San Francisco

Jack Fulton

San Francisco Museum Of Modern Art

Jack Fulton’s narratives exist in the form of synthetic photographs; snapshot-styled images to which written puns, diaristic meanderings, paint, and collage have been added to black-and-white or color photographs. Fulton’s work germinated through his 1960s friendships with Funk artists. He adapted the eccentric personalism of William Wiley and the material playfulness of Robert Hudson to the photographic medium. Notations, either handwritten in the margins or snaking across the image in a deliberately awkward fashion, employ Joycean free association, phony phonetics (Peas on urth, civil-eyes-notion) and vesitiges of concrete poetry.

In presenting Fulton’s anagrammatic pictures from the early ’70s through 1978, this exhibition reveals that the artist has developed increasing textural density. The earliest pieces, fragmented collage-style images or single photographs with one or two handwritten lines, remain resolutely photographic. In later images, however, text and hand-worked manipulations overwhelm the photograph and give way to a form balanced between pictorial and written meanings.

Fulton’s strength as an artist emerges from his excessiveness, an autobiographical vision of the native northern Californian that verifies the worst eastern conceptions. The pieces are self-indulgent, sometimes unintelligible, introverted and deliberately eccentric. Personal experience and revelation, made possible on a romantic excursion to Africa, a saunter through the Sierras, or just relaxing in Marin County, form the fabric of the artist’s existence. Anchoring these discoveries is a proclivity for associating disparate forms. Eastern myth is linked to English etymology, California culture to the universe, and behind it all is an intellect searching for the visionary meaning of life.

The opus maximus of this show is Two Saunters, a two-part series describing several hikes in a sequence of 40 8-by-10-inch images. A problem with much of Fulton’s work, most clearly seen in this piece, is that it defies conventional presentation. Two Saunters demands a close reading, but the writing style, which often borders on unreadable, is almost impossible to absorb in a standing position. Acknowledging this problem, the museum transcribed the text into typewritten manuscript, but the length still makes for difficult reading. Two Saunters is a Funk interpretation of an illuminated manuscript, and like a manuscript, or even a 19th-century photographic album, the viewer needs to sit down with the work.

Compared to painting and ceramics, which reached a Funk apex a few years ago, Fulton’s anagrammatic photographs appear a little tardy and somewhat dated. Nevertheless, these hybrid images convey, more successfully than most art, the tenor of this region’s native lifestyle. In the catalogue introduction to this show, Van Deren Coke calls Jack Fulton a cowboy without a horse. It’s an apt description which applies not only to Fulton, but to many of the artists whose works are permeated with the Funk legacy.

Hal Fischer