Pamela Wilson-Ryckman


Calamities Transformed at Mills

San Francisco Chronicle

Saturday, September 9, 2023

Kenneth Baker

Bay Area critic and independent curator Glen Helfand begins the catalog essay for his show "Particulate Matter" at the Mills College Art Museum by discussing the prospective obsolescence of the penny. With it, he evokes the theme he advances to connect selected works by six contemporary artists: the way details of contemporary life proliferate, grow trivial or both to the point where they transform their context, usually not for the better.

"Particulate Matter" brings to light the work of several artists previously shown seldom or not at all in the Bay Area. Anyone who takes the trouble to see it will thank Helfand for that, even if they question, as I do, the fulfillment of his curatorial agenda.

One work on view provides an unmissable echo of Helfand's mention of the disappearing penny: Karl Haendel's big graphite drawing "Won Scent" (2006), which bumps a penny up to the scale of a Roman shield, thus baring its absurdity as a particle of nationalist propaganda. Some of Haendel's deadpan drawings revisit territory explored long ago by Vija Celmins, but unlike her, he clusters his big drawings on the wall and floor to return physical feeling to cognitive collisions that we tend to experience in disembodied terms. Besides the gargantuan penny, his ensemble here includes drawings of photographs of air conditioners and of an Abstract Expressionist drawing and two drawings that magnify newspaper articles in full typographic detail.

Haendel uses manifest effort to restore psychological friction to the consumption of information. Read his poster-size copy of an article about skyscrapers cutting their lights after dark to avoid fatally confusing night-flying birds, and you find your attention continually resurfacing to check the credibility of the artist's manual labor.

Bay Area artist Pamela Wilson-Ryckman fits the exhibition's bill nearly as well as Haendel does. She makes watercolors whose delicacy belies the dire nature of their source material. Wilson-Ryckman bases her images on news photographs of natural and man-made calamities. In "Flood #3" (2006) and "The Gulf" (2006), she has deftly coated pages with fine washes of watercolor -- particulate matter in suspension -- to produce images of watery vastness that rhyme with her medium.

In the process, she activates a quality that connects various things on view more strikingly than the show's ostensible theme does: a tension between assertive technique and realities that elude mediation altogether.

We cannot tell what the source image of her "Green #3" (2006) might describe, but it makes us think "ruin," "explosion," "mass violence," some situation beyond repair to which the pleasing aesthetics of her practice can make no rejoinder. Andrea Bowers sets up a similar stark tension by very different means, crafting elaborate paper sculptures -- a string of ivy, a sprig of tumbleweed -- each of which holds a bomblet, in the form of a political button, left over from some supposedly expired progressive social movement. The paper vegetation reads as artistic camouflage for the jolts of outrage that frequently power private conversation but lack the public voices they require.

Does Chris Finley's work even belong in this show? Even if not, he has contributed a sculpture that takes into three dimensions the loopy computer-driven distortions of form on which he bases drawings and paintings. The sculpture, "Pope House Sprout" (2006), true to the show's announced intent, does suggest information outgrowing the bounds of one medium and springing into another.

Florian Maier-Aichen alters photographs digitally, ostensibly in the service of an apocalyptic vision. But his interventions raise more questions about his technical means -- are these photo- chemical or digital effects, or both, and why should we care? -- than about his view of the world.

Finally, the autobiographical work of Danica Phelps, combining drawing, writing and a kind of coded domestic economy, looks too personal and whimsical to belong here. But Phelps has made some wonderful little drawings to notate her days, such as the one in which chopsticks sprout tendrils that then become the noodles eaten with them. Parker's "Sirens" at Koch: Few contemporary artworks manage to look both archaic and futuristic, but David Parker's toned seascapes at Koch do.

The rocks that rise from seemingly calm seas in Parker's panoramic pictures look sometimes like ruins of ancient sculpture ("Siren XXXIV") or Southeast Asian architecture ("Siren XXV"), but no trace of culture or even of shoreline figures in them. The pictures' tranquillity belies the tremendous effort of travel and technique they entail.

One or two, such as "Siren XXIV," look possibly large enough to count as islands, though only as refuges of last resort. Scale and distances are almost impossible to judge in Parker's images. The sepia tone Parker gives to his prints recalls 19th century European photographers' classic views of ancient ruins in the Middle East. But Parker's images have as much a postapocalyptic as an antiquarian air. They play into the current certainty and fear of sea level rising unstoppably and without limit.