Amy Trachtenberg at the Brian Gross Gallery, San Francisco

From India to Planet Mars--Amy Trachtenberg's solo show. Catch the last week!

Back in early January, on the 5th to be exact, a group of us piled into my car and headed in the rain into downtown San Francisco.  The Brian Gross Gallery is on Geary Boulevard in a building that is a kind of vertical gallery row. The elevator and indeed the fifth floor gallery itself was packed and abuzz with artists, musicians, poets, and others there for the opening of Amy Trachtenberg's solo show, From India to Planet Mars, comprised of paintings, collages, and wall mounted sculptures in wood.

"Feelings are Facts IV," 2012

Crowded openings are great for artists but hard for seeing art. I was glad to have seen some of these pieces in Trachtenberg's studio in late December. But still, I found a moment, amidst the jostling bodies to stand in front of my favorite piece, "Stripes/Sutras." It is mesmirizing, a work that began with a photo of an Iraqi funeral scene gleaned from the New York Times. According to the Times, the funeral was for "a senior aide to the radical anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr assassinated in Najaf as he returned home from Friday Prayer" (Farrell). The image is vibrant with color, rich yellows, acqua, and the man's coffin shrouded in pink as he is held aloft by a group of men. The original photo is alive with action and emotion, one man's hand raised in the air. Trachtenberg found herself attracted to it.


She then began to work with it, photocopying and manipulating it, playing with its color, distressing, distorting, wrinkling, and copying it again. Finally photocopied onto Japanese Konzo paper, this 50 x 43 inch piece is painterly, evocative of a Renaissance artist’s interest in rich color, drama, the materiality of paint—the very materiality that is “absent.” The ever recognizable New York Times font receives the same treatment, transforming into something else entirely, what might for a moment appear to be Arabic script or the genetic material of a cell gathering before it is about to split and divide. Bodies waver as if part of some heat-induced mirage. The piece's title invites us to consider the work's movement into abstraction--stripes, while the strike-through "sutras," suggests revision, cancellation, overwriting. "Sutras" puts us in mind of the sacred texts of Buddhism, literary and aphoristic, further hybridizing the piece's  palimpsestic references and resonances. 

Another favorite piece is the collage "Unruly" from the History Series. Its mix of paint, text, paper, canvas and other materials makes for a dense sensory thicket. You want to touch it, to stand up close. If the "Feelings are Facts" series invites you to step back and take in the scale of the paintings from a distance, "Unruly" draws you in.

"Unruly" (History Series),  2008-12

Fascinated by Trachtenberg's work, I asked her if she'd answer a few questions, and she did:

RTM: What about India, a country of great contradictions, do you find so compelling?

AT: India manages like no other place to pry open every sense. All of the India clichés are real and unreal. That India survives itself with such potency, bounty, rawness, elegance and hazard in abundance seems like a tangible miracle. Its sonority is equal to its color which is equal to the sensuality which is equal to the scent. It stands up to the super public rage of color, madness, surprise and frustration.  It's as though the very notions of yes and no, black and white are contradicted and refused. In India there is this other realm of "between" that is not either/or and whose potency abrades to a point of receptivity of nerve endings and pores like nowhere else.

RTM: Your piece—“Stripes/Sutras”—in your current show, while made through photocopying and manipulating a photo—is very painterly. Can you describe your process and goals for this piece? What drew you to the original New York Times photo?

AT: For years I have cut out and saved piles of newspaper photographs and articles on everything from Merce Cunningham to photo-journalistic images of disaster and war. A particular stack grew after 9/11 when western reportage began to cover life inside of Afghanistan and Iraq. On many mornings the unfolded front pages burned up with frames of domestic and civic life from these places that were being decimated/colonized/aided by our military. In the midst of unthinkable terror, there are intimate views of the street, of the home: family members huddled around a TV with the living rooms wall shattered, a street scene with burning vehicles, adults in flight and children motionless, almost every day, a photo to cut out, to be shocked by, to run with. Saving and shuffling through the images keeps them close by, disallowing amnesia and a turning towards the next spectacle. The lens offered by the media into the sense of quotidian life in war is something very difficult to digest yet like with most disaster imagery, a compelling counterpoint to life seen from the safety of my kitchen table. As with the contradictions that I found in India, these environments under siege include another history and countless examples of esthetic traditions of ornamentation or use of color and pattern in the clothing and in the built environment that also draw my eye.

In the collage Stripes / Sutras, the original photograph shows a frenzied group of men in mourning holding a coffin. The grief in their faces, the tangle and rhythm of their arms straining to hang on is, on its own, heart-rending but in addition to their clearly captured emotions, upending the western trope of masculinity, this Shiite war hero is covered by a shroud in a bubblegum pink hue. This is not the only photo I have of a man who is by local terms a war hero, for others a terrorist, shrouded in seriously bright pink. I haven't yet found the explanation for the color and this gendered question though I have to believe this pink must be symbolic.

When I began manipulating the photos on the copy machine, the pink became liquid and I saw how their bodies and faces no longer held a specific bracket in the modern era. A western art history parade came to mind with the elongations and contortions reminding me of Goya, El Greco, and Quattrocento painting. 

I try every possible move with the machine that comes to mind in the same ways that painting is explored on a canvas or wood support. As I work, I physically shift the piece with rapid movements pumping up the density and removing the literal reading of most of the text. When letter forms such as the New York Times masthead seem to morph into another language it poses some questions about the source of the image. When other structures are evoked in doing so, I begin to think I am finding my way into a means of translation for this daily self-inflicted overdose of other people's realities, and in a private way, as with war poems, it is a way of paying attention and homage.

RTM: Some of your pieces include text and you’ve worked with a number of poets and other writers in collaborations, for book covers, etc. How does language enter your work?

AT: Language can both lead and follow in a collaborative process. Dependent on the construct or goal for a piece, if language is first present, I might initially respond with color or material ideas.
In certain projects, the fact of language needing to be legible and dominant can lead to pathways of experimentation as with my design for Norma Cole's new book of poems, Win These Posters and Other Unrelated Prizes. The title was itself a counterpoint to a collection of writing that in part responds to devastation in 21st century wars. Norma wanted something vibrant that didn't "look" the same as the poems. My stencil of the misread title was projected onto a torn paper collage of her choosing and photographed as if it were a found situation. The real title is then framed and slid on top of the collage creating several layers of found text and determined density. In other cases, language becomes like a script that floats in proximity to the visual elements expanding the potential reading for both mediums making a place: first, second, third or tied.

RTM: How is the work in this show different from or related to your larger public works—“Groundwork” at the San Jose Public Library (SJPL), BART, and the Atrium Project at Oakland’s Children’s Hospital?

AT: I think that in this show I shed the singularity of being a painter and my concern of being "all over the map." The wall mounted sculptures, collages and paintings move through several confines of abstraction and figuration, of materiality and lightness while pushing issues of scale that I deal with in the public projects. I think of the two wood pieces called Panorama /Containment I and II as maquettes for a future integrated public work that could be a huge wall to wall, floor to ceiling installation that draws on the same concerns as “Stripes /Sutras” and the “Feelings Are Facts” paintings with the notion that these intervals of stripes can be stand-ins for my way of compacting and responding to information from the world in a speechless, visual way. I often utilize color as a primary underpinning. Its vocabulary, while not universal, is potent. By exploring hues, density, relationships and quantity, I am looking for what the effects of color are spatially, publicly and intimately.
RTM: You are a socially engaged human being Amy, attentive to and involved in the political. In works like “Groundwork” at the SJPL you wanted your project to “celebrate the memory of the labor histories” of the region, to honor the farming and the workers whose histories are covered over by the steel, chrome and glass glare of Silicon Valley. Politics seems to clearly enter your public art projects. Do you see your other non-public work as political?

AT: Yes and no. Maybe and sometimes. Of course, I don't think I am able to separate any of these parts from each other. My DNA likely dictates many of my responses in the studio and from that there would be much that runs toward cloth, color, newsprint, language, social concerns and public intervention. While drawing primarily from a language of abstraction, the see-sawing between solo studio work and collaborations in the public sphere helps to address a desire for participation, for learning and teaching, opportunities for experimentation, and some means of giving back.

You can visit the Brian Gross Gallery and catch Trachtenberg's work through March 2nd.The gallery hours are Tuesday-Friday 11-5:30 pm; Saturday 11-5 pm

Read Reviews of Amy's show here:

Visit Amy's website here!

Born in Pittsburgh, PA, in 1955, Amy Trachtenberg studied at California State University in Sonoma, where she received her BA in French and Liberal Studies. Trachtenberg continued her studies at L'Ecole National Superieure des Beaux Arts in Paris receiving her Diplôme Supérieur d'Art Plastique in Painting and Drawing. Trachtenberg has exhibited her work internationally and locally, currently at The San José Museum of Art. Her work is in public and private collections in the US and Europe. She lives and works in San Francisco. This is her fifth show with Brian Gross Fine Art.

Farrell, Stephen. "Gunmen Kill Aide and In-Law of Iraqi Cleric." The New York Times, April 12, 2008.

Brian Gross Gallery, San Francisco, CA.