Toward the end of the documentary Plastic Man: The Artful Life of Jerry Ross Barrish, we see Barrish, San Francisco’s most famous bail bondsman, at his fiftieth high school reunion. He lets us know how shocked he was to find most of his Lincoln High classmates retired, “playing golf or something,” while he feels he is still in mid-career. That’s a phrase you hear more often in the art world, when an artist is given a “mid-career retrospective” of his work. As William Farley’s entertaining 75-minute documentary, which premiered at last year’s Mill Valley Film Festival, shows, Barrish is an artist himself: in his seventies, a little past mid-career, but still creating his detritus-based sculpture. In an exhibition of his found-art assemblages a few years ago, the Fresno Art Museum called it “Art Drecko.”
Barrish creates figures of people and animals from castoff stuff he finds. (A few pieces from a new exhibition are still on view at San Francisco’s Studio Gallery.) While Barrish’s work can be found in the permanent collections of the Berkeley Art Museum, the Oakland Museum of California, Napa’s di Rosa Preserve, and others, it has yet to be shown at SFMOMA, the de Young museum, or anywhere east of Michigan. That’s the kind of “affirmation,” a word you hear him use a lot in the film, he’s still looking for.
Many critics consider abstract work in general on a loftier level than anything figurative, whether on canvas or on a pedestal. But then, there’s Jeff Koons’s oversize cartoon figures, kitschy pups, and balloon animals. Maybe if Barrish created larger pieces in, say, bronze—like the lean, 15-foot-tall horn player he creates at the end of the film, after winning a public-art competition for an installation at Bayview-Hunters Point—he’d get more widespread respect. According to the critics and curators interviewed in the film, the main reason he doesn’t is the fact that he works in the lowliest material on earth.
At first, he found much of that plastic and other junk on the beach in front of his house, in Pacifica. Now that the beach is no longer a dump, Barrish hunts in recycling centers. Most often, he envisions a figure in a piece and then strives to create it. All his sculptures are clever and whimsical, but some have a subtle depth of feeling you don’t find in Koons’s work. Take the slumped dejected being in “Even Angels Get the Blues,” or the two figures in what seems close conversation in “Alpha & Beta”; with a “hand” on the other’s “shoulder,” one seems to be comforting the other.
Farley’s movie reminds us that Barrish wrote and directed films himself—short indie films that brought him some attention, if not big bucks—back in the ’80s. German director Wim Wenders was a fan, the reason you see Barrish in a scene from Wenders’s Wings of Desire. The documentary also looks at Barrish’s films Dan’s Motel, Recent Sorrows, and Shuttlecock, which stars San Francisco comedian Will Durst. In fact, you can see those three short films during a run of Plastic Man at the Roxie Theater, and Shuttlecock at the Rafael Film Center.
Now that Barrish is retired, maybe he’ll start making movies again. It’s a sure bet he’ll be creating Art Drecko.
Aug. 21-27, Plastic Man; Aug. 23, with Jerry Ross Barrish: A Retrospective of three films, Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St., S.F., 415.863.1087, roxie.com.
Aug. 27 and Aug. 30, Plastic Man screening plus appearance by Barrish and producer Janis Plotkin; Aug. 30, with Shuttlecock, Rafael Film Center, 1118 4th St., San Rafael, 415.454.1222, rafaelfilm.cafilm.org.
Through Aug. 31, some pieces from Sculptures from the Plastic Man, Studio Gallery, 1641 Pacific Ave., S.F., 415.931.3130, studiogallerysf.com.