4.7 / Review

The Continental Interior

By Michele Carlson January 17, 2013

If we were to fly over the Bay Area at night, we would see the lights of the city glitter, wink, and weave, forming an abstract version of the places we inhabit. The streetlamps that light the roads we drive stretch out in unswerving lines and then zigzag and tangle with each other, offering visual evidence of the area’s urban plan as well as the political and social histories embedded in the geography. The lights of the many bridges that join these cities together reach tautly across the dark mass of water. This vantage point offers a stunning iteration of our daily lives, complicated by the many other angles from which we might view it.

The San Francisco artist Val Britton’s installation The Continental Drift (2012–2013) captures such an experience of the Bay. Britton’s installation, on view at the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery (SFAC)  on Grove Street, consists of hundreds of cut-paper masses suspended from the gallery’s rafters, filling the space almost entirely. Britton’s paper cutouts are abstract, yet it is possible to see in them familiar shapes that most directly reference landmasses or clouds. She cuts each diligently by hand. Some are tiny scraps of paper while others are so large they droop from their own weight. They hang in a dense and chaotic crowd. Heavy strings jut and dangle throughout the space while securing Britton’s paper fragments, which are sometimes delicately washed with various inks. Strips of paper form saggy lattices that seem barely able to support themselves—it is a determined yet defunct grid of no particular place. Like an imagined aerial view of the Bay Area, The Continental Interior creates a dynamic and alluring landscape filled with shifting referents and changing views.

The Continental Interior functions as a diorama. Since the building housing SFAC’s Grove Street gallery is seismically unsafe, the projects presented inside the gallery are viewed street-side, through a large storefront window. Even though the public is not allowed to enter the gallery, Britton’s installation can be seen through the window twenty-four hours a day.

Val Britton. The Continental Interior, 2012–2013; installation view, the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery at 155 Grove Street, November 14 2012–January 26, 2013. Courtesy of the Artist.
Val Britton. The Continental Interior, 2012–2013; installation view, the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery at 155 Grove Street, November 14 2012–January 26, 2013. Courtesy of the Artist.

This means that the weather, changing light levels, and even passing car headlights can enter and alter the piece. During the afternoon, the reflection of City Hall, which looms directly across the street, is cast prominently onto the window. Through these constantly changing elements, the city inserts itself into Britton’s installation.

The viewer’s experience also shifts throughout the day. The work casts distinct shadows on the gallery walls and floor in varying patterns, depending on the time of day. This is especially striking when the gallery is lit brightly against the darkness of night. Here the shadows of the piece are so vivid they act as an added visual layer, creating a depth that the two-dimensional paper and string composition must otherwise work hard to accomplish.

Britton’s oeuvre employs references to the visual language of maps and the act of mapping largely through collaged works on paper. When Britton began this body of work, she was directly referencing her deceased father, a truck driver who passed away when she was young. At its core, her work was a strategy for navigating her personal and psychic trauma. As an MFA student at California College of the Arts, Britton began to appropriate the symbols of U.S. road maps and the visual language of cross-country-trucker lifestyle as a way to create an abstract atlas of her uncertain memories of her father and his absence. She was charting a unique cartography of the space between trauma and its symbolic effects. But like our personal paths, maps shift and change. Britton’s abstract collages and installations are material evidence of creating something new from the challenge of understanding one’s place in the world. And after a decade of this meticulous formal and personal interrogation, her work has emerged in a more dynamic form.

Britton’s use of repetitive referents and vigorous marks reveal an abstract realm where it is unclear what is breaking down and what is being generated. This created landscape is not any one particular space, nor is it connected to any certain narrative. Britton does not typically plan her work ahead of time. Rather, she begins with one fragment in an innumerable stock of new or reused paper, accumulated from years of foraging and collecting, to which she then responds. Her work blooms and explodes into a thoughtful investigation of abstraction, space, and mark making that is ignited by hours upon hours of tedious cutting, gluing, and painting.

In her practice, Britton is persistently imagining and creating new iterations.  This diligent process is comparable to the stretches of time truck drivers spend staring down empty highways, watching the same signs and destinations whiz by. If one is looking, there is much opportunity to see the world anew in the midst of such repetition. When viewing Britton’s work, one can sense her longing to understand the world by arranging and rearranging what she already knows. With The Continental Interior, Britton lays bare her evolving artistic process and with it her own process of evolving.


The Continental Interior is on view at the San Francisco Art Commission Gallery at 155 Grove Street, in San Francisco, through January 26, 2013.

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