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Cosmic Wonder 

Wednesday, Jul 12 2006
Last month, the New York Times dropped heavy praise on a loosely framed sample of music hitting what one of my friends calls "the third ear." Writer Will Hermes heralded the freak-folk, feedback, and drone-rockers bringing a freewheeling '60s aesthetic to a generation that was still seedlings in its fathers' nut-huggers when these styles were first taking root. While the article — which name-checked a number of Bay Area artists — caused a typical collective flinch from those wanting out of the Old Gray Lady's clutches, it made clear the increasing cultural influence of artists tripping on genuine Summer of Love-era unconventionality.

The coverage did more than draw up a suggested listening list for suburban newspaper subscribers, though. It offered another angle in the dawning of a Newer Age of imagination (one covered regularly in Arthur magazine and even popping up in glossy rags like Vogue) — and one that, through various mouthpieces, generally eschews dirty hippies and Deadhead-descendent jam bands for sharper-edged takes on counterculture, eccentricity, and psychedelic headspace.

With that in mind, there's synchronicity to be found in Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' "Cosmic Wonder" exhibit, which examines a re-envisioned Age of Aquarius through a variety of artists (some of whom are musicians themselves or work closely with the music world). The show, which opens July 14 and runs through Nov. 5, dovetails with the current CD universe and with San Francisco's audio/visual history — without the simple Haight-in-a-flashback cringe factor.

"Cosmic Wonder" spotlights galactic visionaries who "live off the grid," explains YBC guest curator Betty Nguyen; these are people experimenting "in the realm of the fantastic." The diverse artist lineup spans age, medium, and aesthetic. James Turrell, well established in the art world, plays with light projections and a color palate inspired by gazing skyward. Jim Drain and Ara Peterson — part of the Fort Thunder collective of Providence, R.I., that hatched vibrant art/punk experimenters in the late '90s — refit a kaleidoscope's dazzling shapes and colors for adult proportions. Mike Pare, born the day of the infamous Altamont riot, pens images of bong-loaded arena shows and sit-ins. (His current work supposedly involves an obelisk, skateboarding, and forests.) The list goes on from there — Doug Aitken's striking nature collages, Anna Sew Hoy's conceptual dream-catchers, Takeshi Murata's digital dissection of monster movies, and hyperreal neon palates from Paperrad are all planted along the "Cosmic Wonder" landscape.

Nguyen gathered this loose collection under a title taken from Japanese designer Yukinori Maeda's clothing line. But the words "cosmic" and "wonder" are also part of a Francis Bacon quote on one of her fridge magnets. "It says, 'Wonder is the seed of knowledge,'" Nguyen explains. "'Wonder' is a childlike naiveness where something draws you in and you're not sure why; and 'cosmic' comes from this all-encompassing idea of the universe and nature."

An occasional S.F. resident for eight years (who now calls New York home), Nguyen is an energetic cultural conduit who has dabbled in music, art, and fashion. Just spending an hour with her on the phone makes you want to triple your involvement with the arts. The idea for this particular expression of enthusiasm came to her two years ago. "I thought there was a really cool scene of youthful artists doing a brand-new thing that wasn't about skateboarding or graffiti," she says, "and I expanded the idea of the show to be about a contemporary back-to-nature and back-to-the-celebration-of-color-and-performance that's happening all over in the art world."

Nguyen isn't interested in cashing in on a quick trend. ("I've had friends say, 'Oh, you should bank on this [psychedelic] movement,'" she admits. "But that's hard, because this is happening now and it's alive and it's very precious to these artists, and if you call it a movement it deadens it.") Instead, she's turned a somewhat introspective time in music, art, and in her own life into what sounds like an exciting collection of retina-tweaking work for a museum exhibit.

"There were a lot of personal things involved with curating this show," Nguyen says, "like the transition from turning 30 and [moving away from] San Francisco as this great Never-Never Land that was youthful and playful." In New York, she met artists who had traded debauchery for deep thought. "I kind of designed the show as a passage to meditation," she explains. "It starts out with really dark, ambient work. The Terence Koh piece is literally a bunch of cloaked white figures with Corona bottles broken around them, as if they'd been partying really hard. So [the pieces] go from a dark, lose-yourself period that everyone goes through to this passage about what it really means to be alive and going back to nature and true friendships."

Hisham Bharoocha, a musician and visual artist included in "Cosmic Wonder," floats on Nguyen's wavelength. The ex-member of Black Dice/Lightning Bolt creates stunning ambient soundscapes as Soft Circle . (He'll be performing — along with Vermont folk collective Feathers, Paperrad rapper Jacob, and artists Mark Borthwick and David Aron — as Willshine at the "Cosmic Wonder" opening on Friday, July 14, from 8 to 11 p.m.) A practitioner of Vipassana meditation, Bharoocha says that in all of his creations he's "trying to find the deepest root that grows inside of me. ... I try to create the pattern, the trance that I feel when I am blissed out. Pattern is everything." (Check out a small sample of his work on page 56.)

Not that you have to be on a quest for eternal peace to appreciate the altered states on display at Yerba Buena. "The connecting thread is just that I want people to feel something [from the exhibit]," Nguyen says. "It's not about thinking. ... [T]he overlying part of the show is about emotion."

Related events: The Mission's Triple Base Gallery ( hosts an intimate mingling with select "Cosmic Wonder" artists on Wednesday, July 12, from 7 to 10 p.m., including a special musical performance at 8 p.m. And while Devendra Banhart isn't part of "Cosmic Wonder," he sings (with Feathers) on a track for a limited-edition CW comp that also includes music by Bharoocha, Hoy, Borthwick, and others, as well as tracks from Earth and Wizzards, a new Lighting Bolt offshoot.

A separate show by Chris Cobb at New Langton Arts this week centers on Banhart's road mementos — items sent from the singer's tour as well as photos taken by Cobb from past performances in S.F. "The Devendra Banhart Scrapbook" runs through July 15 (

About The Author

Jennifer Maerz


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