Glimpses in Time at Joyce Gordon Gallery is a museum-quality exhibition comprising eighty-plus photographs selected by San Francisco gallerist Stephen Wirtz from some four hundred submissions. The breadth and quality of this year's competition, which is dedicated to African-American documentarian James Van Der Zee, demonstrate that photography, nearly two centuries old, remains vital well into the multimedia age.
There are too many works to consider here, of course, but some pieces are impressive both aesthetically and technically. Outstanding portraits include Bethanie Hinds' "Grace," Kari Orvik's "Krista," and Nana Niti's "Oakland Mayor." Social commentary standouts include Lisa Fanning's elegant study of inelegant street people, Harry Longstreet's small boys and military band, Gabe Sheen's Christian mystery plays, Joyce Woollem's rural pool player, Graeme Weston's doll museum or store, with elfin attendant, and Kara Wood's dynamic Oaxaca street scene. Memorable landscapes include John Abbott's tracery of wires and transformers against a blank sky, Noah Beil's minimalist lawns and landscaping, Odette England's cloudscapes with the tips of scaffolds and trees, Denise Fuson's trailer at dusk, Michael Gordon's derelict house and car, Yongho Kim's old house obscured by a grandstanding tree, Jennifer Lemper's post-Katrina Mardi Gras props, David Nasater's abandoned schoolhouse, Gerard Perron's chain-link fence silhouetted against fallen snow, Peter Tonningsen's preternaturally still lakescape, and Rudy Vega's poetic studies of modern Japanese life.
So when is a museum show not a museum show — or rather, why? Recently, San Francisco Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker chastised the de Young Museum about its art-glass exhibition, which fetishizes upscale objects of desire (as the Guggenheim's BMW show did a few years back). A few dissenting readers scolded Baker (and the elitist brotherhood of critics), invoking the Doctrine of Self-Evident Beauty: art should be easy, entertaining, and appealing. Given the hermetic quality of much contemporary art, such viewer frustration is understandable, but incuriosity pretending to be populism is bad for art and for art audiences: are we really satisfied to be obedient shoppers at the global culture mall — albeit duty-free? A generation ago, SFMOMA hosted biannual open-entry juried competitions open to all Bay Area artists; that may surprise viewers inured to today's bureaucratic museums, but, as higher energy costs foster a new regionalism, a bit of '70s-style populism celebrating local creativity might be due for revival, perhaps even to popular acclaim. Glimpses in Time runs through August 30 at Joyce Gordon Gallery (406 14th St., Oakland). JoyceGordonGallery.com or 510-465-8928.
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