Wallworks is just that. For her first exhibition as the new Director of Visual Arts at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Betti-Sue Hertz chose to highlight the architecture of the galleries by commissioning artists to create new works on its walls. Designed by Fumihiko Maki in 1993, the building was intended to facilitate social engagement and be some sort of community haven downtown. The artists were invited to create their works in response to Maki’s vision as well as to two thematic threads: “split landscapes,” and “culture color.”
On one hand, by commissioning artists to create new works onsite and treating the space as something of a laboratory, one can imagine Wall Works to be a signal that YBCA is moving in a more experimental direction. Indeed, for two weeks prior to the opening of Wall Works, the artists made their working processes visible to the public. Yet the overall result is unfortunately more decorative than experimental. Moreover, all but two projects are “wall works” in the most literal sense.
To be sure, WallWorks comprises well executed and impressively scaled works by eight artists—Makoto Aida, Edgar Arceneaux, Chris Finley, Tillman Kaiser, Odili Donald Odita, Amanda Ross-Ho, Yehudit Sasportas, and Leslie Shows. Their works outline the gallery spaces, thus leaving plenty of room for viewer’s to reflect on YBCA’s architecture. Yet the usual suspects are once again overlooked: empty of any modification is the pond courtyard off to the side of the main gallery; as is the mezzanine balcony overlooking the main space. Aside from the crisscrossing nylon lines threading Chris Finley’s Passage Through the Grand Spinning Disc (2009) throughout the lobby and mezzanine, YBCA’s architecture was not really seriously engaged in any unusual way at all.
Finley does, as his title implies, make a point to utilize and accentuate the strangely placed disc in the upper lobby wall, which he adorns on its backside with an even stranger circular pencil drawing on paper depicting what looks to be an oversized cucumber with a lion’s head atop a cylinder with a lizard/horse/dragon hybrid—all of this atop what appears to be, cryptically, depictions of ginger. Without being invasive, Finley’s nylon lines still draw attention from the lobby to the mezzanine and back.
From the lobby, one enters the ground floor galleries decorated with chromatic geometric murals by Odili Donald Odita on five different walls, each a component of Post-Perfect (2009). Tillman Kaiser’s two-part contribution, The Shape of Things to Come (2009), focuses on images of the future that have already passed. In his photomural component, one sees Kaiser’s version of a science fiction novel cover designed by Richard Powers, which he has heavily altered. On a perpendicular wall, Kaiser’s black wall sculpture comprising crystalline shapes and constructed in cardboard and wood houses a convex reflective lens in its center, which doubles a viewer’s warped reflection. Recalling the superiorly imaginative pre-CGI science fiction sets of old, Kaiser again drums up nostalgia for past futures and proposes alternate temporalities.
In the main gallery, both Yehudit Sasportas and Makoto Aida have created spectacular paintings, differently. Sasportas’ acrylic mural, The Cosmic Rift (2009), measures 25 by 69 feet and shares a certain science fiction aesthetic with Kaiser’s works. At the center of the predominately black painted wall, Sasportas painted a forest scene rendered in white, with relatively thin concentric circles getting larger from the center outwards, augmented by a few straight lines placed intermittently. These circles are meant to represent sound waves radiating outwards from the forest, based on field recordings taken by the artist to imply the sound of what is cryptically pictured. As is usually the case with such synaesthetic translation, the intangibility of sound is reduced to a limiting rendering.
Aida’s particleboard, inkjet print, and acrylic mural, Monument for Nothing III (2009), measures 25 by 49 feet. The mural grows from the floor out of a depiction of the kumade, a Japanese lucky charm. Yet in contrast to the spare retro-futuristic aesthetic of Sasportas’ work, Aida’s kumade appears as four blue and purple bulbs that look, frighteningly enough, like testicles sprouting phallic tentacles (some with teeth). These stretch upwards and outwards spewing a vivid spectrum of vomit, currency, sales tags, koy fish, an anime cutter, and a WMD, while a despondent man’s head emerges from a bent-over anime character’s vagina. One could easily say that Aida’s is a vision of excess.
A much more affective space is the smaller downstairs gallery in which Leslie Shows’ Display of Properties (2009)—a 28 by 43 foot assemblage of acrylic, paper, pins and flags—is constructed opposite Amanda Ross-Ho’s Vertical Plot (Dark Matter Community Garden with Backwards Purpose) (2009), which spans 25 by 37.5 feet and comprises canvas, pins, graphite, gesso, spray bottles, rags, nitrile gloves, brushes and more. Both artists play with negative space, raw material, iconography, disappearance and reappearance in their works, but Shows best engages the architecture with her flags rising up to the skylights, glowing in diffuse light, paint dripping down the wall from the high rafters.
Finally and most intriguingly, Edgar Arceneaux’s tripped-out 22 Lost Signs of the Zodiac: Three Variations of Seven (2009), an installation of 66 drawings on multicolored paper, with graphite, gesso, enamel, dirt, and metal stands, is installed in the upstairs gallery. Arceneaux’s is really the only work in the exhibition that does not attach in some way to the wall. There are fingerprints and drawings all over the walls—and indeed the works themselves—from visitors, whose hands were dirtied handling the piece. Each drawing is rolled up like a scroll, stored vertically in metal stands, to be placed onto a large table to be viewed. His drawings deteriorate with each viewing.
Being essentially paintings, the majority of works that comprise Wallworks are interesting enough, yet for site-specific works they are not terribly site-specific. Were the walls lined with canvas, most of these could be transported elsewhere to similar effect. Still, Wallworks lines the interior of Maki’s architecture with a new temporary skin that certainly re-presents YBCA anew by shifting scale and opening up the space. Hertz should be commended for taking a chance with her introduction, for going the route of the laboratory rather than depository. Though dropping too often into the decorative, perhaps this flexible and immediate approach is a sign of further things to come.