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SF Artist Val Britton's "Continental Interior" Installation Comes to Civic Center's SFAC Gallery

Val Britton

Val Britton; The Continental Interior, 2012

On Grove Street, across from the gilded, Beaux-Arts exterior of City Hall, the San Francisco Arts Commission has a space that it is no longer allowed to use as a gallery – quite. 155 Grove has been deemed seismically unsafe, which means the general public is not allowed inside, but the city does allow SFAC to put the space’s large front window to use: A rotation of artists fill the cube with site-specific installations that the public can view from outside. It is a fishbowl rife with apparent limitations that, as current resident artist Val Britton has found, give rise to unexpected possibilities.

I found Britton, an East Coast transplant and graduate of California College for the Arts, on hands and knees in the fishbowl, crouched beneath an exploded constellation of meticulously cut paper – her work. “The Continental Interior,” as it is titled, consists of hundreds of scavenged and recycled pieces, ranging in size from fleck to frond, hued in a paint palette of corals and faint blues with occasional black singe. Suspended from the rafters by heavy string, the individual pieces speak the language of cartography, resembling landmasses or territories. The installation as a whole recalls something between a desert sunset and the backside of a highly abstract Koi fish.

Britton’s practice has a compelling origin story that, while no longer central to her work, bears mentioning. Her father, a long haul truck driver, passed away suddenly when she was young. In graduate school, her mapmaking became a way to project imagined atlases of the routes he might have travelled, and in so doing, somehow insert herself into his story – one she never really knew. “It was a metaphorical connection to him,” she said, “but it also was an exercise in drawing, in opening up. I was projecting really big. I started to work bigger. It opened up my hands and I made things differently. I needed to do that.”

As an artistic point of aperture, it is just that: A point, one that recedes further and further into the background with each new work. “Iterations,” Britton calls them, “in a single, ongoing project,” each installation faces unique conditions that propel the artist toward wider explorations of space, of abstraction, of landscape – literal as well as emotional.

The SFAC Gallery, being a fishbowl, sets up some rather unique conditions.

For one, it functions as a kind of diorama where viewers are limited in their possible vantage points, in effect necessitating some 2D considerations: Britton’s arrangement of paper pieces becomes an almost collage-like project; her taut suspending strings, criss-crossing in space, take on the character of line drawing. Then there is the role of the windowpane itself – during the day a reflective surface, superimposing the impressive image of City Hall upon “Continental Interior”; during the night, a barrier between the chilly autumn street and a warmly lit interior, where dramatic shadowplay enters the piece.

And, of course, there is the matter of audience, namely, any and all Civic Center passersby. Throughout the install process, Britton has taken unanticipated delight in her public exposure – a unique circumstance in the art world, which tends to set up barriers that shelter the art and limit, whether by intention or convention, its audience. “It has actually been really thrilling,” said Britton. “As I’ve been working in here people literally bang on the windows, wave at me, give me the thumbs up and tell me what they think. They’re really different than the usual audience; I don’t know if they actually know what this space is, but they’re aware that there are these art installations and they change. They’re actively following the process. It’s been really inspiring.”

As part of Britton’s process of evolving iteration, she re-uses her paper segments in new works down the line (many of the imagined landmasses in “The Continental Interior” came from her two previous installations, both aptly titled “Burst Apart”), an accumulative process that seems to be towing the artist toward ever-bigger locations. “The Continental Interior” will remain intact for over a year, though – more than enough time for the work to become a fixture in this singularly visible, if officially inaccessible, locale.

The Continental Interior will be on display through January, 2013.
Opening conversation and reception: Wednesday, November 14, from 6:30 – 8:30pm, at 155 Grove Street.