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Oakland Exhibit Showcases Compelling Artist

By PETER SELZ Special to the Planet
Friday January 02, 2004

“David Ireland: The Way Things Are” gives an in-depth look at the work of one of the West Coast’s foremost artists. Although his work has been seen at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Washington’s Hirshhorn Museum, as well as in Rome, Zurich, Madrid and Kyoto, this is the first retrospective for the 77-year-old multi-talented artist. 

Born in Bellingham, Washington, Ireland came to Oakland and got his early training at the California College of Arts and Crafts, where emergent leading Bay Area artists—Robert Arneson, Robert Bechtele, Manuel Neri, Nathan Oliveira and Peter Voulkos— were enrolled at the same time. Ireland was exposed to many divergent ideas and took his degree in industrial arts and printmaking and worked as Oliveira’a assistant for a time. After a stint in the Army, he worked as an illustrator and traveled around Europe and Africa. 

From the mid-1960s to the early ‘70s, when the cultural revolution and political action was happening here, David Ireland led safaris in Africa. In his forties, however, he decided to become an artist and went back to school at the San Francisco Art Institute. 

Now his colleagues were the Bay Area Conceptualists and Installation Artists—Tom Marioni, Paul Kos, Terry Fox and Howard Fried among others. Ireland himself became a most resourceful and original artist to which this large exhibition testifies. 

Following in the footsteps of Marcel Duchamp and under the spell of John Cage, he made very simple objects from the most ordinary materials. Of greatest importance was his study of Zen, and a 1975 trip to India was liberating in abandoning rules and ideologies and accepting things “the way they are.” In the show we find pieces of wall, a rubber shoe, a collection of brooms set at an angle, a rubber band collection, chairs set on top of each other, a gigantic chair made of drywall and 16 feet high, an old three-legged chair and a “Duchamp Tree” made of chopped pieces of alder wood. There are many things in this show which we would overlook if they were not in museum context. 

But it was time to move away from making objects, even if they didn’t look like art pieces. After restoring the Museum of Conceptual Art in San Francisco to its original state prior to Tom Marioni’s occupancy, he went to work on a house on Capp Street, which had once belonged to a ship captain. In what was to become Ireland’s signature work, he spent two years stripping it of just about everything, including wallpaper, paint, baseboards, moldings, etc. 

As an artist he re-formed the material into a work of minimal simplicity. In 1980 he proceeded similarly when he converted former army barracks above the Pacific Ocean into what was to become the Headlands Center for the Arts, a place for residencies for exploratory artists. Ireland stripped dreary rooms of eight layers of wall paint, plaster and linoleum flooring and floated the dingy places with light. Together with the architect Mark Mack he designed and made the furniture for the place. 

The exhibition shows photographs of these buildings, but the most intriguing part of the show is called “Angel-Go-Around” (1996). It consists of a large collection of garden statues, nymphs, venuses, Michelangelo David’s—often the same figure in duplicate or triplicate, which are arranged in a circle. Above them, supported from the gallery’s ceiling, a motorized angel sweeps in circular flight over the statues, as if protecting the figures on the floor. What had once been art, and had become debased in kitsch, can now be experienced by the viewer on his/her own terms, relating to his/her own previous experience. 

The exhibition will be at the Oakland Museum of California through March 14.