Perambulating the Bounds

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

What Artists In the Bay Area See

Yerba Buena Art Center in San Francisco is currently running a regional show, Bay Area Now 4 (there’s also performing arts and film/video components to the show: http://ybca.org/ban4/index.htm). One thing that comes out in several of the artists is a real fascination with their physical and social surroundings, the place itself, which is something you come to expect from Western artists. The landscape imposes itself so forcefully onto your consciousness, whether it is in the form of mountain ranges, the ocean fog coming in and clearing, or the prospect and aftermath of fires and earthquakes. There is also the fetish of the West’s own relatively short (white) history, with caricatures of miners still knocking around the visual landscape. The potential for contact with wilderness, a brief glimpse of being alone in the natural world, also gives the physical environment more power to exercise overpowering psychic effects. Jack Dingo Ryan, recently returned to Middle Tennessee but a child of the Northwest, talks about this in his work in terms of the Kantian category of the sublime.

This fixation with the place shows up in three forms in three artists in this show. Sasha Petrenko has constructed a low wooden shack that looks like a crude frontier shelter. You walk into it to find a fragmented diorama of a Western landscape with models of modern vehicles like RVs and trucks scattered around, the contemporary conveyances of a people still in motion through this landscape. Adriane Colburn turns her attention to a more contemporary landscape, a big grid made from cut paper that runs along a wall and down onto the floor, representing the sewage system of San Francisco. The grid has been coded to reflect the city’s natural waterways which have been diverted into the system. She even opens up the gallery wall and some conduit inside it to integrate cables pulled from it into her piece’s grid. This grid points to one physical manifestation of the interconnection of people in a city, and of their connection through such structures to the physical landscape. The size of the piece gives the sense of it being an enveloping network of connection, and by integrating the architecture of the gallery the piece merges the viewer’s experience directly into that network.

Christine Shields deals more purely with the social characteristics of the place in a series of portrait paintings. These include a set of pictures of young hip-looking men who all have beards, the members of the band Vetiver, and an iconic portrait of the musician Devandra Banhart. The accumulation of pictures makes you aware of artist’s being surrounded by people that she is able to draw lines between to form connections on various grounds. Banhart and the musicians in Vetiver are friends, part of a scene in San Francisco that gets labeled neo-hippie or something else equally reductive. They appear on each others’ albums and tour together. The portraitist comes across as seeing herself linked to an exciting network of creative people, which you imagine is central to her experience of the Bay Area as a place.

In Shields’ portrait, Banhart is placed on a vibrant red background with orange streaks radiating out from his like an aura or corona. It turns him into an icon, bringing in a note of self-importance that characterizes the interest in place everywhere it occurs in this show. It’s not enough that Banhart is a musician and maybe a valued friend, but he is endowed with the trappings of sainthood. The invocations of local civil engineering and the history of Western settlement can have the feeling of “the epic story of the West.”

My sense that there is a grandiosity in this work is colored to some extent from my experience in traveling from Nashville and arriving in San Francisco. It is a much more ambitious city, with more obvious displays of community wealth, and it generates much more fascination from other parts of the world. It is awash in tourists in a way that Nashville never is, for all of its status as the home of country music. People do not swoon over our town the same way. Institutions in SF are bigger and there are more of them – the Yerba Buena complex, with its gallery, theatre, and whatnot is directly across the street from SF MOMA, with its landmark building and a collection that reflects the presence of very great wealth. Just on this one block.

Among the other work in the show, it was good to see Chris Ballantyne’s work again after his Cheekwood show. Christian Maychack makes site specific works that incorporate architectural details from the space like a staircase or a gallery divider wall and transform them in ways that confuse perspective. Chris Kubick and Anne Walsh collaborated on two sound installations. In one, a series of small speakers was mounted along a two-story wall, emitting the sounds of shell casings hitting the ground. The sound was gorgeous, ringing with a clear high pitch, and of course creepy – the retort of the shot removed, just leaving its aftermath. The other piece placed speakers behind a large pane of glass, giving off wet smacking/kissing sounds. It could have represented the sound of bullets entering flesh, again stripped of the rest of the sounds like the cries of agony.

An auxiliary to this show might be a work across the street in a photography show at SF MOMA. The show displays pieces lent by a single collector (I think this is one of those cases where the museum is courting the collector to try land a donation of the works at some future date). It includes a panoramic view of the city of San Francisco taken from a high point in 1877, by Eadweard Muybridge, the guy who did the sequential photo studies of a horses and people in motion. The 360 degree view is split into several photos. There’s nothing unusual in landscape as a topic, but it does go along with a sense of “take a look at this place” that seems to come across a bit more strongly than with artists in other places. In Nashville I think the engagement with place takes a more personal form.

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