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Detritus @ San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art


Pencil shavings from Shiela Ghidini's studio

by Barbara Morris


It has been said that Pablo Picasso rarely threw anything away, even an old envelope. Andy Warhol was also an infamous hoarder.  His artifacts ranged from an extensive collection of “time capsules,” consisting of all of the junk cleaned off of his desk each day (now archived in the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh), to his obsessive collection of antiques, oddities and bric-a-brac, such as ceramic cookie jars that once piled up on every flat surface of in his Upper Eastside townhouse, later fetching impressive prices at Sotheby's.


From the artist's oeuvre, a French word that some detractors might translate as “giant storage problem,” to the raw material that goes into the creative process, artists see value and potential where others might only see trash.


The San Jose ICA's current exhibition focuses on transitional items, ones that fall somewhere in the broad spectrum between art object and garbage. Along with the various out-takes and maquettes created along the way to a finished piece, the show presents a dizzying array of tools, tubes, stubs, flubs, notes, swatches, globs, blobs, thickets of fiber, even clothing, all under the broad umbrella of Detritus.


Jason Jägel's empty paint tubes

Guest curators Kevin B. Chen, Lisa Ellsworth and Lordy Rodriguez combined forces to winnow a field of potential artists down to a mere 108.  The trio has deep ties to many diverse branches of the Bay Area art scene, including numerous museums, non-profits and public arts organizations. Rodriguez, well known for artwork using the construct of a map, is, like Chen, an art professor as well as an artist and curator.  With the number of objects on view at the ICA, the exhibition has a clean, organized, even a spare look.  Indeed, if we didn't know that these objects are not “art” they could easily fool us.


There are numerous forces at play behind the decisions to keep, on the part of the artists, and to display, on the part of the curators. Along with the potential value of an object as a talisman, many artists may have a “green” impulse, wishing to reduce, reuse, or recycle. The curators, having assembled their line-up of suspects, chose the model of forensic science, where small bits of residue might yield information valuable for the reconstruction of a greater whole. “By mining storage boxes and materials hiding in plain sight,” the curators write, “we gain insight into the unique and similar behaviors of artists who archive the evidence of their work.”


Making art is not an easy, clean, or orderly process.  Rather, it often creates random piles of crap, foul odors, loud and unpleasant sounds and sodden messes. If the studio is, in this metaphor, a crime scene, then these forensic curators have selected and isolated bits of evidence that hold the DNA of larger and more complex bodies — of work, that is — buried in the teeming storage racks and dark recesses of the artists' habitats.


Carrie Lederer (left apron) Lauren Bartone (right apron)

Entering the exhibition space, we discover artist Liz Hickok's video prop, a model of the front lobby area of the ICA, mounted on the wall, replicating the view one has of the actual lobby itself behind it. In the video, a flooded ICA is overrun with strange crystalline growths, fortunately absent in the actual space, although they would have proven interesting in their own way. Many of the artists represented in the exhibition, about 70 percent, in fact, have previous history with the ICA, having been included in solo or group exhibitions.


In keeping with the forensic aspect of the show, much of the exhibit consists of clear containers filled with spent materials sitting in orderly rows on shelves and pedestals, as though awaiting diagnostic testing.  In the studio setting, these objects would be strewn randomly on tables, perhaps on the floor, or jammed in drawers. Here they acquire a greater sense of purpose. Gale Antokal, along with a dozen or so more similarly acquisitive 2-D artists, has stashed scores of pencil stubs, hunks of graphite, chalk, or funky paintbrushes, too worn-out to be useful.  Kara Maria contributed a stack of old paper palettes. Annie Vought, Adam Feibelman and Val Britton's accumulations of X-acto knife blades, like the sanding discs and bandsaw blades used by sculptor Jann Nunn, convey a slight air of menace.  Ehren Tool's contribution, a bouquet of green twist ties, gains greater significance when we learn, as ICA Executive Director Cathy Kimball informed me, that each tie represents a 25-pound sack of clay. Like Jason Jägel's multitude of empty acrylic and gouache paint tubes (2002-present), all these items clearly beg the overarching question: why have they been saved?


Refreshingly free of sterile containment, Sheila Ghidini's pencil shavings from various drawing projects rise in a shallow conical form from a low pedestal; the unassuming heap creates a visual poem about the art of drawing.  Another clear standout in this collection of aesthetic flotsam is Jim Campbell's impressive pile of spherical blue glass objects, rejects from a project at the San Diego airport, The Journey (2010-13).  With minimal direction from the artist, the curators heaped them up in a corner and rather mysteriously lit them from beneath. This certainly reads as an art installation, rather than a mere accumulation of residue.


Discards from a project Jim Campbell installed at the San Diego Airport.

Several artists have contributed objects used or worn in performance pieces, or in their art practice. Well-worn aprons encrusted with paint, belonging to Carrie Lederer and Lauren Bartone, animate clothed mannequins; they stand adjacent to Ferris Plock's wall-mounted dark hoodie sweatshirt, a vertical patch of marks denoting where he had swiped his paintbrushes on his chest. Desirée Holman's striking masks for Breath Holes (2005) bear the somewhat grotesque faces of her ex-boyfriends. An object containing actual DNA — a piece of fingernail still nailed to a floorboard from his performance at the Museum of Conceptual Art in 1978 — represents Tony Labat. Retaining a lingering aura of dysfunctional human presence, it's a bit out of sync with many of the more banal objects on display.


Human dysfunction abounds, however, in a selection of video clips playing in the back room. These bloopers, cut from the works of six artists, include outtakes from Jonn Herschend's 

Paper palettes from Kara Maria.

Your Lost Shoe (2007) as well as Kate Rhoades' animated imagery culled from her video piece, Karen (2016), on display in the adjacent gallery.  Inspired by a minor character in the 1986 fantasy film Labrynth, the video itself began with trash, transformed into puppets and sets during Rhoades’ residency at Recology at the SF dump. Painter Heather Wilcoxon, who completes the trifecta of shows at ICA with At Sea, impassioned work channeling societal anger through aquatic imagery, contributes a painting rag to Detritus.


Contemporary artists are a varied lot.  Some, behaving pragmatically, toss out trash.  But a good many others, as Detritus demonstrates, allow the material vestiges of their creative process to sweep them on a journey into uncharted waters.  Hanging on to that residue helps to anchor them, its reassuring presence a testament to the effort and the materials spent in relentless pursuit of the grail.

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"Detritus” @ San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art through September 10, 2017. 


About the author:

Barbara Morris is a Bay Area-based writer and artist. She has been a regular contributor to Artillery and art ltd. magazines for the past seven years, and previously wrote for Artweek magazine for ten years, seven of them as a contributing editor. Her writing has appeared in WEAD magazine,, and Artist's Dialogue, as well as numerous other publications. Morris holds an MFA from UC Berkeley.

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