first published in Juxtapoz, May 2, 2016
DAVE EGGERS: TAG, YOU’RE IT
Review: Dave Eggers “IDAHO” @Jules Maeght Gallery, San Francisco
by Tamsin Smith & Matt Gonzalez
There are a few days left to see Dave Eggers’ new exhibition IDAHO at the Jules Maeght Gallery. Don’t miss it. Though primarily known as a writer and publisher, this show presents Eggers as the accomplished visual artist he is.
The show is immediately engaging. Visitors are greeted by a salon-style hanging of works that are rendered on paper and raw board. Simple animals drawn in black ink paired with ironic, contemplative quips abound. There is also a massive ridable pedicab bear, constructed with wood, foam, and faux fur, and mounted on three wheels, waiting to be taken for a spin in the urban wild. One need not be schooled in anything other than humor to feel welcome among Eggers’ menagerie. The twinning of text with image break down the barriers that can make art shows intimidating. One “gets” the jokes (at least their surface pleasure) immediately. The back bite takes longer to settle in.
Once these animal avatars have loosened us up with play, they have much more to say. Standing before and in-between their cross-walled dialogue, we hear the voices of id, ego, superego at work. A full spectrum of inner dialogue takes outward form, from snarky to insecure to ethically-reflective.
Are the animals themselves lobbing accusations at us or are simply articulating uncertainties that live within? Whether innocent of intent or not, they push buttons. It’s hard not to feel implicated under the gaze of a squirrel declaring “No Longer in Touch with the Quotidian Joys”, a bird crowing “Overuses the Word Desultory”, or a pastiche of 9 creatures alternatively declaring “Shame”, “Glory”, and ending in a bunny bouncing away with “Did I say Shame I meant Glory” tossed over its shoulder.
The animals broadcast a dark truth that is, in equal parts, painful and funny. Rather than mute and stuffed as in a hunting lodge, Eggers confers speech on his creatures and sends them forth to stir things up. Their verbal asides seem almost designed for sharing across social media. Each painted wooden plaque works as a stand-alone selfie of daily ennui. There is even a Bison captioned with “Exalted by Ennui”, as well as a “Don’t Get Up, It Already Ended” dog, and a “Loved You in Cabaret” vampire bat. All embody modern syndromes from flippant celebrity suck-up to sangfroid to FOMO (fear of missing out).
Visitors are also invited to flip through more works in a multi-drawer wooden file cabinet. The abundance of images is a risky offering. On the one hand, it feeds the playfulness of the exhibition, letting viewers look through a trove of gems, even doing their own curation. But showing so many works prompts questions about volume and process. Eggers himself addresses this in McSweeney’s (issue 27) “Is loose draftsmanship appealing, in that it’s intimate and disarming? Is absurdity more appealing when it comes across as humble?” Regardless, none of these pieces — even those buried deep in the drawer — feel superfluous. The drawn works may look as if they were done in one studio session, but they shyly confess a sophisticated rendering. Simplicity abounds, though it should not be mistaken for slack or lack of artistry. These are thought-out works by an artist steeped in traditions that have collided to make this presentation possible. Each connotes something significant.
The work succeeds because it triggers a range of possible reactions. Eggers seems as open to viewers responding purely at the level of humor, as he is inviting a deeper level of inquiry. He invites us to react authentically without pushing an agenda. Moreover, the renderings are done with a restraint and precision that evidences years of drawing practice.
Perhaps for Eggers himself, engagement as a painter is a respite from writing the novels for which he has become famous. Eggers was an aspiring painter, and worked as a cartoonist and illustrator, before forging his writing career. This may be a way for him to tap back into a less cluttered creative space, one where laughter is less constrained than in serious fiction.
It could also be that Eggers is commenting on how humans have lost touch with the essence of being. The narrative tags give us an opportunity to see how separated we have become from ourselves, from others, from the natural world. The phrases can be taken as cocktail hour gibberish. Sometimes we don’t realize how silly we sound. Yet, when we hear a narcissistic statement or tag pinned to the animals, it gives pause. After all, we too are animals. What is it we’ve lost in all the trappings of clever chatter and posturing?
There is an old adage that an artist should make work about war in war time. Here these messages make astute observations about the state of today’s world — politics and statecraft, romance and intrigue all get their 15 minutes. When a groundhog ponders “Horrified by your Demogoguery” and then in a very similar pose on a facing panel declares, “Infatuated by your Demogoguery”, one cannot help being drawn in. It’s as if Donald Trump were being invoked. We are in turns horrified and seduced by him. The groundhog is posed perfectly, perched on its hind legs, projecting both curiosity and shock.
Usually, when we see animals on walls, the artist is a taxidermist. Eggers turns the tables on the roles of hunter and hunted. It’s payback time, but the punchline is that we all may be both predator and victim. Beware of the glib label. There is no tag human beings apply to others that doesn’t say as much about us as it does about our targets. This seems a particularly useful reminder to politician and voter alike in this election year.
In addition to the drawing and text pairings there is a grouping of large oil canvases in the rear of the gallery, featuring construction workers excavating at night. These pieces are devoid of text. They are a commanding presence, covering most of the walls to which they are affixed. And what of these people in Eggers’ work? His humans are wordless workers examining holes in the ground. In one painting, the human is prostrate while three adult bison and a glowing calf stand over him. Is Eggers signaling that humankind’s clever words and protective bright orange vests don’t amount to much? At the end of the day, we’re all just animals. There is something sacred in the stillness and alienation of these large-scale portraits of men working in the dark and stumbling upon the relics of what used to populate the land. In a set of three paintings, workers are half-submerged in holes of their own digging. Is this living?
They are essential questions. Eggers conjures them by such wry and disarming means that they sneak up on us. His artful animals drop crumbs that lead us back to ourselves. Where the path leads next is something for each IDAHO visitor to decide from him or herself.
Dave Eggers: Idaho
Jules Maeght Gallery
149 Gough Street
The exhibition, which includes oil and acrylic paintings, sculpture, and interactive installations, will run through May 7th. All proceeds from the sale of Eggers’ art will be donated to ScholarMatch, a nonprofit college counseling organization based in the Mission. The exhibition was organized by Jules Maeght and Natasha Boas and comprises all newly-commissioned works for the gallery. Eggers is represented by Electric Works.