San Francisco and Berkeley Art and dining trip + SFMoMA

Our drive to Northern California was so pleasant. Even as we approached the massive Harris Ranch, we were not doused with the odor of what seems like a million cows and their patties. We figured that someone must have invented a deodorizer for the ranch.

Hotel Shattuck in Berkeley, California

The walls inside the hotel were covered with a playful and remarkable wallpaper that reminded me of Alice in Wonderland, in the way they caused such sudden shifts in scale and color and design. The room was gorgeous.

After relaxing in our room from the drive, we decided to walk to Emilia’a pizzeria, since we had read so much about it. The address was on Shattuck Ave., just like our hotel, so we took off on our slightly over a mile walk and arrived around 9PM at the pizzeria.

Once inside we noticed there were zero people inside waiting or eating pizza. We asked to order one and were told by the lone employee manning the pizza ovens that there were ten orders in front of us, and it would be 10 o’clock PM before we got a pizza. Having never been to a pizza place anywhere that took an hour to fill your order, we turned back toward the hotel, and lucked upon a fun French restaurant on Shattuck, about halfway back to our hotel, by the name of La Note. The waitresses were dressed in black peasant dresses with a thin rope tied around their wastes. There was a musician dressed in early 20th century French garb, playing an accordion! We were so happy to have found this place – we actually thanked the pizza gods of Northern Cali for allowing us to stumble into La Note, where we would have our dinner and enjoy some riotous good fun with the faux Frenchman musician.

Emilia’s pizza, makes sure you call ahead and pick it up. May be the only pizza place like this on earth.

La Note, Berkeley

La Note, I ordered the lamb sausage sandwich.

Le Bateau, Berkeley

A converted house turned French restaurant.

We found this place on the internet on Saturday morning, and were there by car in just a few minutes.  It was yet another encounter with Francophile Berkeley, California.

Le Bateau, Berkeley, for breakfast.

Gitane, our place to play on Saturday nite, after a full day of art viewing at SFMoMA.

Gitane, the bar area, San Francisco. We had a lot of fun just finding this restaurant, which is located in an alley that has been transformed into a dining and drinking corridor. It’s close to another similarly organized alley, and its a heck of a lot of fun. We were there for a late dinner but also just to relax and enjoy the relaxed yet upscale vibe that makes San Francisco so much fun. There is an air of exoticism and sophistication about Gitane which we enjoyed. The place won a mountain of design awards from magazines such as Wallpaper – which has a slide show of the space online. Gitane was not too loud – not like some otherwise quality places in LA where as one person said recently “It sounds like a train station.” We had a few excellent cocktails before we took off back to our hotel in Berkeley around midnight.

Pican, Oakland. Creole cuisine with a single Michelin Star. This was a wonderful place for brunch. The dining area is beautiful and refined, as is the bar. The owners plan to transform a retired mansion in Northern California into a major new dining destination. As as African-American myself, I am quite proud of the African-American owners accomplishments, would it not be wonderful if there were such a place in Los Angeles. Wow – an African-American Creole restaurant in Oakland with a Michelin Star!

Our waiter recommended the delicious hot authentic beignets at Pican, uptown Oakland.

They were heavenly.

Aziza, San Francisco

For Valentine’s day dinner we went to Aziza, in San Francisco’s Richmond district. We had difficulty finding parking. After we did park, we made our way to the restaurant, which was along an avenue with interesting looking places, especially on the next avenue over, which was jam packed. It was strange to see a lesser avenue in California such as the one adjacent to where we would have our dinner, be so lively as if it were a main drag in a hot part of town. This of course is one of the wonders that makes San Francisco a special place.

Aziza, an award winning – one Michelin star restaurant in the formerly too rough Richmond District in San Francisco. The chef will be doing a PBS special on  his specialty – Morrocan cuisine. It was our first encounter with Morocco’s dining culture. There were several amazing dishes.

I ordered this sardine appetizer at Aziza.

After a light breakfast and a peak into the New York Times, we headed off to the University of California Art Museum’s James Castle show. I had just read Roberta Smith’s article Post Minimal to the Max, and was struck by her comments, especially in the context of the Castle show, an artist who lived out his life in a mental asylum.

Roberta Smith:

“We cannot live by the de-materialization — or the slick re-materialization — of the art object alone.”

“After 40 years in which we’ve come to understand that dominant styles like Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism and Pop are at best gross simplifications of their periods, it often feels as though an agreed-upon master narrative is back in place.”

“What’s missing is art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand. A lot but not all of this kind of work is painting, which seems to be becoming the art medium that dare not speak its name where museums are concerned.”

“Museum curators need to think less about an artist’s career, its breakthroughs and its place in the big picture and more in terms of an artist’s life’s work pursued over time with increasing concentration and singularity.

“They have a responsibility to their public and to history to be more ecumenical, to do things that seem to come from left field. They owe it to the public to present a balanced menu that involves painting as well as video and photography and sculpture. They need to think outside the hive-mind, both distancing themselves from their personal feelings to consider what’s being wrongly omitted and tapping into their own subjectivity to show us what they really love.”

“These things should be understood by now: The present is diverse beyond knowing, history is never completely on anyone’s side, and what we ignore today will be excavated later and held against us the way we hold previous oversights against past generations.”

What came to mind after reading the article and seeing the show were a couple of ideas. Ones was that Roberta now wanted to have the 1950’s artworld in NYC again, where artists died penniless for their art, and some even went insane and others committed suicide. Now all NYC has are club kids dying from drug overdoses, so it’s not as exciting as the good old days. (This also explains in part NYC’s fascination with the largely hole-in the wall LA artworld.) The next idea came that came to is that Roberta’s request was akin to someone who has become bored with cutting edge restaurants, and now wants something from the street, or something that gives the appearance of the same, but yet is highly sophisticated and palate pleasing, unique and yet actually is a throwback to the way chefs/artists used to work before molecular gastronomy/conceptual art theory overwhelmed the food/art world. The next idea that came to mind was that of how old the artist’s were who would be still working by hand, out of necessity, but would somehow still have access to the artworld/artmarket, and presumably not actually have gone insane or worse.

The James Castle show did hold moments of fascination for me. But overall I found it to be a crude personal endeavor, with some actual artistic moments of genuine merit. I feel qualified to speak about his work since I am trained both as a painter who studied both at Pratt Institute and the Art Institute of Chicago, well before I decided to study Conceptual Art with Mike Kelly, Jack Goldstein, Steve Prina, Liz Larner, and Chris Williams at Art Center College of Design’s MFA program in the mid 1990’s.

Here are a few examples of Castle’s drawings:

This is my favorite, actually it’s the only one I totally enjoy. That is because it disintegrates the crude push into the materials with his drawing sticks. I this work the one that follows, he allows the materials to truly dictate the look of the image. Here he is gentle and kind to the image. He renders it in such a manner that it appears that he may have soaked the paper in a salt bath to give it such a refined and delicate, almost ghostly or otherworldly result.

In the image that follows (below), what I find rewarding is how he chose to draw on yet another everyday yet now unique surface. He allows for strange spacial shifts to occur by drawing as if there was no break precision machine cut n the page, allowing this odd piece of paper support to again dictate the terms of the remarkable combination of abstract and representational forms he deployed.


From the New York Times, November 9, 2009

“OUT OF SIGHT In August 2007, Don Fisher examined artwork from his collection that was stored at the headquarters of the Gap, which he founded. The collection will be lent to the San Francisco MoMA for at least 25 years.”

“In September, after years of failed negotiations to build a stand-alone museum for their collection in San Francisco’s historic Presidio park, Don and Doris Fisher, co-founders of the Gap clothing chain, announced the long-term loan of their renowned 1,100-piece art collection to the museum.”

“To accommodate the collection, which will place the museum’s postwar and contemporary holdings on a par with those of the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan and the Tate Modern in London, the museum needs more room.”

LA MoCA claims to have one of the most significant post-war collections worldwide. What then is this NYTimes article saying? That MoMA and the Tate and soon SF MoMA are on another level? What does this mean for artists studying contemporary art in LA? What does it mean for LA MoCA’s audience, which pales in comparison to SFMoMA, who now has 40,000 members and 650,000 visitors?  My impression of having visited SFMoMA for the first time since the late 1990’s was that it is the far and away most important museum in California. The space is vast and elegant. It has a major footprint in the center of San Francisco. With the addition of the Gap founder’s 1,100 major works collection, plus the $480 million dollars the museum will have raised for its tripling the exhibition space. In 2016, when the expanded SFMoMA opens, it will be a truly global destination for seeing and studying art.  It would be wonderful if there was one museum in Los Angeles that was so well funded by local dollars and had such a wealth of art in its collection.

Our visit to the SFMoMA museum was one of the best encounters with art we have had in California in 25 years.

There was a wonderful commingling of stunning pieces by world-class artists, from a major sculptural work by Richard Serra and Jasper Johns that I had never seen, to the Erased DeKooning drawing by Rauschenberg, which I did not realize is part of their collection. There were dazzling videos by Bruce Conner, and a sensational large scale sculpture and video installation by Matthew Barney. What always surprises me is how much work does not make it to Los Angeles, and how often we have to travel to see the full breathe and scope of what is actually in the world of contemporary art. Miami Basel never disappoints us in this regard, which is why it remains a must do annual trip on our travel itinerary.

“Richard Serra Gutter Corner Splash: Night Shift, 1969/1995; sculpture; lead, 19 in. x 108 in. x 179 in. (48.26 cm x 274.32 cm x 454.66 cm); Collection SFMOMA, Gift of Jasper Johns; © Richard Serra / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York”

David Park

American (Boston, Massachusetts, 1911 – 1960, Berkeley, California)

David Park moved to Los Angeles in 1928 to attend the Otis Art Institute — his only formal education — but dropped out after less than a year. In 1944 he began teaching at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) and adopted the then-dominant mode of abstract expressionist painting.

Park never felt fully comfortable with this style, however, and in 1949 hauled all his abstract canvases to the Berkeley dump. Does not this story sound identical to what John Baldessari did with his early work in Los Angeles?

Berkeley Bowl West, 140,000 square foot supermarket. I had heard about it, and Berkeley Bowl East as well, but had never been before. The place is utterly astonishing. It has dozens of kinds of tomatoes,  onions, potatoes, and literally thousands of other food items, both fresh and packaged. What struck me most about this was the emphasis on not just variety, but of quality, such that Whole Foods becomes a second choice in Berkeley. Northern California has been well known for many years as having cultivated s sublime level of experience with food and wine. Yet this market seems to up the ante even higher by the fact of its sheer existence alone. There is no such animal in Southern California. Yet North of San Francisco, Dean & Deluca’s and Draeger’s and the Oakville Market all have no equal in Southern California. LA loves to rant about how great the Santa Monica Farmers market is, but I can say that having been to both, there is a chasm between them in terms of what is offered. Northern California is a Francophile culture no different than what New York City was like even 50 years ago. Northern California is a special place in America. It does not have the range of experiences that are possible in New York. But the areas in which it excels – it has no equal, from the Ferry Terminal Market in San Francisco, to Blue Bottle Coffee in the the Mint in downtown San Francisco, to sublime artisan pizzas and pastas, to superior grade drinking establishments, San Francisco and the Bay area are well worth the 5.5 hour drive from LA – anytime, year round.

Photo by Kava Massih Architects

A cornucopia of mushrooms at Berkeley Bowl West, California

Heidi Schumann photograph of the Hotel Shattuck bar for the New York Times.

Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer based in Los Angeles

Biography July 2010 

Vincent Johnson lives and works in Los Angeles. His work has been exhibited at Las Cienegas Projects, LAXART, the P.S. 1. Museum, the SK Stiftung, Cologne, the Santa Monica Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Adamski Gallery of Contemporary Art, Aachen, the Sacramento Center for Contemporary Art, 18th Street Arts, Santa Monica and the Boston University Art Gallery. His photographic works engage both significant and neglected historical and contemporary cultural artifacts and is based on intensive research of his subjects. Upcoming is a group show at the Kellogg Museum of Cal Poly Pomona.

Johnson received his MFA from Art Center College of Design in 1997. He is a 2005 Creative Capital Grantee, and was nominated for the Baum: An Emerging American Photographer’s Award in 2004 and for the New Museum of Contemporary Arts Aldrich Art Award in 2007 and for the Art Matters grant in 2008, and in 2009 nominated for Foundation for Contemporary Art Fellowship, Los Angeles. His work has been reviewed in ArtForum, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

Vincent  Johnson Artist Statement

Vincent Johnson’s work is a form of sustained cultural mining that explores the depths of his subjects. His photographic works created from 2001-2007 delved into architecture as fantasy, from the vernacular architecture of Los Angeles to that found throughout the American West. He has documented several of the no longer extant commercial vernacular structures in both South Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley that came into existence during the birth of long distance family travel by car. In 2007 he presented a fully fabricated work of sculpture – a 12 foot long six-foot high replica of a 1956 Chrysler Air Raid Siren. This project developed as he was both researching and documenting a former military corridor in the San Fernando Valley that included a retired military airfield. His newest photographic works, all created in 2008 and 2009, are large-scale photographic montages, each of which confront significant cultural figures and several dramatic signal events of Cold War era Western cultural history, including Television, the launch of Sputnik, the Soviet Space program, American home-based bomb shelter  program, and Vietnam. He is working on large-scale photomontages of the several major American political figures of 1960’s, including Martin Luther King, the Kennedy family, and Malcolm X, as well the representations of both Communism and Capitalism, Hollywood and Los Angeles and many related Cold War era subjects. Johnson’s photomontages can take several months to create as he captures hundreds of images from online sources, before selecting those which most well index a particular historical moment, personage or event. The creative juxtapositions and scale shifts of the found images is what he most relies on to develop his potent and illuminating photographic works.


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