‘Fries With That’ Serves Up Darkly Humorous Photo Show, And a Side of Ketchup

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Installation view of 'Fries With That...?' at 3320 18th Street. (Courtesy 3320 18th Street)

Jordan Stein’s been working on a joke. “You might not like it,” he says. “It’s a Jewish joke.”

The build-up is full of anxiety and hand-wringing: a miserable man experiencing the brunt of life’s woes details his misfortunes to a waitress along with an order for a hamburger, rare. “What a day, what a day,” he says, head in his hands.

She barely looks up. “Fries with that?” she asks.

Ba-dum tss!

It’s not what I’d call a great joke, but a chuckle escapes me nonetheless. Even though I saw it coming from a hundred miles away, it’s still a nice lesson in how little other people care about your problems. And it’s fundamentally funny (maybe not ha-ha funny, but definitely odd funny) to see a show title reverse-engineered into a joke.

Installation view of 'Fries With That...?' L: Photographer unknown, [Men in swim trunks], ca. 1950; R: Photographer unknown, 'Untitled,' ca. 1960.
Installation view of ‘Fries With That…?’ L: Photographer unknown, [Men in swim trunks], ca. 1950; R: Photographer unknown, ‘Untitled,’ ca. 1960. (Courtesy 3320 18th Street)

We’re standing in the midst of Fries With That…? at 3320 18th Street, a photography exhibition curated by Jeffrey Fraenkel (of the eponymous 49 Geary gallery) from the “more unorthodox depths” of the gallery’s holdings. The selected works, the exhibition description continues, are there because they “would not fit comfortably in any exhibition not titled Fries With That…?


(You can see a bit of circular logic forming.)

The exhibition itself is no joke. I’d describe it instead as a strange and satisfying viewing experience. The show is full of rare prints by established artists (an early Diane Arbus, a pristine Carleton E. Watkins) hung side-by-side with images taken by unknown, possibly amateur photographers. There’s a simple pleasure in this curatorial democracy—but even without the help of the image list to put names, dates or the lack thereof to each picture, the sequencing provides the real thrill of Fries With That…?

Photographer unknown, 'Gas Explosion at home on the corner of Buchanan and Grove, San Francisco,' June 6, 1938.
Photographer unknown, ‘Gas Explosion at home on the corner of Buchanan and Grove, San Francisco,’ June 6, 1938.
(Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco)

It’s more than just shared subject matter (young woman in a vampy pose on a bed next to a giant Psycho poster featuring Janet Leigh on a bed), or formal similarities (Edouard Baldus’ train tracks beside an indecipherable lump of approximately the same triangular shape).

Fraenkel’s juxtapositions establish a rhythm or a status quo (say, banality) and then undermine that concept completely, a process most clearly demonstrated by a particularly hard-hitting five-image sequence. It begins with an aerial view of the French countryside before and after American bombs drop. Then, an image of a San Francisco home destroyed by a gas explosion, annotated to show where a body was found blown out of bed. Next, an Eadweard Muybridge collotype of a nude woman cheerfully getting under the covers. And finally: a Las Vegas neon sign reading “RELAX IN COMFORT.”

Photographer unknown, [Woman in Fries Costume], date unknown.
Photographer unknown, [Woman in Fries Costume], date unknown. (Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco)

The humor of Fries With That…? is dark. (It’s also punny: A framed photograph in a central vitrine displays two humerus bones—one human, one animal.)

The show came about as a result of Stein’s own guest curatorial gig at Fraenkel Gallery in July of last year. Fraenkel (the person) gave Stein free reign, even letting him title the show Earache, despite the fact the gallerist much preferred what was to Stein the nonsensical title of Fries With That…? So Stein thought he’d repay the favor: white walls, full curatorial powers and the liberty to name the show after a particularly American turn of phrase meant to push more fried objects onto fast food trays.

It helps there is a site-specificity to it all: 3320 18th is directly across the street from the venerable Mission district joint Whiz Burger. For the opening, the gallery secured 14 large orders of fries and a seven-pound bag of ketchup.

Throughout, Fraenkel equates cut-and-fried potatoes with prone bodies, the insides of bodies and the spiritual yearnings of bodies (spend as much time as you can with E.O. Goldbeck’s panorama of a San Antonio baptism). The result is a circular journey well worth taking—a journey that ends with a woman in a fries costume, her arms pinned inside, preventing her from waving goodbye. It’s a macabre, nihilistic and ultimately reassuring show—the waitress doesn’t care about your sob story, but you can rely on her to ask you if you want fries with that.

‘Fries With That…?’ is on view at 3320 18th Street, San Francisco on Thursdays and Saturdays through March 30, and by appointment. Details here.