AMOA – From HARUMPH to BIFF! SMACK! POW!

Forever a sucker for the melody and rhythm of all things onomatopoetic, I was intrigued when my mention of an afternoon visit to the downtown AMOA earned a deflated yet resounding HARUMPH from my circle of artgoing friends.  On its surface, skeletal yet vital components for success – great Congress Avenue location, the strength of a local advertising budget keeping the museum visible to Chronicle and Statesman readers, and a growing art education program for ankle-biters and adults alike, even – are undoubtedly present at AMOA.  So, I started wondering: why the pronounced disinterest of the snarky HARUMPH?

Upon closer inspection over cocktail chitchat with the aforementioned artgoers (that are surprisingly talkative, even after years of practice with the pliable nature of alcohol, SLURP), the predominant stance was general disappointment toward both locations of AMOA – downtown and Laguna Gloria.   Permanent collections either non-existent or criminally lean, no libraries open to the public in either location, not enough installations/exhibits per year given their visibility, and greater  interest in booking weddings than rotating an acceptable amount of exhibits around the few sculptures on the property…highlights of the evening’s general earload.   Interesting.  Waiter – AHEM – more booze…

Then again, when your hands are full with drama related to a lengthy quest for expansion, perhaps it’s a hell of a lot more difficult to develop the breadth of AMOA’s desired scope.  The museum has experienced heartache in the form of a 30 year – GASP – rolleycoaster ride of foiled attempts to develop a much larger downtown space, at least partially forgiving the museum’s arguable shortcomings.   A coupla recent cases for you:  in 2004, a $43 million, 125,00 square foot project was abandoned, and after a hefty ho-hum made in early 2008 of a new location near Republic Square Park (essentially 4th and Guadalupe) to be developed in conjunction with Museum Tower, a 30-story, 425,000 square foot, ecologically progressive office building (whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean), reports of their plans to double their square footage and launch a new chapter were sunk – KERPLUNK – just a couple of months ago, citing the not-so-sterling economy.

So, what happens next with the AMOA downtown development and all the good stuff that’ll materialize in the wake of its (sometime-in-the-future) expansion can be summed up with a clueless shrug from yours truly.

But, after checking out the two latest exhibits, I am more than comfortable calling that passive/aggressive, snooty HARUMPH of my local art intelligentsia and the accompanying KERPLUNK of development drama and raising it to the BIFF!SMACK!POW! of the camp genius of Adam West’s “Batman” television series of the late ‘60s, glorious superhero battle choreography and all.  The AMOA has really scored with these workhorses of extraordinary vision, and the paradox of programming wildly divergent work that is nevertheless equally fixated on a similar theme – here, it’s a refined fascination with landscape – is intelligent and challenging, and it’s a dandy forecast for all sorts of goodies in the future on behalf of the museum.

First, New York-based photographer Clifford Ross is the inventor of the R1, a brilliant contraption that utilizes 19th century design with uber-advanced, 21st century optics.  The camera is a not unlike a cross between a portrait camera of yesteryear and the progressive technology found on a major motion picture set.  And the capability of this invention, coupled with Ross’ senses of adventure both in the field and in the exploration of digital post-production, culminates in the astonishing beauty that is his “Outside Realism” collection.

A series entitled “Hurricanes” is stark black-and-whites of waves in various stages of violent grace, taken off the coast of Long Island during an especially perilous spell of bad weather.   Tethered to an assistant on the coast, Ross captured this roaring energy with his camera, and the results are breathtaking.   The viewer is allowed a damn-near-immersion in the frame, as if he or she was standing in the water with the photographer.  And the choice to cast these images stripped of their natural colors allows the viewer to examine Mama Nature’s physical energy as a motionless entity of infinite line and shape.  Diggin’ on this Ross fella…

Then comes the even more majestic “Mountain” series, large prints of photographs taken in idyllic locations of Colorado that possess a richness of resolution so unrivaled it’s as if Ross’ ultimate goal is to transcend the notion of dimension, to substitute eyesight and geographical location of the viewer with a facsimile that perfectly captures the awe-inspiring landscape.   Standing before this series of prints, I expected to hear a WHOOSH of rural wind along with TWEETING and HOWLING critters.  I’m telling you, if Sir David Lean had a stillframe rival of his own epic proportions, Ross would definitely be a candidate.

Ross’ “Horizons” is a series relative to “Hurricanes”; however, the theme held in these waters is one of serenity, not upheaval, and they’re developed in a frame the size of a postcard.  Undoubtedly beautiful; however, in the wake of “Hurricanes”, I simply craved more of the large scale.  “Grain” is a trilogy of Rothko-inspired monochromatics (as a throwback to Ross’ color field painting days of the ‘70s) that didn’t move me, and “Mountains Redux” combines photography with motion-generated digital effects.  And while I appreciate Ross’ sense of searching in the most modern of senses in the context of “Redux”, I found the digital animation a distraction, figurative bells and whistles that are unnecessary.   That said, Ross, unlike any other photographer’s work that I’ve seen, succeeds in delivering natural beauty of such precision that to become lost in the frame is more possible than ever before.

While completely disinterested in faithful geographical recreations, Lordy Rodriguez is also obsessed with landscape (perhaps even moreso than Ross, as this particular collection, “States of America”, is a culmination of 10 years of focused, singular work).   But Rodriguez’ work is about the elastic quality of geographical location when the equation begins to consider the intangible travel of Internet technology, the fantastic dreamstates of popular culture, AND the topography of country as we know it.  And kids, it is downright dizzying surrealism in the best sorta way.

Rodriguez spins a decade of travels and research into a personal brand of wild, freehand cartography, seemingly inspired by Terence McKenna, Rand McNally, and perhaps even the digital mash-ups of post-modern DJ culture.  Towns, cities, states, and bodies of water – both real and fabricated – have been nonsensically rearranged to suit the artist’s definition of geographical location.

And what of this definition?  Well, from what I can gather from this sprawling, birds-eye-on-psilocybin-view, is that imagination, combined with a healthy appetite for film, television, literature and the informational sprawl of the Internet, allows for anyone to go anywhere, to be anywhere, at any time.  For me, it’s a brilliant, optimistic ethos for a world that changes so rapidly by the day, and Rodriguez’ depiction of his reality captivated me.  It reminded me of good times on the shag carpet in pajamas, lost in the wondrous Saturday morning world of Warner Brothers and Hanna-Barbera, traveling through an animated atmosphere as if school on Monday never existed.

So, a tip of the hat to AMOA downtown, as well as a raising of the hi-ball glass to the realization of its growth potential.  

Until next time…

also by CCGrady

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