Mortar, Junk, & Buddhism 

That pile of construction waste isn't rubble, it's art.

At the end of the exhibition now on display in the Oakland Museum's Great Hall, along the back wall of the last gallery, there's an enormous mountain of drywall and other construction debris. If this weren't a David Ireland show, it would seem like a terrible logistical error on the part of the museum -- leaving the previous exhibition all torn down in a big pile on the floor. But this is a David Ireland show, so the pile gets its own wall label:

Debris Pile: Debris from Past Exhibitions
2003
Sheetrock, metal studs, and debris

There is no single work in this presentation that perfectly sums up the artistic career of Ireland, who at age 73 has been making art for a little over three decades. But the Debris Pile certainly speaks to one of the fundamental principles that informs more or less everything he has ever made. From his earliest works on paper to his most recent conceptual installation piece, Ireland always has preferred working with inexpensive, everyday, mundane materials: cement, house paint, tables and chairs, and even dirt.

It's what he does with those materials that makes them art. Each element of each work is fraught with significance, painstakingly selected and positioned. His sculptures are frequently made of what other people consider trash, but they are never just junk collections. Everything has a reason for being there, from the cement in the ice-cream dish to the can of spilled red paint. In Ireland's way of looking at things, anything is potentially art material. This is the guy, after all, who saved the old wallpaper and sawdust from the renovation of his San Francisco Victorian home and later re-presented much of it as artworks. This retrospective exhibition includes several photographs of the house, and the rooms mostly seem ordinary at first; only after a minute do you notice the absence of baseboards and moldings, the windows without sills, and the unpainted walls. Ireland has carefully scraped his house down to its barest structural essentials, thereby making it, in accordance with his artistic worldview, an art object in its own right.

Despite this basic tendency toward minimalism, however, many of his works are remarkable for their sheer monstrosity and the logistical complexities involved in bringing them into a gallery space. In addition to the aforementioned Debris Pile, the exhibition also features Big Chair, made out of drywall, which at sixteen feet high is large enough to accommodate a reading room for visitors underneath its seat. Or Angel-Go-Round, which weighs in at who knows how many tons and includes a 25-foot-wide pile of classical statues made from cast concrete. A concrete angel, suspended from a nylon belt, spins around and around overhead, creating an effect that is peacefully hypnotic, terrifying, and mysterious all at the same time. It could be about the art of the past being repurposed and reinterpreted, or perhaps jettisoned to make way for something else -- spirituality? Modernism? If this angel is making a victory lap, whose victory is she celebrating? Mathematics seem to figure into it, as well: The conic section defined by the spinning angel and the centrifugal force that keeps her tilted outwards suggest the elemental beauty of geometry and physics.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Ireland's work is how powerful it still is, even when decades have passed since he initially created it. Unlike a lot of contemporary art, it ages well; it still seems clever, or surreal, or funny, or confusing, or whatever it was when he first made it. Maybe this is partly because he keeps his art so simple and minimalistic, uses such elemental materials, and speaks to basic human emotions instead of politics or world events. Many of the artists that Ireland is in dialogue with, such as Vincent van Gogh and Marcel Duchamp, are long dead, and by engaging with these early Modernists instead of other contemporary artists he infuses his own work with a kind of built-in timelessness.

There's also something fundamentally likable about Ireland that completely comes through in each and every piece. Conceptual art can be easy to dismiss as pompous, or overly intellectual, or ridiculous, or all of the above, but there is something of Ireland everywhere you look in this show -- maybe it has something to do with the seemingly endless supply of elbow grease he invests in everything: spreading concrete, stripping wallpaper, and the like. Even a work like Ego, a stack of chopped wood with the artist's initials burned into every log, doesn't seem self-centered in the least; actually, it's more about poking fun at the stereotypical, monstrous artist-ego and the cult of genius that perpetuates it. And besides, Ireland chopped all that wood himself.

Also unlike many of his cohort-contemporaries, Ireland really reveals himself through his artworks. He is just as clever as Paul Kos, for instance, but it is difficult to confront Kos' work and feel like you're getting to know the person who made it. Ireland, on the other hand, comes across as genuinely eager to share the way he sees and thinks; he isn't afraid to let you know, for instance, exactly how many toilet paper rolls he uses over the course of ten years (as in A Decade Document, Withcomet, Andcomet, Andstool). He even has even welcomed hundreds, or probably more like thousands, of strangers to tour his house, whose address is not a secret at all: 500 Capp Street in San Francisco. Ireland is also much more grounded in the realm of the physical and the permanent than Kos, whose penchant for ice-based art couldn't be more different from Ireland's love of cement. Among the most amazing works in this show are the dozens of Dumbballs, handfuls of concrete that Ireland tossed back and forth, from one hand to another, for ten to twelve hours apiece until they hardened into perfect spheres. Such feats of physical endurance seem a little more believable when you find out about the artist's deep devotion to the philosophy of Zen Buddhism. But they are still pretty amazing.

The exhibition does not attempt to force Ireland's artistic evolution into any kind of strict logical progression, although there are definitely some identifiable trends. The eighty featured artworks include many examples of his early experiments with printmaking, drawing, and collage, which date from around 1972, when at the age of 42 he began taking MFA classes at the San Francisco Art Institute on the GI Bill. (Before this, he had owned and managed a San Francisco-based business leading hunting and photography safaris through Africa.) Many of his off-site and temporary installations are represented through photographs, as are his current home at 500 Capp Street and his former house at 65 Capp. (The latter, after he tore it down and rebuilt it, was purchased by a local arts patron and subsequently became the home of the renowned Capp Street Project.) The museum is hosting a conversation with the artist on Sunday, January 11 (free Sunday); more information and details on public programs are available at the museum's Web site.

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