There’s No Place Like Here – University Art Gallery at Sonoma State University

Zachary Royer Scholz – December 5, 2007
Director Michael Schwager’s curatorial statement for the show There’s No Place Like Here , begins with a definition of place: place (plās), n. 1. a particular portion of space, whether of definite or indefinite extent. 2. the specific portion of space normally occupied by anything. 3. a space, area, or spot, set apart or used for a particular purpose. 4. a region or area. Within this broad definition, the various works of the show approach place from a number of strikingly different directions.

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Elliot Anderson, 2007

Elliot Anderson makes stratified light boxes by taking iconic depictions of singular locations and layering them through time, using custom computer software. Val Britton extends the language of mapping into the realms of memory and metaphor. Through selective obfuscation, Kristin Bly drains maps of their use, formalizing previously informational structures. The team BULL.MILETEC presents videos of disparate urban landscapes from around the globe unified in all being captured through the windows of rotating restaurants. Russell Crotty, in his paper-covered globe, conflates the experience of the horizon with the spherical form that produces it, implicating the mediated complexity within our understanding of place. Lewis deSota reproduces floor plans of past homes taking into account his memories and desire to forget as much as the physical layout. Anthony Discenza manipulates film and television footage raising critical questions about suburban sprawl and consumerism. Todd Hido’s photographs depict quintessential American landscapes newly tinted with despair. Nina Katchadourian’s installation of snow-globe-like map-domes and audiotape sonically maps the serendipitous space of 10 European countries. David Maisel’s stark aerial photographs unflinchingly document the urbanization of landscape. Jeremy Mora’s miniature landscapes manipulate physical and psychological scale to produce an effect both delicate and massive. Julia Page’s video installation, informed by survivalist discussion boards on the Internet, explores the potential use of everyday spaces as survival shelters. Lordy Rodriguez reconfigures maps of the United States, to reflect personal and imagined geographies. Leslie Shows works loosely within landscape, creating collaged geographies populated with symbolic implications and suggestive structures. Tracey Snelling makes poignant miniatures of banal environments, such as convenience stores and motels, which evoke specifically resonant universality. Yin Xiuzhen’s suitcase installation playfully presents a version of home that can travel.

As this litany of artists and works belies, the show is strikingly diverse. The artists, while somewhat locally focused, hail from as far away as China and range from internationally known to locally emerging. In his curation, Michael Schwager must be credited for stitching together this variety into a show that is cohesive without being monothematic.

The only serious issue I would take with the show, which otherwise is a resonant amalgam filled with great talent, is the matter of titling. A trivial thing perhaps, but titles establish the tone of a show, like a hand on a tiller. My objection is not to the title’s literary/filmic reference, whose tone I quite like, but to the particular substituting of “here” for “home.” The insertion of “here” positions the title at odds with much of the work in the show, work that does not engage explicitly with the space that viewers occupy. In fact, most of the works in the show express distinct relationships with locations displaced in space or time—locations that are, if anywhere, elsewhere. I don’t mean to beat up on Michael Schwager who has put together a commendable grouping of work; I just wish the title had been more in tune with the cohesive voice I so clearly felt while walking through the gallery.

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Tracey Snelling, 2007

Each work in the show opens into a missing location, a geography or landscape that is in some way elsewhere, physically or temporally fragmented, belonging to the past, or a space only existing within the parameters of the work. Generally, the pieces convey a sense of loss produced by this displacement. In some it is quite strong: chaotic and dreamy in the work of Val Britton, willful and crushing in the prints of Lewis deSota, bodily remembered in Tracey Snelling’s structures, post-apocalyptic in Jeremy Mora’s miniatures, reassuringly naïve in Yin Xiuzhen’s installation, and leadenly pervasive in Davis Maisel’s photographs. In some of the works the loss of their displacement is actively combated: Nina Katchadourian unifies geographic gaps through sound, Lordy Rodriguez heals personal fragmentation by reconstructing maps, Russell Crotty unifies spatial understanding by conflating perspectives, and BULL.MILETEC makes the foreign familiar by highlighting cohesive similarities.

The work in the show does not easily fall in to two cleanly defined categories: one sorrowful, one proactive. In each work the duel impulses to mourn and heal, are intermixed; optimism band-aiding still unhealed wounds. In every work positivism is tempered, sadness softened with a smile. The voice of the show is eloquently whole. And, while it is difficult to separate works out from this general effect, the ones that resonated most strongly for me were those whose engagement of space bore a distinctly personal edge.

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Val Britton, “Continental Drift,” 2007

One such work is Val Britton’s work Continental Drift. Constructed using ink, graphite, tape, and paper, this sprawling collaged and incised expanse occupies one of the biggest walls I have ever seen outside of a museum. The size of the towering wall heightens the delicacy and fragility of the marks that congeal within the work into vaguely felt landmasses of memory. The logic of mapping structures this work, but rather than expressing concrete features of a intelligible landscape, Britton’s work uses mapping to explore ephemeral regions of memory and speculation. Britton has expressed that this work, and the body of work to which this piece belongs, spring from her longing to connect to her father, a long haul truck driver who died more than a decade ago. The longing for this connection has poured itself into the work through her desire to find the past and fill in the parts she says she can never know. Eventually these accreted tracings of explorations fade out into the unknown. The restive voids in Britton’s work are filled with a seductive mystery similar to the blank spaces at the edges of old maps. As specific as Britton’s impetus for these works may be, they ask for no explanation. The honesty and earnestness of her seeking imbues the work with a force and structure that sends us each down our own half remembered paths of meaning and memory until they fade away into the unrecoverable.

Like Val Brittons work, the works on view by Lewis deSoto spring from his past. Unlike Britton, who seeks to remember through her work, deSoto seeks to forget. The works, Prince Albert (Memorium), Sixteenth (Memorium), and West Seventh (Memorium), may look at first like minimalist monochrome prints, but all three depict the architectural footprints of houses where deSoto lived at various points in his past. The floor plans are subtly telling in their simplicity. The modest layout of walls and rooms are rendered in darker tones of the fields of color on which they are set. The legibility varies between the three. The line and background of one are so similar in color and intensity that the image is almost invisible and remains elusive even upon close inspection. The other two, while more visible, seem to remain perpetually in soft focus. Learning more about the work, I discovered that the legibility of the lines corresponds to the degree to which deSoto wants to remember what happened within these homes. I like that this extra information amplifies rather than changes the sense of intentional forgetting conveyed by the work. I respect deSoto’s restraint in not relaying the specific acts, events, or conditions that have caused him to want to forget but has left these floor plans empty to be filled with our own pasts.

In contrast to both Britton’s and deSoto’s meditations on the loss of the past,

Yin Xiuhen’s Portable City—Shenzhen actively combats the act of forgetting. Xiuhen’s work consists of an open suitcase whose cavities are filled with a miniature stuffed-fabric version of her hometown skyline. From beneath the city, which fills the case zipper to zipper, emanates strains of Chinese popular music. This physical and aural re-creation sits on the ground in a blue-painted corner of the gallery on whose walls cities have been mapped by cartoonish giant yellow buttons. These button-cities are linked together by yellow string that stretches across the corner like a cats-cradle gone gigantically awry. The buttons mark all of the locations where the work has been exhibited and the string traces the path of its journey between them. There is something so childishly beautiful about this piece that it is hard not to like it. The buildings of little Shenzhen’s downtown are not made to meticulously look like buildings but are chunkily constructed out of fabrics with distinctly textile patterns; florals and the like. Rather than being ill suited, the patterned silks add another distinctive texture of the place that this totem seeks to encapsulate. Like a favorite stuffed animal taken on vacation by a young child, Xiuhen’s work functions as a comforting touch-stone, a little bit of what has been left behind that magically keeps it from being gone. I particularly like how this work suggests the way that each of us carries with us a sense of home and the places that have shaped us to every destination we go.

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Nina Katchadourian, 2007

All in all, There’s No Place Like Here achieves an impressively nuanced effect for such a diverse show. While I have my favorites, the show is solid through and through. The pervasive feeling that the show left me with is so closely in tune with my own nostalgically brightened geography of homesick memory and bittersweet recollection that I have to say Bravo…what ever it is called.

(Zachary Royer Scholz, December 5, 2007)

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