They had day jobs in San Francisco. One was a waitress, another a painter, and another a hotel porter. They wanted to earn more money, so they began selling their bodies for sex. But San Francisco police cracked down on prostitution. That's why these working men and women were forced to face a police camera. And that's why — almost 100 years later — their mug shots were still part of a public record that came to the attention of Oakland artist Monica Lundy. In "House of the Strange Women," on view at Toomey Tourell Fine Art, Lundy brings the mugshots back to life through oversized paintings that reframe the faces of those accused of being whores or pimps.
The people who stare back from Lundy's artwork were in the prime of their lives. Some could pass for movie stars. But Lundy isn't trying to glamorize the alleged sex workers. Even the materials she employs — things like coffee, acrylic gel, and pulverized charcoal — smother her canvases with a viscous density, suggesting that those portrayed had it rough.
"These people were prosecuted in their time for reasons that, in this day and age, may not be reasons to prosecute anyone," says Lundy. "Who do we identify as criminals now? How will that change in the future? We learn a lot about our own culture by looking at how we've marginalized people in the past."
Mugshots, which first emerged in the late 1800s, are now an endemic part of the culture, with hundreds of Internet sites trafficking in arrest photos and paparazzi shots of people under the glare of scandal. It's only the medium that's changed. In far earlier centuries, paintings allowed people to contemplate those accused of criminal behavior, as with Goya's The Third of May 1808, which depicts the French army's imminent execution of an alleged Spanish revolutionary, and Caravaggio's Christ at the Column, which depicts Roman soldiers about to whip Jesus. Whether in oils or in screenshots, these scenes of accused wrongdoers are so often wrenching because we know the legal system can err so badly.
The men and women who Lundy portrays in "House of the Strange Women" were reduced to prison numbers. She found the photos that inspired the work in the San Francisco Public Library. In previous projects, Lundy, 39, has drawn series of women from other eras who were imprisoned at San Quentin and who were committed to a Stockton asylum. The series at Toomey Tourell is her most physical art yet — done Jackson Pollock-style, with Lundy applying material and hovering over the giant canvases as they lay flat on the ground. "I'm literally on the piece — kneeling on it, sitting on it, stepping on it," she says. "It's very messy, and it's very crude, but I feel like that's appropriate to the subject matter. Some of the people in my images were physically beaten up. I used that same kind of energy on the paintings themselves."
In "Epilogue," at Robert Koch Gallery, photos from Romania capture indelible scenes of isolation. Life is both cruel and beautiful in Tamas Dezso's work, epitomized by The Flooded Village of Geamana, where — in a once-populous valley amid the hills of central Romania — waters have submerged everything except for a church steeple. Then there's Dump, where a squadron of crows flies over a landscape crowded with trash and fallen snow. Set against a cloudy sky that accentuates the birds' frenzied blackness, Dump is a study in the power of patterns. The story behind those patterns is the story of a country still transitioning from the precipice of economic upheaval and its 1989 revolution, which ended decades of Communist rule. Dump was taken outside the small city of Aiud, in the western Romanian region of Transylvania.
While Romania has become a consumer society, Dezso says, it "was starved both mentally and physically in the decades of Communist dictatorship. As a memento of that, hills and plateaus of rubbish piling up with incredible speed soon grew at out-of-the-way places, on the edges of cities and villages. Vehicles transporting rubbish legally or illegally and a mass of people who eke out their everyday survival from the litter have formed roads on the dumps, which are expanding like 'rubbish towns.'"
Crows, stray dogs, and foraging rats are a central part of these towns' ecosystem — as central as the townspeople themselves. An award-winning photographer from Hungary whose work has appeared in such publications as The New York Times and Le Monde, Dezso wants the world to see Romania without adornment. Like Lundy, Dezso gravitates toward hard truths. Small, intimate galleries in downtown San Francisco are as good a place as any to experience those truths.