Shotgun Review

short sharp notes, rolling or churring whistles, clear phrases

By Renny Pritikin September 14, 2010

Kathryn Spence’s exhibition short sharp notes, rolling or churring whistles, clear phrases, at the Mills College Art Museum, is a kind of autobiography through art. The artist traces the evolution of her work since graduating from Mills almost twenty years ago, with subtle references to influential contemporaries along the way, at least in the eye of this viewer.

Almost the entire exhibition sits on the floor, or is piled up from the floor, in a narrow line of production down the center of the first of two capacious galleries. Modest but handsome plywood—sometimes forming boxes, sometimes low stages—of various sizes provides the structure for wildly varying small sculptural elements. At the end of this thin line is a transitional work that is a large low platform (approximately 20 by 10 feet). Laid out along its entire surface are colored pencil drawings on large pieces of paper, often with circular cutouts. The green, blue, and yellow splotches imply a kind of landscape of grass, sky, and sun. In the second gallery, the work becomes more vertical, ending in a tour de force large, cube-shaped piece so dense with material as to overwhelm the eye. There is also an unusual Styrofoam work that refers to cliffs, with magazine clippings of seashells and a made seashell. This use of found photography runs throughout the show: many of the songbirds and butterflies clinging to the walls are half magazine and book pictures (à la Fred Tomaselli), half Spence creations.

Howard Fried’s All My Dirty Blue Clothes (1969) is one of the Bay Area’s most important early conceptual works; he wedged his jeans and work shirts into the space where the walls of the gallery met the floor. Spence may not be aware of the connection, but her floor piece is a delightful response, with its world-embracing inclusion of nature, art, and tiny bundles of bound blue cloth at one end of her rainbow of miniature found

Kathryn Spence. short sharp notes, rolling or churring whistles, clear phrases, installation view, Mills College Art Museum, 2010. Courtesy of the Artist and Stephen Wirtz Gallery, San Francisco. Photo: Ben Blackwell.

cloth objects. She includes all her signature work: mud-soaked towels that form a sad little bear; kachina-like totems, half-rabbit, half-human, made of small bundles of cloth remnants; mud bunnies; her owls formed from manmade materials that capture the essence of those beasts in a way that only Spence’s years of dedicated birding makes possible. Piles of carefully arranged thread form bouffant hills of color. Carefully folded and bound scraps of cloth are organized in a parody of industrial production. Piles of girly hair clips and related detritus form a particularly icky Bruce Conner–like assemblage.

Spence’s exhibition title refers to paying close attention to the sounds and rhythms of bird language. What is there, what is not there, what is on the surface, and what can only be glimpsed through holes in the text—all these notions form a perfect metaphor for the efforts, successes, and dead ends of any artist’s research. Spence generously offers us access to her extraordinary project in mid-career.


short sharp notes, rolling or churring whistles, clear phrases is on view at Mills College Art Museum in Oakland through December 12, 2010.

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