(Im)materiel and The Marvelous RealFebruary 17, 2015
Excellent shows with remarkably similar themes, (Im)materiel at Headlands Center for the Arts and Lo Real Maravilloso/The Marvelous Real at Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts each feature art that alludes to the duality between the physical and spiritual worlds and points to what cannot be seen. Seen in tandem, they echo and enrich each other, deepening a viewer’s appreciation for the ways art excels at making the invisible visible.
“I have always been struck by the power of that which is not present, that which has disappeared or is absent,” writes Marshall Elliott, one of eighteen artists featured in the Headlands exhibition, curated by Kevin B. Chen. “Whether activating a missing part of a story, resurrecting a forgotten history, or simply suggesting a new way to look at the world through inversion or removal, I probe into murky spaces that don’t have clear visual analogies,” he writes. Elliott’s sculpture Ghost Bike (2013), a riderless bicycle that has been painted white, turns endlessly in a tight circle around a mechanical pivot. In Dust to Dust to Dust (2015), the sculptor has overturned three chairs and drawn their lengthening shadows on the floor with sawdust ground from the furniture’s sides and legs. A visually analogous sculpture appears in the Mission Cultural Center exhibition. Curated by Sanaz Mazinani, the exhibition includes work by husband-and-wife collaborators Jeremiah Barber and Ingrid Rojas Contreras, an artist and writer, respectively. Barber’s Bring to Mind (2014) features an upended wooden chair that has been painted gloss yellow. Balanced on a point, it is rigged with twine to a head formed from the same twine, which unravels on a wall nearby. With anthropomorphically named component parts (arms, legs, backs, and seats), the chair becomes an inevitable stand-in for the human form.
In Barber’s Lapses (Writing) (2014), which includes three small silent, lyrical videos, the artist ignites candles and incense, recording the billows and undulations of the smoke as he writes. Invocations of “spirit” are unmistakable. At Headlands, Jennifer Brandon’s Cast VIII and Cast XIII (both 2014) consist of an amorphous transparent form that floats in space, lofted by an offstage hand—a spirit captured in a freeze frame. No less wondrous is the spirit that haunts Randy Colosky’s Ghost in the Machine (2012), also at the Headlands. A square steel frame compresses a rack of parallel one-inch aluminum tubes into a grid that transforms light from a nearby window into a cluster of radiant points that moves with the viewer.
Miraculous events are common occurrences in the family narratives of artist Contreras, for whom magic realism is not just a literary style but a way of life. In The Marvelous Real, Contreras’s stories of her curandero (healer) grandfather’s mystical powers, told in the works Desdoblada (2014) and Ocaña, Land of My Features Lost in a Thousand Faces (2014), cause the walls to come alive. A native Colombian, Contreras relates ghost hunts, out-of-body sightings, shared dreams, and instructions from the dead in disarming matter-of-fact prose that is stretched across the gallery walls in a free-wheeling typographic display that both shouts and whispers. A viewer reads the works like visual scores, parsing the notes and lists, curious about the photos that substantiate her narratives. In The Man Who Could Move Clouds (2014), Contreras documents she and her relatives traveling to Colombia to exhume the body of her grandfather, who has been buried for twenty-seven years. On a quiet note next to a snapshot of what they found, she writes, “All the ingredients of humanity on a tray.”
Two Headlands artists also use photographic evidence to document loss. Mayumi Hamanaka’s Invisible Lands 5—A Boy (2014) is an enlarged print of a half-erased snapshot salvaged from the March 2011 tsunami in Japan. She prints it huge and adds islands of layered paper, like a coastline, to fill in the erased imaged. Creating photographs like headstones, Kija Lucas transforms the carefully folded contents of a suitcase and a pile of letters into Objects to Remember You By: Collections from Sundown, June 21, 2013 (2014). In these works, as in Contreras’s photos, a simple image becomes a metaphor for a great loss.
Like writers, the artists here employ poetic devices—metaphor, simile, and hyperbole—to create their symbols. Synecdoche, a device in which a part stands in for the whole, is especially in evidence. But irony and understatement find their quintessential expression in the works of Imin Yeh and Chris Thorson. Blending into the grime and historic texture of the Headlands site, their works are barely detectable and easily missed. In Paper Power (2011–ongoing), Yeh carefully renders light switches, conduits, and embossed radiators in Rives BFK paper and glue. They mimic the mundane utilities, but are hollow doppelgängers—as are Thorson’s handmade cigarette butts and toothpicks (Sleepers ) and plastic bags (Nice Day ). Humble objects painstakingly crafted in fine materials such as beeswax, charcoal, organic silk, and natural dyes, have been re-contextualized as art. Thorson, Yeh, and others make the ordinary very strange indeed.
Piano Concerto—Houston (2014) is an extraordinary thirty-one-minute video loop by Soyoung Shin (in collaboration with Byron Au Yong and Susie Lee) that records individual musicians silently rehearsing in real time. Filmed against a white background, each musician clearly has music going through his or her head, either from memory or from reading sheet music. Fingers tap silent music on thighs; arms conduct; heads nod; feet pump. It is all silent but beautifully mysterious to watch. It renders the invisible workings of the brain and the musical spirit visible.
This strongly poetic vein infuses both exhibitions. Their titles could almost be reversed. Contreras and Barber certainly make “immaterial” work that invokes the spirit world, and “the marvelous real” encapsulates the modesty and magic of much work in the Headlands show. Why this poetry, and why now? Is the world-at-war too much with us? While many artists are mounting the barricades, engaging in social protest, the artists in these two exhibitions quietly comment on the ironic nature of human life on earth. Their endeavors memorably evoke worlds we cannot see and, in the process, make strong emotional connections with the viewer.
Lo Real Maravilloso/The Marvelous Real is on view at Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, in San Francisco, through February 28, 2015. (Im)materiel is on view at the Headlands Center for the Arts, in Sausalito, through February 22, 2015.