San Francisco Chronicle

Jan 26, 1994, ¡®Future Is Now at Capp Street¡¯


Kenneth Baker



What kind of future does contemporary art have in San Francisco?  Another piece of the puzzle falls into place today with the opening of the Capp Street Project¡¯s new quarters at 525 Second Street.


The inaugural show at the refurbished Secodn Street warehouse comprises three involving site-specific installations by New ¡°York artists Donald Lipski and Ik-Joong Kang and Oakland Mildred Howard.

Three artists¡¯ works are vastly different, but together they make Capp Street Project¡¯s point that contemporary art can be both fun and edgy, wild and meaningful, mysterious, personal and civic-spirited.


Tissue of Contradictions


If these qualities form a tissue of contradictions, no problem.  To live with contradictions is something we all have to learn: It can lead to tolerance and flexibility.  Helping us do that is one way art proves its value.

Named for its original venue, a Mission District house renovated by San Francisco artist David Ireland, the Capp Street Project has been one of the West Coast¡¯s most exciting alternative exhibition places.  

For the past five years, Capp Street¡¯s primary facility has been a shed-like building on 14th Street, a location increasingly uninviting to visitors and staff alike.

Capp Street differs from most other alternative art settings, here and elsewhere, in offering residencies to the artists it invites to show. (The Second Street building incorporates a small apartment for visiting artists.)

With the new building, promises director Linda Blumberg, the Project¡¯s program will become more international.  She already has commitments from Colombian sculptor Maria Fernanda Cardoso, Cildo Meireles of Brazil and the Swiss collaborative team of Chiarenza and Hauser.

Local artists will not be slighted, however.  Two of them, Larry Andrews and Jim Campbell, are already scheduled for the coming year.

Sparely restricted inside by architect Stanley Saitowits, Capp Street¡¯s new facility has exhibition areas on two floors, connected by a central steel staircase.

The street-level windows currently offer intriguing glimpses of Ik-Joong Kang¡¯s installation ¡°Throw Everything Together and Add,¡± which is said to consist of 18,000 tiny paintings, wood relieves and drawings.


Three-Inch Canvases


Kang is a native of South Korea who moved to New York a decade ago.  His job entailed a two-hour commute by subway, so in order to keep painting; he began to work on three-inch-square canvases that he could make anywhere.


Individually, Kang¡¯s paintings are slight as hors d¡¯ouevres.  Some of them even resemble hors d¡¯ouevres, being bite-size confections of color, matter and idea.

Kang¡¯s paintings are inspired by his experience of sudden immersion in urban America, with very little English.  His little pictures, plastered from floor to ceiling in a triangular first-floor space, are notations of things thought, noticed and purchased.  Their numbers alone convey the sense of heightened, constantly interrupted alertness that anyone feels in a real of unknown language and customs.


You never know what you¡¯ll discover in Kang¡¯s paintings.  One is a collage of buttons, one has a different-colored plastic letter in each corner: ¡°R,¡± ¡°A,¡± ¡°C,¡± ¡°E.¡±  Anther mocks the artist¡¯s own ear for English: An angry-faced little man utters a puce word-balloon containing the word ¡°FAUCK.¡±  Others contain self-admonitions – ¡°I SHOULD HAVE INVESTED IN BERLIN¡± – or cracked memories of media – ¡°I WANA TRUMP CHECK,¡± ¡°CAR THAT MAKES SENSE.¡±

Speakers in the gallery play a tape of Kang rehearing English phrases such as ¡°scandalous identity,¡± ¡°real estate development,¡± ¡°commodity character,¡± ¡°social significance,¡± ¡°serious art.¡±

No one of Kang¡¯s pieces weighs much in any sense, but cumulatively they evoke a mentality richly textured with curiosity, humor, anxiety and gladness at being alive.


Big numbers work for Donald Lipski too.  For a piece called ¡°The Starry Night,¡± he has inserted some 25,000 razor blades in the sheetrock walls of the second floor gallery. The blades form swirling patterns that echo the whirling night sky of Vincent Van Gogh¡¯s ¡°Starry Night,¡± a vision of the night sky awash with energy.

More chillingly, as you inspect them closely, Lipski¡¯s razor blades reiterate a reference to one of the most famous images in 20th century film: the moment when a straight razor slices an eyeball in ¡°¡±Un Chien Andalo¡± by Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel. Lipski¡¯s work is as elegant as it is creepy, bringing to mind not just street violence but the patterning of magnetized iron filings, the isobars on weather maps and swarms of steel butterflies.  The piece even forms a kind of mural 5 o¡¯clock shadow. The play of blades and shadows is especially pleasing up close (but not too close), as now object, now shadow seems the more substantial.  One of the marks of the installation¡¯s success is that it works aesthetically at every viewing distance.


Mildred Howard¡¯s ¡°Last Train from Caney Creek to 16th Wood¡± reconstructs an anonymous memory of African American¡¯s transit from the South to California by rail.  A section of railroad track with ties and roadbed snakes through the first floor gallery toward an old family photo, blown up to wall size.

On one side is a wooden cart stacked with box lunched of fried chickens and pound cakes: a literal remembrance of the new arrival¡¯s customary welcome.

On the other side sits a chicken coop with three live chickens.  The visitor can enter part of the enclosure, sit in a rocking chair, listen to John Coltrane on headphones and contemplate a journey out of oppression, which for most black people in America still has far to go.