Dave Hullfish Bailey: “Gimme Shelter”
by Michael Darling

For Dave Hullfish Bailey, everything springs from The Word. Not unlikely a by-product of his prior theological training, the intense scrutiny he directs at language has a tendency to bear down on a chosen noun or verb until its pops, oozing all manner of unexpected meaning. Just as theologians attempt to read scripture every which way in order to discern the intentions and directives of religious tracts, Bailey homes in on relatively innocuous words that when prodded and pulled, prove to be extraordinarily supple. Not averse to strategic mis-readings, or at the very least, possessed of an openness to explore interpretive avenues that don’t readily spring from looking at words in their most familiar context, the artist has generated fascinating strands of discourse just by examining common language in a different light.

As such, he has linked traffic cones and rods ‚ and all the purposes behind their various deployments ‚ with the essential components of seeing, also known as the cones and rods within the human eye; or made logic-defying leaps with Evel Knievel as his guide. Through his manipulation of seemingly unrelated evidence, he has constructed a bizarre and compelling comparison of Berlin’s Neue Mitte neighborhood and land use issues affecting the Paiute Indian tribe and other Las Vegas area residents. Since 1997, he has turned his prismatic eye to Rudolph Schindler’s own Kings Road House, partaking of a freedom of association that some might find flippant or frivolous, but which ultimately brings new significance to Schindler’s work and its relationship to an evolving history of Los Angeles. Not many people would read any meaning into the nominal similarities between Kings Road and Rodney King, but it is just such a coincidence that gets Bailey’s mind racing, leading him to examine Schindler’s ideas against the backdrop of a city ravaged by disasters both natural and social.

Returning to words to further fuel his associative wildfires, Bailey has come across Schindler’s preference for the word “shelter” to extend the discourse. In conceptualizing the material, spatial, and situational aspects of his own house, Schindler drew upon a recent and very favorable experience camping in Yosemite to describe his intentions. His house was, in his words, to provide “the basic requirements of a camper’s shelter: a protected back, an open front, a fireplace, and a roof.” Of course, even in Southern California there are cold nights, high winds, and usually a healthy complement of rain, yet Schindler’s idealization of the climate overrode more conventional concerns for protection. The tautological aspect of Bailey’s new project contrasts the utopian climatic fantasy of Schindler’s Los Angeles in the 1920s with the fire-, rain-, earthquake-, and riot-prone city of the recent past dramatized by writers such as Mike Davis. In current parlance, “shelter” has few romantic overtones to it, and more readily brings to mind exactly the types of ready-made structures or re-purposed public buildings that temporarily house people after a calamitous event. It is this kind of emergency shelter that Bailey brings into contradistinction with Schindler’s primitive hut, stocking the kitchen of the Kings Road House with haz-mat supplies, setting up radio transmitters on the sleeping baskets, storing food and water in the sunken gardens, and retrofitting the bathrooms as first aid stations. Both the realized portions of these plans and the still hypothetical drawings are carefully treated to read as aesthetic statements informed by avant-garde design of the ’20s, while still preserving a Home Depot straightforwardness.

Bailey has used the phrase Schindler Shelter to describe some portions of this project, a patented phrase also used by the architect in a series of studies conducted in the 1930s that proposed solutions to the nation’s housing crisis. Relying on standardized proportions and floorplans, and taking advantage of pre-fabricated parts, Schindler enlisted progressive architectural ideas to free social housing from the “rabbit hutch” effect of past efforts, as pointed out by historian Kurt Helfrich. Such an evolution of construction techniques as a response to a lingering social problem is dramatically contrasted by Bailey’s concern for immediate and urgent shelter, which he creates in the most primitive (albeit beautiful) way by pulling the long stalks of bamboo that ring the Kings Road House down to the ground in graceful arcs. Anchored to the earth with ropes and stakes like a giant tent, Bailey’s outdoor spaces serve as escapes from the potentially fragile or hazardous buildings that dot the neighborhood. Just as Schindler took cues from Asian (especially Japanese) building types in the visual and functional language of the house, Bailey has turned to the east for inspiration in the use of the structurally viable, and abundantly available material of bamboo, used in many Asian countries for scaffolding or as a primary building material.

In his typically canny orchestration of circular (or circuitous) logic, Bailey’s bamboo huts complete a cycle that led from Schindler’s initial appreciation of simple and rustic building types through a period of increasing mechanization, automation, and modernization that leads us to the present day, when even the most advanced practices of engineering (social and mechanical) can’t always protect us from the elements, natural or otherwise. In times of need, it is the most basic forms of shelter and sustenance that are required, and Bailey’s proposal provides for it, while also highlighting the equally prescient and passe concepts behind Schindler’s first house.

Michael Darling is a critic and Assistant Curator at MOCA, Los Angeles. He co-curated the recent exhibition of Schindler’s work at MOCA and contributed an essay to the exhibition catalogue.