San Francisco

David Ireland

Leah Levy Gallery

The paradigmatic “artist’s space” is a converted loft—large, white, monolithic. David Ireland’s “House” is different; it is a real house, an 1886 Victorian, the stuff of real estate speculation, transformed into an Arte Povera Frick, a folk art reliquary full of Ireland himself and his neo-Dada objects. The charm of this cult object derives from its mystery, its off-beat whimsy, its immaculate, funky presentation, which is emptied of the ordinariness of daily life.

Situated on a ghetto corner, the house has a battleship gray exterior, an implicit denial of the conventional gingerbread prettiness that defines the multicolored bourgeois Victorian. The grayness is an assertion of armored reticence, camouflage suited to a war zone. The foyer offers the first in a series of paradoxes: it is dark, bare, unfinished and yet highly contrived. Immediately poignant, it remains absolutely impersonal and sealed off. Light seeps down from upstairs, reflecting off walls and ceilings which are mottled amber: instead of “renovating” or “restoring,” Ireland has stripped away the cosmetic layers of wallpaper and molding and has preserved the chalky plaster with a high-gloss skin of clear polyurethane. The resultant, yellowed blotches on the walls are terrifically evocative of Lascaux, of the urine-stained walls Leonardo urged his pupils to study before beginning to paint landscapes, of the ancient walls surrounding Ryoan-ji, the Zen garden.

Ireland’s anti-restoration is a rejection of that most intransigent of modernist cliches, the white interior wall, which, as Carl E. Schorske has pointed out, was invented by turn-of-the-century Viennese architects to serve as a tabula rasa, an existentially blank canvas on which to display the art of the future. Ireland’s art looks to the past. At 50, he has accepted the damages of history, the cracks and patches of the walls are, as he puts it, “clarified and stabilized” with the clear, hard plastic of a high-tech solution.

Four videotapes of his performance/restoration demonstrate that there is no form of housework that he can’t (in an artless way) turn into art. For instance, he replaced a cracked window with sheets of copper instead of glass, mounting the original in a frame of copper tubing as a free-standing sculpture.

The downstairs dining room remains unpainted and dark. It is a dreamworld, a Safariland with real safari chairs; oryx, kudu and impala horns on the walls; skulls of Cape buffalo, giraffe and crocodile on the long table. These are the trophies, the relics of Ireland’s heroic past, of the days when he owned an African artifacts store and ran safaris. This glorious history is now preserved without high gloss, as if in a catacomb.

Ireland is a collector, a retainer of the past. His treasures are naive, melancholic and precious trivialities: an array of blackened, dried pear halves displayed on top of a bedroom dresser, looking like Van Gogh’s ears; 18 worn-out brooms left by the previous owner, deployed as free-standing sculpture; a year’s worth of toilet paper cores stacked on a bathroom shelf. Even the rubber bands around the morning paper are preserved in a Mason jar, and the sound of their daily removal can be heard on tape.

Ireland has found a way to perfect an imperfect past, to deal with scars that have never healed. In so doing, he has joined the tradition of California house fetishists—from William Randolph Hearst to the hippie “woodbutcher” carpenters— who have transformed “homes” into works of art.

Howard Junker