whitehot | February 2009, Eric Foss @ Gallery Three and DA Arts
Eric Foss’s Smokem If You Gotem
66 Sixth Street San Francisco, CA 94109
135 Sixth Street San Francisco, CA 94109
November 15- December 13, 2008
By Kristin Korolowic
New York-based artist, Erik Foss, debuts in his first solo show on the West coast at Gallery Three, transforming the tiny gallery space into a deranged dystopia with painting, collage, drawing, photography, assemblage, and sculptural installations. The gallery, located in the Tenderloin, an area known for its large homeless population and rumors of police corruption, speaks to the power relationship that exists in a capitalist society. Here, Foss unabashedly uses the visual vocabulary of pop culture, pornography, politics, and poverty to collapse the boundaries between imagery seen in public and private life, creating a dialectic between these elements in American culture.
Before entering the gallery, a video installation comprised of five television monitors arranged in the formation of a cross is placed strategically in the display window. The monitors play footage of a littered Native American burial ground in Arizona at particular intervals. Scattered at the foot of the installation are arrangements of flowers, candles, dirt, and debris, referencing the scarred history of the country and those endemic to it. A hefty shovel stands erect in the dirt and debris, which sets the stage for either revealing or burying the contents of the exhibition that lie ahead.
Once inside, visitors are enveloped by a cacophony of objects and imagery, which appear to crawl up gallery walls toward two massive American flags that hang from the ceiling on either side of the room. Foss has played a game of connect the dots in the space by spray painting black dripping lines between his photos, collages, and paintings –at times scrawling indecipherable phrases on the walls. His larger black and white paintings resemble images from fading newspapers, and have more successful formal arrangements that juxtapose scenes of police brutality with hyper-graphic sexual imagery. Here, the slippery images converge, more accurately depicting the collapse between public and private life, which seems to be so central to his project.
Unfortunately, his collages –incorporating clippings of pornography, political figures, religious iconography and cartoon characters –become predictable arrangements when they are (yet again) in the form of a cross. Foss’s approach is at times that of a disgruntled teenager, one who failed to consider the full complexity of these issues and quickly resolved to anarchy. For instance, looming over the tight gallery space is a wooden crucifix adorned with a tattered mask of Barack Obama at the top and a mask of John McCain at the foot. The most adherent impression here is the artist’s myopic desire to be offensive. This piece, like several of the others in the show is an extremely literal representation of the conflation of church and state.
In conjunction with this exhibition, the artist created a site-specific installation one block from Gallery Three at DA Arts, which acquired its name because it was formerly a district attorney’s office. At this site Foss constructed a huge American flag from fifty panhandler's signs that were spray-painted in red, white and blue. The signs are still legible revealing statements like: Ugly, Broke, and Sober; Obama wants change and so do we, and Help. The piece is an evocative demonstration of appropriating unheard voices, in order to reconstitute and transform them into the most revered symbol of our nation.
This exhibition comes at a time when our ears are still ringing with the chants: “Yes, we can.” Yet Foss’s work presents that negative little voice, a voice that recalls a wounded trust in a government that approves illegitimate wars only to leave a nation in recession, a voice that we try to ignore when a glimmer of hope is within sight. By way of illustrating America’s underbelly, Smokem If You Gotem asks: what does patriotism truly mean at this point without drastic change? Although Foss raises significant questions in his immersive environments, many of the individual works would not have the strength to function alone.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief