Friday, September 22, 2006

Farm Art

IN THE NINETEEN-SEVENTIES, I think it was, it was Jock Reynolds who made art that told me how much my seven years on the farm had to do with preparing me for conceptual art. In a show at the old Hansen Fuller Gallery, in San Francisco, he showed sculpture that was in fact jars of canned tomatoes, or sheaves of corn, or in one case a long box made of clear acrylic, filled with soil, planted with seedlings just leafing out.

I’m working from memory here, so I may have some of the details wrong. But I remember covering the show for KQED, and working at persuading my editor that this was indeed art. Color, texture, manipulation of light and space — no question: the removal of these items from their normal context, and of course especially their relocation into an art gallery, made them art. Marcel Duchamp, I knew, had won that point fifty years earlier with his readymades.

Twenty years later I was writing a catalog essay for Ann Hamilton, who was in residence at the Marin Headlands Center for the Arts, where she’d been commissioned to create a dining room — they called it a “mess hall” — and kitchen. Ann’s work is rich and complex, and while its most immediate effect on a viewer is through the eyes, its real appeal is to the mind. It involves memory, history, awareness. It was no surprise to me that she was widely read in areas already of great interest to me: Raymond Roussel and Marcel Duchamp, relating her to the French intellectual avant-garde of the early twentieth century, but also Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry, relating her to the late-twentieth-century return to the earth that feeds our bodies. (You can find the Hamilton essay on my website.)

In the arts as elsewhere the Twentieth Century presents, among many other things, this fascinating pendulum-swing: Modernism took us into abstraction, the intellect, theory, invention; but something that followed — and it is not postmodernism, which is only a late form of Modernism — returned us to a contemplation of First Concerns: sustenance and sustainability, nourishment and wellness, community.

Where is Art in all this, a friend wants to know, and that’s an interesting question. I’ve always thought that Art is a sort of transitory step in a process that begins in Mystery, moves to Religion, degenerates into Art, and winds up as either Entertainment or Criticism.

But a shorter answer is, Well, these days, if you don’t see what else to call it, it’s Art.

ALL THIS COMES TO MIND TODAY in the wake of seeing a show at the Sonoma County Museum, in Santa Rosa’s fine old post-office building. The museum is one of those uneasy combinations of Art and History — I mean that it’s obliged to give equal consideration to both, and given the nature of Art these days, and the potential volatility of History even, there’s a good chance any given exhibit or installation is going to rub someone the wrong way.

The current show, Hybrid Fields, is billed “a group exhibition of contemporary artists exploring our food systems,” and that pretty well describes it. Some of the work is toward the conceptual; some is close to conventional. The best of it, to my mind, sits firmly in the Art-As-Societal-Investigation pigeonhole, and it sits there pretty.

I particularly respond to the humor of an installation documenting The Sonoma County Mammalian Enology Experimental Pasturelands, with a detailed map of the pastures dedicated to wine-lactating rhinos, giraffes, and cows. Each wine is exhibited in sample bottles whose labels comment rather acidly on some of the enological absurdities already present on labels in your neighborhood shop. Funny: but also a little biting.

I respond also to Laura Parker’s Taste of Place, whose wine-glasses of soil samples from various Sonoma county farmsites remind the viewer that the terroir of our unique wines is literally an expression of the soil. You can sniff at these glasses, and some of, in doing so, are reminded of the heavenly scent of earthy aromas from our past.

There are a number of other intriguing works, like Steve Shada and Marisa Jahn’s Swan Song, a musical instrument played by ripe apples dropping from a tree — it’ll be interesting to see if it makes it to the end of the year, when this show closes — and a couple of outdoor installations: Susan Leibovitz Steinman’s pentangle of apple trees in stock tanks, recalling the star-shaped seed core of the familiar Malus, and Matthew Moore’s Green Roof, ten hop vines, each planted in a plastic bucket of grey water hanging alongside a low building west of the vacant lot to the left of the Museum entrance, eventually to form a pergola of vines over the roof.

Hybrid Fields helps, one hopes, to bring the agricultural past (and present!) of our county to urbanized art-happy visitors to the Museum, and to that extent it’s a successful expression of that troubling mandate to serve both Art and History. (Further anchors to the county’s ag history are in the continuation of the exhibit on the upper floor: don’t overlook them.) I hope Moore’s hopyard and Steinman’s mini-orchard suggest a permanent integration of Nature as well, when the new building approaches its final achievement.

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