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Underwater Still Lifes at SFAI 

Wednesday, Aug 19 2015
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The last time I set foot in the San Francisco Art Institute's Walter and McBean Gallery, there was a penis guillotine, part of M. Lamar's provocative show about rough sex and white supremacy. (The guillotine was seldom if ever used for its intended purpose.) Right now, there stands a 3,000-gallon tank of water on a wooden platform and rows of shelving filled with found objects, grouped like with like.

It's not a combination junkatorium-and-swimming-pool, but the infrastructure required for a series of underwater photographs. Alejandro Almanza Pereda's Everything but the kitchen sank is an ingenious exhibit whose elaborate apparatus yields a lot of insight into an artist's methods — as well as some gorgeous black-and-white images of seemingly impossible situations: a brick floating over a crowbar that's rammed through a plastic bag's handles, or an icon of the Virgin Mary's head hanging upside-down on a shelf like a sleeping bat. Almanza finds most of these objects at flea markets and in the street, but sourcing them has become a collaborative process.

"Sometimes, stuff I cannot find, like Styrofoam or plastic bags — they're antique here, so friends coming from New York bring them," he said.

To get the desired effect, Almanza photographs everything on an upside-down table in the water tank. The act of positioning the objects is a joint effort, too, requiring assistants in weight belts, each of whom must move carefully so as not to create currents with their arms and ruin the tableaux. Using cans of compressed air to turn ordinary objects into the equivalent of diving bells, everything is arranged according to what floats and what sinks. Bubbles are the enemy.

"Underwater, bubbles are like dust. You have to clean everything," Almanza said, gesturing with his can. "And this stuff is like super-glue down there."

Everything but the kitchen sank is "multimedia" in the sense that it makes visible every step of the process: the shelving; the wall-mounted live stream that records the bubbles that result when Almanza drops something in the tank; the upside-down, underwater photography studio; and the screening room playing an eight-minute video of underwater objects at rest or in motion, all backed by an "elongated" version of Lee Hazlewood's "My Autumn's Done Gone."

The film is ethereal, with one arresting shot of a saturated deck of cards floating away as if conjured by a medium, but the tank's platform is slightly precarious. SFAI engineered it to support the 3,000 gallons of water, all 12 tons of which sits two floors above the sculpture department, and the computer station up top is perilously close to the edge.

If it sounds makeshift, so too was Almanza's prior career. He doesn't consider himself a photographer, but a sculptor — and a "chromophobe" — and had little to show SFAI in order to secure its Harker Award for Interdisciplinary Studies. How do you convince institutional power brokers to fund something you haven't been able to do yet?

"It's not the most natural thing," Almanza admitted. "Not all residency programs have that. They ask you to be specific, but how the hell am I going to do that if I don't know San Francisco and I don't know the space?"

At the same time, the bequest for this artist-in-residence program was intended to put trust in the artists, to be generous and let them reveal their process. (Almanza has a concurrent piece up in SFAI's Diego Rivera Gallery, a scaffold constructed of fluorescent tubes in front of Rivera's mural The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City. It's unrelated to kitchen sank, far less time-consuming, and also very clever.)

"It's foundationally perfect," said Hesse McGraw, SFAI's vice president for exhibitions and public programs administration. "In terms of the way we're working with the foundation, the donor advisors seem to have understood this process innately."

Inevitably, much of kitchen sank was done on the fly.

"We didn't know what tools we'd need, what spaces we'd use," McGraw said. "We're inventing it as we're going. It was actually quite late that we landed on the idea that the tank would be in the gallery."

But the results reveal a product that seems to have been planned at every step. Many viewers of Everything but the kitchen sank will think, How has this never been done before? It's not as if the still life genre has been a dynamo of innovation after Cubism, and now here comes a quasi-outsider, breaking new ground.

Apart from the melancholy of a psychedelic pop song slowed way down, kitchen sank is tinged with loss. Since so much of Almanza's time is spent combing the Bay Area for materials, much of his process goes unrecorded even as so much of it is captured. And although it might sound solitary — a hoarder compulsively accumulating old lamps and driftwood over months — Almanza's hard-partying ways almost derailed the entire thing. By his own admission, an earlier grant to do something similar ended in failure.

"I blew the money on SCUBA diving classes, renting houses with pools in Mexico, inviting friends to go there to help me and not help me a lot," he said.

If ever there were a case study for the benefits of institutional support, it would be Everything but the kitchen sank. The show is site-specific: It's been slowly building in one gallery, and the objects all hail from the Bay Area. When I told the plastic-bag-obsessed Almanza that Chinatown bags are pink because white symbolizes death, his eyes lit up.

"Oh my God, that sounds amazing. I was going to ask a friend to bring me liquor-store New York black ones with amazing geometric forms. I want to buy more booze just to get plastic bags!"

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About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Bio:
Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.

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