Material Matters may be the only perennial show in the Bay Area to openly take a stand in favor of art that is materially engaged. This is not to say that other shows mounted by other galleries don't do the same; only that none do so with the same conscious fervor. The title itself throws down a challenge to conceptualists who, building on Duchamp, once insisted that ideas, because they exist in the mind, don’t require visual incarnation. The surprise in this incarnation of the show, now in its second year, is that conceptualists infiltrate the proceedings. They do so in the form of a concurrent exhibition called Four Proposals for Reading, a small, powerful collection of book art in the back of the gallery that cross pollinates the main event, suggesting that the alleged differences between thinkers and makers might not be all that great.
This version of Material Matters, like the first in 2013, feels crafty and precious in places. In the main, though, it's anchored by artists whose work is incontestably great. They include, most notably, Jane Rosen, Richard Shaw and Gyöngy Laky. Rosen, a sculptor of majestic glass and stone birds, stations two such creatures on skyscraper-shaped pedestals. They're perched at the front the gallery like sentinels. Shaw, the world’s foremost creator of trompe l’oeil sculpture, delivers one of his lanky figures madeof studio “detritus” – all of it masterfully faked, and all of it utterly convincing. Laky,a sculptor who deals in semiotics, shapes twigs and branches into a gnarly, floor-mounted vessel, whose Latin title (Natura Facit Saltum), refers to Darwin’s theory, that nature does not make leaps, while raising, on the viewing end, the tantalizing and wholly plausible possibility that mimetic relationships exist between language and natural forms.
Lia Cook translates a photo of a child’s face into a monumental tapestry. It hangs from the ceiling just to the right of Rosen’s birds. The enlargement should, by all rights, make it less intimate; but the warp and weft of it produce the opposite effect, turning the grain (or perhaps digital noise) of the source image into a maze of interlocking markings, reminiscent of Bruce Conner’s obsessive drawings, now on view at the San Jose ICA. Tim Tate’s projection of Thomas Edison’s 1898 film of two men dancing — from within a baroque picture frame made of his own cast glass — is brilliant and jarring. Ornate frames are supposed to contain ancient pictures, not motion pictures; so when the two media collide, disorientation strikes. The shock is akin to seeing, for the first time, Tony Oursler’s video projections onto glass. Alexander Rohrig’s painted limestone sculptures depicting animals are another of the show’s highlights. His miniature wall-mounted pieces resemble cubist sculptures, and with their animal features defined by botchy color stains, they give off the feel of excavated cave paintings.
The strongest part of the event is the portion given over to books. It’s situated against a backdrop of large-format photos that wrap in a seamless panorama around two walls, replicating the look of bookshelves. They represent libraries owned by each of the participating artists: Julie Chen, Clifton Meador, Barbara Tetenbaum and Philip Zimmermann. Seeing them touched off a question: Why are photographs of this sort suddenly appearing everywhere? Is it because books are said to be facing extinction? Is it because such displays feed intellectual voyeurism – the desire to get inside people’s heads by inventorying what they read? Or, is it because they appeal to the graduate student in all of us? Whatever the case, the tomes pictured certainly fire the imagination. They encompass a great many subjects relevant to art, and their trompe l’oeil-like presentation – billowing out ever so slightly from the walls – fosters the illusion that you can pluck any one of them off the “shelves.” For the artists, they function as a declaration of intellectual provenance.
Meador’s Cotton Curtain, about the history of cotton in America, is a knockout. What makes it so are not just the photos and the text, which are superb, but rather the patterned fabric swatches sandwiched within. That tactile experience conveys cotton’s allure in a way words and pictures can’t. It drives home why it became a universal obsession, why it spawned one particularly notorious institution (slavery), and why it sustained so many others — in finance, manufacturing, shipping and distribution. The book is also timely, its appearance coincides with a spate of books (Blood Cotton; The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism) recently issued on that same subject. Unlike non-art books, which, for the most part, rely solely on words to convey meaning through the activation of external referents, Cotton Curtain, packages those referents within its covers, uniting object and experience. Bodily experience also informs Meador’s exploration of cognitive disorders, Glossalexia. The title is a mash-up of echolalia, dyslexia and glossolalia, and so is the experience of “reading” it. It shows what a person suffering from those conditions might see while trying to decipher a blurry mass of overlapping characters.
Zimmermann’s book, Incident at Deseret, is a back-to-future imagining of Mormon pilgrims stumbling onto Spiral Jetty. This spoof of a book pokes fun at faith and science with deadpan photos that call to mind those uncovered from government and corporate archives by Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel in their groundbreaking 1977 book Evidence.
Not everything in this portion of the show fares as well. Chen’s flowchart-like constructions (Formulation I and II) and her captioned book of floral prints feel, at best, like artful teaching aids. Tetenbaum’s commentary on her readings of Emerson, and her copying out of his words, while revelatory to her, have value mainly for their injunction — to us — to remain cognizant of what we think while reading.
The two parts of the show are divided by a curtain inscribed with words from Meador’s book on cotton. The division, while practical, seems almost arbitrary given the richness of book art. Here it’s worth noting that Four Proposals for Reading is but a prelude to a much larger event coming up in May: The Art of the Book, which this year celebrates its tenth anniversary at the gallery. If past installments are predictive, this one promises to again underscore the theme that undergirds both of this gallery’s signature endeavors: material matters.
–DAVID M. ROTH
“Materials Matter” through March 30. “Four Proposals for Reading” through March 1, 2015. Both @ Seager Gray. The show also includes works by Joe Brubaker, Stephen Paul Day, Charles Eckart, Ann Hollingsworth, Lisa Kokin, David Ruddell, Helen Stanley, Patricia Lyons Stroud and Kazuko Watanabe.