Whether San Francisco artist David Ireland qualifies as a Zen master I cannot say, but certainly he’s a master of Zen art. He doesn’t make zenga -- the word the Japanese use to describe bold calligraphy, traditional paintings of monks and other staples of this age-old Asian repertoire. Instead he makes Conceptual art, and his idiom is fully Western and completely Modern. But his work seeks to produce in the viewer what can only be called an awakening. Nothing is more Zen than that.
Ireland’s art is the subject of a satisfying retrospective survey of his 30-year career. The show, at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art through March 13, is concluding a national tour that began 14 months ago at the Oakland Museum of California, where it was organized. Inevitable, even dramatic trims have been made (it’s now just over half its original size). But with 76 sculptures, installations, drawings and photographs, the ample show offers enough to follow the contours of Ireland’s remarkable development as an artist.
The earliest work is a 1972 drawing -- although it takes some scrutiny to recognize it as such. The work at first appears to be a found object. It looks like a piece of rusted metal that has been carefully cut into a quarter of a circle before being framed.
“Quarter Circle Drawing” is in fact a large, shaped piece of paper that has been densely rubbed with a mixture of reddish dirt, dark ink and wax. The pitted, richly mottled surface has the industrial look of weathered Cor-Ten steel. Its quarter-circle shape is bisected by a straight line, beginning at the midpoint of the curve and ending at the corner of the right angle -- a line that apparently was made by folding and unfolding the sheet.
The work looks alternately fragile and as if it weighs a ton. Carefully balanced contradictions -- between two-dimensional drawing and three-dimensional sculpture, between rigid steel and delicately folded origami -- are typical of Ireland’s art. At its best it pulls you into the gentle conundrums to be found in a careful perceptual experience of physical things.
This work is also instructive because Ireland was 42 when he made it. He took an undergraduate degree in industrial design and printmaking at the California College of Arts and Crafts in 1953, but he didn’t start to make art for 20 more years. Instead Ireland spent a few decades in a variety of occupations, including insurance broker, architectural draftsman, African safari leader, independent filmmaker and importer.
He also traveled widely, married, had children and divorced. At the start of the Santa Barbara show there is a wonderful photographic blowup of Ireland in Kenya enjoying a gleeful ride on the back of a rhinoceros. “Dangerous play” seems to be its own enlivening contradiction.
Notably, by the time Ireland enrolled in the graduate program at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1972, he was a worldly adult. That helps explain the seemingly instant maturity of the deceptively simple student work “Quarter Circle Drawing.” The piece shows an acute awareness of recent developments in Minimal, Conceptual and Process art, yet also manages to exude its own distinctive qualities.
The show’s second earliest work strips things even further. “Folded Paper Landscape” (1973) is simply a bright blue, heavily used paper bag, which Ireland took apart and pressed flat.
The surface of the sheet is riddled with crease-marks where the blue pigment wore off. Think of these white lines as drawing marks, rather like those on a blueprint.
They are heaviest in the places where the bag’s edges used to be, before it was dismantled, and now that it is flattened out those edges form a grid pattern that recalls the manufacture of the bag. The machine regularity of the grid plays against the random pattern of delicate fissures created during its former life as a paper bag in which to carry things.
“Folded Paper Landscape” recalls the old Zen riddle of the vessel, where meaning is found within the emptiness of the void. It also conjures the Dada precedent of Marcel Duchamp, whose “ready-made” sculptures consisted of ordinary objects manufactured by an industrial society, which the artist gave new meaning by providing an unexpected context.
Duchamp is explicitly acknowledged in a number of Ireland’s works. “Duchamp’s Tree” (1996), for example, is an old-fashioned bottle-drying rack like the one anointed as a sculpture by the French-born expatriate in 1914. Ireland has adorned his version with cut alder-wood limbs so that it looks like a short, squat shrub. He burned his own initials into the exposed rings of each tree limb, branding himself as part of an aesthetic family tree.
“Penn’s Pocket” (1992) is a walk-in environment that derives from Irving Penn’s famous 1942 photograph of Duchamp, in which the impish artist was pictured wedged into a narrow corner. Enter the narrow slice of space Ireland has erected between two gallery walls and, when you reach the back, you come face to face with Penn’s photographic portrait of Duchamp, smoothly embedded into the surface of one wall. Duchamp’s grin meets your own.
Now that Ireland has you neatly wedged into his corner, he offers you a witty but earnest way out: Reflected in the glass that covers Duchamp’s similarly constricted portrait is the lightbulb high on the wall at your back, which Ireland has provided to illuminate the installation’s otherwise dark corner. Literally, a lightbulb goes on over your head, like a symbol for “idea” in a cartoon. Awakening occurs.
Being awake to experience is the Zen motif that runs through all Ireland’s art. (The retrospective is titled “The Way Things Are.”) It was honed in his most widely known work, which is necessarily represented in the exhibition by several drawings and large-scale photographs. In 1975 Ireland moved into an old Victorian house at 500 Capp St., San Francisco, which he carefully altered, stripped back and amended to coax forth its character as an inhabited archeological relic. Even in photographs the glowing amber walls, which he lovingly varnished like a pre-modern painting, resonate with radiant life.
Sometimes, however, it’s difficult to see “the extraordinary in the ordinary” in the objects Ireland makes. Zen virtues of clarity, simplicity and directness are not always in evidence.
Of personal importance to the artist are his “dumbballs” -- dense gray spheres of concrete each about 4 inches in diameter. They are made by tossing a lump of wet concrete back and forth, from hand to hand, for hours at a time; as the concrete slowly cures, the spherical form takes inevitable shape.
Conceptually, this activity can be seen as a metaphor for the relationship between meditation and concrete reality. De-emphasizing intellect -- the “dumb” in “dumbball” -- these objects stress an acute awareness of the slow transformation of materials from one state to another. But as the residue of an unseen performance, these theoretically provocative spheres offer little that is compelling to look at.
Likewise, a work such as “Rolling Skellig” (1993-94) is so obscure as to be inert. On an industrial cart, rusty red and green rectangles have been painted over grainy black-and-white photographs of a mountainous island landscape. A nearby wall-label explains a journey taken by the artist to his namesake country, Ireland -- the Skellig Islands are in the Atlantic Ocean just off County Kerry -- and identifies symbolic associations between blood and landscape (red and green). However, little of that is conveyed by the impenetrable sculpture.
But Ireland is certainly capable of exceptional complexity within stark simplicity. The most dramatic installation in the Santa Barbara show is the terrific “Angel-Go-Round” (1996), a boneyard of desire presided over by a poignant symbol of wishful thinking. The floor is strewn with a circle of broken plaster and concrete casts of classical garden statuary, like a Richard Long sculpture of stones gathered on a country walk. The smashed sculptures -- crudely made approximations of sublime Greco-Roman antiquities -- are circled by a motorized fiberglass sculpture of an angel, suspended from the ceiling.
As a sculptural object, the clumsy angel whirling around above your head is as unappealing as the ones gathered in a heap at your feet. Like the “dumbballs” in the next gallery, albeit given human form, these forlorn sculptures are concrete expressions of mind. While the winged image of death and transcendence spins around overhead, a heart-rending sense of fallible humanity huddled between heaven and hell emerges from this iconoclastic assembly.
‘The Art of David Ireland: The Way Things Are’
Where: Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1130 State St.
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, closed Mondays
Ends: March 13
Price: $9 adults; $7 seniors; $6 students and children; free on Sunday
Contact: (805) 963-4364, www.sbma.net