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Awakening of the artist from within

David Ireland's retrospective in Santa Barbara reveals the subtlety and maturity of a 30-year career.

January 14, 2005|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

SANTA BARBARA — Whether San Francisco artist David Ireland qualifies as a Zen master I cannot say, but certainly he's a master of Zen art. He doesn't make zenga -- the word the Japanese use to describe bold calligraphy, traditional paintings of monks and other staples of this age-old Asian repertoire. Instead he makes Conceptual art, and his idiom is fully Western and completely Modern. But his work seeks to produce in the viewer what can only be called an awakening. Nothing is more Zen than that.

Ireland's art is the subject of a satisfying retrospective survey of his 30-year career. The show, at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art through March 13, is concluding a national tour that began 14 months ago at the Oakland Museum of California, where it was organized. Inevitable, even dramatic trims have been made (it's now just over half its original size). But with 76 sculptures, installations, drawings and photographs, the ample show offers enough to follow the contours of Ireland's remarkable development as an artist.

The earliest work is a 1972 drawing -- although it takes some scrutiny to recognize it as such. The work at first appears to be a found object. It looks like a piece of rusted metal that has been carefully cut into a quarter of a circle before being framed.

"Quarter Circle Drawing" is in fact a large, shaped piece of paper that has been densely rubbed with a mixture of reddish dirt, dark ink and wax. The pitted, richly mottled surface has the industrial look of weathered Cor-Ten steel. Its quarter-circle shape is bisected by a straight line, beginning at the midpoint of the curve and ending at the corner of the right angle -- a line that apparently was made by folding and unfolding the sheet.

The work looks alternately fragile and as if it weighs a ton. Carefully balanced contradictions -- between two-dimensional drawing and three-dimensional sculpture, between rigid steel and delicately folded origami -- are typical of Ireland's art. At its best it pulls you into the gentle conundrums to be found in a careful perceptual experience of physical things.

This work is also instructive because Ireland was 42 when he made it. He took an undergraduate degree in industrial design and printmaking at the California College of Arts and Crafts in 1953, but he didn't start to make art for 20 more years. Instead Ireland spent a few decades in a variety of occupations, including insurance broker, architectural draftsman, African safari leader, independent filmmaker and importer.

He also traveled widely, married, had children and divorced. At the start of the Santa Barbara show there is a wonderful photographic blowup of Ireland in Kenya enjoying a gleeful ride on the back of a rhinoceros. "Dangerous play" seems to be its own enlivening contradiction.

Notably, by the time Ireland enrolled in the graduate program at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1972, he was a worldly adult. That helps explain the seemingly instant maturity of the deceptively simple student work "Quarter Circle Drawing." The piece shows an acute awareness of recent developments in Minimal, Conceptual and Process art, yet also manages to exude its own distinctive qualities.

The show's second earliest work strips things even further. "Folded Paper Landscape" (1973) is simply a bright blue, heavily used paper bag, which Ireland took apart and pressed flat.

The surface of the sheet is riddled with crease-marks where the blue pigment wore off. Think of these white lines as drawing marks, rather like those on a blueprint.

They are heaviest in the places where the bag's edges used to be, before it was dismantled, and now that it is flattened out those edges form a grid pattern that recalls the manufacture of the bag. The machine regularity of the grid plays against the random pattern of delicate fissures created during its former life as a paper bag in which to carry things.

"Folded Paper Landscape" recalls the old Zen riddle of the vessel, where meaning is found within the emptiness of the void. It also conjures the Dada precedent of Marcel Duchamp, whose "ready-made" sculptures consisted of ordinary objects manufactured by an industrial society, which the artist gave new meaning by providing an unexpected context.

Duchamp is explicitly acknowledged in a number of Ireland's works. "Duchamp's Tree" (1996), for example, is an old-fashioned bottle-drying rack like the one anointed as a sculpture by the French-born expatriate in 1914. Ireland has adorned his version with cut alder-wood limbs so that it looks like a short, squat shrub. He burned his own initials into the exposed rings of each tree limb, branding himself as part of an aesthetic family tree.

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