Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Nining Muir

It’s been a rough week, but the show must go on. Last week, I visited Nining Muir in her studio space in the ActivSpace in the Mission District of San Francisco.

Growing up in Indonesia, Muir worked on wooden sculptures and ceramics like most other people. Unlike western craftspeople, no emphasis is placed on the individual artist in Indonesia:

“Art is part of life. There is no ego involved in art […] There’s no signature usually - traditionally - on the piece”

Not everything was typical for Muir. While her father is an Indonesian aristocrat, her mother is from a middle-class Chinese background. Stirred by this dichotomy, Muir developed an adventurous spirit and an awareness of social issues:  

“[I had] two different backgrounds in one family [… one is] rebellious and then another one is conservative”

When her parents began arranging her marriage, Muir set out to prove her independence, first working for an Australian market research firm in Indonesia, and then ultimately moving to the US. After learning English, Muir took a job in the SFMOMA museum store:

“[I was] trying to channel something in this new country – I had to do something – channel in a positive way, the most desirable way [and … I get to be] inspired by all the big-deal artists”

Muir gravitated to the edginess and darkness of Egon Schiele and Francis Bacon. She started drawing and working in gouache, in addition to collaborating on wooden sculptures with her husband:

“I come from a different background where everyone is doing something together […] so [my husband and I] ended up doing sculpture together because my mind was complete eastern [in its] way of thinking”

In the last couple years, however, Muir began taking printmaking and painting classes and has gravitated towards oil painting. With works highlighting Tibetan prayer, torture at Guantanamo Bay, and pollution, Muir reflects on social and political issues close to her heart. Recently, she has been working on a series featuring cows and their mistreatment:

“It’s torture – I read something about in California someone was torturing cows in a slaughterhouse […]I try to make something [with a] statement”

A long way from her native Indonesia, Muir does not yet feel at home in the US. But as an artist inspired by social statements, she has found the freedom she needs:

“In this country, you call it ‘Freedom of Speech’, ‘Freedom of Expression’ which is [a] great thing in the world, so I try to express myself that way […] Back there in Indonesia I would probably be in jail […] This is the best place to express yourself”

Catch Nining Muir’s work at the SomArts Cultural Gallery from October 8 to 26, or at Space Gallery from October 11 to 26. She will also be participating in SF Open Studios on October 18 & 19 and appearing in the October issue of Indian Currents Magazine.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Cindy Shih and Bill Yancey

This week at Arteaser, we met up with a couple artists showing their work privately in an apartment in San Francisco. Part of what the residents hope becomes a rotating series, guests were invited to share an evening celebrating art by friends.

Earlier this year, when Sarah Hobbs moved into her new Noe Valley apartment with her roommate, Valerie, she was not satisfied with the bare walls that stared back at her. At the same time, she knew several friends who created art, but were not active in showing it.

“People didn’t want to make art for no reason. I think people want to think that people are looking at what their doing, so that was the hope that if we put up art in our house that people would want to make it more because someone was looking at it”

While not an artist herself, Hobbs enjoys art and firmly believes in art appreciation, so she proposed the idea of a rotating gallery show to Valerie. As a painter not entirely comfortable sharing her own work, Valerie hesitated, but ultimately agreed:

“Because I have such a personal relationship with it, it was hard for me to accept this idea […] I knew there’d be weirdness about it, but I knew at the end everyone would be ‘That was so nice and great and it was so fun to see people’s art and [have] everyone get together.’”

Hobbs had seen works by her colleague, Cindy Shih, on a blog. Shih started the blog in late 2007 to document her work after being inspired by a friend:

“She was taking some classes at the local art institute and she just started doing some pastels and putting it up on a blog […] I was inspiring to see because […] she’s an engineer and she decided to take some art classes because she was interested. She really never did art before […] I can see the progress that she’s making in the work she’s doing […]”

Born in Taiwan, Shih had a natural talent for lifelike drawing. The realization of her talents started to come when a childhood friend asked ‘How do you know which side to shade?’ Indeed, Sarah and Valerie’s show featured some works by Shih dating from junior high:

“I felt like a lot of [my work] was just languishing on the bottom of my bed […] I just decided to archive it by taking a picture of it and then threw it up in a blog”

A fan of work by Egon Shiele, Shih is drawn to the artistic process:

“I remember going to Europe and […] picking up Michelangelo’s drafts […] I just wanted to have his sketches so I could see the process that he takes to make his masterpieces. That’s what I’m interested in - seeing how everyone develops their style”

Her repertoire of figure drawings and studies reflect that interest, but accepting the incompleteness was not easy:

“I don’t do any faces because I want it to look unfinished because I don’t feel like I ever can finish it […] I used to really struggle with that, when I was younger, I felt like I could never finish something and that’s why I didn’t want to draw, I didn’t want to paint because […] I didn’t know how to finish it and it was never actually done”

Hobbs and Shih had shared ideas about art initiatives in the past, so Hobbs suggested that Shih be the inaugural artist in their home gallery experiment. Accounts of Shih’s initial reaction vary, but at some point Bill Yancey, another colleague, was approached to join in the endeavor:

“It’s hard because people don’t want to show their art […] I didn’t even think we would get anyone to hang their stuff up […] The hardest thing about this was in all honesty was getting people who are like, ‘I want to do this.’’”

A native of Modesto, California, Yancey grew up creating graffiti art in public spaces, inspired by artists like Alexander Rodchenko:

“I would just go to the library and check-out like twenty books at a time. I was really into Russian Constructivism”

Working full time left little energy to create for years, but feelings of boredom, among other things, have driven Yancey back to creative pursuits:

“I just do stuff that I would like to hang on my wall and I usually end up giving it to friends”

Taking wisdom from his father, Yancey considers how to balance career and art:

“I don’t look for fulfillment in my work […it’s] how you get the money to do the things you love to do. Your job isn’t what you love to do. Which sounds kind of defeatist and sad, but I think it’s actually a good way to go about things”

Shih, on the other hand, has struggled more to find such a balance. Hesitations manifested early when decided whether to attend art school and she continues to face challenges in pursuing her art:

“I definitely did [think about going to art school], but every single time I though about it the rational part of my brain told me that I probably shouldn’t […] The dream has always been to make [the rational side and the artistic side] come together. It could be now, it could be later, it’s just that there’s always thing in the economy or family that keeps me from doing that.”

But for a night in a Noe Valley apartment, a group of friends were able to enjoy the art that happened despite these challenges. For Sarah and Valerie, their walls were no longer empty, but grander schemes have yet to emerge:

“It was more just, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to sort of have this excuse of let’s all get together and appreciate the fact that our friends have these great personal pursuits’”

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Eduardo del Rio

From the golden city of Salamanca to the farmlands of Northern California, Eduardo del Rio has all the romantic trappings of a painter. Now weeks away from packing up and moving to New York City, del Rio is having to consider how to change his artistic practice given anticipated “spacial issues”. For our Arteaser interview, I stopped by his apartment on the slopes of Russian Hill, where del Rio has enjoyed the space and ventilation to paint the large oil canvases of his Aquatic Angst series.

Born in Salamanca, del Rio moved with his parents, both artists, to Northern California before age three:

“My parents worked in the farm, in the fields, and my dad had to learn English […] They don’t pay the bills with their art”

Nonetheless, their artistic endeavors shaped del Rio’s budding talents:

“Definitely [having artist parents] was pretty much the most influential part of me being an artist [… They were] both very encouraging and harsh at the same time”

Each parent contributed their strengths:

My mom, I pride her on being a master of color, so I learned so much about color and Cezanne and Van Gogh, and how to mix colors and the dos and don’ts of painting, oil painting […] there was no question that could go unanswered through her about painting [and] I think that was really lucky”

My dad is just the compositional master. He puts these compositions together that just shake you”

Despite an early interest in illustration, del Rio decided not to go to art school and instead studied literature at the University of San Francisco:

“[It] was a hard decision […but] for me, art school would have been fairly oppressive just as far as progressing and expressing myself and really pushing the themes I wanted to push and the mediums I wanted to push”

While studying abroad in his hometown, he began to think more seriously about his art:

“I went to the school of Fine Art in Salamanca and studied illustration there and that was definitely a time […] where I really realized that I was going to take art more seriously”

Of course, the realities of a career in art did not go unchecked, and del Rio has simultaneously been building a career as a graphic designer:

“It would be nice, in theory, to make a living off illustration or off fine art or whatnot and I guess when that happens, it will happen. As it is, it’s great to be a designer because you do get to be creative at work and I see people in less creative positions wanting to be creative and I feel very lucky that I get to be and I have that fortunate”

On the fine art side, del Rio takes his greatest influence from El Greco and Francisco de Goya

“My dad, being the Spaniard, always just preached Picasso to me […but] those two people really have shaped how I would like to achieve a form of expression in fine art”

That expressive style permeates his latest Aquatic Angst series:

“As in Las Pinturas Negras of Goya, just how he really showed you the darkness of society and often juxtaposed to the beauty of society in some cases. The Aquatic Angst series[-] I didn’t want that to be as dark as that of course because that’s not my personality. I’m very lighthearted, so they’re fairly lighthearted and kind of almost funny and colorful, but [ ]I attempt to display to you elements of society that we all see and know are there and align them with the metaphor of the ocean.

“I’ve always been completely fascinated by the ocean […] it’s kind of nice now to be capable of painting a life size giant squid or shark monster and use these images as vehicles to show how the different levels of how are civilization acts.”

The Aquatic Angst paintings deliberately capture a moment of tension in the society of the sea:

“It’s not that I shy away from some creature tearing some other creature apart – like that’d be pretty awesome – I just didn’t feel like that was what I wanted to show. I wanted to show that the creature is about to get eaten, but will it get away.”

Despite having his intentions, del Rio enjoys fresh interpretations of his work:

“My favorite thing - it’s kind of funny, is some people’s least favorite thing - is that people come and they look at whatever I’ve done and they’ll have […] some interpretation that I’ve never considered and never even intended for and they just go into some deep, profound analysis of all the elements and this is the message that they see and it makes me ecstatic that someone can extract some completely different message that some image that’s just sitting there can give anyone. It’s not that it’s mine [..] it’s that people can find messages in things. That’s why I do it”

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Javier Chalini

I sat down with Javier Chalini in the lobby of the Palace Hotel for my first interview of the Arteaser Project. I’ll be the first to admit that the questions I had prepared were not the insightful queries of a seasoned interviewer. I had a list of relatively bland questions that were more along the lines of an extended profile. Having said that, the twelve minutes of recorded “interview” were still useful, but more in the context of the forty minute conversation that ensued. I’ll keep the tape running next time.

Raised in Puebla, the colonial city two hours from Mexico City, Chalini’s early exposure to art was the religious art that adorned his school, a former convent.

“I used to love the Prado prints […] and I enjoyed Delacroix […] I used to know several of my roots, like the muralists, Diego Rivero, Orozco, Siqueiros, Tamayo

With dinner table gatherings bringing together family in support of the old guard, Catholic right and the populist left, Chalini became a keen observer of human interaction. To paraphrase how this plays out in his art:

“I don’t do landscapes, I do people”

While his parents did not specifically encourage him to pursue the arts, museum books from his father were clearly an important level of exposure:

“I loved just to browse through the pictures and the photographs, I would spend hours and hours doing that, still not knowing that that was something I would like to do. It was just something nice to look at kind of put me away from the day, from everybody”

But despite his inclinations toward doodling, Chalini himself didn’t consider pursuing the arts until his twenties. After a couple years studying engineering he decided to switch to graphic arts at the nearby Universidad de las Américas in Cholula. With its scientific qualities, he gravitated towards metal plate etching:

“I [switched to graphic arts] because I wanted to do what [the other students] were doing […] I tried everything: lithography, photography, painting, silkscreen printing - all the graphic arts. [... E]tching, metal etching, which is the bulk of my work, […] at the beginning, as you know is very technical. Somehow that was a little challenge and maybe because I was into engineering maybe I was more guided to see that.”

Working as a graphics arts professional, Chalini developed under mentors at design agencies. Over the years, however, his focus has been weighting towards his art, which reflect his observations of human interaction using elements of mythology. Although some characters may be based on people in Chalini’s life, in his work they reflect more universal concepts of love, despair, and passion. On his favorite part of sharing his art:

“The discussion that [the piece] can generate. There is the visual aesthetic that talks by itself […].The piece has its own cosmography and sometimes the piece talks to me rather than me talking to the piece”

As Chalini describes it, the artistic process is one that may involve plans, but the success is in following an instinct from beyond that which is understood:

“In the image that I’m creating- painting, etching - it’s the piece [that is] leading not me; it’s the piece [that is] asking me what to do, what to draw, […] what to add. We get into conflicts sometimes; sometimes I get into big discussions with the piece because I don’t know what it wants sometimes. Sometimes I just need to let it go and just forget about it and then come back later and be more open and just be friends again.”

Chalini will be participating in the Fort Mason Open Studios on October 11-12 and his work will also be displayed at Falkirk Cultural Center in San Rafael from October 18 to December 13.

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