Our Hospitality

Adobe Bookstore, San Francisco, USA

Hospitality connotes welcome, warmth, kindness and generosity: a fundamentally ethical relation between host and guest. It also suggests a kind of ritualized commercial effect: hospitality in this sense is the fake smile of the clerk at the Holiday Inn, the banter of the salesman, the faux intimate moment of being thanked by name after making a credit card purchase.

It is appropriate, then, that 'Our Hospitality', curated by Jill Dawsey, took place in a commercial space. Adobe is primarily a second-hand bookshop, though one that has served, over the last 15-odd years, as an important (and hospitable) venue for San Francisco artists to meet and show their work; it was among the first galleries to show 'Mission School' painters, for example. As an exhibition space Adobe is unique (and in some ways inhospitable): bookshelves fill every wall and most of the floor, so art is typically mounted on the white walls above the shelves, ten feet up or more. The work is often hard to see at that height; viewers teeter on library steps to grasp some of the more subtle pieces. (This awkward mode of exhibition is similar to that of the Paris Salon, which often stacke paintings high on the wall.) Moreover, where the contemporary gallery's emptiness focuses one's attention on the art alone, at Adobe one's concentration can't help but meander, drifting between self-conscious, arty spectatorship and the giddy inattention of bargain shopping among the piles of books. In this context ideas compete for attention and legibility (as they did in the Salon).

Heather Rowley's large, intense photographs of uncomfortable domestic spaces (Untitled, 2002) were immediately impressive, as were Anna Maltz' bright blue bunny masks (Invisible Bunny Hoods, 2003). Phil Ross, in a conspicuous Hans Haacke-esque gesture (Phyto-Amelioration, 2003) repotted the shop's ailing plants and brought in lamps to give them light and extrovert ladybirds (which roamed the space and the bodies of its visitors, quite freely) to chomp their aphids.

The investigative bargain hunter, however, turns up some of the best works only after digging about for a while. From afar Amy Balkin's two small collages (Superparks, 2003) seemed to be leafy Modernist abstractions, but up close it became clear that their green 'figures' are constituted from parks cut from maps of New York and Tokyo. Balkin's collages re-imagine city grids as Arcadian rambles, pastoral public spaces open to all (as opposed to the highly controlled, quasi-public spaces they actually are). Similarly, the patient shopper turns up Felipe Dulzaides' Scholarship Project (1999-2003), a documentation of a continuing artistic project manifest here as a drawing on the wall, but also a book of photographs filed inconspicuously on the shelves below (in a clever use of the space's double status). The titular 'scholarship' consisted of a free fancy dinner for ten local art students, surreptitiously staged by Dulzaides at a local restaurant where he works. The artwork then takes the form of documents. One diner, for instance, itemized his dinner in scrawled, cartoon form, adding, hilariously, that as he became more interested in eating the food, he became less interested in drawing it; indeed his cartoons become more distracted as dinner becomes dessert. Here artwork is a gift from one artist to another, but one importantly borrowed from the time of the artist's 'legitimate' labour. Work becomes art-work: the obligatory politeness of the waiter becomes the generosity of a friend and fellow artist.

More often, though, 'Our Hospitality' construes its concept in less cosy terms. Jeanne Foss' drawings (Overstaying Your Welcome, 1999) document the various objects and creatures her body has 'hosted', from dildos and ballpoint pens to, in one nauseating episode, a tapeworm (Foss has, against all odds, discovered a new, nasty horizon for abject art). Likewise, Maltz' angora bunny masks are both inviting and sinister, their identity hovering between fluffy Muppet mask and Ku Klux Klan cowl. Compared to Maltz' other, lighter work - she makes misshapen, hand-knitted and anatomically correct bodysuits, with yarn cocks and cartoon boobs, which she persuades her bemused friends and neighbours to wear - these bunny hoods are markedly inhospitable. Their presence gives the show's image a ghostly, ominous edge. What kind of visitors are these? Are they welcome? Were they invited? And what do they want? The masks appeared particularly discomfiting dangling from the ceiling of a bookshop instead of being in a more traditional setting for art, where one vaguely expects things to be off-kilter. One wonders what unsuspecting shoppers made of this haunted hospitality.

Julian Myers is an art historian based in San Francisco. He is an assistant professor at California College of the Arts.

Issue 79

First published in Issue 79

Nov - Dec 2003