Those thumping, rumbling sounds in the gallery are coming from Joshua G. Churchill’s duffel bag. He checked the duffel on a trip to Portugal last year and packed it with a recorder that would pick up all the sounds it encountered along the way, like conveyor-belt bumps and airplane-engine roars. Now it’s plugged into the wall and playing a mixed-down version of the trip in a continuous loop. He calls the piece “En Route.”
Churchill is one of thirteen artists selected from a pool of 225 applicants for the second annual Bay Area Currents exhibition. Although the juried competition was open to all nine Bay Area counties, ten of the thirteen ended up being from Oakland, Berkeley, and Emeryville. Most of them are relatively young, and the overwhelming majority work in nontraditional media, ranging from bamboo to inner tubes, and demonstrate in no uncertain terms what an innovative and vibrant artistic community calls the East Bay home.
In a gallery setting, “En Route” opens itself up to a wide variety of interpretations. If you didn’t know its story, you might be tempted to panic and call the bomb squad — a totally reasonable reaction to an unclaimed piece of luggage that’s sitting in a public place and making strange noises. Once you do know what the piece is about, the sounds have exactly the opposite effect. Just because they’re mechanical doesn’t mean they’re harsh or repetitive (they’re pretty relaxing, in fact) and hearing them in the background as you wander around the gallery has a lulling effect like the rumble and rhythmic motion of a train, or maybe even like being in the womb and listening to the muffled sounds of mom’s daily routine.
It’s also worth noting that Churchill has made “En Route” unavailable for purchase, which raises interesting questions about its significance to the artist and its status as an art object. It is partly an installation, partly a Duchampian ready-made, and partly something else that’s more intangible and harder to categorize. All of its physical components, like the bag and the audio CD, would be easy enough to replicate. But unlike a traditional ready-made, there is also an experiential component involved. This particular duffel is the actual, original object that the artist took to Portugal and made the vehicle for this project. In that sense it is the only bag of its kind in existence, and now, sitting in the gallery, that uniqueness is essential to its reenactment of the voyage.
Not all the artists in “Bay Area Currents” are as technology-intensive as Churchill. In fact, some of the most fascinating works in the show are also the simplest, like Bill Jenkins’ drawings. He created them by making a series of lines on a piece of paper using an ordinary black felt-tip marker: left to right, again and again, one line stacked carefully on top of another. Occasionally he would switch to a new marker when the one he was using ran out of ink.
The finished drawings are surprisingly, deceptively simple, and remarkable for the way they appear to be so many things besides what they really are. You can’t help thinking they must have been mechanically or digitally produced, although nothing could be farther from the truth. They resemble aerial views of rolling hills reproduced in black and white, or maybe electron-microscope scans of some material surface. They also look like close-up photographs of wood grain, or tree rings, and they have the aura of something ancient and subtly but palpably alive. In a way, the artist’s repetitive process of line-stacking is not unlike the process of tree-ring formation. Not only are they both slow and steady, but also, in each case, little environmental irregularities in the weather or drawing surface become “encoded” in the lines. And like the acid-free printmaking paper Jenkins uses, tree rings are also associated with ideas of record-keeping, or archiving.
Several other artists in the show are also motivated by an archival impulse. Eirik Johnson photographs what he calls the “fraying edges of our contemporary environment,” preserving on film the abandoned semi-urban spaces that most people never notice. Susan Magnus’ “Atlas Maritimus” is a collection of digitally enlarged ocean maps from National Geographic magazine, excerpted over a period of decades. By re-presenting the maps as art, Magnus proposes that cartography is not an exact science at all, but rather a kind of fictional story that is continually being rewritten. Anne Wolf’s “Monument” sculpture looks like a gigantic amber necklace lying on the gallery floor. Each softball-sized “bead” is actually a piece of semi-transparent pine rosin and contains a dead, preserved bit of nature, like a poppy pod, a leaf skeleton, or some seaweed.
Erik Friedman is a preservationist of another sort. He’s fascinated by methods of communication that have become almost antiquated in our digital age, and the works he contributes to this show focus on the lost art of handwriting. Handwritten words, charts, and chemical symbols are, to him, beautiful abstract patterns. He chops them up and collages them into mixed-media concoctions that freely juxtapose and overlap all the various branches of science and the humanities. Maybe Friedman had a vague idea of the Rosetta Stone in the back of his mind when he began, but the work’s execution makes it clear that he doesn’t care so much about preserving the meanings of these symbols. He’s much more interested in how they look when a real person has penned them out, and the purely visual ways in which they rhyme (or not) when treated as collage elements.
Chen-Ju Pan’s “Tee-Tee” is unlike anything else in the show. Born on the island of Taiwan, Pan has always been fascinated by the ocean and water-travel vehicles. Her artistic career has led her through many different kayak projects, none of them very practical. Ergonomics and aesthetics are central concerns in all her designs, but she barely gives any thought to means of navigation. To create “Tee-Tee,” she encased a rubber inner tube in flowery lace, then mounted it at the bottom of a cylindrical metal framework hung with a fabric curtain. Its shape is vaguely reminiscent of an old-fashioned stand-alone shower, and its materials are a contradictory blend of girly and industrial.
Without paddles or motors or sails, “Tee-Tee” is a totally uncontrollable flotation device. But the work is really less about transportation, and more about femininity and fantasy. Dressed in that strange outfit of metal and lace, the inner tube looks as though it’s wearing an uncomfortable, old-fashioned whalebone corset. The metal framework is the constraining force, while the lace provides the comforting, cradling element. Maybe her imaginary passenger isn’t actually an island escapee, but a woman wearing high heels, constricting underwear, and heavy makeup: all the little self-inflicted traumas that women must suffer in order to satisfy the expectations of the outside world.