by Marcia Tanner
White-walled, white-floored, high-ceilinged, spacious, and drenched in sunlight streaming in from second-story clerestory windows, Hosfelt Gallery is nobody’s idea — although possibly someone’s Platonic ideal — of a garage. You could imagine clouds floating in here for R & R.
This celestial setting presents challenges for this engaging, if uneven, summer group exhibition, whose all-star cast of inspired art/techno wizards, most of them Bay Area-based, “exemplify (according to the press release) “the ethos of Silicon Valley in the form of the ‘genius’ garage inventor”.
Jim Campbell, Tim Hawkinson, Charles Lindsay, the late Nam June Paik, Alan Rath, Rachel Sussman and Gail Wight are represented by works dating from the 1980s to yesterday. With one exception, they’re all conceptual artists and true tinkerers. Driven by curiosity, unfettered imagination, technological know-how, individual obsessions and extraordinary problem-solving skills, they manipulate and radically repurpose the materials and methods of contemporary technologies to make objects of wonder. Their creations match medium to message, exploring human perception, feeling and consciousness as inflected by our tech-dominated age.
With degrees from MIT in engineering and mathematics, Jim Campbell turned to art-making almost 30 years ago. Campbell’s sculptures and installations make soulful use of electronic and computer technologies developed for information transfer and storage to evoke the processes of human memory and recollection. Another body of work employs low-resolution, pixilated LED images of human movement to create perceptual ambiguity, deliberately blurring the distinctions between representation and abstraction, and between the impersonal display of digital data and the intensely personal human effort to interpret, understand and empathize with it. Oddly, no examples of the latter ongoing project appear in this show.
In a different recent series, Campbell averages multiple still photos, often made at mass political protests, by layering numerous exposures on top of each other. Displayed in light boxes, the resulting dense compositions, at the borderline of intelligibility, are potent visual analogs for
information overload and the dizzying cacophony of our current political and media environment. There’s a pleasing (albeit less-than-stellar) example here: The Square Enters the Circle (2016), which is both a riff on a futurist painting by Umberto Boccioni and a layering of images made inside the Pantheon in Rome and outside it, in the Piazza della Rotonda
An early Campbell video work, Memory/Recollection (1990), features a row of five CRTs housed in small cabinets, one of which is surmounted by a video camera attached to a computer. The camera captures and records black-and-white stills of passersby, which are stored in the computer and displayed randomly across the monitors. Some of these glimpses of the past are startling, even poignant. The piece is owned by a Bay Area collector who’s had it in her home for 27 years. During that period it's been exhibited publicly a few times, including once at the old SFMOMA on Van Ness. Thus, intimate family glimpses reappear randomly alongside those of strangers, at unpredictable intervals. Constantly recording new images while permanently retaining those already stored, the work both invites and resists comparisons between human and digital recollection. It's strongest on short-term memory, displaying images acquired recently more often than those culled from the past. Unlike Marcel Proust's intensely human "involuntary memory" — triggered unexpectedly in Remembrance of Things Past by the narrator's taste of a madeleine dunked in limeflower tea — its recollections are prompted non-sensorially via programming. Its madeleine is digital. Also unlike human memory, which is frail and selective and degrades over time, this one can be restored, augmented and endowed with new capacities, as happened recently when the artist took the piece back to his studio for an "upgrade." But would you want to read its memoirs? Actually, you might.
Tim Hawkinson’s zany Rube Goldberg/Jean Tinguely contraption, Bosun’s Bass (2015), converts a suspended bicycle frame and its one remaining wheel into a braying foghorn; its doleful basso blasts, designed to echo those of a boatswain’s brass whistle, are here issued by notches in the tread of the bike’s rear tire, and electro-mechanically converted into sound. The original version of this piece was commissioned by the Exploratorium for its Over the Water series and powered by the tides of San Francisco Bay. Its ebbs and flows were channeled through a gigantic bellows cobbled together from a shipping container and the accordion-pleated connector of a Muni bus, conveying air pressure to the bike via dryer hoses that visibly inflated and deflated in a parody of human respiration.
It was a typically Hawkinsonian construction: an outlandishly absurd, prodigiously imaginative, visually spectacular mechanism for harnessing natural forces to produce an improbable outcome. It referred to the complexity and improbability of the human body and its processes. And like the artist’s earlier over-the-top sound piece, the gargantuan bagpipe extravaganza Überorgan (2000), the original Bosun’s Bass celebrated boundless human ingenuity while interrogating human grandiosity. In this version, its monstrous “lungs” have been amputated, along with its raison d’etre. Activated now by a motion sensor triggering a concealed air mattress pump, it’s a shadow of its former self.
The “father of video art,” Nam June Paik was a towering pioneer in electronic media and cybernetics who foresaw and named the imminent “electronic superhighway.” Paik’s landmark works, incorporating altered TV sets as cyborg sculptures and installations, were enabled by the video synthesizer he co-created with Shuya Abe in the 1960s. Here, Paik is represented modestly by Antique TV Fish (1986). This endearing mixed-media sculpture is a make-believe aquarium fashioned from a 1948 TV cabinet. The artist replaced the built-in 4-inch CRT with brightly painted electronic components that “swim” suspended behind glass against a painted circuit board that serves as a backdrop. A charming if minor work in Paik’s prolific, innovative, historically important oeuvre, it’s a concise representation of TV as pacifier, nature surrogate, dream machine and decorative object.
Alan Rath, like Jim Campbell, became an artist after earning his degree in electrical engineering from MIT. Four of Rath’s elegant, slyly witty, even sexy computer-driven electronic, robotic and kinetic sculptures energize the show. Infused with disquietingly life-like behaviors, and incorporating LCD screens or custom-designed robotic armatures, their movements are programmed with algorithmically generated sequences whose infinite permutations never repeat themselves. Tongue-Tied (1992), an alluring wall-mounted cascade of electronic components and cables, features a lascivious wagging tongue. It, along with its sister piece, Ambivalent Desire (1988), showing gesturing hands on three separate screens, suggest a disembodied condition where human senses and desires are entrapped in technology, detached from the self, signaling desperately to be set free.
Gail Wight and Charles Lindsay, two artists making notable Hosfelt debuts, are not well served by the gallery’s sunny, acoustically reverberant space.
San Francisco-born Lindsay began his career as an exploration geologist, and now directs the artist-in-residence program at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in Mountain View. A multidisciplinary artist, he creates immersive environments, sound installations, and sculptures built from salvaged aerospace and biotech equipment, often incorporating his own photographs and videos. His dramatic, meticulously crafted electronic sculpture Rocket Brain (2012-2016) — whose central component is a 1970s missile guidance system the artist bought on eBay — deserves a darkened space and information about how to interact with it. Even though I visited twice, I had no idea its video screen is motion-activated or that it even had a video component embedded. And besides, it was too bright to view a video anyway. Which is too bad. Lindsay is an artist to watch.
Gail Wight, a professor of art at Stanford, works primarily with sculpture, video, digital and electronic media and print to investigate the interplay among the life sciences, living organisms, and human culture. Her remarkable new work, Pool (2017), is a single-channel video collage of a tide pool projected onto the floor through a hanging, water-filled petri dish accompanied by sound. A central portion reveals wave-swept seaweed, shot from an elevated perspective.
Surrounding “windows” give us the crab’s-eye view: a rocky seaweed-garden habitat, flushed continually by the ocean’s ebbs and flows. These intimate glimpses of a vibrant ecosystem teeming with life, full of color and fine detail normally invisible to us, are accompanied by intermittent sea gull cries and the low moans of foghorns. These mournful alarms — one natural, the other human-made — trigger wave-like disturbances in the Petri dish.
Celebratory yet elegiac, Pool is a poetic meditation on the fragility and resilience of our planet in this time of perilous environmental challenge. With a running time of 20-plus minutes, Pool repays sustained attention, but only if you can actually see and hear it. Sadly, it’s severely compromised by light and sound intrusion. In a darker, sound-insulated space, it would sing. Luckily, it will be shown again this August in Wight’s solo exhibition at the Stanford Art Gallery, hopefully under more hospitable conditions.
The outlier in this show is Rachel Sussman, a Brooklyn-based artist known for her compelling decade-long photography project The Oldest Living Things in the World, which became a traveling exhibition and a popular book. For Garage Inventors, Sussman contributed a modified version of her site-specific installation at Mass MOCA last year: (Selected) History of the Spacetime Continuum (2016-17). It’s a handwritten, minimally illustrated 100-foot-long timeline of the history of the universe from before the Big Bang to the universe’s predicted demise, ten to 100 billion years in the future. This is an intriguing and ambitious idea, which Sussmann developed by working with SpaceX, NASA and CERN. Wrapping around two walls, it occupies a lot of gallery real estate.
Unlike the Mass MOCA installation, which was drawn and painted directly on the wall, this one is broken into individually framed segments of white cursive texts on black backgrounds, connected by painted lines and gratuitous sprays of glitter (a stand-in for stardust?). It’s a stylishly anachronistic presentation, and fun to read. Who knew, for instance, that “Sex starts” 1.5 BYA” (= billion years ago)?
So why do I have problems with it? First, in creative writing, we’re taught to “show, not tell.” That goes double for visual artists. Sussman skirts that admonition entirely. Second, this is no “garage invention”. It’s a cerebral exercise in calligraphy. It has nothing to do with using technology and materials to present an idea. Had the gallery wanted to explore the history of the universe, it could have done better by simply re-mounting Russell Crotty’s ICA installation, Look Back in Time. Or, if it wanted to even the gender balance with an actual garage inventor it could have called on Camille Utterback, for instance.
With an artist roster like this, Garage Inventors should have been a knockout. It’s still very much worth seeing, but it could have – and should have been — better.
“Garage Inventors” @ Hosfelt Gallery through July 1, 2017.
Photos: David Stroud/Hosfelt Gallery except where noted.
About the author:
Marcia Tanner was the guest curator for Brides of Frankenstein (2005) at the San Jose Museum of Art, and We Interrupt Your Program (2008) at Mills College, Oakland. Both exhibitions featured women artists working experimentally with time-based, electronic and digital media.