by Tamsin Smith & Matt Gonzalez
Adam Feibelman returns to Guerrero Gallery after having last exhibited there in 2013, when it was at 19th and York Streets. At that time, he showed spray-painted illustrations based on photographs of largely urban scenes, along with sewn ensembles of the layered stencils from which the paintings evolved. Although the work wasn’t about migration per se, the movement from stencil to finished painting — both of which he exhibited side-by-side — was about the evolution of imagery. Migration has always been embedded in the medium of stencil and stencil-related painting, particularly where the pre-stenciling involves the utilization of a photograph. The tracing of this transformation reveals the artist’s journey and the meticulous process of making a concept manifest. For Feibelman the means has proven to be every bit as compelling as the ends.
In this show, Personal Provenance, the journey and its essential chapters take on global scope and extend into various mediums. The work tells of individual migrations through the artist’s experimentation with materials and methods he isn’t known to have worked with, including wood sculpting, resin block, stitched plastic, reduction printmaking and experiential design.
This ambitious show arrives while our nation is in the midst of a political debate over refugee visas and whether borders should have physical barriers to control migration. Feibelman endeavors to open our eyes to some of the harsh realities behind the debate, with pieces that illustrate different modes of migration from ancient to modern, natural to tech-enabled. These include those of birds, planes, refugees, shifting tectonic plates, a smuggled relic and of people via app-hailed car rides. Feibelman utilizes these real-life vignettes to confront the permeable and impermeable barriers between desire and fulfillment. Here are some highlights:
Arctic Tern, a stenciled composition of 15 hand-cut layers, pays homage to a bird whose migratory route crosses all continents and spans roughly 50,000 miles per year, the longest of any avian creature. For that reason, Feibelman considers it to be more heroic and noble than the predatory eagle, America’s historic symbol of national identity. The bird’s Latin name Sterna Paradisiea means “chest towards paradise,” begging the question of whether liberty exists when freedom of movement is constrained.
World Wide Web (102,465 planes) is a spray-painted multi-panel mosaic depicting the number of daily airline flights. The challenge was how to craft – and scale — that number of miniature planes so that they could be fit into a space of finite dimensions. The result is a striking piece of approximately 12 x 12 feet that recalls the geometric grace of ancient weavings and Moorish architecture. It highlights the magnitude of human endeavor, but also calls into question the personal, commercial and environmental impacts of such activity. It’s an aesthetically compelling infographic whose impact lingers.
5041, a hand-cut screen, was inspired by Plato’s suggestion in Laws that the ideal population of a city or town is 5,040 (not including women and slaves), a figure divisible by all numbers between 1 and 12. The argument, as Fiebelman interprets it, is that property and inheritance among male citizens wouldn’t be a source of conflict if it could be evenly divided. But what happens if another person tries to get in? In Plato’s day, this numerically governed utopia was regulated by infanticide — tossing “surplus” newborns outside the city walls. Here, Feibelman represents the unwanted child as a notch, cut out just beyond the boundaries of the geometric grid representing the city.
In Street Market Installation, Feibelman presents a series of fake iPhones displaying Uber and Lyft route maps. Each carries a title (e.g. First World Problems, Nairobi; First World Problems, Pakistan, etc.) corresponding to routes within or between various trouble spots around the globe: Syria to Macedonia; Ukraine to Crimea and so forth. It’s a disarmingly cheeky illustration of just how different the commute frustrations of a typical San Franciscan are from those of people most everyplace else. The street market concept – placing phones on a carpet at ground level — is clever, but viewers would have been better served had the piece been displayed at eye-level.
Magic Carpet” is a 9 x 6-foot stenciled replica of a unique 16th Century Persian rug, known as the Clark Sickle-Leaf Carpet, which sold for $43.8 million in 2013. Its provenance is complex, having moved under duress and dubious legality from Tabriz to Damascus to Greece to Paris to the Sotheby’s U.S. auction floor. The artist recreates the dynamic design though his technique of cutting to create negative space from metal mesh screen. Stripped of its iconic red hue, Feibelman’s version captures the shimmering moiré effect of the original by combining two solid layers and two cut layers.
Old Blues has the artist placing himself in a historical moment of species migration. The piece consists of hand-whittled replicas of his bones immersed blocks of resin, giving it the look of an archeological find preserved in ice. It refers to the end of the last ice age when people living on the Bering Sea walked across the ice bridge to North America, thus becoming the tribes that would later be displaced by European settlers. The faux ice block stands as visual object lesson in territorial bullying, but also a reminder that disappearing polar ice caps will likely force more migration and turmoil upon those least equipped to defend themselves.
One of the most disconcerting pieces in the show is a replica of a single leg protruding from a wall titled Oh Petra, Trippin’, Foul, about Petra Laszlow, the Hungarian camerawoman who tripped a Syrian refugee carrying a child across the border from Serbia. On a farther wall hangs Border Jerseys. In this, Feibelman unites Mexico and the United States as two halves of a soccer jersey bearing the names of the two generals who signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. The peace settlement ended the Mexican-American War and established the Rio Grande River as the southern border.
The most moving aspect of this emotionally charged show is Feibelman’s installation of water bottles collected from the US-Mexico border. These are not relics or homages. They are real-life objects that contained the most essential ingredient for human life, sustaining the hopes, dreams and probable fears of the people who made their way across the desert. One has a sun-bleached, sweat-dried bandana tied to the handle. Many have personalized messages scrawled in a child’s handwriting or hearts and other missives from those left behind. In the silence required to take in the sensations these evoke, one can almost hear the footsteps of those who held them. It’s noteworthy that Feibelman traveled to the Arizona border with gallerist Andres Guerrero to traverse these immigrant trails, thus linking the show directly to the debate engulfing our nation.
To round out the show, Feibelman cut up some of the above-mentioned water bottles and turned them into soccer balls by slicing out (and sewing together) pentagon- and hexagon-shaped bits of plastic. The artist’s transformation of these one-time artifacts of suffering into playthings underscores a key point of this show: that certain aspects of culture — like soccer – cross borders; they become emissaries, transmitters of ideas that, unlike people, move freely across geographies and cultures.
One thing gallery goers will notice is that the exhibition lacks wall text; it’s a curious omission for a conceptual show whose meanings might be opaque to some. In these instances, the operative assumption is that signage detracts from the viewing experience. Here the gallery sparked understanding at the opening by serving beverages in miniature plastic water jugs; they became a talking point — a kind of prop — which allowed those in the know to answer the oft-voiced question, “Why is wine being served in these jugs?” The communal impact of that gesture became clear once the origin of the bottles was revealed. It catalyzed elegant, organic, word-of-mouth epiphanies. With so much meaningful dialogue spurred, news of the show spread on its own.
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Personal Provenance @ Guerrero Gallery through May 6, 2017.
About the authors:
Tamsin Smith is a published poet, essayist, and creative strategist. She helps mission-driven organizations tell their stories and is known as the innovator behind pioneering social action campaigns like (RED). Her verse collection Word Caves will be released by Risk Press in late 2017.
Matt Gonzalez is an attorney in the San Francisco public defender's office and an artist who exhibits with Dolby Chadwick Gallery. He has written numerous art reviews and catalogue essays about contemporary artists and previously taught Art & Politics at the San Francisco Art Institute.