“True selves: Two SF art exhibitions raise questions about authenticity”
by Charles Desmarais
June 5, 2019
The concept of emotional or intellectual authenticity in art has little usefulness in our histrionic age. Ours is a time of artifice and our art is a hall of mirrors, forever referencing the referential.
That’s not a complaint, merely an observation. But when, as occasionally happens, a work of art appears to harbor, just below its surface of recognizable form, something wild and untamed by culture, what a charge we feel.
We can respond only viscerally. To name that core element is to control it and that, of course, will change it.
And so I am left to describe, but not even attempt to interpret, some of the 46 objects in an exhibition that runs through June 29 at the Minnesota Street Project. The show’s ungainly title is “CE x CG x NIAD,” a reference to the three organizations presenting the work of some of their top artists.
They are Creativity Explored, Creative Growth and NIAD (which stands for Nurturing Independence Through Artistic Development). All three were founded by the same enlightened couple, Florence and Elias Katz, between 1974 and 1984, and all have what they describe as “a common mission to serve and support artists with developmental and intellectual disabilities by providing professional studio space, exhibition opportunities, and representation.”
Don’t let the clinical language fool you. The three groups, which sometimes more succinctly and accurately call themselves simply art studios, have reframed the concept of professional artist. The artists they represent — all adults, all of whom work diligently to develop their independent voices, all of whom offer their works for sale — have had remarkable success.
The artists in the exhibition have built careers that many people with degrees from top art schools would envy. It seems likely that the show will sell out, with works that are priced from a hundred dollars to several thousand. Two of the artists, Dan Miller and Marlon Mullen, have been included in successive outings of the Whitney Biennial, the most prestigious group exhibition of contemporary art in the U.S. Mullen was also selected as one of three SECA Art Award recipients for 2019, which includes an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which will open in November.
Miller might be said to be the star of this exhibition. One of his works, a paper scroll that would be 12 feet high if the gallery ceiling allowed it to be completely unfurled, is the largest in the show. But it’s not the size alone, it is the work’s obsessive expressionism that draws us to it. The marks on the sheet are surely rooted in language, suggesting a painful logic. We can just make out repeated number and letter forms that move across the field in paragraphic structure, punctuated by a light bulb shape he has used in other works.
Across the room is a piece that also relies on an unconventional use of language. It is a small green painting by Danny Thach that takes the form of a turnpike exit marker. It is scrupulous in its dedication to the typography and design traditions favored by highway engineers. It directs us to a onetime TV star and a powerful political leader — one in motorcar comfort, the other along a presumably rougher road — via routes that would be known only to the artist without a sign.
William Scott has found a way to return to imagined prior eras in his life, painting idealized portraits of himself at the ages of 12 and 15 in the guise of Los Angeles Lakers basketball players.
Each work in the exhibition brings with it new surprise; each artist speaks in a unique language. Evelyn Reyes has spent most of her art career indulging and refining her penchant for a sort of rounded arrow shape that she calls “carrots,” painting them in different hues. Daniel Green pays highly personalized tribute to martyred civil rights leaders in “Malcolm X Born 1925 Assassination 1965 Gunshot. Martin Luther King Jr Born 1929 Assassination 1968 Gunshot” (2018), surrounding their images with what appears to be a diary packed with television and fight events.
Particularly moving is a video work by Susan Janow titled “Questions” (2018) that shows the artist, seated to face the camera and wearing a properly arty blazer and T-shirt. She stares ahead for several minutes, nonchalantly ignoring a barrage of questions about her personal life, her practice as an artist — about her future.
Smokescreen. If the exhibition at Minnesota Street gives one hope for the continuing power of authentic expression, the one at Gagosian Gallery wants to suck that faith right back out of you. Richard Prince’s “High Times” (through Aug. 23) is the opposite of all that is energetic in the first instance.
Cynicism has been a hallmark of Prince’s style of postmodernism since the days of the pictures that brought him to prominence, his appropriation of pictures of the Marlboro man. They were brilliant: By the act of removing the copy and logos from advertising, he constructed something new; by deflating the cowboy myth, he heightened our understanding of America and its history.
That was in the early 1980s and, since that time, Prince’s art has had its ups (the car hoods; the nurses) and downs (the Instagram paintings).
The current pictures steal their images from kids and their commercialist photo print techniques — these are paintings only in the most generous sense of that word — from his own past work. In a sadly obvious bit of co-branding, the series takes its name from the magazine High Times, which used a Prince drawing on its cover a couple of years back and will do so again in August. And that, in turn, was in the service of his newest venture, “Katz + Dogg,” a line of cannabis products that will feature, you guessed it, Prince’s art on the package.
It’s been the dream of many a pothead to make a bundle selling their slacker art, and now it’s legal to sell the weed to go with it. I suppose that’s a kind of authenticity, but not exactly what I meant.
CE x CG x NIAD: 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Through June 29. Free. Minnesota Street Project, Gallery 107, 1275 Minnesota St., S.F. 415-863-2108. www.creativityexplored.org
Richard Prince: High Times: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Through Aug. 23. Free. Gagosian, 657 Howard St., S.F. 415-546-3990. https://gagosian.com
Find the article online at datebook.sfchronicle.com.