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Braided Lives at Somarts

A Collaboration of Artists and Poets

"Braided Lives" is a show of paintings and other artworks and the poetry they inspired, currently on exhibit at SOMArts Cultural Center in San Francisco. It's the result of intimate dialogs and collaboration between visual artists, mainly from Taos, New Mexico, and writers from various locations around the U.S. Originally a fundraiser organized by the Taos Chamber of Commerce in 2002, the show now appears in San Francisco. Painters and other artists were asked to select certain pieces that became the subjects of poems written by selected poets. Most of the artists and poets collaborated over the internet, sharing feedback and insights.

"Braided Lives" doesn't deliver much in the way of new ideas. It's a bit difficult to discern an overarching idea in this exhibit, other than that of the interplay of images and words, which in itself doesn't seem that revolutionary. I expected to see a more unifying theme in this show, because some of the work is distinctly connected to a specific (and quite magical) place - Taos. This puts us in mind of Georgia O'Keefe, santeros, and other artists with a clearly recognizable regional style, or a proclivity for a certain kind of light or subject. Instead, the subject matter of the paintings is all over the place: temples in Laos, non-descript landscapes, bold painterly portraits. Also, while most of the visual work in the show is well rendered and competent, some of it is eminently forgettable and art-schoolish. It's impossible to ignore the allusions, intentional or otherwise, to Franz Marc, Georgia O'Keefe, Van Gogh, Ed Ruscha, Picasso, Cezanne, Herb Ritts, and others. While these are all fine influences, they're very disparate ones; for me, the cohesive gestalt remained elusive.

That said, there is some beautiful work to be seen. Carlos Barela's sculpture of St. Francis is as good as the art of the New Mexican santeros gets. It's an elegant, deeply felt piece that makes expressive use of the natural lines inherent in the carefully selected piece of juniper from which it is carved. Anne Bishop's exquisite, richly colored etchings are replete with sumptuous detail and depth. And Sara Berkeley's poetry has a sinuous, evocative grace and poignancy.

Part of the problem with the idea of this show for me is that I don't have much of an ear for poetry, a defect I probably share with a large portion of my fellow Americans. I'm sure there are many who would take issue with me on this, and I'm ready to be convinced that poetry is indeed a viable art form in the U.S. But I think it's because I like to hear poetry read live. It just doesn't rattle my cage in print. There were two evenings where the poets read their works to a small audience, but many of them were not compelling readers, so my attention returned to the visual work. I came away feeling that the show was more of a juxtaposition than a true synthesis of art forms.

Exhibit runs through July 28th it Somarts Main Gallery