by Christian L Frock
The Conversation series at the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery (SFAC) is an important objective of gallery director Meg Shiffler. The program, which pairs the work of a regional artist with an artist "based on another point on the globe," creates a wider context for the work of local artists while providing exposure for international artists. A broad view of contemporary art practice is developed through this pairing.
The current iteration -- the sixth in the series -- also represents the final exhibition in the SFAC's main gallery in the historic War Memorial Veteran's Building. Following the exhibition, the gallery in this grand Beaux Arts building will close for a two-year seismic retrofitting and staff will begin planning for the next chapter in its history. When it reopens in July 2015, the SFAC main gallery will be inaugurated in a newly designed, multipurpose space. This installation of the Conversation series features new work by Bay Area artist Jason Hanasik and Dutch artist Berndnaut Smilde. It explores themes of conclusion, transition and renewal at precisely the same moment in the gallery's history.
One is confronted with Smilde's work when crossing the threshold from the street. A large-as-life photographic wallpaper installation transforms the space of the gallery, and creates the illusion of an architecturally grand space. The image, taken in a historic building in Holland, presents a neoclassical interior, complete with sweeping archways and tall columns. Hovering in the center of the space, peculiarly, is a cloud. Or rather, one did hover briefly in that moment of the shutter click; only a moment later, it dissipated, as clouds tend to do, even indoor clouds.
Amsterdam-based Smilde grew up examining Dutch seascapes resplendent with expansive cloud-filled skies and wondered at the possibility of recreating the cloud itself for exhibition. You won't find out here how he does it -- it is a guarded moment of magic that involves precise chemistry, temperature, and lighting. The organic moment of cloud creation is a matter of studio production; the resulting photographs are the product of Smilde's fantastical experiments. Next month, the artist will visit San Francisco to privately stage cloud images in the historic Green Room of the Veteran's Building. The Green Room photograph will be added to the exhibition and available for purchase as part of a capital campaign for the new gallery space.
Smilde has created clouds in a number of historic spaces, solely for the purpose of capturing them in photographs. The work contrasts our sense of the ephemeral with the implied permanence of architecture. Buildings fall and rise, or are repurposed and re-imagined all around us every day. Even as we know the built environment to be in constant transition, we imbue it with personal histories, hoping it will remain unchanged. The wallpaper installation in the gallery allows for a moment of permanent impermanence, at least from the doorway. Moving forward, the illusion is broken and reality sets in. This is the conversation between Smilde and Hanasik's pairing: a parallel set of meanings arise from distinctly different works that challenge us to consider the past in the present.
Hanasik's new work for the exhibition poignantly addresses the foreclosure of the artist's childhood family home, furthering the theme of impermanence with unexpected emotional depth. His installation in the rear gallery features a recreated skeleton of the family den in his custom-built childhood home in Virginia. Raw wood beams create contemplative space to consider a series of home videos in the installation.
On one side, a video projection features footage of a wooded lot, evidently before construction. On the floor, a monitor presents a video from after the building was completed, as his father tours the house with camcorder in hand. A third video was captured after the bank seizure and features a final tour of its decades-old lived-in spaces, including trace evidence of family photos removed from the walls.
Few will assess the work with critical distance; most everyone knows someone who lost their home in the recent financial crisis. Many of us know many who have. This does not lessen the experience of Hanasik's work -- indeed it seems the emotional impact is heightened by our collective experience of the recent financial hailstorm that left few unscathed. In conversation, the two artists' work, timed perfectly within the gallery's history and our larger cultural history, offers echoes of storm clouds that once hung heavily, but have since receded, clearing paths for an unknown future.
This review originally appeared on KQED Arts' blog.