Los Angeles

View of “Dave Hullfish Bailey,” 2018. Photo: Brica Wilcox.

View of “Dave Hullfish Bailey,” 2018. Photo: Brica Wilcox.

Dave Hullfish Bailey

View of “Dave Hullfish Bailey,” 2018. Photo: Brica Wilcox.

Our occupancy of the natural environment leaves behind traces over time, records etched upon the surface of the earth that can be followed downward, geologically, through layers of sedimentation. In his recent exhibition, “Hardscrabble,” at the REDCAT, Dave Hullfish Bailey reflected on four sites within the western American landscape that bear a particularly vexed and complex relation to matters of human usage: the Purgatoire River drainage in southern Colorado, former setting of Drop City, a hippie commune housed in geodesic domes; a nearby square mile of land in Huerfano County, government earmarked for purposes of public education; the ad hoc library in Slab City, an extant squatter’s community built on the foundations of a decommissioned army base in Imperial County, California; and the Nebraska Sandhills, which fell into the “path of totality” during the total solar eclipse of August 21, 2017. These sites were examined here as flash points of contestation, passed between utopian and dystopian imaginaries, demonstrating at once the ostensibly value-free pragmatism that is the pride of this nation and all of its often-disastrous ideological overdeterminations.

A deluge of printed information about the chosen locales—including maps, charts, diagrams, photographs, and newspaper clippings—greeted the viewer at the entrance to the exhibition. Pinned to a section of the gallery wall lined in fiberboard, this collection of data served as a key to the various sculptural objects displayed further inside, while also priming us for the idiosyncratic logic of their production. The printouts amounted to a resolutely nonlinear mind map, encouraging us to move fluidly backward and forward between perspectives local and global, archaeological and futuristic. Along the way, we were led to consider how a countercultural initiative such as Drop City might have been influenced by the travel routes of early American settlement, Jeffersonian schemes of land division, design precedents in communitarian architecture, the technocratic rethinking of elementary education in the postwar period, the launch of Sputnik, the Whole Earth Catalog’s popularization of geodesic structures, and so on. Such connections are drawn by way of analogy (the lifestyle experiment of Drop City recalls the experience of the early frontiersmen), adjacency (the commune was built right next to a public school), and resemblance (its domed dwellings tap into the aesthetic imagination of the space age). Yet this abundant research, in its outwardly provisional layout, strenuously resists conclusive explanations in favor of possible routes of further speculation.

Bailey’s freestanding works take the form of proposals (the term is often appended to their titles) that implement the loose bundling of images and ideas essayed on the fiberboard, suggesting a potential for direct intervention into his chosen sites. Composed mostly from materials readily available at a hardware, consumer-electronics, or office-supply store, as well as from choice samplings of detritus (sunbaked signage, weathered tarps, junked farming equipment, etc.) relating to the actual sites under consideration, they evince a bricoleur’s sensibility of expedient improvisation: Symbolic operations enacted on actual things might transform reality. For instance, the proposal for the Slab City library consists of, among other things, a dusty collection of legal reference books on water management in California. Considering that this former farmland was rendered arid due to irrigational mismanagement, the choice of materials might seem ironic—yet for Bailey, such catastrophes also spark the felicitous prospect of a ground-up rethinking of social relations, which is the ultimate aim of this work.

Intimations of dysfunction and disaster loomed heavily over the show, especially now, when the American landscape—physical and mental—is in a state of heightened crisis. However, in his negotiation between sites and nonsites, Bailey always stops short of the entropic flat line favored by Robert Smithson, his most obvious precedent. Instead, his maximalist approach invites us to plumb points of meaningful density. The relations of maps to territories are reshuffled but not scrambled; they are, to play with the title of the exhibition, “scrabbled.” Our condition of ideological unmooring proves auspicious on this particular game board, as an abundance of new words, thoughts, and actions are generated from the increasingly paltry fragments we are given. As a model for creative engagement with the very real problems that face us, Bailey’s project reflects a lucid ambition, and above all a generosity, that is almost unparalleled today.

Jan Tumlir