1.19 / Review

They Knew What They Wanted

By Christine Wong Yap July 12, 2010

NOTE: “They Knew What They Wanted” is a group exhibition across four galleries, with four different curators. This review covers the shows at John Berggreun Gallery and Altman Siegel Gallery. Lea Feinstein’s companion review covers the shows at Fraenkel Gallery and Ratio 3.

In “They Knew What They Wanted,” a self-proclaimed “collaborative exhibition across four galleries,” Bay Area‑based Robert Bechtle curates a show mostly of pictures of people and places. For Bechtle, human activity, however mundane, unfolds in landscapes suburban and grand.

Like the curator’s own photorealist paintings, Bechtle’s selections at John Berggruen Gallery depict landscapes, suburban banality, the Bay Area, and people with their cars. Still, the paintings, prints, and photographs reveal individual formal and narrative concerns.  

Tom McKinley’s photorealist paintings are mannered Architectural Digest‑ready images that highlight the cultural privilege awarded to modernist art, design, and architecture, even as the interiors are located in quiet but lovely natural landscapes. The works are humorous, ironic, and expertly executed. With their individualistic commitments to photorealism, McKinley and Bechtle are like aesthetic siblings.

I am still savoring Richard Misrach’s trio of photographs of San Francisco Bay. Each image is shot from the same vantage point in the East Bay hills with San Francisco and Marin occupying the lower fifth of the frame. They present contrasting meteorological phenomena. The frank depiction of such immensity startles. What could be more mundane—or more protean—than the weather?

Trevor Paglen’s long-distance photographs of covert sites should be anything but mundane. But the threat they embody is so indiscernible—the building complexes could be black-ops weapons facilities or poultry plants—that their flat representations recall the comment-free quality of Bechtle’s depictions of suburban life. Offered neither critique nor embrace, viewers are left to grapple with the significance of the imagery before them.

When I’ve seen Mitzi Peterson’s formal, slight constructions before, I found them meticulous but unmemorable. Here, however, her two sculptures are scrupulous, minimally worked capsules of equilibrium and tension. There is a pleasant, ironic elegance in how the materials are manipulated, and yet their mundane identities—such as a doorframe stop or a standard length of one-by-one-inch hardwood—are completely unaltered. This formal leap in Bechtle’s fascination with the ordinary is gratifying.

In Shannon Ebner’s black-and-white photographs, a figure holds a large blank white board in an otherwise desolate landscape. The Los Angeles artist is known for textual interventions in natural landscapes that investigate meaning and ambiguity. These blank signs seem semantic even in their absence of text, like a wordless protest or a literal silent gesture.

In contrast with the show curated by Bechtle, in which the walls are lined with pictures, Ebner’s curatorial exercise at Altman Siegel features sparsely placed objects. The artist-curators’ shared attraction to the everyday yields divergent results. While Bechtle focuses on uninflected depictions of the ordinary, Ebner assembles cerebral takes on material culture—Minimalist, Conceptual, post-Minimalist and post-Conceptual gestures. Ranging from restrained to reticent to inscrutable, the selections are contingent upon each viewer for subjective connections.

Emblematic of the show is Iran Do Espirito Santo’s Water Glass 2 (2008). What appears to be a simple pint glass filled to the brim with water is actually a solid crystal form.

Tom McKinley. Pool House, 2008; oil on panel, 26 x 54 in. Courtesy of the Artist and John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco.

Iran Do Espirito Santo. Water Glass 2, 2008; crystal, 5 1/2 x 3 3/8 x 3 3/8 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Altman Siegel Gallery, San Francisco.

How something so simultaneously familiar and strange can be completely indifferent to the meanings we assign to it is compelling. Like Water Glass 2, Santo’s Can L (2005)—a gorgeous, large food can made in brushed stainless steel—is mute but resolute. The fact of its being is itself a riddle. It recalls Roni Horn’s Library of Water (2007), Piero Manzoni’s Merda d'artista (1961), school cafeterias, West Coast Minimalist sculptures emphasizing polished surfaces, and the perplexing simultaneity of its functions as lens, mirror, household object, and aesthetic commodity.

Ebner nods to her oft-cited predecessor, Ed Ruscha, by including his modestly sized lithograph Unit (2004), a classic example of the language-art master’s inscrutability. Spindly serif-face letters rise above a cartoon black and red landscape. Even in specificity, ambiguity abounds: a unit of what? Language? Writing? Art? Conceptual and post-Conceptual art’s intractable nature—its self-evidence, its indifference—is probably its most polarizing quality.

“They Knew What They Wanted,” 2010; installation view, Altman Siegel Gallery. Courtesy of Altman Siegel Gallery, San Francisco.

Even the figure populating the show speaks in the language of objects. Tom Otterness’ Broken Humpty Dumpty (1990) is a plush doll-sized bronze. The egg-character lays prone, pennies spilling forth from his cracked shell. Humpty may symbolize capitalism, but his populist stylization and cuddliness—the dot-eyes on a sad cartoon face, a hand holding an invisible violin bow—evoke sympathy. In this room of things that slide between familiar object, conceptual gesture, and pure form, our host expresses more wordless riddles: eviscerated pennies and soundless strings.

Altman Siegel’s press release states that Ebner’s exhibition “is focused around the idea that reality is comprised of basic units…. By juxtaposing basic structures and timeless forms Ebner creates a picture that approximates the fullness of reality.” Can setting a stage for the subjective interpretation of discrete art objects approximate “the fullness of reality”? Not if that reality is the physical, psychological, embodied one I think of. At best, the show highlights the finitude of corporeal reality in contrast with the expansive, experiential nature of consciousness, and the paradoxical condition that experiences often stem from things, which can be affective and indifferent at the same time.

As manifested by Bechtle and Ebner, “They Knew What They Wanted” is a demonstration of the steadiness of long-term pursuits of areas of interest. Within these practices of engaging ideas about quotidian images and palimpsestic things are indications of conviction and elastic minds. The show is also a notable collaboration between four significant local galleries, who relinquished representation and curatorial privileges. The gamble evinces and extends these two California artists’ practices.


“They Knew What They Wanted” is on view at Altman Seigel Gallery, Fraenkel Gallery, John Berggruen Gallery, and Ratio 3 through July 31, 2010.

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