San Francisco exhibit ‘Earache’ is dizzying display of reality

Leonie Leonida /Staff

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The ear is what keeps the feet on the ground and the head in the air. It induces reality-jumbling levels of vertigo or, on most days, plays with the minutiae of colors and sounds. After taking an elevator up to the Fraenkel Gallery, on the fourth floor of the Geary Street gallery building, on the opening night of “Earache, a new exhibition organized by Jordan Stein, dizziness is the first sensation that comes to mind.

“Earache” is a gallery experience that tempts the poetics of reality. Aesthetic cohesion doesn’t exactly come to mind — Stein chose to include works from a broad spectrum of photographers and photographic styles, with featured artists not limited to hot-shot names such as William Eggleston, Diane Arbus and Richard Avedon. The gallery features nearly 40 works that, at first, lend themselves to visual disorder.

“Earache” starts with a Peter Hujar black-and-white print of a man laying down and sensually smoking a cigar, titled “Chuck Gretsch (with Cigar).” However, it is almost too easy to miss this first piece. The exhibit begins even before the reception area and the piece, more often than not, is seen on the way out rather than the way in. What is likely the first photo viewed is actually the second photo: a sepia-toned Eugène Atget print titled “Versailles (Faune)” that, like its predecessor, gives few hints as to what the concept of “Earache” is supposed to entail. But the mystery and the thought process that went into curating the exhibit seem to be what the show is actually about.

Still-life prints are positioned next to dog portraits and landscapes and abstract documentary photos. The collection is eclectic to say the least, and on initial run-through, the point of it all appears jumbled in the spattering of images. Perhaps “Earache” is a bit too advanced. At the very least, it requires something along the lines of patience and scrutiny from a less visually bombarded crowd.

But by far, the most accessible and most compelling moments in “Earache” are its portraits of people.

Way in the back of the exhibit, in the last of three rooms, is another black-and-white Hujar portrait. This time, it’s of the late poet John Ashbery, who sits with a full mustache and a head of boyishly waved hair, staring to the side of the camera with his big, bird-like eyes. Ashbery’s lines of sight then directly lead toward the turn of the gallery corner onto two idyllic Tisa Walden shots of San Francisco from her window on Chestnut Street.

This small creative gesture fully capitalizes on the magic of three-dimensional gallery space and prompts a closer inspection of the gallery in its entirety. The staging is an attempt to grasp details missed in a vertiginous first impression.

And on a second go-round, different variations of the human stare à la Ashbery’s bird eyes appear and likely credit themselves to some strong aesthetic associations. Two 1961 works by Diane Arbus of a cross-dresser (or “female impersonator,” as the photographs’ titles say) were displayed side by side at the beginning of the exhibit. A photograph of a young, dishevelled girl intensely eyeing the camera on a violent, crowded street comprise Weegee’s “Their First Murder.”

The center of the exhibit, flanked by two more of Tisa Walden’s San Francisco-themed photos, is another standout: Richard Avedon’s “Jerome Smith and Isaac Reynolds, civil-rights workers, New York City, December 10, 1963.” The unwavering stares, or glazed-over gazes, of two Black men taken from barely shoulder-length are hypnotic.

Individually, this is the type of image that could stand on its own in a crowded room, but what makes “Earache” special is that these pictures in their exact order create an exact essence that was one person’s (Stein’s) performative and largely ephemeral ideas of reality splotched onto three rooms worth of wall space. To capture this energy doesn’t have to make complete sense, it just wants to be seen. It’s poetry.

“Earache” runs through August 18 at Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco.

Contact Alice Dai at [email protected].