You never go into an art gallery to read. Of course you don’t. The gaze comes first. The visual is everything. But the visual without the visceral amounts to nothing. And whether it’s wall text, a catalogue, or some other format, the written word can push an exhibit into a special visceral stratosphere.
So it is with two new San Francisco art exhibits. One is from William T. Wiley, the Bay Area’s rascally octogenarian, who nearly always puts puns, quips, poems, or even full stories onto his visual art. The other is by Kour Pour, a 30-something artist in Los Angeles who, besides showing a cascade of new paintings, is handing out published copies of a scathing (and very funny) critique that eviscerates MOMA director Glenn D. Lowry and the New York institution’s 2012 publication, Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925: How a Radical Idea Changed Modern Art.
Pour’s critique is oh-so postmodern — a damning but “spot-on” assessment (as they say in Pour’s native England) of the jingoism and implicit navel-ism that U.S. museums once trafficked in and sometimes still do. In some 40 pages that he first published in 2017, Pour replicates almost the exact publication of Inventing Abstraction but uses yellow highlights, red handwriting, and red arrows to point out what he says are MOMA’s blatant misrepresentations of art history. Pour argues that MOMA’s book ignores artists who thrived in India and other parts of the non-Western world, downplays the influential art that emerged from Muslim countries, and inadequately details the give-and-take that happens between artists from different cultures. Pour is himself an example of this cross-cultural, hybridized existence, a product of Iranian and British descent who lives in the United States and explores art forms from other countries. And Pour’s art draws from all his major interests, including Japanese Ukiyo-e prints that originated centuries ago in Edo, then the capital.
“It anchors a lot of my thinking around painting,” Pour tells SF Weekly of his publication. “It’s a direct critique about how art is talked about, especially abstraction. The plan is to, one day, go through the whole book and keep adding to it.”
Pour’s exhibit at Ever Gold [Projects], called “Manzareh/Keshiki/Landscape,” is an exhibit of patterns — and patterns of influence. On one wall are a series of new works that resemble Persian carpets. One work, Foreign Traveler, might as well be a brand-new carpet with its intricate floral patterns and panoramic scenes of turbaned men on horses. But look closely, and Foreign Traveler is faded in spots. And it’s paired with two works called History Painting (Fragment) that look like outsized segments of carpets — but have more obviously faded spots. Like Warhol’s paintings of Marilyn and Mao that repeat their faces in different colors and shades, Pour’s carpet paintings play with expectations and the idea of memory. The old becomes new.
But “the old” was never a fixed pattern, Pour says. “Traditions” always borrowed from other traditions, and Pour’s homage to Japanese Ukiyo-e prints, with his new block-printing works like Chopped & Screwed (Kuniyashi), are also an homage to the influence of Ukiyo-e prints on European Impressionists. Pour created his new works using traditional Ukiyo-e block printing, but his art is at a much larger scale. It’s messy, time-consuming work, with inks that have to be monitored, replaced, and waited on.
“I don’t think of my work as ‘identity artwork,’ ” Pour says. “The friends I’ve made [in Los Angeles] are all from other places or have these different cultural backgrounds, but even though our identities may be different, our races may be different, and the languages we speak might be different, we’re all connected in this way of experience. It’s the experience of moving between cultures.
“I grew up with Persian carpets,” Pour adds, “and when I was older, I started to look into their history and how they were made, how the design was influenced by different places. And the more you look, the more you realize this cultural identity breakdown is essentially built from many layers and many time periods and different geographies. Japanese Ukiyo-e prints took a lot from Chinese painting. So this idea of cultural exchange is really important — especially now because of the political climate, cultural identity is this heavy topic, and it’s important to also look to the past and see how people have lived and crossed paths and exchanged ideas. We have the possibility to do that even more with travel and technology. Some people may have a hard time with the fact that I have Iranian heritage but I’m using imagery from other places. I’m trying to find a way to articulate that — whether it’s through artwork or tracing the history of abstract painting.”
Pour has exhibited his art in the very places that influenced him, including Japan (at the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum), Iran (at Tehran’s Dastan Basement gallery), Europe (at Berlin’s Gnyp Gallery), and across the United States. And his new exhibit at Minnesota Street Project coincides with another exhibit there, “Once at Present: Contemporary Art of Bay Area Iranian Diaspora,” that also speaks to ideas of overlapping cultures. But those cultures can be in opposition rather than harmony. Iranian-American visual artists in the Bay Area — Iranians anywhere in the greater Iranian diaspora — live in exile from the Iran of their upbringings or the Iran they learned about from their parents. That Iran disappeared anyway with the 1979 revolution that imposed a deeply religious system across the country and has subsequently squelched anything — including protests — that it deems oppositional to its clerical ways. Not surprisingly, many of the artists in “Once at Present” display art that addresses the idea of memory and reengaging with the past.
Shirin Towfiq, a Stanford MFA student, does that through large-scale, crinkled paper that has faded images of the Iran her father left behind. Her series, No, I Never Went Back, is like seeing unearthed papers that had been scrunched up and thrown way — only to be unfurled again at the cost of time. In Folding Gardens, A Stained Memory, Palo Alto artist Pantea Karimi revisits an incident from her Iranian childhood when, during the chaos of the 1979 revolution, she was bloodied in an emergency evacuation of her elementary school. Karimi’s ceiling-tall, silk-fabric artwork is a forest of black-and-white foliage, red tulips, and blood stains — an inviting scene of beauty and caution. Curated by Taraneh Hemami and Kevin B. Chen, “Once at Present” features art that has seemingly nothing to do with Iran, as with Sanaz Mazinani’s Blind Shift #7, a lenticular print that’s a cascade of vertical, colored slivers that change tone as you walk by. But in the wall text that accompanies her work, Mazinani says that Blind Shift #7 is, through her darkroom manipulations, a visual exercise that offers “poetic reflections on loss, time, event, and memory.”
Mazinani’s words change the experience of Blind Shift #7. Without them, art-goers might perceive her work as beauty for beauty’s sake — which it isn’t. At his quasi-retrospective sculpture exhibit at Hosfelt Gallery, William T. Wiley obliterates this fine line between perception and intention by embedding language directly onto his art. And it’s not just any language but comedic language, as in the Mark Twain-themed Imitation Wouldn’t from 2009, a blackboard-like work of words and images that includes this word play on one of Twain’s most famous lines: “Rumors of My Dumbeyes Have Been Greatly Exaggerated.”
Even the shapes of Wiley’s words are playful, a mix of upper and lower cases, and of thick and thin lines. The apotheosis of the exhibit is a reworked pinball machine from 2008 — fully playable, by the way — that Wiley titles Punball: Only One Earth. At the Hosfelt exhibit’s opening, art-goers crowded around Punball: Only One Earth to tussle with its balls, and look at all the images and puns that covered different sides. One of the motifs: A pointed, yellow dunce cap that features a misspelled version of the word “Dunce.” At the opening of “William T. Wiley: Sculpture, Eyes Wear Tug Odd,” people were smiling and laughing in a way that rarely happens at a gallery opening. But there was one exception: Wiley himself.
Wiley has dealt with several health issues in the past few years. And as he made his way into the exhibit and spoke with SF Weekly, Wiley said he has Parkinson’s disease, a nervous-system disorder that causes uncontrollable shaking. Wiley said that he’s virtually stopped putting words into his new work — that he’s doing nothing but abstract painting these days.
“Minuscule — or not at all,” Wiley says of wording in his new art. “I’m totally abstract now, in black-and-white.”
So “William T. Wiley: Sculpture, Eyes Wear Tug Odd” is a chance to survey Wiley at his wordy best. Wiley may never return to this state of being, where language is just as important as the looseness and lucidness of his art.
“Manzareh/Keshiki/Landscape,” through May 4 at Ever Gold [Projects], 1275 Minnesota St. Free, evergoldprojects.com
“Once at Present: Contemporary Art of Bay Area Iranian Diaspora,” through April 20 at Minnesota Street Project, 1275 Minnesota St. Free, minnesotastreetproject.com
“William T. Wiley: Sculpture, Eyes Wear Tug Odd,” through May 4 at Hosfelt Gallery, 260 Utah St. Free, 415-495-5454, hosfeltgallery.com