Walnut Creek, CA

Fletcher + Rubin

Bedford Gallery, Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts

For the past five years, Harrell Fletcher and Jon Rubin have been making installations that bring new meaning to the term “site specific.” For each project they undertake, these two young artists research a particular locale for several weeks to several months, with the intent of eventually creating a body of work that reflects the particularity of the place and the people who live there. Since whatever they come up with is usually exhibited within the community that inspired it, their subjects are also their audience.

“Wanderings and Observations in Walnut Creek,” the somewhat picaresque title of the pair’s most recent installation, set the mood for a highly idiosyncratic collection of objects and images. The fourteen separate segments placed around the gallery included enormous, startlingly beautiful photographs of weeds; enlarged, hand-painted copies of (hand-drawn) maps the artists had obtained from local residents giving directions to garage sales; and a selection of animal figurines purchased at those sales. Arranged on a long shelf were snapshots of cars ticketed for illegal parking during the course of the exhibition (the photographs were made at the artists’ request by a parking enforcement official). And, on one wall of the gallery, paintings of amoeba-like shapes in assorted shades of brown turned out to be representations of residents’ birthmarks.

Taken as a whole, the process that these two artists engage in bears a resemblance to ethnographic fieldwork. They observe; they collect; they take notes and pictures—above all, they listen to people’s stories and explore local customs. (One of the most engaging segments of the installation was a set of music stands supporting open photo albums, each of which had been loaned by a gallery docent. During guided tours of the show, each docent was encouraged to go through her own photo album with visitors.)

The show caused a minor local uproar (newspaper articles, statements by outraged members of the city council, etc.), a response that is slightly baffling. True, “Wanderings and Observations” was neither a tribute to the town nor an attempt at so-called objective reportage. But there was nothing unkind about it, either. In a humorous but tender way, the installation reflected on the resilience of memory and of nature itself, in a place only a few miles away from San Francisco that has been transformed from farmland to ranch-house suburb in a matter of decades. In a small darkened room off the main gallery, a film loop of Main Street today was projected onto a photograph of the same spot taken around the turn of the century. Cars traveled up and down a ghostly street where everything but the size of the road had changed.

With disarming sincerity, Fletcher and Rubin remind us that there are cultures and experiences just outside the tiny individualized spheres of interest each of us inhabits. Their pieces are sly reminders of the way history is conventionally constructed—out of the big events, by the loudest voices. One council member complained that the piece “honed in on the trivial,” but that’s just the point—the trivial is what life is really made up of, and it is often what distinguishes us, each from each, in the stories we tell one another.

Maria Porges