San Francisco

San Francisco

Art as environment and event seemed to be the subject of a triple billing at the Hansen Gallery during September when an exhibition of painted fiberglass wall-hangings by Tom Holland formed part of the audience surroundings for three enactments of a multi-media program entitled Over Evident Falls, collaboratively organized, produced and performed by electronic composer Steve Reich and artist William T. Wiley, with the assistance of Cynthia Ripley, Patrick Gleason and Jim Scoggin.

Holland’s pieces are textured in a manner which makes them seem somewhat primitively assembled from strips and jaggedly rectangular scrap-fragments of hammered, hand-twisted and crudely cut sheet tin mottled with an almost pointillist stippling of pastel values of pale blue, grassy green and canary yellow, like misplaced patches of impasto from some sunny Impressionist landscape. The shapes Holland devises fall into two basic groups: flat, vest or envelope-like shapes, and slightly more involved garment-like configurations abstractly resembling playsuits or bathing wear with crossed shoulder straps. Yet these are by no means sculptural constructions to be seen in the round, but topologically articulated surfaces presenting a principal or “frontal” plane of interest and essentially contrived as wall-plaques in which such loops and interstices as lie in a plane oblique to the head-on or frontal viewpoint do not supply a significant “profile” or alternative viewpoint, but merely lend plastic depth and, in some instances, multi-level stereopsis and shadow interplay to the featured orientation. Clearly then, Holland conceives these devices as paintings on plastically extended and modulated grounds rather than as painted sculptures or constructions.

In one of Mr. Holland’s more flamboyant installations, a painted strip was extended downward against the wall and was then bent at right angles to run along the gallery floor where it ultimately terminated amidst a tangle of wires and rigging at the perimeter of the paraphernalia-cluttered stage area for the production engineered by Mr. Reich and Mr. Wiley.

This production, which was performed at the gallery on three evenings during the Holland exhibition to a paying audience solicited from the gallery’s mailing list, featured principally a succession of audio-visual charades combining electronic sounds, mechanical sounds and optical effects, and human pantomimic gestures, as well as manual and mechanical operations with various objects and symbolic visual elements. Various formal concepts were incorporated into the organization of these materials ranging from new and technologically sophisticated applications in sound—and some less sophisticated adaptations in terms of visual analogy—of such traditional musical structures as canonic imitation, to explorations in the realm of recent modes of serial repetition in the visual arts, and of randomly or improvisatorially permutable matrices of visual and acoustical devices.

The performance was divided into four clearly demarcated act/movements, or abstract tableaux, in each of which some simple combination of visual and acoustical elements was varied so imperceptibly––either in continuum or in near-repetition at regular intervals––as to build considerable audience tension through reiterative tedium. At times this tedium seemed threateningly hypnotic, while at other times––as during gradually increasing decibel levels of some gratingly shrill and pulsating electronically generated noise––it seemed as if the performers were hostile and inflicting these crescendos of irritating sensations upon the audience with sadistic intent; one even wondered in such episodes whether the audible sound, as abrasive as it was in itself, was not perhaps accompanied by such sub- and/or supersonic frequencies as are known to be capable of inducing purely autonomic and inchoate primitive responses of anger, fear and the like. At any rate, a combination of electronic and theatro-hypnotic “mind-blowing,” having perhaps some slight resemblance to a “bad trip” with a low-voltage psychedelic drug (and a little reminiscent of the electronic, audio-visual mind-shattering torture cubicle in the motion picture The Ipcress File) seemed to be the general object of most of the episodes comprising Over Evident Falls.

Among the devices and paraphernalia used in the performance were a plastic bag glowing with violet phosphorescence and swinging from a pendulum while slowly releasing powdered soap (causing many in the audience to sneeze); an extremely slow electronic-hum-glissando from C to G over a pedal hum of C, with gradual crescendo from pp to fff as the timbre of the electronic hums became increasingly nasal and shrill; a short musical phrase, tape recorded and dubbed against itself in variously non-congruent cyclical repetitions, generating a reciprocally canonic dialogue at time lags not necessarily always coinciding with conventional units of musical meter; a similarly mechanical contrapuntal treatment of speech, made from playbacks; of recordings of various persons uttering into the microphone sentences of the form: “My name is . . .” Simultaneously with the playing of these “name-canons,” phosphorescently illuminated cut-outs of letters, spelling the name being heard followed by phrases employing phonetically cognate sounds (sometimes sense and sometimes nonsense and markedly resembling the word groups composed by computers fed with English language-structure statistical data by communications theorists) were clipped to a clothesline suspended over and across the stage and drawn by pulleys past the audience’s field of vision. Finally there was a slow-paced and deliberative assembling by Mr. Wiley of 36 mock-up bricks into a triangular wall resembling one facade of a pyramid. (Mr. Wiley possibly fancied the fact that, excepting 1 as a trivial instance, 36 is the first triangular number which is also a square.)

The total duration of Over Evident Falls was approximately three hours during which each of the relatively simple operations above described, with its repetitions and/or variations was drawn out to the limits of audience endurance—and often beyond those limits. As already suggested, this seemed an obviously intended effect; the “name-canons,” for example, were played at a tempo and periodicity resembling the irritatingly monotonous insistence of an old 78 rpm phonograph record upon which the needle has become stuck in a groove. Although there might have been intended humor to some of this quasi-Dadaist horseplay, with its juxtaposition of clothesline and electronics, one suspects not, or, if so, it failed to be communicated. The performing artists went through their routines with the almost grim earnestness of participants in some profoundly symbolic and self-surrendering mystical rite, and, when interviewed after the performance, affected those somewhat irritating airs of lofty and privileged esotericism and disdain of discussion which characterize an unpleasant and arrogant psychological refuge shared alike by Zen-heads and self-assertedly alienated artists of the avant-garde.

In October the Hansen Gallery returned to more familiar and less taxing ways in exhibiting an extensive selection of drawings and drawing-series by Gerald Gooch. Gooch is graphically involved with studies of people and their personalities and attitudes as revealed through postures, movements, gestures, tensions and expressions. He delights in serial studies of a subject in which either some characteristic and unique gesture, or some commonplace action performed in an individual and revealing way, is arrested for detailed scrutiny at two or more selected points of its progress. His draftsmanship is usually concentrated, selectively attentive to detail and consummately skillful in conjuring—not photographic verisimilitude—but the illusion of photographic verisimilitude, which is in turn part of the subtle and calculated persuasiveness of his basically interpretive art. His work, however, often seems documentary, for in a spirit akin to the objectivism of behavioral research, he can be audaciously probing, although he is seldom either cynical or morbidly clinical.

His recent exhibition included a series of “latrine tableaux” in which men from various walks of life were studied from different viewpoints in the commonplace act of urinating; frontal aspects provided material for wryly humorful observations of facial expressions while a view from behind of a trio of men standing at a urinal provided studies in contrasting histrionics and foibles of pissoir stances. Gooch’s weakest essay was an extensive series devoted to a nude man and woman engaged in erotic play. In dealing with the clothed figure Gooch is invariably able to articulate the way in which the fall of drapery can translate the subtlest inflections of posture; his nudes, however, seem by contrast abstract and characterless, while technically the draftsmanship falls well below his usual standards: limbs often seem compressed into unmodulated, uniform ribbons of continuous outline (although there is no indication that these are by intent modified contour drawings), while body surfaces are often negligibly modeled. Anatomy, too, is carelessly handled with noticeable distortions in foreshortenings and in the disappearance and re-emergence of arms and legs as they pass around other limbs or a torso in the intertwining of the two figures. All this is unlike Gooch, as is also the fact that he seems reticent and embarrassed to come as honestly, objectively and explicitly to grips with erotic action and situation as with other subject matter. The two lovers seem pointlessly to engage in a series of involved, but curiously passionless and tentative embraces, which seem at once coyly suggestive of designative sexual acts and at the same time woodenly reticent and evasive of recognizable sexual engagement (so that the drawings are a little like those cinematic charades for sex devised to accommodate censorship, but with actors who are reluctant to be persuasive even about the charade).

Stranger still in this series were some incredibly awkward and unconvincing poses obviously resulting from a forced suppression of the rendition of genitals. A curious circumstance in view of the explicit anatomy in some of the frontal studies from the “pissoir series.”

The exhibition was rounded out with a fair scattering of Gooch’s characteristic, although less controversial, action studies. With but one or two exceptions the medium throughout this show was pencil on paper.

At the Berkeley Gallery a series of new paintings by Robert Hartman continue those explorations of skyscape which were first suggested in his airplane paintings and mixed-media graphics of four years ago. The flying machines have vanished from Hartman’s paintings, however, to be replaced with a deeper probing of the possibilities suggested by rainbow and lightning and the many varieties and densities of cloud formation often occurring simultaneously and overlapping at different altitudes to form multi-level polymorphous expanses. Hartman’s capacity to come to grips with the essence of his subject matter thus recreates for the earthbound the poetry, sometimes lyric and sometimes epic, of those grand and exciting meteorological configurations and phenomena which one is inclined to forget may be, from elevations characteristic of flight or of mountain climbing, as impressive and awesome in magnitude and profusion of shape and color as the seas, plains, canyons, cliffs and mountains of terrain-oriented scenic painting—with the difference that these cloud vistas are ever changing, dissolving and reforming. Hartman still mixes media to achieve subtle effects and his responses to the turbulence, scale and ephemerality of meteorological panoramas incorporate modes and techniques of translating impressions influenced by precedents as diverse as European Romanticism and Chinese Classicism. Traditional references for Hartman’s studies are to be found in those Dutch and English landscape paintings in which the horizon line is so near to the bottom margin of the canvas that their actual subject is sky and the treatment, rich in chiaroscuro, of great, towering thunderheads or slate-grey mists perforated with golden lances of sunlight. Also in those bravura historical scenes and bombastic storm-and-shipwreck fantasies of Rococo Romanticists like Salvator Rosa and Marco Ricci, with their predilection for dwarfing terrestrial anecdote and epic alike with the Jovian aerial drama of lightning and rainbow in spectacular panoramas of active sky.

––Palmer D. French