Once, when I was feeling particularly lonely, I toyed with the idea of placing an ad in the personals. But when I began to sift through and decipher those micronovellas of heartache, shame, and bravado, my stomach dropped to my ankles and I realized I had better chances of finding a mate standing in line for the pharmacy at S.F. General.
I say all this because it was a similar cocktail of embarrassment and prurient interest I felt the moment I stepped into Allison Shields' installation inside Allison Shields' apartment last Saturday afternoon. Shields, a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute, has "arranged" several art shows at her apartment in the past and this last event featured the mostly conceptual works of fellow SFAI graduates Sean Bluechel, Howie Cherman, Bob Linder, and Jeanne Foss.
But it was Shields' own room, literally, that stole the show. Titled The corner by the attic door where I waited for inspiration under Jimi Hendrix and eavesdropped on my parents, Shields' piece is allegedly a faithful reproduction of the artist's own room as a teenager. And whether this collection of personal relics is indeed the "real thing" or a fiction (having failed to retrieve the actual lamps from her old room, Shields uses paper mock-ups) quickly becomes a moot question as one enters into the warp and woof of a personality's past.
By default, walking into an unfamiliar apartment for the purpose of experiencing art is in and of itself a titillating endeavor not unlike entering an estate sale in the home of the dearly departed complete stranger. But Shields' piece, apparently designed to elicit the ambiguous discomfort of instant intimacy, manages to take this queasy feeling one step further.
No, there are no nudes on display. Nor are there "notes to self" re bulimia, sexuality, or child abuse. In fact, the contents of Shields' room are as white bread and vanilla as you can get: the artifacts of a middle- to upper-class teenager coming of age in the tony New York City suburb of Larchmont. I would specify the time period but the realm of New England preppiedom is purposely timeless.
On the nightstand in Allison's room (it feels as if we are now best friends) are classic rock tapes strewn by an old boombox. There are a couple of beaded leather strap bracelets nearby, while opposite this tableau a short stack of T-shirts, neatly folded and appropriately threadbare, sits on a make-believe twin-sized mattress. I made out the words "Rye Country Day School" amidst a pile of thoroughly unremarkable teen girl things and wondered when it is that we become self-conscious about our belongings.
Above the bed hangs a poster of Mick Jagger strutting in his pants-of-many-colors circa 1976, while black-and-white photographs of a younger Shields at play with her adolescent friends adorn an adjacent wall. It is these photographs, which are eerily contemporary with the rest of the items in this dated room, that most caught my imagination.
According to the present-perfect logic of the installation, these snapshots are recent additions to the room's décor. They are pictures of the teenager's world put up on her walls by the teenager herself in a disarmingly sincere gesture of self-recognition. "These are my friends and this is me," they say, to no one, of course, but the teenager herself. The effect of being an interloper in this intimate exchange between Shields and her budding self settled upon me like a bittersweet memory. I relished the moment.
Unresolved and unpretentious, the overall impact of the piece far exceeded my expectations for a work of art. No gallery and certainly no museum could engineer the directness of standing inside Shields' present-day apartment rifling through the knickknacks of her pubescence. I refrained from asking if she has put a price tag on the piece -- "Is there a diary? How much for the diary?"
While other artists, for example San Francisco's own David Ireland, have turned their homes into works of art, Shields' exercise strikes me more as an act of remembering rather than a contrived confessional. Despite the leading title of her piece, there is no clear conclusion to be drawn from this assortment of mementos. Just what she overheard her parents saying or what sort of inspiration eventually came to her will likely be of little interest to a person standing, as it were, in her past.
During my half-hour visit, Shields asserted to several guests that she had re- created her teenage nest "almost exactly" like the original. This, I think, is the crux of her piece. As anyone who is even remotely familiar with Proust's Remembrance of Things Past knows, memories are often not only involuntary, they can also take possession of their possessor.
For better or worse, the group showing, appropriately titled "Control Freaks," lasted only nine hours on April 29, 2000, and anyone so moved by this review as to desire to enter into communion with the material evidence of Shields' inchoate self will have to negotiate the terms of that exchange with the artist. For similarly ambiguous pleasures I also recommend the photographs of Tina Barney and the apartment of artist Josh Greene (567-1368), where, in fact, all the personal belongings are for sale. In the meantime, you may want to call your parents and secure rights to future usage of evidence of your own rites of passage.