Route 2: Undisclosed Destination
Feb 15 - Apr 09
Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts at CCA
by Dena Beard
Route 2: Undisclosed Destination investigates the idea of a West Coast aesthetic as both a decoy and an impresario. In a truly complex approach by a new curator, location is a curatorial device that situates, and sometimes subsumes, the work within its site-specific grasp. Though a collector’s taste may sometimes limit exhibition options, curator Sharon Lerner employs ArtNow International Foundation’s 101 Collection of West Coast art with a nimble sleight of hand to delimit the very conceit of American Westernness.
Visitors have two options for navigating the exhibition: a left route, which I’ll call Manifest Destiny, and a right route, which I’ll haphazardly dub Re-Cut Contexts. Along the journey to the left, ideas of American expansion are quickly derailed by Gareth Moore’s Map (from Uncertain Pilgrimage) (2006–2009). Unfolded and completely blank, it evokes the anticipation or dread of an uncharted journey. The road leads to the central piece: Elisheva Biernoff’s They Were Here (2009), a generically painted sixteen-foot-long mural of an island paradise with white sand beaches and waterfalls; among the hidden details are exploding volcanoes, extinct plant life, dead birds, and shipwrecks. Upon peering through the scenic vista binoculars provided at a slight distance from the mural, the entire island disappears into a stereoscopic view of the surrounding ocean. Biernoff has labeled the binoculars a “time machine,” perhaps to suggest, like Moore’s Map, the double bind of imagining both an unrealized utopia and dystopia in two future potentialities.
More poignantly, Biernoff’s Last Postcards: Bas Jan Ader, Everett Ruess, and Percy Fawcett (2009) conjures the final correspondences of artists/explorers who have set off on journeys into the unknown—and who have eventually disappeared forever. The correspondence is at once a romantic portrayal of ventures into the unfamiliar and a sad portrait of imminent loss. From this vantage point, landscapes function as both idylls and psychological deathtraps; the allure of the American West, permanently enmeshed in the power play of expansion and idealism, blurs into a dangerous mirage.
Much of the back gallery of Undisclosed Destination absents the artist-as-narrator, a position that currently commands a considerable place in contemporary art. Instead, this transitory space is meta-critical, verging on total subjective annihilation. Jordan Kantor’s paintings and 16mm film record the phenomena of lens flare, an effect caused by the refraction of light through a camera lens. It’s easy to simultaneously romanticize and rebuke this effect, since it’s simply lovely to view, but it also impedes the intended image. Mungo Thomson’s The White Album (2008), one hundred issues of Artforum, Xeroxed in black-and-white and divested
of articles and features, is enthralling as an historical object, documenting the market’s rapid usurpation of discourse during the 1970s. As a permutation of Western abstraction, these works negotiate the ghostly specter of legibility, mediating images through cerebral critiques rather than overt representation.
Riffing on these themes of overriding content, Will Rogan erases images of magicians from prominence in the pages of Magic Unity Might (M-U-M), the Society of American Magicians’ magazine. Disappearing these illusionists suggests their already tenuous presence and, accordingly, the powerful presence of the artist himself. The premise of the show, the “undisclosed destination,” compels viewers to understand these back gallery pieces as non-specific works, where context has been removed or obscured. Yet, we can also think of them as casual encounters, indeterminate and effaced by their own lusty efforts to remain aloof. And certainly, between Hollywood and the Silicon Valley, the West is ripe with such chicanery.
The last space, Re-Cut Contexts (my title), acts as the show’s impresario; Ferus Gallery scenesters Wallace Berman and Edward Kienholz/Nancy Reddin embody the aspirations of a younger generation wishing to depict West Coast counterculture. Wedding everyday realities with a spiritual symbolism, these Ferus artists were once considered pornographers and provocateurs. Primarily these works oppose the work in the previous gallery by revealing, instead of obscuring, representational contexts. William E. Jones’ Killed (2009) is a cinematic dance choreographed by the work of Roy Emerson Stryker, director of the Farm Security Administration’s (FSA) documentary photography project during the Great Depression. Championing seminal photos by Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Ben Shahn, at the same time Stryker censored their unacceptable negatives with a hole-punch, a “kill shot.” Jones reevaluates the voids in these rejected negatives, which are animated and dance across the screen; in play with the offending content, the photographs ironically become a newly effective archive. Alongside Geoffrey Farmer’s Ongoing Time Stabbed with a Dagger (2009), this kineticism reanimates lost histories that still pose a challenge to “acceptable” representations.
Route 2: Undisclosed Destination joins together conventions that contrive the West Coast as a site for dystopian/utopian exploration, abstracting origins, and subverting the status quo. Divulging the theatricality of this mythology, what is collected here as West Coast art is revealed to be a universal journey through idealism and ensuing regret, cool dismissal rebutted by fierce participation. These dialectics don’t really distinguish East from West, but their oppositional impulses rub closely enough to show an incendiary effect.