The homeless man sleeping in the courtyard of Cal State Fullerton's Begovich Gallery is barely shielded from the elements by the sliver of shade he's huddled under, the foliage failing to protect him from the sun and rain, the bleaching of his skin and the slow erosion of his finely carved face. Inside the gallery itself, a larger, bear-like bearded man lies on his back, eyes closed, using the hard wall behind him as a pillow, legs bent, hands resting idly near his open, beltless jeans. Move to the right to avoid him, and there's a fat-assed policeman gesturing at a small, stooped woman carrying a green garbage bag of belongings, her few life comforts shaded by a blue plastic tarp attached to a chain-link fence.
Christopher Chinn's semi-realistic ceramics are intended to be confronted outside, where and when least expected—life-size reminders of an ignored epidemic. Curated by Joanne Mace with detailed notes throughout, those memorable figures are just the first fingers in the eye viewing “Seeing the Invisible: Life on the Street,” a confrontational exhibition of work about homelessness from U.K. and U.S. artists.
The nearby wall is devoted to eye-catching agitprop posters—most from San Francisco Print Collective—calling out apathy via straightforward punk graphics. Too many of the one-sheets suffer from activist logorrhea, cramped and overloaded with copy, but occasionally there's a poster that forces a reaction. (Question: “How Many People Do You Need to Start a Revolution?” Answer: “There Are 15,000 Homeless People in San Francisco. Is That Enough?” A solitary figure posed in front of a shopping cart and holding an automatic weapon makes the response excitingly inflammatory.)
Another poster of a sleeping man on a bench being prodded by a cop with a baton asks what the difference is between a prisoner of war and a homeless person. (Answer: “Under the Geneva Convention, a prisoner of war is entitled to food, shelter and medical care.”) Nili Yosha's update of Norman Rockwell's civil-rights painting The Problem We All Live With substitutes a small Latino boy for tiny Ruby Bridges, “Homeless Go Home” spray-painted on the wall behind him instead of the vile racial slur that appeared over Ruby's head in the original.
Spousal abuse as a reason for homelessness informs Neda Moridpour's flawed video installation, The Sky Is Always Mine, No Matter Where I Am. Visitors, listening on headphones as a victim speaks about her experience, can wander through a small room, its benches and floor covered with cardboard. Using black lights, they can scan the walls for stats on abuse, or just sit and look up to the ceiling at projections of slowly moving clouds. Despite the best intentions, the piece feels sloppy: The stats are repetitious and hard to read because of ancillary light bleeding into the space, and the projections are only blue sky with a smattering of poorly framed clouds. To create a more thorough sense of living in a box, why not cover the entire room in cardboard—save the projected area— instead of just the floor?
Christine Hanlon's epic oil paintings recall the literary worlds of John Steinbeck and Sinclair Lewis: A man rests under a tree in a small wooded glen, shopping cart and dog nearby, as 18-wheelers, abandoned property, loading docks and polluting factories fill the rest of the vista. The second is on a city street, a half-dead woman sitting on the concrete at knee level, begging with coffee can in hand, but out of the sight line of the commuters rushing about her.
The remaining work ventures into even more emotional territory. Jason Leith's tender portraits of les miserables are sketched on found pieces of cement, junked furniture, wire and rusty metal, his accompanying mini-bios treating the desperate religious mania of his subjects with respect and a gentle heart. Watching patrons of the San Francisco Opera step over people sleeping on the street, never questioning the possibility they might be walking around dead bodies, inspired Malcolm McClay and the Coalition on Homeless San Francisco to create the 2001 Preventable Death Poster Project, slapping up life-size, numbered human figures at site-specific areas throughout the city where impoverished people had perished on the street.
It's Miguel Ruiz's Homeless Bench that most affected me: A bus seat, the outline of a man sleeping cut out of the back (where a billboard would usually be), a battered sign above quoting Los Angeles Municipal Code section 41.18, which prohibits people from sitting, sleeping or lying in a public space. The “No” in the sign has been defaced with spray paint. Straightforward and in your face—like the rest of Mace's humble exhibition—this revelatory piece neatly uses the physical absence of its subject to make our own version of los desaparecidos visible once more.
Dave Barton has written for the OC Weekly for over twenty years, the last eight as their lead art critic. He has interviewed artists from punk rock photographer Edward Colver to monologist Mike Daisey, playwright Joe Penhall to culture jammer Ron English.