David Ireland

"When I feel like I'm being understood too easily by people, then I pump it up a little bit ... make it a little bit tougher."
View Spark segment on David Ireland. Original air date: February 2004. (Running Time: 10:16)

Editor's note: David Ireland passed away on May 17, 2009.

Internationally renowned Bay Area artist David Ireland's retrospective, "The Way Things Are," at the Oakland Museum of California (November 22, 2003, through March 14, 2004), cuts straight to the heart of Ireland's work. Instead of manipulating materials in order to create pleasing images and objects, Ireland's drawings, prints, sculptures, assemblages and environments draw attention to the beauty and poetry of everyday things, inviting his viewers to look more carefully at the world around them. While Ireland has sought to redefine the way that his audiences look at art, his art in turn has managed to alter the way that we perceive the objects in our daily lives.

The Spark episode "The Grey Eminences" looks back on Ireland's career as the Oakland Museum mounts a 30-year retrospective of the artist's work. Viewers are offered a rare glimpse into Ireland's home and studio at 500 Capp St., San Francisco, where the artist has transformed a run-down 1886 Victorian into what he calls an "environmental sculpture in progress." When Ireland bought the building in 1975, it had been poorly cared for, and as he endeavored to organize the house, he began to collect the remnants of its previous owner. At some point, Ireland began to understand that his actions -- the collecting of evidence of the past owner -- were not only serving a particular function, but in a sense they had taken on ritual or symbolic meanings as an integral new part of his daily life -- something like meditation or prayer. He began to think of this activity as art and recorded his work by preserving this "evidence" into jars, as one might with scientific specimens, and under layers of clear varnish, as one would a painting. Eventually, Ireland applied the same process of collecting to the traces of his own existence, collecting fingernail clippings, hair, toilet paper rolls and more, and rolling them into balls or collecting them in jars, unearthing the aesthetic beauty in the most mundane of objects.

Later, he became interested in the "bones" of the building and began removing the plaster and moldings that surrounded the windows and walls. By revealing the way the house was built, he became more aware of the structure he was living and working in. He finally decided to "exhibit" his work in progress and for a time opened his home to the public, in an effort to heighten others' awareness of the environment that surrounds them.

Despite the wide attention and critical acclaim that Ireland has received, the Oakland Museum show is the artist's first major retrospective, and its catalogue is the first sustained analysis of his career. In keeping with the spirit of Ireland's work, the Oakland show diverges in several ways from most major retrospectives. "The Way Things Are: The Art of David Ireland" covers a gallery space of more than 10,000 square feet, an area usually reserved for more than two exhibits, and features more than 90 works, many of which have never been publicly exhibited before. And while most retrospective exhibits attempt to reconstruct a chronological account of an artist's career, Ireland has instead used the opportunity to turn the show into a kind of artwork in itself. For the past three years he has met with curator Karen Tsujimoto and exhibition preparator David Rudell to help design the exhibit.

Ireland has also produced a number of new works for the installation, including a 16-foot-tall chair that houses a small reading room where museum visitors can sit and read about Ireland's work. The form of the chair, an arrangement of simple geometric shapes, contrasts spectacularly with another work installed behind it that Ireland also developed for the exhibition: a pile of debris collected from the demolition of the gallery's previous exhibition. Like Ireland's collection of materials from his renovation of 500 Capp St., the debris pile records the process of the artist's work. But the pile also has an aesthetic function, providing a striking visual foil for the clean white forms of the chair. It causes the viewer to reevaluate what might otherwise be considered worthless and to see in it an intrinsic value, beautiful in its own way.

The breadth of Ireland's work is particularly amazing considering that he didn't begin his career as an artist until he was in his 40s after he was a safari guide in Africa. His art has been presented in more than 40 solo exhibitions, at venues including the Walker Art Center, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden at the Smithsonian Institution and the Museum of Modern Art.

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