"The Caretakers"

Surveying the loss that saturates the American West
Bill Mattick, "2004-107(810)"

REVIEW As the U.S. continues to blindly race forward, wise eyes look closely at what is left behind. In the case of Bill Mattick's "The Caretakers," this means uncovering the lives hidden within — and the haunted spirit of — a defunct train station in west Oakland. Surveying the loss that saturates the American West, "The Caretakers" makes a great companion piece to Lee Anne Schmitt's California Company Town (2008), screening at Artists' Television Access this week. It also is a kindred spirit to a pair of recent railroad-themed films, Bill Daniel's Who is Bozo Texino? (2005) and James Benning's RR (2007). Whether focusing on abandoned landscapes, engaging in cinematic trainspotting, or both, these artists have proven shrewd and prescient (Mattick's project dates from 2004) about this country's paths of foolishness. They've tapped into the new Depression long before Wall Street would admit it.

Mattick cites the peerless Robert Frank — the subject of a major retrospective coming to SFMOMA this year — as an influence. But while his images bear tonal similarities to Frank's, people are less likely to occupy his frame of vision. He generates strong atmosphere from mid- and late-afternoon daylight: Stairs on Platform 2004-99 (810) sets aquatic shades of blue and white against the severe shadows of a staircase; the rich green of Distance 2004-186(810) varies from Daniel's black-and-white treatment of similar subject matter; Paul's Flowers 2004-108(810) updates Helen Levitt's fascination with kids' chalk scrawlings on the streets. Yet a contemporary human story emerged from this largely "empty" setting: that of Willy and Paul, whom Mattick discovered living at the station. They're an odd couple of sorts: one messy, the other fastidious; one a religious eccentric, the other street-smart and battling addiction. These caretakers exert small acts of control amid society's debris — things that share their castoff societal status. Mattick's photography is an act of collaboration with them.

THE CARETAKERS Through April 30. Tues–-Sat., 11 a.m.–5:30 p.m. Corden Potts Gallery at Warnock Fine Arts, 49 Geary, suite 211, SF. (415) 680-5997, www.cordenpottsgallery.com

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