Reverberations: Revisiting David Ireland’s “Skellig” Work
The Echo at 500 Capp Street Foundation
September 9, 2016 to January 14, 2017
500 Capp Street (at 20th Street)
San Francisco, 415 872 9240
Skellig Michael, a rugged island off the southern coast of Ireland, is known for the austere, beehive-like monastery built there in the 6th century. In 1993, the Conceptual artist David Ireland and his friend, photographer and filmmaker Jane Levy Reed, traveled to Skellig Michael for inspiration for their 1994 exhibition, “Skellig,” at San Francisco’s Ansel Adams Center for Photography, a show that consisted of photographs of shared authorship, objects in his studio, and pages from their travel journals. Ireland was primarily a sculptor and painter, with this being his first major use of photography and film. Through it, Reed wrote, Ireland “sought to convey the monastic experience of Skellig as a metaphor for his own acts of artistic creation.” The name itself translates as “Splinter of Stone,” a reference that held special meaning for the artist.
That Skellig is now the subject of “The Echo,” the third curation at the newly opened 500 Capp Street Foundation, by Bob Linder and Diego Villalobos, the foundation’s co-curators. Linder was a student and personal friend of Ireland, and Villalobos was a student of Linder. The rooms of Ireland’s house have remained essentially as he left them, but, using documentary photography from the span of Ireland’s history in the house history, Linder and Villalobos curate additional artworks and objects (such as furniture) that contextualize of refer to the artworks within each quasi-quarterly exhibition.
Downstairs, viewers enter the Foundation into a former accordion workshop, where a suite of Ireland and Reed’s photographic works from the 1994 Ansel Adams show is hung. There are two images of a staircase carved into the sheer face of a cliff leading up from the sea to the island’s monastery, an ancient stone cross, and a wash basin, with jars, which may be from either Ireland’s own house or from the monastery. Rust-colored Constructivist squares are painted on top of the black and white photographs, with large areas masked by white paint, creating a play between documentation, illusion, and object. In one photograph in this entry space, viewers can see a repurposed band-saw machine for giving films the bobbing sensation of being afloat appears.
Ireland was born in Bellingham WA and studied printmaking at the California College of the Arts, before serving in the military. Afterward, he worked as a tour guide in Africa, a carpenter, an insurance salesman, and ran an African import shop on San Francisco’s high-rent Union Street. (Sculptures shaped like Africa or elephant ears can be found throughout the home, especially upstairs.) He returned to art school in his 40s, enrolling at the San Francisco Art Institute, and fell under the artistic influence of John Cage, Joseph Beuys, and especially Marcel Duchamp, who is pictured many times around the house, such as in Ireland’s bedroom and study.
Ireland purchased 500 Capp Street in 1975, and, like Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau, made the run-down Victorian not only a site for artistic production, but also an artwork itself. Resembling his prints of the time, the building’s walls emphasize their own hand working, cracks, and blemishes, glazed all over with polyurethane to preserve their history of imperfections. Paul Greub — the former occupant of 500 Capp Street, an accordion maker who ran his business out of his home for 45 years and, evidently, never threw anything away — provided Ireland with a treasure trove of readymades and inspiration: Greub’s hoard of old jars, old brooms, old chairs, old lamps, etc. There are small brass plaques that commemorate aspects of the renovation, as when Ireland helped Greub move a heavy safe out of the house by rope and plank, and the safe fell twice, damaging the walls and floors. Ireland installed two plaques at the base of two stairs to commemorate the event: The Safe Gets Away for the First Time November 5, 1975 and The Safe Gets Away for the Second Time November 5, 1975 (both 1975).
Upstairs, one finds more renovation projects, as well as a catalogue of Ireland’s work. Complexly twisted wires fall somewhere between sculpture and drawing. Several bookcases are filled with his own work and knickknacks, as well as Greub’s jars — filled with sawdust or other materials gathered in the house’s reworking. Ireland remarked on these as being like small exhibitions of their own. He made more than 200 “dumbballs,” small balls of concrete that were the by-products of his “meditations,” i.e. passing them back and forth between his hands, and which he duly stationed around his house, sometimes stuck in the corners of rooms or on the ceiling, other times carefully displayed in buckets or basins, or on tables.
There’s a great deal of natural light in the house, emphasized by the gloss of the urethane-coated walls. One room emphasizes this fact especially. Another, a dining room whose table is particularly full of sculptures, is slightly darker: an untitled piece is composed of a copper printing plate covering a window. A reel-to-reel tape is included here, of Ireland enumerating the things seen from that window, which had been broken, before sealing it entirely.
Two other rooms, a guest bedroom and a study, are stripped to their natural white state instead of the urethanic ochre. They reprise the Skellig photographs, with a contact sheet marked with a red cross, set on a shelf in the guest bedroom, and a Skellig photo on a desk in the study. Here also are several recurring images: a water buffalo skull from Africa; a picture of Duchamp and an homage to his In Advance of the Broken Arm (1915), made with a shovel trapped in a banded cord of wood; several Constructivist-indebted paintings, including some on cardboard boxes; and memorabilia from Ireland’s life.
The rooms read like mysteries strewn with possible clues: an opened book on James Lee Byars, its pages burned, a sting of lights shaped like fishes from Ireland’s hometown, allusive sculptures, personal possessions. Ireland’s work is understated, beautiful and intriguing but not precious. In “The Echo, Linder and Villalobos honor Ireland’s life and art, much in the spirit of Ireland himself, who venerated and preserved the contents of the former owner of 500 Capp Street. Linder and Villalobos’s actions not only create a continuum, with Ireland’s intentions and work, but underscore the basic human need to remember and make meaning from the history and stories of our lives.
David Ireland’s house was rescued by artist friends and wealthy supporters who thought that 500 Capp Street should be preserved. Carlie Wilmans, head of The Phyllis C. Wattis Foundation, bought the home in 2008, shortly before Ireland’s death the following year, at the urging of many of his friends. Ireland referred to his work in the house as “stabilizing things,” but ironically the first job was to shore up the unstable foundation weakened by his ongoing excavations. He, and we, are lucky the house did not collapse on itself. The small, guided tour offered at the house ends in the dining room where we were seated around a big table laid with silver dessert bowls filled with concrete blobs and silver spoons. The antique gas lamps, the religious figures, the horns, the altar to Natalie Wood, the cabinets lined with reliquary jars of sawdust, the balled-up wallpaper, the leftover birthday cake for Greub — it’s all still there in all its unorthodox glory.