Will Brown/Matrix 259

Review

Will Brown/Matrix 259

By Anton Stuebner July 21, 2015

Curatorial collaborative Will Brown’s installation for MATRIX 259 centers on a disorienting sight: a beat-up yellow 1970s Toyota sedan parked immediately next to the UC Berkeley Art Museum’s front doors. The car is all but trashed, the rear windshield duct-taped in place, its surface covered in filth and rust. Its interior is a hoarder’s paradise: stacks of light-bleached paper scattered over used straws and lid tops; candy wrappers and a broken clock jutting out from a pile of books; old sneakers dangling on top of torn banker’s boxes filled with disused file folders and slideshow carousels. It’d be easy to mistake it for a junkyard vehicle, save for two pine boxes stacked along the roof, marked with the dates 1970 and 2015. Sprouting from their center, puzzlingly, is a thin-stalked tree with small, glistening green leaves. Next to the pine boxes, an old satellite dish hangs precariously along the roof, pointing forward toward another unnerving sight: a funereal arrangement of flowers and palm leaves splayed across the hood, the white and orange petals of the daisies and lilies wilted and browned from the sun.

Will Brown/MATRIX 259 at BAMPFA, June 12–September 13, 2015. Courtesy of Will Brown.

The juxtapositions here—between plants and discarded material, between the “living” tree and the dead casket flowers—suggest deeper tensions between commemoration and decay, and the installation’s proximity to BAMPFA’s recently closed Mario Ciampi building (the museum’s home since 1970) makes these correlations especially prescient. Will Brown/MATRIX 259, in turn, explores the precarity of institutional memory through a series of installations that attempt, in part, to “recover” a now-lost light work by artist Dan Flavin (1933–1996), untitled (for Gretchen, a colorful and fond match) (1978). The works on display—a light piece, an artist book, and the mysterious “parked” car—ostensibly draw inspiration from the diffuse histories surrounding Flavin’s original installation. Their context, however, provokes larger questions about cultural memory: Which artworks do we choose to remember, and which do we choose to forget?

A special commission for BAMPFA’s solo exhibition Dan Flavin: Drawings, Diagrams, Prints, and Installation in Fluorescent Light (also 1978), his untitled (for Gretchen, a colorful and fond match was originally composed of twenty-eight green fluorescent bulbs, each four feet long, that collectively emanated an eerily radiant light. Mounted in the main stairwell between the museum’s administrative offices and lower-level galleries, the light work became the subject of art mythology. Because it was never formally purchased by BAMPFA, there is scant documentation of its installation and subsequent de-installation in the early 1980s. It became an almost phantom presence in the museum, a part of its environment while markedly outside of the museum’s collection.

Interior view of BAMPFA, c. 1978. The green light in the stairway is from Dan Flavin's untitled (for Gretchen, a colorful and fond match), 1977–78. Photo: Colin McCrae.

Various accounts recorded by Will Brown’s members (David Kasprzak, Jordan Stein, and Lindsey White) note that Flavin’s spectral green light manifested itself in different forms throughout Ciampi’s building: as a scattered glow in the lobby during the day; as a refracted beam through the skylight; and even as a radiant cloud at night through the museum’s center air shaft. It was eventually de-installed under uncertain conditions, save for a single bulb left behind. This further proliferated confusion about the work while provoking uncertain inquiries about its original inception—adding to its curious mystery.

MATRIX 259 attempts to resolve these conflicting histories by placing them in conversation with one another, and in evoking these unstable histories, Will Brown utilizes recurring motifs to connect the seemingly disparate installations. Green light, in particular, reappears throughout the works on view, manifest as a misty haze under the “parked” Toyota sedan and as a radiant color field along the roof of the Ciampi building, the latter “re-creating” the nighttime glow viewable at the time of Flavin’s original installation that, though oft recalled, was never photographed. In a culture where visual documentation is the surest mark of proof, Will Brown’s installation here is critical for two reasons: Not only does it validate oral histories by restaging a phenomenon posited here as a historical occurrence, it also allows for that phenomenon to be recorded in the here and now, documentation in the present filling in the historical gaps within the past.

An artist book on display at UC Berkeley’s Morrison Library, conversely, reproduces archival documentation of Flavin’s original solo exhibition, including Flavin’s correspondence with curators at both BAMPFA and the Fort Worth Art Museum (the 1978 show’s primary lender). Tucked away in the mezzanine, the book is easy to miss among the Morrison’s stacks. Two objects mark it as anomalous: a small identifying placard and a power cord connected to the book’s spine that, once open, begins to radiate with green light, inset along the edges of the book’s front and rear covers.

Additional facsimiles provide critical insight regarding its inception—itemized budgets, sketches, and photographs of additional installations used for reference—as well as Will Brown’s correspondence with BAMPFA’s current curators and staff in preparation for MATRIX 259. Also reproduced is the full text of A New Light on Riboflavin, a commissioned play by Kevin Killian inspired by Flavin’s light work and performed during the show’s opening night outside the Ciampi building. Most important, though, are the transcriptions of oral recollections from former staff members and their families, which enrich—and occasionally contradict—institutional narratives about untitled (for Gretchen, a colorful and fond match). Exhaustively researched, the artist book is a comprehensive work of documentary, representative of the increasing imperative to record diffuse histories at risk of erasure.

Will Brown/MATRIX 259 at BAMPFA, June 12–September 13, 2015. Courtesy of Will Brown.

But is it enough? Is it enough to simply compile these histories in a non-circulating artist book and expect them to be remembered? And is it enough to re-create a field of radiant green light and expect people to care without context? MATRIX 259 will eventually close, and it’s unclear what will happen to those stories—will they be reproduced and retold? Or will they end up in the corner of a dark library shelf—waiting to be remembered, ready to be forgotten? Another look at the junked Toyota reveals that the stained and torn stacks of papers are in fact archival materials: copies of curatorial statements, memos between administrators, ephemera from exhibitions long since closed. Will Brown’s members may intend MATRIX 259 as a tribute to Dan Flavin’s work and to Berkeley Art Museum’s rich programmatic past. But the metaphor here of the trashed car as archive/repository makes an altogether more pessimistic statement, one in which these histories join the pile of light-bleached paper, scattered among the candy wrappers.  

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Will Brown/Matrix 259 is on view at UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), in Berekeley, through September 13, 2015.

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