"Present Tense: Nine Artists in the Nineties." (Installation Art, Various Artists, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, California)

Article excerpt


If "Present Tense: Nine Artists in the Nineties" is any indication, the present is not so much tense as profoundly melancholy. Apparently awaiting the moment when the dilatory millennium will press our collective restart button, the artists in this zeitgeisty exhibition seem to have plenty of time on their hands. The consolation is that they use it well.

A labor-intensive preoccupation with fabrication was the central feature of the primarily sculptural and installation-oriented art on view. The piece de resistance in this make-work vein was Jim Hodges' No Betweens, 1996, a 30-foot diaphanous curtain of artificial silk flowers that hung, floor to ceiling, in the middle of a large gallery. Making the curtain required disassembling, ironing, pinning, and sewing together thousands of fake flowers, and Hodges, a New York artist, enlisted the help of family and friends over the course of a summer. The result was at once visually irresistible (the color of the petals, vivid close to the ceiling, drains as the curtain nears the floor) and a lively token of the interrelationship of labor and love.

Kathryn Spence, a fresh Bay Area talent, took fabric in another direction, collecting tiny scraps of cloth, then stacking and wrapping them in neat, color-coordinated piles. She also stacked play money. In another piece, a color photograph documented a toy car she had stuffed to overflow with simulated refuse, then wrapped with tape. The tenuous sense of belonging (or not belonging, since homelessness seems an omnipresent theme) these objects convey was magnified in Spence's largest and most impressive work, a series of mud-covered animals made from stuffed toys and bathrobes. These pathetic, heart-wrenching creatures, which look like bears that have been scolded and shamed, struck an emotional chord that the rest of "Present Tense," for all its ingenuity, seldom achieved or even aspired to.

By and large, the artists in the show emphasize modest gestures, subtle shades of feeling, and sleight of hand. Charles LeDray, Iran do Espirito Santo, Jennifer Pastor, and Steve Wolfe all play with replication and simulation. LeDray, a Seattle-born artist, presented doll-size shirts and dresses and, in a nostalgic nod to the city's 1962 World's Fair, fabricated souvenirs like a cigar lighter in the shape of the Space Needle. Espirito Santo painted opposite interior walls of the museum with flat gray faux brickwork, a reminder to visitors that the building's exterior - panels of ersatz brick facing, used as an earthquake precaution is itself trompe l'oeil. …


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