San Francisco

Doug Hall

Fuller Gross Gallery

The sculptural installations, mixed-media paintings and drawings, and other wall pieces and videotape screenings that Doug Hall arranged for this gallery show had an air of waiting out their own apocalypse—an apocalypse of excess allusion and piled-on metaphor, of dysfunctional meanings at hypercritical mass. Meaning in art is equated (in the critical sector at least) with power. Hall’s longstanding fascination with images of power, whether raw or contrived, demagogic or meteorological, has led his art to the verge of an irradiated stasis where delays or sudden outages of meaning are the norm.

Color-coded cruciform symbols limned in charcoal and shellac on square paper bristle with an inadequacy to their received content. Accumulated (and unassimilable) meanings tend to wipe each other out, or, avoiding the tabula rasa effect, their plethora equivocates. Equivocation is the edge that Hall’s work plies. It’s his form of sublimity. In his levelheaded way, he indicates a series of precipices that in turn give onto a cultural vortex of ostentatiously dovetailed response mechanisms.

What Hall calls “the insidious triumph of form over content” is also delirious; its issue is that perpetually chilling novelty among historical artifices, the empty emblem. Thus, Josef Stalin, 1984–88, consisting of two separate rectangular panels—a yellow-velvet horizontal above a larger vertical of red-painted glass, both locked in heavy steel frames—presents a stacked image of no intrinsic charge; its referent is supplied from the outside, prosthetically. Similarly, the meaning of an installation piece called The Arrogance of Power, 1987, seems to slip away from the space of bright yellow wall between the title etched in a small square brass plaque and the slender pillar mounted on a truncated-oval steel platform. The pillar, slit down the front, discharges lengthwise a plain black nylon flag.

Hall takes the idea of esthetic distance literally. He makes distance operative, and in his best pieces, it is precisely distance—for example, in the videotape Storm and Stress, 1986, the capacity to mentally locate the coordinates of a lightning flash on the horizon— that resounds. Elsewhere, the opposition of object and meaning is salutary because it forces awareness of the changeable character of materials: the ability of stretched velvet to absorb light, or how steel plate can look both obdurate and tired. In Storm and Stress, the inset view of a tornado takes its charge from the fact of its being studied remotely (by Hall in his role as technocratic guide) within what appears to be the makeshift “theater” of a NASA lab.

Distance, like meaning, is reversible. Hall says, “The storm is in the mind; the lightning is in the room.” Looking at where anything is or what’s next to it may be the closest to objective definition one can get. As a Conceptualist, Hall doesn’t theorize so much as use his intelligence to get a clearer look. As a satirist, he is never other than oblique. In the openended series of “newspaper drawings,” begun in 1981, he takes up black and red oilstick to close in upon and cover the post-and-lintel formatting of blocks of type and halftone cuts that make up front-page news. The process is a kind of thermal scanning, with orderly colors glossing over dead spots in the official text. If the day’s page heats up in blips of suspected meaning, less text is obliterated.

One headline that reads “DIGGING FOR BODIES” lays across the top of an otherwise defaced sheet, the marks on which resemble geologic strata. Another drawing parallels the chthonic loops and tensions of Hall’s mock history portraits: a large, square headshot of Elliot Abrams commands the upper center of the spread above two progressively smaller images—first of Albert Hakim conferring with his lawyer, then of the Reagans presiding at an Israeli state visit. The encrypted page amounts to a phantasmagoric joke: connecting one informational blip with another builds no bridge (no language, really) but rather leads one to slip further into composite oblivion.

Bill Berkson