Hairy Eyeball: A haunting we will go -- at triple Base and Swarm Gallery
HAIRY EYEBALL New York City construction workers at the World Trade Center site recently unearthed an 18th-century ship hull. More interesting is that scientists believe that the structure was part of the massive landfill that extended lower Manhattan further into the Hudson River. You don't have to read too deep to hit on the symbolism of this story, even if the occurrence at its center isn't so uncommon in a city as densely developed and old as New York (see the 1991 discovery of a 200-year old African burial ground, also in lower Manhattan). Beneath the site where the Twin Towers fell lies further wreckage, older ruins. Nothing is ever truly gone. What lies buried will eventually surface. The present is always haunted by the past.
The same could be said of the art world, which has recently been holding some flashy curatorial séances of its own. Two exhibits don't necessarily make a trend, but the Berkeley Art Museum's current "Hauntology," recently reviewed in this paper, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Musuem's ongoing exhibit "Haunted: Contemporary: Photography/Video/Performance," both summon the specters of late-1980s academic theory (Derrida in name and word, in the case of BAM's show) in their selection of works that address the unseen yet felt presences — aesthetic, historical, political — floating amid the present.
You can also add "Now, It's About What You Can't See" to the list, although this group show at Triple Base Gallery of paintings, drawings, and installations is not as enthralled by its organizing principle — what is absent may not be forgotten — as the previously mentioned exhibits are to critical theory and now-old debates around appropriation in photography. As Triple Base's statement declares, though the artists vary by age and medium, their works, "provide faint shadowy traces of moments to imagine what once existed and hint at an ever-evolving history."
The faintest traces belong to Rachel E. Foster's wall installation, which is practically invisible from certain angles. Only by moving back and forth in front of the surface does the repeatedly painted word "ghost" emerge from the seemingly contiguous white field of the gallery's wall. As in her older works involving text, here, Foster cleverly collapses medium and message, using a representational strategy to bring a word's meaning to life. In this case, the word "ghost" becomes just that.
Unfortunately, it's hard not to read Foster's installation as a commentary on the small group of Eleanor Kent's early oil paintings, which are hung on the same wall. Inspired by her life in Noe Valley in the 1960s when she was still associated with the Bay Area Figurative movement, Kent's small-scale domestic scenes — her son playing, a couple talking over dinner — aren't by themselves elegiac. But Foster's apparitional wallpaper imbues Kent's facelessness figures and rough outlines with an air of loss that might not be present otherwise.
Wallpaper is put to different use in Mara Baldwin's How to remember where you put something, the sharpest and most moving articulation of the show's preoccupation with absence and memory. Baldwin, it appears, has removed and rehung a large section of old wallpaper. The yellowish pattern of red and yellow flowers has faded with age, as revealed by two brighter rectangles near the section's center that suggest the spaces where perhaps art or photos had once been hung (curiously, no nail holes are visible). But looking closer, you realize that the paper in the less-faded sections is not the same paper at all, but a continuation of the wallpaper's design in watercolor.
The piece's two painted sections aren't simply indexes for what's gone missing (which may not have even existed in the first place). Executed by Baldwin's steady, patient hand, the painted sections also draw attention to what they are intended to replicate: the banal, mass-produced wallpaper that surrounds them. By flattening background and subject, Baldwin makes painting the aid to memory of the piece's title, while also suggesting that "putting on a new coat of paint" always involves some form of erasure. Chechu Alava's soft-focus portrait of a sylph-like young woman in a slip is more conventionally ghostly, but not nearly as haunting as Foster's hidden graffiti or Baldwin's yellow wallpaper.
As I wrote two columns ago in my review of the multi-gallery show "They Knew What They Wanted," the George Eastman House's 1975 exhibit "New Topographics" — currently hanging in a reassembled version at SFMOMA — continues to cast its shadow over contemporary art and curatorial practice, particularly where landscape is concerned.
"Land Use," at Oakland's Swarm Gallery, could easily be a satellite to both exhibits. Bill Mattick's color photographs documenting the ecological cost of urban and industrial development in Southern California are the closest relatives to the grim indictments of such "New Topographic" participants as Joe Deal, Robert Adams, and Lewis Baltz. Chris Sicat's pieces of reclaimed wood "colored in" with soft graphite pencils are less successful as sculptures than as documents of the artist's attempts to work within natural form of his materials. Sculptor Reenie Charrière takes a similar tack with manmade waste, aggregating the plastic bits that don't make it to the recycling center into playful, biologic forms.
NOW, IT'S ABOUT WHAT YOU CAN'T SEE
Through Aug. 29
3041 24th St., SF
Through Sept. 12
560 Second St, Oakl.