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Tessa DeCarlo

Tessa DeCarlo claims to have a few illusions remaining.

Diane Arbus: Revelations Beyond Shock

Even culture warriors who might still profess to be offended by half-dressed drag queens can’t pretend to feel the innocent upset they would have thirty-eight years ago.

Larry Sultan's The Valley

Sultan’s photographic project, The Valley, dramatizes the invasion of anxious respectability by libidinal longing, and its genius lies in the warm-hearted sympathy it extends to both sides of that drama.

Enriqué Chagoya Borderlandia

Art with an overt political message is a tough trick to pull off. Even if we agree with the artist, politics can seem too reductive a subject, too broad (“Peace!”) or too narrow (“No telecom immunity!”), and too likely to collapse the work into a declaration rather than a question, an argument rather than a seduction.

Frida Kahlo

Was it just coincidence that questions about our attitude toward women’s achievement hit the front pages the same week that Frida Kahlo’s centenary retrospective opened at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art?

Lost in Space: Outsiderness and the Art of Dave Lane

Years ago, when I first started writing about outsider art, I mentioned the term to someone who didn’t happen to be an art world insider. She looked puzzled and asked, “Outside art—you mean art that’s shown outdoors?”


My companion and I were halfway through The Anniversary Show, the centerpiece of the bouquet of exhibitions celebrating the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s 75th birthday, when he turned to me and said, “This is the best show I’ve ever seen.”


“What’s missing is art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand.” When New York Times critic Roberta Smith threw out this challenge as part of her sweeping Feb. 10 critique of New York’s depressingly uniform “post-Minimal” museum scene, she probably didn’t have James Castle particularly in mind.

Who's in Charge?

Like all love affairs, the bond between artist and audience brims with antagonism as much as desire. Each side finds the urge to become lost in the other hard to disentangle from the urge to destroy it. Each craves more than the other can deliver, yet simultaneously longs to be free.

Olafur Eliasson Take Your Time

If you’re thinking about a visit to San Francisco in the next few months, SFMOMA’s exhibition of some two dozen projects by Olafur Eliasson—by turns beautiful, ominous, soothing, funny, and wondrous—is a good reason to book a flight.

Looking In: Robert Frank's THE AMERICANS

When Robert Frank’s photographs of the Eisenhower-era United States were first published in 1959, they outraged many and provided subversive delight to a few. But the few proved both prescient and influential. Within a few decades Frank’s suite of photographs, The Americans, came to be widely regarded as one of the most important photography books of the 20th century.

Katy Grannan The Westerns

Like many Easterners who’ve been uprooted to California, photographer Katy Grannan has found herself simultaneously unsettled and ensnared by the Golden State’s seductive sunshine and mania for personal transformation. That unease and fascination brilliantly inform her latest series of pictures, which are on view in galleries in both San Francisco and New York.

Sandow Birk: American Qur'an

It’s a popular art-world fantasy: the notion that using paint, video, or piles of cardboard to “engage with” or “interrogate” or “raise ironic questions about” some aspect of modern life is the moral equivalent of being genuinely controversial. There’s little evidence, however, that artsy anti-capitalism has done much to change anyone’s thinking about war or health care.

Bay Area Now 5

Every three years, curators at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts comb through the region’s galleries, artist spaces, and studios to put together a survey of emerging artists called Bay Area Now.

Mart�­n Ram�­rez

Failing surgery or stroke, it’s virtually impossible to unknow something. So we can only guess what our reaction to the art of Martín Ramírez might be if we encountered it in a traditional gallery setting, unburdened by knowledge of the artist’s story.

Hiroshi Sugimoto: History of History
Stylized Sculpture: Contemporary Japanese Fashion from the Kyoto Costume Institute

A lot of what photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto does ought to be really annoying. He’s famous for making very large photographs of things that might seem hardly worth photographing: museum dioramas, celebrity waxworks, empty movie theaters, expanses of the calm ocean.

Smother Love

Anyone seeking a powerful argument for hiking the estate tax need look no further than Savage Grace, Tom Kalin’s exploration of life among the trustafarians.

Tanned, Rested, Tormented, and Repressed

Earlier this year, when a gaggle of historians voted George W. Bush the worst president in American history (and that was before the economic melt-down), surely one of the shades smiling on the other side of the veil belonged to Richard Nixon.

A Night at the (Virtual) Opera

Close to 450 movie theaters in the United States now show live broadcasts of performances beamed from the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and hundreds of thousands of people are happily paying $20 and more a ticket to attend. The obvious question is: why?

Joy of Cooking

By the time I finally got around to seeing Julie & Julia, the unanimous buzz held that the film’s double-biography format was seriously out of balance. Everyone hailed Meryl Streep’s depiction of Julia Child as dazzling, and there was broad agreement that Child’s ascent from bored embassy wife to world-renowned TV chef should have been the sole focus.


Almost a century after Marcel Duchamp’s nude headed down her staircase, contemporary art is still able to provoke surprise, anxiety, and anger—and not just in the hearts of Hilton Kramer and Rudolph Giuliani.

Female Trouble

Anxieties about “poverty porn,” about the exploitation of the vulnerable for the entertainment of the rest of us, arise only when we’re watching something that makes us feel guilty.


Although they’re poles apart in style and intent, The Girl on the Train and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo both make a troubled young woman the centerpiece of a story combining sex, violence, crime, and vengeance, served up with a ladleful of swastikas.


Exit Through the Gift Shop, a mockumentary about street artists, doesn’t list a director in its credits, but there’s no mystery about who’s behind it. For one thing, it’s introduced as “A Banksy Film.”

Rocky Goes To RISD

Scratch the glittering hide of the most successful artist and you’ll probably find a bruised little outcast lurking inside, still smarting from some long-ago snub.

Eye on the Prize

Red Road starts off like a revenge thriller with a sophisticated visual style. Jackie (Kate Dickie), wearing the butch shirt-and-tie uniform of law enforcement, sits in a dark room in front of a huge bank of television screens, her eyes scanning an endless array of nothing in particular.

Downer in the Valley

In the Valley of Elah isn’t about vast conspiracies; it recognizes that incompetence, laziness, and reflexive cover-your-ass dishonesty can achieve what a conspiracy never could. Nor is the movie’s message that war is hell; its story is told from the point of view of an old soldier who so believes in the military’s higher calling that he’s still making his bed every morning with hospital corners. Instead, Haggis’ film acknowledges the extraordinary costs of the particular kind of combat we’ve embroiled ourselves in, a war not of defense or liberation but of occupation.

Thank Heaven for Little Girls

Gone Baby Gone kicks off with a familiar trope—a little girl’s smiling face on posters screaming “Missing!”, anguished relatives, TV news cameras circling like hyenas converging on a wounded wildebeest. The power of these images is only amplified by how often we’ve seen this story before.

Bringing up Baby Beelzebub

The original Omen, which debuted in 1976, is often discussed as one panel in a triptych of classic horror films about demonic youngsters, the other two being the 1968 Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, released in 1973.

A Royal Pain

Marie Antoinette and The Queen examine the world of monarchical excess from opposite perspectives — and with disparate results.

Same-Sex vs. Same-Old

A married protagonist falls head over heels in love with a same-sex buddy, and heartbreaking complications ensue. This sums up the plot not only of that famous gay-cowboy movie, but of the new Brit chick flick Imagine Me & You. What Brokeback Mountain approached as high Hollywood art, Imagine Me & You gloms onto as trendy not-so-high concept.

Snitch Culture

Snitching is one of the primal human impulses, and from early on it’s fraught with ambiguity. The same parent or teacher who punishes you for withholding guilty knowledge greets your offer to tell all by snapping, “No one likes a tattle-tale.” We make heroes of whistleblowers and undercover cops but despise stool pigeons and secret police.

Easy. Good. Pick One.

A major success in Switzerland, Vitus is a movie about childhood rebellion against adult expectations that is itself exceedingly eager to please.

Junebug: Culture Collision

Junebug begins when a Chicago art dealer travels to a small town in North Carolina to sign up David Wark, an eccentric artist whose oeuvre is driven by a phallo-maniacal obsession with the Civil War.

Ebony and Ivory

The RBF is a familiar figure to anyone who’s flipped channels or visited a multiplex in the last half-century, and witnessed America’s long-running fascination with the spectacle of white stars reclaiming their better selves thanks to the friendship of a black counterpart.

What Lies Beneath

Now that rock anthems and gospel choirs have sung us into the Obama era, it’s tempting to think we’re waking to a glorious new day and slamming the door on our eight-year national nightmare. But philosopher-psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek wants to remind us that no matter how vigorously we repudiate our nightmares, they reveal something true and unavoidable about who we are.

Asking for It

It’s a capitalist truism that we all have our price. In times of catastrophe that’s not just a figure of speech.

Living Our Broken Dreamz

Daniel Johnston probably won’t be invited to open for Mandy Moore anytime soon, nor would the pouty songbird likely get much applause from the bipolar troubadour’s hipster demographic.

Idealism on Crack

Lately addiction seems a frighteningly apt social metaphor. America’s oil jones has been publicly acknowledged by our president, himself an untreated alcoholic, but there’s so much more: we’re also addicted to compulsive shopping and corn syrup, to drugs from amphetamines to Zoloft, to cathartic violence.

Kind of a Drag

Daddy’s Little Girls and Norbit both stretch the truth by presenting themselves as comedies. Tyler Perry’s first non-drag film is actually a romantic drama, a love story with a serious side. And Eddie Murphy’s multi-role drag extravaganza is not the least bit funny.

Try to Make Me Go to Rehab

What does legendary singer Edith Piaf have in common with a secretive guy who murders innocent strangers for thrills? Both are hostages to their own dark sides, according to two films that use addiction as a shorthand way to pose a fundamental question: is it possible to become a better person? Can any of us really change who we are?

In the Bubble

The characters in the Coen Brothers’ latest film are, each and every one, mired in delusion, and therein lies the movie’s acidic charm. At a historic juncture when we're all finding ourselves trapped inside a nightmare wrought by someone else’s wishful thinking (of military triumph, bottomless bailouts, the ultimate Mrs. America makeover), the deadly silliness of the Coens’ shipload of fools provides black comedy indeed.

Love You to Death

There are few things as mysterious as other people’s marriages, whether they appear successful or disastrous. The downfall of New York’s Governor (precipitated, it now appears, by a Republican operative and fellow extra-marital sex enthusiast) recently created yet another opportunity for the rest of us to speculate wildly about the private lives of those richer and more famous than ourselves.

Attack of the Girlymen

Back when women’s liberation was really starting to flex its muscles in the early 1970s, anxious conservatives warned that letting women into men’s-only bars and high-paying jobs could only result in the feminization of America.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

All Issues