The first time I saw New Year’s Day Swimmers, the current exhibition at Altman Siegel Gallery in San Francisco, I didn’t mean to. I intended to pop into the gallery to drop something off, but as soon as I crossed the threshold I was completely captivated by the works and forgot everything else I was supposed to accomplish by my visit. Floating through the gallery, I moved from one work to the next, my realization of the works’ interconnectedness building at every turn. The mixed-media pieces, sequenced both in groups by artist and woven in with others, turned me into a pinball bouncing back and forth from one to the other and back again.
The first thing that caught my eye was Sara VanDerBeek’s large-scale piece, Silver Sky (Transmission). From afar it looks like a giant mirror, but upon closer inspection a layer of texture under the reflective surface becomes apparent. Quickly the challenge became trying to see what the texture is, but all attempts were futile. The closer you get, the less you can see of any whole image that may be there, and if you step more than a few inches away, you are confronted with your reflection. It is a frustratingly existential task, trying to look through one’s image in a mirror and see something past it. But relief came in the form of distraction, as I noticed the other works in the reflection. VanDerBeek’s two other pieces, Moon (Day) and Four Directions, Sky (East) create a quietly powerful and cyclical connection between each other. Each piece reflects the others in its surface while rejecting any sense of easy visibility; the moon disintegrates into its highlight, the eight-sided tower fluctuates between appearing reflective and transparent, and the mercuric plane constantly confronts viewers with their own presence in the gallery.
In contrast to the mystic minimalism of VanDerBeek’s pieces, Sanya Kantarovsky’s paintings contribute a whimsical narrative, with an edge of menace and ambiguity. It may be largely due to the way the figures are rendered, but I cannot help but think that the best way to describe the paintings to say they look like Dr. Seuss went to grad school. Think of the infinite possibilities in the good doctor’s stories, and combine that with the restraint and matured consideration one would hope to get from an MFA program and there you have Kantarovsky. The paintings are darker and more introspective than anything I ever read by Seuss, yet maintain the simplicity that can make children’s illustrations so effective.
The success of the exhibition is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That is not to say that the individual works are lacking, rather that the sequencing and curation effectively create a platform through which they can be appreciated alone and in the group. The relationships between the works continue to grow the longer you experience them, as all the artists address similar issues but in very different ways. The examination of flatness and depth in Kantarovsky’s can also be found in the numerous rendering techniques of Laeh Glenn’s paintings. A rejection of boundaries and the frame is apparent in both Glenn’s work and Emily Wardill’s multi-media installation, in which the treatment of line and movement form a surprising link with Kantarovsky’s paintings. All aspects of the show, both artworks and the lyrical title, saturate the gallery with a dream-like aura. Like being on the cusp of a new year, of the future, they imply the possibility of something new and magical, yet also dangerous and uncertain. The only thing you can do is dive in headfirst.