San Francisco

“Present Tense”

If “Present Tense: Nine Artists in the Nineties” is any indication, the present is not so much tense as profoundly melancholy. Apparently awaiting the moment when the dilatory millennium will press our collective restart button, the artists in this zeitgeisty exhibition seem to have plenty of time on their hands. The consolation is that they use it well.

A labor-intensive preoccupation with fabrication was the central feature of the primarily sculptural and installation-oriented art on view. The pièce de résistance in this make-work vein was Jim Hodges’ No Betweens, 1996, a 30-foot diaphanous curtain of artificial silk flowers that hung, floor to ceiling, in the middle of a large gallery. Making the curtain required disassembling, ironing, pinning, and sewing together thousands of fake flowers, and Hodges, a New York artist, enlisted the help of family and friends over the course of a summer. The result was at once visually irresistible (the color of the petals, vivid close to the ceiling, drains as the curtain nears the floor) and a lively token of the interrelationship of labor and love.

Kathryn Spence, a fresh Bay Area talent, took fabric in another direction, collecting tiny scraps of cloth, then stacking and wrapping them in neat, color-coordinated piles. She also stacked play money. In another piece, a color photograph documented a toy car she had stuffed to overflow with simulated refuse, then wrapped with tape. The tenuous sense of belonging (or not belonging, since homelessness seems an omnipresent theme) these objects convey was magnified in Spence’s largest and most impressive work, a series of mud-covered animals made from stuffed toys and bathrobes. These pathetic, heart-wrenching creatures, which look like bears that have been scolded and shamed, struck an emotional chord that the rest of “Present Tense,” for all its ingenuity, seldom achieved or even aspired to.

By and large, the artists in the show emphasize modest gestures, subtle shades of feeling, and sleight of hand. Charles LeDray, Iran do Espírito Santo, Jennifer Pastor, and Steve Wolfe all play with replication and simulation. LeDray, a Seattle-born artist, presented doll-size shirts and dresses and, in a nostalgic nod to the city’s 1962 World’s Fair, fabricated souvenirs like a cigar lighter in the shape of the Space Needle. Espirito Santo painted opposite interior walls of the museum with flat gray faux brickwork, a reminder to visitors that the building’s exterior—panels of ersatz brick facing, used as an earthquake precaution—is itself trompe l’oeil. Pastor’s contribution consisted of passable models of corn stalks, shells, and other clichés of nature. Wolfe’s work was the most clever: he makes absolutely convincing hooks, cardboard boxes, and LP records from scratch, using paper, board, paste, and paint.

Pieces by Gabriel Orozco and Janet Cardiff were less obsessive but equally fixated on physical presence and fooling the eye. Orozco’s sculptures and photographs focus on detritus both natural (Horseshit, 1992) and manmade (Four Bicycles, 1994). Curiously, his most engaging piece, Habemus Vespam, 1995, a stone sculpture in the shape of a motor scooter, was displayed in the museum’s lobby, far from the show itself. Cardiff, a Canadian artist who specializes in sound pieces, achieved a gratifying complexity by technological rather than artisanal means: her participatory audio tape and video piece led visitors on a museum tour that mingled real and fictional experience. This work stood out because it shifted the sense of physical presence to the viewer and to the museum itself.

The inclusion of work by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who died of AIDS in 1996, seemed incongruous in this context, given its apparently effortlessconstruction and the fact that he is far better known than the rest. Two trademark piles of candy, a string of lights that cascaded onto the floor, and a series of fourteen photographs of flying birds provided little sense of how or why he intersected with the others. One can only assume that the curators gave Gonzales-Torres this cameo role in order to signify the impact of AIDS on the art of the ’90s. In fact, each of the three catalogue essays implies that the emotional turmoil of AIDS has caused visual artists to lower their sights and to practice a less ambitious art than that which was vaunted in the ’80s.

The curators—Gary Garrels, Janet Bishop, and John S. Weber—seem eager to follow suit. Garrels writes: “The intent of this exhibition is not to define a new movement, to stake out a dominant trend of contemporary art, or to attempt to make a roster of upcoming stars for the late 1990s.” If that’s the case, timidity might be a good word to identify both our culture and its art, including our art institutions. Don’t look for another Jeff Koons or Julian Schnabel here; the zeitgeist identified calls for modest efforts, not star turns.

Andy Grundberg, a critic living in San Francisco, is the founding editor of see: a journal of visual culture.