Writing about “Bay Area Now 6” calls to mind the joke about the elephant described by six blind men. With 18 artists showing 98 objects, its identity depends on where you stand. This triennial survey of current art in the San Francisco Bay area is a leviathan, a potpourri of media, artists and diverse agendas. Making matters more difficult, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts—with its tunnels, balconies and hangar-like spaces—defies traditional notions of “exhibition.” Instead of “exposing” the works, these spaces bend artists to their will, and demand that the works exhibited respond to the various shapes and proportions of the environs, or suffer the consequences. Some works fare better than others.
In Stockpile (2011), Allison Smith treats the vast hall as a warehouse, creating an eerie stillness. Smith has stacked unpainted replicas of colonial American furniture—chairs, chests, muskets and tables—into a giant tower. Fresh ghosts, they come complete with packing crates, labels, and lengths of authentic period weaving. Despite her best efforts, the silent, monochromatic heap is dwarfed by the space. Crafted to human scale, the diminished pile references the inaccessible nature of human history, and perhaps also implies that “human scale” is increasingly irrelevant.
Suzanne Husky and Brion Nuda Rosch each claim a mini-gallery space within YBCA’s main space. Like an anthropologist, Husky profiles practitioners of “Modernes Vies Sauvages”—rustic, off-grid lifestylers—and frames her investigations as her art practice. In Sleeper Cell Hotel (2011), Husky installs several small huts, a reading area where one can research eco-activism, and a monitor with a looping eco-infomercial. The huts, diminutive and pristine on the concrete floor, are bunkers-for-one, complete with woven quilts advertising “Degrowth.” Constructed of wood shakes and shingles with a hedgehog-like appearance, they are advertisements for a Thoreau-inspired lifestyle and a return to simplicity, and would be equally at home in the dirt and disorder at the Hayes Valley eco-activist farm and encampment that Husky researched.
Another of the mini-galleries houses a stunning collection of sculptures and collages by Brion Nuda Rosch. Carefully proportioned and constructed, the dozen totemic pieces covered with brown paint evoke both Joseph Beuys’s Braunkreuz sculptures and Brancusi’s studio installations. They are jammed together and positioned below eye level, so it is difficult to get a clear line of sight of any one sculpture, or of any of the elliptical photocollages on the walls. In the doorways of the tiny studio space, Rosch has also installed slender, L-shaped forms, like false lintels, so that a viewer must bow on entering, and bend to examine the works. If Rosch is recreating the claustrophobic crowding of his own studio against the background of the giant space, he has achieved a tour de force.
Upstairs from the main space, in a darkened gallery all his own, complete with motion detection sensors, Mauricio Ancalmo has installed Dualing Pianos: Agapé Agape in D Minor (2011). A giant rectangular loop of lace-like computer paper shapes the air, and passes through two Duo-Art player pianos, face å face, and a vintage word processer located midway between them. A cobbled-together affair with wooden rolling pins replacing its original rollers, the processor/typewriter is the heart of the triad. One piano is in tune, one out of tune. The score moves through one piano and plays in reverse as it passes through the second. Occasionally, the pianos strike chords together, both dissonant and beautiful. The piece has a quiet, unpredictable meter and an aural spaciousness, which varies as viewers move around the space. Ancalmo collects and repurposes outmoded technological devices to create subversive and nostalgic narratives; this one feels like a conversation between old lovers—or a “dual,” not a “duel.” Lyrical and elegant, it is the star of the show.
As a British artist currently working in the Bay Area, Richard T. Walker takes an enraptured look at the California landscape in his three-channel video, the speed and eagerness of meaning (2011). Walker imports the great sweep of Joshua Tree National Park into his Yerba Buena space. Uncannily evoking Glenn Gould’s video, “The Idea of North,” Walker’s is his “Idea of West.” A rambling philosophical voice-over seems off-kilter and pretentious as the artist stands in place with his back to the audience, facing the landscape à la Caspar David Friedrich. Unable, despite his rhetoric, to make sense of the beauty and vastness with himself in it, he builds a song instead, playing all instruments himself, overlaying one line of sound—drum, guitar, sticks, voice—over another, like the sedimentary layers of the stones in his landscape. It is his inchoate response to the grandeur and his own insignificance. A Brit, with fresh eyes, may see it all best.
Sean McFarland’s moody, dark photographs of foliage in Golden Gate Park, reminiscent of 19th-century paintings and photographs of the forest of Fontainebleau, suffer from reflective framing and poor location. No glass at all and a quiet room might have helped make them more visible. And Chris Fraser’s camera obscura, Developing a mutable horizon (2011), located at one end of the upstairs balcony, is so remote that this reviewer and a gallery guide interrupted a couple in flagrante delicto.
In the exhibition prior to BAN6, Song Dong spread the entire contents of his mother’s lifetime home on the floor of the great hall at Yerba Buena, arranged according to category. Both the vastness of the project and the scale of the minutiae served the space well, with the best viewing place being a little balcony that overlooked the whole. This aerial view would also serve work like Christian Boltanski’s great piles of clothing memorializing the Holocaust, or the historic airplanes from the National Air and Space Museum. But there is no easy bird’s eye view for the breadth of work being done around the Bay, nor any inner coherence. The hard-working viewer has to put it together. There are substantial rewards.