frances lerner


Saturday, December 26, 2009 (SF Chronicle)
Review: 'New Images of Man and Woman'
Kenneth Baker
Read the entire review here

"New Images of Man and Woman" at the Alphonse Berber Gallery in Berkeley commemorates an exhibition organized 50 years ago at the Museum of Modern Art in New York by Peter Selz, now UC Berkeley professor emeritus of art history. Selz also made the present selection with gallery co-director Cameron Jackson.

The current show's very title marks the cultural distance between today and the time when "man" meant humankind. It also echoes the slight edge in number of female artists over men among the nine represented, a dramatic revision of the preponderance of men in the 1959 event. We might suspect political correctness afoot, were not most of the women's work so persuasive .Frances Lerner - a Bay Area painter "emerging" in her 60s - counts as the great discovery here. Using a found doll as a figural prop, she stages mysterious, carefully crafted pictures that offer up seemingly abandoned stabs at narrative. The fragment of homily that titles "Apple Doesn't"(2008) nicely chimes with all her pictures' sense of spent or dispirited action, as do the industrial age tools that appear in some of them.Nathan Oliveira serves as a hinge between the present project and the 1959 exhibition: He was the great discovery of that show, though several of the Europeans Selz chose were then probably as little known to the American art public as Oliveira.

Several early Oliveira paintings stand out in the Berkeley show; see the morbidly bleak "Head" (1965). But the watercolor nudes display Oliveira's mastery with an economy that his more obviously fraught efforts on canvas frequently lack. The watercolors come as close as anything on view does to translating the anxious tenor of the original "New Images ..." into a key we recognize asthat of our own moment. They seem to describe bodies reduced to bloodstains and ciphers. Although quavering with the artist's touch and his medium's fluidity, the images somehow evoke a drone's eye view of the individual as damage collateral to the functioning of large, obscure and remote institutional agendas. Their tone differs starkly from the chill of Cold War exposure felt in Oliveira's early canvases.

Among the artists represented here close to Oliveira in age - he's 82 - only Stephen De Staebler has been able to sustain - or, like Oliveira,intermittently remake - his work's contemporaneity. Swiss-born Marianne Kolb makes paintings that resemble Oliveira's earlywork. They exude conviction - of what we cannot guess - and materialize its force, making them impossible to ignore.

But for all the admirable work assembled here, "New Images of Man and Woman" makes a weak case for painting and sculpture as arts needfully responsive to the human condition - if that term has any meaning left.

The zany output of a painter such as George Condo or a sculptor such as Franz West or Jessica Stockholder might better offer the sort of
historical immediacy that "New Images of Man and Woman" seeks.

"The revelations and complexities of mid-20th-century life have called forth a profound feeling of solitude and anxiety," Selz wrote in the 1959
MOMA catalog. "The imagery of man which has evolved from this reveals sometimes a new dignity, sometimes despair, but always the uniqueness of
man as he confronts his fate. Like Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Camus, these artists are aware of anguish and dread, of life in which man - precarious
and vulnerable - confronts the precipice, is aware of dying as well as living."

The anachronism of such a passage is more than rhetorical. It reflects an existentialist view of selfhood conditioned by the reverberations of World
War II. The reinflation of egotism and the dithering sociality of the newly networked 21st century culture have anesthetized a generation - temporarily anyway - against the painful recognitions that Selz found registered in the new figurative art of the 1950s.

New Images of Man and Woman: paintings, sculpture and works on paper.
Through Jan 30. Alphonse Berber Gallery, 2546 Bancroft Way, Berkeley.
noon-6 p.m. Mon.-Sun.

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