John Houck

1401 16th Street
December 13–February 23

View of “John Houck,” 2017

The title of John Houck’s first solo show in San Francisco, “Hands, See Mouth,” refers to a dream he had in which a book’s index featured an entry for “hands” that said to “see mouth,” and vice versa. This circularity is a vivid reality in etymological investigations. Houck suggests perceptual knowledge is equally fraught.

Curated by Jessica Silverman, the show combines work from three series: “Coordinate Systems,” 2016–, as well as “Playing and Reality,” and “Accumulators,” both 2013–. Houck’s art often demands attention to the vagaries of representational depth. These pieces depict colored, creased paper that has been photographed then printed, folded, or turned and photographed again, leaving viewers to puzzle out what is real. The “Accumulator” diptychs invite comparisons between halves, each of which is made from two different hues of paper. Determining which fold came first or how the paper was rotated requires a kind of imaginary orienteering.

Much of Houck’s recent work takes materials from his past as its source. Viewing the layered compositions of “Playing and Reality” feels like opening a flat file and excavating the artist’s history: Paintings, whether exercises in cubism or loose illustrations, are visible beneath piles of colored paper. Can’t Will, 2017, reproduces a painted rendition of one of Houck’s earlier photographs: four hands tying a shoelace.

These photographs allude to the trials of living with the past—difficulties that might also be described as perceptual challenges. How does the living body accommodate memory? How do our current selves fold into their former shapes?

Kim Beil

“An Idea of a Boundary”

San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery
401 Van Ness Ave.
September 22, 2017–January 20, 2018

View of “An Idea of a Boundary,” 2017.

The title of this group exhibition derives from a passage in Ursula K. Le Guin’s science-fiction novel The Dispossessed (1974) describing a low, unassuming wall that acts as an absolute border between two planets. The ten artists featured here contend with boundaries that delineate both physical and psychological divisions. Several of the modest photographs in Park McArthur’s Leads, 2016, document thresholds at Chisenhale Gallery in London with door saddles that may look innocuous to some, but may be obstacles for people who use wheelchairs. Gina Osterloh’s film Press and Outline, 2014, also engages with the fraught relationship between the body and its surroundings, as the artist slowly traces the periphery of her own shadow on the wall, blurring the line between the tangible self and its fleeting companion.

The urban landscape and its frequent associate—gentrification—factor into several works in the exhibition, including Hannah Ireland’s Carry On/Fall Out/Find Your Place Here, 2017. Seven mesh knapsacks filled with eroding bricks collected from the shore of a San Francisco neighborhood in the process of upheaval are arranged in a line, speaking to the exposed weight of displacement. Two potent works by Davina Semo confront the viewer with archetypal exclusionary barriers. One of them, a stark gray mirror protected by a forbidding steel grate, borrows its title, SHE SAID THAT THE OUTLINES OF THINGS AND PEOPLE WERE DELICATE, THAT THEY BROKE, 2017, from Elena Ferrante’s novel The Story of the Lost Child (2014). Both the work and its title allude to the idea that solid boundaries can easily dissolve, and that spatial distinctions are often more complicated than they seem.

Jeanne Gerrity

Mona Hatoum

The Menil Collection
1533 Sul Ross Street
October 13–February 25

Mona Hatoum, Homebound (detail), 2000, kitchen utensils, furniture, electric wire, light bulbs, dimmer unit, amplifier, and two speakers, dimensions variable.

The first survey of Beirut-born Mona Hatoum’s work in a United States museum in twenty years is revelatory and destabilizing. Curator Michelle White has organized more than twenty major sculptures and installations and dozens of smaller pieces and works on paper made since the 1980s in several galleries and among the museum’s collection. The exhibition foregrounds Hatoum’s ability to shift the scale and materials of familiar and oftentimes domestic objects (hair, light bulbs, and cheese graters, but also grenades and maps) in a manner that suggests a relationship both to Surrealist pieces hanging nearby and to her biography—at the onset of the Lebanese Civil War, in 1975, she settled in London—while also casting a broader chill.

Mona Hatoum: Terra Infirma” includes the artist’s well-known works featuring weapons and maps. Consider Misbah, 2006–2007, a darkened room illuminated by lamps found in mosques and homes, though here decorative cutouts include representations of gun-toting soldiers. The region’s cartography is memorably presented in 3-D Cities, 2008–2009, here on study tables with circular areas partially excised, as if depicting explosions.

Hatoum’s larger installations evoke universal dangers. La Grande Broyeuse (Mouli-Julienne x 17), 1999—a hand-cranked food mill fabricated seventeen times its normal size—towers over and menaces the body. In Homebound, 2000, an entire room is caged off by wires, installed with institutional furniture (chairs, table, crib, bed) linked by cables powering bare bulbs and crackling with electricity. A haunting piece sits in a corner: The tilted frame of a steel wheelchair is spiked at the handles, endangering would-be patients and caretakers alike (Untitled (wheelchair II), 1999). In Hatoum’s world, threats are everywhere, and even the home is terra infirma.

Kate Green

Gabriel Martinez

Blaffer Art Museum, University of Houston
120 Fine Arts Building
October 28–January 27

View of “Gabriel Martinez: Everything Turns Away Quite Leisurely,” 2018. From left: American Bond, 2017; Wildcat Strike, 2017.

In Gabriel Martinez’s first solo museum exhibition, a polished veneer and meticulous structuring allow his beautiful objects to pass as Minimalist art––yet a deeper examination reveals biting commentary and sharp sociopolitical analyses of contemporary American urbanism.

The artist’s practice is grounded in interventions he undertook on city streets over the past fifteen years. In one, Martinez cleared a delimited area of all paper trash and then re-created the refuse in white card stock in his studio, eventually returning the fabricated versions to the same location; in Ghost Trash, 2005–18, similar white paper objects litter the floor of the gallery. For another project begun in 2005, he arranged glass shards from car wrecks into squares at the various accident sites; in The Long Poem of Walking, 2017, these shards have been organized into a bar-graph-like grid across the floor. This grid format appears in other pieces too, such as the hand-sewn quilt Differential, 2017, constructed using mechanic’s rags from his stepfather’s gas station.

Transpositions and re-creations are recurrent strategies for Martinez, as in American Bond, 2017, for which a discarded Pullman brick was pulverized to a powder and applied to a stretched canvas without fixative. Untitled (Eisenhower Interstate System), 2017, features a series of three polished-steel mirrors in the shape of abstracted highway signs that reference the federal government’s role in moving development away from easily targeted dense central cities during the Cold War. The artist creates meaning from his attention to materials, navigating weighty issues of urban planning, decay, and dispossession with a light yet conceptually rigorous touch.

John Pluecker

Christina Quarles

David Castillo Gallery
420 Lincoln Road
December 5–January 31

Christina Quarles, Yer Tha Sun in my Mourning Babe, 2017
, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 72".

About half of Los Angeles–based artist Christina Quarles’s thirteen canvases here are horizontally arranged. All from this year, the works range in size from three to five feet in height and four to six feet in width, and each typically includes two largely abstract bodies, which seem to bend and twist improbably around various forms. While the figures are not gendered or raced, an exploration of identity politics forms an undercurrent in the works, perhaps most evident in their titles, such as Tell Me Tell Me Yull Be Alright, When Yer in Tha Shade. Like that of the exhibition itself, the title alludes to a written and spoken vernacular and, by extension, issues of class.

Quarles’s approach is to focus on the phenomenological, or the blurring of subjects and objects, but she never eschews tension or even violence, however implicit and muted. For instance, the works Double Down and Flopped Over n’ Bent Into Two depict the performative actions to which the titles allude. In the former, two planar forms bisect the picture plane: One is solid white, while the other appears to be liquid, composed of brushes of gray-black acrylic paint suffused with different values of magentas and yellows. In the latter, a plane of earth and flowers, which appears in many pieces, separates the canvas. In both, figures’ limbs seem simultaneously trapped by these forms and able to puncture them: Liberation and imprisonment blur.

Alpesh Kantilal Patel

Pepe Mar

Locust Projects
3852 North Miami Avenue
November 18, 2017–January 20, 2018

View of “Pepe Mar: Man of the Night,” 2017.

In this modestly sized project gallery, Miami-based artist Pepe Mar manages to present a survey of colorful assemblages and collages made over the last fifteen years as well as new work. The past and present blur here. Mar’s approach to this compilation is not straightforward: He has digitally reconstructed images of his previous pieces and printed them onto large, irregular pieces of fabric that were then stitched together, stained, and often appliquéd. The overall composition becomes the installation’s walls, from which pipelike forms, also covered in fabric, intertwine and spill out onto the floor.

The installation Man of the Night, 2017, veers between evoking nostalgia and eagerness for an incipient future—and not just in the context of Mar’s practice. For instance, strewn throughout the installation are ephemera such as a flyer found in the collage Post no bills, 2017, from parties at queer clubs in San Francisco and Miami that the artist frequented. For Mar, these were sanctuaries, many of which are no longer around. His installation effectively brings into being a material world that embodies the camaraderie he felt in those sites.

The lack of space to amble in the galley nudges viewers into the aforementioned soft sculptural forms, and in this way, they find themselves drawn into the installation and, by extension, the artist’s world. Even a lone person here is hardly isolated.

Alpesh Kantilal Patel

Dawn Cerny

Portland Art Museum
1219 SW Park Avenue
October 28–February 11

View of “Dawn Cerny,” 2018.

Dawn Cerny’s recent sculptures rise with the elegance of Chinese scholars’ rocks—contemplatively crannied and eccentric—but the nature they embody is a domestic one. The artist’s wheeled monoliths are enchanting interpretations of household furnishings: bookshelves, credenzas, armchairs. Cerny explores the body’s relationship to furniture as an extension of human movement—particularly that of the parental body, engaged in a continuous stream of repetitive, improvised adaptations. The sculptures’ wonkiness invokes the humor and stickiness of parenting and life in general, which, Cerny suggests, is a lot like vaudeville: The banana peel always wins. Sense and beauty emerge through each day’s absurdities and surprises.

The works declare themselves quickly in bright monochromatic colors: green apple, Aegean sky, and turmeric yellow. Cerny slathers paint over facets of wood, paper, and cardboard, among other materials, a process that results in variably thick, almost fuzzy surfaces that feel plush and approachable. Lerágafrøgmer; our first nice thing together. A fight in Ikea, 2015, reads like a mutating letter sorter or Japanese Netsuke cabinet. At three distinct edges of the movable sculpture, Cerny has left bits of raw wood that suggest handles, inviting interaction and performance. While the work possesses many potentially usable cubbies, closer inspection suggests fragility; the work flips between fanciful utility and porous purposelessness. Blue structure for things and house keys, 2016, sports a raw clay dish for remembering life’s bits and bobs. Each sculpture in the exhibition extends itself into the quotidian with humorous grace. This is work that isn’t too proud to be loved.

Stephanie Snyder

“Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the Americas”

3824 Main Street
September 16–February 4

Rigo 23, Autonomous Intergalactic Space Program, 2009–, mixed media, dimensions variable. Installation view.

One of the most refreshing facets of “Mundos Alternos” is its inclusion of artists from states and territories outside the Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA paradigm—Puerto Rico, Texas, New Mexico, and New York—introducing the work of dynamic artists such as Hector Hernandez to California audiences. Made with pieces of brightly colored fabric and natural gusts of wind, Hernandez’s photographs Bulca, 2015, and Sound of Winter, 2014, image what the artist terms “hyperbeasts,” inhuman creatures with no discernable gender. Costuming as worlding is a happy constant throughout the exhibition, apparent in the dazzling garments of Mundo Meza, Robert “Cyclona” Legorreta, Carmelita Tropicana, LA VATOCOSMICO c-s, Guadalupe Maravilla, Luis Valderas, and the AZTLAN Dance Company. As with any good show about science fiction, there are also flying spacecrafts of all kinds, featured in Gyula Kosice’s video The Hydrospatial City, 2003, Beatriz Cortez’s virtuosic steel and video work Memory Insertion Capsule, 2017, and Glexis Novoa’s quiet graphite-on-marble drawing, Benares (The Last Photograph), 2013.

Rigo 23’s planetarium, Autonomous Intergalactic Space Program, 2009–, has particular gravitas and is worth special mention, for it was developed in coordination with the Good Government Junta of Morelia, Chiapas, in Mexico. Many of the themes and symbols in this piece derive from the antiglobalization efforts and imagery of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation; snails, ears of corn with masked Zapatista faces on their kernels, and multiheaded beasts representing capitalism abound. A small-format painting installed near the end of Rigo 23’s installation reads: “QUEREMOS IN MUNDO DONDE QUEPAN MUCHOS MUNDOS” (We want a world where many worlds are possible). This exhibition handily fans that desire, thereby providing one of the most thoughtful and engrossing exhibitions to come out of PST: LA/LA.

Andy Campbell