From the second you walk in the door at Catharine Clark Gallery, it's apparent that the title of Travis Somerville's newest body of work, Rededicated to the Proposition, a reference to the Gettysburg address, isn't meant as an activist's call so much as an ironic statement.
Two huge paintings contain images of isolated and abandoned houses in combination with the heads of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln. It's grim -- in "The New Land of Lincoln" (2009), a raven picks at Lincoln and a gun is abandoned on the grass nearby. In "Atrophied Landscape" (2009), a lone house is perched on top of MLK's head. For me, the reference here is the revolutionary practice of decapitating sculptures from the old regime, and the contrast between these images and the luxury-ads from 1960's magazines that Somerville paints on is chilling.
In the middle of the room, interrupting and dominating everything else, is "Great American Let Down" (2009). It's a sculpture, but really, it's the top quarter of a corrugated-metal shack. "Great American Let Down" punctures the floor in a way that, given enough distance, makes it look as though the rest of the shack is underwater. There are hundreds of framed vintage photographs standing vertically on the roof, everyone of them hand-painted by Somerville so that the people in the photographs also seem in danger of drowning, trapped in a sea of blue paint.
According to the gallerist, the whole front room is an allusion to Katrina and its aftermath, but the first thoughts that came to my mind were of our drowning housing market and all of the destroyed dreams of white-picket fences, a fallout which has traveled directly along race and class lines.
The show is a direct challenge to anyone suffering from the delusion that we live in a post-racial utopia. And in case this isn't made clear by Somerville's typical in-your-face strategy of mixing images of racial stereotypes with those of icons like JFK and Martin Luther King, Jr., the title of the show itself is an allusion-cum-question aimed at one of the founding myths of the United States: that we are a nation "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."
The show is worth a visit just for the front room experience, but as an added bonus, this month Catharine Clark is featuring Happy Am I, a video by the Los Angeles-based artist Erin Cosgrove, in the Media Room. Happy Am I is an animated song and dance routine set to a 1930's liturgical piece. The video moves us quickly through the first tens of thousands of years of evolution to a "Small World After All"-like-setting where a creature with a blue cod piece who looks like a combination of South Park's Mr.Mackey and a yeti ambles along, singing cheerily about meeting his redeemer. In the background (singing the chorus) is a line of gods, goddesses and other historical and cultural icons, including (I think) Joan of Arc, a head from Easter Island, one of the ent from Lord of the Rings, and a Japanese schoolgirl. The sun bops merrily through, everyone is happy, and the world ends abruptly.
Always sardonic and usually complicated, Cosgrove works in video and new media forms that tend to interrogate religion through popular culture. Happy Am I is a little more of a one-liner than I'm used to from her, but as I haven't seen Cosgrove show in San Francisco before, happy am I to see her represented here, period. Hopefully this means we'll get to see more of her.
Rededicated to the Proposition... and Happy Am I are showing at the Catharine Clark Gallery through April 3, 2010.