Summer is a sleepy season for the art world. Curators and gallery directors flock to Europe's art carnivals (Documenta, Art Basel, and the like), hoping to pin down that elusive taxonomy of what's cool right now. Some galleries shut down altogether for a month or two, while most others stage slapdash group shows featuring their regular slate of artists. Every year, several galleries in San Francisco take advantage of this lull to trot out untested new talent. Typically, such exhibitions introduce artists still struggling to move beyond the conventions of their art school training. More than a few artists mimic the slick installations and clever videos that currently saturate biennials and fairs. But there are some idiosyncratic new voices piping up in this year's series of “Introductions,” and it's well worth making the rounds of downtown galleries to check them out.
One of the strongest debuts is by Amy Rathbone, a recent graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute, whose quirky installations are on view at the Braunstein/Quay Gallery. Rathbone has both a rare empathy for the world of inanimate objects and an endearing sense of humor. A series of small works on paper covering a wall at the gallery's entrance serve as visual one-liners, attuning the viewer to Rathbone's subtle wit. The drawings are spare pieces in pencil on white and beige grounds, devoid of all but the most essential details: a lamp projecting a swarm of fireflies, a colony of ants marching up a table leg to the anthill that has sprouted on its surface, a fan whose cool stream appears to part blades of grass sprouting on the wall beyond it. Some of these images are realized as installations elsewhere in the gallery: The fan, for instance, resurfaces in three dimensions in Grass and Wind, blowing air at a tall thicket of charcoal lines drawn on the wall.
Those Guys, Rathbone's most explicitly sculptural work, features bulky industrial sandbags that sag over thick wires suspended from the ceiling. The bags convey a potent physicality, suggesting the pathos of bodies slumped in resignation. This effect is heightened by the bent nails that poke through corners of the bags (and migrate onto the walls and floor surrounding them) like the stubble of a hairy guy who's just plain given up.
There's a lighthearted Zen sensibility to Rathbone's work, both formally and conceptually. “I really want to make people look around corners. I want to challenge them to notice small details and seek out hidden treasures,” said Rathbone in a recent lecture at the gallery. “Hopefully, they'll take that new awareness out into the world with them when they leave.” Many viewers initially miss one of her drawings, titled Enlightenment — even while staring straight at it. In it, the artist peppered an entire wall with minute graphite flecks of rain that collect in or deflect off a series of tiny buckets drawn at the baseboard. Rathbone explained that someone once told her we are born with all the tools we need to attain enlightenment: We've already got the buckets, and it's just a matter of turning them over and letting wisdom flow in — a matter, perhaps, of keeping our eyes (and our minds) open.
Craig Nagasawa's paintings, also on view at Braunstein/Quay, investigate perception in an altogether different manner. Nagasawa, a professor of art at UC Berkeley, has been painting for decades but has never before shown his work in a commercial gallery. He endeavors in his hallucinogenic landscape paintings to capture reality as it is filtered by the viewer's mind. Conscious that humans are incapable of objective vision, Nagasawa attempts to depict simultaneously the scene before him and the images called to his mind's eye while viewing it. He strives to capture his own subjectivity, superimposed onto what he's seeing. Lurid oranges and pinks heighten the surreal sensibility of these layered dreamscapes. In On the Way Home, for instance, he overlays a riot of abstracted foliage from his back yard in California onto a staid Midwestern snowscape.
Nagasawa's curious technique blends the immediacy of fresco painting with the linear qualities of an etching. He paints a base of solid or subtly gradated color, allows it to dry, then layers a thick field of paint over it and quickly scratches the wet oil pigment with the back of his brush, revealing the hue beneath. He carves into the paint with dense, calligraphic lines that convey a frenetic energy. Nagasawa compared the process to a race against the paint, which dries within hours: “It becomes very performative,” he stated in his gallery talk. “Often a painting will fail, and I'll have to scrap it altogether — scrape the paint right off and start again.”
Unfortunately, the vigor of Nagasawa's patterning is somewhat diminished by the torpor of his subject matter. He favors postcard-perfect Alpine peaks and flowering gardens, bland paint-by-number scenes that are far too static to carry the rhythm of his paint. A notable exception is Reverse, a fugue of red, orange, and blue that describes a simple thatch of barren trees. Here, the putative subject recedes nearly to the point of abstraction, giving primacy to the artist's excellent brushwork. Though his goal of exploring the subjectivity of perception is a worthy one, Nagasawa falls short by taking it too literally. A look inward might expand his field of vision, allowing his formal instincts more freedom to come into play.