Front + Center: Weather StreamsJanuary 27, 2010
Group shows are often like buffets; each artwork palatable on its own, but in the same way mashed potatoes and pad thai are a little disgusting on the same plate, not always effective in combination. Past winter group shows at the Headlands Center for the Arts have historically possessed their fair share of this awkwardness. This year, however, guest curators Vanessa Blaikie, Jessica Brier, and Joey Piziali have managed to produce a show whose collective effect surpasses its constituent parts.
The seventeen artists in “Front + Center: Weather Streams” were carefully selected from hundreds of Bay Area applicants to the Headlands’ Artists in Residence Program. Individually, the works are far-ranging and impressive. I enjoyed seeing Daniel Nevers’ alchemical manipulation of home-improvement materials; Chris Thorson’s lush yet deadpan oils of hanging shirts; and Kim Miskowicz’s becalming hazy-blue video work. But, ultimately, what struck me most was how well the whole show worked together.
Reflecting this synergistic logic, the curatorial statement for “Front + Center: Weather Streams” positions artistic practice as a synesthetic act. It includes a quote from neuroscientists Richard Cytowic and David Eagleman, who describe synesthesia as the subjective experience whereby “senses and concepts are open to each other, flowing and merging like weather streams.” This quote, the source of the show’s subtitle, frames the curators’ belief that “artistic practice is one of rethinking, testing, and playing with multi-sensory perception.”
While synesthetic logic may, indeed, be present within each selected artist’s work, disparate connectivity is more strikingly apparent in the way the diverse practices on display intersect and inform one another. Each piece in the show subtly links to other works, creating complex resonances and connective threads of meaning. John Chiara’s six meditatively dark landscapes, made by exposing photosensitive paper in an enormous hand-built “camera,” resonate not only with Lisa K. Blatt’s surprisingly garish night photographs of Shanghai’s People's Park, but also, more unexpectedly, with Jordan Essoe’s serially displayed pencil and watercolor drawings. Chiara’s saturated, overexposed images darken day into near night, while Blatt’s giant photographs, though formally similar, conversely reveal an invisible landscape in night-vision green and pink. The connections between Chiara’s images and Essoe’s drawings are not as immediately apparent, but both use seemingly representative means to create ambiguous terrains that hinge more on what is hidden than what is revealed.
Though universally complementary, many of the connections in “Front + Center: Weather Streams” are not simply positive, but engage with each other critically. Intricate installations abut minimalist objects, Dadaist display counters virtuosic fabrication, and subversive humor deflates earnest intent. A nice example is David Stein’s Unlikely Library. This collection of improbable and fictitious books, with titles like It’s Been Proven Wrong But I Still Believe It and The Irish Controlled Media, subtly subverts informational tropes to produce new, unexpected associations. Within the context of the show, Stein’s subtle humor is parodied by pieces such as Luke Butler’s overtly pornographic Gerald Ford Wheaties® box, which depicts our 38th president reclining nude and sporting a sizable erection. Both Stein’s and Butler’s works are seemingly functional, meticulously crafted, and, except for their tweaked content, could be mistaken for the “real thing.” This functional and exacting verisimilitude is mocked elsewhere in the show by James Sterling Pitt’s and Elisheva Biernoff’s endearing facsimiles of personal objects, wonkily constructed out of wood, papier-mâchè, paint, cardboard, and MDF. These edgy and at times confrontational intersections, rather than undermining the works, produce a healthy and productive friction. The resulting dialogue has more in common with a good argument than a scripted lecture, but contributes only positively to the show’s larger conversation, and to the individual pieces involved.
In “Front + Center: Weather Streams,” direct parallels, both complementary and critical, abound, but so do other connections that are more felt than understood. Together these links weave the show’s paintings, videos, sound works, sculptures, photographs, drawings, and installations into a connected mass that holds together despite radically different intentions and aesthetic strategies. This interconnectivity does not exist solely between works, but extends to encompass the building that houses the show, and the context of the Marin Headlands, where the center is located. Jennifer Kaufman’s jagged and delicate wall installation not only colonizes one vast corner of the gallery, but its black-tape lines dance around the breaks and fissures in the antique walls’ crumbling plaster. Jordan Stein’s site-specific light piece in the downstairs foyer breaks the gallery boundary and exploits the existing light fixtures to subtly alter our experience of the building’s history-laden architecture. In the bathroom, Sean Horchy takes us still further afield with a beautifully low-tech sound/video/performance piece that manually echoes the Headlands’ distant foghorn as it symphonizes with the clangs of Bruce Tomb’s imposing bathroom stalls.
The symbiotic cohesion that “Front + Center: Weather Streams” achieves is no accident. The interwoven nature of the show was not predetermined, but grew out of Blaikie, Brier, and Piziali’s sensitive curatorial approach. Through research and studio visits, the trio learned as much as possible about the seventeen artists, but then, rather than selecting existing works, invited each artist to conceive pieces specifically for the show. Some artists chose to include works that already existed, some finished works that they had in progress, and some made new works specifically for the exhibition. All made or chose work they felt would work within the show’s theme and alongside the other selected artists’ contributions. By setting up the parameters of the show, hand-picking their cast, and then trusting their chosen artists, Blaikie, Brier, and Piziali created their own synesthetic environment in which the conceptual premise of the show, the site of the Headlands, and the included artists’ various practices commingle and tailor themselves to fit each other. For such a large show, this approach was a risky gambit, but it has resulted in a remarkably vibrant collection of works that function together unexpectedly well. The success of “Front + Center: Weather Streams” stands as a challenge not only to the buffet-like awkwardness of so many group shows, but also to the overly prescriptive, thematic visions that independent curators often produce.