Entertainment » Fine Arts

Pier 24 Revisited

by Sura Wood
Monday Aug 19, 2013

When it comes to communing with photography, Pier 24 is a singular venue.

San Francisco investment advisor Andy Pilara renovated this vast, elegantly designed, 28,000-sq.-ft. historic building on the city's waterfront to house his growing collection of 3,000 photographs. Since opening in 2010, it has operated largely under the radar, and though word has slowly gotten out, it remains one of the city's hidden treasures. No more than 20-40 people are allowed inside at one time; admission is free, and visits, which are in two-hour slots and can be scheduled online, are by appointment only.

What this means is that with a little bit of planning you can be virtually on your own in the space, save for a couple of passing docents (usually enthusiastic art students) and the fortunate few who've signed up for the same time period. Just imagine trying to have this kind of serene, unfettered access to art mid-summer at the Louvre, or for that matter, the Legion of Honor.

Neither a commercial gallery nor a museum, Pier 24 is a cathedral for still images that offers a contemplative, intimate experience you'd be hard-pressed to equal anywhere else. Their mission is to provide a pure, unobstructed relationship between art and viewer, without the distraction of explication. To that end, titles and attribution for the works are not displayed, a point of contention for visitors who'd like to identify what they're looking at; in coming weeks, names, titles and dates will be added to the gallery guides.

Their latest show, "A Sense of Place," substantially smaller than the previous exhibition of portraiture, enlists a similarly big-tent concept expansive enough to accommodate 300 to 400 photographs that range from grand-scale installations that occupy a room to more modestly-sized pictures. The artists included constitute a hit parade of veteran and emerging talents: Robert Adams, Thomas Demand, Todd Hido, Lee Friedlander (a room with 108 of his America by Car shots can be skipped without hardship), Stephen Shore, Jeff Wall, Rinko Kawauchi, Asako Narahashi, and many others. Local collector Paul Sack, whose amazing collection of San Francisco panoramas before and after the 1906 earthquake and fire will be familiar from SFMOMA exhibitions, has three galleries here showcasing images of cities, horizons and abodes. Erik Kessels' installation 24 HRS in Photos comments on our throwaway culture and the obsession with documenting our every move. 300,000 of the one million pictures, uploaded to Flicker during a 24-hour period, are banked on one side of a gallery, piled from floor to ceiling, with the rest scattered around. An essay in waste and the perils of oversharing, it's a metaphoric garbage dump reserved for snapshots.

Although more people have discovered the place since I was here last year, my visit felt remarkably private and untrammeled. With its soaring ceilings, meticulously calibrated lighting, spacious galleries and the meditative quiet of a monk's retreat, it's a welcome refuge from the throngs clogging the Embarcadero. Avail yourself of a guide with a layout of the 20 numbered galleries, but don't feel compelled to adhere to the order. Some galleries contain works by several photographers; others are devoted to a single artist such as local up-and-comer Eric William Carroll, who deconstructs the photographic process. "Blue Line of Woods," a series of uniformly-sized diazotypes that look like Asian hanging scrolls, rings a rectangular gallery whose diffused lighting - the floor is lit, not the images - contributes to the dreamy illusion of being lost in a thicket of trees in hazy blue twilight.

In a section titled "Home," find Veronika Kellndorfer's stand-out "Lovell Beach House" (2008). An immense, three-panel ocean view from the Rudolf Schindler-designed ode to modern architecture (1926) in Newport Beach, it was shot through a window then silkscreened onto heated glass, an arduous process that yielded a rich palette of grays; bars and lines filter the vista and subtly direct the eye. Also in this group is Todd Hido's suggestive bedroom; the unnatural aqua of the bottom a swimming pool, rumpled bed sheets and pillows bear the imprint of someone who recently rested there. Hido gets a dedicated gallery featuring large melancholy images photographed through a rainy windshield, like the blurry vision of a woman in a yellow raincoat and kerchief standing on a damp beach.

Pier 24 has been expanding its purview, cultivating one-of-a-kind images such as the out-sized "The Stour from Dead Man's Bridge, near Flatford," the first landscape ever produced by Richard Learoyd, and commissioning emergent photographers like San Francisco megawatt talent John Chiara, who delivered the awe-inspiring "Embarcadero at Interstate 80." To capture this pair of unique, 48" x 60" pictures, he situated himself underneath the Bay Bridge and aimed upward. The result, which resembles the inside of a cauldron or an erupting volcano, is jaw-dropping; pitch blacks contrast with flaming orange in an industrial cityscape where light and shadow are reversed. As The New Yorker observed, Chiara's largest prints "Look like they were transferred straight from a blissed-out eyeball to the astonished wall." He designed and custom-built his huge camera, climbs inside it to make adjustments, then processes the monumental images by hand. (In some cases he does so with the aid of a sewer pipe.) The opposite of speedy digital, it can take a day to produce a single picture. His mammoth box camera harkens back to the techniques of pioneering Western landscape photographer Carleton Watkins, though Chiara uses a flatbed trailer instead of a mule team to haul his equipment.

Through May 1, 2014; appts: Mon.-Thurs., 10 a.m.-5:15 p.m. www.pier24.org

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