RATIO 3, SAN FRANCISCO | OCTOBER 31 – DECEMBER 13, 2008
Lutz Bacher, the Berkeley-based artist who has been working in a conceptual idiom for the last forty years, is the subject of two major museum retrospectives, one currently at the Contemporary Art Museum of St. Louis, and one upcoming next year at P.S.1. Her work is also on display this month in San Francisco at Ratio 3, a Mission gallery under the direction of Chris Perez.
The show at Ratio 3 is an outlier to these auspicious institutional exhibitions and it reinforces the themes of expropriation, defamiliarization, and tactical humor that thread themselves throughout Bacher’s career.
On arrival, viewers awkwardly walk through an overhead projector’s beam of artist’s thank-yous. (They also have the chance to take a poster that features the exhibition’s press release, a recipe for butterscotch pudding.) Further in, a sequence of digital pop-shots loop around the gallery’s walls at eye level while four video projectors blast sound and picture above and on top of the printouts. In the gallery’s back room, “Big Boy”, an adult-sized replica of a soft, anatomically-correct male doll used to evaluate abused children, lies on a work table wrapped in plastic storage sheeting.
The viewer feasts on a smörgåsbord of images culled from the artist’s private stash: aliens and Star Trek characters; animals doing human things; piles of garbage; celebrities; camouflage; Warhol; trolls; Santa Claus; misspelled menu boards; people without pants; Bacher’s gallerists; patrons looking at Bacher’s exhibition in St. Louis. Videos project content structured in a similarly entropic fashion: marbelized paper doing a digital melt; Stevie Wonder performing at the DNC; a turkey gets trussed to the tune of Johnny Cash; guys shooting guns; “Who Would Jesus Bomb?”; a view shot from the lap of the driver.
It’s all here—the detritus of Americana, vague sexual weirdness, cosmic sensationalism, and the people and activities in Bacher’s daily life. Clues to apparently meaningful sub-narratives (why so many pictures of Lia Gangitano?) come off as red herrings. Images accessed in the public domain are redistributed into the artist’s private use while the artist’s private images are put on public display. On equal turf here, these disparate sources are consumed by the viewer and reflect whatever scrutiny is projected onto them.
The work comes off as an anarchic, closed circuit that deliberately precludes categorization—postmodern identity fracture with a grin and a poke. It’s a trickster attitude on display here, one related in spirit more to Beckett’s absurd minimalism and Bruce Nauman’s existential wit (perhaps deliberately indicated in the use of the sound portion from Nauman’s “Get Out Of My Mind, Get Out Of This Room” in St. Louis) than to a Brechtian social experiment.
Despite the hilarity and emotional squalor present in many of these images, the overall gesture is flat and observational—channeling the show’s titular Odo, a character from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine whose name, in interstellar language, means “nothing.” The absence of the artist’s guiding hand may be alienating, but it’s not ill-natured. In a way, the show is a terrific entry into some of the difficult questions posed by conceptualism: why am I looking at this, and what makes this art? The questions are posed, but not forced; Bacher wants to play, but she makes no demands—we’re free to take the goods or leave them on the shelf.
Liz Wing is a writer living in San Francisco.