Unravel: Lauren Davies and Kirsten Stolle at Jack Fischer Gallery, San Francisco

BY Roula Seikaly, June 18, 2019

Kirsten Stolle, Smokestacks, 2018. Courtesy Jack Fischer Gallery

Unravel paired photo-based work by Lauren Davies and Kirsten Stolle. Contextualized by our precarious political circumstances, the installation is a grim but engrossing account of American economic decline and reckless industrial arrogance.

For Industry Unraveled (2018), on view at Jack Fischer Gallery through June 29, Davies photographs decrepit factories, shopping malls, and homes in Rust Belt cities including Detroit, Youngstown, and Cleveland. She then loads the digital files to Walmart’s website, utilizing a service in which customers create machine-crafted fleece or woven blankets that feature their own images. Once received, Davies manipulates the objects through over-dying, bleaching, and additional sewing to produce the mournful constructions that slouch from the wall toward the gallery floor. Like the sites they convey, Davies’s misshapen constructions present a powerful metaphor for the economic maw that slowly consumes the American middle class. In using a Walmart service that produces, en mass, items that were once handmade, Davies captures the shift from brick and mortar to automated or tech-heavy economic modes and the consequences of that shift more effectively than any economist’s explanation could.

Lauren Davies, Detroit House 4, 2019. Courtesy Jack Fischer Gallery

Across numerous projects, Kirsten Stolle has maintained an intense critique of greenwashing – the PR spin that promotes an organization’s products, aims, or policies as consumer and environmentally friendly – for the lie it is. Her research-based practice manifests as visual and textual interventions that debunk familiar corporate messaging. Our Roots Run Deep (2018) skewers Monsanto and Dow Chemical for obscuring organizational history through highly curated online corporate profiles. Stolle’s “circle interventions” – black circles, or scenes extracted from historical photographs and collaged onto saturated color images drawn from corporate websites – recall an earlier effort at narrative control. Roy Stryker, director of the Farm Services Administration, zealously managed the Roosevelt administration’s photographic interpretation of the Great Depression. If an image deviated from the narrative of recovery and national perseverance in the face of wholesale disaster, Stryker used a hole punch to destroy the negative. Stolle beautifully perverts Stryker’s infamous “kill” punches, collapsing the comfortable distance between past and present and confronting viewers with what we don’t want to know about where our food comes from. As Stryker fought to narrow the nation’s perceptions of catastrophe, Stolle seeks to expose another catastrophe before it’s too late. A particularly troubling composition, Feed, from the 2016 series By the Ton,features the title in a blood red block font over a UPI photograph taken after a 1966 explosion at a Canadian Monsanto plant that killed 11 men. Monsanto– the crop science division of Bayer AG since its 2018 acquisition – insists that their product lines benefit humanity. Stolle asks viewers to consider what these industrial behemoths are feeding us, and what we risk by swallowing it.

If you seek relief from the Trump administration’s near daily attacks on economic parity and environmental stewardship, this exhibition will not provide it. Davies and Stolle’s projects rather engage us as witnesses to a nation’s decline. Individually, these projects are investigations of and responses to misguided political and economic policies and their long-term social impact. Together, they are a reminder that faith in capitalism delivers cruel consequences.