The David Ireland Houseguest

  • by Sura Wood
  • Wednesday July 11, 2018
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The 1886 Edwardian-style Italianate home at 500 Capp Street in the Mission District, where the late San Francisco conceptual artist David Ireland lived for three decades until several years before his death in 2009, is possibly his greatest, most enduring achievement. After closure during an extensive renovation project, it reopened in 2016, and since then has offered guided tours for the public. The home, which Ireland turned into a living work of art, is like a movie set or a haunted house, though not the scary kind, and its aesthetics are, well, idiosyncratic. Ireland slathered the mostly mustard-colored walls with 20 coats of polyurethane, giving them an eerily high sheen. Detritus like dirt dug up from the property, preserved in jars in utilitarian ceramic wash basins, shares space with sleek industrial design touches like cold steel hardware in the bedroom sink. Twin, low-slung, cognac leather chairs, positioned with their backs against a window at the far end of the upstairs parlor, sit across the room from a pair of mini propane tanks - Ireland's version of a chandelier - dangling from the ceiling in front of the fireplace.

Sealed off from the outside world within the confines of the house, where there's a confluence of the real and unreal and things are not quite what they seem, the surreal ambiance has its way with you. Not so coincidentally, Ireland's patron saint was Marcel Duchamp, an artist prankster similarly fond of the uncanny; a large photograph of him is propped against a wall. When Ireland resided there, he hosted monthly dinners in his darkened theatrical dining room, where attending artists gathered around the long, narrow, hand-carved wooden table, a strand of tiny festive Christmas lights strung above it.

Last year, the curators at Capp Street began inviting artists to mount shows calibrated to comment on or engage with the environs. The latest culprit is trickster illusionist Tony Matelli, a game New York-based sculptor whose wily humor and disconcerting challenges to perception and the laws of physics are in synch with Ireland's offbeat sensibility. Matelli's solo exhibition, "I hope all is well...," consisting of about a dozen hyperrealistic, lifelike sculptures, requires a series of double takes and leaving one's assumptions at the door. That there's something amiss - and misleading - about his objects confronts visitors as soon as they enter the foyer, which was once Ireland's paint-stained studio. What's surely a large, innocuous cardboard box, with a half-empty glass of water casually left on top of it, sits in the reception area. But not so fast; its materials are actually painted polyester and fiberglass, with blown glass masquerading as both the vessel and H2O. Ditto for the dust-covered mirror with a Tic-Tac-Toe grid scrawled on its surface, crafted not from glass but layers of tinted urethane.

On the upstairs landing, Ireland's battered wood chair is glued with its seat facing midway up a wall near Matelli's "Weed," a determined, convincingly rendered, green plant that appears to be growing out of a hole in a corner floorboard - on the second floor, no less. In the front parlor is a bronze window sculpture that Matelli cast from a cracked pane and painted a handsome slate gray. He added a string of matching bronze lights from Christmas past to the fa´┐Żade, echoing the lighting in the dining room, as well as a sad cactus with no future. The piece is adjacent to "Copper Window" (ca. 1978), a work in which Ireland replaced a broken window, shattered when a brick was thrown through it, with a copper etching plate. (Shards of glass, testifying to the incident, fill a medicinal bowl nearby.)

Just a few feet away one comes upon the piece de resistance. There, by grace of god, or something, floats "Josh," a witty, shockingly realistic facsimile of Matelli's former roommate, who has been recreated out of silicone, steel and hair. He's dressed in standard-issue college uniform: T-shirt, shorts and plaid shirt, but he's no average Joe. He's laid out, levitating about two feet off the ground, as if he had been seized by a trance on his way to the refrigerator to grab a beer. That it's difficult to discern the mechanism that keeps him aloft maintains the illusion of a body whose soul has departed or is perhaps roaming the premises. Given the supernatural aura of the context, it's not as strange a sight as one might think.

Installed all but alone in the guest bedroom is yet another of Matelli's gravity-defying feats: a supersized chunk of twisting, electric-blue rope, forged from silicone and stainless steel. It curls ever upward, with no evident supports, lured on its path by an unseen snake charmer.

Attached to a wall of the home office is a redacted "manifesto" that gives the show its name. "I Hope All Is Well" is the plaintive letter Matelli wrote to his gallerist in 2000, outlining his desperate financial straits. "America is killing me," he writes. "Next year, I think I'm gonna disappear in the hills were [sic] there are no rich people. This is the real problem! My proximity to rich people; it fills me with greed and self-doubt." Though nowadays Matelli is doing just fine, these are sentiments to which many displaced San Francisco artists can certainly relate.

Artist-guided tours, every Wed., Thurs. & Fri., 11 a.m., 2 & 4 p.m. Self-guided tours, Sat., 12-5 p.m. Check website for ticket prices. Through Oct. 13.