San Francisco

“The Construction as an Object of Illusion”

San Francisco Art In­stitute

It is surprising that, with the “Art of Assemblage” exhibition hardly warm in its outgoing crates, the San Francisco Art Institute should advertise this show as “being selected to present provocative and stimulating new ideas, new art forms, and new approaches to traditional forms not previously exhibited by museums.” There is, literally, not a single new idea, new art form or new approach in this entire show, and, the “Assemblage” show aside, mu­seums have been exhibiting this sort of thing for decades. The Institute’s spu­rious claim to revolutionary originality is not important insofar as the works in the show are concerned––these are either good or bad regardless of whether they are new or old––but is important insofar as the context in which the works are shown is concerned. To gather a group of works not necessarily related to one another in any way at all, present them as “provocative and stimulating new ideas,” give them a goofy and inde­fensible title like “The Construction as an Object of Illusion,” and amplify the title with some of the goofiest theoretics ever tacked on a gallery’s wall, is the quickest and neatest way to both prejudice the merit of each individual work and the reputation of the Institute as a reliable guide to what is true and what is false in art. This being said, let us dispense with the Institute’s own explanation of what it has done in this exhibition, and regard it solely as a show of constructions by various Bay Area artists.

Constructions serve the artist’s turn in a number of ways. He uses them to give expression to a plastic wit that other forms deny him; he uses them to force viewers to truly see objects for the first time, by placing them in the most incongruous settings; he uses them to present an aspect of his sensibility impossible in traditional media; he uses them to “kid around,” to “blow off steam,” to insult people who come to exhibitions, to infuriate critics.

The expressive range of constructions is nicely represented in this exhibition. The jolting sense of new insight that can come when objects are sensitively juxtaposed in a completely incongruous manner is beautifully demonstrated in John Pearson’s The Shoe. The object gives rise to a whole host of new thoughts, and one suspects a death­blow to that sweet old painting of shoes by Van Gogh. Fred Martin’s “landscape” comes off as well: startlingly beautiful, one’s first response is esthetic, purely. It is only later that the medium is considered, that one ponders the forms of things that hang on clotheslines, the nature of landscapes and finally, the peculiar mentality that combines these disparate ideas into a work of art. Sam Tchakalian’s Con­cealed Weapon––tatters nailed down along the top of a 15-foot pole––has a kind of lurking, sinister beauty, but its effect is virtually destroyed by the senseless manner in which Bruce Conner’s stockinged object is dangled from the same pole––the product of a completely different sensibility. (And one, incidentally, which is uniquely his own, making Robert Gronendyke’s entry an irritating plagiarism). Willard Dixon’s box, playing on the simplest of psychological devices, involves the spec­tator in it so completely that he comes away feeling sheepish.

Roy De Forest’s lyrical, whimsical touch distinguishes his work sharply from the number of imitative pieces in the show. John Coplans, evidently ex­asperated by the progress of one of his hard-edge paintings, traces its pattern with pasted-up books of Pacific Na­tional Bank matchbooks, and mocks his own colors by pasting a tastefully matching Vogue model’s face in the center––protesting “Copyright!” in the title. A pretty piece of self-satire. Other humor doesn’t come off: Art Grant might have had a little gem if he’d left his coffee-pot alone, instead of attach­ing it to a plaque and giving it a title that only detracts from the idea’s in­nate ingenuity. Relf Case’s Sailor’s Holiday shows how pitilessly a con­struction can expose its creator’s bar­ren imagination. Wally Hedrick’s beer­can machine has a heavy-handed, la­bored quality which somehow takes all the fun out of it. The worst piece in the show is by one of the area’s best sculptors: Seymour Lockes exhibits an atrocity so staggeringly bad that it threatens to pull the entire show down around its ears with it.

Philip Leider