On Being the Only One in Fraenkel Gallery’s ‘I’m Not the Only One’

Katy Grannan, 'Schatzi, Gerlach, Nevada,' 2018. (© Katy Grannan, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco)

Anyone who has worked in a gallery or museum can attest to the lasting memory grooves a looped audio or video piece can cut into your brain. One particular animated video from a summer group show has cycled slightly below the surface of my consciousness for nearly 15 years. Its nonsense refrain—“Farmer Jones brand!”—haunts me to this day.

This will not be the case, fortunately, for the employees of Fraenkel Gallery during the span of I’m Not the Only One. For though the show opens with a video piece by Mishka Henner (the show's namesake), current by-appointment circumstances allow for the video to be stopped and started at will, to suit the needs of a particular audience.

It’s a private, customizable experience—one that could be, well, lonely. But I’m Not the Only One takes that condition in stride, filling the gallery’s three rooms with images of aloneness, an altogether comforting gathering that speaks to our shared yet separate experiences during 2020. Curated by gallery president Frish Brandt with input from staff, and drawn mostly from Fraenkel’s own holdings (a brand-new work by Elisheva Biernoff is a standout), it’s a showcase of their deep back catalog.

Even that is reassuring: it proves that aloneness has been a recurring theme across decades and media, for artists whose names are now lost to time, as well as those who have become household names. For every distressing, seemingly incomprehensible set of circumstances, artists have created ways to process that distress, even if none of them could have foreseen the particular circumstances of today.

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The cacophony of Henner’s I’m Not the Only One (a video collage of found YouTube clips: people singing Sam Smith’s broken-hearted song of the same name) gives way to a wall hung salon-style, covered in nearly two dozen prints. Generally featuring just one isolated figure each, these photographic works show people doing the things we’ve been doing recently to stave off panic (reading, futzing about the house, drinking with neighbors across fence lines), or wish we could do (see a movie, hug a friend).

Details are worth lingering over. E.J. Bellocq’s Storyville Portrait pictures a woman in dramatic striped tights sitting next to a collection of miniature chairs topped with feathers. (These objects are strange and fantastical, especially because the image offers no explanation for them.) Up high, Wardell Milan’s mixed media work Edward fragments a man’s athletic body, reducing his torso and legs to a single curve.

Jason Fulford, 'Pompeii,' 2010. (© Jason Fulford, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco)

In the second gallery, people give up their activities to lay prone, whether in sex, sleep or death. These photographs can be intimate (Peter Hujar’s portraits of Chuck Gretsch and David Wojnarowicz) or maintain a conceptual remove (Sophie Calle’s photographs of a stranger she invited to sleep in her bed). Adam Fuss’ daguerreotype of an empty mattress and Jason Fulford’s image of a tourist leaning to inspect a display at Pompeii connect the horizontality of the gallery’s works to all bodies’ inevitable conclusion. With Fulford’s image, in particular, I couldn’t help but mimic the pose of the woman getting a closer look at a body cast from hallowed ash. Indeed, we are all bending towards the horizontal. (Such thoughts are closer at hand during the pandemic.)

Lest things get too introspective, the final room of the show zooms back out into a wider world, with human figures dwarfed by natural surroundings. In these works, it is the distances between bodies that become visible, whether in the tiny anonymous print of gray figures on a foggy beach, or in Richard Misrach’s images of Boy Scouts in Nevada’s Pyramid Lake. In Johnnie Chatman’s series of self-portraits, he becomes a silhouette surrounded by both epic and mundane nature. The unseen expanses between these map points (his body, the centrally located pin in each frame) form a network of selves crisscrossing the North American continent. It’s a physical version of what many of us have been doing for some time now: sending written, visual and audio representations of our stationary selves across great distances.

Johnnie Chatman, 'Self Portrait, John Ford Point,' 2018. (© Johnnie Chatman)

The exhibition’s final work animates that network in the form of Christian Marclay’s 1995 video Telephones. In clips from films, actors move through the steps of a telephone call: dialing a number (remember how long it took to dial 9s on rotary phones?); the ring; the pick-up; the varying greetings (“What!”); talking; listening; the sign-off; the hang-up. Like Marclay's later installation The Clock, Telephones provides fleeting thrills of recognition in familiar scenes and actors, but also dissects the tropes of both movie-making and human conversations. It’s elemental and deeply satisfying, a seven-minute video well worth sitting through twice.

After all, when you’re the only one in I’m Not the Only One, your pace through the exhibition is governed only by Fraenkel’s other appointments and personal whims. It’s reassuring to spend time with a show that attempts to make sense of the current moment, bringing together, like Henner’s video, multiple voices into one asynchronous chorus. Self-guided, lingering according to individual preference and a gentle curatorial nudge, we might even find less repetitive ways for messages to seep into our consciousness.

‘I’m Not the Only One’ is on view at Fraenkel Gallery (49 Geary, San Francisco) and online through Oct. 24. Details here.