Posted on 16 February 2016.
Smithsonian Falls, Descending a Staircase for P.K., 1987,11.5 x 19 x 11' at SFAI
by David M. Roth
David Ireland’s adage, “You can’t make art by making art,” has long been the mantra for those trying to narrow the gap between art and life. Ireland, who died in 2009, coined the phrase in the mid-1970s, when, as a middle-aged art school grad with several careers behind him, he became fascinated with the accumulated detritus that arose out of his renovation of a 19th century Victorian house in San Francisco’s Mission District. That house, at 500 Capp Street, opened to the public last month as a museum-cum-shrine to the artist’s preservationist ethos and unconventional methods. It was there that he found his voice as an artist. Peeling back layers of wallpaper and lath, he exposed the building’s history and found beauty in what others saw as waste, and he elevated it to the status of art by fashioning it into paintings, sculpture, furniture and fixtures. These he integrated into the environs. The excavated walls he coated in urethane, which preserved their scarred past, wrapping the sealed remnants in a glossy yellow sheen that enveloped his living room in an almost Caribbean glow, the hues of which shifted with the light. The result was a blend of nature and architecture unlike any other.
A Portion of: From the Year of Doing the Same Work Each Day, 1975, concrete and polymer on plastic screen, 70 3/4 x 44 x 1 3/4"
In the decades that followed, Ireland executed still other architectural excavations as well as commissions, installations, sculptures and performances. But 500 Capp remains his magnum opus, the yarn out of which all of subsequent visions spun, and which today stands as a milestone of West Coast Conceptualism, a movement that remains, to this day a strong influence on artists everywhere. A synthesis of Duchamp, Arte Povera and Fluxus, it sought answers to basic questions: What function should art serve and how it might it produce something more meaningful than just mantelpiece objects of consumer desire and social status?
To commemorate that radical legacy, the Walter and McBean Galleries at SFAI (Ireland’s alma mater), and Anglim Gilbert gallery (his longtime SF dealer), have mounted concurrent shows. They overlap a bit in that they present similar works. But they diverge, significantly, too, mostly in the scale of what they are able place on view. Both show Ireland making recognizable art objects, while at the same time heeding a drive to confound viewers with things whose identities, as either art or trash, were always uncertain and sometimes in flux. If Ireland made work that looked like paintings or sculpture, it wasn’t to appease collectors; it was to undermine the age-old notion that skilled craftsmanship undergirds the making of art.
Two iconic works, Angel Go-Round
(1996) and Smithsonian Falls, Descending a Staircase for P.K
(1987), highlight the SFAI show. It’s curated by Hess McGraw, SFAI’s vice president of exhibitions and public programs, and Constance M. Lewallen, adjunct curator at BAM/PFA, and the author of 500 Capp Street: David Ireland’s House
, the definitive account of that project. The first consists of a circular mound of figurative sculptures over which an angel, suspended from a nylon cord, spins in a circle overhead. With an outstretched arm she seems to be issuing a benediction or a protective gesture. But the figures on the floor, along with the implied threat of being hit in the head by the angel, convey the temporality and fragility of life. Smithsonian Falls
, a concrete pour spilling down the gallery’s staircase, nods in its title to earthworks artist
Angel-Go-Round, 1996, fiberglass and cast concrete figures, motor, and nylon belting, 180 x 191 x 191"
Robert Smithson, Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase
, and to Ireland’s close cohort, Paul Kos, who in 2012, had one of his own pieces, Gargoyle VIIII (1985)
, excavated from the immediate surroundings. The staircase on which Ireland’s installation appears is the same one on which he debuted the work in 1987. Thus, its reappearance stands as a tribute to the artist’s history with SFAI (where he taught for a short time), and to Joseph Bueys. His Fat Chair
, first conceived in 1964 and rebuilt continuously until the mid-1980s, might have inspired Ireland to try something similar: namely, taking a familiar object and subjecting it to a process that rendered it inoperable. For Bueys that meant allowing fat placed on a chair to melt or evaporate; in Ireland’s it meant bringing a geological process indoors. The result resembles an alluvial fan, a cone-shaped deposit of stream-driven sediment.
Another key piece of the exhibition is a long, skinny table whose dimensions and contents echo the dining room at 500 Capp. The objects offer a crash course in Ireland’s anti-art aesthetic, with concrete playing a leading
Spout 'o Tools, 1988-89, concrete, hammer, axe
role. There are unformed blobs of it, displayed as the artist found them; slivers stuffed into a jar; and a potato-shaped chunk attached to a jar by a piece of wire. There’s also a concrete ice cream sundae; a suite of hand-tossed “Dumbballs,” so named for the mindless physical energy the artist expended in making them; and, most humorously, hand tools embedded in concrete, an act that rendered them as useless as Buey’s chair or SFAI’s concrete-encrusted staircase.
Ireland often cited for Duchamp (for saying that art is anything an artist deems it to be), and John Cage (for legitimizing chance as a variable in determining the outcome of his experiments in sound). Both exhibitions reveal how Ireland translated their influences. At SFAI, a cracked window set in a large wood frame recalls Duchamp’s iconic The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelor’s, Even (The Large Glass)
, only here, the erotic parts, the ones representing mechanized coupling, go missing. They turned up elsewhere in Ireland’s oeuvre in drawings and sculptures that conflated the shape of an elephant’s ear with that of the African Continent. The resulting forms, as it happened, closely resembled the disembodied sex organs of Duchamp’s piece. (One such work is on view at 500 Capp.) Dumbball etchings, made by rolling the concrete balls across a metal plate, were his ode to Cage. They read like musical scores, and in some instance were even printed on staff paper; they figure prominently in both the SFAI show and the one at Anglim Gilbert.
The latter, titled Dumbball: David Ireland and his Circle
, presents the artist’s works alongside those of
Untitled n.d., concrete, tin can, spoon, 8 1/4 x 2 3/4" at A/G
his immediate peers, assistants and others who, in varying degrees, felt his influence. Problem is, Ireland’s works come close to overshadowing everyone else’s. How could they not? If artlessness and a rejection of conventional aesthetic strategies are, to Ireland’s way of thinking, measures of value, then few artists beyond his immediate circle measure up. Two that do are Charlie Casteneda and Brody Reiman, the duo known professionally as Casteneda/Reiman. For years, mostly under the radar, they’ve been making spectacular work by combining drywall fragments with mass-produced landscape paintings – sometimes displayed as-is, at other times partially occluded by paint, while at still other times photographically transferred onto hard surfaces and printed across multiple planes, at different depths. At first glance they look like piles of refuse. Close inspection reveals them to be meticulous trompe l’oeil sculptures. They confuse interior and exterior, and evince a keen appreciation for all that can be wrung from building materials. The untitled landscape they have on view here does this with vertical bands of drywall set against a concave backdrop, with photographic images run across multiple planes, making it difficult to differentiate real space from illusionistic space. Ireland, I’m guessing, would have approved.
He did something similar at Maine College of Art in 1997 when he cut a window into a wall to expose an adjoining construction site. The illusion proffered was so convincing viewers took it to be a painting, when in fact all they were seeing was a heap of sheet rock through a glass pane. The Anglim Gilbert exhibit shows Ireland making similar statementsat a smaller scale. One of Ireland’s dirt paintings, Dirt Work with Flakes (1974), looks like a slab of rusted iron ripped from an old factory; but its placement inside a picture frame muddles that proposition, calling into question whether it’s a found object, the work of an artist or both. It asks: Should natural processes or human interventions rule? Should one be valued over the other? Ireland favored nature and
Trial Proof C (Blue): A variation on 79 side to side passes of a Dumbball dedicated to the memory of John Cage, 1921-1992, 1992, soft ground etching, 14.5 x 11.5" at A/G
process, a stance that played down ego and intellect, but could sometimes lend both him and his work a Zen aura that didn’t always fully reflect his beliefs or the breadth of his efforts. For example, with Dumbball Box (1983), he flashed a bit of deadpan irony by placing 34 Dumbballs inside a well-finished display case, the kind a department store would use to sell jewelry. By uniting those opposites, Ireland asked whether something as worthless as a concrete ball should carry the same value as something highly crafted? And, more pointedly, whether it should carry any value at all. Were he alive, Ireland would probably tell you that the true value of such things rests entirely on their valueless-ness, the value that accrues from having no formal aesthetic qualities.
Castaneda/Reiman, Untitled Landscape, 2016, mixed media, 48 x 96"
In a related vein, Paul Kos addressed the art vs. money issue with a poster detailing a series of transactions that reads like a recipe for an elaborate shell game – one in which it’s unclear whether money or goods actually change hands or whether anyone profits. It’s called Quid Pro Quo (1970), and it’s displayed, appropriately, next to a gold pan with a bit of gold leaf at the bottom. Together the two could easily serve as a manifesto representing Conceptualism’s disdain for the market.
One thing that happens when you go on an Ireland viewing binge as I did, is that you develop a keen taste for the abject. It plays out across a continuum, and within it there’s a hierarchy. In the Anglim Gilbert show it ranges from the real to the fake, from hard-won artlessness (Ireland) to the overwrought arty trying to look abject. Those two poles more or less bookend the exhibition, while at the same leaving plenty of room for artists who express high levels of material invention without necessarily subscribing to the anti-aesthetic of Ireland and his circle. In that middle zone you’ll find artists like Gay Outlaw, Mildred Howard and Amy Trachtenberg. Outlaw, channeling Bueys, makes a chimney out of felt and foam that looks like it should weigh a lot, but doesn’t; a gentle nudge will topple it. Howard’s piece, Black Question Mark (2011), is a glossy sculpture made of blown glass. Speak the words of the title and you catch its civil-rights-era meaning, a verbal/textual trick worthy of William T. Wiley. Trachtenberg’s collage, a series of color swatches made of vertical strips of fabric, paint, zippers and yellowed newspaper clippings, evokes the look and feel of 500 Capp. It stands as a visual tribute to the artist with whom she remained close up until his death in 2009.
In the faux abject category you’ll find sculptures by John Beech
and Gonzalo Hidalgo
. Without going into detail, let’s just say that these objects try too hard to look like art. Their superficiality illustrates the many ways artists have misinterpreted Ireland’s ideas and methods. To understand, look at Ireland’s works and those of his core group (Paul Kos, Howard Fried, Tom Marioni,
Terry Fox) and, in particular, one work of Marioni’s. It’s a
Tom Marioni, Entrance to Moca, 1975, digital print, 8 x 10"
photo of the front door of the Museum of Conceptual Art, the institution he founded in 1970 and ran until 1984. The image, from 1975, looks old and faded, but it’s really the decrepit condition of the building – the peeling paint, the missing door lock and the punched-out mail slot — that makes it look that way. You could write it off as slum-chic. But it goes further, deeper. Reflected in the window are several layers of history: the nose of a ’69 Pontiac, a parking lot that is now Yerba Buena Gardens and, in the background, St. Patrick’s Church, a structure that dates to the Gold Rush. Like Ireland’s house at 500 Capp, Marioni’s picture represents a time capsule of a vanished era – not an attempt to affect a dilapidated look (Beech) or repurpose Ireland’s signature materials and methods (Hidalgo). Two nearby collections of condiments and cosmetic containers, assembled by Nayland Blake, further illustrate this point. Their contents long ago decayed, and thus, have become putridly discolored. But in Ireland’s scheme of things, that sort of ugliness was always a virtue, a starting point for finding meaning in what is and what was and for locating your own position within your own environment, however you choose to define it. In working through that process Ireland and his circle discovered and made art.
–DAVID M. ROTH