Guns have a purpose,” Tom said. “And it isn’t shooting pieces of paper.” He had backed me into a corner at the Tick Tock Tap, and he was raising his voice. This was partly because people were shouting all around us- it was a noisy bar-- but he was also very annoyed with my (his word) contradictory behavior. I couldn’t help it, though. I had recently started college, out in the middle of the western plains, and I was pumped so full of ideas about everything from Buddhism to Marxism that sometimes it all got mixed together. Despite the fact that he liked to follow me around with a helpless dog-like ardor, it drove Tom crazy when I would start a sentence with something about the sanctity of all life and end it by saying that, come the Revolution, I would be ready, after years of target practice with 22s at summer camps.

I had no satisfactory reply to his assertion, that night. Pinned to the wall, I finally agreed to go hunting with him the following day. So there I was, standing in a stubble-cut field in the freezing end of November, cradling someone’s shotgun in my arms. Tom had brought his hunting buddies: two big amiable brothers with pale blue eyes and tiny immaculate moustaches, whose names I immediately forgot—Beau and Joe, or maybe Jess and Fess. Tom informed me pointedly that these two had killed most of the meat their family ate since they were big enough for the job. With shy, sweet smiles they assured me that this included slaughtering hogs and chickens as well as bringing home  “game-- y'know, critters and birds.”

It was cold and quiet and very, very early. As we began to walk, the sun came up, and our shadows reached out far in front of us. The brothers scanned patiently with identical squints. Since it was, they said, the one day that three hunting seasons overlapped, I could shoot at pretty much anything that moved and it would most likely be OK.

We spent several hours looking for signs of natural life, but we didn’t see a thing. Not a v of geese headed south; not a stray animal scat, not a footprint—nothing. It was like a party without the guest of honor. Finally, we gave up and went back into town. Tom was so embarrassed that he made me promise not to tell anyone. Wary of the subject altogether, I never talked about guns again.


Seventeen years go by. I am standing in the living room of my girlfriend’s apartment in San Francisco, waiting for her to come home to her formerly-revolutionary neighborhood, now mostly occupied by industrious young couples with clean jobs and well-dressed babies. It’s late, just at the graying edge of darkness, and I’m looking out the window through a telescope. She keeps it there on a tripod, to look at the stars and to shame the people in the building on the opposite corner into closing the blinds before they walk around naked. I check, but no one’s home there yet, so I pivot the instrument around and look the other way, into Golden Gate Park.

As I idly pan across a little glade some distance away, I suddenly see a man about my age, dressed entirely in black and carrying a really big pistol with a silencer on it. (By now, movies have taught me a great deal more than college did about things like guns.) His posture and progress make it clear that he is sneaking up on someone. I think I’m about to witness a murder and there’s nothing, seemingly, I can do about it. I shout at him uselessly as he raises the gun with both hands, sights along the barrel and fires. He runs towards his victim and I follow him with the telescope, now shaking crazily, along the edge of a small grove of trees. I am trying to get a look at his face so I can identify him to the police.

My heart is beating so hard I’m seeing spots before my eyes as he stops, reaches down, and picks up a rabbit with a hole in it big enough to see right through. He pulls a camera out of his pocket and photographs the bleeding shreds at arm’s length, holding them next to a piece of paper he has carefully unfolded. Then he stuffs everything—carcass, gun, and paper—into a garbage bag, shoving it under his jacket before he disappears into the dark beneath the trees. Disturbed and nauseated but profoundly mystified, I tell no one about what I’ve just seen. It is just too awful to describe or explain.

A few months later, I am at the crowded opening of a show of performance art documentation at a big raw alternative space. As I disinterestedly scan a wall of pictures, one catches my eye, and with an exclamation I squeeze my little plastic glass of wine so hard it cracks, leaking its contents onto the concrete floor. I am staring at an image of a hand that holds both the blasted remains of a rabbit and a creased white page with a quote from Baudrillard about simulacra written across it, spelled Bodriard and semulackra.

Later, at a bar, I remember Tom in the Tip Top, shouting at me about putting bullets through pieces of paper. For a moment, I wish I still had that that big cold double-barreled shotgun that he tenderly laid in my city-girl arms, so I could go back and shoot that photograph.


Codex, 2017


This past Sunday I went to Codex, a biannual book fair held at Craneway Pavilion in Richmond. When I say ‘book fair,’ though, that really doesn’t do this event justice: it’s a four-day extravaganza, offering an astonishing range of exquisitely-printed small press books. The mission of Codex is to ensure the future of the art and the craft of printing, supporting the community of makers in no small part by connecting them with collectors, of both the private and institutional variety. Libraries with rare book collections come to Codex to shop.
This year’s fair was number six. When I attended the prior one, held in 2015, I was immediately smitten by the vast building where it takes place (a Ford assembly plant in a previous lifetime) and the panoramic views of San Francisco it offers from its waterfront location. Once inside, I was bowled over by the astonishing world of bibliophilia that was on display.

The former Ford plant, now Craneway Pavilion (at the right)... my father worked here briefly in '49

The former Ford plant, now Craneway Pavilion (at the right)... my father worked here briefly in '49

This time, as on my previous visit, the enormous room was filled with rows and rows of tables, each one covered with beautifully handmade, hand bound books in small editions, unique book art and art made out of books-- and even bookmaking materials. There were over 200 exhibitors from all around the world, including 11 artists from China, the focus of this year’s symposium (a series of  presentations that takes place over the first couple of mornings of each fair, before the afternoon sales event begins).

Tony Bellaver and Mary V. Marsh of  Quite Contrary Press

Tony Bellaver and Mary V. Marsh of Quite Contrary Press

Not surprisingly, northern California was heavily represented. The Bay Area is a hotbed of art-of-the-book activity. There were also at least a half a dozen exhibitors from Iowa, possibly due to the University of Iowa’s Center for the Book, and many from in and around New York and other locations across the US.

As I walked up and down each aisle, I saw lovely work from Mexico and Canada, France and Germany.




This handsome example of typography from the Irish REDFOXPRESS caught my eye. There were book makers and sellers from Israel, Australia, Russia, Switzerland, Japan.

Islam Aly

Islam Aly



Standing behind a table filled with delicate, wonderful book objects created with a combination of laser cutting and traditional binding techniques, Islam Aly represented both Cedar Falls, Iowa, where he lives now, and his native Egypt. Schools with book programs, including Oakland’s own Mills College, had tables as well. 


Nancy Loeber, from  Brothers and Sisters

Nancy Loeber, from Brothers and Sisters



At the last Codex, I was entranced with artist Nancy Loeber’s portraits: woodblock prints in delicate colors. Back at the fair again, she was showing a portfolio of imaginary brothers and sisters, and a book titled Lord Byron’s Foot(!!).


Teo Ponds Press

Teo Ponds Press


A handsome example of text as art could be seen in the coffin-shaped page of words facing the title page of The Brownsville Boys: Jewish Gangster of Murder, Inc., by Two Ponds Press.


Sarah Nicholls

Sarah Nicholls


While my predominant memory of the fair is of exquisite and even poetic books in attractive, tasteful bindings, there were also moments of comic relief. I adored Sarah Nicholl’s Field Guide to Extinct Birds.




Engine and Well of Iowa City offer a wordless version of the familiar story of Jack and the beanstalk, told in a succession of bold woodcuts printed on a several-foot-long scroll, rolled up and sealed into a can labeled BEANS.





And Maureen Cummins’ word plays, both dark and funny,  demand close attention. On the cover of a metal book (bottom right of photo) about the ‘father of the lobotomy,’ the word therapist is broken into its component parts, the rapist, a secret meaning reflected in the revelations offered by the text within. Other titles included similarly plangent plays on words.

Suzanne Gray and Donna Seager of  Sesger Gray Gallery

Suzanne Gray and Donna Seager of Sesger Gray Gallery

Like any art fair, if you really want to see everything, two visits (or incredible endurance) are required to really absorb all of the objects and ideas on display. I had many conversations that, though brief, were deeply enjoyable, because everyone was so friendly. But I wished I had more time—something I rarely want, at such events. Though crowded, it never felt anything less than civil and calm. 

And now to some observations, that are simply that: not judgments, but a record of what I saw at both Codex fairs I have visited.  Attendees (and for the most part exhibitors) are a very homogeneous group. They are almost entirely white, between the ages of forty-plus and seventy-five; unlike the visitors at many art fairs, rather than suits or black clothes, they wear flowing scarves and sweaters in neutrals or the same tasteful hues as the book bindings on the tables. I saw a handful of children  (as in, less than five). The ticket price isn’t prohibitive-- $10 is less than a movie, these days, and half of what it costs to get into SFMOMA— but it’s still significant. (Thousands visit, according to the Codex website, but, as with other art fairs, those who do represent a distinct demographic.

One can only hope that future Codex attendees will include additional younger enthusiasts. Still, I remember having some of the same anxious hopes at a symposium put on by the American Craft Council a few years ago, when I looked out over the heads of the crowd and the majority of them were gray. That, of course, was before the Internet really got going as an engine of commerce. Nowadays the crafts world seems to be surviving nicely, including all kinds of letterpress-printed whatnots (cards, coasters, limited edition art) that are selling like hot cakes all over Etsy and through Instagram posts. So maybe there is no need for Codex to try to appeal to anyone other than the group that supports it—a community that is internationally diverse, if somewhat skewed towards retirement age.  

Someone will always love books, and words, and want to run her fingers over paper in which  type or image have left a crisp impression.

Dean Smith: An Appreciation

Dean Smith,  environment 2  (2014)

Dean Smith, environment 2 (2014)

            Ideally, I would like to take a viewer to a place where thinking almost floats; where thought becomes              less linear and goal-oriented and more rhizomatic, like a branching structure. You could call it a                        meditative state—a reverie of questioning that doesn’t fixate on one particular thing, but allows a                    range of possibilities to come into play within the mind.  
                           --Dean Smith, interviewed by Bruno Fazzolari in Art Practical, 2011

 Our days and hours are measured and marked by a flow of information as incessant as it is random: a never-ending stream of emails, texts and notifications reminding us of time lost, even as they erase our ability to sense its passing. In a few hundred years, we’ve gone from reading the sun’s position in the sky to gauge the hour, to listening for a clock tower’s chimes; from pulling out pocket watches, to glancing at one’s wrist, to staring at devices that-- carried in the hand, a pocket or purse-- enslave us more securely than chains or ropes could ever do.  There is no escaping it. In a narcotized trance, we swipe and click. Swipe, and click.

Dean Smith,  entrance II  (2009)

Dean Smith, entrance II (2009)

It is art’s job, it seems to me—or one of them, anyway-- to push back against this tyranny. Dean Smith’s drawings offer us a chance to seize control of time by inviting us to join in a slow, rich meditation on an idea as it unfolds to its conclusion; eyes following the unexpected, subtle events that have happened as marks have accumulated on a sheet of paper over the course of days, weeks, or even months. Like spring grass (or a field of fur), slight graphite lines fill geometric forms with a flickering dark gray, their delicate texture pulling us in for a closer look. As close as we can get, inches away, the lines seem numberless-- though, like grains of sand on a beach (or the hairs on an animal’s skin) they could, of course, be counted. And that would be a kind of meditation too.

Wolfgang Laib, pollen installation

Wolfgang Laib, pollen installation

Janine Antoni,  Lick and Lather  (detail)

Janine Antoni, Lick and Lather (detail)

Smith acknowledges his intention to slow both his own experience and that of the viewer to a tempo more appropriate to monastic contemplation than that of twenty-first century life.  Art that embodies time through labor forms its own category: Wolfgang Laib’s glowing accumulations of pollen gathered flower by flower come to mind, or Janine Antoni’s patient subtraction through washing/ licking of soap or chocolate self portrait busts. There is practically a school of labor-intensive drawing in the Bay Area, including virtuosos like D-L Alvarez, Peter Mitchell-Dayton, or Katherine Vetne, though the spiritual father of them all-- as demonstrated by the endlessly inventive, endlessly work-and-time-rich work included in his recent retrospective-- is the late Bruce Conner.



Bruce Conner, Untitled (from Mandala Series) 1965

Bruce Conner, Untitled (from Mandala Series) 1965

Smith, as it happens, met Conner through archiving the artist’s papers at the Bancroft Library, and the two men became friends. Towards the end of Conner’s life, when minute manipulations became difficult, Smith began assisting with the collages made from found book engravings that Conner produced for many years. After Conner’s death, his wife gave Smith the collage material that remained.

Dean Smith,  environment 4  (2013)

Dean Smith, environment 4 (2013)

That was several years ago. It took some time for Smith to figure out how to use them in a way that aligned with his own practice, but his recent exhibition at Anglim Gilbert Gallery included several small collage works (around 5 x 7 inches) that give off the same kind of humming resonance as the drawings on view. Engraved lines that seem to have once depicted water or clouds are punctuated with slivers or squares of other images, and the contents of these are sometimes recognizable, but often not. The fields of rippling lines suggest contours on a map, or growth rings on a cut slice of tree-- or any of a number of organic allusions, as they curl slightly around small interruptions. The collages are siblings to the drawings, or perhaps cousins once removed. They clearly belong.


Dean Smith,  untitled  (2015)

Dean Smith, untitled (2015)

Several examples of Smith' newest family of drawings were present as well-- a series collectively titled labyrinths. Though just as identifiably works by Smith’s patient hand, they are quite different from those featuring the fields of marks I’ve already described. These small, enigmatic compositions evoking circuit boards, or maybe the symbolic language of maps, magic, or spiritual architecture, are drawn either on salvaged sheets of vintage paper (surplus from Smith’s job at the Bancroft Library, perhaps?) or on panels covered with a smooth ground of chalk gesso. Less sensuous to my eyes than his other work, they are still deeply compelling.

As I stood in the gallery, appreciating the spare and elegant installation, I thought about the single large framed work that Smith had placed on the floor, roughly near the center of the room. Entrance II (2009) is a square field of dense marks; in it, a long slender finger of white remains, leading from near the perimeter to a tiny, empty rectangle in the center of the drawing.

Dean Smith,  intooutof 7  on center of wall;  entrance II  on floor

Dean Smith, intooutof 7 on center of wall; entrance II on floor

At first, the placement of this work on the floor baffled me. But I’ve come to think that offering viewers this gambit could be Smith’s ways of taking us, at least visually, out of the ordinary stand-and-stare experience and through some kind of wormhole-- to a place where the constant chatter of thought just falls away. Looking at photographs of the installation, I’ve noticed this piece’s almost prayerful relationship to an even larger drawing in the show, hanging on the wall across the gallery. Titled intooutof #7 (2016) and measuring four by nearly six feet, it consists of a vast rectangular field of marks, its expanse punctuated by flickering vertical bars of white.

Dean Smith,  intooutof 7  (detail) 

Dean Smith, intooutof 7 (detail) 

Thinking about the hours of labor such a drawing represents is almost inconceivable, faintly unbearable, and utterly otherworldly. Remembering it now, I realize that looking at it made me feel like I could never really see it, no matter how long I looked. But that was all right. I could just be there, and feel time, without needing to measure its passage or mark it with any device.





As long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by other people’s shop talk.  I love to listen in on a group of makers or workers telling stories in their own particular inscrutable way—using a shorthand about tools and methods; joking or explaining, in a language that encompasses a shared appreciation for knowledge of a very specific kind.

After grad school, I worked for a builder for nearly two years, starting out from a place of complete ignorance of what lies behind a sheetrock wall (or even how the sheetrock got there in the first place) and ending up with a moderate degree of competence in a few small areas of construction. With perfect, chilling clarity, I remember my first visit to a lumberyard, where I had been sent to buy materials for a job.  It was like those dreams where you’re suddenly taking a test you haven’t prepared for, or you are naked in a room full of clothed people. The only thing that saved me was that it was Berkeley in 1980, and women had entered most of the trades. The salesman at the yard treated me with a wary courtesy, unsure if I was a real carpenter or just someone’s feckless girl assistant. I read my list to him, relying on my excellent posture and normal forbidding expression to get me through it.  

 I tried, all through that time, to seem as though I belonged in the places I found myself. I learned the words and carried the tools—whatever they were-- though never with complete confidence, being largely afraid of power saws (or most social situations), due to having much too vivid an imagination. Still, it seems worth noting that the crew I was part of during the day consisted entirely of people with master’s degrees. We were all trying to find out where we belonged. It was Berkeley. It was the eighties.

Marcus Lupertz,  Untitled,  1990

Marcus Lupertz, Untitled, 1990

Some time later, I entered another foreign world, with as little preparation or knowledge of what lay behind the surface as I’d had when I started working for the builder. I was writing reviews of exhibitions, and that meant getting invited to the fancy dinners that took place after openings. Sometimes held at restaurants, sometimes at dealer’s homes, these events terrified me (as much as any visit to a lumberyard), clad in my one decent dress, my black leather jacket, or both. There was usually a lot of wine. The food was good. One particularly memorable event, held to celebrate the opening of a show of the work of Neo-Expressionist Markus Lupertz, took place at art dealer Rena Bransten’s house. There were dozens of people from all over the world, drinking, eating, chatting. I knew almost no one.


Holding my plate, I sat at a table. The man to my left introduced himself as “Mike Werner,” with an ironic smile and a faint accent. Somehow we started talking about the German novel Perfume, which I had recently read in translation. I relaxed slightly. Werner (that is, Michael Werner, Lupertz’s dealer and international art world figure, though I was too nervous to figure that out at the time) laughed at something I said. A moment later, Jack Lane, the director of SFMOMA, leaned across the table and fixed me with an unpleasant stare. “Why are you here? Are you some kind of expert on Neo-Expressionist painting?” he asked loudly. For a moment, it was just like those humiliating naked test-taking dreams. But I smiled-- I think-- and said, “Nope. I have no idea why I was invited. I don’t know anything.”

‘Mike’ laughed again, and conversations at the table resumed. Just then, the artist’s beautiful wife Trixi drifted by, in a short strapless dress made of burnt orange suede and matching opera-length gloves. I felt the heady thrill of being in a world I barely knew, listening to the threads of seductive shoptalk rise and fall around me, as people gossiped and bragged and complained about shows, museums, paintings, collectors; money, money, money, and—occasionally-- art. I almost felt as if I belonged, and eventually, I suppose I did. As much as I did with the carpenters, anyway.



Traveling at home

When I go somewhere for the purpose of art tourism— Los Angeles, New York, or even further afield—I usually set myself a stunningly ambitious list of Things To Do in One Day. Here at home, the assumption always is that something can be left for another time, which usually means that I don’t see at least half of the things I want to, as life  (or sheer inertia) intervenes.

So it was that I decided I would start with the premise that I could do in a day in San Francisco what I attempt somewhere else, leaving aside the question of whether or not it was a good idea to do so. I would start with three downtown gallery shows, proceed to view not one but two art fairs in different locations, then end the day with two gallery openings, one the inaugural show in a new location. Extensive driving would be required; public transportation was out of the question, as it would add about five hours to the agenda. There would also be lots of walking (one can never park anywhere near anything in SF) and a certain amount of—endurance. Here, with a few pictures to liven it up (until my phone died on the way to my last stop) is my story.

Detail J.Schnell DATAHERMATICA(2016)

Detail J.Schnell DATAHERMATICA(2016)

11:30-- After a quick and relatively easy passage over the bridge I begin my odyssey at Gregory Lind Gallery at 49 Geary Street with a solo show of Jovi Schnell’s new paintings. They are bigger, looser than before; beautiful surfaces, full of texture (among other things, she adds pumice to the underpainting for the silver grounds). There’s a hint of something like Joan Miró or maybe German/ Scandinavian/ Polish folk art. I have to write 350 words about this show, which is harder than it sounds, as it is too brief to really say much, for Art Ltd. Magazine. So I make notes, take pictures.

Maurizio Anzeri at Haines Gallery:  Heavenly Sounds Green, Pink,  and  Blue  (all 2017)

Maurizio Anzeri at Haines Gallery: Heavenly Sounds Green, Pink, and Blue (all 2017)


I walk down the hallway to Haines Gallery, where I make a beeline for the rear gallery to stare at Maurizio Anzeri’s mesmerizing embroidered (found) photographs, following the lines of thread that cross their surfaces. The pictures are all landscapes, this time; the last group I saw here was all portraits. I want to write at length about these, but an opportunity has not yet presented itself to do so.

So I cross the street to Anglim Gilbert Gallery, where it is the last day of Dean Smith’s show. Fortuitously, Smith himself is standing in the gallery when I get to the top of the stairs. This gallery has been in this spot for well over 30 years. Somehow it has remained, through all of the changes in downtown San Francisco, the Dot Com Boom and bust, and our serial real estate follies.

Gilbert Anglim Gallery (Dean Smith show)

Gilbert Anglim Gallery (Dean Smith show)

Dean and I have known each other for a long time and I am happy to see him and be able to ask him questions about his extraordinary drawings and collages, which are a kind of embodiment of time.  I make a plan to write about them soon, thinking about how I will do it as I walk back to the parking garage and get into my car. On a whim, despite the fact that I think I know my way around the city (despite having only lived there for six months out of the nearly forty years I’ve spent in the Bay Area) I offer myself up to the phone. I would do that if I were in another city, wouldn’t I?  Siri’s Australian-accented directions do a surprisingly good job of getting me to the FOG Design+ Art fair, located in one of the piers along the waterfront. I park on the top of the hill and make my way down to the entrance.

San Francisco has a sorry history with art fairs. Several have been tried here, but it is a small city (despite its glamor and disproportionate wealth) and, well, most of these fairs have had a little art on view worth making the trip for and a lot of awful crap. The good galleries take a booth at first and they make enough money to keep coming back at least two or three times but then it is just not worth it anymore, and the bad galleries are just so bad. At least, this is how it appears to us, the viewers/ visitors. There is much more to say, and much more that has been said about the general decline of retail and the desire of art dealers to get access to all that tech money, but the long and the short of it is that the FOG Design+Art fair has figured out a formula for success, successfully attracting several substantial, important galleries from New York (a few of which already have satellite operations in the Bay Area, like Pace and Gagosian) and from here as well. Booths showing important works of art are intermixed with those of galleries that sell expensive furniture and decorative art objects.  FOG is in its fourth year, and is going strong, with 45 exhibitors and a wait list for booths. Or so they say on their website.


1:05-- The entry area of the fair is filled with massive floral art that includes four giant hanging walls of 235,000 roses simulating rug-like patterns, bookending an area where ‘floral artists’ are on the job, continually making smaller works out of various blooms. There is a lot of red—rich, dark red walls, red flowers, bright red carpet covering the spacious aisles. I find the flowers slightly creepy, but that’s just me, I am sure. In the fair, there are harmlessly beautiful paintings by Modern Masters (Kenneth Noland at John Berggruen’s booth), monumental ceramic ashtrays by Sterling Ruby (Gagosian), and many other things that one can enjoy walking past. Fancy, strange chairs. 

Andy Paiko  Smolder Pendant  (2016)

Andy Paiko Smolder Pendant (2016)

There are also giant glass doodads, giant ceramic doodads—including a heart-stoppingly weird stoneware statue of a fairy, covered in emerald green flocking--and the perennial mid-century modern echt-tasteful stuff, though less of that than in the past. There is even a booth for a Paris jeweler, and while jewelry is certainly decorative art, it’s not really what I would describe as integral to design. The booth itself is totally intimidating, hiding its contents from passersby, and I don’t go in.

Barry McGee ceramics

Barry McGee ceramics

Soon, I find myself really enjoying Barry McGee’s shelves full of platters and ceramic sculpture, courtesy of Ratio 3. In aggregate, the display reminds me a bit of Ken Price’s series of installations called Happy’s Curios, the artist’s homage to Mexican souvenir pottery, though I have no idea if McGee knows that work. In general, throughout the fair, past and present, kitsch and elegance, seem to blend together in some kind of timeless blur. Sometimes, this is enchanting—Stephan Kurten’s gold-limned paintings of mid-century houses at Hosfelt Gallery, for instance, or the handsome prints from several decades on view in Crown Point Press’s booth—but still, something just doesn’t seem right. I keep thinking about that flocked elf. Has the FOG fair passed its peak? Maybe. Maybe not. I shrug my shoulders, and depart.

3:10-- I go back up the hill to my car and cross the city to the Untitled fair, where I end up walking nearly a mile from where I have parked with two other slightly lost middle-aged people. As we amble along, I ask them (as I asked several others I ran into at FOG) if they were attending both fairs. Virtually all have either already gone to both or plan to do so, though I seem to be the only person insane enough to do that on a single day. Though this is the first Untitled fair here, it is practically an institution in Miami’s December art fair madness, having started there five years ago as “an international curated art fair… that focuses… on all disciplines of contemporary art."

Jeremy Everett at Kristin Hjellegierde Gallery/narrative projects, London

Jeremy Everett at Kristin Hjellegierde Gallery/narrative projects, London

Once inside I wander the outer perimeter first and then try to make sure I’ve seen all the interior booths, but the layout is more organic than FOG’s straight aisles and my progress keeps being interrupted by conversations with people I know.  (Plus, the type on the map I was handed at the front desk is so microscopic that reading it is clearly meant to be optional.) That’s fine—it’s all part of the experience—but by now I have seen quite a lot of art and visual fatigue is beginning to set in. I notice immediately that there are a lot of LA galleries here (there were hardly any at FOG) and galleries from Buenos Aires, Spain, and Mexico, all of which are showing interesting art. There are actually 55 exhibitors here from ten countries and several local nonprofits/ institutions, like the Berkeley Art Museum and Contemporary Jewish Museum as well as David Ireland’s house and the Headlands Center for the Arts. Most have something for sale.

There are also a few Bay Area galleries, of course. Interestingly, Anglim Gilbert (arguably, a blue chip institution and definitely an established one) is here, not at FOG. The work in their booth includes a profoundly cool stuffed cloth sculpture by Joan Brown, a certified Modern Master, of a figure astride a horse.

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  Goshka Macuga (nominee for 2008 Turner Prize) at Untitled

Goshka Macuga (nominee for 2008 Turner Prize) at Untitled

The of-the-moment work I see around me looks good against the bare concrete floors. (Exhibitors confide in me that standing on those floors in the penetrating chill of a damp January has been slightly unpleasant, though today seems OK. Possibly an oversight on the part of the Miami-based management.) Some of what I examine is silly but most of it is worth looking at and thinking about/ I find myself hoping that people buy this, instead of the giant doodads at FOG.

6:15--It’s dark out by now. I return to the car and drive to the outer Mission, to see Ratio 3’s newest show—six computer-generated prints by Takeshi Murata ranged around the walls of the cavernous gallery, lit up as brightly as a surgery theater—and to attend the inaugural show at Capital gallery’s new space. It’s upstairs from Ratio 3, but the entrance is on Lilac, an alley that runs behind the building, so I walk around the block. As I turn onto Lilac, I’m treated to an unexpected exhibition: on every surface, street artists have painted words, tags, and pictures too, including a deftly-sprayed portrait of Rosa Parks. I go up the stairs and into the gallery—much, much bigger than their former Chinatown space—filled with cheerful people and interesting art.  It’s an auspicious beginning. I can’t take any more small talk or stimulation, however, so I depart and walk two blocks of Lilac to get back to my car. The entire way, the walls around me are completely covered with undulating letters and colors: an oddly comforting experience in the semidarkness, reminding me that art is all around us.  And then, I drive home.

Later, as I go to sleep, I check the stats in my phone: 3.6 miles walked. Nine flights climbed (that was the hill behind the pier at Fort Mason.) Goodnight, moon; Good night, stairs. Good night, giant doodads and fancy chairs. Goodnight art and goodnight words.  I turn out the light.

Giant glass doodad by Jean Michel Othoniel, Le Collier Or (2016), at Untitled 

Giant glass doodad by Jean Michel Othoniel, Le Collier Or (2016), at Untitled 


(Note: this week's text initiates a series of occasional pieces of short fiction, relating-- however distantly at times-- to art, art making, artists, and the intersection of such things with Modern Life as we know it.)

The first time I saw them was in his apartment in Detroit.  He was just starting out then, writing human-interest pieces for the Journal. He had this tiny studio on the fifth floor of an old brick building, and he wanted there to be something living when he came home at night. He couldn’t deal with the responsibility of even so much as a goldfish, so he had these things in pots, out on the fire escape where they could get some sun.   

They looked pretty funny, to tell the truth, and I told him that I didn’t understand why he had them. Even a vase of dried weeds would be nicer. He just laughed and told me that these stunted bushes were his little art project—a miniaturized version of his Southern California boyhood. Now, from the distance of time and a considerable number of miles, he remembered all that structured shrubbery with nostalgic fondness. John didn’t have pets. Instead, he had topiary.

They were still skinny and pretty young back then- three, maybe four years old, since he’d started them when he got his first job- but over time they really shaped up. The paper moved him around pretty often, but I wasn’t able to stay in one place (or at one job) very long either, so I got to see those shrubs in a lot of places: Seattle, Dallas, Philadelphia, Chicago. By Dallas, the collection had a kind of sharp-edged denseness that reminded me of those fuzzy dice that people hang from their rear-view mirrors. Although I had grudgingly come to admire them all, my favorite one was the size and shape of a regulation football.

(I even saw them once in John’s old hometown, LA, where he had rented a bungalow up near the Hollywood Bowl. Thinking that the climate was at last just right, he had put them outside along the walk, but the neighborhood dogs kept mistaking them for fireplugs. By the time I passed through, they were back indoors, recovering from the ordeal of frequent exposure to dog urine.)  

I got married around then and even bought a home, thinking that it might help tie me down, but John kept on moving. I lost track of him after I gave up the house and just about everything else in the divorce. A few years later, I managed to get promoted to New York right before Christmas. On a whim, I called the paper to see where John was working, and amazingly enough, he was right there in the office. He gave me his home address and told me to meet him there after work. I felt kind of funny about it—it was Christmas Eve, for one thing—but I didn’t have anywhere else to go. And, apparently, neither did he.

It was the kind of loft that no artist will ever live or work in. A big, lonely room, punctuated with marooned islands of furniture.  John seemed OK, if a little tired. He was smaller than I remembered, or maybe that was just because the place was so undefined. He went into the kitchen part of it to get some glasses and ice while I strolled around.

I guess unconsciously I was looking for them, but when I circled the sofa and saw them in the shadows, it was still quite a shock. They were dead, beyond a reasonable doubt. Even I could tell that and I’m lousy with plants, though their branches still made those interesting, unnatural shapes: cube, football, pointy little cone.

He came over and saw me looking at them. I tried to make a joke about surviving urban life, but he just shook his head. Much later, after most of a bottle of scotch, he said that they had died sometime back. He didn’t know why. Still, he hadn’t had the heart to leave them behind since, after all (I remember this part very clearly) they were a perfect reminder of how nothing could really live that way. By then, it was much too late to ask him exactly what he meant. 




Lush, or why I became an art critic

Once upon a time (as all good stories should begin), I lived in a warehouse in East Oakland and had a business making hand painted tile. It was October of 1986. I had a mullet haircut, wore vests, and was frequently mistaken for a lesbian. One day, Jamie Brunson-- a painter then fresh out of the Mills grad program who lived in another studio in the building-- told me that she had just started to write reviews for Artweek, a weekly paper that covered northern California with contributors in other West Coast cities. “You could do this,” she said encouragingly. “You’re a writer.” And, in fact, I was. After completing an MFA in sculpture at the University of Chicago, I’d moved to the Bay area, where I had friends. I had also decided that maybe I really wasn’t an artist (having stalled completely after grad school),  and had returned to writing seriously instead. I hung out with poets. Read my work in bookstores to tiny audiences. Published in tiny magazines. It felt good, but by the time Jamie urged me to indulge my penchant for describing, explaining, and judging, I had also begun to admit that I was just a tourist in the literary world. Art writing seemed like it was a way to prolong the vacation, as it were.


I clearly remember a review in Artweek in which a writer used the word lush to describe painting. “Lush?” I said, incredulous. “I could do better than THAT.” I carefully reread the entire issue, figuring out how reviews are structured and what must be accomplished in five hundred words. I went to see a show, wrote about it and mailed the text to Cecile McCann, the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Artweek, then located in an office in downtown Oakland. To my amazement, she called me the next day and asked me to start right away. The pay? $35.  $50 for a longer piece on the front page.

The rules were strict: the article had to appear while it was still possible to see the art, should the reader be interested in doing so. Since gallery shows usually last only a month or so, publishing in a timely manner often meant seeing the exhibition in the first 48 hours it was open, writing quickly, and submitting copy. After a round of editing, the paper went to to the printer. There was no web version then. There were simply a few sheets of newsprint, sold at art supply stores or by subscription.

The first year, I wrote my drafts by hand, typing them laboriously on a friend’s computer (I didn’t have one yet). By the end of that time, I’d also started reviewing for American Ceramics—like Artweek, now extinct-- a glossy quarterly devoted to ceramic art.  The year after that I started writing for Shift, the gorgeous publication of San Francisco Artspace, and began contributing a column from the Bay Area to Contemporanea, a short-lived international monthly. There were articles for American Craft and Sculpture Magazine. By the next year, I was making my own work and starting a successful exhibition career. I was also writing for Artforum, the publication I stayed with the longest.

There were others. Artcoast, Artspace, Artwest, Art Issues. I forget all the names.  They came, they published, they disappeared. The pay got somewhat better, and then after the advent of the Internet, remarkably worse, as universal access for everyone to everything enabled an economy that expects art writers to write essentially for free. For one thing, a plethora of newly-minted grads from visual studies or curatorial practice programs, not to mention junior academics, are willing to write for nothing more than career advancement.

But that, as they say, is another story. This one, that started so long ago, ends in the post-millennial present, where I’ve surprised myself by returning to writing reviews-- producing between 12 and 20 a year for several web-based and print publications.  I regard this, much as I always have, as my community service. I try to write mostly about California artists and/or exhibitions that are significant for other reasons. And I never, ever use the word lush.