Temporary StructuresOctober 9, 2012
Thumb: Roberto Behar and Rosario Marquardt. Watching the wheels go round and round (John Lennon), 2012; paint, wooden table, flags, and mirror; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Artists and the Walter and McBean Galleries, San Francisco Art Institute.
Conceptual gestures, formal responses, political propositions, and community-based projects coalesce in Temporary Structures, a surprisingly cohesive exhibition exploring architectural impermanence at the Walter and McBean Galleries at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI). The curators Glen Helfand and Cydney M. Payton have brought together twelve contemporary artists or artist groups, ranging from local favorites to international biennale regulars, the majority of whom have a Bay Area connection.1 The exhibition’s tone is largely optimistic, as announced by the cheerful graphics and colorful pennants by the artist-designers Roberto Behar and Rosario Marquardt at the entrance. The sense of a willingness to engage a visitor carries over into the exhibition space: several site-specific works, along with architectural renderings of the galleries sketched in grey paint onto two walls, create an intentional connection to the physical space.
An exhibition addressing temporary architecture in visual art must necessarily negotiate the legacy of minimalist and site-specific practices, and several of the artists offer new perspectives on these established modes. For the exhibition, the curators have revealed Paul Kos’s wall intervention, originally constructed in the gallery in 1985 and subsequently covered. In the standard white wall, Kos’s cutout forms a carved-out space that exposes the concrete underneath, the outline of the arched concave column suggestive of Gothic church architecture. Bisecting the central gallery is Jonathan Runcio’s geometric structure of pine, grey, and white squares framing emptiness. This minimalist grid is interrupted by three silkscreens of blueprint-like photographs of a 1969 addition to SFAI that included the Walter and McBean Galleries as well as an abstract sculptural element that echoes its modernist concrete interior.
While the previous two artists offer physical alterations of the exhibition space, Mungo Thompson, Amy Ho, and Roy McMakin play with changes in perception to present alternate readings of structures. Thompson gives an irreverent nod to Minimalism with an approximately eight-foot-high, tightly stacked wall of charcoal-color yoga bricks. The illusory permanence of this imposing structure is countered by yoga’s promise of spiritual transcendence, materially echoed in the lightness of the foam cubes. Ho emphasizes the significance of interstitial spaces, projecting images of the gallery’s concrete staircase in dark corners and back walls. McMakin splices his dark-wood, Colonial-style bed frame, salvaged from his parents’ home, with a rectangular mirror, recalling Robert Smithson’s placement of mirrors in landscapes to create ephemeral site-specific works. Although McMakin’s piece is physically immutable, it still projects a psychological uncertainty, as expressed by its title: The bed I bought when I was a teenager that was later put in the creepy (maybe haunted) room in my parents' basement where I had to sleep until Mike refused. All three artists explore architectural impermanence, advocating for the flexibility of built form.
David Gissen, Christian Nagler, and Azin Seraj consider space as a political site. Gissen’s research-based project imagines a new monument adjacent to the Vendôme Column in Paris. Symbolically destroyed in 1871 during the brief period of the Paris Commune—a leftist, working-class group that briefly controlled the city after the Franco-Prussian war—the column was rebuilt in 1873. Using photographs, a model, and paper documentation, Gissen proposed to reconstruct a mound of hay, sand, and urban detritus that was built in 1871 as a conscientious attempt to prevent any neighborhood damage from the impending destruction. This contemporary version would serve as both a symbol of revolution and urban preservation. By citing the contentious history of a monument, Gissen emphasizes the significance of public structures in community.
Nagler and Seraj connect the contemporary obsession with physical exercise as a panacea to the instability of home ownership and security in today’s dismal economy. In Market Fitness (2012), Nagler, wearing a business suit and tie, performs repetitive exercises such as rolling his shoulders or doing sit-ups while generic electronic music plays. The backdrop of his fatuous movements is a series of foreclosed homes. The artists humorously allude to the impermanence of status symbols, such as a house, through the format of an exercise video (a genre predicated on the space and use of a home), suggesting the shakiness of our symbolic investments in material structures.
The art collective Together We Can Defeat Capitalism’s Guerrilla Tea Room (2012), an opportunity to discuss politics over tea and cake (with obvious allusions to Marie Antoinette, the Tea Party, and the Occupy Movement), is one of many public events that extend the boundaries of Temporary Structures to the intangible, a nod to the complexities of the concept of social space from a Marxist perspective. The robust program of film screenings, performances, lectures, and other happenings becomes an integral component of this idea-packed exhibition, allowing the dialogue it generates to continue outside the galleries’ walls.
It is precisely because Temporary Structures is such an otherwise thoughtful and stimulating exhibition that the gender imbalance of its participating artists is so striking: less than one third is female, a shortfall that unfortunately perpetuates the apocryphal belief that the intersection of visual art and architecture is an intrinsically male domain. Andrea Zittel, Heather Rowe, Rita McBride, Suzanne Husky, and Sonya Blesofsky are just some of the female artists who come to mind, whose works often address the impermanence of architecture. Given the educational setting of the Walter and McBean Galleries, this curatorial oversight becomes the one failing in an otherwise exceptional exhibition that offers contemporary and quite local perspectives on the timely topic of physical and psychological impermanence.
Temporary Structures is on view at the Walter and McBean Galleries of the San Francisco Art Institute through December 15, 2012.