Art of Betrayal

S.F. artists work in Fairfield, then dissect its consumer culture

Farmers are known to speak elliptically for an hour or so before getting down to brass tacks. They call this practice "visiting."

Artists are wont to speak elliptically for an hour or so, unless the conversation happens to run longer. In such cases they speak elliptically for many hours. They call this practice "communicating."

Harrol Fletcher, an avant-garde painter whose day job consists of working as a farmhand, combines the conversational tendencies of both professions.

This talent for obscuring serves Fletcher well nowadays, as he tries to evade the cruel truth about his latest artistic work, a collaboration with his partner, Jon Rubin, titled "A Few Months in Fairfield." The cruel truth is that the exhibit has nothing too kind to say about Fairfield, Calif.

"It's a weirder element about the place than the public image they might want to present. It's about the culture that we found there. It's about products, it's about real estate, it's about the way people present themselves," says Fletcher. "It's about consuming, it's about not necessarily having as much individual culture as has existed in the past."

What Fletcher doesn't say is that his and Rubin's work is built around a sublime act of betrayal: As artists in residence for the city of Fairfield, they were expected to enliven and even celebrate the suburban blandeur of that north Bay Area town; now, in San Francisco, the artists have mined their experience to produce a brutal critique of the consumerism they found in suburbia.

The work, which opened Saturday at the Patricia Sweetow Gallery on Geary Street, is made up of dozens of images harvested from the penny shopper fliers, yellowing singles magazines, and newspaper real estate advertisements that, for them, came to reflect Fairfield's soul.

In many respects, of course, Fletcher and Rubin are right.
Fairfield was one of the greatest beneficiaries -- or, perhaps, victims -- of the 1980s California construction boom. Its tiny downtown is now embraced by miles of towering tract houses, shopping malls, auto dealerships, and supermarkets. It is the Bay Area's northernmost commuter refuge. And the vast

precision of its newly built landscape reflects a deeply held urge to escape the city's complications. But the people who live there still have the urge that cities were built to satisfy -- the urge to connect.

"When they looked for identity, perhaps in the past, they looked at each other," says Rubin. "Now, they look indirectly at each other, mediated through something else."

In other words, Rubin and Fletcher believe, Fairfieldians look at each other through possessions. During their six-month residency, which just ended, Fletcher and Rubin worked in a Fairfield storefront and stayed in the homes of Fairfield residents. It was, says Rubin, "like being in a dream. ... And the dream was filled with products you might see in a store."

Criticizing the consumerism of the suburbs has over the years itself become a cliche. But the collection of images Fletcher and Rubin have assembled in San Francisco is as nuanced as it is vicious. Brownie-size and barely discernible from farther than 10 feet, each image in the show is mounted in a foot-square white matte field, and surrounded by an unfinished-pine picture frame bought at discount from a Fairfield retailer.

The photocopied visage of a real estate saleswoman smiles not far from tiny, paired tracings of Chrysler Ram Charger pickups; the forlorn face of a mail-order Russian bride stares Mona-Lisa-eyed across from a colored-pencil tracing of Seagram's bottles; a rendering of a human baby clipped from an advertisement lies on its back near a color photo of a plastic bucket.

The effect is eerie and empty, sort of like the feeling that comes at the end of a good cry. "You could think at once that it's beautiful and think at the same time that it is sad," Rubin says.

The natural sympathy evoked by the pleasant real estate sales agents and tiny clip-art babies, the tactile comeliness of the motor vehicles and household cleaning aids, combine to momentarily smother the revulsion such banal images might otherwise produce. The emotion created by the show is similar to the almost-enjoyable loneliness provoked by subdivision-and-strip-mall cityscapes.

This mixture of beauty and commercial revulsion makes the criticism of California mall culture all the more vicious: The show announces that the loathe-thy-neighbor suburban planning and soul-scoring consumerism for which California is famous exist because they are -- in their way -- beautiful.

"The images were culled from these sources that somehow betrayed -- I mean portrayed! -- that experience," Rubin says.

Shelly Willis, visual arts coordinator for the city of Fairfield, hired Fletcher and Rubin as artists in residence last year. She says she isn't bothered by their San Francisco exhibition, even if its biting message is a far cry from the cheery outdoor portraits of local residents the artists created during their stint in Fairfield. A former art history major who used to work for the California Arts Council, Willis says she would be pleased if the exhibition persuaded Fairfield residents to reflect about the sort of place they inhabit.

"It was pure, it was not censored, it had integrity," says Willis. "What happens next is, hopefully, thinking; hopefully, conversation."

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