Just say no

arts@sfbg.com

HAIRY EYEBALL Summertime is supposed to be about taking it easy and soaking up good vibes. This is decidedly not the case with “Negative Space,” Steven Wolf Fine Arts’ current group show that, like an old punk rock mix-tape, delivers one lean, catchy declaration of refusal after another.

This is not to say that “Negative Space” sounds only one note. Each of the 10 featured artists offers a different enough riff on the exhibit’s title (one shared by Matt Borruso’s slim, collage-filled hardcover volume, on display here; itself a nod to the late critic Manny Farber’s classic 1971 collection of film criticism) to avoid turning an organizing principal into too much of a gimmick. There’s also enough well-delivered black humor to prevent this modest collection of deliberately difficult, critically-minded and middle-finger-waving art from becoming either overly self-serious or gratingly puerile.

Nicholas Knight, for one, is more prankster than killjoy. His Permission Slip (2010) is a pad of those very paper indulgences — free for the taking — printed with the artist’s signature (as “witness”), along with a place for the holder to sign into effect the statement, “I have permission.” “Permission to do what, exactly?” is the natural follow-up question, and one which Knight’s ludicrous contract leaves unanswered with a pithy shrug of non-commitment.

Jeffrey Augustan Songco’s Nice Body, Bro! (2011), which features the titular phrase spelled out in white three-dimensional lettering over a background of what look like rainbow-colored paillettes, becomes a sight gag about transubstantiation once one knows, courtesy of the wall card, that the large sequins are, in fact, glitter-covered communion wafers.

More clever is David Robbins’ Fuck Buttons, 1985-87, a tic-tac-toe grid of purple-and-orange hued photographs of 1″ buttons, each adorned with a different usage of the word “fuck.” The piece’s initial giddy rush of profanity gradually runs out of steam as various self-canceling dialogues emerge out of the buttons’ placements next to each other. The resulting imaginary arguments read like obscene variations on the old “who’s on first?” routine (for example, the piece’s middle row, left to right, reads: “Fuck you,” “Don’t fuck with me,” “Fuck me”).

The real stand-outs of the gallery’s front room, however, eschew the Pop-isms of Songco and Robbins. Whitney Lynn’s sculpture Animal Trap (2011), a black plexiglass cube with an open bottom propped up at an angle by a sawed-off tree branch, sits in the middle of the floor, as if lying in wait. The piece takes Minimalist sculpture’s classic forms (the cube) and materials (transparent plastic, wood) and, with its suggestive title and familiar arrangement, freights them with unexpected emotion and an implied narrative that has a decidedly unhappy ending.

Animal Trap faces down James Hayward’s Automatic Black Painting #9 (1975), perhaps the purest, if also the most traditional, interpretation of the exhibit’s title. Unlike Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings from the previous decade, which reveal embedded grids and distinct shades upon prolonged viewing, Hayward’s darkness harbors no hidden designs. In fact, the point of his early monochromatic canvases, such as this one, was to erase his hand entirely by laboriously building up thin layers of pigment to avoid any traces of brushstroke. The resulting 36 x 36 inch oil slick is all that remains of Hayward’s slow, cumulative self-exorcism.

In the gallery’s rear “lounge” area hang Christine Wong Yap’s meticulous, cartoon-like ink drawings on gridded vellum, illustrating various quotes from positive psychological studies on topics such as learned optimism and creativity as applied to the lives of artists. Despite the occasional glint of a glitter pen or iridescent foil rainbow, these selections from the series Positive Signs (2011) come off as more humorously pessimistic when presented together than they did when they originally appeared on the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Open Space blog earlier this year as weekly posts.

Wong Yap’s charts and diagrams, to some degree, metabolize the very clinical discourses about happiness and creativity that they also satirize, making for a strange cocktail of uppers and downers when viewed alongside the lithographs of posters and texts by Guy Debord and the Situationist International — earlier and more pointedly political examples of what would later be called culture jamming — that hang opposite.

It is easy to imagine, say, Wong Yap depicting “live without dead time,” an old Situationist slogan that was scrawled by May ’68 protestors on the same Paris streets that Debord had previously cut apart and re-mapped for dreamers and drifters in his famous chart Guide Psychogeographique de Paris (1957, also hanging), as another nugget of motivational wisdom. The Spectacle for the win, folks?

Then again, maybe I’m just being pessimistic, an attitude which “Negative Space” doesn’t so much as inundate you with, like the noxious signature scent that wafts out of Abercrombie and Fitch stores, but rather involuntarily triggers, as when a stranger begins to violently cough on a crowded bus. You find yourself shrinking away, but the impulse to cough, too, is irrepressible.

“NEGATIVE SPACE”

Through Aug. 27

Steven Wolf Fine Arts

2747 19th Street, Ste. A, SF

(415) 293-3677

www.stevenwolffinearts.com