Kija Lucas: A Taxonomy of Belonging | SF Camerawork

BY Glen Helfand, December 1, 2022

While home is a key theme in Kija Lucas’s recent work, the underlying message is that the place where we “belong” is not simple or static. The works come from a series titled In Search of Home, and the images, mostly of plant specimens on black backgrounds, are evidence of the artist’s travels through 13 U.S. states looking for sites relevant to her family’s history. On view through December 17, it is the first exhibition in SF Camerawork’s new space at Fort Mason Center, and it is a fitting one, as the non-profit itself has had numerous homes since its founding in 1974.

The works, however, don’t exactly feel homey. In the spirit of taxonomic classification, Lucas’s formal still lifes are captured by a scanner, an imaging device more commonly associated with creating records of documents. The format also produces an uncanny sense of dimension, since the subjects – in Lucas’s case, leaves, flowers, dirt, and grains of pollen ­– are placed directly against the “lens.”  The prints themselves are presented at various sizes, a strategy that allows something small to suggest a greater meaning. The work may be autobiographical, but it isn’t revealing or personal in the conventional sense.

Lucas’s classification is conceptually opaque. Each work is titled with a series number and general location. In Search of Home, Buxton 287 (2015), for example, depicts small green acorns gathered in the center of the 24 x 20-inch pigment print; while In Search of Home, Bay Area 559 (2022) features a brittle fallen leaf taking up most of the same-sized print.

Kija Lucas, In Search of Home, Bay Area 586, 2021

The artist lives in the Bay Area, but the significance of Buxton, a town in Maine, isn’t explained within the exhibition. The omission is confounding, because when a given location is explained, it is deeply meaningful. For example, the show’s press release notes that Lucas traveled to Bristol, Virginia, the site of a plantation where relatives were enslaved. There are only a couple of works titled after this location, but one, In Search of Home: Bristol 36 (2019), is a wall-sized print on vinyl of a weathered piece of an oak tree that, the release notes, was a source of shade for toiling slaves. The object itself is abstract, and in this greatly enlarged scale, it becomes a mysterious talisman for the enormity of the history it represents.

On a facing wall, Lucas has arranged a diamond-shaped cluster of 20 9 x 7-inch images of plants. Much closer to actual size, these prints come across like pressed flowers, a more personal form of archiving. These are beautiful, elegiac pictures, yet the taxonomic approach inserts a cool distance, even as they are best viewed closely. Lucas appears to be interested in the ambiguity of presenting things we all see, though we may not grasp their full significance.