San Francisco

Edgar Arceneaux

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

Visionary ’70s jazz musician Sun Ra, Conceptual art kingpin Sol LeWitt, and Galileo each played a starring role in Edgar Arceneaux’s recent exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Composed of eight interrelated works from Arceneaux’s series “Borrowed Sun,” 2004, the show linked the three innovative men via their disparate relationships to the heavenly body named in the title, recruiting them for a meandering investigation of scientific and artistic approaches to the theme of infinity.

Though essentially whimsical, Arceneaux’s installation maintained a reverent, thoughtful tone. This was inadvertently underscored by the lighting, which was kept low in order to accommodate a film projection. Permutation Without Permission shows the artist and his assistant working on the front lawn of Arceneaux’s modest Spanish-style Southern California home. The pair chalk a large circle and a matrix of straight lines—a DIY LeWitt that specifically appropriates Wall Drawing #295, 1976—on a freestanding cinder-block wall that now serves as the screen in the gallery. On this structure, now a sculpture titled Broken Sol (sol being also, of course, the Latin word for sun) the finished drawing has been shuffled into a fragmented web of lines.

Small gaps in Broken Sol allow parts of the projected image to pass through onto Cycle a Single Moment, a large graphite drawing of concentric circles (a reference to Galileo) that is tacked to the back wall. These flickering lines have an almost ethereal grace that evokes a player piano roll. A sequence of slides, Blocking Out the Sun, is projected onto the opposite wall of the gallery. This shows the artist holding his thumb up to the sky in a gesture whose aim is revealed by the title. It’s a classic move of low-tech astronomy, here enacted in a coastal setting—a science-nerd beach party of one. The clicking of the slides couples with the whirring of the movie projector to add an ambient soundtrack.

Arceneaux’s process is somwhat akin to a jam session, bouncing from one tangentially related idea to the next, a connection made explicit in The Immeasurable Equation, a drawing of the cosmic African-American philosopher-jazzman draped in ancient Egyptian-style regalia and surrounded by a galaxy of numerical notations. As in Arceneaux’s 2003 installation at the UCLA Hammer Museum, the rendering is alternately solid and loose. On the same wall, a rougher gold paint and ink on paper drawing spells out the phrase PLACE IS THE SPACE, within a pie chart–like diagram, an allusion to Sun Ra’s cult concert film, Space Is the Place (1974). The wild card in this group, Sun Ra remains elusive in a museum context; compared to LeWitt, he exists in a subcultural galaxy far, far away (albeit one still larger than the art world).

Arceneaux seems intrigued by vast space and the connotations thereof, but, predictably, finds the terrain hard to navigate, attempting to consolidate his work via a capricious fusion of intellect and intuition. He manages to combine pseudoscientific chartmaking and figurative drawing with admirable consistency, yet this installation ultimately felt like hermetic noodling rather than a heartfelt attempt to represent the sense of awe engendered by its subject.

Glen Helfand