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Decline and Fall @ Rena Bransten

Candida Höfer, "Palacio Peredo-Barreda de Caja Cantabria Santillana del Mar I” (2004), C-print, 73 x 89"

Contrary to what one might expect from a show titled "Decline and Fall", this is not an exhibition about the demise of the American Dream — or about anything else that’s in the news.  This show skirts topicality almost completely and focuses instead on the meltdown and transformation of the hierarchies that surround us.  Modes of artistic expression, interpretations of history, shifting gender roles, the dissolution of middle-class values and vanities, linguistic incoherence and the fact of our own corporeal demise are among the topics addressed by the 12 artists assembled here by gallery co-director Jenny Baie.  [A short Q&A with Ms. Baie follows this review.]

Key among the those charting such transformations is Candida Höfer.  For years, her super-sized images of public spaces have commanded rapt attention. She, along with her counterparts in the Dusseldorf School of Photography, helped rehabilitate the once-discredited idea of photographic veracity with hyperreal images of stunning clarity  Still, I have never been able to shake the feeling that Hofer siphons all the oxygen out a room before taking a picture. And it’s precisely that leaden quality that makes her appearance in “Decline and Fall” feel so right.  The picture on view here, “Palacio Peredo-Barreda de Caja Cantabria Santillana del Mar I” (2004), shows the interior of a once-grand palace that is now a bit down at the heels. It’s a pliable mascot of sorts, one whose tarnished grandeur functions as a symbol for the demise of practically every established order you can think of.

In addition to Höfer, the show includes Doug Hall, Martin Klimas, Ian McDonald, Andrew Moore, Vik Muniz, Joseph Park, Deborah Oropallo, Marci Washington, John Waters, Fred Wilson and Bing Wright. Appropriately, it leans heavily toward photography and on photo-based hybrids.

Vik Muniz, “Gordian Puzzles: The Tower of Babel, after Pieter Breugel” (2007), C-print, 75 x 98"

The most notable of these is Vik Muniz whose “Gordian Puzzles: The Tower of Babel, after Pieter Breugel” (2007) transforms the Dutch artist’s 1563 painting, of a crumbling citadel, into a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces were conjoined in a fractured, three-dimensional collage and then photographed. The resulting image is as confounding as the knot that Alexander the Great is said to have cut in one fell swoop. But the Gordian conundrum, if I read Muniz correctly, is far simpler than anything we face today; we are as deafened by the din of our own bickering as we were in Biblical times. 

Martin Klimas, "Untitled", (2003), color photo, 43 x 66"
Photographer Martin Klimas also uses incomprehension to make a point; but you must look closely to see that his untitled (2003) picture of a shattering tchotchke isn’t a maudlin still life. Klimas makes pictures by dropping clay figurines on the floor and tripping the shutter at the point of impact. Scan this one closely and you see exactly how things fly apart. Klimas’ connection to Harold Edgerton is obvious. Less obvious, but no less interesting, is the artist’s relationship to the objects that he destroys. Where Jeff Koons once manufactured kitsch of this sort to disingenuously cast himself as a populist, Klimas smashes these gewgaws to drain whatever virtue remains in such middle-class dust magnets. I like Deborah Oropallo’s work for the same reasons; although materially and historically, her transformations of gender roles are considerably more complex. A few years back, she started this series by re-making historical paintings in which she thoroughly confused gender roles, superimposing both the heads men and women onto torsos dressed in Napoleanic garb.   They appear like hermaphoditic visions seen through a hologram.
Fred Wilson, Untitled Bust, 1992-2000, mixed media, 8 3/4 x 9 x 5 1/2"; Deborah Oropallo, "Repunzel," 2008, digital pigment print, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 26"

The two paintings here, "Maid with Squirrel" (2008) and “Repunzel” (2008), both from her "Feign" series, are somewhat less complex, but just as psychologically loaded. Based on downloaded images of models, they are digitally manipulated and then ouput as paint on canvas. They are, if nothing else, magnificently decadent, as the "heroin-chic" affection of "Repunzel" attests. 

Decadent, but in a different way, is Andrew Moore’s large-format photo, “Peter the Great and BMW (Old Sculptor’s Studio)” (2001), an oddly disconcerting picture of a car parking in an ancient studio, filled with vivid reminders of its past. The vehicle’s presence feels like a violation, like an act that only someone with too much money and too little sense would commit.
John Waters, "60th Birthday", 2006, C-print, 25.5 x 20.5"

Film director/photographer John Waters, the high priest of high camp (and as of late, a marquee name on Broadway), frames the concept of decline and fall in personal terms: in a gruesomely altered film still of a woman whose sagging face and wrinkled hands look like something Joel Peter Witkin might have created had he gotten hold of Joan Crawford in her role in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”. Waters used the picture to commemorate his 60th birthday in 2006.

Just as creepy is Marci Washington’s high-Goth painting “To Walk These Halls – Unnamed and Unmourned” (2009). With a disintegrating skeleton set against patterned wallpaper, it warns (according to the artist) that our repression of history is akin to a skeleton in the closet. The Freudian part rings true, but the picture is too simplistic to carry the idea.  By contrast, culture warrior Fred Wilson’s attempt to Africanize the Euro-centric view of art history – by inserting an Egyptian figurine into a Greek bust – is as clever as it is subversive. But one wonders how it wound up next to the over-aestheticized Hallmark sentiment conveyed in Bing Howard’s photo of fallen rose petals.  

Decline and Fall” casts a wide net. That it pulls in everything but topical news is a decisive victory for a concept that is as wide-open as the unwritten history of our times.

–David M. Roth
“Decline and Fall” runs through August 1, 2009.
Next up at Rena Bransten Gallery is Dennis Gallagher, starting Sept. 8, 2009.
Deborah Oropallo will have a show of new work opening Sept. 10 at Stephen Wirtz Gallery, SF


Q&A with Curator/Co-Director Jenny Baie

David M. Roth: How did the idea for “Decline and Fall”
Deborah Oropallo, Maid with Squirrel, 2008, digital pigment print, acrylic on canvas 30 x 29"
Jenny Baie: As often happens when we are planning a group show of mainly our gallery artists, we all throw out ideas and possible titles until we hit on something the majority likes. It just happened that everyone liked the sound of “Decline and Fall” and let me run with it.
DR: The show takes a very broad view of the theme; it isn’t solely about things declining, vanishing or failing. It’s also about the ascension of new ideas, the creation of new hierarchies to replace the old ones.  Am I correct?
JB: Definitely. I tried not to take the title too literally because I didn’t want to limit our options. In the end, there was a certain feel I was going for that I wanted people to intuit even before examining details of individual pieces. Then once they delved into it a bit, I hoped that they enjoyed considering how the pieces related to the idea of the show – or if they did.
DR: I find it very interesting how different artists represent this idea. John Waters looks in the mirror and sees his skin sagging.  Deborah Oropallo sees an emerging state of gender confusion. Vik Muniz looks at Biblical stories and finds analogies to our current state of affairs. And Fred Wilson tries to change the way art institutions represent western civilization by monkey wrenching their collections.  A pretty diverse presentation, I’d say.
JB: Yes, I was hoping to keep the definition of the show loose enough to accommodate broad ideas and multiple interpretations. 
Andrew Moore, Peter the Great and BMW (Old Sculptor’s Studio), 2001, C-print, 30 x 40"
DR: If you take decadence out of the equation, the show seems to steer almost entirely clear of the obvious literary and historical references — to Edward Gibbons’ “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” and to Eveyln Waugh’s “Decline and Fall”, a story about post-WWI manners that is commonly believed to be a disguised comment on the decline of the British empire. One can easily get caught up trying to find references to those books. Or, one can ignore them entirely. What was your thinking?
JB: Waugh’s “Decline and Fall” is one of my all-time favorite books and I stole the show title from that. However, it was not my intention to reference that story line. My thought process was more fluid. I think I started thinking of the Candida Höfer piece that is in the show and it led me to the idea of opulence declining into ruin which in turn made me think of the title “Decline and Fall” and I went with it from there.
Joseph Park, Leave it on the Dance Floor, 2008, oil on panel, 24 x 18"
DR: As I mentioned earlier, I’m really puzzled by Joseph Park’s “Leave it on the Dance Floor,” the cubist remake of “The Rape of the Sabine Women”.  Help me understand it in the context of “Decline and Fall”.
JB: What I liked about this painting for the show was the struggle going on – the fractured painting style seems to be descending upon the under-painting and taking it over in the same way that the soldiers are descending upon the women and abducting them.
DR: The show leans toward photography and photo-related processes. Did you feel that photography best represented what you were trying to say in this show, and if so why?
JB: No, I didn’t think that at all. And in fact, I tried to make sure that a range of media was included as I think that makes for a better balance. 
DR: If there is a single idea that you’d like to communicate with this show, what would it be?
JB: I can’t really answer that – I was not trying to present a single idea but instead to simply provoke thought and provide enjoyment for those who come to see the show.


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