San Francisco

Kathryn Spence

Wirtz Art

The press release for Kathryn Spence’s recent exhibition outs her as “an avid birder, gardener, and conservationist,” yet the sculptures—fastidiously arranged bundles of refuse, some of which resemble taxidermied animals—suggest another identity, that of flaneur. While looking at the show, it’s easy to imagine the artist keenly observing the city as she wanders streets, harvesting the bits of refuse used in her work. The listed materials—magazine clippings, plastic bags, string, wire, newspaper—are just the sorts of things abundantly available in gutters and alleys.

Titled “Cloudless White,” the show comprised a series of objects grouped into arrangements that cohered to varying degrees. Untitled (all works 2009), which sat on a table, resembles a homespun assembly line, featuring a heap of blue fabric scraps, a few of which rest on a large drawing that droops over the tabletop’s edge. At the opposite end of the table was another work, three owls made from pieces of coats and pants and perched on wood posts. In exhibitions over the last decade, Spence has demonstrated an uncanny ability to capture the essence of animals without masking her low-grade materials—filled inexplicably with spirit, the sculptures come off like golems fashioned from garbage.

Other pieces arrange materials, often by color, in drawerlike bins. In one work, a magazine cutout depicting a chestnut-colored owl sits atop a pile of brown fabric; elsewhere, magazine clippings of animals are paired with nail-polish bottles or tips of colored pencils with matching hues. By sifting through and classifying materials—making them ready, seemingly, for further use—Spence applies a naturalist’s methods to urban detritus. This is particularly evident in the curious mounds of tiny pictures of cell phones clipped from advertisements and glued to cardboard backings. Contained in a bin, they become a Lilliputian telecommunications stockpile. In another work, a ball of dried mud fits snugly into a carved block of Styrofoam. Such gestures can be read as awkward (though not necessarily nostalgic) attempts to preserve nature, if not adapt it to the artificial environs of the city or gallery.

Snapshots of the works in earlier incarnations are integrated into the sculptures, prosaic lockets that preserve creative history. The tone, though, is less melancholic than confidently anxious, matter-of-factly questioning the idea of completion. But if individual works seem unruly and perhaps even unfinished, the show as a whole was arranged with minimalist elegance—Spence’s placement of the boxlike objects on the floor offered plenty of breathing room. The contrast between the dense groupings of objects within the works and the expanses of white architectural space was most acute in Untitled (Red Admiral, West Coast Lady) and Untitled (Red Admirals). Each comprises two small butterflies affixed to the wall; the creature’s wings are fashioned from pencil drawings and pictures ripped from magazines. Accompanying the insects were two birds with feathers of clothing scraps and other materials bound with dangling threads. Reminiscent of Richard Tuttle’s modest gestures—such as his 3rd Rope Piece, 1974, a three-inch length of cord nailed to a wall—these visually subtle works have the potential to diffuse and almost disappear. Yet they still remain charged with life, and from the opposite side of the gallery, the wall looked like an overcast sky with birds and bugs flitting by.

The artist’s work is simultaneously casual and fussy. Its deceptive offhandedness bears a relation to Vincent Fecteau’s sculptures, which also channel the power of low-grade materials and hint at incompleteness. While Spence has the capacity for generating remarkable realism, the show demonstrates her increasing confidence to wander, at her own peculiar pace, from nature to culture and back again—provocatively ambiguous terrain.

Glen Helfand