Categorized | Conceptual

David Ireland and 500 Capp

Ireland's dining room at 500 Capp St., which includes lamps with concrete bases and much memorabilia from his time in Africa as a safari guide
by Jeff Kelley

In the summer of 1988 my wife – Hung Liu – was an artist-in-residence at the Capp Street Project, then the most innovative residency-cum-exhibition program on the West Coast. Founded by Ann Hatch, venerable art programmer and philanthropist, the Capp Street Project – housed in an angulated, corrugated steel building at the corner of Capp and Adair Streets in San Francisco’s Mission District – offered live/work space to individual artists or small collectives roughly four times a year – which is to say, each artist had the upstairs living space, the downstairs studio, and staff support for the duration of the residency. It was a good gig in an ‘80s sort of way – that is, the Capp Street Project was not just a new, temporary studio, but a new kind of small organization – a live/work/gallery hybrid that existed in support of the given resident artist’s project.

Street view of 500 Capp
The building had been designed and built on spec by David Ireland; Hatch bought it in 1983 and turned it into the Capp Street Project (whose archives now exist with CCA). I had known of David’s work not as a friend or area native, but by word-of-mouth and through encounters with places like the Headlands Center for the Arts, where he had stripped an old military barracks to its historical core, revealing its layers of time and human intention. The Capp Street studio, with its angular geometry, metal siding, and narrow (gun sight) windows, looked like a modernist fort hunkered down among the stands of flat-roofed Victorians, ornate Queen Annes, Mission and Italianate Revivals, or vernacular mixed-use commercial buildings that typified the Mission District.

On the inside, however, the place was sculpted with daylight which, streaming through strategically positioned windows and skylights, followed smooth, sometimes curved wall surfaces in a way that dissolved its quotidian architecture into the passage of day-time, until the deeper and
sharper shadows of night-time reclaimed the light. This daily dance of light dissolved the gritty particularity of the Mission neighborhood just outside, and yet it was energized, paradoxically, from the Mission’s very daylight – and nightly by its shadow play. 65 Capp Street was a great place to live and make art (Hung eventually produced her breakthrough exhibition there: “Resident Alien,” in 1988) but it was also the best possible place to live in the light of David’s Mission District – except, of course, for one other house, also David’s, five blocks up the street.

500 Capp Street, built in 1886 (and pictured above), was typical of the working-class Italianate row houses of its time. The first house on its block (the southwest corner of Capp Street and 20th), it has stood, as Connie Lewallen puts it in her summative book, 500 Capp Street: David Ireland's House (University of California Press), as “a silent witness to the Mission District’s transition” of social classes and ethnic groups over the past 120 years. It was in 1975 that Ireland bought the house for $50,000, intending to “gut” and transform it into a “living studio.” But his thinking about the house changed once he moved in – ideas of architecture were quickly superseded by experiences of sculpture, that is, by digging and sweeping and sanding and peeling, and by shaping the light.
Upstairs front parlor with wire-suspended propane chandelier, top center
It’s important to remember that in the 1960s and ‘70s “sculpture” was understood perhaps more broadly (certainly more physically) than it is today.  It was theorized as an “expanded field” that enveloped all manner of spaces, materials, and happenings, and which could be critically understood in terms of architecture, landscape, archaeology, process, anthropology, systems, performance and the politics of place.  The “object” of sculpture was, in effect, absorbed into its base, resulting in an aesthetics of site we began calling installation. Site, in time, ripened into place, which, invested with the meanings and memories we have of a particular place, became memorial ground. Sculpture was no longer (only) a three-dimensional object in space, but a transactional situation in which the presence of the viewer – now a navigating subject – changed the nature of the game by expanding it into settings, sites and places.  Therein, our common senses may gather as a new kind of post-modern (and an old kind of pre-modern) commons.
Upstairs hallway with broom sculpture

If theory is based in practice (and I like when it is), then Ireland spent years making a place of his house. He did not, in fact, gut it. Instead, he began revealing its layers of time and history with the skilled hand – and the elbow grease – of a craftsman. The term he preferred – by contrast to renovation – was “stabilization.” He fixed the house, not in time, but in the times of which it was already layered. For example, Ireland peeled away the wallpaper (bits of which he kept in a glass jar), revealing strata of other wallpaper, wood lath and plaster, as well as gouges, in-fills, scuffs, and repairs made a century before. These were his decorative patterns – the marks of making and remaking. Everything that was originally covered he uncovered, exposing the inside of the house to the generous and ever-changing daylight surrounding it, and, at night, to the shadow play within. Any changes he made to the structure – replacing crumbling plaster with modern plasterboard, for example – were not blended with the original wall, but set crisply apart by precision of cut (modern geometry) and reflectiveness of (urethane) finish. Look closely at a doorjamb and you will see exposed two or three decisions made between 1886 and whenever Ireland sealed it with varnish. One may also notice old door openings filled with off-color plaster, names and phone numbers (FOXY – 621-3479) penciled in tiny letters on the wall (near a crack), a gouge in the plaster commemorated by a tiny bronze plaque (THE SAFE GETS AWAY FOR THE SECOND TIME NOVEMBER 5, 1975), molding removed from around the windows revealing their original rough cutouts, and diagonal stress cracks in a white plaster wall (maybe from 1906 – who knows?). The house is a record of its own making, and remaking.

It is also a repository of everything Ireland made from it and for it, mostly whimsical sculptures composed of things left in the house, including old furniture, original light fixtures, or half-formed building materials like cement. In the second story hall a wedge of standing brooms (the same brooms used to sweep the house before Ireland bought it) seems to swirl like the skirt of a dancer on the polished wood floor, calling to mind the animated brooms in the movie Fantasia. A hand-size clump of concrete, probably shaped in the artist’s palm, hangs upright from a wire like a pre-conscious notion of the Venus of Willendorf. Thin-gauge wire spills lyrically
Salvage. Preserve. Enshrine. Plaque (at top left) commemorates an accident in which Ireland lost control of a safe while moving it out of the house. It belonged to the former occupant, an accordion repairman. Photos include those of Marcel Duchamp and the actress Ann Margaret. Bottles hold dirt, dust and other detritus.
from a hole in the plaster wall, like an outline of a forming thought. A rack of yellowed newspapers, with the pages hanging like pressed slacks, sits just beneath the sill of a second-floor bay window, flanked by two over-size wicker chairs; the news of San Francisco (just beyond the window) beckons the elegant morning reader and perhaps his guest. Nearby, a window has been rendered opaque with a coating of copper; on a small round table beneath it a cassette recorder holds a recording of the artist’s voice describing, somewhat breathlessly, the bustling scene he witnessed on 20th Street immediately before he coated the window. Three concrete Dumballs, having been formed in countless hand-to-hand tosses by Ireland, seem to patiently wait on the long table in the ornately decorated dining room (as do silver goblets filled with concrete and a spoon, and a giraffe and rhino skull), which is where Ireland did most of his socializing.

Upstairs hallway: layers exposed
The light of 65 Capp Street was modern and secular – like abstract sculpture. It was diffused yet volumetric.  In contrast, the lighting throughout 500 Capp Street is a kind of low-wattage Surrealism liberated from Victorian décor by a minimalist sensibility – Ireland having spent decades reducing the phenomena of the place to its elegant, fundamental visual and material properties. Light washes in from outside, yet also pools around single bulbs and diminutive fixtures. For each, a yellow reflection flickers across the drippy varnish of a nearby wall. The mood in Ireland’s house is sacramental: one senses with each concentration of light (and cast of shadow) a social or private occasion that must have taken place there countless times, like daily enactments of the rituals of living. Artful living created a place for living art.

Over more than three decades, Ireland reinvented his house according to his experiences of living in it. Like most significant artists, he created the context for his own work. His house was the physical setting for that context, filled as it was/is with work, with works, and with the workings of his mind. In this he is likened to Marcel Duchamp, the patron saint of 500 Capp Street, photographs of whom appear several times in the house. Duchamp’s famous indifference, though, in which he would “appoint” everyday objects to the status of art from an intellectual distance, is a bit dandyish when compared with Ireland’s hands-on interest in making something from nothing. Neither is Ireland shamanistic or utopian in the manner of German artist Joseph Beuys, with whom he is also compared. What he broadly shares with these luminaries is an interest in blurring the boundaries between art and life, although each attempts that erasure in ways particular to his relative era and culture. Settling in the Bay Area after travelling the world as a younger man, Ireland recognized (re-cognized) that the best metaphors emerge not from art, but from the process of living. What he added to the local brand of Conceptualism with which he remains associated – which draws upon cross-disciplinary combinations of eastern mysticism, funky irreverence, art school, and alternative space – is a strain of materialism he converts (over time) into magic. San Francisco has always been small enough to allow village elders to show the way. Magic still has currency here.

During Hung’s residency at the Capp Street Project she and I were invited by David to visit his house. It was a milky-bright day, so I remember the light was alive in the rooms and hallways. With a graciousness that was immediately disarming, David showed us around – or, more correctly, followed us around as we cautiously explored this nice man’s place. Questions – and thus conversations – grew from the particulars of architecture, archaeology, memory, and light. It was thrilling to consider that the same person who renovated 65 Capp Street also “stabilized” the times embodied in his house. 500 Capp Street was the perfect example of my thinking about site and place, which I’m sure I conveyed to David during a pleasant afternoon of conversation. But we were new to the area, and nearly three decades younger, so we hadn’t had the experience (or at least I hadn’t) to peel back my theory and lay hands upon the magic. We did experience grace, though, which prepares you for the day, many years hence, when the magician has disappeared and yet his brooms conduct themselves.

The 500 Capp Street Foundation conducts tours of David Ireland's house by appointment.  
Photos: Henrik Kam 
About the Author:
A critic since 1977, Jeff Kelley has written for such publications as ArtforumArt in America, and the Los Angeles Times. From 1993 to 2005 he taught art theory and criticism at the University of California, Berkeley, and edited/authored two books on Allan Kaprow published by the University of California Press.  Kelley was a consulting curator of contemporary art at the Asian Art Museum from 1998-2008, and in 2008 he curated the popular and critically acclaimed Half-Life of a Dream: Chinese Contemporary Art from the Logan Collection for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.  Currently working on a book about the paintings of Martin Mull, as well as a major essay on the 1970s firebrick sculptures of John Mason, Kelley lives in Oakland with his wife, the artist Hung Liu

7 Responses to “David Ireland and 500 Capp”

  1. Henrik Kam says:

    That’s very insightful with great personal angle. Perfect….

  2. Satri Pencak says:

    This well written article should be in Art History books.

  3. Jeff,

    This is a magnificent song about Capp Street and David Ireland… Thank you!


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