Colour is fundamental to art practices. Even monochromatic images derive meaning and create an impact from the way tones are selected, applied and combined. But where do you start on such an expansive topic? McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, San Francisco, has struck a delicate balance with Color Code, diving into the collection and commissioning new work to celebrate how pigments are used to convey emotion, incite symbolism and connect people across place and time. In the show, Jackie Black’s photograph Last Meal of Charles William Bass, March 12, 1986 (2003) depicts a single sandwich on a small plate set against a stark black studio background. A strip of plastic-like cheese barely extends beyond the pale white bread, but it nonetheless reels in the viewer, contrasting with the other muted hues. The brightness conjures a surprisingly solemn feeling once viewers find out that the series is about people’s final food choices on death row. A similar yellow appears in Spencer Finch’s (b. 1962) Study for Back to Kansas (2014), an index of swatches from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy holds a bouquet of flowers after killing the Wicked Witch of the East. Here, the sunshine petals signify celebration rather than death. The juxtaposition is just one example demonstrating how associations made with palettes are always contingent, never universal. German-born Josef Albers (1888-1976) argued that colour is “the most relative medium in art” and that it “has innumerable faces or appearances.” To evidence this, the abstract artist placed various tones next to each other to see how they changed depending on context. Color Code serves a similar function, cataloguing some of the countless approaches used to evoke meaning from a spectrum of shades.
The McEvoy Foundation for the Arts has extended its fifth anniversary exhibition, titled “Color Code,” through Feb. 11. The group show explores how artists have used color and cultural associations with different hues in their work.
In addition to art from the McEvoy Family Collection by Etel Adnan, David Alekhuogie, William Eggleston, Marilyn Minter, Gordon Parks, David Benjamin Sherry and others, the four new commissions by Bay Area artists Sadie Barnette, Angela Hennessy, Clare Rojas and Zio Ziegler bring the show up to the moment.
The screening room program “Visible Light,” featuring short films investigating the relationship between light and color in the moving image, has also been extended.
Every December, we look back at all the exciting projects that went through our presses and highlight a handful that stood out. This year we printed over 2.6 million newspapers, so had plenty to choose from!
From a catalogue of punk ephemera to a 50th birthday broadsheet to a collection of stories from the Asian Canadian diaspora – here are 10 publications that show what a newspaper can be. We can’t wait to see what’s in store for 2023!
The here-there audio archive is a community arts project sharing experiences from the Asian Canadian diaspora. In June they hosted a pop-up ‘listening room’ exhibition at the Whippersnapper Gallery in Toronto – this digital broadsheet features transcripts of nineteen audio stories alongside illustrations by Brian Jiang, Thamara Perera, and Lilian Sim.
“The newspapers were distributed for free to encourage meaningful discussions around the topics of home and identity beyond the life of the exhibition,” say designers Michelle Kuan and Emi Takahashi. “The familiar format made our exhibition more accessible and allowed us to connect with people who wouldn’t normally engage with the arts.”
As part of the Charlotte International Arts Festival, creative agency Ronin House Studios organised an exhibition commemorating North Carolina’s once vibrant ‘Black Wall Street’ community known as Brooklyn. Designer Lorenzo Diggins created this digital tabloid to accompany the show, featuring rarely-seen archival imagery of former Brooklyn residents.
“What I like most about the newspaper format is how experiential it is,” says Lorenzo. “You’re more present when flipping through it. And from a designer’s perspective, I love how the size gives me so much more liberty with the layout.”
This zine was the free catalogue for Torn Apart, an exhibition of punk and new wave graphics shown at the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles this summer. It featured around 1,000 pieces of graphic design ephemera produced from 1976 to 1986, including posters, flyers, publications, clothing, stickers and buttons.
“The zine format was perfect for the fast, do-it-yourself aesthetic of punk” says designer Michael Worthington, who worked with Stephanie Lane Gage and Michelle Bac to create the digital mini zine. “We printed three different versions as each run got gobbled up really fast!” (The one shown here is printed on our salmon newsprint.)
Hip hip hooray for avid aerialist Anna, who turned fifty this year. Her pal Bob van Bekkum, a creative director, collected messages and photos from friends around the world for this special edition broadsheet all about her first half-century.
“A newspaper is such a tangible keepsake and sat well with Anna’s love of retro,” says Bob. “When she first received the stack of papers, it took a moment for Anna to realise it was all about her and not something generic about her birth year. It was quite emotional!”
“Making a newspaper was one of the most engaging and energizing parts of wedding planning,” says writer (and newlywed) Sarah Magnuson. Sarah and Ryan got married in October and used digital tabloid programmes to set the tone for their unconventional ceremony. Guests grabbed their copies from a bona fide newspaper dispenser, complete with custom Mags-Meyer Inquirer logo. On the first page was a letter from the ‘editor’ – Sarah and Ryan’s corgi, Rodeo.
“There’s so much you can do with the newspaper format,” says Sarah. “Having the creative license to include a Spotify playlist link, spreads of family photos and a crossword puzzle was ideal for our hyper-personalized wedding. I can’t tell you how big I smiled when the newspapers arrived!”
“The world’s most tasteful newspaper” is the slogan of Semaine’s newly launched print publication. Debuting with Norwegian singer Sigrid on the cover, the digital broadsheet will delve into the world of a different tastemaker each month.
“What we love about the newspaper format is that it feels like a companion as soon as you hold it,” says Semaine founder Michelle Lu. “You feel welcome to roll it up, put it under your arm, read it in bed. It encourages you to slow down and savor the ritual of reading.”
The Picaroon may look like a normal newspaper, but it’s actually filled with secret messages and clues as part of a puzzle pack from children’s magazine AQUILA. The escape room-style game puts kids’ pattern-spotting, codebreaking and lateral-thinking skills to the test as they race to save a space pirate from an intergalactic criminal gang.
“Our customers have really enjoyed looking for clues in the newspaper, but they also enjoy it as something to read in its own right,” says deputy editor Benita Estevez. Printed on our traditional tabloid.
Using all three of our newspaper sizes, designer Faride Mereb shares the life and work of Karmele Leizaola, the first woman to work as a graphic designer in Venezuela. Supported by a grant from 10×10 Photobooks, Faride studied Leizaola’s archive for over a year to produce a 3-part publication: the broadsheet opens up into a timeline and the tabloid and mini feature scans of Leizaola’s (rarely seen) work, organised by time period.
See how the newspapers come together in Faride’s flip-through video:
“Karmele Leizaola was a newspaper designer, so reproducing the work in this format was really important for me,” says Faride. “And given the current state in my home country of Venezuela – with government censorship and the military taking control over media – I wanted to vindicate the printed word.”
Faride is giving a lecture on the project next year and in the meantime the publication is being distributed to bookshops, galleries and archives (including the wonderful Herb Lubalin Study Center). She also recently held a solo show (alongside Sheryl Oppenheim’s ‘Book Related’ exhibition) in New York. “This is just the beginning,” says Faride.
The Fifth Edition is a one-off publication created by McEvoy Foundation for the Arts in San Francisco. The digital broadsheet, printed to celebrate the organisation’s fifth anniversary, features five original posters from the artists behind McEvoy Arts’ first five years of exhibition posters.
“The newspaper has given the Foundation a fun new platform to talk about their work, history and the artists in their community,” says Scott Thorpe of Macfadden and Thorpe, the creative agency that designed the newspaper. “It’s also putting in work as a promotional piece and attracting new audiences to check out the Foundation. People arrive at the gallery with The Fifth Edition already in hand and say the newspaper convinced them to come visit!”
Sydney McCourt produced this digital tabloid as part of her final major project for a Masters in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at UAL. Through a series of intimate portraits and interviews with 10 LGBTQ+ people over the age of 60, Sydney aimed to “create a picture of queer aging and contribute to the collective queer archive.”
“I pursued a personal search for queer elders, hoping to create that community for myself,” she explains. “I chose newsprint as a response to the history of queer people’s stories being left out of mainstream media. It’s an ongoing project, so I’m planning on this newspaper just being the first iteration of it.”
Autumn is a nice time to look at art. It’s quiet and contemplative, and we could all use a little time to ourselves between holidays — or maybe you’re desperate to entertain family. Whether you want to add a few stops to your itinerary for the upcoming free museum weekend or get a head start, here are four exhibitions to check out in The City right now.
The theme of the fifth anniversary exhibition at McEvoy Foundation for the Arts — artists working with color — is far from revolutionary, but it’s a forgivably broad excuse to include as many knockouts as possible. Iconic selections from the McEvoy Family Collection, including Wayne Thiebaud and William Eggleston, mingle with four newly commissioned works by Bay Area artists Sadie Barnett, Angela Hennessy, Clare Rojas and Zio Ziegler. Entries from both the old and new vanguards offer wide interpretations of the concept of color, from the aesthetic concerns of Donald Judd’s geometric sculptures or Rojas’s color field portraits, to social issues of race in Gordon Parks’s and Barnett’s documentary photographs. And both approaches offer visitors new ways of seeing. McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, 1150 25th St. Building B, S.F. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesday–Saturday, Free.
Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate
This double feature smorgasbord co-presented at Casemore Gallery and Rena Bransten Gallery, both housed inside Minnesota Street Project in the Dogpatch, offers more art than some museums do in their entirety. Showcasing work from both galleries’ stables as well as private collections, the exhibition, whose title is a callback to a phrase printed on the IBM punchcard of yesteryear, brings together over 20 artists pushing boundaries with analog techniques across photography, painting, sculpture and video. Highlights include one of David Hockney’s explosive Cubist photo collages, a pair of Raymond Saunders’ sculptural paintings on wooden doors and Daisuke Yokota’s photographic prints of chemically manipulated film. There’s a wise irreverence to the whole affair, reminding us that the rules of art need not be taken too seriously and that even rigorous experimentation can be a playful pursuit. Casemore Gallery and Rena Bransten Gallery at Minnesota Street Project, 1275 Minnesota St., S.F. 12-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, Free.
Mona Kuhn: Timeless
Mona Kuhn’s photographs, blurry and bright, feel like calling cards for a cult of beauty. Coinciding with the publication of her retrospective monograph, “Works” (Thames & Hudson, 2021), this exhibition presents a modest sampling from six series spanning the artist’s nearly three-decade career. Each series offers variations on Kuhn’s evergreen themes and techniques — soft focus, muted tones and nudes — which she developed shooting the residents of a French naturist colony and has expanded to include nature and architecture. The pictures in “Timeless” live up to the exhibition’s title: a modern take on classical principles of aesthetics. EUQINOM Gallery, 1295 Alabama St., 12-5 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, Free.
Nudes, skulls and botanical still lifes are about as painterly as art gets, but subject matter isn’t the only way Richard Learoyd blurs the line between painting and photography. For starters, he makes his pictures using a giant camera obscura, a room-sized camera originally utilized by ancient and classical painters and draftsmen to trace projections. Now, in his fifth solo show at Fraenkel Gallery, he’s taken to drawing on his photographs with string, whether incorporating string into the still lifes or exposing it on top of the photographic paper itself. The breathtaking triptych “Drawing with straight lines,” 2021, which shows an elephant skull at different angles, includes both varieties of string to the effect of an overlaid scientific sketch, exemplifying how Learoyd’s latest technique pushes his pictures past pure representation. Fraenkel Gallery, 49 Geary St., S.F. 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, Free.
Ragnar Kjartansson: The Visitors
When Ragnar Kjartansson’s “The Visitors” first showed at SFMOMA in 2017, I went every weekend of its six-month engagement and never failed to weep. Now, the Icelandic artist’s hour-long, nine-screen video installation is back. In the achingly simple piece, a band performs a folk ballad penned by Kjartansson’s ex-wife, each musician filmed separately in a different room of a rustic Hudson Valley house. “The Visitors” captures the ineffable power of music to unify people, through a feeling of yearning connection, as the isolated instrumentalists harmonize. Even Kjartansson, who can be seen on screen, strumming his guitar in the bathtub, is moved to tears. SFMOMA, 151 3rd St., 1–8 p.m. Thursday and 10 a,m.-5 p.m. Friday-Tuesday, Free-$30.
The Asian Art Museum, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art have announced the creation of the San Francisco Free Museum Weekend, which will feature 21 organizations over the weekend of Dec. 3 and 4.
The two-day event is being underwritten by anonymous donors so that no participating institution will have to suffer a financial loss.
“The San Francisco Free Museum Weekend couldn’t come at a better time,” said Jay Xu, the director and CEO of the Asian Art Museum. “As we re-emerge from the challenges of the past months, Bay Area museums are here to help our communities reconnect with each other and with the artists that inspire them.”
On Dec. 3, the institutions that will waive admission costs include the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s de Young Museum and Legion of Honor; Cartoon Art Museum; Museum of Craft and Design; the Walt Disney Family Museum; California Academy of Sciences; GLBT Historical Society Museum; American Bookbinders Museum: Letterform Archive; SF Camerawork; McEvoy Foundation for the Arts: Truhlsen-Marmor Museum of the Eye; Institute of Contemporary Art San Francisco and the Minnesota Street Project.
The next day, downtown museums with free admissions include the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Contemporary Jewish Museum; Museum of African Diaspora; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts; Children’s Creativity Museum ; Asian Art Museum; and Exploratorium. Special exhibitions on view that will also be free for museumgoers include retrospectives of painters Diego Rivera and Joan Brown at SFMOMA and a celebration of painter Bernice Bing at the Asian Art Museum.
Participants must reserve tickets at www.sffreemuseumweekend.com.
“In these economically challenging and politically divided times, museums provide a critical place of discourse, reflection and inspiration,” Thomas P. Campbell, director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, said in a statement. “Increasing access to art spaces and removing barriers to experiencing art is crucial.”
SFMOMA director Christopher Bedford called the initiative “a great testament to the vibrant, resilient and boundary-pushing arts community here” and told The Chronicle the museum is “grateful to join our peers in this communal celebration of the art, culture, and creativity that has long put San Francisco on the map.”
The free weekend comes as San Francisco’s visual arts scene has made several additions to its cultural cache, among them the opening of the new Institute of Contemporary Art in the Dogpatch neighborhood in October, the premiere of several major fall shows as well as the upcoming reveal of the Central Subway public art project.
It also comes at a time the city continues to deal with worldwide criticism about how it handles challenges of addiction, the unhoused on the streets and the overall slowdown in foot traffic downtown. In August, a New York Times article on the San Francisco art community said these issues had put the city’s museums and galleries into a decline.
San Francisco Free Museum Weekend organizers acknowledged “San Francisco is among the last American cities to show signs of recovery after the closures of the pandemic’s height” but added that they hope the event will mark “the reawakening and revitalization of a city that has long championed creativity, experimentation, and innovation.”
Color Code is an exceedingly complex and well-curated exhibition featuring works by 35 artists, almost all of whom bring a 21st-century perspective to the exploration and re-examination of color. In the words of exhibition curator Susan Miller, “Color shapes our moods, drives our behaviors and frames our humanity,” speaking to us “with clues and codes.” Scant attention is given to early 20th-century notions of color emphasizing optical mechanics, implying a universalist escape from hidebound cultural narratives. Instead, the emphasis rests on color as a signifier functioning as a wry proxy for the contestation of social space. Most of the works in Color Code were selected from the McEvoy Family Collection, with four more that were specially commissioned. Their interplays are subtle, provocative and delightful, marking a welcome deviation from other group exhibitions that often look like poorly considered flea markets.
One of the earliest works in the exhibition is an untypical piece by the high priest of color-for-the-sake of color, Josef Albers. It is not one of his famous Homage to the Square works, but a record album cover that he designed in 1960 for a musical ensemble called The Command All-Stars, graphically formulated as a dispersed cluster of subtly variated blue, black and gray circles. Two other works also functioned as album covers. One was Yves Klein’s Conference á la Sorbonne (1959), a monochrome field of blended cobalt and ultramarine blue. The other is an infrared photograph by Andee Nathanson from 1968 titled Christina Frka, the ghoulish image on Frank Zappa’s 1969 solo album Hot Rats.
The installation of Color Code sets up interesting dialogs between individual works. For example, Donald Judd’s Untitled piece from 1987 pairs well with Carol Bove’s 2016 Obsidian Mirror. Both feature material juxtapositions of hard and soft components, with Judd’s work advancing a brittle geometry that contrasts with the biomorphic grace of Bove’s sculpture. Both find a kindred spirit in Katherina Fritsch’s Golden Ball (1999), a small sphere covered with multiple layers of translucent gold paint intimating internal illumination. Etel Adnan’s Untitled work from 2013 also glows by juxtaposing a lush field of rust orange against facets of sky blue, demonstrating how a small painting can command more space than its amalgamation of materials might otherwise suggest.
Another shrewd bit of visual dialog appears in the relationship between Wayne Thiebaud’s Lipsticks (1964) and a choice untitled painting on paper by Richard Diebenkorn from 1987. Diebenkorn created it near the end of his longstanding Ocean Park series, this time with visibly different layers of colored gouache that seem to bleed through and break out from a compositional structure that appears to be collapsing.
Thiebaud’s painting is a straightforward still-life depicting metallic lipstick canisters lined up in rigid formation, sporting hues that sardonically approximate a conventional painter’s palate. Exaggerated cosmetic artifice can also be seen in Marilyn Minter’s Spyder (2006), a hyper-baroque chromogenic print based on one of the artist’s well-known paintings showing a bedazzled eyelash, emphasizing the saccharine attributes of glamour and femininity.
Works by Petra Cortright and James Welling activate the machinations of the digital toolbox to create spectacular images drenched in iridescent color. In the case of Welling’s 0075 (2006), a multi-generational image starts from interior photographs of Phillip Johnson’s Glass House in Connecticut, capturing and exaggerating the interplay of light refractions. Cortright’s KRNKNKSSNBTRGVRGLCH (2015) cuts, juggles, pastes and transforms a plentitude of found image fragments into a chromatic whirlwind.
Many works included in Color Coded are photographs, some vintage and others contemporary, all well-chosen. Gordon Parks’ Department Store, Mobile, Alabama (1956) sets the tone for the entire exhibition. It shows an African-American Woman and her young daughter standing outside a store in late afternoon light, both dressed as if they had come from a church service, seemingly oblivious to the red neon sign above their heads stating Colored Entrance. Bruce Davidson’s color photo, Untitled Subway (1980), shows a woman clad in a bright red dress standing in the enigmatic shadow of an outer-borough New York subway stop. Andreas Gursky, represented by a very early work from 1980 titled Gas Cooker, takes a down-market kitchen stove as its subject, surrounded by white walls to make it appear as an archeological specimen. A headshot by Isaac Julian, Emerald Portrait (Playtime) (2014), uses a photographic process called Ultra Endura to capture the calm, reassuring face of a woman set against a desert background, intimating the presence of Buddhist deities such as Guanyin or Amida.
The four largest works in Color Code, each commissioned for the exhibition, summarizes the show’s overarching premise. Works by Sadie Barnette and Angela Hennessy show skewed family trees formulated from clusters of related components. Barnette’s Family Tree II is a dispersed display of about 25 framed works: photographs, collages and typographical fantasies dealing with domestic pragmatism. They add up to something akin to a decorated scrapbook commemorating the trials, tribulations and personal triumphs of an extended post-racial, post-gender community living in a large house in Oakland. Hennessy’s nine-part work, The Crew (2022), consists of an array of circular forms adorned with configurations of synthetic hair to which the artist added black enamel and gold leaf, intimating a tale of fetishized black bodies and stolen precious resources.
Commissioned works include three paintings by Claire Rojas, all frontal portraits of the same impassive face articulated in a cartoonish style. The largest of this trio has the face split into two vertical halves, while the other two display the lower part of the face covered by broad swaths of color, topped by cryptic indications of facial features that may or may not belong to the faces pictured. Zio Ziegler’s commission, The One-Eyed Man (2022), made from colored inks and gouache, is the exhibition’s show-stopper: an undulating phantasmagoria of color and pattern whose cascades of visual incident lead the viewer’s eye through a hyperarticulated virtual space keynoted by abrupt jumps in scale.
This summer has been defined by record heat around the world due to climate change, with global communities facing floods, fires, famine and pestilence. In the United States, July was the third hottest on record.
What will happen to the planet if we don’t intervene in the climate crisis as soon as yesterday? How can we adapt as a species to our changing, damaged environment? What would a non-human-centered approach to living on Earth look like, one that put the Earth first?
These are the questions at the heart of “MYR,” an exhibition on view at McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, featuring 25 sculptures, textiles, photographs and videos by six artists from around the world. The show’s cryptic title is a bit of jargon borrowed from Earth science and astrology meaning one million years. Here, that unit of measurement is a reference to “deep time,” the scale of geological events unimaginable by human standards. Human configurations of time, and humanity writ large, as the show does well to point out, are a relatively recent phenomenon. But are they also fleeting, doomed to disappear?
Many of the works on view propose solutions that decenter humanoids in an attempt to move away from the negative impacts of the Anthropocene (the current geological age during which human activity has dominated). Miriam Simun’s wall vinyl “Training Transhumanism (I WANT TO BECOME A CEPHALOPOD),” 2022, is an instructional graphic for exercises meant to train new sensitivities and capabilities in the human body, based on the cephalopod, including shape-shifting, camouflage and distributed intelligence. Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg’s “The Wilding of Mars,” 2019, is a four-channel video simulation of the growth of a wilderness of Earth lifeforms on Mars.
Other artworks are more poetic meditations on the big picture. Katie Paterson’s “Ideas,” 2016, is a series of six small, waterjet-cut sterling silver phrases dotted throughout the gallery, such as “The scent of rain left on the moon” and “The speed of light slowed to absolute stillness.” Their placement at random intervals reads like a voice responding to or contemplating the other pieces in the gallery. Paterson’s “To Burn, Forest, Fire,” 2021, is a repurposed stick of incense, presupposing the day when the scent of trees is a rarity as well as insinuating the reason for their disappearance.
“MYR” gave me a surge of anxiety. In that respect, the exhibition was probably a healthy kick in the pants: It can’t hurt to be reminded how dire the global warming situation is. But can it really help? I’ve seen plenty of art about climate change and it usually affects me as a form of activism, but rarely moves me as art.
“The vastness of geologic time stretching backwards remains an abstract truth,” writes the exhibition’s curator Elizabeth Thomas, “while its reach into the future is increasingly apocalyptic as humans confront the climate crisis. To imagine the millions of years behind us, we must also imagine the millions that might pass after us, on earth and throughout the universe.”
I agree with Thomas on the necessity of considering the impact of our actions on the future. But it doesn’t necessarily make for good art.
The most conceptually compelling piece in the show is Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s “Lovesick,” 2019, a multimedia piece incorporating video, sound, sculpture and a custom-made retrovirus that increases the infected individual’s Oxytocin production, literally making them sick with love. An audio component of the piece proposes the virus as “a cure for the coming alienation” resulting from the escalating climate crisis. But alienation isn’t a thing of the future. And neither is the cure.
Art, for me, functions as an antidote for alienation. It gives me the feeling that someone has been here before, that someone else has passed through whatever difficulty I am experiencing in the present and lived to tell of it, or that they have glimpsed a more beautiful vision of life and are offering it to me as a tool for my own survival. In other words, art is about a kind of communion. It is someone from the past reaching out a hand to me in the present. When we relate this way, we have no use for the future.
It is for policy makers and multinational corporations to solve the issues of climate change, for which they are largely responsible, while each of us chip in at the individual level. But it isn’t the job of artists to solve the world’s problems. And that is not to diminish what art can do. What art can do is of much greater value in an immediate sense. Because art can improve life and create connections between people in their fraught experiences of alienation.
Part of my discomfort viewing “MYR” comes from my genuine concern around the climate crisis. If the work in the exhibition offers me any sort of consolation, it’s in knowing that others are anxious about the future as well, and equally uncertain how to proceed. But that shared anxiety doesn’t get me very far and it doesn’t give me a rewarding art experience. Just like my best experiences with art, the future can be altered only by acting in the present.
Aspirational cephalopods, verdant curtains, a custom-made love virus—all poking holes in the paradigm of human exceptionalism
For thousands of years, humans have been hardwired to believe that we are the center of the universe. The Book of Genesis gave man “dominion” over all other beings on earth—and this anthropocentric (or human-centric) view was propelled by Greco-Roman philosophers like Protagoras and Cicero as well as Renaissance-era creators like Petrarch and da Vinci.
The way in which many people live their lives today—treating the planet like it’s theirs to destroy—is evidence that they still (consciously or unconsciously) assume this “truth” to be self-evident.
The MYR multimedia exhibition (at McEvoy Foundation for the Arts through Aug. 27) uses immersive works based on science, technology, and speculative fiction to poke holes in this paradigm of human exceptionalism and remind us that we are, in fact, blips in the universe who may not make it much further if we continue to destroy the world around us.
Curated by Elizabeth Thomas, the exhibit includes a number of provocative pieces exploring the damage wrought since the Anthropocene epoch, when human activity became the dominant influence on climate and the environment.
SF’s Amy Belkin’s photographic collection “A People’s Archive of Sinking and Melting,” memorializing random items from places around the globe in danger of disappearing due to climate change, and Oakland-based Rhonda Holberton’s “Displaced Holes” sculptures, made from castings of holes she dug at still-contaminated former nuclear manufacturing sites, point to some of the devastating ways we’ve impacted the planet.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Works like Candice Lin’s “Verdant Curtain” tapestries, depicting scenes of abundant plants and animals thriving in the absence of human interference, and Miriam Simun’s video work “I Want to Become a Cephalopod,” invoking the octopus as an ecological model for being a better, more adaptive creature in nature, offer hope for a brighter future if we can only get out of our own way.
If all else fails, there’s Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s “Lovesick,” an encased collection of 10 glass vials containing a custom-made oxytocin-spreading retrovirus that if digested might make us better nature lovers.
Complementing the MYR exhibition are six short films about such topics as creating interspecies affinities and the pernicious forces that led to our ecological instability (running concurrently in the gallery’s Screening Room) as well as a related program series focusing on achieving greater environmental balance.Sponsored linkHelp us save local journalism!Every tax-deductible donation helps us grow to cover the issues that mean the most to our community. Become a 48 Hills Hero and support the only daily progressive news source in the Bay Area.Learn more
I spoke to Thomas, a Bay Area-based independent curator and writer and a Senior Lecturer in Curatorial Practice at California College of the Arts, San Francisco, about the inspiration behind the show, maintaining a balance between gravity and playfulness in the exhibit, and what she hopes viewers walk away with.
48 HILLS Why name the exhibit after “a unit of measurement equaling a million years”?
ELIZABETH THOMAS The title came about in the early stages of the show. I was reading a book called Mindfulness that talked about time illiteracy—that most of us don’t have an understanding of time into the past and potentially into a future without us on Earth. So I thought it was interesting to think about the unit of measurement of a million years as opposed to the way we think about centuries as a way to reframe and rethink our place and scale ourselves appropriately.
And then the show kind of came to be more about centering us not just in time but also in relation to the complexity of all these other things around us. All this stuff in the popular consciousness about octopus intelligence and the microbiome in our stomach affecting our moods seem to be converging to tell us in different ways that we don’t understand anything yet about how the world works and what we need to be doing in it to live better for ourselves and the planet. And so across all these different areas, we keep learning things about how complex nature and the systems that surround us are, and even ourselves. Humankind was in the past all those things.
So the title, MYR, was just a gesture to this idea of reframing our consciousness about ourselves and our place in the universe.
48 HILLS We live in a world where many still doubt climate change. With that in mind, why was it important to incorporate pieces that meld scientific fact with speculative fiction in the exhibit?
ELIZABETH THOMAS For lots of people, talking about science fiction is the way we get to imagine a possible future. There’s a lot of apocalyptic speculative fiction out there about climate collapse and climate disaster and, of course, post-apocalypse. What I was interested in was some of the artists who play with fiction and imagination. Like Heather’s piece, which becomes a bit of fiction, is based on the science of a virus that she made.
We need to understand the realities, but we also need to understand it’s not too late and that there are people that help us think forward either through fact or a melding of the two. I didn’t want to put anyone in the show that was totally fictitious. So all of them are based on some understanding of science or the projection of science. Yet, some of it seems so impossible—even when it’s real.
48 HILLS Climate change is a very heavy topic. How did you maintain a balance within the exhibit between art that depresses and art that enlightens and delights viewers?
ELIZABETH THOMAS I thought about whether we should make the screening room a much more straight-up documentary space because I felt a little guilty not focusing on the urgency of the present moment.
But then I felt like we are getting that from other places, and that’s probably not what art is best at. It’s better at putting forward some ways of reframing how we think about things.
So for the “I Want to Become a Cephalopod” project, it seems kind of kooky to learn to move like an octopus or to think about the octopus as a paragon of thinking forward about how we might adapt. But then you look into it and realize that there are all kinds of things about how we use our bodies or how we think about what a group consciousness is that are pretty relevant. And the mechanism for which you do that is a somatic movement exercise, which can seem sort of absurd but is also a way of getting you to think in a broader sense that maybe we don’t always have to look to the technology of the future and to digital and machine things to think about how we might adapt.
But there are things to be learned by looking backward or to the side, like a lot of the indigenous practices like selective burning that have been done for a long time to control forest fires. We realize that there’s wisdom in these things that we may have discounted as being naive as opposed to that western industrial capitalist monster of progress.
In the show, even with Heather’s piece, my fantasy would be that virus that increases feelings of love could get broken in the Supreme Court offices.Or people who need it would get it. It’s the idea that maybe we just need to change ourselves because we are flawed in our construction. There’s a bit of playfulness in it because I don’twant the show to feel depressing.
48 HILLS What do you hope people take away from the exhibit?
ELIZABETH THOMASThings are happening all around us that are showing us that we as humans are not as exceptional as we thought, especially industrialized humans who have built machines and industrialized agriculture to feel apart from all of these things in nature in order to feel our superiority.
Most of the people going in there are probably going to have some feeling that that’s wrong on some level, but maybe not realize the degree to which it’s embedded in kind of everything we do and think. So just really opening up a sense of space for contemplating this reality of time and what our relationship is to the universe around us on Earth and potentially outside of it. And even contemplating the idea that humans might not exist, like all of these things are possibilities in the future. None of it is scripted yet, and I think part of the message is it’s not over. There are things we can do and ways we can change.
It’s funny because there’s no tagline for the show, but it’s a simple idea at its core: Here are different ways people can help us see these things about the world. It is about helping us reframe the way we imagine ourselves on Earth and our relationship to everything. It’s populist at its heart because they all hit at things that are relatable to us—to all of us living.
On Aug. 6, the electronic synthesizer duo Red Culebra will be at the McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, which currently has the exhibition MYR asking people to consider the millions of years before — and to come after — humanity’s time on earth. Red Culebra’s experimental music composition Let Us Speak Frog responds to the “Holocene extinction — the ongoing extinction event caused by human activity.” They will draw on Indigenous storytelling to sonically transform themselves into mythical creatures and attempt to apologize for human destruction. Along with Cristóbal Martínez and Guillermo Galindo, who make up Red Culebra, there will be two dancers who will use interactive technology to control projected animations.
Red Culebra, founded in San Francisco, has performed throughout the Bay Area at venues including San Francisco Art Institute, The Lab, BAMPFA, and Southern Exposure. Their website states, “Inspired by their complicated post-Mexican backgrounds, Galindo and Martínez create and perform rituals based on cycles of repetition and uniformity.”
Both artists recently had their work acquired by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Along with their own projects, Galindo teaches at California College of the Arts and Martínez, formerly, at San Francisco Art Institute. In a video interview, they talk about transforming sonically into flying snakes, having a reciprocal relationship with nature rather than exploiting nature, and how the dancers will use video game controllers to operate the animation in Let Us Speak Frog.
How is the performance related to Indigenous storytelling?
Martínez: Whenever we make a work, we think about it within the context of experimental music and contemporary art, so we create a lot of performance art. The performance art is strongly influenced by a philosophy of Guillermo’s that is tied to the Americas and the relationship between Mexico and the United States and very much figures into my background and my upbringing, because Guillermo oftentimes will identify himself as a post-Mexican artist. In many ways, I’m also a post-Mexican artist because the border crossed over my family. My great-grandfather was born in the Republic of Mexico before the border had crossed. Looking at [his] birth certificate, he wasn’t born in the U.S. He was born in [what was then a part of] Mexico, which is now North Central New Mexico in the United States.
A lot of the work that we do comes from our Indigenous Latinx backgrounds, the people that we’re from. A lot of times in the Latinx world [Martínez uses the gender-neutral term for people of Latin American origin or descent], our stories are framed within the colonial context as folkloric. But that’s part of the decolonization of Indigenous knowledge, that these are not “folkloric” but coming from … the spirit of the storytelling [and] the Indigenous people that we are and that we’re from. I think that’s an important distinction to make because it brings borderlands context to that conversation, which is related to, but also varies from, the American Indian context.
On your website it says you create and perform rituals based on cycles of repetition and uniformity. What does that mean to you?
Galindo: It’s very important what repetition means in music. Especially in terms of the idea of linear time against circular time — the Western idea of linear time as a phenomenon, as opposed to circular time that is the way of consuming time that exists in the rest of the world. Both have their advantages, and both are very important concepts of time.
If you go to the latest minimalist movement, starting with Erik Satie and ending with Terry Riley, you can see that repetition is a very important element, borrowed from the idea of experiencing the moment, as opposed to creating these moments and resolving the dissonance in a linear way. It’s not only the idea of experience but the idea of an organic process to bring a feeling of stasis, or of spirituality, or of magic, into the place. It’s the same feeling that we get in the narratives of Native Americans, that it’s not only a story, but it brings you into a spiritual realm, in which you connect with things by changing the perception of time.
Martínez: The tendency to make this kind of work comes from where we were raised and how we were raised, where we grew up. I grew up in North Central New Mexico. … Part of the cyclical nature of life [there], and then living along the Upper Rio Grande and being a part of an agrarian society, is that there are protocols and ceremonies for keeping time, for managing water, and for tending to crops. So, it’s very ceremonial, and there’s a lot of repetition associated with that because it’s a cycle. … It’s a set of gears and wheels that are moving round and round. … That’s very much a worldview. … Guillermo and I, we operate that way and not because we choose to but because that’s who we are. That’s how we were raised.
On your website you have something about denying the public the opportunity to fetishize ceremony. Would you talk about that?
Martínez: One of the things that we see a lot in popular culture is a misrepresentation of Indigenous people, and that misrepresentation is usually in the American imaginary … in ways that are false and damaging. Our work is not to perpetuate these colonial traditions and not to entertain audiences, [especially] when most of the commissioning organizations are run largely by boards that don’t really have a large representation of people of color.
We try to create art that requires our audience to have to work so that the experience is participatory and that there is a real tangible protocol communicated that is tied around reciprocity. That’s the idea that listening is just as much a gift as it is receiving because the kind of deep listening that Red Culebra requires is … exhausting. You know, you may have to shift in your seat a couple of times, because the purpose of the work is to engage collectively, audience and performers together as a gathering for the purposes of seeing something, learning something, experiencing something in embodying something together. That’s the difference, as opposed to the idea that you’ll be entertained by a notion of the noble savage. You’re going to go through a rigorous ordeal with Red Culebra because we are going to collectively do the work of making meaning together.
Galindo: I agree with everything [Cristóbal] says. I’ve seen the work of James Luna, who was one of our heroes. He passed away a couple of years ago, but his performances show very clearly how the Indigenous culture is fetishized. He used to go to Fisherman’s Wharf dressed as a Native American with feathers and put up a sign that said, “Take a photograph with an authentic Indian.”
It seems like you’re selective about where you play. What drew you to the McEvoy and MYR?
Martínez: Well, the opportunity was presented to us by curator, Elizabeth Thomas. Liz has always been such a great friend. She approached Guillermo and me on the current exhibition … and I told her the story of Red Culebra’s Let Us Speak Frog, and it’s just the perfect puzzle piece. We got to meet with the director at McEvoy and her crew, and it quickly became apparent to us that this was an excellent organization to get to build a relationship with and work with because they were going to really support our project, and they were going to put resources into it so we could realize a larger-scale version of it.
Could you talk about the performance? There’s flying snakes and dancing and animation — it sounds pretty intense.
Galindo: I have been working with Christoph Steger, who’s [an assistant professor] of animation at CCA. He’s done wonderful work in the past, and he’s a very talented animator, and he and Cristóbal have a very beautiful way to make this possible with sensors. … What we have is the dancers activating the animation as puppeteers.
Martínez: That’s right. What the performance is comprised of is contemporary dance, experimental electronic music, and live, interactive video. As a way of expressing the score that we’ve written, we transform ourselves into flying snakes, during which time we visit many imagined ecologies around the world. It’s an attempt to speak to frogs in various environments, not to apologize on behalf of humanity but to apologize personally for having disrupted their health and the wellness of their lives in their natural environments.
There are dancers who are moving and using a hacked video-game device that allows them to control strings, and they become these puppeteers. What they’re doing is they’re influencing digital characters that are being projected on a video screen. … They’re using this game controller. [Holds it up.] The controller used to be sold in the ’90s for Sony PlayStation, and this used to be part of an old golf game. But what happens is you’ll see these joysticks, and if I pull on it, I pull this string out. … I’m really, really glad that you’re laughing or giggling because that’s the idea — to create that kind of laughter, that humor, that curiosity, and that sense of wonderment around a beautiful story that is full of our humanity and that is full of love, while at the same time also full of heartbreak and challenges and difficulties.
Galindo: We’re not only snakes. We’re coyotes and also clowns.
And why snakes?
Martínez: We chose snakes because it’s a sacred deity where we’re from. The idea of a flying snake is common in many Indigenous cultures, but in Mexican culture and borderlands culture, the snake Quetzalcoatl is a creator god. … It is a very important idea in Mexican culture. … So, we decided to use this idea as the method to travel, to also bring ourselves to the level of earth. You know, not to reach for the sky but to lower ourselves closer to the earth, since a snake has to move on its belly. … We’re closer to the earth, and yet at the same time, we’re flying and we’re in the sky.
With the exhibit that’s at the McEvoy now, MYR, the curator wrote that she wants to make earth the protagonist in the show and decenter humanity. That seems like something you’re interested in doing as well.
Martínez: I think that’s fair. The decentering of humanity, at least the way that that plays out as a narrative and a symbol within our score, that’s a very painful process. That’s something we struggle to achieve. We can’t get outside our own humanity, and we seem to struggle to even reimagine it. We are struggling to make the shifts that we need in order to leave behind a more desirable future for our children and our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren.
There’s something that is ritualistic and that we see as beautiful that our audiences may see as grisly in the story behind the work, which is that to become flying snakes, Guillermo and I have to amputate our limbs to crawl on our bellies on the ground. And this is the vision of our ritual. It’s referencing the struggle, the pain, the level of sacrifice [required] to transform oneself. So, it’s about trying to leave these notions of humanity behind that are not working, that are not sustainable. In that way, the earth very much becomes the protagonist because life on earth is the priority here, and not necessarily our humanity. Our concept of humanity is failing us.
Galindo: I would like to bring in the concept of what we call the “nagual.” Nagualism is a shamanic practice in which the sacred being either talks through the spirit of the animal or transforms into a given animal. This is found in many Native American and pre-Columbian cultures and Indigenous communities from Mexico where I grew up. This is how we find our natural identity in order to establish a reciprocal connection with plants, animals, natural phenomena, and the environment in general. In many Native American cultures, such as the Crow people from Montana, the Cherokee of Tennessee, and the North Carolina hunters, it is a common belief that mothers learn lullabies from animals. There is a unique song for everybody, a song that is usually revealed directly either during a walk in the forest or a dream.
Through centuries of colonialism, we forgot that nature is part of us, and we established a one-way relationship with nature. That is basically what has devastated, among other things, the frog population. … Seeing everything outside of ourselves as exploitable commodities has brought us to where we are now. We have forgotten that nature is us and that we all are nature itself.
Asimulation of Mars millennia from now, verdant but utterly devoid of human inhabitants.
A set of ten glass vials, each filled with a custom retrovirus that spurs the production of oxytocin in the human body.
A pair of sticks of incense — one imbued with the scent of Earth’s first forest, and one with the scent of what may be its last.
At MYR, a new art exhibition currently on view at the McEvoy Foundation for the Arts in San Francisco from May 27–Aug 27, 02022, these works of art — and more — are on display. On their own, each piece is an intriguing and often visually striking conceptual work. Taken as a whole, the exhibition coheres as a thought-provoking exploration of the human experience in the face of the vastness of deep time.
The exhibition, curated by Bay Area writer and lecturer Elizabeth Thomas, takes its name from the worlds of astronomy and geology, where it is a commonly used abbreviation for a span of one million years. Yet it also subtly evokes the idea of the myriad — a word that originally came from the ancient Greek term for ten-thousand, but has since come to mean an uncountably large and diverse set of things. The ideas and artforms on display at MYR capture this feeling of overwhelming diversity; rather than take a certain position on what the far future may hold, the exhibition seems to occupy a sort quantum superposition, showcasing a kaleidoscopic view of deep time that most of all emphasizes its unknowability.
In her curator’s statement, Thomas notes that the artwork in the exhibition can “help us to decenter the human and imagine ourselves as a part of the world around us rather than apart from it.” The most affecting works in MYR, though, are not anti-humanistic in a traditionally misanthropic sense. Instead, they take a stance of appreciating humanity despite our seeming insignificance among the grandness of deep time.
Consider Rhonda Holberton’s Displaced Hole series, impressions of blast marks from nuclear testing and manufacturing sites cast in plaster and Polyurethane foam. Holberton’s work considers both the extremely long lives of some radioactive isotopes — uranium’s 700 myr half-life makes it comparatively transient in the face of some of its more stable cousins — and the impact that human industries of energy and war have on the landscape in the nearer term. The sites she collected her casts from had in many cases been reclaimed by nature since their use as centers of manufacturing in the 01940s and 01950s, a testament to both the depth of our impact on the landscape and how even shorter lengths of time can wash that impact away.
The exhibition’s set of physical works is accompanied by a series of short films screening on loop, each one further toying with the human experience of time. Finnish artist Jenna Sutela’s Holobiont explores the worlds of extremophilic bacteria and space travel, using visceral imagery of natto, a Japanese fermented soybean delicacy, juxtaposed with the clean rooms and purification facilities used by the European Space Agency’s Planetary Protection quarantine systems. It’s an almost overwhelming film, going from the cosmic to the gastric in just ten minutes. Other films in the exhibition explore cephalapods as a possible direction in human evolution and the ways in which plastics have pervaded the “interconnected network of fluids flowing through all land-based organisms.”
Yet despite all of the sweeping, high-concept pieces in the exhibition, some of the most inspired works in the gallery may be the simplest. MYR includes a number of pieces by Scottish artist Katie Patterson, who previously has cataloged dead stars, captured the sound of melting glaciers, and begun a library project where the books will not be readable for a hundred years after they are written. Patterson’s pieces in MYR, though, are more direct: a series of metal plates scattered throughout the gallery, subtle enough that you might miss them at first glance. Each piece in the Ideas series consists of a single, thought-provoking statement — The speed of light slowed to absolute stillness or The universe rewound and played back in real time, for example. Taken together with the more visually arresting works in the gallery, these pieces turn MYR into not just a collection of art but a place for contemplation, a way to internalize those worlds of deep time that can otherwise be so hard to grasp.
MYR is showing at the McEvoy Foundation for the Arts in San Francisco from May 27–Aug 27, 2022. Admission is free. For more information, see their website.