Just say no

HAIRY EYEBALL: "Negative Space" at Steven Wolf Fine Arts transforms pessimism into something unexpected

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Jeffrey Augustan Songco's Nice Body, Bro! (2011)
COURTESY STEVEN WOLF FINE ARTS

arts@sfbg.com

HAIRY EYEBALL Summertime is supposed to be about taking it easy and soaking up good vibes. This is decidedly not the case with "Negative Space," Steven Wolf Fine Arts' current group show that, like an old punk rock mix-tape, delivers one lean, catchy declaration of refusal after another.

This is not to say that "Negative Space" sounds only one note. Each of the 10 featured artists offers a different enough riff on the exhibit's title (one shared by Matt Borruso's slim, collage-filled hardcover volume, on display here; itself a nod to the late critic Manny Farber's classic 1971 collection of film criticism) to avoid turning an organizing principal into too much of a gimmick. There's also enough well-delivered black humor to prevent this modest collection of deliberately difficult, critically-minded and middle-finger-waving art from becoming either overly self-serious or gratingly puerile.

Nicholas Knight, for one, is more prankster than killjoy. His Permission Slip (2010) is a pad of those very paper indulgences — free for the taking — printed with the artist's signature (as "witness"), along with a place for the holder to sign into effect the statement, "I have permission." "Permission to do what, exactly?" is the natural follow-up question, and one which Knight's ludicrous contract leaves unanswered with a pithy shrug of non-commitment.

Jeffrey Augustan Songco's Nice Body, Bro! (2011), which features the titular phrase spelled out in white three-dimensional lettering over a background of what look like rainbow-colored paillettes, becomes a sight gag about transubstantiation once one knows, courtesy of the wall card, that the large sequins are, in fact, glitter-covered communion wafers.

More clever is David Robbins' Fuck Buttons, 1985-87, a tic-tac-toe grid of purple-and-orange hued photographs of 1" buttons, each adorned with a different usage of the word "fuck." The piece's initial giddy rush of profanity gradually runs out of steam as various self-canceling dialogues emerge out of the buttons' placements next to each other. The resulting imaginary arguments read like obscene variations on the old "who's on first?" routine (for example, the piece's middle row, left to right, reads: "Fuck you," "Don't fuck with me," "Fuck me").

The real stand-outs of the gallery's front room, however, eschew the Pop-isms of Songco and Robbins. Whitney Lynn's sculpture Animal Trap (2011), a black plexiglass cube with an open bottom propped up at an angle by a sawed-off tree branch, sits in the middle of the floor, as if lying in wait. The piece takes Minimalist sculpture's classic forms (the cube) and materials (transparent plastic, wood) and, with its suggestive title and familiar arrangement, freights them with unexpected emotion and an implied narrative that has a decidedly unhappy ending.

Animal Trap faces down James Hayward's Automatic Black Painting #9 (1975), perhaps the purest, if also the most traditional, interpretation of the exhibit's title. Unlike Ad Reinhardt's black paintings from the previous decade, which reveal embedded grids and distinct shades upon prolonged viewing, Hayward's darkness harbors no hidden designs. In fact, the point of his early monochromatic canvases, such as this one, was to erase his hand entirely by laboriously building up thin layers of pigment to avoid any traces of brushstroke. The resulting 36 x 36 inch oil slick is all that remains of Hayward's slow, cumulative self-exorcism.

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