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Stateside With Rosalea: Politics And Art

Well, you can't say that Scoop doesn't bring you the real scoop or that Mama Rosa doesn't deliver the good oil. Didn't she tell you - at the time of the very first debate between the Republican candidates hoping to run for Governor of California - that the then runaway favourite, Richard Riordan, would be beaten by somebody called Bill? Okay, okay, so she thought it would be Bill Jones not Bill Simon, but cut the old biddy some slack! She's still so new here she naively thought that someone with a track record in state-wide government would win out over someone with a bottomless pocketbook.

The conventional wisdom is that it was actually Democratic Governor Gray Davis who scuttled Riordan by spending up large on ads against him. Riordan tried to use that to his advantage by having ads saying he was the Republican Gray Davis feared the most, but to no avail. If there was ever an argument for a change to the electoral system in the United States this gubernatorial primary must be it. The sight of the Republican candidates airing dirty laundry in public to discredit their internal competitors, while a Democrat stands on the sidelines popping off the Republican Californians might have been most likely to vote for in November was just ludicrous.

It is absurd for a country that prides itself in the consumer's ability to chose from 35 different kinds of breakfast cereal to continue with an electoral system and a political-media machine that effectively gives voters only two choices. There are many flavours of Republicans - as the primary, sometimes bitterly, showed - and the same goes for the Democrats. Were both those parties to split where their internal lines naturally fall and the electoral system, campaign finance rules, and media focus changed to allow every viable party to be seen and heard by the voters, then the United States' boast of being the world's greatest democracy would not be such an empty one.

But, hey, at the local level a couple of San Francisco election outcomes gave heart to those who know that change is only going to come from the ground up through people being willing to put in the slog to get it to happen. Proposition A, which will result in instant runoff voting for certain city elected officials, passed 55-45 percent. And Jeff Adachi - the public defender who had been fired by Mayor Willie Brown supposedly so Brown could keep in good with the President pro tem of the State Senate - also won, using a grassroots campaign that he publicly credited for his success. The incumbent whom Adachi defeated - the Mayoral appointee - was the Senate President's daughter and Mayor's goddaughter. A victory not just for grassroots campaigning but for anyone who thinks that dynasty politics have no place in a modern democracy.

So, my dears, at a loss for what to do with my Saturdays now that the doorknob hanging campaign is over for the time being, I did something I'm ashamed to say I hadn't yet done in the two years I've been living in the Bay Area. I visited SFMOMA - the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. I have a darling souvenir to prove it - a little yellow pencil given to me by a security guard who saw me writing in my notebook with a ballpoint pen. There were security guards everywhere and none more close to her artwork than she who guarded 'Mask II' in the fifth-floor exhibition space showing various artists' works on the theme of "Self?".

It is worth the $10 admission price to see this work alone... but perhaps you've seen it already, since it's by Australian artist Ron Mueck. A huge lifelike mask - down to the pale blue veins under the skin and the faint pink blush on the cheek pressed against the unseen pillow - it is the artist as his lover would see him if the lover woke before he did. The size of the mask is the proportion the face would have in relation to the rest of the room if you'd just opened your eyes and looked across the pillow. The urge to touch it to see if the skin is warm and the beard bristles prickly is almost irresistible.

It's a curious feeling to be in such a public space, under the watchful eye of a security guard not two feet away, and be drawn into someone else's intimacy by the need to get close enough to see and feel how this work has been accomplished. It is the technical achievement that hits you first, and then you realise what you're looking at, becoming a knowing participant in a private moment that is at once common to all humanity, yet intensely personal.

Ron Mueck's 'Mask II' is a work of genius. Either that or I picked up a dose of Artitis while I was at the gallery and am reading into it more than was intended!! But hey, art is about what you feel and that's what I thought and felt. It sure as hell made Roy Lichtenstein's 1964 'Good Morning Darling' - of a woman waking up and smiling across the pillow - look like the pop art that it is. That work, along with many others from the Anderson family collection - Warhol, Rothko et al - were in a second floor exhibition space, which also houses "Matisse and Beyond: A Century of Modernism."

The big exhibition currently at SFMOMA is of the work of Eva Hesse, a sculptor in the 60s and 70s who was one of the pioneers of using industrial materials - latex, fibreglass, steel, wire, rope - and who also pioneered the use of organic, random forms by allowing the materials themselves dictate what the work looked like. Not my cup of polyester really, but the crass in me got a java jolt by one work in another exhibition - Jeff Koon's huge white, pink and gold porcelain knick-knack 'Michael Jackson and Bubbles' from 1988. Like a cross between something a giant's grandmother has in her china cabinet and an idol from an eastern religion, this portrait of the singer and his chimpanzee goes straight to the heart of what a good publicist and a large bankroll can do for the ambitious in this country and should be pictured on the United States flag.

One disheartening thing I witnessed at SFMOMA was in an exhibition hall of modern photography. A young woman steered her maybe 7-year-old son away from Diane Arbus' portrait of a retired man and his wife at home in a nudist camp by calling out: "Ooh Christian, come and look at the coyotes. Uh-oh. Something bad happened to them." Did she really think that a photo of animals that had been skinned was suitable for a child to look at and that two comfortable-in-their-skin old people sitting naked in their living room chairs wasn't? Was her problem with the couple's nudity or with their age?

It took all day to see most of what was on exhibit and to visit the shop and have late lunch in the cafe. If you don't want to do the art thing you can go to the shop or eat at the cafe, which has excellent food, without paying an entrance fee because they are part of the "town square" feel of the ground floor. The building itself is an artwork, designed by renowned Swiss architect Mario Botta, and makes use of multiple skylights to filter the real light of the city for use as a source of illumination.

Suspended 75 feet above the atrium floor a 35 foot steel bowstring truss bridge spans the museum's signature turret and is the source of my personal favourite piece of art at SFMOMA. If you go to the fourth floor and look up through a slit in the curved passage at the back of the building you see the soles of people's shoes as they walk across the bridge. It is a living, moving, random, dance-step-instruction-book view of people taking one step at a time.

Lea Barker
Sunday 10 March, 2002

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