The Center Cannot Hold in Kate Bonner’s Show of Monumental Detritus

Installation view of Kate Bonner's 'Somewhere in there is a true thing.' (Courtesy Et al. etc.)

Being housebound means being forced to confront the dust under our beds, the things long kept out of sight and out of mind. Somewhere in there is a true thing, Philadelphia-based artist Kate Bonner’s third solo show with Et al. etc., makes monuments out of such nuisances. Scraps of studio detritus, banal photos of flowers and painterly gestures made in Photoshop coalesce in Bonner’s soothing yet anxious compositions on view in the gallery’s Mission Street space.

Bonner’s new body of work, a series of hybridized wall pieces that incorporate painting, photography and collage, alternates between intention and happenstance. Paint applied by brush and digital algorithm is layered above and beneath disparate shapes that resemble the afterimages seen when one finally looks away from a bright light. They are peripheral, like context without subject.

Fit snugly in a wooden frame, the painted collage New rooms hums with an understated beauty. The materials oscillate between physical contingency and digital facsimile. They are amphibious, migrating from the material world to the screen and back again—like many of us with the privileges of social distancing. In Bonner’s works, each sloughed-off border and scrap of a photograph is revered and cherished. But the images of flowers in New rooms (like all images of flowers, or sunsets), are ensconced in a certain sadness. They are pictures of coping; by immortalizing ephemerality, we stave off time from encroaching upon us.

Light wood frame around a mixed media work, collaged images of brown paper cut and folded in a star pattern, childlike marker drawings and a photograph.
Kate Bonner, 'Shifting stories (v2).' (Courtesy Et al. etc.)

On the other side of the gallery, the series Shifting stories evokes the palette of a domestic landscape in quarantine: an accumulation of discarded packaging, children’s drawings, partially finished projects, and small stacks of papers pertaining to matters of varying importance.

In the exhibition’s accompanying text the artist writes, “These paintings fold in on themselves to protect, they fold back on themselves as they attempt to reconstruct. These paintings guard their own inner reality.” To Bonner, cutouts “betray an inner confusion and chaos,” while layered images “depict second guesses.” Fittingly, the star-shaped folds conjure memories of paper fortune tellers that succinctly relayed our destinies in times when the future felt less tenuous. Shifting stories (v1-v3) deflect any sense of a neatly ordered reality. They indulge entropic anxieties.

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In The names of people, Bonner paints over what appears to be a nondescript ’90s vacation photograph in shades of blue, yellow highlighter and ballpoint pen. The photograph itself is partially revealed through an effect that looks like condensation wiped from glass. A tourist poses in an ambiguous European city, surrounded by pigeons.

Blue and white mixed media piece with vacation snapshots and a cut-out center, revealing white gallery wall.
Kate Bonner, 'The names of people.' (Courtesy Et al. etc.)

These images, like much of Bonner’s material choices, feel disposable, and yet that which most would dispose of, she salvages. It is the kind of moment made immortal not by sheer significance, but by the camera. The image serves as evidence of a world where we sought out the unforgettable, instead of a world where we forget what day it is. The piece’s oval shape offers a portal to the past, except the central opening features nothing but the blank white gallery wall of our surroundings. The wall remains unchanged, but reframed.

Both in and out of frame, Bonner’s work encourages us to examine the edges of things. The viewer is rewarded by what they find when they stop looking for the center. There isn’t a commanding sense of authority on how it should be experienced. The conceit remains anonymous, the answer is not given, and much like the present, we are left to our own devices.

Chaos looms, but Bonner encourages us to look harder, because “somewhere in there is a true thing,” she assures us, and she is right.

‘Somewhere in there is a true thing’ is on view by appointment at Et al etc. (2831 Mission Street, San Francsico) through Oct. 31. Details here.