Bare Code Scan

Review

Bare Code Scan

By Emily K. Holmes March 10, 2015

Curated by San Francisco gallerist Jessica Silverman, Bare Code Scan presents work by an eclectic group of contemporary artists in a thematically driven exhibition that explores ways to see through, beyond, and directly at barriers, both concrete and conceptual. This includes portrayals of the human body mediated through X-ray vision, sculptural door handles that lead to nowhere, a series of photographic meditations on the materiality of windows, and a glimpse into hidden computer circuitry. The artists are brought together despite notable differences in media, career, and establishment.1 Most startling, however, are the aesthetic disparities among the artists: Cooper Jacoby and Sam Lewitt’s industrial minimalism contrasts with Barbara Hammer’s colorful yet macabre experimental films and Lucie Stahl’s theory-rich figurative photography. Silverman’s thoughtful curation brings out the overlaps and dissonances between these artists for an exhibition that is intellectual yet nuanced and emotional.

Sam Lewitt. Flexible Control (No Touch Through Me Lineament), 2013; photolithographic etchings on copper-clad plastic, laminate, steel bracket; 60 x 22 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York. 

Jacoby’s artworks represent barriers through the use of a deceptively simple device: the door handle. However, these elegant handles are not mundane. Jacoby’s exaggerated door handles, made of steel, Lucite, tempered glass, and other materials, attach to rectangular mirrored backings that stand over six feet tall. Printed on these backings are wispy renderings of early X-ray experiments. Yet even this historical reference is not what elevates these door handles from mere utilitarianism: Each contain a vial of liquid that conveys extremely subtle symbolism. For example, Toxic Variable (2015) holds canola oil, which for Jacoby is no ordinary cooking oil, but represents the very concept of heat-reactive materials in his quest to displace tactile matter into the realm of visual display. Even with much-needed explanation from Silverman’s curatorial statement, the connection remains opaque. Indeed, it is not initially obvious in the space of a gallery that these are door handles at all. Reveling in this tension, Jacoby distills the functional handle into immobilized art, and the inability to physically grasp the door handles fosters Silverman’s contemplation of barriers. Nevertheless, the conceptual grasp of Jacoby’s work is best aided by further reading.

Hammer’s two films, Vital Signs (1991) and Sanctus (1990), foreground human skeletons in seemingly playful experiments. Sanctus collages fragmented scenes of X-rayed bodies performing ordinary tasks such as shaving or applying lipstick, accompanied by carnival-esque music. The film engages the notion of seeing past the boundaries of the body, while gesturing to socially gendered signifiers. In contrast, Vital Signs uses similar visual strategies for more overt political meaning. Hammer films herself interacting with a human skeleton in an intimate, loving manner. They dance together and lay side by side in bed, flowers protruding from the skeleton’s rib cage. Made just after the height of the 1980s’ HIV/AIDS epidemic, the initial silliness of Hammer—one of the first “out” lesbian filmmakers—literally dancing with death becomes more sober when one considers the historical climate in which this film was made. Interspersed with these domestic scenes are found-footage clips of hospitals and related overlays of text. The phrases “the erotic urge” and “the medical gaze” are superimposed over the images, in addition to “epidemic,” speaking to Hammer’s meditation on the relationship between queer bodies and mortality. Here, barriers implicitly connote the initial lack of access to medical treatment for gay men due to homophobia, which resonates painfully in San Francisco. Hammer’s film is an essential reminder that barriers created by social prejudices have fatal consequences, a message still relevant for many of today’s activist concerns in the Bay Area and beyond, such as safe health-care access for transgender communities, among others.

(from left to right) Lucie Stahl. East of Eden, 2014; inkjet print, aluminum, epoxy resin; 60 x 43 in. Cooper Jacoby. Optimal Clot, 2015; door handle: power-coated steel, Lucite, ferrofluid; black mirror, perforated vinyl; 76.5 x 9.5 in. Barbara Hammer. Sanctus, 1990; 16 mm film, sound by Neil B. Rolnik; 19 min. Courtesy of the Artists and Fused Space, San Francisco. 

Hammer and Jacoby expound upon the definitions of barriers with radically different contextual references. The inclusion of Stahl’s work illuminates the power dynamics of embodied spectatorship divided by tangible barriers, such as glass. Stahl’s East of Eden (2014), a large color photograph, depicts a scene at a zoo. Situated from the perspective of the visitor, the camera peers through the glass at a caged gorilla in a downtrodden, hunched-over pose, covering its face with its hand. Its apparent desolation is heightened by a tattered blanket trailing behind the reticent animal.

Stahl photographs the creature through the window, purposely emphasizing the surface of the glass, smeared with oily residue from myriad zoo visitors’ hands pressed against it. Through a trick of the light, no viewers reflect fully in the window, only the backward-reading text of someone’s T-shirt. To highlight the materiality of the glass cage, Stahl shellacked the surface of her photographic print with resin, resulting in a reflective veneer in which the gallery viewer witnesses one’s own body now gawking at the gorilla. Nearby, Stahl’s equally glossy American Graffiti (2014) more prominently features the frenetic scratches and fingerprints on the zoo window’s surface, but it’s not clear whose nails have scraped against which side of the glass.

Lucie Stahl. American Graffiti, 2014; inkjet print, aluminum, epoxy resin; 60 x 43 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Fused Space, San Francisco.

Lewitt’s sole work in the gallery, Flexible Control (No Touch Through Me Lineament) (2013), generates questions about seeing through the material barriers of computerized technologies. Although most people primarily deal with the surfaces of computer (such as the polished interfaces of touch screens), Lewitt magnifies the inner maps of microscopic circuitry, here etched onto a five-foot-tall sheet of copper. The resulting lines are faint and vein-like, mechanically cartographic in appearance. The piece stands out in the exhibition due to its sparse aesthetic and is an undeniable emblem of the contemporary moment’s preoccupation with digital technology, not to mention the industry’s commanding presence in the Bay Area.

Bare Code Scan offers a dynamic set of perspectives on a multifaceted exploration of barriers: seeing at, instead of through, glass; gazing beyond the surface of the bodies of both humans and computers; and invoking socially charged barriers. The strategic partnering of these artworks creates a heady exhibition worthy of careful contemplation.  

bare code scan is on view at fused space, in San Francisco, through March 14, 2015.

Notes

  1. For example, Barbara Hammer’s only recent institutional recognition, despite four decades of filmmaking, contrasts with Sam Lewitt’s inclusion in the 2012 Whitney Biennial.

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