1.14 / Review

Carnival of Light

By Bruno Fazzolari May 5, 2010

Wayne Smith's installation at Right Window delineates the complexities of using storefront window displays as venues for art. There are usually two approaches for this. In one mode, the window serves as a display space for individual works—like retail, except for art. In this case, the art has a tendency to wilt like a houseplant brought into direct sunlight. In another mode, the artist responds to the confusion and brisk pace of urban street life with broad, theatrical installations as though raising the volume in order to be heard. These efforts are prone to aping the tropes of department store displays, are usually sans budget, and often poorly done. In both modes of construction, the relationship of the viewer's subjectivity to the art remains unconsidered. The display becomes yet another consumer entertainment, its success dependent on sustaining the narcotic fantasy state of the window shopper.

Right Window is a storefront venue that has largely been successful in avoiding these tropes. It has lived in the right window of Artists’ Television Access (ATA) at their Valencia Street space for a little over two years, but aside from sharing space, the two programs are run independently of one another. Right Window was conceived by the artist Karla Milosevich as a loose and fluctuating collective of twelve artists and curators; members have one month per year to install their own work or curate a piece in the space. The window has been a setting for installations, wall paintings, performances, and even a one-day-store for artist multiples. ATA uses the left window for art projects as well, a fact that is not explained anywhere street side—not that this matters per se, except that these ATA shows have been a sort of primer for what not to do with a storefront window. The confused and often dismal results of ATA's window have a tendency to drag down the more considered and low-key work at Right Window; ATA's current display is a case in point.

This month at Right Window, Smith offers a brilliant and humble gesture that utterly transforms the space by leaving it just as it is. The installation's title, “Carnival of Light,” is either random or ironic, since the piece is neither festive nor luminous. Instead, Smith uses postmodern idiom to deploy old-school, minimalist legerdemain, intensifying our awareness of the storefront space and our presence looking into it. Aside from installing gray carpeting to unify the floor, Smith has left the space as he found it. Right Window occupies an old Mission district retail space that shows its age: years of layers of paint have created their own random texture of drips and globs on the walls; a conduit travels up one wall and across the ceiling creating a right angle from which hangs a lone spiral fluorescent bulb; inset in the back wall is a sort of utility panel or inept repair job.

From a distance, it appears that Smith has simply pasted a band of irregular dots at eye-level around the space's circumference. The band is both an aggregate of forms and a line describing the expanse of the space. 

"Carnival of Light," 2010; installation view. Courtesy of Right Window, San Francisco.

The irregular dots recall retro illustrations of falling snow or a narrow swarm of bees. The band ranges over the windows, side walls, and along the back wall. It crosses over—and in some ways mimics—the lines of the utility panel and conduit.

Moving closer, the snow/bees prove to be newspaper cutouts of images of the backs of people's heads. The biggest of these is two inches across, the smallest approximately half an inch. The cutouts are faithful to the shapes in the photo, mostly determined by hair-style, and as a result look nothing like heads, but more like blobs, jellyfish, octopi. The low-res, black-and-white dot-screens further abstract these images so that the viewer is left to wonder if the backs of heads really do look so strange.

Since the space remains bare, Smith's band of heads highlights the quirks of the space through a method of formal repetition. The band echoes the electrical conduit that describes a line up one wall and across the ceiling; it also echoes the rectilinear contour of the panel inset in the back wall. The viewer's eye is drawn to consider these elements, which are endemic to the space and, from there, is drawn to the drippy paint and other grubby charms.

In the way that it re-configures space with an economy of means, the installation evokes Fred Sandback's string sculptures but the presence of the cutouts strikes a melancholy and slightly alien chord that is never heard in minimalism. The heads are compelling in the primal way that all figuration is. They draw viewers, who find themselves facing the same direction as the cut-out people, into the viewing experience. The lack of faces or eyes evokes a strange quietude, like being in a silent crowd. Awareness of the space takes hold, and the heads, being mere cutouts, cease to be people and the viewer remains solely with the beautiful experience of looking into this unlovely space. Smith's work rouses us from the dream of the street, wherein we both half-notice and half-ignore our own experience and we experience one of those rare moments of urban awareness and presence wherein the rush of passersby becomes more real, less anonymous, but also less disturbing.


"Carnival of Light" is on view at Right Window in San Francisco through May 9, 2010.

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