Descending into Et al. gallery’s Chinatown location is always a thrilling process of discovery. Without a street-facing window (or usually any windows at all), knowledge of the particular layout of an Et al. exhibition or its contents remains unknown for the entire journey down a narrow hallway and a flight of wooden stairs. Anticipation builds in inverse proportion to the distance remaining before the big reveal.
Happily, in Wyoming-based artist Andy Kincaid’s current solo exhibition A Minute Description of the Route, the process of discovery doesn’t stop at the last wooden step. Scattered across the gallery floor and walls are objects tangentially related to journeys -- historic, mythologized and contemporary -- across the American continent. With the image list in hand, stepping through a maze of cast resin rattlesnakes, pieces of petrified wood, stacked chairs, inkjet prints and other detritus feels a bit like a three-dimensional I Spy exercise. Kincaid rewards diligent looking with the oddest of treats, including a disembodied mannequin head and the artist’s own varicose leg vein.
The installation, lit from one small window cut into the gallery’s back wall and illuminated from behind by warm yellow spotlights, sits in a perpetual golden hour. There is a beige sameness to the objects, a combination of their natural hues and the spectrum of light making them visible. A record player on the floor adds to the ambiance by looping Sounds of Nature Series - Prairie Spring; crickets chirp.
The most contained representation of the exhibition's themes comes from a piece titled Trail Guide / 1950 California Trail miles / 2179 Appalachian Trail miles / 2170 Oregon Trail miles / understanding pathways / for Grandma Gatewood. (Be forewarned, this is not the longest title in the exhibition.) A waist-high metal rack, originally made to support blueprints, clips together enlarged reproductions of pages from the 1858 book The National Wagon Road Guide with torn-out pages from a 2010 copy of The Thru-hiker’s Handbook, a guide to the Appalachian Trail.
This augmented book, cumbersome but still readable, literally blends the travel guides for two very different overland routes, conflating a 19th-century pioneer’s journey with a contemporary outdoors-enthusiast’s quest. As Kincaid’s work repeatedly asks through similar process of layering, what’s so different about the motivations behind past and present travels? Implicating himself in the romantic reenactment of certain cycles of migration, Kincaid juxtaposes self-perpetuating myths against the very real threats to life on a trail.
Kincaid himself is a hiker and a camper; his travels can be read in Et al.’s installation as part of his artistic practice. LED camping lanterns light the pathway to the exhibition. The stairwell is draped in an artist-made quilt (first used on the John Muir trail) and an artist-made tarp (first used on the Appalachian Trail). Inkjet prints hanging from another blueprint clamp at the top of the stairs document camping sites, traveling companions, wildernesses traversed and the stitched-up aftermath of the aforementioned varicose vein.
It’s this mingling of the personal and the iconographic that makes A Minute Description of the Route such a pleasure to wander through. Inside a gun case purchased on the shoulder of Idaho’s highway 33 (the image list is rife with hyper-specific details) sits a photograph of Kincaid as a child. We learn, thanks again to the image list, that the photo was transferred from an instrument case into the gun case.
Is this translation of context a metaphor for growing up, of accepting one’s mortality? Undercutting this interpretation, the gun case appears unused -- the spaces carved out for rifles remain filled with foam. In another destabilizing move, Kincaid snarkily pairs the sturdy Pelican gun case with an inkjet print of a dead pelican found at the site of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, an artful example of man’s lasting effect on the environment.
The dizzying number of references doesn’t stop there. In the installation that dominates the back of the gallery, Setting for a perpetual sunset, for hope, and for living with nature / report from the avant-garde, 1845-476 / solar print / carbon dating and a historical incongruity in weaving / crickets, the titular weaving is a rug made by Kincaid and his mother, using both hand-spun and machine-spun wool.
Such anachronism is only one of many ironies: images of the drab bureaucratic offices that support our beautiful national parks, the packaging up of nature sounds into a series of vinyl records, a mention of the classic computer game “Oregon Trail.” But the real strength in A Minute Description of the Route comes from its refusal to deal solely in dichotomy, despite the two possible readings of the exhibition's title. In doing so, Kincaid urges us to look for the tantalizing details occupying the space between the hand-made and mass-produced, humans and nature, and most importantly, between the past and present.
'A Minute Description of the Route' is on view at Et al. in San Francisco (620 Kearny Street) through Jan. 27. For more information, click here.