Lemongrass, by Judy Pfaff (Braunstein Quay Gallery)

At a pre-opening soirée for Judy Pfaff’s show at the Braunstein Quay Gallery in San Francisco last week, Pfaff talked about how different—and personally satisfying—it has been to be working in her studio again. So much of her focus recently has been installation-centric: massive venues and complex sculptural structures that have required an big interdisciplinary team to execute. The “sculptural paintings” that comprise this show, “Tivoli Gardens”, feel like Pfaff let loose with something wild in herself, plumbing the store of treasures that most artists keep of those things that just can’t be throw out—cut outs, paper edges, pleatings of rice paper, metallic scraps, fans, gourds (mostly from Pfaff’s own garden), fake flowers, crimped wire, distressed bicycle spokes, Asian momentos, honeycombed shipping material, lacy paper shards made by artful torching. She spoke of looking under the leaves and the ground cover of her garden to discover the beauty of the tangle of the living and the dying. And it is all there, celebrated as a full cycle of life coming in and life going out.

The work on exhibit at Braunstein Quay, like many of the new pieces included in the “Five Decades” retrospective at Ameringer | McEnery | Yohe (through October 16th and written about briefly here), is exhuberantly expressive, friendly, fecund, playful, entertaining and completely seductive (in the most positive meaning of that term.) If there were a soundtrack for this exhibit it would be the warm and bubbly chuckling of pure delight. The smells would be loamy and soft, the fragrance of slow, wet decay.

Several of the pieces in the San Francisco show are cordoned into extremely generous box style frames. A few have been left naked and exposed. Some artists and critics have strong feelings about frames and never like the containment that happens “under glass.” But I think these Pfaff-devised and designed protective structures work just fine.

Trust, Pfaff Style

I have been a long time admirer of Pfaff’s work. I first saw her work in New York City many years ago and have subsequently seen exhibits in other venues like Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ birthplace in New Hampshire, Philadelphia, and at the Rose Art Museum (once the jewel of the now notoriously besmudged Brandeis University) in Waltham. That show took place in 1995 during what many of us now refer to The Golden Age of the Rose—that halcyon time when curatorial leadership was provided by gallery director extraordinaire Carl Belz. The Rose never regained its aesthetic footing after he left.

Pfaff titled her Rose exhibit “Elephant,” a reference to the blind men who each are convinced that their small hand hold on a very large creature is an accurate description of the whole. At an artist talk that Pfaff did at the Rose in conjunction with that show, she told a story that demonstrates one of her most admirable personal qualities—a sturdy trust in her artistic self.

With her self-effacing candor she described how she arrived at the Rose just 13 days before the show was set to open. She had a truck full of tools, supplies and a vague memory of how the interior of the Philip Johnson-designed museum was laid out. But upon arrival she immediately realized that she had remembered the space all wrong and that the ideas she had been brewing would not work. A large opening in the center of the upstairs gallery space required something completely different.

So she climbed into the cab of her rented truck parked just outside the museum to think. Well, she reminded herself, the answer is usually right in front of me. And as she spoke those words she saw a tree at the edge of the parking lot that was growing out of its bounds. She knew immediately that the tree was what she wanted. And needed.

Pfaff tracked down the grounds staff (who told her they were planning to remove the tree anyway) and had them extract it with the root system in tact. How she was able to marshal the student assistants and the know how to get that immense structure into the museum is a mystery as is the 24/7 effort needed to put the show together. By the time she had festooned that immense structure with her signature sculptural linkages, she had created a visual knock out. I experienced that tree-centric installation as an encounter with primal enormity—the birthing of something immense, like a deity or a goddess. And all of her images pulled together, 2-D and 3-D, into what was an unforgettable show.

At no point in this story did Pfaff give in to the frantic or lose that essential trust that she would find her way. I don’t know too many artists who would have the cujones to face a 13 day deadline with so much assurance. I have thought about story that hundreds of times since, especially when I am in an agonizingly protracted struggle with envisioning a next step.

Carl Belz’s Account of “Elephant”

I found a wonderful blog post by Carl Belz sharing his up close and personal account of working with Pfaff to bring “Elephant” into existence. You can read it here.

Close up view