Northern California picks from Christopher Alam

Cliff Notes

Each week, our regional Cliff Notes columnists Christopher AlamSharon ArnoldDemian DinéYazhi’, and Angella d’Avignon pick the most exciting events and exhibitions on the West Coast.

Hell: Arts of Asian Underworlds
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA
June 16 to September 18,

This unique exhibition at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum explores various depictions of the underworld across south and east Asia. I am fascinated by the question raised, which is: how do different cultures envision afterlife for the condemned?
In the West one typically encounters variations of Dante’s Inferno, full of fire and weird naked devils. However, depictions across Asia have such substantial variations that I can’t help but reimagine their potential punishments in the afterlife, and what “hell” might actually mean beyond just being dead and punished. Depictions range from the grotesque and horrifying to the lighthearted and even humorous. The picture I’ve selected here is a Japanese woodblock print featuring an underworld of cats tormenting mice. 

The displays feature paintings, sculptures, maps, puppets, and religious objects from across the continent, specifically India, Tibet, China, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, and the Philippines. The exhibition is organized as a journey into the inferno itself, starting with depictions of “Hell’s Gates,” and wandering through until arriving at Hell’s various escape routes. These historical and modern takes on perhaps some of the most ancient subject matter there is, the afterlife, remind us of the human tradition in the most epic sense. Jeff Durham, Curator of Himalayan Art at the Asian Art Museum, says, “This exhibition is like a rollercoaster, taking the visitor from excitement to relief; in the end, it shows that Hell is only as bad as we imagine it to be.” 

That last part is, to me, the core idea of this exhibition. Until we die, all discussion of what Hell or the afterlife might be like is complete speculation. It’s an image based on our own fears and insecurities, mixed with thousands of years of human curiosity and creativity. Who’s really to say if we go to Hell we won’t be met by cats or clowns?

Reflection: What do you think Hell is like? If it’s not real, how close do we get?

Cartoonist @ 836M
836M, San Francisco, CA
May 25 to September 29

The history (and present) of comics in the United States shows substantial variations, eras, and evolutions that reflect both the spirit of the society at large and specialized creative niches across the country. The city of San Francisco has a rich history of artists and enthusiasts of the medium spanning comics, zines, and graphic novels. 

This exhibition is also a residency for the four artists involved, where they will develop new work on the theme of the past, present, and future of San Francisco’s neighborhoods. The selected artists are accomplished cartoonists, amongst other things, and I highly suggest you explore their work through the link above. The programming will offer an insight into the artistic process of creating a visual story, following the artists as they discuss their methods and challenges. 

I love the mission of this project revealing the creative process behind comics and zines. The relatively accessible and straightforward style of the medium is a practical choice that may give a casual reader the impression of ease. However, the multimedia nature of comics and zines make for a unique and challenging process that is unlike any other artistic medium. This makes for depictions and messages that can carry extremely unique visual styles and biting, subversive writing. Combined with the dichotomy between big name publishers and prolific smaller presses/ indie self-publishers, we are presented with an artistic scene that is endlessly diverse and explorable. 

On a related note, I am often intrigued by the combination of graphic art and the written word. Both are visual mediums with their own languages, meanings, and shapes. Both are representational in different ways, one aesthetic and one semiotic. Comics and zines are an excellent passageway into this study. I believe it would serve an artist or art lover well to consider the relationship between these things, and how our written language interacts alongside design. Cultures like Arabic and Japanese feature this in their written language. Perhaps it’s no wonder that they have robust cartooning traditions. 

Reflection: Think about reading more comics, and try writing your own! Consider how much you can convey with a single doodle and one line of text.

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