San Francisco

Donald Lipski

Capp Street Project

Donald Lipski has always had a gift for the graceful manipulation of unusual materials, ranging from the simple (matchbook covers, bits of string) to the elaborate or strange—roses pickled in baroque arcs of industrial glass tubing, or church bells dressed in nun’s wimples. This ability to elicit a kind of romantic beauty out of just about anything has been employed to remarkable effect in The Starry Night, 1993, an installation created for the opening of Capp Street Project’s brand-new space on Second Street. In this room-sized piece, close to 25,000 double-edged razor blades, stuck directly into the Sheetrock, create fields of undulating dashes and eddying swirls. These organic-looking patterns cover the gallery’s white walls from floor to ceiling, and are clearly a reference to the impasto in van Gogh’s painting by the same name.

By extension, there are a number of subtexts to be read between these sharp lines—not only the most obvious one, about van Gogh’s act of self-mutilation (though, no doubt, he used a different kind of razor) but other, more subtle themes as well. Lipski’s cinematically scaled “painting” reflects on the impossible, insane romanticism of making art in the waning years of the 20th century, when communication and knowledge about the past have degenerated to the point where the only thing many people know about van Gogh is that he cut off his own ear. Lethal instruments, he reminds us, have become by far the most common vehicle of personal expression. On a lighter note, a work like The Starry Night also exudes the bricoleur’s glee at being able to transform what’s cheap, mass-produced, and available into something magical, unique, and precious.

The razor blades have a shimmering, faintly hypnotic quality, due to the way in which they change so completely in appearance when seen from different angles. The spare, almost two-dimensional broken lines created by the edges become a gleaming field of overlapping steel rectangles, aggressively projecting from the wall, when seen from the side. These two aspects mirror the feelings that the installation itself engenders, which include both a faintly manic ferocity—after all, this is a room full of dangerously sharp edges—and an odd calmness, as if these patterns were merely those of swirling water, or the slow, voluptuous movement of clouds.

Capable of a degree of absorption in labor that verges on the obsessive, Lipski has, at times, almost beaten his own ideas to death. Paradoxically, it is this same obsessive quality that invests The Starry Night with much of its power, combined with the elegant simplicity of the materials and their application. This combination, familiar from the works of Ann Hamilton (whose piece privation and excesses, 1989, was, coincidentally, created at the former Capp Street Project site out of 700,000 pennies) is equally reminiscent of the perfect felicity of Lipski’s earliest work. In a way, this simplicity is a sharp rebuke to the emptiness of much of the new arte povera being produced by many younger artists, whose use of cheap, available materials is apparently dictated primarily by the inability of the present art market to support the high-production values of the ’80s.

Maria Porges