San Francisco

William Geis and Bruce Nauman

William Geis and Bruce Nauman, whose sculptures are now being shown at the San Francisco Art Institute, began the season by joining in a group project in transformation called the Slant Step Show in which the participating artists took a common object, ambiguous but functional, a very used slant step, which had probably been devised for a very routine but specialized purpose, but whose shape seemed to epitomize the anti-functional, or even impossible, and produced their own variations on its shape and meaning.

Geis’s sculptures in plaster are large objects of an organic nature, but they are not the smooth cleaned-up variations on that theme that gallery-goers are becoming accustomed to seeing these days. Geis’s objects are warty and brutish, and, unlike their cousins of the “organic Surrealist” persuasion, they are specifically menacing as well as erotic. If one walked unforewarned into a darkened room containing one of Geis’s pieces it might produce quite a shock. In this show Geis has continued to develop his horned, scabrous and outsized macroorganisms, but he has now added a platform. In a recent piece this platform is upholstered in plastic alligator hide and the organic monstrosity rises from a zipped fly—not accurately a zipper, but a velvet-lined opening suggesting one. Other platforms are elaborately polychromed with architectural designs. Since about the only other organism that builds geometric places to disport in or upon is man, we may assume that Geis is trying to persuade us that these monsters are intelligent beings, symbolic and totemic representations of an aspect of man himself. A representation of that monster of our own guilt which we closet from each other with secret shame and terror, just as the family hid their cockroach-son in Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

Bruce Nauman’s sculpture is removed a considerable distance in both method and meaning from Geis’s work. His objects suggest some function, but they are entirely ambiguous, as was the Slant Step, which was, incidentally, “found ” by Nauman. As one looks at these things one feels that they were not designed to be looked at. They were, of course, but Nauman has chosen to focus on an object which one might overlook, or indeed see very clearly but block from any meaningful apprehension. It seems to represent a behind stage underground, within the wall, automated, a dehumanized kind of activity, of which we see only a vent, say. There is one under a mat, a plank or box. It looks like something left in the gallery, just stored there for a while until the interested party could remove it. It is slightly too long to represent a coffin; perhaps it is something that has to be covered that way to keep it moist, to keep it from getting damp. And such care suggests that it is precious, perhaps valuable. Or perhaps it is something that we should be protected from seeing. Another object is a translucent plastic container. Rounded on top but otherwise rectilinear, it might be a basic, though much larger, model which an industrial designer might make to contain and display a razor, perhaps. All the pieces are so ambiguous as to be infinitely suggestive.

Knute Stiles