Sep 30 – Oct 30
by Christopher Reiger
Landscape art represents the cultural, political, and spiritual aspirations of a particular group of people. Because humans are nostalgically inclined and landscapes are forever in flux, people may often find it challenging to appreciate the vistas before them, instead preferring to wax sentimental about the past or to anticipate a gilded future. Michelle Fleck’s paintings, however, don’t offer viewers such pastoral panoramas. Instead of arcadia, Fleck foregrounds overfilled dumpsters, stripped billboards, and construction sites. These scenes are familiar, but nothing in the pictures Fleck includes in Somewhere, her solo exhibition at Park Life, indicates a particular locale. Because of their ubiquity, dumpsters and construction netting generally go unnoticed, and if people do pay attention to them, it’s scornfully. Fleck’s strongest pictures encourage viewers to look more conscientiously; she critiques increasing cultural homogeneity while calling attention to the abundant opportunities for aesthetic pleasure in contemporary American urban and suburban landscapes.
The artist’s sense of composition and economical handling of paint are strong suits, but in Your Ad Here (2011) and Coming Soon (2011), where Fleck’s line of sight is angled up at rooftop billboards or over walls, the skies read slack and the paintings lose energy. When her focus shifts towards the ground, however, things get exciting. In two of Fleck’s standout works, Blacktop (2011) and Repaving (2011), common road repair supplies—an orange-and-white barricade, piles of asphalt, netting—are vignettes in the center of the paper, their colors and shapes turned into lean, formalist bricolage. In Convenient Parking (2011) and New Acquisition (2011), stakes and nylon fencing encircle piles of sand and gravel, setting them apart from their surroundings as if the materials were sacred offerings. By focusing on these demarcated forms, Fleck highlights the potential for aesthetic experience in quotidian settings.
In Fleck’s Picket Fence (2011), the exhibition’s finest work, an orange construction fence snakes over ground littered with debris. The crooked path of the fence moves across and out of the picture plane, calling to mind Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Running Fence, a 24.5-mile-long and eighteen-foot-tall white nylon fence installed in Northern California in 1976. Whereas Running Fence was a grand, Romantic gesture that questioned the concept of boundaries (e.g., private property lines or socio-political barriers like the Iron Curtain), Fleck’s Picket Fence is less heady and more utilitarian. She reclaims the fence for workaday service while also calling attention to its inherent aesthetic appeal, thereby ennobling the prosaic with her discerning eye.
Somewhere is on view at Park Life, in San Francisco, through October 30, 2011.
Christopher Reiger is a writer, artist, and curator currently living and working in San Francisco. Artwork can be seen at his website, and essays on art, natural history, and miscellany can be read at his long-running blog Hungry Hyaena.