The Bay Area has long been one of America's artistic hubs. For two centuries, great art movements — and artists — have emerged here to international acclaim, whether it was Stanley Mouse and psychedelic art of the 1960s or Eadweard Muybridge and photo motion of the 1870s. Who are today's most promising emerging artists? Each year, SF Weekly finds 10 of them for our Masterminds issue. These are artists whose work sticks in your head. A magician who's also a memoirist. A sculptor who specializes in felt. A painter who imagines the future of dense, urban centers. The artists you're about to meet are practitioners in everything from dance to film to traditional canvases.
You'll be able to see these artists and their work up close at Artopia on Thursday, Feb. 21, at SOMArts Cultural Center. That night we'll also announce the three artists who will receive grants. Come out and meet them. But first, get to know their work.
The Boob Painting by Kellen Breen
Fake Breasts and Social Criticism:
In Kellen Breen's The Boob Painting, a skinny woman — enhanced, it seems, with oversized implants — walks briskly in high heels with two other identical women as she charges up her portable music player with voltage from her right nipple. As they stroll along a hillside path, an older, angry farmer watches, riding a Segway across the dense backdrop of some downtown. The scene addresses three major themes: the penetration of technology into people's lives; the superficial emphasis that society places on wealth; and the continuing degradation of the environment. The Boob Painting isn't a downer, though. Its bright colors, humorous depictions, and narrative intrigue are like something from a Lewis Carroll story, even if Breen's underlying message is serious.
"My paintings," he says, "are ultimately social critiques on American culture."
In The Boob Painting and other work, you can see the influence of Thomas Hart Benton, the 20th-century muralist whose epic scenes of U.S. life set a high standard for expansive painting. Breen studied Benton in his last full semester at California State University, Chico, in 2008. Five years later, at age 27, Breen is interpreting his own era from his Mission District studio. His latest painting features Jesus dunking a basketball at Dolores Park's court. Jesus, who is black, is assisted by black angels who lift him upward. "I want viewers to stay engaged," Breen says of his paintings, "so that they might take something away from it, whether it's something profound, humorous, or offensive."
Photograph by Gil Riego Jr.
The Magic of Story:
Spectacled and dressed in a blazer, white shirt, and dark pants, Christian Cagigal looks like a professor as he stands on stage at the EXIT Theatre and tells his audience, "All magic takes place in one place: your imaginations. Without one, the next 57 minutes of your life will become very, very boring. Ready? Ready?!" The audience yells yes, but nothing they say can prepare them for Cagigal's performance of Now and at the Hour, in which he guesses precisely what audience members are thinking, has them pick objects in an order that he foresees, and does other funny, mind-blowing feats.
Unlike magic acts that emphasize objects suddenly appearing, disappearing or changing shape, Now and at the Hour combines memoir and mind-reading (or "mentalism"), as if Cagigal were channeling the narrative oomph of Spalding Gray and the jaw-dropping skills of the Amazing Kreskin into a much cooler persona. During the hour, he tells his own story and that of his father — a Spanish immigrant who soldiered in Vietnam for the U.S. government and came back suffering from PTSD and schizophrenia. Cagigal, who grew up in Daly City, learned magic early on as a fun distraction. On stage, he uses things from his dad's military life (dog tags, an old photo) as props for both the show's narrative and his brand of magic. Just don't call them "tricks." That term is so 1950s.
"The term some of us like to try and use these days is not tricks but effects," he says. "I like to call it a certain level of magic realism."
A former member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, Cagigal has performed Now and at the Hour for three years, and his résumé looks like an acclaimed veteran's. There are the performances of his different shows around the country, the many four-star reviews, and the upcoming movie version of Now and at the Hour by indie director H.P. Mendoza, who films Cagigal's act and has him interview other magicians about the art of magic. Still, at age 37, Cagigal says his career is at a crossroads.
"I don't have a good sense of my own career until I talk to someone else about it. Other people think I'm wildly successful. I still feel like I'm plodding along trying to make my career happen. I feel like I've reached a little plateau after six, arguably 10, years of plugging through. I'm not rich. I'm not famous." Cagigal laughs as he says that — the same kind of contagious laughter you hear in his shows.
Sigil by Raven Ebner
As an undergraduate at the University of Arizona in Tuscon, Raven Ebner sublimated her artistic impulses to a regimen of courses in science. "I studied ecology and evolutionary biology and philosophy — art was always on the side," she says. Now it's the opposite: At 29, Ebner is a full-time artist in Albany who puts her love of science into her artwork.
Among Ebner's creations: jewelry that incorporates the small bones of animals, and paintings that detail an intricate family of made-up plants. In one, a vine has a vascular system (complete with blood flow) that mirrors a mammalian system. With their odd life-forms and intricate detailing, her paintings resemble vintage scientific illustrations. Surreal and macabre, the intermingling of life and death is evident in her work. "As an artist," she says, "the idea of making up your own world, with its own natural history, with its own animals and plants populating it, is very appealing to me."