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Editorial

Early Autumn Museum Picks

by Sura Wood

Early fall is a great time to catch up on museum exhibitions that you may have missed this summer.

Now that the crush of summer visitors has ebbed and fall is on the horizon, it’s an ideal time to catch up on museum exhibitions you may have missed. A good place to start is at the de Young’s profoundly moving “Revelations: Art from the African American South.” The exhibition’s 62 emotionally charged sculptures, paintings, drawings, assemblages, prints and Gee’s Bend quilts, recently acquired by the Fine Arts Museums, are by Southern-born, late 19th- and 20th-century African American artists who address race, class, gender and religion from a vantage point virtually absent from most museum collections. Though the
voices of the 22 artists here are distinct, collectively their sensibilities have been shaped by a brutal shared history, beginning in the 17th century, during which 400,000 Africans were kidnapped and sold into bondage in the United States.

Creating pictures of freedom from scavenged materials was a way slaves asserted their existence, a testament to survival carried forward by the show’s artists, particularly in their depictions of slavery’s brutal legacy. One of that institution’s most potent symbols is brought to life in Thornton Dial Jr.’s visceral plywood sculpture “The Slave Ship” (1988), where slave traders lash one captive on deck and throw a net over the head of another. A gallery of haunting root and branch sculptures includes works steeped in the mystical lore of the ancestors. The gnarled branch lying across a pair of damaged rocking chairs, the smaller “female” one leaning against its larger male partner in Lonnie Holley’s poignant “His and Her Hold the Root” (1994) harkens back to the elders, family trees and being uprooted, while Ralph Griffin’s buoyant wood sculpture “Noah’s Ark” (1980) seems to be moving across an unseen body of water like a mirage, subtly echoing the slave ships that would later ferry his ancestors in chains to the Americas.

Through April 1, 2018;
deyoung.famsf.org

From the de Young, it’s a short walk to the California Academy of Sciences, where a collection of eye-popping color photographs is on view in “BigPicture 2017,” an exhibition showcasing the awe-inspiring, sometimes disturbing wildlife and conservation images taken by finalists and winners of the museum’s annual Natural World Photography Competition. The featured photographers, who compete in an array of categories, rely on a mixture of stealth, cunning and inhuman patience to bring back their prize-winning photographs, often from remote parts of the planet. This year’s grand prize winner is Britta Jaschinski, an England-based German wildlife photographer dedicated to exposing the suffering of animals. “Confiscated,” a photograph of a pair of enormous elephant feet turned into foot stools, attests to the human greed and cruelty that has devastated the species and is rapidly leading to its extinction. The body parts, shown here on a trolley, are among the 1.3 million smuggled items seized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and stored in a warehouse in Colorado. Peter Mather devised a wily camera trap on a log at the edge of the Yukon River, where he knew bears and their cubs fished, to capture “Salmon Claws,” a photograph of a mother grizzly, whose mammoth lower leg and fearsome claws command the foreground of the picture. In “Mantis Mom,” shot in Indonesia by Filippo Borghi, winner in the Aquatic Life category, black volcanic material envelops a deep red peacock mantis shrimp. Protecting a brood of fertilized eggs inside the folds of her body is a full-time job; she won’t eat until her larvae hatch. Jon Cornforth journeyed to Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii and returned with “Kamokuna Lava Firehose 25,” a spectacular image of a stream of red-orange lava gushing from the base of the Kilauea volcano before spilling into the blue Pacific Ocean. The collision of cold sea water and molten rock produced a riot of spray and steam and exploding lava rocks bursting in mid-air. To view a selection of photographs from BigPicture 2017, see page 18.

Through Oct. 29; calacademy.org

The term pavilion can mean many things, as seen in “Architectural Pavilions: Experiments and Artifacts,” a show at the Museum of Craft and Design: a place for contemplation or for presenting ideas, a pop-up exhibition space at art fairs, a laboratory where architects can experiment without the constraints of construction. The show includes digital and hand-crafted structures in a variety of sizes, from small-scale models to immersive installations by eight architectural studios. Some participants, such as DOSU Studio Architecture, incorporated unusual, new-frontier materials. The firm, whose founder, bio-engineer Doris Sung, is involved in the development of “shape-memory alloys,” recreated a section of “Bloom,” a twisting, 16-foot-high, thermobimetal sculpture made of 14,000 geometric, laser-cut pieces. San Francisco-based Future City Lab’s sculptural, 3-D printed models resembling sea anemones are components of “Thermaspheres,” an unrealized proposal for a public thermal bath and event pavilion intended for the former Olympic water park in Athens, Greece. A group of innovative UC Berkeley architecture students conceived and constructed an eight-foot-tall, flexible aluminum site-specific pavilion whose upper section seems to float above the lower one. With its mass and loose-limbed geometric forms, it looks like a “Transformers” mega-robot on
the verge of reassembling itself.

Through Jan. 7, 2018; sfmcd.org

Later this month two new fall shows open. In “Jewish Folktales Retold: Artist as Maggid” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 16 mostly local artists give traditional Jewish stories and characters a contemporary spin. Relying on a combination of Old World cautionary tales, elements of the supernatural and the 2009 anthology “Garden of Eden: One Hundred Classic Jewish Tales,” the artists interpreted source material of their own choosing. Elizabeth Higgins O’Connor, who builds large-scale creatures from used furniture, wire, paper, string and other detritus, turned to the Golem, a powerful mystical entity forged from mud and stone that, legend has it, was sent to protect the Jews from persecution. And in M. Louise Stanley’s witty painting “Casting Call for Cautionary Tales” (2017), a towering goose, who’s auditioning for a role, intently reviews a script while a billy goat, mischievous glint in his eye, plays the fiddle.

Sept. 28 → Jan. 28, 2018; thecjm.org

Although it’s widely acknowledged that the preeminent 20th-century photographer Walker Evans created his most iconic body of work during the Great Depression, “Walker Evans,” a definitive new retrospective at SFMOMA, offers a broader perspective on the artist’s remarkable 50-year career. This show emphasizes his interest in American vernacular culture and his ability to transcend mere documentation and elevate everyday life into the realm of art. Covering a number of periods stretching from the 1920s to the 1970s, the show, presented thematically, includes over 300 vintage prints ranging from austere, unsentimental images taken during Evans’ tenure at the Farm Security Administration to riders on decrepit New York City subways and anonymous souls on city streets.

Sept. 30Feb. 4, 2018; sfmoma.org