Art Watch: Jeff Long at JayJay

March 30, 2010 at 11:08 am (look)

Exploring Sacramento’s galleries every month, I rarely come across a show as striking as the one currently up at JayJay. Through April 24, the East Sac gallery is presenting the first Sacramento exhibit of longtime San Francisco-based painter Jeff Long, and it’s well worth a visit. (Long is paired with local artist Roger Berry, whose curved and twisted bronze sculptures are stunning feats of engineering.)

After years of paintings that were abstract yet still tied to concrete things, from boats to landscapes to temples in Thailand, Long’s current work has become “content-less,” in his words. The paintings, in a palette of blue, ochre, red and black, “have oblique references to design motifs, both Western and tribal, but really aren’t about anything in particular,” Long told me when we talked earlier this week. “My work has gotten lighter, more purely formalist.”

Translation: there’s no need for mental contortions to figure out what it all means. Just look at the paint. Jerry Saltz, the art critic for New York magazine, recently criticized the “idiotic academic proscriptions against visual pleasure,” and Long isn’t afraid to make paintings that are simply beautiful, the kind that you want to stand in front of for hours just because they are so good to look at. (Rex Ray, another San Francisco artist and master of shapes and patterns, offers similar visual feasts.) For a piece like Creek 1/Creek 2 (pictured above; at a combined size of 8’x6’, it anchors the exhibition), the fun is in letting a thin orange helix carry your gaze across a flat red backbone to a black and white curve that, like a water slide, deposits you into the subtle, textural layers of a neutral background. But even the backgrounds stay close to the surface in Long’s paintings. Despite the presence of shapes passing in front of or ducking behind others, or of overlapping forms taking bites out of their neighbors like Venn diagrams, the paintings avoid depth of field or indications of space.

(Untitled-4)

With their interplay of sharp edges and organic, biomorphic forms, Long’s paintings draw from 20th century Modernism in both fine art and design, echoing the flattened geometry of Modernists like Mondrian along with the curves of a midcentury Eames chair.

“There was a playfulness that intruded into 20th century design at that point, with kidney-shaped pools and lava lamps and that kind of thing,” says Long. “It was a way of bringing ideas to the masses that might have originated in painters like the Surrealists and [Arshile] Gorky and the sinuous shapes he used.” Now, re-injecting design into painting, Long is completing the circle–and giving hippies a far better way to decorate their living rooms.

(Loopy 23)

With all the fluid curves on display from both Long and Berry, the whole show can leave you feeling a little loopy. But both artists balance verve with restraint, and the results are elegant. It’s another strong outing for JayJay, and an exciting Sacramento debut.

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Zoolander Changed My Life

March 24, 2010 at 4:31 pm (watch)

When I was younger, I was kind of a brat. Not mean, not cruel, not a bully—just someone who thought she was usually smarter than the other kids around her, and sometimes smarter than her teachers.

I also loved movies, but I took pride in watching good movies. When my sister and I would go to Blockbuster, she would suggest a title and I’d say, “we can’t see that—it got a C- from Entertainment Weekly and one and a half stars from Ebert and Film Comment didn’t even write about it. How about this Oscar-nominated foreign film that never got a theatrical release in Sacramento?”

And then one day she said, “Shut up, Anne. We’re watching Zoolander.”

Roger Ebert gave it one star and found it offensive. I loved it. Its silly stupidity, faux-seriousness and caricatured characters make for a perfect blend of laughing-at and laughing-with. Even now, reading through memorable quotes on IMDB cracks me up. (“If there is anything that this horrible tragedy can teach us, it’s that a male model’s life is a precious, precious commodity. Just because we have chiseled abs and stunning features, it doesn’t mean that we too can’t not die in a freak gasoline fight accident,” Zoolander eulogizes—or, “eugoogoolizes”—after the death of his friends.) Luckily, last month, nearly nine years after the untimely just-after-9/11-release-date of the original, it was announced that a Zoolander sequel is in the works.

For me, Zoolander was the PG-13 gateway drug that opened the floodgates to Meet the Fockers and Dodgeball and Wedding Crashers and Along Came Polly and Talladega Nights and The 40 Year Old Virgin and Bad Santa and Superbad and Borat and Zach and Miri Make a Porno and Tropic Thunder and Forgetting Sarah Marshall all the other lowbrow raunchfests that were part of the mid 2000s renaissance of the R-rated comedy. (But I hate Old School, and Will Ferrell’s overgrown, often nude, man-child shtick in general. A former roommate and I had frequent Stiller vs. Ferrell face-offs, with her fighting in the corner of Elf and Anchorman and even Stepbrothers. Plans for Anchorman 2 seem sketchy—there are reports that it is “on hold”—so take that, Brittney!)

Stiller’s role in the new Noah Baumbach film Greenberg, which opens in wide release on Friday, has prompted a look back at his 30-year career. A recent New York Times piece, called Mortification Man, distilled Stiller’s career down to being a “perennial punching bag”:

“He anchors family movies and romantic comedies alike, and it says something about his charisma— and perhaps about the dark appetites of the moviegoing public — that he has done so with a screen presence that is often synonymous with anxiety, pain and humiliation.”

True enough, given that his big break, There’s Something About Mary, found him snared through the cheek with a fish hook (not to mention the famous hair gel scene). However, my favorite Stiller characters are the muscley preeners, those where he twists his neurotic persona into inflated, egotistical goons like gym owner White Goodman in Dodgeball (who literally inflates the groin area of his tight shorts), action star actor Tugg Speedman in Tropic Thunder and, of course, Derek “Blue Steel” Zoolander.

These characters also have their hang-ups—the gym owner is terrified of becoming fat again, the actor wants critical acclaim that eludes him when he goes “full retard,” the male model is afraid that his life has been meaningless—but they’re too self-unaware to be neurotic, too oblivious to be humiliated, too aggressive to be punching bags. It’s worth noting that Stiller co-wrote and directed both Zoolander and Tropic Thunder. When he takes charge, his lead roles serve as bulked-up and really, really, ridiculously good looking antidotes to his “mortification men.” They’re dumb as shit, though, so no one can accuse Stiller of taking himself too seriously.

I still watch Oscar-nominated foreign films, and I’m still guilty of occasional snobbery. But according to IMDB, Stiller has 17 movies in the works, so maybe he’ll knock it out of me yet, with the power of Zoolander’s unleashed Magnum.

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Oscar Watch: The Sci and Tech Awards are a Man’s World

March 7, 2010 at 11:29 pm (Uncategorized)

On a night that Kathryn Bigelow made Oscar history by becoming the first woman to win an award for Best Director, another moment on the telecast made clear how far women still have to go in Hollywood.

Partway through the packed show, actress Elizabeth Banks highlighted the Academy’s Scientific & Technical Awards, which she had presented in a separate ceremony on February 20. According to the Academy, the awards honor “the men, women and companies whose discoveries and innovations have contributed in significant, outstanding and lasting ways to motion pictures.”

Just one problem: there were no women. As the group photo scrolled across the big screen, it was tux after tux, bow tie after bow tie. Forty five men.

Interestingly, the Sci-Tech awards are always presented by beautiful young actresses—Jessica Biel, Jessica Alba, Scarlett Johansson and Kate Hudson are among the recent hosts. Last year, Biel presented to all men. In 2008, Alba honored a lone woman, Julia Pakalns, for her work (along with three men) on the Maya Fluid Effects system, which helps digital artists accurately animate liquids and gases.

Though I can’t tell you what awards like “advancing the technique of ambient occlusion rendering” mean, I can say that all of these technological advancements are changing the way movies are made, and that both men and women should be a part of that filmmaking future.

Clearly, the gender divide in these awards is only a symptom of a systematic failure to engage and encourage women in science and technology—a failure that extends far beyond the film industry. Last week, I attended the California Museum’s celebration of Women’s History Month, which included a discussion with astronaut Sally Ride, who in 1983 became the first woman to go to space. During the panel, she mentioned that when she first went to work at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, of the 4,000 scientists and engineers employed there, only 4 were women. And when the crew for her historic space flight was announced, at the press conference a reporter fromTIME magazine asked if she cried when things went wrong in the simulator.

The vital question is how to overcome centuries of social, cultural and institutional biases that make it difficult for women to enter and excel in scientific and technical fields. Though it’s an enormous issue, institutes like Georgia Tech’s Center for the Study of Women, Science and Technology and initiatives at MITUSC and many other colleges are a welcome sign of the need for and commitment to change.

Hopefully not too long from now, the only tears will come during award acceptance speeches.

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Two Words: Swagger Wagon

March 1, 2010 at 10:00 pm (Uncategorized)

Toyota has been having a tough time lately, so I thought I’d show the company some love by sharing their hilarious new series of commercials for the Sienna minivan, set up like a sitcom about a dorky-cool family with two little kids. The sense of humor, skewed self-perception and music all give the clips an Arrested Development vibe, and I think the lead actors are perfect. I know they’re ads for a minivan, but I just watched all the videos on their YouTube channel. For some reason I can’t embed the clips, but I recommend this 30-second spot that introduces you to the family, and this clip starring the dad. Dance party!

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