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Slow art: David Ireland RIP

June 9, 2009

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San Francisco artist David Ireland recently passed away (obits here and here). Ireland was a titanic figure in the Bay Area’s intense little art scene, whose work I appreciated for its emphasis on process. Like a number of artists of his generation, Ireland’s engagement in art activities looked a lot like life—whether stripping architectural structures down to reveal their historical layers, valorizing found items and humble byproducts of his work as art objects unto themselves, or patting a dollop of concrete back and forth for half a day until it cured.

One of Ireland’s best-known works was his own house at 500 Capp Street, a Victorian he acquired in the seventies, which he transformed over the course of several years. As Richard Pinegar wrote in a 1987 catalog for an exhibition at Ireland’s alma mater, the San Francisco Art Institute,

This transformation occurs during what Ireland describes as a two-year maintenance action (1977–1979) designed to cleanse the dwelling of the lingering presence of the previous owner without losing the special character of what he contributed to it. Performance, painting, and sculpture were the component parts of this action, fitting together in a natural sequence. The performance aspect was the process of renovation, the stripping of the house to reveal its underlying structure and traces of previous habitation. The walls of the house have become paintings through this process of archaeological reduction. Finally, they were coated with a thick layer of polyurethane varnish to stabilize the bare plaster and traces of paint. The aspect of sculpture is visible as the final product of these activities, a house that has been transformed into a work of art.

Ever since coediting a book about Bay Area art (Chronicle Books’s Epicenter: San Francisco Bay Area Art Now—now super cheap!) I have been fascinated by the conceptual constraint and simplicity of Ireland’s practice (especially his Dumbballs, to me the epitome of Slow Art, which I define as a process-oriented art entailing methodical accretion or iteration—or just operates on a very long scale of time).

After Ireland moved out of 500 Capp for a dedicated care facility, the house was imperiled by San Francisco’s freakishly inflated real estate values. Last year it was bought by a patron and saved from reverting to just another Mission-district house, but before this several Chronicle colleagues and I had the privilege of meeting David there; I took a few photos, which don’t do justice to the site. I’m regretful that a book about 500 Capp Street could not come to pass, but David Ireland left the world with numerous other important legacies.

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