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CJM: The Art of Spycraft 

Wednesday, Dec 30 2015
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Under Executive Director Lori Starr and Chief Curator Renny Pritikin, both of whom have come on board in the last few years, the Contemporary Jewish Museum has broadened its programming immensely. As proof of how far-ranging the new creative leadership's experiments have become, look at the museum's current exhibits, "Chasing Justice" and "NEAT," which range from a projection-map sculpture originated in India to the impossible-to-access art collection of the national security state.

In late 2011, at a gallery called The Toilet in a poor neighborhood in India's capital, Gabriel Dunne and Vishal K. Dar configured a white-foamed sculpture with multiple humps and bulges that billowed outward from a simple column. Using their own software, Dunne and Dar sprayed the work with animated projections that gave the sculpture what can only be called "life."

Layers of lines, splotches, and matter snaked continuously in wild patterns around each curve. With what looked like organs and skin crawling along its surface, the sculpture transfixed everyone who entered the space — including some of New Delhi's street kids, who told Dunne and Dar that their work was a great life form culled from the gods. The kids called the sculpture Naga, a Hindi word for a great snake spirit.

Nothing like it had ever been seen in New Delhi. Four years later, with the artwork hanging on the wall of the Contemporary Jewish Museum, nothing like it has ever been seen in San Francisco. This iteration, called NAAG XY, is part of the museum's exhibit "NEAT: New Experiments in Art and Technology." Along with Dar, Dunne (who lives in Emeryville) embedded NAAG XY horizontally on the museum's second floor.

"The first time we installed it [in India], the kids would run up to it and be crazy, saying, 'Oh my God — what are you guys doing?' " Dunne says. "Vishal told them, 'We're experimenting with a work, and we'd love you to tell us what you think the piece is, and what you make of it.' We didn't know if these kids had ever had a cinema experience, let alone seen a projection-map sculpture. They were just in awe. And they came back to us and said, 'We figured out what it is: It's a wish-fulfilling sea serpent. And it's here now but it's going to go away.' They instantly got the intangibility and the virtuality of the technology that we were using."

The software for NAAG XY is, Dunne explains, "generative," which means that "there's no looping. The pattern tiles don't repeat. It comes from research we were doing in Islamic tile patterns. We're referencing certain numeric patterns that arise through certain geometries and incorporating that. It's essentially a software program that runs just for the surface texture."

"NEAT," whose other standout works include a new film from Jim Campbell, is running one floor above "Chasing Justice," a CJM exhibit centered on three cases of activism that have tangled with government authority. Portland artist Joby Barron's experience with the Central Intelligence Agency and its valuable collection of abstract art is especially illuminating.

The CIA's collection, which includes pieces like Alma Thomas' Mars Reflection and Morris Louis' Gamma, lines the hallways of its headquarters in Langley, Va. Presidents have seen the art. Foreign leaders have gazed at the paintings. And CIA analysts regularly study — yes, study — the collection, which was donated by a Washington, D.C., bigwig named Vincent Melzac, who was once the chief executive of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Yet the agency is highly reluctant, to release details of its holdings — even simple descriptions of what the art looks like. Why?

Barron has spent much of the past six years querying the agency about Melzac's donations, only to be rebuffed time and again. While the CIA says it has nothing to hide, Barron is deeply suspicious, and her exhibit is a provocative examination of how the same spy agency that helped track and assassinate Osama bin Laden, and worked with Hollywood to promote its role in his death, appears reluctant to talk about simple canvasses. It won't even send Barron images of the art in question, many of which are highly lauded works from a movement in the 1950s and '60s called the Washington Color school.

The CIA's correspondence with Barron, concerning her Freedom of Information Act requests, is also on display. Some communiqués are a caricature of government-speak.

"Your request cannot be accepted in its current form because the FOIA was enacted to provide a means for the general public to access Government records," one CIA information and privacy official, Michael Lavergne, wrote her. "As you are not seeking such records, per se, your request does not constitute a FOIA request. Therefore we must decline to process this request."

Undaunted, Barron continues to seek information about the art donated by Melzac, a Jewish Republican who died in 1989. Using what knowledge she could find — images found in books, details gleaned from CIA documents — she recreated all the art in a slightly smaller size as part of NEAT.

As Barron tells SF Weekly, "I don't know that the CIA is intentionally being secretive. The lack of information may just speak to the bureaucracy at the CIA, incomplete records about the collection, or my ability to navigate the FOIA." Still, she says, "It seemed like the FOIA in this case was a puzzle of semantics. I think this project is another example of the need for FOIA reform ... I hope the project will stem conversations about the current state of government transparency."

Since the exhibit has been shown, Robert Newmann, whose Arrows is at the CIA's headquarters, has contacted Barron, telling her that "he did not know until recently that his painting was at the CIA," Barron says. "He believed that none of the other artists knew as well."

A spokesperson for the CIA tells SF Weekly that, in 1987, the agency bought 11 of the works that Melzac had lent the agency, that the paintings "have appeared in Hollywood blockbusters, such as Argo," and that they "are used in critical thinking exercises as part of analytical training for today's intelligence analysts." Two of the paintings are shown on the CIA's website, albeit without details. It may just be that the CIA thinks the art is a low priority in its effort to declassify or acknowledge details of its holdings. Or there may be something much more pernicious there. Either way, Barron's investigating is ongoing.

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Jonathan Curiel

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