Volume 38, Issue 1, February 2007
‘How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later’ at CCA Wattis Institute
This scrappy, provocative group show requires some effort to parse its logic. The themes are ambitious—the ability (or inability) to effect change, the ways in which we engage our surroundings, the construction of realities of all stripes: temporal, spatial, scientific, fictitious, local, global, utopic, dystopic. Yet no curatorial statement accompanies the exhibition, which is to the detriment of the artists and audience alike. In its place is a brochure excerpting the Philip K. Dick essay from which the exhibition’s title is derived. Certainly Dick’s essay is illuminating, but it hardly serves as an adequate alternative to a cogent account of the project and the artists’ work included in it. The main gist of the essay is that individuals such as writers and artists and those in power (the media, government, corporations and religion are some such entities cited by Dick) all build universes, or construct realities, and that there might be something to be gained, for Dick at least, in letting those universes fall apart in order to precipitate change. Who could argue with that? As a thesis, however, the Dick essay is broad to the point of being a blanket statement for most creative endeavors. Almost all artists build universes or critique those that exist, from Andy Warhol to Joseph Beuys, from Martha Rosler to Thomas Hirschhorn, from the surrealists to the constructivists, and so on, ad infinitum.
What, then, binds the artists in this exhibition together? Why this group as opposed to some other? The work included is wildly diverse and all over the map, in terms of quality, argument and scope. The online press release provides a starting point: Projects by Bonnie Ora Sherk and Rick Guidice, along with the Dick essay, are the show’s foundational statements, all, significantly, originating in the 1970s—the show’s temporal touchstone, along with the future, perhaps. From 1974 to 1980 Sherk was the driving force behind Community Crossroads (The Farm), a social and ecological alternative space underneath a San Francisco freeway interchange. A utopic vision made real, if only on seven acres and just a few years, this experimental project included gardens, a theater, community programs, performances and informal gatherings. Sherk’s wall of ephemera often appears in rounded wooden frames that give the sensation of being in the family den. It’s an uncanny and irreverant effect that speaks to the show’s clear and commendable mandate to capture in its sweep art and social practices not usually on the radar of the art world and its institutions.
Also in this category are Guidice’s drawings, made around the same time but for another purpose entirely: they illustrate various NASA design proposals, primarily authored by physicist Gerard K. O’Neill, for the United States colonization of space. This information, too, is nowhere to be found in the exhibition space; neither is mention made that Guidice currently lives in Los Gatos, California, and that the exhibition’s curator, Will Bradley, envisioned the show as an exploration of California’s utopia/dystopia paradox (on this see also, for example, Mike Davis’s City of Quartz) and had, in fact, mounted a version of this show a decade ago (this information was taken from the Internet, so perhaps should also be taken with a grain of salt)
Despite their shared origination in the seventies it’s difficult to find two conceptual benchmarks as far apart as the undertakings by Sherk and Guidice. And yet they provoke a number of intriguing questions when set against one another (they physically bracket teh show as well, with Sherk near the beginning and Guidice closer to the end). The massive shift of scale and feasibility in these visions of sustainability—backyard to outer space—begs the question of where in this continuum artists and activists situate their efforts. The work in the show does indeed fall scattered all over this spectrum. One notable point of tension is a specificity of place, or lack thereof, as certain works are indelibly linked to sites to which the artists have clear commitments. Solmaz Shabazi’s film Tehran 1380 (2003) is one of the strongest of this group. The film focuses on the gargantuan and self-contained Ekbatan apartment complex in Tehran, built in the mid-seventies and now housing some 75,000 residents. Lurking behind comments to the camera praising the complex—with malls, gyms and youth cafés, there is no reason to leave, one young resident claims—is the sense that the ultra-planned universe, a distention of modernism’s ideals akin to Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasilia, poignantly allegorizes the restrictions of contemporary life endemic in Iran.
Also commited to place are William Scott’s strange and yet entirely friendly urban planning proposals for his neighborhood of Hunter’s Point, a marginalized and primarily African-American area of the city now a prime location for city development and an attendant gentrification. His optimistic near-advertisements for a future San Francisco appear opposite a wall painting by Glaswegian artist Toby Paterson depicting an architectural schema of a “Fun Palace.” Against Scott and, just a few feet away, Sherk, the drawing feels oddly cold and rather out of place. The abstract, schematic, or fantastic universe often abuts work more concretely grounded in the sociability and politics of a given place. Guidice’s drawings are adjacent to Andreas Dalen’s psychedelic renderings of what might be the fantasy world of an adolescent boy of the Atari age. Gitte Villeson’s photo and text essay portraying a homeless man in Chicago intent on recycling and reusing small bits of wood is placed opposite Eileen Quinlan’s formal photographs of smoke and mirror tableaux. Smoke and mirrors, no doubt, point to something illusory, and perhaps therein lies the link to precarious universes, but the conceit is flimsy—not to mention old hat, as artists such as László Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray were playing stunning formal tricks with photography decades ago.
The inclusion of two younger San Francisco-based artists, Shaun O’Dell and Nate Boyce, in this international group show extends a long-standing and critically important commitment of the Wattis to contextualize the work of local artists. O’Dell in particular is a revelation here. For several years now, he has honed a complex pictorial vocabulary aimed at an excavation of American myths and ideologies. Here, he has broken new formal and conceptual ground, expanding his repertoire to include, for example, the fraught history of the atomic bomb. His tight grid of drawings and abstract works alike have a visceral tautness that speaks to the innumerable and yet fragile ties that bind any universe together, and which threaten to break at any moment.
After considering more than two hundred emerging Bay Area artists, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) and its auxiliary Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art (SECA) have awarded four with their annual prize: Rosanna Castrillo Diaz, Simon Evans, Shaun O’Dell and Josephine Taylor. The resulting exhibition [SFMoMA; January 22–May 15, 2005] brings their works, which are already well known to the local arts community, to the museum’s considerably wider audience.
According to Matthew Higgs, “If anything has a chance of making sense outside its geographical site of conception, it first has to make absolute sense locally.” Past SECA winners like Barry McGee (1996) and Chris Johanson (2002) illustrate the principle. They each redefined the Bay Area scene in their own image, and then rose to international significance in quick succession.
Of this year’s winners, Shaun O’Dell could be poised to do the same. It’s not that his work dominates the show, it’s just that it makes absolute sense here in San Francisco. The Stanford MFA stands at teh head of a legion of Bay Area artists doing folksy, freeform drawing that blends naivety and a controlled channeling of impulses with sophisticated ideas and a cosmopolitan eye—horror vacui one moment, design-consciousness the next.
O’Dell’s inks on paper derive sprawling compositions from early American history. Our colonial mythology provides the work with a solid core, which the drawings orbit but never enter. Refusing to explore meaning, he burkes didactic approaches to the subject. Just as importantly, the work’s self-imposed limit disables our reliance on interpretive logic, and forces all our energy into the sensual. Early on, we give up searching for messages to concentrate on visual impressions, in the manner of formal abstraction. Rhythmic patterning describes natural textures of wood and water or inflects indigenous craftwork. Space is mapped by curling arrows and branching trees, and punctuated by realistic illustrations of pilgrims or deer. Intuitive and untranslatable, the works communicate their resonant impression profoundly, beyond language.
Simon Evans and Josephine Taylor also seek that elusive, acutely felt communion with the viewer. The personal nature of their work makes it, in fact, even more urgent. Evan’s works share O’Dell’s human scale and an affinity for diagramming. His drawings, on surfaces of layered Scotch tape, are mostly lists, maps, and charts—though anything that can bear a label is apt to show up. Texts accompany everything from holes burnt by a cigarette to the anatomy of a tongue to sections of a pie chart. If language is a bridge from one individual to another, Evans is re-engineering it according to his own deeply embedded rules. Often (but not always) palpably humorous, his game is played close to the edge of nonsense. Cumulatively, the work nonetheless translates his internal process with literary precision.
Josephine Taylor’s immense gouache drawings turn to the human form. Running nearly floor to ceiling, four works fill her gallery. Larger-than-life figures rendered in photographic clarity cut through mostly white expanses of untouched paper. Their bodies are psychologically distorted, and Taylor’s palette is so reserved it is ghostly, inflecting the narrative of multiple figures with the quality of a dream. Drawn from Taylor’s experiences, the stories are also somewhat unreal. In Chicken, 2004, two identical girls (or maybe twins) lean forward from their seat on the shoulders of a stumbling boy. The frame of a jungle gym, seen in the background, secures them on the drawing field. They look apprehensively across the empty sheet at another girl who, though well below the established ground, falls through the white void, looking out at us with a calm, knowing expression.
If the characters perfectly resemble their real world counterparts, the action has the unpredictability of dreams and early memories; it can depart from reality at any moment. Taylor teases her memory out of its recesses and pins it to the page, as careful as a butterfly collector to preserve its delicate structure. The effect is so complete that, standing in the gallery, we feel a measure of voyeurs’s guilt. We are tapping into the vulnerable ellipse between a person and her life’s experience.
If Taylor’s practice is psychologogical, Rosanna Castrillo Diaz’s is meditative. Untitled, 2004, a giant, nearly invisible network of Scotch tape loops, is innovative in technique, but the aim of her work is no to push the boundaries of drawing. Instead she probes the boundary of the object, searching for an absolute zero of existence, on the edge of nothingness. Suspended at a slight distance from the wall and lit minimally, the piece moves with the air. Only its shadow is a constant; the work itself shifts in and out of visibility. Viewing is an active experience.
Around the corner, small framed graphite drawings hyperrealistically depict stacks of blank papers, or the spines of leaning notebooks. If the approach is radically different from Untitled, the intent is much the same. They represent objects that are somehow emptier than nothing, rendered with the highest concentration.
Given the strong interest in folk art, decorative art, and Surrealism by younger artists these days, we were not surprised to find a large number of prints with these qualities. Here is a small sampling. These works are idiosyncratic, mythic, figurative, and, at least partly, narrative.
San Francisco-based Shaun O’Dell embraces the mythology of the American frontier, rendering pilgrims, frigates, whales, and oceans in glyphlike forms to create fragmented, cryptic narratives. Similarly rigid and stylized but far less puritanical in its associations is the work of Tony Fitzpatrick, a former tattoo artist from Chicago. Appropriately, Fitzpatrick works in etching, which, like tattoo, requires the use of a needle to make an image. Wilson Shieh, who was born in Hong Kong and was trained in traditional fine-line bruch painting, created delicately patterned prints, several of which depict humans in harmony with their cosmic surroundings. Texas-born Trenton Doyle Hancock has made a cartoonish and macabre series of prints depicting the fictive prophet “Sesom” and his miracle machine, which runs on liquid meat and enlightens the dark corners of the world with blasts of pure color.
New Drawings in San Francisco
by Glen Helfand
MAY / JUNE 2005
This year’s SECA awards provide ample evidence that there is more to the Bay Area’s art scene than so-called Street Art.
For a diverse and ever-burgeoning population of young artists in the San Francisco Bay Area, the most notable sign of recognition is the SECA Award. Founded in 1967 by the Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art, the Award includes an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, a cash prize of $1,500 per artist, and a modest catalogue. The Award is intended to honor and acknowledge under-recognized and emerging talents in the region. And although it remains somewhat controversial in the local scene as being a small, inadequate gesture from the museum, the show is received with excitement, and the exhibition itself enormously enhances the visibility of the winners’ work. Past honorees have included Barry McGee, Nayland Blake, Laurie Reid, Chris Johanson, Anne Appleby, and Chris Finley.
While recent SECA shows have reflected a diverse range of aesthetics and approaches, this exhibition—which includes works by Rosanna Castrillo Díaz, Simon Evans, Shaun O’Dell, and Josephine Taylor—is more thematically unified through an emphasis on drawing, something well acknowledged in the museum’s press release: “All four of these artists work in drawing as a primary medium, using ephemeral materials with great sensitivity to capture something of the complex and tenuous nature of contemporary experience, whether personal or collective.”
The four artists work on paper in vastly different ways. Castrillo makes exquisite, highly detailed drawings of stacks of paper and binders, as well as ethereal tape drawings, such as a massive web of Scotch-tape circles that casts soft gray shadows on the wall. Evans, a former professional skateboarder and self-taught artist, also uses tape, though in his case in text-heavy collages that emulate graphs and charts embellished with his own drawings and hand-written notations. With a similar diagrammatic impulse, O’Dell uses literary sources, such as Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and early American history, to map out cultural myths. Taylor’s approach may be the most traditional, drawing in ink and colored pencil on paper; but the scale of her compositions is very large (the smallest is 67 by 77 1/2 in.), and the highly charged interpersonal dynamics she depicts are almost shocking in their candor and curious exaggeration of the human form.
“We weren’t expecting drawing to be the focus of the show,” says Janet Bishop, SFMoMA’s curator of painting and sculpture, who, with curatorial associate Tara McDowell and SECA members, selected the awardees. “It’s meant to recognize individual achievement. We visited thirty studios, and all the artist we found compelling were working in drawing. These four rose to the top right away. The show is intended to be four independent projects, yet there are a lot of connections between the artists,” she adds. “All of the work is so ambitious, yet subtle. It’s less declarative than a lot of what we saw out there.”
Since the Bay Area’s art production seems to operate below the national radar—aside from the fairly recent pervasiveness of Street Art aesthetic dubbed the Mission School (after the scruffy neighborhood where artists such as McGee, Johanson, and the late Margaret Killgallen once resided)—one cannot help but look at the SECA exhibition as a kind of indicator of what’s going on here. “It’s important that the Bay Area be recognized as a place in which more is happening than the Mission School aesthetic, and this year’s SECA presents an alternative of sorts to that particular slant,” offers McDowell. “It shows that art in the Bay Area is, like any region, complex and diverse, and that there are other undercurrents—which aren’t necessarily incompatible with the Mission aesthetic—that can be teased out.”
McDowell’s concerns are well taken in a city where the art community is tight, but diverse in its practice. Yet there are aspects of the so-called Mission Aesthetic that inform the artmaking in this city—humbleness, experientiality, obsessive tendencies, and activities that don’t require a lot of expensive studio space, which are also ingredients that can be found in art being made internationally. “I wouldn’t say these artists are specifically Bay Area, yet there are things that relate to the region,” Bishop says. “Simon’s is really personal. He admitted to us that he had an epiphany in this museum’s Paul Klee gallery. That experience inspired teh commitment to make art over writing and skateboarding.” In a sense, Simon has come full circle, as his experience at the museum has resulted in the opportunity to curate the show in that gallery. “Paul Klee: An Artist’s Selection” is scheduled to open late this spring, and Evans will pen a wall text explaining his interest. Evans was also acquainted with Chris Johanson and other artists who have lived and worked in the city. He and O’Dell, who received his M.F.A. from Stanford University, are both represented by Jack Hanley Gallery, a Mission District space that has tapped into the vitality of the neighborhood. Hanley discovered Evans at the tiny gallery in the funky but lively Adobe Bookstore, a kind of literary clubhouse for young artists in the city.
“Rosanna is from Spain, and when she first moved here, she saw  Sol LeWitt retrospective [at SFMoMA], which has had a clear impact on her work,” Bishop explains. This is particularly apparent in her massive tape drawing a process-based ephemeral project installed on a long wall that museum visitors face directly from the staircase. “She also attended graduate school at Mills College, in Oakland, which is known for encouraging experimental approaches.”
But more than anything, the medium of drawing allows these artists to explore ideas in a more intimate and personal manner. Taylor, who earned her M.F.A. at the San Francisco Art Institute and is currently represented by Catherine Clark Gallery, creates work that, while grand in scale, are rendered in soft, almost translucent tones, and are deeply rooted in her own memories. It’s not always easy to discern the exact narratives and the relationships in the pictures, yet family dysfunction and loss of innocence are palpable themes. “Her work is technically astounding,” says Bishop. “The paper conservators were putting their noses right up to the drawings, they were so amazed by the quality of the line. I think her work is distinct in contemporary art, and that’s exactly what we were looking for. She takes on a subject matter that’s more akin to literature—autobiographical fiction —than visual art. I was compelled by the way that they look as well as by the emotional content. She discusses the work in open terms—she draws on personal experiences, painful childhood experiences, her adult psyche. It’s all a part of who she is.”
Literary reference are another thread of the exhibition. O’Dell’s titles suggest arcane scientific reference manuals: The Tranformers Diagram of Imperialist Expansion of Continental Altitudes or Primitive Contract for Metropolis Consumption Vortex (both 2004). Evans points to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels in his work, which also features hearty helpings of text: looking at his collages is more akin to reading than viewing. Castrillo Diaz’s drawings depict sheaths of blank paper, something to be written on for business or expressive reasons.
The exhibition has already led to increasing success for the artists. SFMoMA has acquired a number of works from the artists save for Castrillo, whose labor-intensive works is currently unavailable. Castillo was the only artist of the four not to have representation, and word is that three dealers approached her right after the award was announced.
—Glen Helfand is a writer and teacher based in San Francisco.