They Knew What They Wanted

Altman Siegel Gallery

Mike Osborne

Electrical Plate Covering From A Wall Drawing By Sol Lewit, Untitled, 2004; acrylic paint on electrical wall plate; 4 ½ x 2 ¾ inches; courtesy Altman Siegel Gallery, San Francisco

Sam Gordon, Sketchbooks, 1995–2010; 21 binders containing works on paper; number of pages varies per sketchbook, mixed media on paper, three-ring binders; 2 ½ x 10 ½ x 11 ¾ inches; courtesy Altman Siegel Gallery, San Francisco

This summer, four San Francisco galleries joined forces for a multi-venue exhibition entitled They Knew What They Wanted. Works were drawn from the backrooms of the participating spaces to create four unique group shows, each curated by a different artist: Robert Bechtle at John Berggruen Gallery, Jordan Kantor at Ratio 3, Katy Grannan at Fraenkel Gallery and Shannon Ebner at Altman Siegel Gallery.

Of the four installations, Ebner’s at Altman Siegel was the smallest and most tightly focused. Ebner is known for photographs and sculptures that examine the basic components of pictorial and linguistic signification. Her recent pictures are like Morse code made visible: depictions of language rendered as raw material, an alphabet of cinderblocks. In her curatorial role, Ebner evinces a similar attraction to works that toy with the basic constituents of signification.

The show begins with Gabriel, a 1976 film by Agnes Martin. Playing on a TV monitor, the film follows a young boy through a lush, Western Canadian landscape. Reverent and unabashedly prelapsarian in its depiction of Nature, it sets the tone for the rest of the room, which unfolds as a kind of conceptualist’s creation myth. A preoccupation with voids, origins and objecthood abounds. Lutz Bacher’s Incubator (2009–10) anchors the center of the room. Translucent, empty and antiseptic, this ready-made incubator defines itself in opposition to the surrounding space, recalling Carl Andre’s useful dictum: “A thing is a hole in a thing it is not.” Nearby, Iran Do Espirito Santo’s similarly translucent Water Glass 2 (2008) is a quietly stunning trompe l’oeil pint of water rendered in crystal. Verging on nothingness, its visual effect is potent; the conical section undergoes a kind of transubstantial phase-change in front of the eye, its illusory liquid morphing into a solid block.

Sol LeWitt’s Untitled (2004) also plays with nothingness. Consisting of black paint applied to the bottom third of a white electrical wall plate, LeWitt’s binary gesture posits a theoretical prehistoric moment when the pictorial and verbal remained briefly undifferentiated. Ed Ruscha’s lithograph Unit (2004) extends this notion of an evolutionary timeline. A black word (with drop shadow in red) perched on a black horizon, Ruscha’s work echoes LeWitt’s formally while adding a degree of complexity, as if, in the space between them, LeWitt’s prototypical mark had progressed into Ruscha’s relatively sophisticated but still elementary “U-n-i-t.”

On an adjacent wall, Lee Friedlander’s Egypt (1983/printed later) depicts nine stray dogs casually arrayed on a trash-strewn hillside, the Sphinx and pyramids visible in the distance. In Ebner’s creation story, these pyramids are our first glimpse at the work of civilization. Testaments to a bygone dream of shaping the world in the image of Euclidean space and form, the pyramids, rounded and imperfect, have begun to resemble the random rocks scattered throughout the picture’s foreground. Tom Otterness’ equally sardonic Broken Humpty Dumpty (1990) completes the room. Fresh from The Fall, the little bronze Humpty—a storybook Adam as well as a stand-in for the instability of our times—lies helplessly on the cement floor, giant pennies spilling from a crack in his side. In one deft move, Ebner brings us from the pyramids to the present.

They Knew What They Wanted, 2010; installation view; courtesy Altman Siegel Gallery, San Francisco

Tom Otterness, Broken Humpty Dumpty, 1990; bronze; 8 ¼ x 14 ½ x 13 inches; courtesy Altman Siegel Gallery, San Francisco

The smaller, second room elaborates the themes of the first but in a less allegorical fashion. On two tables, Sam Gordon’s sketchbooks (1995–2010) condense studio source materials—photos, Xeroxes, magazine clippings, drawings and notes—onto the pages of several three-ring binders. The juxtapositions are fascinating, blurring distinctions between language, pattern and image in a quasi-schizophrenic semiotic breakdown. Another work by Iran Do Espirito Santo revisits the illusionistic underpinnings of his earlier contribution. Like Water Glass 2, Can L (2005) operates on a slippage between material and illusion: solid stainless steel looks like itself, but it also looks like an unlabeled can of peeled tomatoes. It is what it is, but it’s also something else.

Ebner’s meditation on object, image and illusion continues in the show’s last three works. Leaning in a corner, Fletcher Benton’s Adjustable Racket for Short Heavy Hitters (1983) is a bronze tennis racket, its metallic strings slackened in a loose grid. Its apparent weight riffs on the solidity of the steel Can, while formally it bears an unlikely resemblance to the subject of the adjacent photograph, Bernd and Hilla Becher’s Water Tower, West Paterson, New Jersey, U.S.A. (1980). The Bechers’ first monograph was entitled Anonymous Sculptures, and Ebner draws out the sculptural resonance of their work here. It’s only a picture of a water tower, but it looks heavy.

On the wall behind the reception desk hangs a final work that at first appears to be a weathered copy of Walker Evans’ seminal 1938 book, American Photographs. In fact, it is Untitled (Walker Evans: American Photographs) (1999–2000), a painstakingly handmade sculptural facsimile by Steve Wolfe. A compelling work in its own right, its (metaphorical) weight here derives from its role in the elaborate and deeply pleasurable constellation of works Ebner has put into play. While reprising the illusionistic games of earlier simulacra, Wolfe’s “book” also performs a ventriloquist act, allowing Evans’ voice to enter the mix without any of his work actually appearing in the show.

Evans’ phantom presence is appropriate. Like the Bechers and Ebner herself, Evans explored the line between objects and their representations. An inveterate collector of cultural detritus, he used the camera as a means of appropriating the ready-made world as he found it. (Late in his life, he simply stole objects he might once have photographed.) Like Ebner, his roots were also literary, and he was highly attentive to language—to its visual/material presence as well as its literal denotations. The title of American Photographs is spaced over three lines, and its letters are all capitalized. If transcribed as poetry, and employing the slash (“/”) that has figured prominently in Ebner’s own language-based photographs, Evans’ title would read: AMERICAN / PHOTO- / GRAPHS. For Ebner, as for Evans, this division of a word down to its roots is not for nothing. It seems to suggest that, through such small but significant gestures, a thing might be reduced to its constituent parts, made indivisible and perhaps even knowable.

Mike Osborne is an artist based in Austin, Texas. His work is represented by Holly Johnson Gallery.

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