San Francisco Chronicle 3

Masterworks of Destruction

by Kenneth Baker

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Picton and Burbridge at Toomey Tourell: Londoner Claire Burbridge and Portlander Matthew Picton share space at Toomey Tourell in a show that defines mixed success.

Burbridge offers small bronze and wax human figures, draped or seminude, and modeled from life. A crowd of them, in postures that suggest desperate straits even in repose, scatters over a circular floorbound relief map of central Dresden, Germany, fashioned by Picton.

Inevitably the piece evokes the 1945 firebombing of Dresden, whose enormity and necessity many historians have reassessed in recent years.

Devastated cities and distressed human figures in contemporary art garner resonance a little too readily from the warfare ongoing in the Middle East and Central Asia. Burbridge and Picton acquit themselves better working independently, though with one exception, “Halocline” (2010), her figures, bound in blocks of clear acrylic like antediluvian insects in amber, verge on upmarket kitsch.

In “Halocline,” her demanding process of immersing a wax figurine in molten resin nearly dissolved the image. The resulting gain in ambiguity and emphasis on process inflects the work’s reading. Unlike her other acrylic block pieces, it hints vaguely at a critique of “clean abstraction” for its shirking of human reference.

Picton has two masterly works in paper: “San Francisco Burnt, 1906″ (2010) and “Dresden Burnt” (2010).

In the former he has crafted, and singed, a block plan of downtown San Francisco in relief, using packaging from videotapes of the movie “San Francisco” (1936), starring Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald and Spencer Tracy.

In “Dresden Burnt,” he followed a similar procedure with even more impressive results, using a score of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle as material.

But Picton dilutes the power of these works by presenting limited-edition photographs of them. Putting the paper originals and documentation of them on a common footing may make commercial sense, but it disserves his art.

Claire Burbridge, Matthew Picton: Absence and Presence: Sculpture and works on paper. Through May 1. Toomey Tourell Fine Art, 49 Geary St., S.F. (415) 989-6444. www.toomey-tourell.com.