Conversation 6 @ SF Arts Commission Gallery

by Sarah Hotchkiss

As technology continues to blur the line between the virtual and the actual, so do our definitions of those states.  All of the attendant issues — perceptual, ethical and legal – swirl around the latest installment of the San Francisco Art Commission’s Conversations series, in which a local artist is paired with an international counterpart, connecting regional practices to a global dialogue. 

The latest, Conversation 6, consists of just three works. In the first room, Dutch artist Berndnaut Smilde exhibits two wall pieces: a floor-to-ceiling image of a cloud floating, inexplicably, inside a checkered-floor room, and a more modest photograph of a strangely pixilated roadside building, slightly overlapped by two framed works. In the back room, San Francisco-based Jason Hanasik exhibits an installation with three video elements descriptively titled We always thought the walls would protect us, but suddenly realized they were as weak as our frames.

Despite their vastly different materials, practices and interests, Hanasik and Smilde’s work fits surprisingly well together. Smilde’s poetic focus on landscape and clouds is mediated by an interest in technology and the “truth” of representation. Hanasik’s very personal rendering of family experiences is spare instead of sentimental, making the human elements of his videos all the more riveting.  

In both artists’ works the dichotomy of making/unmaking is prevalent. Smilde’s now-famous clouds are constructions, immortalized by photography, but completely ephemeral in their original state. His second piece, Until Askeaton has Street View, began with the image of a roadside barn from Google’s Street View of Askeaton, Wisconsin. During a residence in Askeaton, Ireland (namesake of the stateside town), Smilde transposed the digital barn to a 2D physical structure and erected it alongside a road very much like the original site. Strangely, the Irish faction of Google Street View subsequently photographed this impermanent, pixilated barn, completing Smilde’s artwork. Now both Askeatons have the same barn, according to Google Maps, creating a bizarre digital vortex between two places on the globe. 

Hanasik’s video works could also be described as two views of the same thing. Two monitors show the excitement surounding the construction of his family house in 1988 and its empty worn-out rooms after foreclosure proceedings in 2010. The videos themselves exist inside the wooden framing of a room within the gallery. Plastic sheeting on the floor and over a window-like space creates an environment of either construction or deconstruction, it’s unclear which. A 7-year-old Hanasik and his 5-year-old sister Jennifer conduct the 1988 tour (he is serious, she hams it up) and it’s difficult to look away – they are the only source of action and life in the entire exhibit. 

The modest number of works in the show might lead viewers to look for more information, more access to the artists and the ideas surrounding their practices. In anticipation of this, the SFAC Gallery organized two public events. The first occurred on March 20 at the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library, bringing Smilde together with artist Doug Rickard and Fine Arts Museums’ curator Melissa Buron. In short, 10-minute presentations, the participants discussed their own practices and fleeting thoughts related to the images. There was no discussion amongst the three and no question and answer session with the audience, only an invitation to “come up afterwards for a quick chat if you would like.” 

The presenters had so much more to say, and I wish they had been given more time to speak. In this era of 18-minute TED Talks, 6-minute 40-second PechaKucha presentations and ever-dwindling attention spans, shorter is somehow seen as better.  Unfortunately, this particular event would have benefited from more lengthy explorations of Smilde’s childhood spent under dramatic Dutch skies, of Richard’s philosophies about the new age of Google street photography and of Buron’s survey of clouds in 550 years of art history. As it was, the event felt constrained, without much room for the “broader dialogue” it advertised.

A separate public event centered around Hanasik’s work, featuring Tammy Rae Carland and Abner Nolan, is scheduled for April 10 in the War Memorial Veterans Building. While it might yield more in-depth discussions, it’s a shame the two artists couldn’t actually have a public conversation. Smilde’s brief visit to San Francisco overlapped with an opening of Hanasik’s work in a National Portrait Gallery group show, keeping the two apart.

Conversation 6 is the final show to take place in the current SFAC Gallery before a two-year closure for retrofitting. The space will reopen with 4,400 square feet (nearly five times the current square footage). This information makes Conversation 6 slightly bittersweet. While programming in the War Memorial Veterans Building pauses on a high note, I can’t help but think about the same show in a larger space. In its current form, the conversation between Smilde and Hanasik appears truncated.  With room to expand, future Conversations might really take off, yielding surprising, possibly unwieldy results sure to create larger dialogues about the connections between local and international art practices.

This review originally appeared on SquareCylinder.com.