Shotgun Review

Better a Live Ass Than a Dead Lion

By Alex Bigman October 18, 2011

Drawing inspiration from principle Antarctic adventurer Earnest Shackleton, Better a Live Ass Than a Dead Lion, a group exhibition curated by David Kasprzak, hoists “the idea of exploration as a creative process” as its motivating theme.1 The natural world occupies the seven featured artists’ works almost ubiquitously; mist-enshrouded vistas and other scenes of elemental encounter predominate. True to the exhibition’s intention, however, nature as place cannot be said to be the subject in the show’s best works. The tired attitudes of reverence, rapture, and antagonism drop out and, instead, exploration as process takes the fore.

Lindsey White. Pittsburgh, PA, 2011; chromogenic print; 20 x 24 in. Courtesy of Eli Ridgway Gallery, San Francisco.

Lindsey White supplies the exhibition’s only fully natureless work. Pittsburgh, PA (2011) is a photograph of a glittery stage curtain, spotlight beaming on its center divide, announcing the imminent emergence of the performer. As is often the case with such conspicuous outliers, Pittsburgh, PA is actually a good place to begin working through the exhibition’s core themes. The curtain may symbolize concealment and revelation; sure enough, many of the exhibition’s remaining pieces investigate the dynamic between these very processes—what is, in fact, the very essence of exploration. Also notable is the fact that this stage could be located virtually anywhere; the specificity of the title ironically points to the extraneousness of this scene’s specific location.

Exploratory engagement with concealment and revelation appears most literally in the show’s video works. Matthew Kennedy’s It’s Come Down To This (2011) features a close-shot man’s foot desperately working to clear away a thin covering of algae on the ground to reveal the dark, rocky soil underneath. In Joshua Churchill’s Rise and Fall (2011), a roving flashlight illuminates patches of what appears to be a furious blizzard at night and exposes conditions of total concealment.

In Elisheva Biernoff’s contributions, some painted and one projected, the conceptual divide between revelation and concealment is more confused. Her visually enticing Inheritance (2010) projects a series of eighty slides depicting endangered wilderness areas onto mist from a humidifier, resulting in blurry, billowing patches of refracted light. The work simultaneously offers and disrupts visual information, again dissolving whatever specificity of place the images might have had. As the frustrating, yet captivating images emerge, withdraw, and emerge in rhythmic succession, the interim absences fill with the very sense of palpable apprehension—excitement, even—evoked by Pittsburg, PA’s simple image.

In presenting nature through a predominately theatrical lens, Better a Live Ass Than a Dead Lion upends the usual privileging of place over time in representations of nature. Conventional wisdom notwithstanding, it appears that an enthrallment with the latter rather than the former is what compels us to explore.

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Alex Bigman is a Bay Area-based arts writer focusing on visual art, music, and theater. His work has also appeared in ZYZZYVA, The San Francisco Appeal, and 7x7 Magazine. He holds a BA from UC Berkeley in his personalized field of study, “Cognition in Language and Art.”

Better a Live Ass than a Dead Lion is on view at Eli Ridgway Gallery, in San Francisco, through November 5, 2011.

Notes

  1. From the Better a Live Ass Than a Dead Lion exhibition catalog, http://www.eliridgway.com/index.php/mainexhibitions/current-exhibition/better-a-live-ass-than-a-dead-lion

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