San Francisco

Adriane Colburn

In her recent exhibition “Before the Rush,” Adriane Colburn reconstructed hidden histories through a kind of meditative cartography, focusing our attention on particular parts of the map. Colburn’s title refers to the nineteenth-century Gold Rush that transformed San Francisco from backwater to big city practically overnight. San Francisco Bay 1800/San Francisco Bay 2000, 2005, is a large cut-paper silhouette pinned directly to the wall that shows every detail of the bay’s complicated shape, including tributaries and creeks, as they existed at the two dates. The land that the water surrounds is represented only by its absence. What makes this piece so arresting is that the fraternal-twin shapes of the bay then and now are presented as the two halves of an imperfect Rorschach blot, past and present facing each other. The two lobed forms look at once surprisingly similar and depressingly different: In the cutout of the bay as it looks today, the old coastline’s undulations are gone, transformed into the geometric shapes of piers and buildings. And while many of the rivers and streams remain—here represented as delicate paper tendrils curling slightly away from the wall—several have simply disappeared.

The centerpiece of the show uses the same strategy of visual comparison but in a far more literal way, combining the abstraction of mapping with figurative representations of Californian flora and fauna. Measuring twelve by thirteen feet, Mission Creek, Bear vs. Bull, Oak vs. Eucalyptus, 2005, is an elaborate tour de force of knife-and-scissor work that purportedly draws on documents dating from the 1700s to the present. The subject is San Francisco, then and now. Along the work’s roughly rectangular perimeter, silhouettes of wild animals—a bear, accompanied by mountain lions and coyotes—face cutouts of a bull (cattle ranches once covered large parts of the Bay Area) and urban creatures such as possums and raccoons. Native plants including the California poppy also have their counterparts in intricately detailed clumps of weeds and grasses. Two trees at the top of the piece send cascades of roots into side-by-side maps of the city. The one on the left charts the meandering path of Mission Creek, a stream that ran freely through the sparsely populated terrain of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The oak tree’s roots flow seamlessly into this stream, suggesting an undisturbed natural cycle. By contrast, in the map on the right, the eucalyptus’s roots become part of a grid of streets. A ghostlike version of the creek is repeated behind this grid, like pentimenti on maps of the ancient world that reveal the sites of once-thriving but long-vanished empires.

While replete with deftly rendered decorative detail, Mission Creek sags a little under the weight of all the different ways it seeks to convey the single message that nature has been Irreparably Altered. San Francisco Bay 1800/San Francisco Bay 2000 essentially tells the same story, but does so is a way that feels subtler and more open-ended, allowing viewers to reach their own conclusions.

Maria Porges