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Practice Makes Perfect

Bay Area Conceptual Craft @ SoEx

Well-crafted, thoughtfully conceived Bay Area art gets its due at a diverse, cross-generational show at Southern Exposure Gallery. Practice Makes Perfect: Bay Area Conceptual Craft trades style for substance, youth for experience, and faux naivety for real chops. It restores the faith of those who wondered if the San Francisco art community had fizzled into a one-horse town.

Unlike craft or design, art is not required to be practical or efficient. Fine art basks in the glow of its own uselessness. For "Conservation of Intimacy" Bernie Lubell used his carpentry skills and mechanical ingenuity to create a sprawling group of complex wood structures that double as human-powered machines. Recording movements on trace paper like a seismograph, the work is a crudely built, massive apparatus that does nothing but move a pencil from left to right. The joy of watching the pencils move as you rock on a bench or pedal a bicycle is as idiotic as it is addictive. It's art and it's fun.

Like Lubell, Christian Maychack is a builder. Under their refined surfaces, the artist says, his site-specific sculptures are every bit as jerry-rigged as Lubell's machines. Continuing his series of architectural growths Maychack creates the illusion that the red bricks of the gallery's upper wall have expanded like a tumor and are tumbling down and colliding with the gallery's white walls below. Maychack's work pokes fun at the austerity of the gallery space and makes a good case for the fantastic and silly as tools for institutional critique. Cutting holes in the wall separating the gallery's office from its exhibition space, Scott Oliver too draws attention to the role of the gallery in directing what art we see and how we see it. I found it pretty, but generic. Oliver's critique of art vs. the business of art is staid and his piece looks more like a home makeover solution than dynamic, cutting-edge art.

I was similarly unenthused by Stephanie Syjuco's sculptures, essentially lo-fi remakes of international style furniture. They look crummy, as they are supposed to, but they also fall flat conceptually. This is art on the point system. The work gets points for alluding to certain concepts in this case modernism, commodity culture, and gender inequality. With enough points the piece should add up to a marketable, intellectual credible work of art. Artists who work within this safety zone are clogging galleries and museums with their yawn-inducing work.

David Ireland's exercise in trying to make identical lumps of concrete and paper touches on similar themes of replication and the failure of the hand, but his objects look humble and poetic instead of merely crummy. In a stroke of genius, the curators of the show left the definition of craft open to include practices such as cobbling and bee keeping. Mark Thompson first began incorporating honeybees into his art thirty years ago. In his dvd performance The Sixth Sense (Closing a Sale) he completes a series of hand signals used by futures traders. The bee pheromones that the artist has sprayed on his hands begin to attract a group of bees until Thompson's hands are completely covered, his hands reduced to nubs, as if eaten away by the swarm of bees. Handicapped, the signals once executed with confidence and ease become slow and measured, and in the end they are impossible to decipher. The idea for the work is far out of left field and the results are fascinating.

This is far and away the best show the nonprofit space has put up in awhile. It raises the bar for the area's others art venues. Let's hope they take notice.

Practice Makes Perfect: Bay Area Conceptual Craft
runs through 10/15
at Southern Exposure Gallery