By Seth Lower
Walter and McBean Gallery
Curated by Mary Ellyn Johnson
August 5, 2008
“We Remember the Sun” is the most recent installment of Walter and McBean’s chain of politically engaged and academia-encapsulated exhibitions. It’s a good one. As I’m now reminded, it’s been 40 years since 1968 and, to be sure, our local and collective optimism has shifted a great deal. That dreamy California sun of the Haight-Ashbury heyday now threatens to bake us alive, and decades of sobriety have taught us to question our impulses a little more. The show takes this as its subject matter, though it’s never overt. It spares us the absolutism of earlier eras instead offering a mix of artists tackling a broad range of related topics. Like studying the sun for storms, there’s always a level of uncertainty to what exactly is out there in that big, scary, global climate.
As I walk in, I’m quietly greeted by Shaun O’Dell’s works, one of which also carries the title We Remember the Sun. Here he has his friends report one-sentence memories of the sun, which are then written in gouache. I can’t help wondering if a higher percentage of memories are good from sunny days and, if so, if that has anything to do with the events remembered. Corresponding videos look at the sun itself, gently alluding to its lack of borders and to its witness of the overarching barrage of political changes that have happened in 40 years. Nearby, a bead curtain (another throwback to the good old days) by Taraneh Hemami represents the pixilated mugs of a most-wanted terrorist list which hangs and glitters in the light. It’s a funny thing to think about this as home décor, not to mention that it could, in theory, function as a blinder, in a sense keeping out whatever it is that lurks on the other side.
Deer Fang’s large installation Don’t Talk About Politics touches on the conflicts and secrecy of the upcoming Beijing Olympics. Two massive panels hang with back-projected videos of a Cantonese girls’ dance group and (opposite) police on the street during the torch tour in Guangzhou. Between them sits a checkerboard-like red and black mat. The shiny idealism of the dancers directly opposes the stern expressions of the crowd-control, and the installation gives the whole room a sense of brooding urgency. It is, without a doubt, the anchor of the exhibition. On the next wall, I see huge charcoal rubbings made from the corporate signs of local organizations involved with military operations. They’re endearingly human endeavors, acting as reminders that there are imperfect human hands behind those actions. While the sources of this information (the signs themselves) are meant to ward off any indication of hesitation, impermanence, and frailty on the parts of those represented, these rubbings offer all of those things but via a process that echoes something of a mix between protest signs and overgrown childlike keepsakes.
Also in this (main) room are aerial photographs of military areas by David Maisel and David Gurman. In Gurman’s two-piece Reflector Project: Tigris-Potomac IKONOS Satellite View, photographs of the Potomac and Tigris Rivers are placed so that they appear to flow into each other, drawing a link from Washington to Iraq. Tucked off in a side-room from here are beautiful watercolor drawings by Pamela Wilson-Ryckman of photos from the war. Delicate fields of color represent car bombs and sheer destruction. They are seductive. Reducing them to formal elegance only elevates their punch, serving up a tasty side dish of media disconnection mixed with handcrafted uniqueness. It’s as if they’ve been bleached and flattened by the sun, their only signs of violence being pale and diluted shades of candy-syrup residue. Below them are two TV monitors that play rhetorical free jazz by Julia Page – political speeches and conversations that have been boiled down to corresponding sounds, in effect creating avant-garde compositions from patterns and inflections of speech. It’s really satisfying to listen to and, like the watercolors, it offers a kind of lush topical orgy, neglecting neither the topic nor the orgy.
Upstairs are a few more artists, including Jill Miller, who takes a more metaphorical approach to the theme. Waiting for Bigfoot: 51 Days in the Forest features video and segments of interviews Miller obtained while camping in California’s Eldorado National Forest. As I consider the context of this piece, I can’t help but relate this search to Bin Laden, putting a face to the unknown, and to fear itself. I’m fascinated with Miller’s performance and with the interviews, and I suspect, after reading the wall text, that there is much more to this project. But all told, I’m not crazy about its installation here – a grouping of life vests arc around the projection in what seems to be an arrangement better suited for a smaller, cleaner gallery. The videos are paired and reflected horizontally, so they look like a real-time Rorschach blot, making it quite clear that the mythical beast in question here is a psychological one.
This psychological aspect is at the true core of the show – what are we looking for and why? What do we believe and why do we need to believe it? The show doesn’t purport to give answers to these questions. Rather, it allows us to see artists’ attempts at bringing things closer so that we can begin to ask more questions and to think about our actions, our needs for actions, our belief systems, and our fears. There is also a range of other work worth seeing here, especially if you haven’t been to the gallery before. It’s nestled inside of the San Francisco Art Institute, which is worth checking out for its architecture alone. The show runs through September 19th.