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For Rolls and Tubes Collective, Toilet Paper Became a Creative Medium During Pandemic

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Black-and-white image of hand holding roll of toilet paper on empty street leading to Transamerica Pyramid
Christy McDonald, 'San Francisco,' 2020; after Josef Koudelka, 'Prague,' 1968. (Courtesy of the artist)

I was scrolling Instagram as I worked on the first draft of this review (don’t judge) when a post from @vodkalana presented itself as the (chef’s kiss) perfect introduction. In one shared meme, she summarized quarantine and its after-effects: “Joe Exotic, banana bread, and fist fights over toilet paper.”

Thankfully, we’re well past that final phase. While the supply-chain issues aren’t completely resolved, we’re closer to life before the pandemic than we ever have been. Moving forward, though, may require that we take deeper stock of the earliest worry-filled pandemic days.

The latest exhibition at Noe Valley’s Chung 24 Gallery presents the work of four Bay Area artists who navigated that fraught moment through humor, mutual support and creative challenges responding to the history of photography.

Close-up image of Donald Trumps face with white text on red block reading 'LOSER' over his nose
Jenny Sampson, ‘Loser,’ 2020; after Barbara Kruger for New York Magazine, 2016. (Courtesy of the artist)

Rolls and Tubes Collective — Christy McDonald, Colleen Mullins, Jenny Sampson and Nicole White — started as a monthly critique group in early 2020. After one in-person meeting, the group pivoted to virtual gatherings and, given the quarantine context, struggled to produce meaningful work. One member posed a challenge: using toilet paper, recreate any image from the history of photography in two hours. The prompt supplied the artists with purpose and unanticipated joy, two forces that many of us gravely struggled to muster as the weeks and months dragged on.

The exhibition’s title, A History of Photography, may set audience expectations of seeing black-and-white photographs reinterpreted. While the bulk of the compositions fall into that category, pieces recalling significant color images are also present. If curious about the source material, visitors are invited to scan QR codes provided by gallerist Diane Chung that link to the 31 exhibited photographs, which cover the medium’s sprawling 184-year history. It’s an elegant, context-setting solution. Rolls and Tubes Collective’s unique compositions stand on their own creative ground, without burdensome side-by-side comparisons.

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Representing the medium’s contemporary and mixed media history, Jenny Sampson’s Loser riffs on artist Barbara Kruger’s 2017 New York Magazine cover that foretold former President Trump’s disastrous tenure and his paramount failure: comprehending the grave existential threat COVID-19 posed.

White hand with red nails touches unrolled toilet paper among cut-outs of red roses on teal background
Nicole White, ‘Advertisement,’ 2020, after Paul Outerbridge Jr., ‘Advertisement,’ 1938. (Courtesy of the artist)

Nicole White’s Advertisement — the only piece that draws on source material that includes toilet paper — mirrors Paul Outerbridge Jr.’s image for a 1936 Scott Paper Company campaign. Positioned against a vibrant teal backdrop and a bed of red rose blossoms, a perfectly manicured hand gestures to the toilet paper rolls in both photographs. Together, they illustrate performative mid-century ideas of domesticity and femininity, and how profoundly advertising still shapes the contours of life in wealthy, commodity-driven Western countries.

In Charmin, San Francisco, after Harry Callahan’s Eleanor, Chicago (1947), Colleen Mullins interpreted Callahan’s loving portrait of his wife’s derriere as twin stacks of toilet paper. Mullins’ composition is one of many in this installation that remind me how formally powerful photographs can be. Perhaps inadvertently, the image references the intended use of toilet paper.

Black-and-white image of person looking through cut-out paper, wrapped in sheet
Nicole White, ‘Shelter-in-Place Official Portrait,’ 2020; after Pierre-Louis Pierson, ‘Scherzo di Follia,’ 1863/66. (Courtesy of the artist)

As curator Corey Keller wrote in her brilliant catalog essay, “commonplace and scarce, virginally blank and ultimately scatological, toilet paper embraces a surprising range of contradictions.” San Francisco, Christy McDonald’s interpretation of Josef Koudelka’s potent 1968 image Prague, pleasantly raised the hairs on my arms. McDonald photographed herself, or someone else, wearing a watch and holding a fluttering toilet paper roll with a view of the Transamerica Pyramid in the background. In Koudelka’s iconic scene, we witness an eerie calm before the Soviets invade and violently subdue the Prague Spring resistance movement. McDonald’s view of a formerly bustling North Beach street is likewise unsettling, recalling how empty San Francisco and other urban centers felt.

Watching the artists and excited guests step into Chung 24 Gallery for the opening reception on a recent rainy Saturday afternoon, the anxiety that I and many of us once felt about quarantine isolation started to ease. Instead, I felt a warm and abiding appreciation for the extraordinary professional community that surrounded me, the Rolls and Tubes Collective artists included.

If the smiles of recognition and reunion led to talk of Joe Exotic or making bread or sourcing toilet paper, I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. Rolls and Tubes Collective’s A History of Photography invites their community to marvel at a project that began as a way to defeat creative block, and transformed into an appreciation of photographic history through loving homage.

Rolls and Tubes Collective’s ‘A History of Photography’ is on view at Chung 24 Gallery (4071 24th St., San Francisco) through March 11. Details here.

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