Los Angeles

Dave Hullfish Bailey


Dave Hullfish Bailey’s latest exhibition looked like a backyard science experiment. Jury-rigged workstations loosely structured the space into three separate areas: one for reading and informational display, another with small science-fair-type geological experiments in water flow and delta formation, and a third in which seedlings of the desert paloverde tree grew beneath fluorescent bulbs. Pieces of raw lumber, plastic ties, extension cords, clamps, pipes, motors, buckets, coffee cans, milk crates, Legos, Xeroxes, old books, saw horses, and a ladder lying on its side made up Bailey’s utilitarian environment, which privileged low-budget resourcefulness and DIY functionality.

The artist’s structures speak a Home Depot material vernacular with ad hoc spontaneity, prizing fragile construction and precarious balance over the smug security of sturdiness. His preference for temporary configurations he can easily rearrange, modify, and add to during the run of the show reflects his research-based practice, which traffics in mutable hypotheses and unexpected cross-disciplinary connections. Here, with irreverence—as suggested by the show’s titular command, “Ditch/School”—his inquisitive and idiosyncratic approach produced an exuberantly unorthodox laboratory for fringe scholarship beyond sanctioned discourse.

But ditch had another meaning in this show about irrigation. The artist included a selection of materials from his research into Utrecht’s canal system, but focused primarily on a second instance of a landscape intervention made to control and engineer water flow: Slab City, a derelict desert camp located near California’s controversial Salton Sea. Bailey revealed Utrecht and Slab City to be strikingly different in geography and spirit but also similar in that each demonstrates the impact water drainage and flooding can have on community formation and identity.

While Utrecht claims the twelfth-century grassroots initiative to produce its canal system was the earliest instance of democracy in Europe since antiquity, Slab City boasts a very different, Mad Max kind of cooperative community. There, due to unusual social and ecological circumstances, the abandoned cement-slab foundations of a former marine base have become transitory residences for RV nomads and hardy eccentrics. Located in the desiccated shadow of the Salton Sea (an ecological accident that occurred a century ago, when the Colorado River breached canal barriers and flowed downhill to the Salton Trough lowlands, becoming increasingly saline from farm runoff), the austere Slab City has made a peculiar fluidity possible. Self-sufficient transients gather and disperse seasonally, attracted by the rent-free and off-the-grid living made possible by governmental neglect. In fifteen black-and-white photographs that hung in a row around the gallery, Bailey documented a 360-degree view of Slab City’s makeshift, donation-based Lizard Tree Library nestled under the canopy of a giant paloverde. The library’s improvised and elastic architecture is an emblematic model of the unlikely forms in which people, books, and knowledge can organically accrete, even in the most inhospitable settings. Likening the circulation of information to that of water, Bailey returned several times to the image of a river delta as a figure for both dispersal and accumulation.

Unfortunately, the backstory was hard to access and piece together from the installation materials alone. Ultimately, what came through was Bailey’s contagious attraction to nonlinear and associational ways of organizing disparate pieces of information. The relational logic of “Ditch/School” teaches us to take seriously the contingencies that define empiricism. Perceiving similarities and patterns, Bailey makes new sense of the world he observes, creating personal meaning from an otherwise indifferent heap of factual information and data.

Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer