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Masterminds 2013: Ten Future Bay Area Art Icons 

Wednesday, Feb 6 2013

The Bay Area has long been one of America's artistic hubs. For two centuries, great art movements — and artists — have emerged here to international acclaim, whether it was Stanley Mouse and psychedelic art of the 1960s or Eadweard Muybridge and photo motion of the 1870s. Who are today's most promising emerging artists? Each year, SF Weekly finds 10 of them for our Masterminds issue. These are artists whose work sticks in your head. A magician who's also a memoirist. A sculptor who specializes in felt. A painter who imagines the future of dense, urban centers. The artists you're about to meet are practitioners in everything from dance to film to traditional canvases.

You'll be able to see these artists and their work up close at Artopia on Thursday, Feb. 21, at SOMArts Cultural Center. That night we'll also announce the three artists who will receive grants. Come out and meet them. But first, get to know their work.

The Boob Painting by Kellen Breen

Fake Breasts and Social Criticism:
Kellen Breen
In Kellen Breen's The Boob Painting, a skinny woman — enhanced, it seems, with oversized implants — walks briskly in high heels with two other identical women as she charges up her portable music player with voltage from her right nipple. As they stroll along a hillside path, an older, angry farmer watches, riding a Segway across the dense backdrop of some downtown. The scene addresses three major themes: the penetration of technology into people's lives; the superficial emphasis that society places on wealth; and the continuing degradation of the environment. The Boob Painting isn't a downer, though. Its bright colors, humorous depictions, and narrative intrigue are like something from a Lewis Carroll story, even if Breen's underlying message is serious.

"My paintings," he says, "are ultimately social critiques on American culture."

In The Boob Painting and other work, you can see the influence of Thomas Hart Benton, the 20th-century muralist whose epic scenes of U.S. life set a high standard for expansive painting. Breen studied Benton in his last full semester at California State University, Chico, in 2008. Five years later, at age 27, Breen is interpreting his own era from his Mission District studio. His latest painting features Jesus dunking a basketball at Dolores Park's court. Jesus, who is black, is assisted by black angels who lift him upward. "I want viewers to stay engaged," Breen says of his paintings, "so that they might take something away from it, whether it's something profound, humorous, or offensive."

Photograph by Gil Riego Jr.

The Magic of Story:
Christian Cagigal
Spectacled and dressed in a blazer, white shirt, and dark pants, Christian Cagigal looks like a professor as he stands on stage at the EXIT Theatre and tells his audience, "All magic takes place in one place: your imaginations. Without one, the next 57 minutes of your life will become very, very boring. Ready? Ready?!" The audience yells yes, but nothing they say can prepare them for Cagigal's performance of Now and at the Hour, in which he guesses precisely what audience members are thinking, has them pick objects in an order that he foresees, and does other funny, mind-blowing feats.

Unlike magic acts that emphasize objects suddenly appearing, disappearing or changing shape, Now and at the Hour combines memoir and mind-reading (or "mentalism"), as if Cagigal were channeling the narrative oomph of Spalding Gray and the jaw-dropping skills of the Amazing Kreskin into a much cooler persona. During the hour, he tells his own story and that of his father — a Spanish immigrant who soldiered in Vietnam for the U.S. government and came back suffering from PTSD and schizophrenia. Cagigal, who grew up in Daly City, learned magic early on as a fun distraction. On stage, he uses things from his dad's military life (dog tags, an old photo) as props for both the show's narrative and his brand of magic. Just don't call them "tricks." That term is so 1950s.

"The term some of us like to try and use these days is not tricks but effects," he says. "I like to call it a certain level of magic realism."

A former member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, Cagigal has performed Now and at the Hour for three years, and his résumé looks like an acclaimed veteran's. There are the performances of his different shows around the country, the many four-star reviews, and the upcoming movie version of Now and at the Hour by indie director H.P. Mendoza, who films Cagigal's act and has him interview other magicians about the art of magic. Still, at age 37, Cagigal says his career is at a crossroads.

"I don't have a good sense of my own career until I talk to someone else about it. Other people think I'm wildly successful. I still feel like I'm plodding along trying to make my career happen. I feel like I've reached a little plateau after six, arguably 10, years of plugging through. I'm not rich. I'm not famous." Cagigal laughs as he says that — the same kind of contagious laughter you hear in his shows.

Sigil by Raven Ebner

Unnatural History:
Raven Ebner
As an undergraduate at the University of Arizona in Tuscon, Raven Ebner sublimated her artistic impulses to a regimen of courses in science. "I studied ecology and evolutionary biology and philosophy — art was always on the side," she says. Now it's the opposite: At 29, Ebner is a full-time artist in Albany who puts her love of science into her artwork.

Among Ebner's creations: jewelry that incorporates the small bones of animals, and paintings that detail an intricate family of made-up plants. In one, a vine has a vascular system (complete with blood flow) that mirrors a mammalian system. With their odd life-forms and intricate detailing, her paintings resemble vintage scientific illustrations. Surreal and macabre, the intermingling of life and death is evident in her work. "As an artist," she says, "the idea of making up your own world, with its own natural history, with its own animals and plants populating it, is very appealing to me."

Ebner, who was born in the Bay Area and raised in Arizona, had few role models in both science and art when she embarked on her career. She's been designing it as she goes. "I've been drawing all my life," she says, "but it was purely at the hobbyist level. Science seemed like the more pragmatic career, but when I finally confronted my dissatisfaction, I realized I wanted to do art full-time."

Hibiscus Rose Scarf by Jenne Giles

Far Beyond Pool Tables:
Jenne Giles
It's a fabric that dates back thousands of years, and it has thousands of uses beyond pool tables surfaces. Felt has a reputation for functionality, but as an art form? Hardly. Look at Jenne Giles' paintings, sculpture, and wearable art, though, and you realize that in the right hands felt is an inspired choice for artistic creations. Salvador Dalí used felt to make celebrated art. Giles does, too, now, after spending the first part of her career making art from clay and metal.

"You can do amazing things with felt," says Giles, who works and lives in Oakland. "It's a really wily medium. It's as raw a medium as paint."

Consider her Hibiscus Rose Scarf, which, when wrapped around a person's neck, opens out like a rose in bloom. Or consider Knotted Wing, two feathery wings that are as detailed as those attached to the Winged Victory of Samothrace, that masterful Greek sculpture that stands in the Louvre. Giles, 37, has worked with felt since 2005, and has operated a business that specializes in felt constructions since 2007. In the past few years, she's exhibited in group shows around the United States, and has been a finalist three times for a NICHE Award, given annually to top crafts artists. Thirteen years ago, not long after graduating from Rice University with a bachelor's degree in art and art history, Giles was making sculptures for Burning Man. Now her expertise is felt, and she couldn't be happier. "Each project," she says, "is an opportunity to learn from it."

Photograph by Josh Edelson

Into the Unknown:
Melinda James
A star yo-yo player who twirls his disk on a street in Santa Cruz. A young Oakland singer who waxes poetic about a broken relationship. A community of African-Americans focused on farming and food issues. The Bay Area residents in Melinda James' films have important things to say, but they often don't say them in popular media. James is trying to change that with nonfiction works that reveal the everyday lives of women and under-explored communities.

"As a queer woman of color, my stories are often left out of the discourse of mainstream experiences," says James, 27, who graduated last year from UC Santa Cruz with a master's in social documentation and now lives in Oakland. "By discovering filmmaking I found a way to not only share my story, but also the stories and images of other marginalized groups whose voices are unrecognized."

James' production company, About Her Films, already seems poised for bigger things. About Her, a short drama about a burgeoning lesbian relationship, screened at Framelines San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival. Meanwhile, 16 Seeds, her short documentary about food activism in Oakland and in San Francisco's Bayview district, and Bandalore, about that yo-yo master, have shown at other Bay Area venues. Other stylish videos of singers and musicians are finding a home on the Internet.

Incorporating slow-motion and savvy musical backgrounds, James' films have both style and substance. "I'm trying," she says, "to reach out to different communities instead of just creating films that my friends would like."

A Means to an End by Michael Kerbow

Dirty Pictures:
Michael Kerbow
"I want these works to feel simultaneously funny and disturbing." San Francisco painter Michael Kerbow is talking about his series "Portents," which envisions a future where cars are piled up like discarded cigarette butts; where the center of a sprawling high-rise city is a huge pit threatening all that comes near; and where, in Their Refinement of the Decline, a colossal structure about 700 stories tall is spewing damaging smoke as it incinerates toxins, waste, and other environmental pollutants that are already damaging a sprawling metropolis. The over-burning of fossil fuels in dense, urban environments is a recurring theme in Kerbow's dystopian imagery — though he does, indeed, soften the misery with both absurdity and beauty.

Their Refinement of the Decline was inspired by Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Tower of Babel paintings from the 16th century, and like those iconic Renaissance works, Kerbow's piece demands to be studied closely for its labyrinthine details, like the tens of thousands of tiny windows that front the downtown buildings, and the tens of thousands of metal fittings that compose the structure's smokestacks, support beams, and accordion grids.

The "Portents" series resonates with dark humor. For one thing, we never see people in Kerbow's futuristic scenes — only an endless supply of mechanical transportation or concrete construction or some other vastness that contrasts with a picturesque horizon. Then there are the titles. Their Refinement of the Decline is a phrase that Catch-22 novelist Joseph Heller would have bestowed on the kind of Sisyphean project that Kerbow portrays. Kerbow, 48, received an MFA from New York's Pratt Institute in 1989, and has painted ever since, but it's only been the past few years that he's pursued art full time. Besides exhibiting in traditional Bay Area galleries, he had his work selected in 2011 for "Hello Tomorrow: Bay Area Artists Envision the Future," a juried exhibit of 22 artists at Berkeley's Brower Center, a hub for environmentalism and nonprofit work.

The cars that inhabit many of Kerbow's paintings, he says, represent a society reliant on fossil fuels. "The way I portray them amassed into piles, the cars begin to resemble the swarming of insects, as with an infestation or a collective hive mind." Kerbow says he tries to keep his paintings from being didactic or preachy, but if people ask him, he speaks his mind. "What we do today is affecting the type of world we're going to live in," he says. "Our present course of action is not sustainable on a finite planet."

Grown Up: Part I by Charles Papillo

Painting the Better You:
Charles Papillo
Here's what happens if you know Charles Papillo: He'll ask you to recall your childhood, then to recall your career aspiration. Crime fighter? Ballerina? Astronaut? President? Whatever it was, Papillo will make a portrait of the idealized you — an intricate synthesis of photography, collage, and drawing that compresses your former dreams into your current physical state. The portraits are called "When I Grow Up."

"I try to connect all these things, and I'm actually creating a costume for people," says Papillo, 26, who graduated with a fine arts degree from Parsons The New School For Design. "A lot of these portraits are layered, and there are different stories within the portrait."

His portraits are part of a bigger body of work that includes mixed-media art on paper (mandalas are a big theme), and a new project involving anonymous grocery lists he's found at Rainbow Grocery and other San Francisco markets. Papillo, who lives in San Francisco, says his approach is about taking objects and people out of a particular context and placing them into a new and sometimes contradictory environment. Unlike more traditional portraits, Papillo's depict people who may not recognize themselves in his art, an openness to interpretations of ideals. "I want people to investigate my art and decide for themselves," he says.

From top: Karla Quintero, Carly Johnson and Emily Baumann. Photograph by Joseph Schell

The Movement of Mannequins:
Karla Quintero
The lights come on, and three dancers are standing still. No arm movements. No leg movements. Nothing. Are they really dancers or are they mannequins? As it turns out, they're dancers portraying mannequin figures. So when they do move, it's with truncated steps and leg shimmies and other quick bursts of energy that wax and wane. Titled Uncanny Valley (1.0), the dance piece by Karla Quintero premiered in December to sold-out audiences at The Garage, the South-of-Market space where Quintero had a three-month residency.

Just 14 months after graduating from the SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Dance, Quintero established her own dance company in Oakland. There she is both choreographer and dancer — a double duty that puts even more demands on her early career. She's navigating those demands by exploring what she calls her "curiosity of the unexpected and the unknown" and her search for "new ways to communicate using the basic tools of the human body."

Her take on mannequins emerged when she began seeing them everywhere, in museums and fashion exhibits. "I became fascinated by how these different objects evoke the mood they evoke, but also their different features, like their faces and the way their hands are positioned," she says. "[Our dance company] tried to delve into how we thought these creatures would interact. They're not quite human, but they cross over the line."

At the end of Uncanny Valley (1.0), Quintero and her fellow dancers return to immobility as the music drones to a conclusion. The mood is charged, even as the dancing has come to a halt. "Suspense is really important to me," she says. "Aesthetics are also important. I don't necessarily know what I'm going to do in terms of movement, but I always have a sense of mood, and texture, and the color of a piece. With time, I hope I have more resources to concentrate on other elements that make those visions come to life."

Praxinoscopes 1 & 2 by Ariel Springfield

The Queering of Seating:
Ariel Springfield
Earlier in their lives, the three chairs were just functional chairs — the simple wooden kind that people would sit on to have dinner or work at a desk. Now, piano strings crisscross the front of one, while lace contours another, and fur and fake pearls coat a third. Ariel Springfield calls her chairs Three Queer Bodies, a sculptural project designed to highlight cultural norms of body image, class, and sexual identity. Art-goers are encouraged to touch Springfield's chairs, and the chair with piano strings responds even without touch: It vibrates as you walk by.

"The chair is a reflection of the body — it holds bodies, and is designed to interact with our bodies — but it also has its own body and structure, with legs and feet," says Springfield, a Berkeley resident who identifies as queer. "With each chair, I was thinking about a different aspect of the body."

The lace chair, for example, reflects internal organs, and features a pocket of simulated salmon roe and a lace extension that juts up in back. Besides the chairs, Springfield repurposes other objects, like the bicycle wheel, cookie tins, mirrors, and other objects that were used for Praxinoscopes, a series that explores ideas of home, motion, and myth.

Springfield, 30, has exhibited work the past two years at the National Queer Arts Festival in San Francisco. "Art," she says, "can break down barriers in very personal ways. The viewers' permission to touch and interact with my art," Springfield says, "makes them intimate objects and restructures the narrative between art and voyeur."

Apache by Jeffrey Thompson

"The grid is appealing":
Jeffrey Thompson
"I'm emerging late." Jeffrey Thompson is referring to his age (57) and his newfound emphasis on grid paintings — alluring works that blend abstraction with patterns of squares, lines, and thin strips. He discovered his interest in grids in 2010, after a long period that emphasized more figurative work. "I felt the need to reinvent myself."

Thompson underlays his paintings with pieces of newspapers, magazines, and other printed material that take on new meaning in his oil and acrylic mosaics. In a recent untitled piece, he squeezes in truncated black-and-white word fragments like "rt" and "ike" and "ces," complementing the works' elliptical shading and giving it an appealing level of mystery. Thompson, who lives in North Beach, studied art at the San Francisco Art Institute, De Anza College, and California State University, East Bay, and has exhibited in Bay Area cafes and galleries. Next month, Southern Oregon University's Center for the Visual Arts is giving him a solo exhibit, and new audiences for his geometries. "The grid is appealing," he says, "because it's a central foundation of so many aesthetic areas, including textiles, architecture, and film. I work in commercial design, and the grid is a big part of everything that gets done commercially," he says. Much of what happens in two-dimensional work is based on the grid.

In middle age, Thompson has more time for his paintings. For many years, he devoted his days to helping raise his two sons and his autistic daughter. She's now an artist in her own right, and is starting to establish a career — just as Thompson is restarting his own. "A lot of people imagine artists as these young, hungry, talented and capable people — and frequently they are," he says. "But it's not the entire story."


Jonathan Curiel writes about art, music, film and other subjects for such media as SF Weekly and KQED. He has lectured at UCLA and been a juror at the S.F. International Film Festival.

Sherilyn Connelly curates the Dark Room Theater's long-running Bad Movie Night and writes about film for SF Weekly and the Village Voice.

Anna Pulley is SF Weekly's arts & culture editor.

Mollie McWilliams is SF Weekly's editorial coordinator.

Brandon R. Reynolds is SF Weekly's managing editor.

About The Author

Jonathan Curiel


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