1.11 / Review

Alchemy

By Zachary Royer Scholz March 24, 2010

“Alchemy” is the third show to grace Southern Exposure’s gorgeous new space. Curated by Sarah Smith, this strong group exhibition purports, albeit loosely, to explore the alchemical principle of transformation. The works employ novel methods to achieve striking results; however, even broadly understood, the term alchemy doesn’t fit well. These artists do not seek to turn lead into gold, but to mine something much less tangible. They are more preoccupied with exploring the potency of absence than discovering new material capacities.

The works of Brice Bischoff, John Chiara, and Michelle Blade set the show’s timbre. These image-based pieces use transformative processes to depict spaces and actions that conceal as much as they reveal. They cumulatively set a forlorn yet hopeful tone that pervades the rest of the show. 

Filling one long wall, Bischoff’s five large photographs, collectively entitled “Bronson Caves” (2010), depict billowing, colorful masses that float, like vapor, within subterranean voids of flinty rock. One mass looks like tangled bits of rainbow that has drifted to ground, another like seeping Technicolor gas. These images are long-exposure photographs of Bischoff’s slow, swirling performances holding large sheets of colored paper. Rather than ruining the images’ impact, knowing their origin deepens the works’ significance, changing them from depictions of suspect metaphysical phenomenon into poignant residues of actions irretrievably lost to time.

Mysterious temporality also strongly surfaces in John Chiara’s diptych, “Echo Lake at Meyers Grade” (2010), which whispers like a distant memory. Crudely cut, the jaggedly bifurcated Cibachrome prints depict a pair of inaccessible, snow-bound mountainsides studded with leafless trees. These melancholy landscapes are tinged with soft bluish and yellowy purple hues reminiscent of badly aging family snap shots. Their glossy rippling surfaces catch the gallery’s ambient light, blending distorted glimpses of viewers and other works into a shifting space of reflection.

Michelle Blade’s multimedia work, entitled Songs From the Mountaintops (2010), creates a suspended space of meaning by intersecting various elements. Known for her paintings, Blade’s unexpected video installation consists of five monitors perched atop five encircled pedestals. Each video documents a musical performance on one of five San Francisco peaks—Bernal Hill, Corona Heights, Mount Davidson, and both Twin Peaks. These windswept performances, high above the everyday, are at times plaintive, at times jubilant, and together hypnotic. Indiscriminately intermingling, these solo, a cappella, and ensemble performances blend into a defiantly hopeful cacophony that vocalizes joy, solace, and resistance against an indifferent world below.

The other artworks in “Alchemy” extend the resonances set in motion by Bischoff, Chiara, and Blade with varying degrees of success.

Ellen Babcock’s Arch (2010), made entirely from paper, cardboard, and paper pulp, creates rather than depicts transitory space. Babcock’s idea—that viewers passing through her vaguely geologic work might mark a “moment of inner resolve”—is fascinating, but it turns the arches’ intricate surface into little more than window dressing.[1] If anything, the vaguely crystalline coating of the double passageway puts an ironic neo-hippie veneer on what could otherwise be a genuinely profound experience.

Employing encapsulation more than transformation, Christopher Sicat’s Seven Wanderers (2009) are seven limbless redwood treetops hand-coated in shimmering, dense graphite. Gleaming like hematite, they simultaneously act as impressive totems of labor and poignant memento mori. However, the bisected plywood expanse that forms their base deadens their impact. Juxtaposing blond, bonded-laminate and dark, graphite-coated redwood is interesting, but the base’s two-part construction seems arbitrarily junky. This perhaps necessary shortcut—given the standard specs for plywood—undermines the piece’s meticulous precision, and deflates the dense power that it builds.

"Alchemy" installation view, from left: Randy Colosky, On Becoming Is, no. 7, 2010; Ellen Babcock, Arch, 2010; John Chiara, “Echo Lake at Meyers Grade,” 2010; Michelle Blade, Songs from the Mountaintop, 2010. Photo: Zachary Royer Scholz.

"Alchemy" installation view, from left: Michelle Blade, Songs from the Mountaintop, 2010; Brice Bischoff, Bronson Caves, 2010. Photo: Zachary Royer Scholz.

Though violently transformed, Randy Colosky’s “snowflakes” suffer from being the most visually subtle works in the show. They are made by shooting folded graph paper with a shotgun and mounting the remains on identical, undamaged sheets. These buckshot doilies infect paper-snowflake fragility with ballistic brutality, and sketch the uncertain terrain between order and chaos, violence and innocence.  But they fail to seduce as objects. Unframed, their slight, monochrome presences are easily missed on the large white wall, and get lost amidst the other works.

Adam Hathaway’s Janus (2010) creates a particularly experiential and interactive space of absence. The piece, consisting of a telephone connected to a continuously looped audiotape, simultaneously plays and records over the previous messages of visitors. There is something otherworldly and tragic about connecting with the past and at the same time destroying it. However, the leather-topped cabinet that houses the piece distracts from the work’s subtle weight. Its vintage quality conceptually makes sense, but the way it fetishizes the past undermines the erasure and loss that is central to the work.

Lindsey White. Common Senses, 2010; mixed media installation. Courtesy of the Artist and Baer Ridgway Exhibitions, San Francisco.

The piece that explores absence from the most surprising angle is Lindsey White’s six-work installation, Common Senses (2010). In it: a black goose-necked desk lamp matches its incandescent brightness against a video of the sun, its bulb nearly touching the screen; the leaves of a potted ficus tree obscure a video of hands pushing through foliage; a small photograph of a red brick wall hangs high on the wall. These quirky relationships are made more mysterious by the curious image of a woman with her ear poking through a hole in a piece of cardboard, a seemingly banal photograph of two hands holding an open atlas, and a rhythmic video in which three very full glasses of water are sequentially agitated by an invisible object. The collective effect is endearingly pathetic, low-tech, and strangely affecting. White’s absurdist combinations point to the rich, but unreachable, space of metaphor. They suggest that transformation doesn’t produce new products so much as unsettle previous understandings.

All the works in “Alchemy” are remarkably liminal. They ask us to consider inaccessible states and fleeting non-spaces. They occupy points of transition and terminus beyond which lie the unknown and unknowable—haphazard positions that echo our own. Collectively, they embody a philosophical stance more in tune with Eastern mysticism than antiquated Western pseudoscience. This influence connects them to a rich lineage of similarly inspired West Coast artists including David Ireland, Bruce Nauman, Robert Irwin, and Tom Marioni. The earnest otherworldliness of this conceptual terrain lends the works in “Alchemy” a measure of spirituality. And, like thoughtful meditation, the show’s best elements grow given prolonged attention.

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NOTES:
[1] “Alchemy” press release.

"Alchemy" is on view at Southern Exposure in San Francisco through April 24, 2010.

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