Steel, Wood and ... Uranium Ore? Vallejo Show Draws From City’s Naval History

Exterior view of Brittany, with 'Lead Shields,' 2019 to the left of the garage door. (Courtesy of the artist and Brittany)

Matthew Kerkhof is good at convincing people to visit Vallejo. And no, he is not employed by the city’s chamber of commerce.

He’s an artist with a garage-turned-exhibition space, dubbed Brittany after the name someone carved into once-wet concrete in front of his house. The occasion for his gentle persuasion is a fairly easy sell: Marshall Elliott’s thoughtful Rates of Disappearance, a show inspired by nearby Mare Island and its history, a show of measurement and communication devices—and a small container of radioactive uranium ore.

Though its exterior is an unmissable shade of faded salmon, Brittany’s interior is spare and unadorned, every surface painted a semitransparent white. Smooth drywall covers one wall, floor-to-ceiling, roughly hewn shelving another. Strips of fluorescent lighting hang from the rafters.

Installation view of Marshall Elliott, 'Rates of Disappearance,' 2019.
Installation view of Marshall Elliott, 'Rates of Disappearance,' 2019. (Courtesy of the artist and Brittany)

Tucked into the spaces between the walls’ two-by-fours, sitting on the floor and hanging from the ceiling are Elliott’s sculptures, made of wood, lead, cast aluminum, half-burned signal flags, steel and the aforementioned uranium.

It’s a lot of work for such a small space, and some of the more minimal gestures (a series called Lead Shields or the 40 “rulers” of Your Foot Project) might have been better served with more breathing room, but the artist’s curiosity about local naval history and the legacy of that enterprise is obvious, and ultimately, contagious.

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The show’s introduction comes outside the gallery, with the first lead shield: a sheet of the thin, malleable metal “stretched” over plywood, like canvas, and secured around the edges with tacks. A message stamped into the surface reads, “I am abandoning my vessel which has suffered a nuclear accident and is a possible source of radiation danger.” Elliott scaled all the works in this series to the dimensions of various U.S. paper sizes, imbuing even the blank shields with the quality of an official pronouncement.

Marshall Elliott, 'Lead Shields,' 2019.
Marshall Elliott, 'Lead Shields,' 2019. (Courtesy of the artist and Brittany)

That distress/welcome phrase comes from the International Code of Signals, represented by the flags for “A” and “D,” which Elliott fabricates as a pair of lightboxes inside the garage. And it’s not pulled out of thin air: Between 1957 and 1970, the Mare Island Naval Shipyard built and launched 17 nuclear-powered submarines, including the USS Guitarro, which sank during construction and had to be refloated (at massive cost) three days later.

The culprit for that snafu? Two crews working on the submarine were filling its ballast tanks at the same time, trying to achieve different levels of balance and adding tons of water in the process. For Elliott, this story perfectly encapsulates the hazards of different measurement systems, exacerbated by a lack of communication, and the potential for harm in structures (or materials) meant to protect.

Marshall Elliott, 'Your Foot Project,' 2019.
Marshall Elliott, 'Your Foot Project,' 2019. (Courtesy of the artist and Brittany)

Your Foot Project, evenly installed on the garage’s built-in shelves, comprises a series of wooden rulers whose lengths were determined by asking people for their estimation of a foot, then dividing that distance into 12 “inches.” (For those who measure the world in the much more rational metric system, Elliott asked them to identify 30.48 cm and divided the length up accordingly.) Individual understandings of space and distance sometimes vary by several actual inches; no two feet are the same.

In the center of the gallery stands Rates of Decay, a bit of uranium ore (purchased online) inside a lead pig, under a Plexi vitrine, all atop a gangly pedestal Elliott welded together from short segments of steel. That lead, which usually gives me a sensation of unease, blocks the ore’s small amount of radiation. (Elliott has a Geiger counter to confirm this reassuring fact.)

Marshall Elliott, 'Rates of Decay,' 2019.
Marshall Elliott, 'Rates of Decay,' 2019. (Courtesy of the artist and Brittany)

This material shift—from toxic metal to protective container—captures some of the trade-offs at play in Vallejo’s contemporary moment, especially when it comes to the ongoing saga of Mare Island. The shipyard that once employed tens of thousands of Vallejo’s civilians is now the site of ongoing military cleanup actions. What powers a city or a submarine at one point in history (military contracts or radioactive material, respectively) can have dangerously long-lasting consequences generations later.

Despite its dismal welcoming message, Rates of Disappearance isn’t without optimism. The repeated gesture of measurement, the attempts, however garbled, at communication, betray a hope for a future that might take a closer look at the mistakes of the past, and instead of erasing them, put them under a vitrine (and inside lead shielding) for close and continued study.

'Rates of Disappearance' is on view at Brittany (801 Sacramento Street, Vallejo) through Sep. 21. Details here.

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