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At SLOMA, two printmaking shows reveal the striking modernity of an antiquated art form

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Behind David Avery’s eerie etching A Post-Traumatic History Lesson is a host of muses. Chief among them are 16th century Italian etchings depicting the plague, characterized as a ghoulish skeleton, snatching up innocent children. A dandy with an unhealthy obsession with a hobbyhorse, characterized in Laurence Sterne’s obscure tome The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, influenced the piece as well. But the work’s original inspiration, and probably its title, came at the end of the Bush Administration, after Avery learned that the former president was writing his memoirs.

- DEADLY HABITS:  Southern California artist Sandow Birk created 10 copperplate etchings depicting the leading causes of death in America, such as drinking, smoking, and accidents. Pictured is HIV/AIDS. -  - ARTWORK BY SANDOW BIRK
  • ARTWORK BY SANDOW BIRK
  • DEADLY HABITS: Southern California artist Sandow Birk created 10 copperplate etchings depicting the leading causes of death in America, such as drinking, smoking, and accidents. Pictured is HIV/AIDS.

A Post-Traumatic History Lesson is just one of 51 pieces in the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art printmaking show “Traces, Marks and Fragments,” juried by artist Sandow Birk and incorporating such methods  as photogravure, etching, lithography, monotype, woodcuts, and other time-honored printmaking techniques.

Directly adjacent is Birk’s own solo show, “The Chosen Ones,” comprised largely of work from his darkly satirical etching series “Leading Causes of Death in America” and “The Rake’s Progress.” Seen side by side, the two exhibitions feel simultaneously current and steeped in tradition, prime examples of how centuries-old processes can be employed to create works of striking modernity.

Birk created the series “Leading Causes of Death in America” in 2005, as a project commissioned by the San Diego Museum of Art to create works based on art in its permanent collection. Taking inspiration from the American realist painter George Wesley Bellows, Birk’s unflinching depictions of accidents (a driver chatting on her cell phone, eyes drifting from the road, not seeing, as we do, the too-close headlights of oncoming traffic), diabetes (fat women eating junk food outside a liquor store), cancer (the grossly unexercised businessman, cigarette dangling from his lips), and other killers remain relevant and awesome and disgusting.

- A THIEF IN THE NIGHT, RIDING A HOBBYHORSE :  San Francisco artist David Avery’s darkly surreal etchings take inspiration from modern frustrations, as well as 16th century masters like Albrecht Dürer. -  - ARTWORK BY DAVID AVERY
  • ARTWORK BY DAVID AVERY
  • A THIEF IN THE NIGHT, RIDING A HOBBYHORSE : San Francisco artist David Avery’s darkly surreal etchings take inspiration from modern frustrations, as well as 16th century masters like Albrecht Dürer.

A work from the series “In Smog and Thunder: The Great War of the Californias,” which depicts Birk’s imagined battle between Los Angeles and San Francisco, including such epic scenes as Overview of the Carnage South of Market and the dramatic Abandonment of SF MOMA, is on view as well.

In a more historically accurate turn, “The Rake’s Progress” is the illustrated story of the LAPD Rampart Scandal—and the officer, Rafael Perez, who was at the center of it all.

Expressed through such a slow, antiquated medium, contemporary social issues (fictional or not) seem inevitable, permanent, already cemented into history. This is the feeling, too, of many works in the adjoining group show “Traces, Marks, and Fragments.”

Of particular interest is Benjamin de Kosnik’s bizarre Conceptual Cocktail Party Invite (intaglio engraving and photogravure). “CONCEPTUAL COCKTAIL PARTY,” the text in one portion of the work declares. “Yes, there will be booze,” it whispers in smaller print. The time and date are left blank.

To the left of this airy invitation are two photographs. I ask de Kosnik, via e-mail, what they are. He replies:

“The photos are all still-life, with arranged objects. The objects included: A lotus flower. A bottle of absinthe that had been infused with cannabis. Some shells from a beach in the Philippines. An antique phone I got from my Irish grandfather. A replica of an astrolabe I found in Paris. (I collect scientific antiquities.)

“They were taken on my dining room table on Fair Oaks Street, in the Mission district of San Francisco. I tried to shoot during the golden hour, and used only natural light.”

- ‘THE HIGHEST FORM OF ART’ :  Benjamin de Kosnik’s strange Conceptual Cocktail Party Invite, pictured, was created partly as a nod to artist Tom Marioni’s happening, titled “Drinking Beer with Friends is the Highest Form of Art.” -  - ARTWORK BY BENJAMIN DE KOSNIK
  • ARTWORK BY BENJAMIN DE KOSNIK
  • ‘THE HIGHEST FORM OF ART’ : Benjamin de Kosnik’s strange Conceptual Cocktail Party Invite, pictured, was created partly as a nod to artist Tom Marioni’s happening, titled “Drinking Beer with Friends is the Highest Form of Art.”
- MARK MAKERS:  See Sandow Birk’s “The Chosen Ones” and the group printmaking show “Traces, Marks, and Fragments,” juried by Birk, at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art through Feb. 26. The museum is at 1010 Broad St. in downtown SLO; hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day but Tuesday. -
  • MARK MAKERS: See Sandow Birk’s “The Chosen Ones” and the group printmaking show “Traces, Marks, and Fragments,” juried by Birk, at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art through Feb. 26. The museum is at 1010 Broad St. in downtown SLO; hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day but Tuesday.

The piece was inspired by a happening staged at SF MOMA by the conceptual artist Tom Marioni. Titled “The Act of Drinking Beer With Friends is the Highest Form of Art,” the event was an extension of Marioni’s long history of staging beer salons as social artworks in his Bay Area studio.

De Kosnik created the piece at a workshop at San Francisco’s Crown Point Press, where many great artists, Marioni included, had worked.

The invitation to an imaginary cocktail party, de Kosnik goes on, is “my take on ‘having beer with friends.’ Hopefully it pays respect to the tremendous history of Crown Point and is a playful nod to Tom Marioni.”

Elsewhere in the show, Kathi Flood’s intriguingly titled First Marriage, an etching with a bit of collage, depicts a mighty tree with a broken wicker chair lying at its base, whiskey bottles strewn all around it.

“This mighty tree represents stability in contrast to the insecurity and volatility I faced in my first marriage,” Flood explains in an artist’s statement. “Broken glass in grass is particularly upsetting, and serves as a metaphor for my mental state in those days.”

Traces, marks, and fragments they are indeed.

Arts Editor Anna Weltner thinks the first cut is the deepest. Contact her at aweltner@newtimesslo.com.

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