Standing on a hillside gazing into the Pacific Ocean, one can’t help but to be overwhelmed by the beauty and ruggedness of the landscape. Rolling hills, steep cliffs, and thick forests bring to mind epic stories of western expansion and the conquering spirit of those who have traveled here, a spirit currently under investigation at Eli Ridgway Gallery. Better a Live Ass than a Dead Lion brings together a group of San Francisco artists that restlessly explore our romance with both narrative and landscape alike, weaving together stories and dreams of uncharted lands and undiscovered peoples. The love for exploration needs no real truth here; each work presents a small part of a tale bound together by the love of the land.
When entering the room that houses Elisheva Biernoff’s Inheritance, 2010, one’s eyes instantly begin to play tricks. Picturesque waterfalls and mountains go in and out of focus. Images dissolve and reconstruct themselves against a backdrop of fog, flashing in and out rhythmically with the subtle sound of a the slide projector. Just as 19th-century photographer Carlton Watkin’s images create mythic space, Inheritance reinterprets fabricated lands at the edge of our perception. Encased in fog, the images rest on the verge of becoming clear, allowing memory to fill in where our vision can’t.
In the adjacent room, Biernoff’s small, hand-painted postcard replicas maintain the same level of mystery, mimicking reality with a delicate hand. Just as Inheritance bends one’s perception of the landscapes presented, Biernoff’s small paintings create mystery and myth around the stories of the American West through simple gestures. The small paintings, quaint and distinctive, lovingly memorialize commonplace memories and remind us of the postcards still living in a shoebox from our childhood vacation.
Lindsey White‘s Observed in Salvation Mountain, Executed in New Haven, CT, 2011, a beautifully awkward and uncomfortable image that seems “real” upon first glance, presents us with a similar quandry. With more investigation, Observed in Salvation Mountain, Executed in New Haven, CT becomes more and more mysterious. The figure is harshly arrested by his own clothing, caught in a moment of uncertainty. The raking perspective instantly draws one’s attention to what lies just outside the frame, allowing one’s own imagination to construct this character’s identity. Through the use of title, White playfully doubles the meaning of the word Execution—as it relates to both the subject’s narrative and to the creation of the image—while introducing an alternative meaning to the photograph: place. The mention of Salvation Mountain and New Haven, two fundamentally different Connecticut locales, turns this image away from the character pictured and towards the recollection of a location. The act of recreating a memory from Salvation Mountain also calls into question the authenticity of the moment, bringing one to imagine a new face just outside the frame.
The same mysterious discovery occurs with Joshua Churchill’s project, Trembling Void, 2011. The quiet sounds of equipment lies just outside of the room; a flickering light appears through a vent in the wall, which trembles and shakes. This simple and effective project reminds us how constructed the space of a gallery is. Churchill’s video project, Rise and Fall, 2011, provides the same realization. A video of what appears to be a heavy blizzard rolls over and over, blown out by a harsh light. Given the mystery of Trembling Void, however, one can’t help but question the reality of the blizzard.
One of the most notable parts of this exhibition is sound. The quiet overwhelms the viewing experience, in the best possible sense, drawing attention to the subtle sounds of the work. Biernoff’s rhythmic slide projector hums quietly from the project space, and Churchill’s Trembling Void accentuates every other sound in the gallery. These projects ask each viewer to pay equal attention to the ambient sounds throughout the space. Matt Kennedy‘s video It’s Come Down To This, 2011, provides a similar experience. A small box in the center of the upstairs gallery calls the viewer over with the sound of rocks being raked back and forth across the ground. Peering into the structure, a simple video presents a shuffling foot in the process of creating these sounds. Reminiscent of a small child playing in the landscape, this approach to exploration returns the exhibition from lofty and Romantic back to exploration through repetitive and mundane experience.
Although the show is extremely satisfying overall, the mystery, romance, and exploration throughout the work is tame. The risk and reward that is referenced in such a poetic introduction is found in small, intimate doses throughout the space. There is no one who has “suffered, starved, and triumphed” because of the explorative, romantic spirit presented by the exhibition text. Exploration is a dirty sport, and the work presented in Better a Live Ass than a Dead Lion is successfully clean and romantic, and most notably–bound to image. More than anything, the photography in this exhibition seems to be the most one-note. The landscape photographs by Richard Misrach, Sean McFarland, and Dean Smith are even more romantic and picturesque in this context, which provides less depth compared to the other projects. One hopes that exploration has more worth than romance, and one thing that Better a Live Ass than a Dead Lion could benefit from is diversity in scale and experimentation. Most projects present a satisfying and bite-sized relationship to a romance with exploration rather than exploration itself.