JR and Ric Ambrose each explore crowded public spaces in respective solo shows
by Jeffrey Edalatpour
Published February 20, 2019
The French photographer JR crowds every corner of his black and white images with people in "The Chronicles of San Francisco—Sketches" (through March 24 at Pace Gallery). During a 2018 visit, he and his roving team of assistants and co-conspirators photographed hundreds of San Franciscans. They captured individuals participating in group activities, attending a concert or a protest.
They also took snapshots of individuals performing the same task, such as taking a selfie or working on a laptop. And, in the final, lengthy, horizontal compositions (most of which include the caveat "Work in Progress"), they cut each person out and arranged them next to one another. The singular task multiplies while the individuals overlap and merge into something monolithic. They are, perhaps unconsciously, homages to homemade high school collages.
Every photograph looks like it's taking place in a stadium-sized event with people sitting or standing in different tiers, in row upon row. But the backgrounds are distorted and abruptly shift. In one corner of Balloon, you can see the downward curve of a typical hilly street. But the Castro Theatre marquee sign shows up in the foreground just to the right of it. When you're standing in front of the theater, you'd have to turn your head in either direction to see a street that rises out of the Castro and up to Noe Valley or to Divisadero. And, as if they're defying gravity, a dozen protestors float upward, blocking out the "R" and the "O" in the Castro sign. JR isn't afraid to enliven a busy scene like this with even more randomness. You can find someone riding a bicycle, doing push-ups or sitting glumly selling newspapers.
Unlike JR's "Sketches," "Going Places: Drawings by Ric Ambrose" (at Triton Museum of Art through April 14) gathers urbanites together in a more orderly approach. Ric Ambrose also takes photographs, but that's just the point of departure. Whether vertical or horizontal, his graphite drawings resemble straightforward renderings of photography rendered in scroll form. But Beach Bum, a panoramic view of a sand and seascape, is actually a composite of two different beaches, one in Northern California and the other in Santa Monica. Ambrose says there's a tell in that some people are dressed in sweats because it's cold. "I'm fascinated by how people at the beach are uninhibited, even their gestures," he says. "They're in their own space, not aware how people are looking at them."
A delighted child is buried in the sand up to his neck. Two surfers carry their striped boards. Three swimmers with wet hair dry off on their towels. And a man with sunglasses on at the center of the canvas stares directly at the artist. Invariably in "Going Places," Ambrose is alert to the consciousness of the individuals he's looking at and then interpreting on paper. He's not consuming them so much as recording human interactions, his included. In contrast, the posing in "Sketches" feels mechanical and artificial. JR enlarges the idea of a selfie so that it becomes an orgiastic ritual. As you enter Pace, the greeting desk in the front gallery has been displaced by 6- to 7-foot tall diorama stands. Visually, they read better when you're standing outside and across the street. One of them is a collage of people, all smiling, as they hold their cell phones up in the air and back at themselves.
Ambrose doesn't exclude technology from his work, but it serves his art and not his vanity. In 54 Giant Boulevard, you can see the faceless outline of the artist taking a photograph with his phone as reflected in the shiny hood of a car. The city street looks like it's enjoying a temporary hush, but there are signs of life behind every carefully drawn skyscraper window. "You see, on the hood of the car, all those buildings are surrounding a void of the sky itself," he explains. "There was a term that art historians would use, the pregnant void, meaning empty space is activated." There is no such empty space in "Sketches." When everyone is activated, as in JR's San Francisco photographs, the individual is lost, which may be the point.
The JR we meet in the documentary Faces Places, which Agnes Varda co-directed, doesn't square with the artist behind the Pace exhibit or his 2017 installation of a child at the Mexican-American border. In both cases, his photographs purposefully bring something humane from his subjects. Ambrose looks at the same group of San Franciscans and makes connections with and between them, whether in cafes or in crosswalks. In "Sketches," everyone in the Bay Area is just a face in the crowd.
The Chronicles of San Francisco—Sketches
Thru March 24
Going Places: Drawings by Ric Ambrose
Thru April 14
Triton Museum of Art
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All drawings copyrighted by Ric Ambrose