by Jonathan Blaustein
In the last exhibition review, I told you how to see some excellent art, in San Francisco, for free. Just go to SFMOMA on the first Tuesday of the month. With your savings, you can buy a couple of mouthfuls of seafood at the Ferry Building down the street. Or four pears. Seriously, I paid four bucks for an asian pear that was nearly as big as a large guinea pig.
From there, it’s a short walk along the water to Pier 24. I’ll say this now, prominently, so that it doesn’t get misunderstood. Pier 24 is always free. That’s more great art without spending a dime. But, and here’s the catch, you must book ahead via their website. They have several “viewings” a day, limited to 20 people per session.
The pier, which actually sits below the bay bridge, sat vacant for 30 years, I was told, before it was renovated to its current very chic status. You’d never know from the anonymous wharfside locale, but the innards are stuffed with more photography goodies than a pelican’s belly.
Once buzzed in, you’re offered a catalog, to borrow or buy, which shows you the names and relevant info for each work. (There is no wall text, which some might not like.) I met up with Pacarrick, and he knew a docent named Mark, so I made those guys hold the catalog, and we embarked straight away. We could go one of two ways, and chose to go with the natural flow, into a room filled with Hiroshi Sugimoto’s wax figurine photographs.
I’d seen them at Fraenkel Gallery, when they were exhibited many years ago. Then, I was dismissive of the work. “He just photographed someone else’s sculptures. Big deal.” Here, though, my opinion spun. These large scale black and white portraits have gravitas. And they’re spooky too.
It’s probably a good time to mention that much of the work on the wall was procured by the same Fraenkel gallery, either to sell to the Pilara Foundation, which runs the place, or to arrange the borrowing of work to be shown. As I wrote in the intro article, much of San Francisco is working with itself, and this partnership has created something terrific here. (Along with shipping crates full of hedge fund dollars.)
So there’s a touch of backstory. Where were we? Past Sugimoto, we see a room with work by Jim Goldberg and Larry Sultan. Two more Bay Area luminaries. And then, a few feet away, there’s a wall installation of photography baseball cards by Mike Mandel, who collaborated with the late Mr. Sultan. (Definitely a conversation starter.)
They were obviously taken in the 70’s, and were thoroughly tongue-in-cheek. I was standing with a Peruvian dude, and an Asian guy who’s exact heritage I don’t know, and didn’t bother to ask. I looked at them, giggled, and looked back at the wall of photographers. All were white. And at least 75% had moustaches. For real. We counted. Then we counted the women, and there were a few, but not many.
I’m not being critical. Times change, and thank god there is more diversity in photography than there used to be. The grid of photo heroes and big wigs was clever and fun. Who uses the baseball card motif to talk about war? It was a great artifact of the photo community back in the mutton chop days. (Like I said, there is visual evidence of my mullet/braces phase. Not that you’ll find it.)
The exhibition space slowly unfolds, and is absolutely huge. Museum size, with genius stuff wherever you look. I recommend that you actually use your entire 2 hour window. (I didn’t.) Go in, see half, go out, grab a coffee. Look at the water. Listen to the sea gulls. Then go back.
Back to the moment, I walked through to see a huge wall of Lee Friedlanders. That guy is one brave dude. He consistently turned the camera on himself, willing to depict his “image” in unflattering ways. The honesty, combined with his consistently off-putting compositional style, is the secret to his creative staying power. (IMHO)
Next, Avedon. Big portraits from “In The American West.” (I neglected to mention an earlier four-image-panel of John, Paul, George and Ringo that was orphaned in a corner.) I risk the wrath of many of you, but I don’t dig the Western portraits one bit. Slick and stylish, yes. But no soul. The dirt on their faces might have well have been pancake makeup.
Not to bag on Mr. Avedon exclusively. The Beatles pics were suave, and then just a bit further on, he has an entire room to himself, with smaller studio portraits of major honchos. Bush Sr., Rumsfeld, and on and on. (Regan was hanging next to Caesar Chavez. Nicely done.) A ton of portraits to see there. My brain was starting to slow down.
But not before I reached the Richard Learoyd section. I profiled his book, “Presences,” in my very first book review column, last year. So I was familiar with the representations. But as large scale prints, the camera-obsura-created photos were the showstoppers for me. Radiant, and beyond sharp. Wicked light and color. One pairing stood out, a man and woman’s naked bodies. Backs arching slightly forward, faces unseen. Identical poses, subtle differences. Magnetic.
If I have any criticism of Pier 24, it’s that it’s a bit like a photo exhibition on steroids. Don’t forget, Barry Bonds hit all those homeruns ten minutes up the water. Really, really close. But the stands were always packed, and here, it’s so much great work that I don’t want to nitpick. (It is pretty lame of me to criticize them for being “too good.”)
It’s just that my brain is getting tired remembering all these photographs, and you’re going to want to stop reading soon. From there, Diane Arbus had a room. An African-themed gallery had work by Pieter Hugo, and the combination of Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse. Great. Then a Japanese room, and a Chinese room. This being San Fransisco in 2012, diversity will be respected. Oh yes.
Then, we doubled back to the main entrance, to go see the final wing. The first room had a group exhibition featuring work by many, many famous names. I could list them, but what’s the point? The one photo you couldn’t not look at was by Vanessa Beecroft, of all people. It was the biggest, so that explains a lot. But it jumped off the wall. Ms. Beecroft seems best known for staging naked modeling shows in the Guggenheim, so to see an image of this quality made Pacarrik and I wonder how much she spent on a DoP.
Then, a room of mug shots, and the Paul Schiek photographs I already wrote about in the book review for “Dead Men Don’t Look Like Me.” As I learned in SF, those images, which work brilliantly as a little soft-cover-book of found photos, (and which were originally shot by an anonymous, talented jail-house photographer,) are a really big deal in San Franscisco right now. They just showed at Stephen Wirtz, and were here in a prominent spot at Pier 24. The prints are big of course; presented as high-end appropriation art. In that context, I’m a bit skeptical.
But the last room in the house, (if you take the wrong path,) is the best room in the house. August Sander. Vintage prints. In a very large grid. I was too tired to count the photos. And I was too tired to enjoy them.
We’re all fans of the master German portraitist. I’ll spare you the mushy love talk. It’s a brilliant room of photographs, and I was way, way too brain fried to enjoy it. I’m still pissed off.
So, I’m saying this clearly, when you go visit Pier 24, which you should do, go see the August Sander photographs as soon as you get there. Or, at least, don’t see them last.