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I'm a holistic kind of guy. I like whole milk, for example, and I usually hate television spinoffs. So when my eyes run into academic slang, words with slashes and parentheses inside them, I get the heebie-jeebies. It's like hearing about someone who had an operation and then discovered that the surgeon left a scalpel in his chest. That's how it is for me when I read words like "re/construct(ed)" or, in this case, "Potent/Present," the title of one of two current exhibits at the CCAC Institute.
You'd think that my handicap would keep me from reviewing most contemporary art shows, but I've worked out a little system that I'd like to share with other art lovers who secretly suffer from the same condition: I just ignore the slashes. And so I walked around the small, gloomy, but very comfortable top floor of the Institute gallery space browsing "Potent Present: Selections From the Vicki and Kent Logan Collection" without the slightest discomfort.
In fact, once I'd made my private little grammatical adjustment, I rather enjoyed myself. For starters, the CCAC Institute has free admission (the result of a $1.5 million gift to CCAC from Kent and Vicki Logan) and a quirky curatorial stance that allows it to exhibit precious art objects as well as design products almost right off the supermarket shelf.
The "Potent/Present" show, with 13 recently produced and recently acquired pieces on display, belongs to the former category. Yet what makes these works precious is not some coy decorative quality, but rather their subject matter: absence. Over half of the pieces are photographs and, as depictions of "somewhere else," they readily deliver the sense of loss the show's catalog promises.
Take, for instance, Rut Blees Luxemburg's nighttime photograph of footsteps on rain-soaked steps (1999). That's right -- just the footsteps. Or Mat Collishaw's The Awakening of Conscience, Emily (1997), which depicts 6 1/2 feet of dark forest and a young schoolgirl asleep amidst it. Is she dreaming the forest? Is she 'shrooming?
My favorite photo from the show is Zhang Huan's To Raise the Water Level in a Fish Pond (Distant) (1997), which captures 34 Chinese men standing in the middle of a pond in the city of Beijing. In this hazy landscape print, a band of grayish blue sky hangs over a distant, fuzzy tree line while an immense, eerily inviting pond of luminescent dark green water takes up the bottom three-quarters of the frame. It's in this gently rippling water that we see the tiny, scattered brown bodies of the men, all of whom are standing still, chest deep in the water, facing the camera. You wonder: What are they looking at? Well, at the photographer, for sure, but also at nothingness. They are all looking into the part of that landscape that we will never see, which, of course, happens to be where we stand as viewers and the location (not pictured) where the photographer stood in the first place. Ouch, my head hurts.
Luckily, for relief I found the cushy, cozy comfort of Oliver Herring's sculpture Castle (1994). It's a bed made of knitted, transparent mylar out of which has been carved the shape of a triangular winter coat. This shiny, squishy shrine to negative space made me want to lie down inside it as I would inside a snow angel. Confession: I wanted to eat the thing. I wondered if Kent Logan also got hungry when he saw and purchased the piece.
Kent Logan, a retired strategy partner with the investment banking firm of NationsBanc Montgomery Securities, began collecting contemporary art with his wife Vicki in 1993. Since then, the couple has purchased over 800 works of art, most of which are figurative and many of which have a social or political flavor. That's roughly one major art purchase every three days for seven years in a row.
But what's remarkable is not the quantity but rather that most, if not all, of these acquisitions are generally considered to be "museum quality" art, which is to say there's hardly a piece in the collection that some museum somewhere would be ashamed to take. And as it happens, in 1998 the Logans donated a good chunk of their collection to the SFMOMA along with $1.5 million in cash for the museum's endowment fund.
The current show, "Potent/Present," is the second annual showing of Logan Collection pieces, all of which are loaned to the Institute, which has promised one such exhibit every year. Two of the pieces on display have already been donated to the SFMOMA, which recently had a show of Logan Collection pieces in "Fact/Fiction," and will have another in June. In 2002, an entire floor of the SFMOMA will be given over to a show culled from the Logan Collection and, if history repeats itself, many of those works will again be donated to the museum.
This apparently happy marriage among two private collectors, two semipublic institutions, and a vast collection of art makes me wonder how it is that we plebeians figure into the contemporary art scene at all. Despite their political subtexts and often controversial social overtones, today's most sought-after artworks are also just capital for the art market and its constituency of competitive collectors, influential dealers, commercial galleries, and struggling museums. And while some artists do make a living from this market, the speculative cost of "hot pieces," like the cool works on display at the Institute, points to another story altogether -- a story about what tremendous wealth does to and for culture.
"Potent/Present," organized by Cristóbal Pérez, is on display through May 13 at the CCAC Institute for exhibitions and public programs, 1111 Eighth St. (at Hooper), S.F. Admission is free; call 551-9210.
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