The view walking along Bush Street towards downtown San Francisco recalls the exaggerated perspective of a Wayne Thiebaud painting. The sharp crest of the hill forces the gaze forward and down, revealing the urban fabric below where Manifest Destiny! — a19th-century, smaller than life-size cabin—adheres like a barnacle to the blank façade of 453 Bush Street, three and one half stories up.
Manifest Destiny! is a public art project created by collaborating artists Jenny Chapman and Mark Reigelman, and is supported by Southern Exposure’s Off-Site program. Established in 2006 when SoEx was between spaces, Off-Site is not dissimilar to the series of projects proposed by SFMOMA for when construction of their new building will force them out of their Howard Street location in early 2013. While SoEx has subsequently nestled into a new space on 20th Street, they are carrying on the tradition of work beyond the confines of the traditional gallery with their recently established Graue Award, of which Manifest Destiny is the first recipient.
The landscape that surrounds Manifest Destiny! is a hard urban canvas comprised predominantly of brick and terra cotta buildings, dating from shortly after the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906. To set their work apart, Chapman/Reigelman chose to use vintage barn wood, weathered and aged like kindling. A stovepipe protrudes through the roof of the cabin, implying a fire within that might, at any moment, engulf and consume the structure. In further rebellion against its setting, Manifest Destiny’s! front façade is turned 90 degrees away from its street-facing neighbors, looking to the west in (albeit bygone) anticipation. Each night, a solar powered light glows from the interior, as if a resident has returned after a long day at the farm. Here again the cabin defies its banking district context, where buildings empty out around 6PM, leaving a neighborhood of dark windows and quiet streets.
Manifest Destiny! hovers between abstraction and pastiche. The details of the cabin are simplified enough to distance the work from literal historicity. The lack of an entry door or a ladder from the street confirms the cabin’s inaccessibility, as does its diminutive size, which can be gauged by comparing it to the windows of the adjoining building. But the proportions, and the iconic pitched-roof form, evoke the familiar and the domestic. These juxtapositions leave us at the edge of a total suspension of disbelief, to surreal effect.
And then there’s its name. Does Manifest Destiny! sound the bugle call of “westward ho!,” with its implication of divine sanction for the territorial expansion of the United States? Or has the hostile wilderness been replaced by the high price of real estate in one of the country’s most expensive cities? As Occupy Wall Street continues its encampment just steps away from the site of Manifest Destiny! and the homeless tuck themselves in boxes for the night, the implications are ambiguous and provocative.
Manifest Destiny! will remain on view through October 27.