by Renny Pritikin
To celebrate its 40th anniversary, Headlands Center for the Arts has organized two exhibitions, one in partnership with 500 Capp Street that pays homage to David Ireland, a founding figure for both institutions. To commemorate their intertwined histories, they look back to three of their founding artists — David Ireland, Ann Hamilton and Mark Thompson – with two overlapping exhibitions: Process + Place: Ann Hamilton, here • there • then • now, at 500 Capp Street, and Semaphore, an installation by Thompson at the Headlands.
In the mid-1970s, several alternative spaces sprung up in the Bay Area to support the new forms of installation art, performance and video. In 1983, the values of that movement were furthered by two new artist-in-residency programs, Capp Street Project and Headlands Center for the Arts. The histories of both trace to a fourth major figure, Jock Reynolds, the former director of the Yale Art Gallery, who, in the late 1970s, was a young art professor at San Francisco State. Looking for space where his students could create site-specific work, he found an unused military building at China Camp on the Bay side of Marin County that he could rent for a semester. That discovery eventually led him to a much larger complex of other abandoned military buildings on the ocean side of Marin. Ireland, Reynolds’ close friend, was eventually commissioned to design the renovation of one of those buildings as the first step in creating the Headlands as we now know it.
Ireland’s masterwork—an 1886 Italianate row house in the Mission District that he turned into a two-story live-in sculpture over many decades—needed extensive restoration when he died in 2009. Reynolds helped lead that process, working with many others to transform it into a living nonprofit museum for
Ireland’s work and a place for invited artists to have new exhibitions. Separately, in the early 1980s, Ireland purchased and completely transformed a light industrial building at 65 Capp. Its two-story maze-like interior was a triumph of site-specific installation and innovative experiential architecture. It was purchased by the renowned Bay Area arts patron Anne Hatch in 1983 and opened as an artist residency program. After several years it was determined that the fragile structure would not sustain constant construction by the artists, and the house was sold, with Capp Street Projects moving on to two other sites before closing down in 1998 when CCA absorbed it. Hamilton was among the many notable artists in residence, during which time she created an unforgettable piece involving a mountain of pennies and a herd of sheep. Around that same period, she also converted the kitchen and mess hall at the Headlands into a permanent functional art installation.
At Ireland’s former home, now known as 500 Capp Street since 2016, her contribution consists of a mostly empty room, which is a dramatic statement given the cluttered, crowded character of Victorian-era homes. Her idea: embody the Ireland aesthetic of minimally modified found objects installed in austere, subtly manipulated spaces. She spiffed up the floors, making them almost shiny. She opened the shutters, long closed, and added layers of plastic treatments to the windows for just the right color of light to achieve a 19th-century theatrical ambience. The mantel holds two large mason jars from Ireland’s archive and collection: decades-old honey made by Mark Thompson, whose work centers on bees. An Ireland lamp with a yellow bulb, its base made from one of the artist’s rough globs of concrete, emits musty light. An open suitcase sits on the floor containing copies of a newsprint artist’s book Hamilton made. On its cover (and also framed on the wall) is a poem of found cut-up text, by Hamilton, along with scanned pages of a suite of Ireland objects he called torpedoes—yam-shaped pieces of concrete of varying sizes wrapped in paper or cheesecloth.
An accordion repairman originally occupied Ireland’s house; Hamilton acknowledges that history with a small example of the instrument situated on the floor under the window where his name, R. Greub, can still be seen. It’s echoed by a clever contraption in a second-floor closet that operates a child-size accordion whose sighing notes beckon visitors upstairs. Downstairs in a separate gallery, a dozen or so examples of Ireland’s torpedoes (Untitled Identified Objects ) rest on a metal table, also Ireland’s. A selection of evocative color scans of these “dumb” objects, blown up by Hamilton to near-human scale, are mounted on the walls. Another set of these prints is on view at the Headlands, where it’s worth noting that Thompson partnered with Ireland on the labor-intensive task of stripping and sealing the walls of the main building, another example of the two institution’s shared ethos of mixing art and history. Thompson also collaborated with the noted Bay Area dancer Joanna Haigood on a dramatic performance in the gym some 35 years ago in which living beehives stood in the darkened room with the audience. He covered the windows with beeswax-coated barriers, and at the climax, Haigood leaped out a window with a queen bee attached to her hair, leading thousands of the insects to follow, a sight few in attendance ever forgot. For the anniversary event called Process and Place, Headlands at 40, Thompson was invited to revisit the work he recreated in a piece titled Semaphore. However, the landlord, the U.S.
Park Service, wasn’t nearly as accommodating this time; it refused to allow bees, so Thompson recreated some of the ambience of that earlier work. He covered the windows with beeswax-coated canvas, installed a soundtrack of buzzing bees, turned off the lights, and projected a video of a 1970s-era performance in which hundreds of bees landed on and flew around his head. The black-and-white projection is hard at first to read. You have to let your eyes adjust over time, which, as it happens, is the theme uniting these efforts.
Like the military origin of the Headlands, successive histories have washed over the place, only to recede. And so it is with the figures involved; all are alive except Ireland, but they are old. Yet Ireland’s spirit prevails, summed up by Hamilton in a poem she wrote for her 500 Capp Street installation: His mind was working/was a condition/a little separate from the world/a human/hand gestured/In a house in which to live.
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Process and Place, Headlands at 40 is two-part exhibition: Ann Hamilton, here • there • then • now @ 500 Capp Street to April 29, 2023, and Mark Thompson, Semaphore @ Headlands Center for the Arts through March 19, 2023.
About the author: Renny Pritikin was the chief curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco from 2014 to 2018. Before that, he was the director of the Richard Nelson Gallery at UC Davis and the founding chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts beginning in 1992. For 11 years, he was also a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he taught in the graduate program in Curatorial Practice. Pritikin has given lecture tours in museums in Japan as a guest of the State Department, and in New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar, and visited Israel as a Koret Israel Prize winner. The Prelinger Library published his most recent book of poems, Westerns and Dramas, in 2020. He is the United States correspondent for Umbigo magazine in Lisbon, Portugal.