San Francisco

Harrell Fletcher

New Langton Arts / Jack Hanley Gallery

Harrell Fletcher’s appealing brand of community-based art may rely on the people, but the tone is more block party than party line; material and message seem to be ungrudgingly provided by the wide range of “ordinary” publics—schoolchildren, church choirs, convenience-store clerks—he engages. Two concurrent exhibitions in the city where he began his career revealed how this artist, now based in Portland, Oregon, takes his flexible conceptual framework on the road, adapting it to places from Houston to Malmö, Sweden, in each case making himself temporarily part of the neighborhood.

“Happiness Follows Us Like a Shadow,” the exhibition at New Langton Arts, documented fourteen of Fletcher’s public-art and alternative-space projects such as “Now It’s a Party” at Real Art Ways in Hartford, Connecticut, “The Sound We Make Together” at DiverseWorks in Houston, and “Everyday Sunshine” at the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art. A photocopied brochure containing the artist’s deadpan descriptions served as a guide: The photo-and-text poster work Scars, 2003, is explained by “Pictures and stories about scars belonging to people who I met in a probation office lobby in Portland, OR.” Though the twenty-by-twenty-four-inch digital prints of cauterized wounds and scaly skin exude a harsh, scabby reality, the stories are warm and folksy. One interviewee even describes how his skin “opened up like a pie.” The posters were initially displayed in the lobby of a probation office.

Fletcher’s aesthetic is endearingly situated somewhere between artlessness and intimacy. A work called Blot Out the Sun, 2002 (currently on view at the Whitney Biennial in New York), shows straightforward video footage of gas-station attendants and bemused people in old-age homes reading passages from James Joyce’s Ulysses. On Swedish streets the artist meets many babies in strollers and videotapes them so that he can offer gallery visitors a parade of cherubic infant faces. For Interconnected Couch, 2003, Fletcher enlarged and spliced together personal snapshots of families on couches into a seamless photomural depicting a massive, inclusive, comfy piece of living-room furniture. The artist, whose wholesome, quirky demeanor (which came through in an artist talk) appears to put people at participatory ease, is both a catalyst and an outsider in relation to those who provide the content of his work. The question inevitably arises: Is he exploiting, celebrating, or faithfully reflecting them?

At Jack Hanley Gallery, the site-specific poster and video project that makes up the artist’s first solo commercial-gallery exhibition suggests the answer is all of the above. Fourteen posters feature family snapshots, various household items, and the name Shaun O’Dell in big, bold type above a series of short, oblique texts. Jack Hanley has two storefront spaces, and O’Dell is the artist who was showing concurrently in the other one. One of the texts reads “Collective Denial Creating Static Ideology,” which comes from a conversation between the two artists, just as the images come from a joint visit to O’Dell’s childhood home. Unfortunately, you had to ask to find this out; though part of Fletcher’s program of tailoring his work to a specific site and subject, this particular series, in its reliance on O’Dell, who is, after all, a community of exactly one, comes across as hermetic. Fletcher also filled the gallery’s back room with simpler works from the last two years: Matte paint blots out the backgrounds of photographs to make images of playing children, smiling adults, or a bunch of oranges seem to float. As in his more participatory projects, Fletcher isolates the ordinary to let us reflect on and appreciate it. In the end, these works are good for a thoughtful smile, which, these days, is not such an ordinary thing.

Glen Helfand