Art & Development, Community

A place you should be: Stephen Wirtz Gallery

A quick jaunt around commercial galleries in downtown San Francisco left me feeling a bit “meh.” Maybe because it’s August and galleries aren’t too bothered about mounting statement-making shows, maybe because my nerves were frazzled by high-tourist-season traffic, or maybe my critical eye has become a cynical eye, informed too much by thinking about art as artifactual production, parallel to other forms of industrial and cultural production. My taste for commercial art is nearly nil; like commercial radio, its near-ubiquity ensures that the odds aren’t in my favor — I’ll have to tolerate it far more often than I will be happily drawn towards it.

castneda reiman
Image Source: Stephen Wirtz Gallery Website, Castaneda/Reiman’s Places We Have Never Been Exhibition page.
Image Caption: left: Three Tree Lake (drawing #2), 2009, laser etched paper, pigment print. middle: Rocky Seascape (paper 2 x 4), 2009. pigment print, found 2 x 4, oak veneer, 28 1/2 x 96 x 3 1/2 inches. right: Painting Stack with Rocks, 2009, pigment prints, oak, sheetrock, paint, cast porcelain rocks, 53 x 79 x 70 inches

One show, though, stood head-and-shoulders above the rest. It was Castaneda/Reiman’s “Places We Have Never Been” at Stephen Wirtz Gallery. The Bay Area duo has installed reproductions of landscape paintings — complete with frames and odd slices of textured drywall — a tad too close to adjacent shelves, so the prints sag or drape abjectly. The gallery walls are painted with mismatched roll-outs, and areas of sanded joint compound are visible. Cross-sections of stacked gypsum boards are housed in beautiful stained oak; the effect is a framed geometric minimalist abstraction, contrasting sharply with the unframed reproductions. Impossibly uniform opaque white rocks cluster near the gypsum board, missing any glints of quartz, or the rough scale of granite. You can tell the rocks were man-made, but you can’t tell from what. A small landscape print or hand-drawn transfer sits in a corner, heavy rag paper with deckled edge unnervingly out in the open, unframed. An expressionistic landscape — really, not unlike the kind of commercial schlock you find in rural membership galleries — uses some slate blues and greens that appear almost municipal, echoing the industrial hues of manufactured building materials.

The whole effect creates a tense contradiction: provisionality, finely tuned to point one’s attention to multiple illusions.

To ask “Where is the art?” begets affirmative answers without clear resolution. Yes, the framed painting in the reproduction is art. Yes, the print of the painting is art. Yes, the white rocks are art. And yes, the mismatched latex paint is art.

Casteneda/Reiman successfully disperses the location of the art throughout the site — the artists’ installation is theatrical, staged — while simultaneously saying that the gallery is always a staged installation. In this way, Casteneda/Reimen highlight the artifice inherent in all art. I have no qualms with using the word “artifice,” which does not in itself posses negative connotations (though you may be of the Romantic/Modernist persuasion and your value system only allows for art that is expressive/authentic/autonomous/evidence of genius or some kind of moralistic humanism).

I realize that my description of the work — abject, quoting, dispersed — makes it sound like an exercise in endgames, and the artists like over-theorized malcontents. And I can’t say that all viewers will appreciate the work in the show; in fact, many will do a walk-by, feeling put off (rather than attracted, like me) to the exhibition’s absence of grand gestures, obvious attempts at spectacle and feats of craftsmanship. But I really enjoyed the work, and found the illusions and forms to be quite humorous. There was wit, and yes, ironic distance, and yet, there were so many ideas and connotations that unfolded in my viewing experience.

Places We Have Never Been closes August 22. Concurrently on view at Wirtz, Kathryn Spence’s Cloudless White, another assembly of abject parts, slightly more expressive and endearing but also with moments of humor.

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