Small Museums Offer Seasonal Respite

by Sura Wood

Need a break from holiday hoopla? A handful of smaller visual arts venues offer compelling arts exhibition this month.

Pier 24

Located beneath the Bay Bridge with an entrance that’s nearly hidden from sight is one of the city’s newest visual arts treasures. Neither a conventional gallery nor a museum, Pier 24 is a cathedral for photography that offers a contemplative, intimate and singular opportunity to commune with the medium. Collector Andy Pilara originally renovated this vast (28,000 square feet) historic building on the waterfront to house his 3,000 photographs; since opening to the public in 2010, it has operated largely under the radar. No more than 20 to 40 people are allowed inside at one time; admission is free and visits—two-hour slots that are scheduled online—are by appointment only.

Its latest show, “A Sense of Place,” employs a big tent concept to accommodate 344 images that range from grand-scale installations that occupy a single room to more modestly sized pictures. Among the works by 95 veteran and emerging talents—Robert Adams, Thomas Demand, Richard Learyord, Lee Friedlander, Stephen Shore, Jeff Wall, Erik Kessels, Rinko Kawauchi and others—are several by Bay Area photographers. Eric William Carroll, for example, is represented by “Blue Line of Woods,” a series of uniformly sized diazotype, or blueprints, that are reminiscent of Asian hanging scrolls. They line a rectangular gallery whose diffused lighting helps create the illusion of being lost in a bayou at twilight.

Pier 24 also commissions one-of-a-kind images. San Francisco wunderkind John Chiara created “Embarcadero at Interstate 80,” an electrifying pair of monumental 48” by 60” pictures, shot with his mammoth, custom-built box camera while looking upward from beneath the Bay Bridge. The resulting industrial cityscapes, rendered in orange and black, resemble the inside of a cauldron. The New Yorker once observed that Chiara’s largest prints “look like they were transferred straight from a blissed-out eyeball to the astonished wall."

Through May 2014,

Yerba Buena Center

“Dissident Futures,” an imaginative, out-of-this world show, assembles a diverse collection of artists who plunge into the great unknown. Exploring what we dream of and what we dread through a wide variety of media, they examine utopian, speculative and pragmatic futuristic visions. Some involve extraterrestrials like the trio of disembodied blue heads with red eyes engaged in mysterious communication in Basim Magdy’s watercolor and spray paint collage, “They Come in Threes Like Fireworks” (2011). At least a dozen pieces here spring from the wild imagination of Magdy, an Egyptian artist whose work inhabits a no man’s land between reality and fiction. His slide show, “Investigating the Color Spectrum of a Post-Apocalyptic Future Landscape” (2013), for instance, depicts a barren, primeval landscape (actually, Spain’s volcanic Lanzarote Island) bathed in sunset pinks and cerulean blues. The Oakland-based David Huffman, described in the exhibition brochure as “an Afro-Futurist painter whose practice is inspired by astronomy, comics, Hurricane Katrina and 1950s science fiction,” often populates his works with “traumanauts,” vagabond figures in space suits who reference slavery and the struggles of African Americans. They float above terra firma or terra incognita; their faces obscured by white helmets, in “Promiseland” (2009), a painting on wood panels that evokes a celestial Eden.

A self-taught visionary artist intrigued with the intersection of science and spirituality, Paul Laffoley trained in the classics, art history and architecture. He brings these disciplines to bear in ritualistic diagrams of the universe such as “Xanotopia,” which incorporates text, lettering and pictures. (The title refers to a utopian community envisioned by Romantic poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey, that never materialized.) “Quartumdimensio Aedificium,” (1973), a six-foot-tall, Art Deco edifice made of an eclectic mix of plywood, chicken bones, Styrofoam, vitamin E capsules, plastic costume jewelry, thread, lead weights, India ink, model cars and trees, looks like an old-fashioned radio microphone crowned with a golden starburst. But, as Laffoley explains in the exhibition text, it’s a “conductor of telluric energy… the first step in architecture that unites earth with outer space.” His description of the structure’s interior—terraces with cascading waterfalls inspired by the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and Zulu motifs—reads like a fantasy fiction novel.

Through Feb. 2,

Museum of Craft and Design

The future has already arrived at this small museum. At least that’s the conclusion one can draw from its exhibition “New West Coast Design 2,” a showcase of 60 works by a multitude of architects, industrial and interior designers and craft artists. They’ve created everything from children’s playhouses, iridescent skateboards and snazzy futuristic lighting fixtures to brightly colored blown glass beach balls and Magda Lattin & Fonga Donga’s happy yellow “Mail Box Gimme.” Environmental concerns and the practical application of innovative techniques and repurposed materials are top of the mind for many of these inventive designers. Take the Soulcraft ultra-portable single speed touring bicycle that can be broken down into several components and packed in a suitcase, or Colin Selig’s “Propane Tank Club Chair” that’s outfitted with wing-like arms, a curved back and a bench that will seat one and half people comfortably. Carlo Aiello’s sculptural stainless steel “Parabola Chair,” on the other hand, appears as inviting as a radically engineered shopping cart, which it resembles. There are also amazing adventures in 3-Dd, such as a pair of experimental projects fabricated by Emerging Objects, a dDesign/rResearch firm in Oakland. “Drum” is comprised of 3-D-printed cement polymer panels, while the large-scale “Salty Igloo” was constructed with 336 3-D-printed translucent tiles made from salt harvested from San Francisco Bay, and assembled on-site to form a shell. This brainchild and others in the show offer a look into the future of design.

The exhibition is on view at the museum’s new home, a sleek minimalist space located in the city’s Dogpatch district, an up-and-coming neighborhood of artists’ studios and offbeat businesses east of Portrero Hill along the waterfront.

Through Jan. 5,