'Strange Reprise' Reflects on Noxious Nostalgia with Westerns and Stickers

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Chris Thorson, 'Tabula Rasa (Superstar),' 2016. (Courtesy of state)

On a quiet Mission District corner, in the space that once housed Eleanor Harwood Gallery (before she decamped, along with so many others, to 1275 Minnesota Street), state gallery is four exhibitions into its first year of operation. And should you find your art-viewing days increasingly spent in the southeast corner of San Francisco, Strange Reprise, a two-person show of drawings by Maria Forde and sculptures by Chris Thorson, makes a persuasive argument for adding 25th and Alabama back into your gallery-hopping circuit.

Strange Reprise is a show that stays with you. It's full of all the fun "re-" words: it repeats, recreates and represents. Discretely grouped in separate sections of the gallery, both Forde and Thorson's work revisits popular culture of the past, meticulously rendering the (often-unpleasant) residue of American iconography.

Thorson’s source material is a group of found sticker albums from the 1980s. Cast from urethane, painted with acrylic and reconnected with multi-hued binding coils, Thorson’s trompe l’oeil albums lay open on waist-high shelves around the gallery’s front room, each displaying only the intricately detailed spread of her choice.

Chris Thorson, 'Tabula Rasa (American Hero,' 2016.
Chris Thorson, 'Tabula Rasa (American Hero,' 2016. (Courtesy of state)

With a practice long invested in replicating everyday objects, Thorson is very good at what she does. Her sticker books are easily mistaken for the “real thing” upon first glance. The puffy stickers have puff. The shiny stickers have shine. But up close, the yellowed stripe of tape holding an E.T. sticker to the page reveals itself as a hand-painted effect. It’s a thrilling moment that repeats itself again and again, and doesn't diminish, even with nine albums on display.

Because while Thorson decides which pages to cast and reproduce, another, equally mesmerizing hand is at work: that of the original anonymous sticker collector. The wacky distribution of Pac-Man, Ziggy and a poison hotline stickers in Tabula Rasa (Nobody Understands) is familiar to anyone who was once a child. As is the impulse to empty an entire themed sticker sheet onto one page in an album. You know, for posterity. (See Tabula Rasa (America Hero) for all G.I. Joe, all the time.)

Maria Forde, 'Cable Hogue,' 2016.
Maria Forde, 'Cable Hogue,' 2016. (Courtesy of state)

In state’s smaller back room, Maria Forde’s Western Drawings offer up a similarly obsessive catalog of scenes from Westerns, both behind and in front of the camera, as well as children reenacting Western-like scenes.


The men in Forde’s drawings are mostly white and mostly hold guns. In the few exceptions to this rule, one white man holds a knife, another a woman’s chin. Bits of handwritten text punctuate Forde’s drawings, mixing what seem like sentences from critical theory texts with lines of stoic dialogue.

“Masculinity is in constant danger of slipping away, of losing its coherence; thus it must be repeatedly reearned,” reads Rio Bravo, a drawing of not one but three men holding guns. The self-referential text adds a layer of critical distance even as the common elements within Forde’s drawings -- cowboys, cowboys, cowboys -- threaten to tip the whole collection towards fandom.

Maria Forde, 'Clint Directing,' 2016.
Maria Forde, 'Clint Directing,' 2016. (Courtesy of state)

The real power of Forde’s awkward, almost childlike Western Drawings comes from realizing the tropes depicted -- the macho man, the damsel in distress, the unnamed Native American as set dressing rather than developed character -- are not just elements of the past. These images and the ideas they represent relentlessly persist. Like Thorson’s colorful stickers, many of which are merchandising for toys, television shows, movies or celebrity musicians, Forde’s images of the West are so deeply nostalgic it is difficult to exorcise them, even if we are capable or recognizing the toxic gender roles, senseless violence and unabashed commercialism within.

A final group of works from Thorson drives the point home. A group of cast hand mirrors, part of a series titled Inner Monologue, hang from their handles against a wall, their backs facing the gallery. Without self examination, they seem to say, the momentary strangeness of Forde and Thorson's "strange reprises" will be just that -- a moment. The repetition within their work expands that moment, creating an opportunity for us to recognize and take stock of the images perpetuating cycles we seek to escape.


Strange Reprise is on view at state in San Francisco through Jan. 28. Visit statespacesf.com for more information.