Art Culture

Amazing SFMOMA SECA Award Show 2021

| August 15, 2021 | 0 Comments
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Trevor Paglen, KEYHOLE-IMPROVED CRYSTAL from Glacier Point © 2008 Trevor Paglen; photo courtesy the artist, Altman Siegel Gallery, and Bellwether

SFMOMA SECA: Bay Area art fans still have a few weeks to see the SECA Art Award exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The biennial award is administered by the Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art, an SFMOMA-associated art interest group. Since 1967 the SECA award has honored Bay Area artists of exceptional talent that have not yet received widespread recognition.

The exhibition presents an extensive and highly varied lineup of work by 2008 SFMOMA SECA award recipients Tauba AuerbachDesirée HolmanJordan Kantor, and Trevor Paglen. The work on display reveals contemporary art’s swirling, chaotic fusion of new and traditional media, and its engagement with a host of social, political, and aesthetic concerns. The contrasts among the artists make for interesting viewing, and may leave one searching for any unifying threads or themes.

Of course art awards exhibitions always raise questions. Critics will disagree with the selection of one artist over another, while the general art-viewing public may wonder in a broader sense: Why these? Are these artists really in some sense “the best”, and what makes them so? What if I don’t like or understand their work at all? Depending on your personal tastes and interests, evidence of prize-worthiness may or may not be apparent at the SFMOMA SECA show. But at the very least you will see some engaging, challenging and perhaps mystifying work by four highly accomplished contemporary artists.

Photography, video, and digital technology are involved in almost all of the work on display, if not as the actual medium then as reference point or subject matter. Paintings by Tauba Auerbach and Jordan Kantor draw upon and rework photographic images, exploring in very different ways a number of themes including the limits of perception and representation, and the transformations inherent in the manipulation, scaling and reproduction of images.

In other work Auerbach explores the formal and figurative implications of systems of meaning, such as binary code. Kantor is more concerned with the origin and fate of images, drawing on material taken from various realms including the history of art, science, and the mass media. Some of the same themes are also addressed in The Magic Window, a video installation by Desirée Holman that blends staged performance with clips from 1980s sitcoms.

Perhaps the most intriguing and most-discussed work at the SFMOMA SECA show is that of Trevor Paglen. As both a visual artist and an “experimental geographer” (he actually is a professor of geography) Paglen draws on the technology and ethos of investigation. The target of Paglen’s investigative work is the secret side of U.S. governmental power: spy satellites and remote military bases, covert communications networks and systems of coded or disguised information. But while the imagery produced by Paglen’s long distance photography and data analysis has an overtly political cast, the work stands as art on its own aesthetic grounds.

The world seen through Paglen’s telephoto lens is both familiar and strange. In works like Nine Reconnaissance Satellites over the Sonora Pass and KEYHOLE-IMPROVED CRYSTAL from Glacier Point, iconic images from classical landscape photography are rendered abstract by the addition of deeper and spookier layers of information. In the latter work the time-lapse swirl of stars in the night sky above Yosemite’s Half Dome is bisected by traces of other objects moving at right angles to the firmament: airplanes and the specific target of Paglen’s camera, a spy satellite named KEYHOLE-IMPROVED CRYSTAL.

Other Paglen images reveal installations and objects that cannot be seen by the unaided eye—because they have been deliberately situated outside of public view in remote and restricted areas. Paglen calls photographing these secret military landscapes “limit telephotography”. In one such image a remote flight test center photographed from a mountaintop 26 miles away appears as an indistinct line of lights in a field of black. The photograph conveys little actual information, and that is exactly the point—the real subject of the image is not the secret site, but the government-imposed limit on what is viewable.

OK, but is it great art? You be the judge—and let us know what you think. The SFMOMA SECA Art Award exhibition honoring Bay Area artists remains viewable until May 10 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Perhaps the most intriguing and most-discussed work at the SFMOMA SECA show is that of Trevor Paglen.

Category: Contemporary Art

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