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SF Artist Spotlight: New Works by Chelsea Ryoko Wong

“She’s the next Maira Kalman,” Courtney whispers in my ear, “And if you don’t buy it I will.” We are standing in front of “Gossip Girls Selling Veggies on Mahabandoola Street, Yangon” and she is referring to San Francisco-based artist Chelsea Ryoko Wong who is currently in a two-woman show Hello At Last with Mia Christopher at the recently relocated Legion shop in Chinatown, San Francisco.

The piece is a celebration of women, food, and the marketplace. The colors shout out to passersby and the level of detail beckons the viewer to approach, to examine each slice of melon, each flower closeup. There is something about the vibrant scenes, flattened hierarchy and level of detail that are reminiscent of Persian miniature painting. Wong later tells us that she fell in love with this marketplace in Myanmar (Burma). “The women are the queens of the streets and you could tell they have the power,” her eyes ablaze when describing this scene.

I first met Chelsea when she dropped off artwork for #strikeawayshow a show of matchbook art which I co-curated with Courtney Cerruti in May 2015.

"Smokin' Hot Redheads Zine," 2015 Matchbook, ink, gouache. Xerox accordian fold zine. Matches.
“Smokin’ Hot Redheads Zine,” 2015
Matchbook, ink, gouache. Xerox accordian fold zine. Matches.

We fell in love with her work immediately and asked, “Um, can you make, like, six more?” “Sure!” Wong’s enthusiasm and easy-going nature make her a delight to work with. Later at the opening of Hello At Last, we see her play and gush when two little kids present her with a pink carnation. “Pink! Matches my bag, cute don’t you think?”

Another piece that called me in for a closer look was “Boys Becoming Novices, Going Forth.”

"Boys Becoming Novices, Going Forth," 2015 Gouache, water color and colored pencil on paper (9” x 12”)
“Boys Becoming Novices, Going Forth,” 2015
Gouache, water color and colored pencil on paper, 9” x 12”

Its gentle visual rhythm evokes the chanting of monks. The white, simultaneously energetic and meditative, leaps off the paper. And again, those details! Tiny scissors, candlesticks, and incense conjure sounds and smells, a before and after, of the scene.

Whether her subjects recall faraway places or near, people you know or people you want to be, they are all a celebration of life and everyday people.

Ceramics, 2015
Ceramics, 2015

The show includes a mix of original artwork, prints and ceramics. The functional pieces, again a nod to food and domesticity, a playful boost to an otherwise quotidian object, are well-paired with Mia Christopher’s larger abstract paintings.


The show runs until 11/30. Curated by Alice Wu. On view at Legion Shop, 678 Commercial St, San Francisco, CA 94111. I encourage you to check it out! M-F 11-6, Sat 1-5, closed Sunday. Photos courtesy of Chelsea R. Wong and @ccerruti.

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Social Sketch in life

I met Mike when Courtney asked if I’d like to join them for a sketch sesh. I said, “of course!” but was kinda nervous about sketching with the two of them. They are what you might call real artists. The kind of artists with degrees in art, who show their work in galleries, write books on art and craft, and teach others how to make art. I am a bit of a poser. I am a “paint in my living room after I finish work, don’t really know the difference between student and professional materials” kind of artist.

I decide to go sketch anyway. After scarfing down a terribly saucy, terribly delicious falafel in Mike’s studio space, we get to it. We each start on a sheet and when someone gets tired or feels like they’re done we exchange work. Then we exchange one more time so that everyone has made a mark on each sheet.

It was magic.

I loved trying to figure out how to enhance their work. I love how clearly Mike and Courtney’s styles come through, and how they play off of one another’s work. (You can see more of their collaborations on Instagram under the hashtag #ccrabbit.) I wasn’t even that scared to mess up their work because there was no ego about it. Turd it up? Doesn’t really matter, flip the page and start something new.

Here’s one of my faves from the night:


And here’s the bunch at the end of the night that we divvied up:collab sesh

This collaborative way of drawing reminds me of old Persian miniature painting. Each artist would have a specialty, such as gold leaf, color, calligraphy, and would only add that particular element to each work. Paintings were a result of several artists’ efforts.

Several years ago the Asian Art Museum here in San Francisco hosted an exhibit that played off of this idea. Karkhana: A Contemporary Collaboration included paintings that had been passed from artist to artist. Here you can get an idea of the process (excuse the shitty images throughout this post, these are quick phone snaps of the exhibit catalog):

karkhana process


This brings us to the awesomeness that is Social Sketch, a monthly event recently started by Courtney and Mike which alternates between San Francisco and Oakland venues.

social sketch

It’s an open event, you can find upcoming dates on Instagram #socialsketch or Facebook. Bring beer, burritos, and your favorite pen or paints. Start a work, throw it in the middle of the table, take someone else’s and add to it.

Why I think this simple concept is so good:

there’s no ownership of the work, no ego because you don’t necessarily know who made what, no money involved so it’s not really competitive. You make something you’d never otherwise make, meet and work with skilled people, have dedicated time to hone your craft, take cool shit home. And if you make something crappy, it doesn’t much matter. Throw it in the center so someone else can fix it, and start fresh.

I would love to employ the social sketch concept in other aspects of my life. How come it’s so hard to find paid gigs with this same spirit? Projects where you work with cool people, with no ego, who help to make something that wouldn’t otherwise happen alone. I suspect work projects don’t feel this way because they involve money. As soon as you pay or get paid for shit it changes the dynamic of the relationship, and people tend to feel more possessive of the process or final products. Even so, I’m looking to embrace social sketch in other contexts because it’s a fun way to work, and a lot of cool stuff gets made.

Here’s some collaborative pieces from previous Social Sketches. Hope to see you at the next one!








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3636 Project Opens at Paxton Gate’s Kids in SF Friday, February 21


36 antique spoons rebirthed by 36 artists. 3636 Project opens at Paxton Gate’s Curiosities for Kids February 21. Reception 6-8pm. 766 Valencia Street (between 18th & 19th Streets).

The curator of the show, Courtney Cerruti, is always making the world around her more beautiful. She calls herself a maker extraordinaire and that she is. Doesn’t matter the medium (although I believe her heart is happiest dripping in paint) she’ll turn it into something magical. Somehow I managed to sneak an invite to participate in the show. Lucky for me, someone who wouldn’t dare call herself an artist (at least not in front of other artists), Courtney can see creativity in most people. I think it’s because she teaches so many workshops around the Bay Area and can bring out artistic qualities in all her students.

So here I am, with a spoon in the show, alongside 35 extremely talented artists. Here’s a peek at my spoon. Come check out the rest! Some are already teasing us on Instagram #3636project


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Dijkstra’s Bloodstained Bullfighters

When I think of Rineke Dijkstra’s work, the first thing to come to mind are her beach scenes. Glowing adolescent bodies against eerie blue greys.

What I was not prepared for when I visited Dijkstra’s retrospective at SF MoMA this week was how captivating the bullfighter portraits would be. Not only for the contradictions they exude – a bullfighter should be strong, courageous and other “masculine” qualities, not torn down, dirty, exhausted, relieved – but also for their sheer beauty. These men look like innocent children, almost like dolls with clear skin, dark hair, and soft intricate fabrics. I love the delicate patterns and the rose colored jacket and ties. Even the blood and dirt that drip down their faces and shirts are elegant. If this was supposed to dissuade me from bullfighting, it is not working.

These were hung to juxtapose portraits of mothers holding their recently delivered babies. The viewer is meant to draw comparisons between the two sets. Both went through intense physical exertion and a life-changing event that was also life-threatening. It is supposed to raise questions of what qualities really depict masculinity and femininity. I appreciate this line of questioning, however, the bullfighters on their own confuse masculine/feminine, hard/soft, strong/weak in a wonderful and gently perplexing way.

The show runs through May 28.

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Dolls and Masks in the Meatyard

In an unassuming room with bright white walls and cool cement floors hangs a body of work that is delightfully dark. The nearly sixty black and white photographs taken by Ralph Eugene Meatyard, currently on view at the de Young in San Francisco, call attention to the human body, identity, and family relationships in the most unsettling ways. Even his name connotes viscera: physical bodies, weight, animal, slaughter, tearing flesh apart, clawing, chewing, raw… (what does my quick word association say about me?) Most reviews point to the dichotomies in Meatyard’s work, arguing for example, that he “explores the contrasts between youth and age, childhood and mortality, intimacy and unknowability, sharing and hiding.”

This is true. I find tension even in the act of viewing the work. Because they are dark and extremely detailed, the viewer must get physically close to each photograph to discern all the objects, figures, and settings. Once the viewer is able to read these details, she realizes how troubling some of the imagery is and she takes a step back. Pauses. Thinks. Intrigued, she takes a step forward to get a better look. Back and forth, back and forth, she does this dance between wanting to look, but not wanting to see.

It’s the imagery and composition that are so enticing. What could be more appealing and subversive than small, black and white prints of dolls and masks on family members taken in the 1960’s (think cutoffs and long hair in wide open spaces or abandoned houses)? Dolls are fascinating. Ever since I saw slides of Hans Bellmer‘s work in my first art history class I was hooked on creepy dolls. (Actually, it probably goes further back than that. Back to when Seana and I would get dolls as gifts. For instance, my mom brought us grandparent dolls from Germany. They were made of fabric. The grandma was posed with knitting needles and the grandpa was smoking a pipe, and boy would they freak us out.) Dolls are creepy because they are stand-ins for humans. They are also associated with children which makes them especially creepy when placed alone against decaying architecture or fractured mirrors. Meatyard uses a fair amount of mannequins and dolls as human substitutes in his work, and it gets me every time. It’s somehow easy to put oneself in the shoes of a doll or mannequin, somewhere between human and object. They make the viewer second guess what humanity is, particularly in photographs because they are static images. The expressions and poses of mannequins are just as frozen in time as the human figures’, making it easy to confound the human and non-human. And when the viewer guesses wrong, it’s troubling.

The other tension I felt looking at the photographs was in trying to read their messages. As soon as I started focusing on the imagery, I would start picturing the behind-the-scenes activities that went into setting up the shot. I got distracted by this and could no longer focus on the work in front of me. Meatyard would have family members wear masks and pose for his photographs in dilapidated buildings, mossy steps, backyard spaces, fields, or somewhere else in their “backyard” in Lexington, Kentucky. Knowing this makes me picture the communication that occurs between father and child. “Why don’t you put on this clown mask and perch on that broken step for dad,” I imagine Meatyard saying to his son as he sifts through a pile of rubber faces staring back at him. I love imagining the production behind these scenes and only wish there were more of his work to explore.

Ralph Eugene Meatyard said that masks erased the differences between people. Romance (N) from Ambrose Bierce #3. 1962.

Ralph Eugene Meatyard. Untitled. 1962. Vintage Silver Print. 7″ x 6.75″
This exhibition ends February 26.