San Francisco

Dawn Fryling

The Lab

The Bay Area has long been associated with mildly expressionistic figurative painting, but in the ’80s installation work has emerged here as another important regional art tendency. San Francisco artist Dawn Fryling belongs to a new generation of installation artists coming up behind already prominent people such as David Ireland, Tony Labat, and Paul Kos.

I’ve seen only two works Fryling has shown and both have been impressively straightforward and lyrical. The first, a piece titled Nine Marks, 1988, appeared in a juried group show. It consisted of nine thrift-shop overcoats hung on the wall in a row. On the edge of invisibility as art, the piece might have been inert, but it was redolent with emotion. It brought to mind Yeats’ famous image of age (“A tattered coat upon a stick”), the old garments suggesting human hides. The piece also bore references to Joseph Beuys, Jannis Kounellis, Michelangelo Pistoletto, and, of course, Marcel Duchamp. Puns lurked in its title as well: a price in German currency and, possibly, “Nein, Marx, ” a “no” to class analysis.

Fryling’s recent untitled installation has two ingredients: flour and lumber. Along the walls of a storefront gallery space the artist installed parallel horizontal wood shelves, each about six inches deep. All the shelves were then piled high with baking flour. On entering the space, my first thought was of Bruce Nauman’s Flour Arrangements, 1966, which he made and photographed while living in San Francisco. It seemed that Fryling must have been aware of those Naumans and of other late-’60s process works, the reminiscence of them here was so strong. However, her piece was more poetic and suggestive than most late-Minimalist deployments of materials.

The piled-up flour formed long horizons and a miniature mountainscape, echoing the California terrain. In this period of serious drought, Fryling’s use of parched flour summoned images of snow-covered mountains that would promise renewal of the water supply. The geological reference had another dimension in the sensitivity of her spillable flour heaps to earthquake shocks. The piece gave delicate form to the locally familiar, paradoxical experience of seeing the land as immovably solid and knowing that it is unstable enough to shake everything built on it to ruins.

The parallel shelves (on one short wall, they ran from floor to ceiling) recalled Donald Judd’s bars and stacks, slyly representing wall sculptures as efficient dust collectors. Yet the installation was respectful, too, of Minimalist precedent in the way parts of it became devices for calibrating the gradations by which natural light from the gallery’s front window gave way to interior shade or to the track lights. Fryling’s show was beautiful and promising in its simplicity, directness,and confidence.

Kenneth Baker