A Public Shore Becomes a Pedestal for Charlie Leese’s Site-Specific Sculpture

A view of Charlie Leese's sculpture 'coiling the power lines of supine stagnation,' 2019 on a publicly accessible concrete pier jutting into the San Francisco Bay. (Photo by Robert Canali; courtesy of the artist and SFMOMA Open Space)

Biking to meet Charlie Leese at the watery edge of San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood, 23rd Street starts to look less like a thoroughfare and more like a parking lot for trucks. It’s not the most welcoming environment—and it certainly doesn’t declare itself very loudly for what it actually is: a passageway to a publicly accessible part of the San Francisco Bay. (At the end of 23rd, Leese points to a little blue-toned sign that reads “public shore,” but it’s hidden behind a chain link fence, dwarfed by nearby “authorized vehicles only” and “no trespassing” signs.)

With a little luck and a sharp eye—or in my case, some directional assistance from Leese—a painted path leads from that dinky sign to a sandy walkway along the south side of a DHL shipping warehouse. At its end: a weedy plot of land and a breathtakingly expansive view of the Bay.

The route to Leese's one-night-only installation; a page from the PDF available via Open Space.
The route to Leese's one-night-only installation; a page from the PDF available via Open Space. (Courtesy of the artist and SFMOMA Open Space)

On Friday, May 25, between 6:45 and 9pm, Leese is inviting people to this hard-to-find spot for a one-night-only public event, a presentation of his site-specific sculpture called coiling the power lines of supine stagnation. The piece’s hefty framework supports a gas-powered generator, lights, an amp, speakers and a mask-like structure made from thick-walled steel, rebar and beads of molten metal. It looks like a scaled-down version of the industrial infrastructure that surrounds it, its growling motor an echo of the trucks moving in and out of the adjacent global shipping hub.

Leese, co-founder of Bayview’s Hunt Projects (a combination of a wood/metal shop and artists’ studios) and Cloaca Projects (an exhibition space in the shop’s backyard shed) is interested in thresholds. “I like this negotiation between past industrial use and the Bay taking back over,” Leese says.

He found the spot for c.p.l.s.s., which seems to have the name “Power Plant Shoreline Access” on a Port of San Francisco map, while wandering around the Bay-adjacent parts of the Potrero and Bayview neighborhoods.

The decommissioned power plant and painted concrete announcing the nearby public shore; a page from the PDF available via Open Space.
The decommissioned power plant and painted concrete announcing the nearby public shore; a page from the PDF available via Open Space. (Courtesy of the artist and SFMOMA Open Space)

Leese will activate c.p.l.s.s. on what he describes as “a decrepit concrete slab” that extends into the water from the raggedy coastline. Just north of the DHL warehouse is the decommissioned Potrero Generating Station (the last fossil-fuel–burning power plant in San Francisco). To its south: Warm Water Cove Park, a more officially maintained piece of public shore once known as Toxic Beach.

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Half on land, half on water, c.p.l.s.s. is itself similarly divided. The water-facing side glows purplish-pink in the darkness, lit by black-light bulbs. The land-facing side is starkly lit by LEDs meant for off-road vehicles. Contact mics amplify the whine of the generator and make its fluctuations all the more apparent—a bit like the ebb and flow of the Bay’s tides.

In daylight, chunks of various man-made materials are visible around Leese’s slab pedestal, revealing at one point a bizarre stratum of Styrofoam between layers of asphalt. The slab itself is barely visible from the public shore’s higher ground, which is ringed by tufts of fennel that grow well over both our heads.

Charlie Leese in his customized DHL hoodie, at the site of 'c.p.l.s.s.'
Charlie Leese in his customized DHL hoodie, at the site of 'c.p.l.s.s.' (Sarah Hotchkiss/KQED)

When Leese gives me a tour of the site, he’s wearing a customized DHL hoodie for the occasion. He chopped off the arms, trimmed the sweatshirt in red and added snazzy zipper vents down both sides. Images of the Honda generator he rents to activate coiled circle the red DHL logo on his chest.

The artwork was commissioned by SFMOMA’s Open Space, the museum’s online publishing platform. In a series called “Project Space,” artists create free, downloadable artworks for the web. Previous projects have mostly taken the form of digital files (PDFs, MP4s and MP3s) with instructions for assembly or ideal consumption. Leese’s is the first so closely tied to a specific site.

In a video of the sculpture made with drone footage, the camera circles c.p.l.s.s. during the day and after dark, cutting between sweeping Bay-side scenes and the menacing hum of the sculpture’s generator.

'coiling the power lines of supine stagnation,' 2019; a page from the PDF available via Open Space.
'coiling the power lines of supine stagnation,' 2019; a page from the PDF available via Open Space. (Photo by Robert Canali; Courtesy of the artist and SFMOMA Open Space)

“It was really hard to get the shots I wanted,” Leese says, referencing the gusty winds that pick up at the water’s edge. Also, he says, “Seagulls really hate drones.”

This isn’t the first slightly renegade installation Leese has taken part in since he moved back to the Bay Area in 2009 (he grew up in Kentucky and the North Bay). One night in September 2017, Leese bolted a three-foot-tall powder-coated steel sculpture into the sidewalk of Howard Street, about halfway between SFMOMA and the W Hotel (again, thresholds). “The hardest part was finding a place to plug in,” he says. People pouring out of nearby bars didn’t bat an eye.

The sculpture, painted in a delightful lime green metal flake, remained in place for over a year. Leese recently removed it, thanks to some helpful tipsters on SFMOMA’s staff, in advance of the removal of the large Richard Serra sculpture Sequence, which necessitated tearing up a bit of the Howard Street sidewalk.

A Google street view glimpse of Leese's 'Stump #1,' 2017 outside of SFMOMA.
A Google street view glimpse of Leese's 'Stump #1,' 2017 outside of SFMOMA. (Courtesy of the artist)

Another piece from the same series, which Leese calls “stumps,” was installed on the sidewalk of a Berkeley neighborhood at the request of the collector who bought it. A questioning post on the Berkeleyside Facebook page sparked what he says was “a long, hilarious comment thread of people guessing what it could be.” Suggestions included a bike-fixing station, a broken water pump and an exercise post (whatever that might be). No one guessed “art.”

These brushes with illegibility seem to excite Leese. Like his interest in pareidolia (the tendency to interpret something vague as something known, like seeing faces in inanimate objects), Leese welcomes (mis)interpretation. “Every response accords with the psyche of the viewer,” he writes in the essay accompanying c.p.l.s.s..

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As we leave the shore, tour complete, a woman pulls up to us in her car. “I’m so glad to see a DHL shirt,” she says. “Do you know where I go to pick up a package?” Assuming the role of DHL employee, Leese points her to the offices, happy to help.

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