What does an absence look like? It looks like what's left behind: a person leaning toward the ground because a shoulder has been withdrawn. How does one visually represent loss? It is the space around the missing, the still-present elements that highlight what has gone. A "retraction" is withdrawn information; the refutation of an earlier finding. Retractions is a group show, including 47 works by 30 artists, at Root Division through January 24. The art "embraces this gesture of withdrawal, and explores notions of 'vacated information' through working with themes of censorship, value, memory, and loss," Whitney Lynn's curatorial statement reads.
The question of how to represent absence is an essay question, not multiple choice. Its answer is elusive, if it even exists, and some of these artists make a better stab at it than others. I most liked the pieces that dealt with presence and absence as relative, rather than discrete, conditions, and that highlighted the tensions within the relationship. Allison Watkins's Heirloom is a collection of maple boxes filled with embroidered vellum. The work, consisting of tactile forms occupying physical space, does not immediately conjure ideas of absence. But the transfer of an heirloom from one generation to the next is an attempt to preserve familial relationships, to stifle the sense of loss caused by the older generation's inevitable demise. Watkins's work exposes the way a physical object can both have a positive presence and function as a potent symbol of loss. An absence doesn't always look like an empty space.
Except when it does. Several artists in the show chose to represent the concept of erasure literally. Peter J. Baldes's erased dekoonings is a series of video screen captures in which the artist virtually erases de Kooning's figure from a photograph. Jennifer Maria Harris's Fear Not Library is a collection of 18 of the bestselling books of all time -- Jonathan Livingston Seagull, The Da Vinci Code, the Bible. The artist has painted over every word except "fear not," or combinations of words expressing similar messages. Taha Belal's Untitled (World Journal) is a faded newspaper, the text illegible. Adam Whitney Day's Exchange Rate is a series of erased dollar bills beside a handmade box. Visitors are invited to take one of the erased bills and replace it with their own.
I understand that an exhibit based on the concept of erased information is bound to be minimal, and I think erasure is a viable approach to the concept of "retractions." But when so many artists employ such similar techniques, the viewer (at least this one) gets tired of looking at Wite-Out and blank pieces of paper. This is unfortunate, especially in Day's case. His piece poses an important question, especially in a gallery setting. By juxtaposing erased bills with a handmade box, the artist asks which is more valuable -- a symbolic piece of paper or the result of one's direct labor.
Other artists obscured, rather than erased, information, highlighting misunderstandings rather than creating voids, which worked better in this context. Deric Carner's series of drawings, Message 3, Message 4, Screen and Promise, contains written phrases with key letters blocked by screens and other objects. The barriers function as physical manifestations of language's shortcomings, embodiments of the ways we misread and misunderstand each other's words every day. I think the same can be said of art works.
Ultimately, there is more to look at and appreciate than ponder the absence of in Retractions. As with an earlier group show at the gallery, Insider/Outsider, this exhibit presents a supposed dichotomy, which the most successful works expose as false.
Retractions runs through January 24, 2009, at Root Division, 3175 17th St., San Francisco. For more information, call 863-7668.