Sunday, July 28, 2013

The WOW of "The Image in Its Otherness" at Three Geary Street Galleries

It was a quiet Friday lunchtime. Some of the galleries at the Geary Street buildings in San Francisco had closed their doors. But some doors to fabulous shows were open.  The three artists below seem to me to embody something a critic once wrote about “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” that it is “about the image in its otherness locked in with the real world” (Lisa Florman on Picasso in “The Difference Experience Makes in ‘The Philosphical Brothel,’” The Art Bulletin, Vol. 85, No. 4, Dec. 2003, p. 777).

The “image in its otherness locked in with the real world”: what, exactly, is “otherness”?  Difference… distinguished by achievement or characteristics? or simply non-conforming? Strange? or distinctive, memorable? Me, and not-me.  The expected. The unexpected.  I want to take us into “otherness,” step by step, through the galleries, and return to Picasso at the end.

First, Ian McDonald offers a show of ceramic pieces at the Rena Bransten Gallery (77 Geary, San Francisco, through August 17, Ceramics are often viewed as purely utilitarian.  Museums offer rooms of early functional vessels created by hunter-gatherers and then, over time, we all begin to see a departure, finding artists who are searching for beauty and meaning: a fragile vase, a transformative mask, or Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party.” 

Ian McDonald’s chosen “difference” in this show (called, tellingly, “Parts and Pottery”) is not the province of the totem or the icon, but total, brazen, sensuality… the unexpected aesthetic pleasure of clay nearly morphing into iron.  A gleaming crankshaft, a rusting piston, screws, nuts and bolts laid out for a repair, looking under the hood of a ’65 Mercury … all these implements in the idea, now made soft and quiet and things-in-themselves by the touch of a hand:

This is my favorite of the 12 exhibits in this show,  “Arrangement #3 (Split Shelf).

The materials list reads “glazed ceramic, powder coated steel, wood and paint.” The show is calming, surprising, beautifully lit, wonderfully sculpted. It is “otherness” because it brings the pistons and crankshafts of the “real world’ into a soft, silent rebirth.

The second gallery exhibit was -- a “mixed media on paper” dress -- but not just any mixed media, and not just any dress -- by Isabelle De Borchgrave at Serge Sorokko, at 55 Geary Street. (Isabelle De Borchgrave is one of several artists represented (  

De Borchgrave immerses her work in art-historical riches. The Legion of Honor here in San Francisco exhibited rooms filled with  her paper costumes inspired by paintings ( 

For this piece, a sculptural column at Serge Sorokko, the Charioteer at Delphi is the first source:

but the second source layer is a pleated silk dress with glass Murano beads hanging from the shoulders, designed and made by Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo in Venice in 1907…. it was designed, in the era of corsets, to be worn over bare skin:

In the “Blue Delphos Dress,” there is also “nothing” underneath, “nothing” but air and imagination:

It isn’t just that De Borchgrave’s work is different, that she re-interprets the fabric of painted portraits or Greek statues or fashion designed in a Venetian palazzo and twists and irons and otherwise bends paper to serve as her art. It isn’t, here, just about the process. It’s about the new “real world” she makes us see.

The third artist will bring us back to Picasso and “The Demoiselles d’Avignon.” Picasso wrestled with several sets of drawn images, at last confining his women within a flat space, body parts touching, overlapping or going missing in folds of drapery.  I find myself disagreeing with Lisa Florman. This painting is not about “the image in its otherness locked in with the real world”; only half of this poetic statement is true. This painting is, instead, only “locked in with” a strange kind of powerful “otherness” of its very own.   There is no “real world” to see “locked in” or otherwise, here.  Picasso never pursued anything with this level of ferocity again.  He didn’t seem to know where to go from this point, and so backed away from connecting these women up with any kind of “real world.”

But there is an artist whose work pulls the “Demoiselles” -- and his other portraits -- into a fierce struggle with “the real world.”  The Haines Gallery, at 49 Geary Street in San Francisco is showing the work of Aimé Mpane (

The preoccupied figures in this massive piece, “La Peche Contemporaine,” are themselves caught up in a net (they are made of painted wood pieces floating on string, and the piece measures 81 “ x 84”) and are fishing for something they cannot eat, that peculiarly Western preoccupation with getting the ball into the net.  Mpane comes from Kinshasa (once the capital of the Belgian Congo, now in the Democratic Republic of Congo).  The question of exactly what one ought to fish for -- for food, for fame, for one’s country and history or for someone else’s profit -- might serve, all by itself, as a sufficiently pressing subject for art.

But then there’s the larger question of identity, present not just as an issue for the fishermen but for the rest of Mpane’s compelling show as well.  Mpane has “drawn” portraits (with layers of glued plywood that he edges with an adze -- a tool first used in the Stone Age), portraits of people that he knows in the Congo.  The resulting paintings/carvings are complete and missing, here and there, parts and whole, almost giving us the rings of years in the wood.  Here is my favorite single portrait, because it is so spare and simple, “Kinoct #40”:

There is enough left of her portrait head to give the wall a shadow.  Are we looking “through” or “beyond”? Is this woman hiding … or gone? How much do we actually see when we look?  Anything that is not a self-portrait is “other,” another, me, but not-me as well, a person, but not my person. How do we reconcile ourselves with the world?

Mpane’s strongest suit in the show -- for me -- is his artistic dialogue with Picasso and his “Demoiselles,” a conversation that is very much in “the real world.” There are seven of these two-sided masks arranged along a shelf in the gallery’s middle wall.  The wooden sides of each face are three-dimensional Demoiselles. Here is the face Picasso painted in as he completed the painting, the face we see to the far right:

And here is Mpane’s “La Demoiselle Perde/Masque Bi-Face: Picasso-Pende #2,” a two-sided piece, 12” x 12.5,” in that same adze-edged wood:

Look back and forth at these two.  Picasso’s Demoiselle-face would be physically impossible, not just for its jarring features, but because her back is towards the viewer; she could not be cupping her chin in that enormous hand.  When we first look at her face, her expression might seem angry, but the mouth is pursed, questioning, and she could also look…. surprised. Is she about to ask a question? She has that look.  Mpane’s response is to make his jagged face seem more human, the expression even more ambiguous, and then just as we are taking that in we see the other side of this face:

And we see the inner light. It’s an astonishingly uplifting image. These works will stay with me for a long, long time.

Thanks to the galleries and assistants, particularly Kate and Blake.