Judy Chicago

Jessica Silverman Gallery
488 Ellis Street
September 8–October 28

Judy Chicago, 7AM / Chowtime, 2000, watercolor on arches, 22 x 30".

In this “grab her by the pussy” presidential era, symbolism seems insufficient as protest—and yet it drove the reclamation of a historically derogatory term for female anatomy, giving rise to thousands of pink hats with kitten ears. Likewise, in the works that make up “Judy Chicago’s Pussies,” Chicago explores the iconography of the pussy as both feminine core and feline house pet, channeling wit, fury, and the inherent bodily and metaphysical power of womanhood.

Traditional equivalences between cats and women—both seen as mercurial, manipulative, and cruelly seductive (think “sex kittens”)—are clearly archaic, and yet stereotypically feline qualities, such as feral independence, astute awareness, ferocious (even maternal) protectiveness, suspicious acceptance of domesticity, and, most of all, individualism, align with feminist ideals. Chicago’s cats similarly become analogues to the uniqueness of women. In “Kitty City: A Feline Book of Hours,” 1999–2004, sweetly domestic scenes present the animals as singular characters carrying about their private lives, but also hint at their reserved disquietude toward captivity.

Despite Chicago’s prolific past four decades, this is the artist’s first solo exhibition in San Francisco since The Dinner Party began its world tour at SFMoMA in 1979. This show smartly lays out early works—ceramic plate studies for The Dinner Party and wall-hung images, including the luminous spray-painted grid of Morning Fan, 1971, from Chicago’s “Fresno Fan” series, created after she attended auto-body painting school as the only woman in a class of 250. Her “Potent Pussy” drawings, 1973, meanwhile, are the artist’s first examination of her cats, in which the felines’ irises spiral into hypnotic pupils. Soft-edged and gently gradated though Chicago’s images may be, her decades of work belie the sharpened claws of a pussy that bites back.

Anne Prentnieks

Sean McFarland

Casemore Kirkeby
1275 Minnesota Street, 102
September 9–October 28

Sean McFarland, Waterfalls, 2007–17, forty-four dye diffusion transfer prints, 56 x 76''.

Sean McFarland treads lightly through the history of Western landscape photography. In this exhibition, “Echo,” he utilizes the familiar iconography of mountains and waterfalls, but his treatment undermines the presumptions of truth, power, and possession that have long been associated with the genre.

McFarland’s wall installations read as a cross between an artist’s studio and a nineteenth-century laboratory. In the largest of three such groupings here, dozens of Polaroids, tiny cyanotypes, and gelatin silver and ink-jet prints are either framed, affixed to the wall with sewing pins, or housed in handmade paper boxes. In a side gallery, the installation Waterfalls, 2007–17, includes forty-four different images of waterfalls. Another unnamed group features photographs of landscapes or objects made to look like the natural world (his moon images fascinate), then pictures of those pictures, seemingly ad infinitum. This multitude represents a spectrum of distance from primary experience. The copies point in two directions at once: to their own singularity (many are unique prints) and to the original experience that they aim to recreate. In the era of fake news, these images underscore the importance and elusiveness of truth. As Samantha Power, the former US ambassador to the UN, wrote in the New York Times, Americans increasingly question “whether objective facts exist at all,” cautioning that “the sense of an epistemological free-for-all provides an opening to all comers.” In photography, if not politics, we are right to pursue the question of objectivity, especially in images that seem to depict a land open for the taking and receptive to any fantasy that we might subject it to.

Kim Beil

Tania Bruguera

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission Street
June 16–October 29

Tania Bruguera, Tatlin’s Whisper #6 (Havana Version), 2009, mixed media, dimensions variable.

This survey of work created between 1985 and 2017 includes all of what Tania Bruguera calls her long-term projects, which intervene in a sustained way, sometimes for years, with artistic, civic, and economic institutions, to create real alternative models for how power is exercised and circulated. Such projects include Immigrant Movement International (IMI), 2010–, which has resulted in a working think tank, experimental lab for activist practices, and physical community space for refugees and immigrants.

Rather than merely document and circumscribe these activism-oriented performance works in the gallery, many have been updated for current political conditions. For example, IMI finds a new iteration in The Party of Migrant People’s Assembly, 2017, which curates new conversations with Bay Area organizations devoted to immigrants’ rights. Even more ambitiously, the museum has commissioned a fully functioning eight-week alternative art school in one of its main galleries: the Escuela de Arte Útil (School of Useful Art), 2017, organized by Bruguera, which expands and exemplifies her conception of an art that is pragmatic and mobilizing.

The overall effect is of a living, breathing, voracious practice, rather than a contained set of historical artifacts. The careful presentation of the artist’s work also results in set pieces that call for audience activation, as with the staging of Tatlin’s Whisper #6 (Havana Version), 2009, an open mic that offered a platform for Cuban citizens to talk freely. Its reappearance here is a powerful reminder not just that Bruguera was arrested in 2014 before she could reperform the piece, but that there must be someone to speak in order for it to be realized.

Monica Westin

Jennifer Packer

The Renaissance Society
5811 South Ellis Avenue, Cobb Hall, 4th floor
September 9–November 5

Jennifer Packer, Cumulative Losses, 2012–17, oil on canvas, 72 x 38".

The hands in Jennifer Packer’s paintings are what stay with me. Graceful and obdurate, elegant and knotted, these hands bear strange relationships with their owners, floating into distinct view as the rest of the figure recedes among paint dribbles and hazy skeins of color. In Cumulative Losses, 2012–17, a billiard player lines up a shot, his left hand resting on the table surface like a rough, blotchy creature readying itself to pounce. A still, almost regal man sinks into a luscious red in Jerriod, 2017, his palms resting on a chair’s arms, fingers hanging loose in sinuous quiescence. These hands have a presence and dignity to them that seems to speak to the core of Packer’s practice, which presents black subjects as monolithic yet strangely diffuse. Her images emerge as forms wed together through painterly suggestion rather than hard-edged detail, imparting an ineffable vulnerability while still insisting on the figure’s matter.

This sensitivity is again engaged in the artist’s rapturous yet elegiac paintings of funeral bouquets. If reference to a concordance of opposites seems like a motif at this point, it is due to the deeply affecting and somehow achingly sad way the artist renders these objects and figures in exquisite dashes of color and darkness. Say Her Name, 2017, the largest of the flower paintings on view, is exemplary of this paradoxical beauty, its gloomy, viscous greens giving way to bright punches of pink, peach, and periwinkle blue.

Dan Jakubowski

David Lamelas

University Art Museum (UAM) at California State University
1250 Bellflower Boulevard
September 17–December 10

Sprüth Magers | Los Angeles
5900 Wilshire Boulevard
September 7–October 21

View of “David Lamelas: Time As Activity,” 2017. From left: Time as Activity Madrid, 2017; Time as Activity Düsseldorf, 1969.

The paragraphs-long labels that accompany the many works in David Lamelas’s retrospective at California State University, Long Beach, some on display for the first time in the US, point to an artistic career of heady investigations into visual hermeneutics. Spurred on by the works of media theorists (Marshall McLuhan), structuralist thinkers (Roland Barthes, Claude Lévi-Strauss), and novelists (Marguerite Duras), Lamelas constructs pieces that unfold over time—requiring both patience and thought from a viewer. Slide projectors accompany a short film in Film Script (Manipulation of Meaning), 1972, ultimately complicating the narrative by providing a detour from the film’s seductive continuity. Works such as Los Angeles Friends (Larger Than Life), 1976—comprising forty pencil drawings and a slideshow—and the book Publication, 1970/97, showcase the artist’s dry humor and proves he is deeply embedded in international Conceptual art networks.

At Sprüth Magers, various excerpts are presented from Lamelas’s ongoing series “Time as Activity,” 1969–. Each piece is a study in film, sometimes with accompanying photographs, of the passage of time. For the initial work, Time as Activity Düsseldorf, 1969, the artist trained a 16-mm camera on three areas of the German city’s commercial and artistic life. He made the claim that “what occurs on the screen has no aesthetic meaning,” but, as the series progressed, aesthetics became inevitably drawn into the fray. This is also the case in Time as Activity Madrid, 2017, wherein Lamelas, working digitally this time, recorded visitors viewing Picasso’s Guernica, 1937, at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. Nearly a half century separates these meditations on daily pursuits in politically tumultuous times, and still, we find ourselves making our way—morning, noon, and night. As these two shows demonstrate, Lamelas continues to be not only an adroit deconstructionist of images but a great believer in them as well.

Andy Campbell

Dave Muller

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts
2400 Third Avenue South
December 23–December 3

View of “Now Where Were We?,” 2016–17.

At first glance, the striking white band that skirts Dave Muller’s vast, colorful murals in this exhibition gives the impression of an orderly timeline. But one soon realizes that all of art’s history and geography is disarranged in his mixtape of a show, “Now Where Were We?,” in which objects from the museum’s permanent collection are paired with the artist’s renderings of items from the pop-cultural everyday: among them, a disco ball, hockey pucks, a smiley face, and a rainbow flag. The painted text provides the viewer only the barest of bearings within three galleries organized around the themes of people, places, and things.

The show’s gambit, prompted by curator Gabriel Ritter, offered Muller a chance to show and pair works in unusual ways, and the artist’s disregard for conventional typologies is alternately aggravating and disarming. A Chinese landscape scroll painting faces off with Muller’s rendering of Mount Rushmore. A formalist array of Asian, African, and Pacific Islander masks rehearses curatorial history’s past mistakes, and an otherwise compelling sculpture by Daniel Buren is decoratively subsumed within Muller’s overall design. Animating Muller’s visual playlist are irreverent, playful works by Nick Cave, Jim Nutt, Frank Gaard, and Andy DuCett alongside standout pieces such as Minneapolis artist Cy Thao’s painted illustration of the Hmong migration, an immense landscape by Alfred Leslie, and Viola Frey’s monumental ceramic of a determined female Atlas cradling the world in one hand.

As a means of activating previously sleepy galleries, the installation is a brilliant move. Muller’s problematic, equal-opportunity decontextualization holds critique at bay by hewing to its musical analogy; as a curatorial model, the audiophile’s eclectic taste and benevolent appreciation works well for an encyclopedic museum’s mainstream crowds. Furthermore, it is an installation one cannot unsee. After the walls are painted over and the exhibition becomes embedded in the institution’s history, its candy-colored aura will haunt future shows staged there.

Natilee Harren