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Art: We're the Center of the Universe! 

Wednesday, Apr 20 2016
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In Pantea Karimi's new watercolor and silkscreen work called The Return of Geocentrism i, centuries of knowledge — and layers of meaning — flood across a celestial horizon that has the sun revolving around the earth. The art is Karimi's take on a 16th-century cartographic work by Portugal's Bartolomeu Velho, who was envisioning a second-century idea by the Greek-Egyptian scholar Ptolemy. In Velho's time, during the European Renaissance, knowledge was transferred through books translated over the centuries by Arab and Persian scholars who'd kept alive Greek theories that would otherwise have been lost. No Arab and Persian scientists. No European Renaissance. Karimi is honoring this cross-century transference, where Velho was collaborating with Ptolemy through ancient scholars from the Middle East. But Karimi's work, which is part of her art series called "Punctum Caecum" — Latin for "blind spot" — is also a sly commentary on today's environmental concerns.

"I use the title ironically," says Karimi, who was born and raised in Iran and now lives in San Jose. "Because of all the problems that we have on Earth — climate-wise and scientifically — the return of geocentrism is a kind of metaphor. Do we have to pay attention to Earth again? Isn't it Earth at the center of attention?"

Karimi will exhibit The Return of Geocentrism i and other work from her "Punctum Caecum" series at stARTup Art Fair San Francisco, which runs April 29 through May 1 in the Marina District and features many artists who don't have traditional gallery representation. Co-founded by Ray Beldner, a San Francisco artist, and Steve Zavattero, the former co-owner of the San Francisco gallery Marx & Zavattero, stARTup Art Fair San Francisco is a chance to see such other standout Bay Area artists as Michael Cutlip, who makes bewitching abstract panels, and artists from much farther away, including African-born British painter Adjani Okpu-Egbe.

Despite the real-estate upheavals that have leveled San Francisco's traditional gallery spaces, the month of April is a reminder of how many arresting gallery exhibits and artist exhibitions there are in the city, and how curators are constantly rethinking and initiating new ways of presenting their best art. On April 15, Fraenkel Gallery, the longtime downtown San Francisco space, opened a Mid-Market auxiliary space dedicated to experimental work. The first FraenkelLAB exhibit, "Home Improvements," is curated by John Waters, the director-writer-artist whose taste famously runs toward the odd and flamboyant. At FraenkelLAB, this means art-goers get a gallery full of work that both pokes and prods them to laugh and to seriously contemplate the art of everyday objects.

How about a toilet paper dispenser with a half-used roll? In a 1997 piece by Los Angeles sculptor George Stoll that channels a bit of Marcel Duchamp, the life-sized sculpture uses an elegant fabric called silk chiffon to mimic the paper that usually wipes away people's feces. The artwork's humor is also embedded in its title, which has fun at the way some people place their rolls: Untitled (Wall Inset White Toilet Paper Roll, Hung Backwards). Then there is German conceptual artist Karin Sander's 1990s staple art, in which she patterns bands of small metal fasteners onto sections of binder-sized white paper. And there is Love Not Money, Moyra Davey's 2010 chromogenic print of an old record collection — lots of Bill Withers there — where the albums' spines bunch together to form a beautiful pattern of slants and colors.

The exhibit's coda is Waters' own work from 2014, Bill's Stroller, which converts a simple vehicle for getting children around town into an object of R-rated playfulness. The seat has a spiked, leather waist fastener; "Blow Buddies" wording with the "o" encasing an image of a large, flaccid penis dripping with semen; and photos of buffed men cavorting solo and with companions. Fraenkel Gallery says its new space, which will be open until 9 p.m. on Wednesdays through Saturdays, is for "adventurous exhibitions" that may include performance art, readings, and film screenings passersby can view from the street. Waters' fans can only hope that he'll show up and perform before the exhibit closes on May 28.


Just blocks away from Fraenkel-LAB is "McNair Evans: In Search of Great Men," which opened April 15 at San Francisco City Hall. Organized by the San Francisco Arts Commission Galleries, the show highlights people whom Evans met on long-distance train rides across the United States. Evans' images are intimate portraits of people, young and old, who are often on the cusp of major transitions — moving to new jobs, meeting loved ones they haven't seen in years, trying to start over again. In the tradition of Robert Frank's seminal work The Americans, Evans finds the edges of America and stays there as long as he can. Where Frank had Jack Kerouac write the words that accompanied his published images, Evans has the train-travelers themselves write journals, some of which are displayed at City Hall. The marriage of words and images is touching and sublime, offering a moving window (both literally and emotionally) into the lives of those like Larry and Valerie Munson.

Evans met the young, unmarried couple when they had a small boy and were living in a New England town. Valerie was going to school and Larry — who "was not always the best role model," as their handwritten journal entry says — was working hard to earn money. His journal expresses hope that his past, full of drug use and a fight with a police officer, was behind him. It includes a photo that Evans took from the train: Valerie with her son in a small railroad cabin, along with a person who seems to be Larry.

"The trains are full of people who are actively seeking and trying to build a better life for themselves — it's not what they've accomplished but where they're hoping to go," says Evans, a North Carolina native who now lives in San Francisco and just won a Guggenheim Fellowship that will let him expand his three-year train project. "This show is not about sensationalism, which so dominates digital photography and is about 'bright colors' and 'amazing places.' This is a show that I believe lives in subtlety — the subtlety of the human spirit, and the subtlety of life experiences. To me, that little fold is infinite."

Subtlety is a subtext in "Issued ID: Minority as Brand," at Black & White Projects, where a coterie of artists of color addresses issues of art-world stereotyping. Oakland artist Xandra Ibarra has made a name by performing her outrageous character of La Chica Boom, but she has also wanted to break free of both the "out" and the "rage" of the sexual and ethnic borders that she's played with. At "Issued ID: Minority as Brand," Ibarra shows large photographs that use sexuality and cockroach metamorphosis to explore the idea of reinvention. In his chalkboard work called Contractual Obligations, Channing Morgan lampoons the notion that artists sign contracts prohibiting them from employing "nuance" in their work, especially as it relates to such specific subjects as "irony" and "black hoodies" and "hair." On Saturday, April 23, at 2 p.m., the exhibit's curator and artists will have a roundtable discussion about the exhibit's themes.

"There are tricky positions, representations and economies that go with being a minority in the arts," says Rhiannon Evans MacFadyen, who curated the exhibit. "There's this idea that you consistently have to pander or advocate; you can never just make work."

All four exhibits challenge notions that might be fixed in the public imagination. Just a few words on a chalkboard, a diary, a grown-up stroller, or a watercolor work can alter people's assumptions — at least in the very short-term.

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Jonathan Curiel

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