Mencher, Kenney: Under 21 Not Allowed

Lovers and Liars: Kenney Mencher on display through March 1, 2008, Varnish Fine Art, 77 Natoma between 1st and 2nd St. and Mission and Howard, San Francisco, 94105, 415-222-6131, Tues-Fri 11am-11pm-ish [wine bar opens at 5pm] and Sat 1pm-5pm

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Jonesing for some tele-noir? You are if you’re an NPR junkie. All last year we listened to Fresh Air’s Terry Gross and her frequent guest, TV critic David Bianculli, first grieve the loss of The Sopranos, then beat the drum slowly for The Wire. As the Hollywood writers’ strike approaches its twelfth week, the networks have run out of fresh episodes of television serials and are resorting to reruns and late-night experiments. Fortunately, you can get your fix this month at Varnish Fine Art where Kenney Mencher’s campy pulp fiction-inspired oil paintings are on display.

With titles like “After School Special” (sold) and “Hotel/Motel,” Mencher’s work features heaving bosoms, blindfolds and grand gestures painted in a loose realist style. (Imagine an unbuttoned Edward Hopper.) Much like Jeff Wall’s artistic process, he stages his paintings first with live models in costume, then works from photographs. Often the models get into the act by suggesting storylines and poses, turning the photo shoot into a piece of performance art.

Mencher is a guy who’s gotta paint. He graduated with a BA (CUNY) and an MFA (UC Davis) in Art History, then completed his trifecta of advanced art degrees with an MA in painting from the University of Cincinnati. He has been an Associate Professor of Art & Art History since 1999 with Ohlone, a Junior College in Fremont. Influences include Duane Hanson, 20’s and 30’s pulp fiction illustrations and N.C. Wyeth, the early 20th Century illustrator who also worked from composed scenes.

Mencher has a little bit of a reputation. He was dismissed from Hang Art in 2003 by then gallery director Michelle Townsend (now with Portola Valley’s SPUR Projects), who, in an oft-repeated quote, said the gallery employees felt his work was too “wry and perverted.”

The following year, his work was pulled off the walls of a consultant-curated federal office in Sacramento. It probably was a little too ribald for the California State Teachers' Retirement System building. (He’s in good company, though; some nudes by North Beach notable Lawrence Ferlinghetti, represented by George Krevsky, were recently pulled down from the halls of the B of A building with no explanation.)

Perhaps Mencher, whose collectors include KQED’s quirky Josh Kornbluth, hasn’t found the right venue for his work. Hang prides itself on being highly accessible to rookie collectors who may not be ready for a guy whose thesis in grad school was "Vampires, the Audiences They Consume.” Varnish is more like it, with a track record of showing pop surrealism that veers closer to fine art than lowbrow art. Mencher’s next show after this is at Stanford Art Spaces beginning February 15.

The kitschy subject matter will be at home in this alternative space. Varnish Fine Art is different from other local art bars not because it extends its reach into fine art, or because it features artists who are decidedly mid-career. What distinguishes Varnish from most San Francisco art venues is that 30-40% of their exhibitions are dedicated to cast metal sculpture. (And they are also the only art bar that was an unwitting participant in the J.T. LeRoy hoax, the greatest literary scandal of the oughties.)

Business partners Jennifer Rogers and Kerri Stephens are both trained metal sculptors and became friends while working at Berkeley’s Artworks Foundry in the early nineties, which happened to be the same time that the work of famous sculptors like De Staebler, Voulkos, Asawa, Neri, and Oliviera was being cast there. They are still part of the close-knit cast metal sculpture community that centers around Artworks.

These days, Rogers dedicates herself 100% to being Varnish gallery director. Stephens still practices her art in her spare time and has her own furnace for casting in her Point Richmond backyard. You can see their formal training in the patinaed cast steel of the Varnish bar, stairs and loft balcony railing, all of which Stephens designed herself.

Rogers and Stephens opened their space in 2003 and plan to close in 2009. Not because they want to but because they have to. After lovingly restoring the old shell of a warehouse space, they got word that the city would exercise eminent domain and take possession of the property as part of the Transbay Terminal project. The neighborhood association’s “Friends of Second Streetwasn’t successful fighting City Hall.

Wherever the women end up relocating Varnish after they leave Natoma Street, they’ll continue to be a venue for San Francisco institution Litquake and happenings like “Green Drinks,” a monthly happy hour where people who work in the environmental field meet up for socializing and networking.

Southern Exposure: Magical Portals in Four Site Specific Installations

Southern Exposure, through February 23, 2008; 417 14th Street (@ Valencia), San Francisco, CA 94103, t: (415) 863-2141, Hours: Tuesday - Saturday, 12:00 pm - 6:00 pm

The four site-specific installations that are on view right now at Southern Exposure employ the gallery’s bare four walls to deliver their message and rely on the viewer’s imagination for that secret ingredient to bring the work to life. It’s fitting that this exhibition puts the walls to work; this is the first show planned for the venerable non-profit’s new space since the 34 year old, envelope-pushing institution moved to 14th & Valencia from its old home in the Mission/Potrero flats. Busy nine-to-fivers will be happy to hear that the best time of day to see this show is at after work when it’s dusk, about 5:45 PM.

But before you go you’ll have to recalibrate. Looking at art like this requires a slower pace and more introspection. There’s no Oprah “ah-hah” moment. The story arc is much flatter, like an open-ended character study instead of a juicy piece of plot-laden fiction. Conceptual installation art like this is a distant cousin of the Mad Lib- you supply the punch line.

Chris Bell’s “Slow Pan Interior” is installed in the first room of the gallery. Close the door behind you because this is a video piece and the room has to be dark. Bell has dressed up this plain room with a rotating video piece. The projector pans around the room and plays back an image of the room itself, recognizable from the signature bead board. First there’s an image of a ladder as if its there in the room leaning up against the wall. Then when the projector hits the windows, you see an escapist panoramic view of the beach, as if the gallery’s address is the Great Highway instead of 14th Street.

Bell was an established artist in his home country of Australia before coming to the Bay Area for the MFA program at Stanford. He just completed a three month residency with the Headlands Center for the Arts. Industrial design and electro-mechanics, his first focus of study before becoming an artist, is the dominant theme in his work.

Jennifer Wofford’s Phillipino heritage influences much of her work, including this piece for SOEX, “Unseen Forces.” (One of her many expressions is as a member of the provocatively named, tongue-in-cheek, performance art group called Mail Order Brides.) But before you can walk into the jungle fantasy of her muraled space you are reminded of the unavoidable ritual of travel: dreaded metal detectors. Although they are made of particle board, they do have the intended effect of conjuring an airport and transporting us out of the Mission district. The mojo was so strong on the night of the exhibit’s opening Friday, January 11, that party guests were purposefully walking around the fake detectors. Wofford has her BFA from San Francisco Art Institute and just received her master’s in 2007 from Cal. She teaches at CCA, USF and DVC.

It’s about 6:00 PM now and the gallery is closing, a perfect time to leave because Elaine Buckholz’s light installation piece is turning on. “Scenes for a Box Carnival” projects dappled kaleidoscope broken light onto the storefront. It’s a happy wintery scene and a friendly announcement to the neighbors that SOEX has moved in. Buckholz has worked as a lighting and visual designer in the Bay Area for 20 years and is a teacher in Stanford’s Art and Art History Department. She received her MFA from Stanford in 2006.

For the last piece, you’ll have to leave the gallery and hop on the Number 26 bus and travel to 1240 Valencia between 23rd and 24th. This is a conceptual piece and the co-collaborator is the entire population of the Mission District. Bruce Tomb bought the former police station about a decade ago and turned the property into his residence. Shortly after moving in, Tomb learned that the former police station was a target for taggers. Tomb decided to go with the flow. The (de) Appropriation Archive ( documents the layers upon layers of graffiti and posters that have been coated on week after week, year after year. On January 30th there will be a public meeting about the wall at SOEX where the neighbors are invited to speak their minds. Tomb is an architect by trade and has been teaching since 1989. He is an adjunct professor at CCA in the architecture and sculpture program.

Mark your calendar for the annual Monster Drawing Rally at SOEX on January 22, 2008. It’s a live drawing and fundraising event with over 100 artists participating. As the drawings are completed they are hung on the wall and can be purchased for $50 each.

Park, Maria: Acrylic Science Fiction

“Crystal Leisure” by Maria Park; through January 31, 2008. Toomey Tourell Gallery, 49 Geary Street, San Francisco, 94108, Phone: 415-989-6444, Tuesday through Friday: 11:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Saturday: 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Alerting all closet Sci-Fi fans! Maria Park’s recent work on view at Toomey Tourell, “Crystal Leisure,” is inspired by the quintessential science fiction movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Here, Park has meticulously recreated closing scenes from the classic Stanley Kubrick film. Roger Ebert, who was present in the theater on the night of the 1968 premier, summed it up: “The closing sequences, with the astronaut inexplicably finding himself in a bedroom somewhere beyond Jupiter, were baffling.” Park’s paintings should allow an outlet for those who still want to talk about Kubrick’s intentionally opaque treatment of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel.

Park has been interested in science fiction- and this movie in particular- since she was a child. The overarching theme in the body of her work is the impact of science and digital technology on society. As the daughter of a physicist and sibling of computer scientists, expressing scientific concepts through her art seems like a natural course for this artist.

The first paintings in “Crystal Leisure” are faithful reproductions of that enigmatic bedroom somewhere near Jupiter. Park explains: “This current body of work arose out of a former series titled “Stasis” (2005), which was inspired by the final scenes of 2001… these scenes depict a man secluded in a strangely pristine interior where the only evidence of human culture and history resides in furnishings and art, perhaps most strikingly in the series of rococo-like paintings depicting people at play.”

In this series, Park appropriates images from the work of Nicolas Lancret (1690-1743), which is similar to the paintings in the 2001 bedroom. Lancret was a second-rate peer of Watteau, whose work, along with that of Bouchet and Fragonard, is synonymous with French Rococo. That style of painting can be described as frivolous, excessive and confectionary, with an element of PG-13 scandal thrown in for good measure.

The majority of the pieces in the show leaves the 2001 bedroom behind and riffs on three of Lancret’s paintings that feature the Rococo sport of banqueting. The figures that are alternatively preening or posing are, in Park’s words, “frozen forever in a state of mirth… revealing the weight of guilt and pain often hidden under displays of wealth and certitude”.

The Lancret characters are painted in reverse underneath a sheet of polycarbonate and the surface is covered with swirls of thickly applied paint. Transfers and letraset lines on mylar depict the mechanics and gears behind the figures, like a blue print.

Finally, thick opaque acrylic paint is applied to the outside of the clear plastic frame and coats it like shaving cream, billowing off the surface and swallowing up that last evidence of human culture from the bedroom walls in Kubrick’s film.

Park’s exhibition is noteworthy because this is a homecoming of sorts for her. Though Park is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Art at Cornell University, she started her career as an artist here in San Francisco.

Park graduated with her BFA from San Francisco Art Institute in ’95, showed her work in group shows for a few years, and then directed her efforts toward graduate work. She was awarded a scholarship to study painting at the MFA program in Painting at Washington University in St. Louis in 2000. In 2002 she came back to San Francisco to enroll in the SFAI MFA Painting program. After her first year of studies she was awarded the prestigious Murphy-Cadogan Fellowship, given to Bay Area MFA students who are nominated by their teachers.

Toomey Tourell Gallery discovered her work in 2003. “We found her at the SFAI Vernissage,” says Nancy Toomey. Vernissage is the name of the annual opening reception for the SFAI Master of Fine Arts Graduate exhibition. When asked what quality most distinguishes Park, Toomey pays her a high compliment: “her concepts are as strong as her execution.”

After graduating from SFAI, she left California and returned to Missouri to teach art at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, and then in 2006 joined the teaching staff at Cornell. Park has exhibited her works nationally and internationally. “Strange Passages,” an installation at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas, in 2005, was her first solo museum show. This is her third show with Toomey Tourell.