Andy Goldsworthy's Incidental Objects at Haines Gallery suggests that the artist is both uniquely brilliant and oddly ordinary, subtly interrupting an Eden-like nature with his idea of beauty, all the while dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and hiking boots. For a show about the artist's process it doesn't explain much. Still a quieter theme emerges as the artist struggles to find beauty in the space between natural forces and his own controlling hand.
Goldsworthy's most familiar works rely on a cycle that resembles a diagram of an ecosystem. Sculptures of raw materials are meticulously constructed in their own environment. Goldsworthy then photographs them, leaving the sculpture to the elements. A perfectionist, his arrangements vary by degree of intervention, from the subtle (a line of broken stones on the beach or a handful of fiery pigment tossed into a river) to the visually stunning, wherein the object appears to be constructed by termites or alien species ("Icicle Star" from 2001 features icicles welded together like a sea urchin -- how?).
In contrast to his iconic works in photography, Incidental Objects features everything we haven't seen: sketches, rubbings, video, and photographs that were created tangentially to his large-scale installations, and experiments with natural materials on paper and canvas. There is a hint of the messianic here: each image of Goldsworthy features him with arms raised to the sides, while paintings of mud and hair feel like relics and look like blood. "Earth and snow, Silverlake to Jackson" (1993) is remarkably painterly, with billowing clouds of earth and water pushing themselves against gravity. Preparatory sketches of the local "Presidio Spire" installation from 2008 and a photograph from a work in Colorado featuring the same conical tower showcase Goldsworthy's ability to play with a form, changing the materials and scale until he creates a relationship that is harmonic.
"Stacked branch, boulder, spire, Woody Creek, Colorado," 2006, Andy Goldsworthy.
Many of the works hold their own, but it can be a struggle to understand what meaning these works lend to the permanent installations that many of them reference. One series of photographs with a Presidio Spire title features the artist striking the dust repeatedly, pushing a radial cloud upwards in all directions. It's unclear if the reference to the Spire is a hint to the artist's process, and the decisions feel too improvisational to provide any easy answers.
"Rain shadow, Sante Fe August 16 and Waterfall shadow, Santa Fe August 17," 2008, Andy Goldsworthy.
The most captivating work is a two-channel video projection of landscapes, vertically framed like Japanese scrolls. The color between the two is so vastly different -- one in deep red sandstone and the other overcast by dreary grays -- that one feels like a replica of the other. A patter of rainfall fills the room, and squinting one can see the water drops in their downward motion, bouncing off rocks. At various times Goldsworthy lies down corpse-still in the basin of each landscape, and when he finally scrambles up and out of the frame his reverse-shadow has been traced by the rain in the sand below him. Several surprises ensure that one sits through this 17 minute video work: how fast the shadow vanishes in one screen, how slow in another; how the minds' eye sees Goldsworthy when he is no longer there; how a landscape can change so drastically in a day, even in minutes, as the right screen becomes overtaken in a torrential stream. Goldsworthy seems to be in a battle with nature. It's good to see nature win every once in a while.
Andy Goldsworthy: Incidental Objects runs through Dec. 24, 2010 at the Haines Gallery in San Francisco. For more information visit hainesgallery.com.
Images c. Andy Goldsworthy, courtesy the artist and Haines Gallery, San Francisco.