Whenever Jay DeFeo set out to create a piece of art — whether it was her monumental, eight-year work of sculptural painting, The Rose, or a smaller work on paper from her Jewelry series — she would often approach her canvases like a conductor, or even a mad scientist, waving her brushes or scraping away material with an intensity that could be completely obsessive.
For those who have never seen the artist in action — or those who never tire of marveling at her process — a new San Francisco exhibit, “Transcending Definition: Jay DeFeo in the 1970s,” features a giant photo of DeFeo from the era. There she is, splashing paint on a canvas that was just beginning to take form with swirls of black, white, and charcoal.
DeFeo, who died in 1989, was one of the late 20th century’s greatest American artists — though she wasn’t recognized in her lifetime. Far from it. The Rose, which DeFeo made between 1958 and 1966, was held in storage for decades as DeFeo struggled to pay rent and negotiate her career. In the 1970s, DeFeo had left behind large-scale works like The Rose and The Jewel (which she made in 1959) to work on new art forms that, by comparison, were much more minimal and much less sculptural. DeFeo’s artworks at Gagosian Gallery still feature sculptural elements, as in Lotus Eater No. 1 from 1974, which has what looks like a circular coffee-cup top emerging from its canvas, and Pend O’Reille No. 1 (Eternal Triangle series) from 1980, which has peeled-back layers that give it a rough edge. But the art in “Transcending Definition: Jay DeFeo in the 1970s” is a testament to DeFeo’s search for something different from The Rose, which took a physical and emotional toll and led to a four-year hiatus from art-making.
Photography became an element of DeFeo’s art in the 1970s, with DeFeo taking photos of household objects and tightly coordinated scenes from home that, printed out, became like Rorschach tests for the unknowing viewer. Influenced by close friend Bruce Conner, DeFeo also produced photo collages that are open to interpretation. In a striking untitled piece — one of the exhibit’s highlights — curving, disfigured tape suggests a post-modern, vase-like sculpture, or perhaps a surreal opening into a cloudy future. With its loops, drips, and shadowy swatches spanning a six-foot canvas, Pend O’Reille No. 1 (Eternal Triangle series) is another exhibit standout.
In 2012, SFMOMA offered the first complete assessment of DeFeo’s career with the exhibit, “Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective.” With their staggering, almost-swirling motifs, The Rose and The Jewel were the exhibit’s prized possessions. But that retrospective, organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art (which owns The Rose), made clear that DeFeo was much more than those two related, seminal works. Small canvas or big, DeFeo reveled in producing art that was abstract to the core, even while hinting at the subject’s origins.
DeFeo made The Rose in San Francisco, at an apartment on Fillmore Street, and she spent most of her life in the Bay Area. For Bay Area art-goers, it’s unfortunate that The Rose found a permanent home in New York, and that The Jewel is ensconced in Los Angeles at LACMA. Like any trailblazing artist, DeFeo needs to be seen again and again. Gagosian’s gallery space — located a minute’s walk from SFMOMA, where DeFeo achieved a posthumous breakthrough — offers a chance to reunite with DeFeo’s work, and a chance to see art that meant as much to DeFeo as The Rose and The Jewel did in earlier decades.
“Transcending Definition: Jay DeFeo in the 1970s”
Free, Through Oct. 31
Gagosian Gallery, 657 Howard, S.F.
“Transcending Definition” is but one of many exhibitions worth visiting now that local art galleries have reopened. “The Unbearable Lightness of Mathematics” at Mercury 20 Gallery; “Everglow” at Maybaum Gallery; and “The Parables of Correction” are all also worth a look.
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Pantea Karimi’s exhibit at Oakland’s Mercury 20 Gallery, “The Unbearable Lightness of Mathematics,” is a reconstruction of her school life in Iran during the late 1980s, when she struggled with the pressures of science education and struggled with the school administration’s attempts to root out her growing, teenage interest in the music of Madonna and Michael Jackson. A clash was inevitable, and Karimi, who now lives in San Jose, tells visitors how it ended through a sequence of 10 mock blackboards with mathematical formulas that gradually get more cloudy — with the final board almost completely shrouded in a chalky fog.
Iran’s 1979 revolution ushered in strict religious standards, so the Persian wording for “In the Name of God” shouts from each of the 10 blackboards. The first blackboard features a copy of Isaac Newton’s mathematical handwriting alongside Karimi’s Persian handwriting, which she uses to express her concerns about studying math and taking exams. Halfway through the 10 blackboards, two clouded photos of Iran’s religious leaders oversee the blackboards and a trove of Karimi’s personal objects from that time, such as Reebok sneakers and cassette tapes of U.S. pop stars.
The blackboards’ interplay of cloudy chalk, Persian lettering, and math formulas — and their sequential morphing from clearly visible to almost nothingness — is a kind of visual existentialism. This aspect of the work is underscored by the dark boards’ setting: a cavernous, white-walled space.
More than a decade ago, Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel and accompanying film, Persepolis, made the world smile and cringe at her former life in Iran, including her student life. “The Unbearable Lightness of Mathematics” produces a similar effect — only this time, we’re asked to physically stand in a place that mirrors what Karimi felt three decades ago. The mirror gets fuzzy in places. But even hazy images produce meanings that are crystal clear.
“The Unbearable Lightness of Mathematics”
Free, Through Oct. 17
Mercury 20 Gallery, 475 25th St., Oakland
The Tubbs Fire of 2017 killed more than 20 people and scorched more than 30,000 acres across Napa, Sonoma, and Lake counties. Artist Victoria Wagner lives in Sonoma County, and her new work at San Francisco’s Maybaum Gallery uses parts of felled redwood trees from the Tubbs fire to highlight the resilience — both of nature and her community.
Painting and shellacking those parts, which are the size of large rocks, Wagner turns them into upright sculpture — stacked as high as 8 feet at Maybaum Gallery, as with the piece called After Melancholy, Hope Converges with the Sky.
“Everglow” also features paintings with similarly painted patterns. But it’s the redwood sculptures — and Wagner’s patterns, which accentuate the wood’s ridges, and give some of the work a sunny, almost-Van Gogh-like patina — that challenge visitors to reimagine the aftermath of fire’s destructive fury.
Free, Through Oct. 15
Maybaum Gallery, 49 Geary, S.F.
Dystopian. Labyrinthine. Sisyphean. The intense animations in “The Parables of Correction” are all these things, portraying underground worlds where every being seems doomed to do the same thing over and over again. Chris Doyle’s animations are a commentary on work in the modern era.
They border on satire, but all laughs aside, the animations portray what Karl Marx would have called “despotic factory work” or just plain “despotism.” Doyle’s animations are fantastical creations. They’re visions of a nightmare state, not a dream state. But like any dream, they’re utterly fascinating to watch — at least until the fascination and the repetition wear off.
“The Parables of Correction”
Free, Through Oct. 24
Catharine Clark Gallery, 248 Utah, S.F.