Congratulations, San Francisco -- you've finally reached summer! Time to frolic in the great outdoors and enjoy the sunshine. Apparently, it's been a long winter for everyone, because there are (count 'em) four different art shows up right now dealing with landscape, and another on its way: The Invisible Method in Adobe Books' Backroom Gallery, Matt Bryans and Michael Garlington at SF Camerawork, the painting-cum-sculpture of castaneda/reiman at Baer Ridgway, Here at Pier 24, and (opening in July) Scott Yeskel's Mapping California at Jack Fischer.
While casual observers might take this trend as a subconscious cry of frustration over being shackled to running a gallery while your peers are slurping down Bi-Rite ice cream cones in Dolores Park on a Saturday afternoon, my assumption as I started my tour was an art market oversaturated with MFAs who have all somehow just discovered that representations of landscape involve the (potentially) insidious notion of point-of-view. Another way of putting it: every painting or photograph of a mountain has been selected, framed, and constructed so that your viewing eyes see it a particular way (minus the indigenous Americans living at its base, for example).
While I know this to be true, I often find its manifestation in the contemporary art world tired and played out. Thankfully, only one of the shows I visited, Adobe's The Invisible Method, falls into this trap. The "invisible" method referred to -- framing -- is now so far from invisible that the work in the show is just a bad cliché. Giant c-prints of natural features, or man-made paths and viewpoints, cropped, framed, and redisplayed no longer make my heart go pitter-patter. What is also curious: Adobe lists six artists on their website, but it's difficult to separate out the voices when one is in the space.
Charlie Castaneda and Brody Reiman
Baer Ridgway's Still Life Landscape by castaneda/reiman will be the darling of the contemporary art crowd. Artists Charlie Castaneda and Brody Reiman create what amounts to a large "composite landscape:" an installation that combines archival inkjet prints, painting, and sculpture, all based around a collection of landscape paintings from a variety of sources, including thrift stores. A photo of some of the collection leaning against an unfinished gallery wall greets the visitor; in the lower gallery one finds the actual installation, or what appears to be the paintings themselves.
In this show, however, nothing is what it seems. What appear to be paintings are inkjet prints, adhered to drywall. The unfinished wall is alsothe result of digital prints. Throughout the exhibition, shadows turn out to be painted. The walls of the gallery are peppered with "paintings" that are digital composites of time-honored landscape subject matter, such as ground and water, or single images slathered with pigmented joint compound so that only one or two features remain. The artists have added architectural features such as trim and moldings to the gallery walls and left painted 2 x 4s that repeat the colors of the landscapes lying about. The overall effect is a patchwork of blue and green and brown rectangles jumping at you in all formal varieties possible, a confusion over what's "real" about your environment and what's been altered, and a sense that castaneda/reiman want you to feel like you've not only stepped into the construction of a landscape but to recognize that you do this daily, regardless of whether you're in their installation. Yet despite the outstanding level of craft and the evocative beauty of many of the pieces, especially the untitled landscapes, Still Life Landscape remains startlingly banal. I'm not sure if this is intentional, or just a by-product of the everyday construction materials and trompe l'oeil methods used by castaneda/reiman to make their point.
The antidote arrives in SF Camerawork's pairing of Matt Bryans's Breaking the Land and Michael Garlington's Photohouse. The installation is simple: three large pieces occupy two rooms. Bryans harvests images from newspapers, collaging them together into huge, wall-sized forms, and then returning to the image with archival masking tape and an eraser. The result is an aggregated mass that looks like a single image from a distance, but falls apart under close scrutiny, as with the ten-foot-plus long, faux-panorama that wraps along the gallery wall. From a distance, it appears as a not out-of-the-ordinary black-and-white horizon line, but watching the curves of a Sahara-esque desert unfold next to a Yosemite-like peak dispels that illusion. The second piece, color images of clouds, smoke plumes, the night sky, and heavy machinery tearing into landscape, is even more inventive, refusing a horizon line entirely. Instead, it encases a large column in the middle of the room. The result is that we read the mass as three-dimensional, like a heavy, low-hanging cloud.
On the surface, Michael Garlington's Photocar and Photohouse project, steeped in portraiture, seem to make him the odd man out. But Garlington has spent the last decade immersed in European and American landscapes, photographing the people he meets along the way, and Photohouse doubles as a landscape project in that Garlington has taken the fruits of his labor and built a house inside a gallery space. This time, we enter Garlington's version of the Western landscape, represented by the masterfully printed silver gelatin prints that cover the entire house, inside and out. The house acts as a reliquary, and its images -- framed, covered in lacquer, and referencing Diane Arbus, Walker Evans, and Joel-Peter Witkin -- capture birth, death, and all things in between, including, in some ways, the courage to embrace a subjective point of view.
Matt Bryans' Breaking the Land and Michael Garlington's Photohouse are on view through August 20, 2011 at SF Camerawork. For more information visit sfcamerawork.org. Still Life Landscape is on view through July 16, 2011 at Baer Ridgway Exhibitions. For more information visit baerridgway.com. The Invisible Method is on view through July 2, 2011 at Adobe Books Backroom Gallery. For more information visit adobebooksbackroomgallery.blogspot.com.