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ICA's 'Detritus' Looks at What Artists Leave Behind

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Detritus from Gale Antokal. (Courtesy of the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art)

It’s a group exhibition of Bay Area artists with a twist: instead of showing artworks, Detritus displays the byproducts of making. By “byproducts,” I mean objects that might, in some cases, be considered trash — or archival materials worth saving. To the artists of Detritus, on view at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) through Sept. 10, the latter is a safe bet.

With byproducts from more than 100 Bay Area artists, Detritus represents a hefty survey of regional creatives from multiple career levels. The exhibition shows a substantial commitment to diversity of medium, though the abstract expression-ish paint splatterings get extra attention in a digital slideshow of studio floors.

Sheila Ghidini, pencil shavings from various drawing projects, 2015-present.
Sheila Ghidini, pencil shavings from various drawing projects, 2015-present. (Courtesy of the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art)

The art-making leftovers range from amassed pencil shavings to foam-core prototypes, from blooper reels to stacked notebooks, all presented in varying degrees of aestheticized display. However, when surveying the gallery for the first time, it’s not necessarily obvious that this is an exhibition of not-art.

Detritus could easily pass for a contemporary group show. This ambiguity is partially because art audiences are used to blurring the lines between everyday objects and art. Who hasn’t seen a stack of folded clothes placed on a pedestal (courtesy of Surabhi Saraf) or a pile of lightbulbs on the floor (from Jim Campbell) in an art institution before?

Installation view of 'Detritus.'
Installation view of ‘Detritus.’ (Courtesy of San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art)

The other reason Detritus reads like artwork is because the installation displays its objects like works of art. They benefit from institutional presentation: good lighting, white walls, careful display and labels.


Elevating the artists’ refuse — as a curatorial gesture — could point to the power of art institutions to declare what is or isn’t art, but that topic is more like a curatorial byproduct, if you will. Nor is the sentiment cheeky in nature: Detritus isn’t trying to pull a fast one on us.

Instead, the curatorial statement wonders aloud why artists might save their debris the way they do — though the exhibition doesn’t answer its own question — and considers how to foreground art as labor by de-emphasizing the valued end-product.

Only a few of the displays in Detritus include representation of a final artwork or in-depth written context for the debris. The exhibition brochure also includes nine photographs of finished artworks as an in-gallery scavenger hunt, but which ones seems arbitrary. Without the artists’ actual artworks on view, are viewers missing out?

The exhibition brochure, too, makes sure to include all of the artists’ websites, which presumably offers viewers an entryway to pursue further research. But printed URLs are akin telling someone to simply Google a name.

At the same time, it’s hard to determine if knowing the artists’ work beforehand changes that much, anyway. In some areas of the gallery, the mass groupings of detritus eliminated a sense of unique authorship. The rows of spray paint cans (Ricardo Richey’s), that mound of pencil shavings (from Sheila Ghidini and, elsewhere, Robin Kandel), and a cylinder of X-Acto blades (Adam Fiebelman) all merge together. At best, this display formed a communal identity of “maker.” However, the display also reduced the scraps to purely aesthetic objects, devoid of specificity to the artists and their actual practices.

Installation view of 'Detritus.'
Installation view of ‘Detritus.’ (Courtesy of the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art)

Don’t get me wrong: There’s pleasure in looking at the textures, colors and shapes of art-making materials. Who doesn’t love a giant vial of black glitter, courtesy of Jamie Vasta? Some of the included objects are irresistibly fun, too, like Leah Rosenberg’s giant paint-swatch paper. But the weight of any message around art as labor gets lost along the way. Because intrinsic to acknowledging that labor is knowing what’s at stake for the artists.

What’s missing from Detritus is the weight of why these 100-plus creatives make their art. Why they spend hours upon hours drawing, painting, peeling back blue tape from canvases, saving their twist-ties from clay shipments, and poring through reel after reel of video outtakes. Seeing the pencil shavings from a drawing actually erases the artist’s identity as a maker with a message.

‘Detritus’ is on view through Sept. 10, 2017 at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art in San Jose. For more information, click here.

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