beyond that I'm fortunate enough to know a range of amazing painters who are directly addressing painting, imagery, and history. It's all a big confusing and glorious mess, and history is constantly being rewritten. What's great about being a painter is that we get to play with all of this everyday. How amazing is that?

Sangram Majundar, Night Tree, oil on linen, 28 x 32 in, 2011

Trailer for "The Black Spot" - Finishing the Gagosian/Hirst Spot Challenge

"The Black Spot" trailer (ENG) from Interzone Visions on Vimeo.

Arts Journalism in the Age of the HuffingtonPost

Kimberly Brooks: Artist and Founding Editor, Huffington Post Arts
Robert Pincus: Senior Grants and Arts Writer, The Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego
John Seed: Professor of Art, MSJC, and Arts Blogger for Huffington Post Arts

A Panel Discussion

March 29, 2012, 12:30 to 2PM
Mt. San Jacinto College, Menifee Valley Campus

Since its opening in June of 2010 the Huffington Post Arts section has become a leading source of information and commentary on the Visual Arts, Design, Theater and Architecture. The HuffingtonPost, which calls itself “The Internet Newspaper” employs a unique and controversial business model in which a large contingent of volunteer bloggers create content that compliments the reporting of a small nucleus of paid editors and reporters.

As traditional newspapers consolidate sections, reduce their staff and develop models to charge for web-based content, the Huffington Post model has demonstrated tremendous vitality. In the month December, 2011 the Huffington Post site, including international editions, logged over 1.2 billion page views and recorded 36.2 million unique visitors.

Please join panelists Kimberly Brooks, Robert Pincus and John Seed as they discuss the changes in arts journalism that have come about as traditional newspapers are challenged by the Huffington Post and other forms of internet journalism. Among the topics they will touch on: what happens to arts coverage when bloggers cover the arts rather than paid professional critics?

About the Panelists:

Kimberly Brooks is an American painter and Founding Arts Editor of the Huffington Post. When the Huffington Post was first launched, Brooks, as an artist, made it a part of her practice to write about her experience being an artist and to interview other artists. After eighty plus interviews and essays, Brooks convinced Arianna that the site needed its own Arts section so that other artists, along with curators, critics and laypeople could do the same. Her paintings are collected internationally and she maintains her studio in Venice, California.

Ms. Brooks will be participating in the panel via live internet broadcast.

Robert Pincus Ph.D., is the Senior Grants and Arts Writer at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. Pincus is an experienced arts journalist who served as the art critic for the San Diego Union Tribune for 25 years and also as a corresponding editor for Art in America. He is the author of a groundbreaking book on the major American artists Edward and Nancy Kienholz and has written essays for many books and exhibition catalogs. He has also taught as an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego for more than a decade.

Professor John Seed, of the Mt. San Jacinto College Art Department, has been blogging for Huffington Post Arts since its opening day and has published over 70 blog entries. Seed has also written about art and artists for magazines including Art Ltd, Harvard Magazine, and Honolulu.

All three panelists will be available to take questions from the audience.

Event Details:

Date: Thursday, March 29, 2012

Time: 12:30 to 2PM

Location: Mt. San Jacinto College, Menifee Campus, Room 927

28237 La Piedra Rd.

Menifee, CA 92584

Sponsored by MSJC Phi Theta Kappa

Admission is $2 with SGA sticker, $5 for members of the public

Tickets will be sold at the MSJC Bookstore beginning March 19th

50 tickets will be sold at the door on a first-come, first serve basis.

For more information: jseed@msjc.edu or call 951 639-5580