At first, curator Jasmine Moorhead seemed almost hesitant to leave me with San Francisco artist Shalo P in the small, dark room at the center of her downtown Oakland gallery, Krowswork (480 23rd St., Oakland). The artist and I were cross-legged on the floor, sandwiched by a boombox and a small amp, each of which contributed ambient noise to a gloomy, droning atmosphere that enveloped us. Pulling aside the black curtain of the screening room slightly and peeking in like a mom interrupting a session of make-believe, Moorhead decided that she should definitely leave, but not without a warning. "I'll just preface this: It's just that there's a different type of spatial non-narrative that Shalo is more adept at bringing into the visual sphere than any person I've ever encountered," she said. "That's why I don't want to be involved, because I'm gonna bring too much linearity to it — and that's not where the magic is."
Shalo P's solo show currently at Krowswork is a three-part conceptual installation called Valley, made up of two video pieces and one room filled with illustrated pages from Shalo's forthcoming graphic novel-like book of the same title. The concept behind the show is only barely there, although the gallery is filled with imagery — and that's kind of the point. It's loosely about voids and other empty, unbridled spaces — both physical and psychological — and the lush sensory worlds that mask those vacancies.
The central room of Valley, where Shalo and I sat, houses an approximately hour-long video piece called "Wilderness." In it, a grainy, yellow background presents decontextualized snippets of text that point to a feeling, yet aren't quite comprehensible. Like the totality of Valley, it makes the viewer feel as if there's something more meaningful behind it that's just out of reach, hiding just beyond the margins of the piece. And Shalo's bewildering explanations are similar — poetically dancing around the concept of the show, pointing to philosophical substance too slippery to fully articulate. "A room can be a valley of sorts — an emptiness, a corner," he said, explaining that we were sitting in one kind of valley. "I always liked the idea of the poetics of space. And pretty much, for me, the valley is imposing, it's inviting, it's lush, it's a vast emptiness, it's foreboding, it's forbidding, it's a conflux of viewpoints."
The rest of the show is more narrative, yet not necessarily easier to grasp. A seventeen-minute film called The Spy plays in the gallery's largest room, which offers church pews for seating. It's an odd, tragic love story told through the narration of a British man and paired with found footage, mostly of sublime natural landscapes. The story makes references to a secret society and ominous characters like "The Red Ghost." These are culled from Shalo's ongoing video series called "Television for Ghosts" (hosted on Vimeo) which he has been making for ten years. Again, these present enough context to draw you in, yet not enough to allow you to fully comprehend what's going on. "It's a coalescence of patterns of information that I visualize as weather, that I visualize as river, as a sort of terrarium but very liquid — liquid cinema," as Shalo described it.
After talking to Shalo, it's clear that every piece in Valley is one of his attempts to welcome others into a dense conceptual world that he has been inhabiting for years — a kind of alternate reality that, for him, is not "fictional," but rather a creative expression of philosophical concepts regarding the human experience that are rooted in something very real. The mysterious messages he offers from the other side elicit both curiosity and apprehensiveness, as if Shalo is waiting in a dark void, beckoning you to join him. And the only way to begin to appreciate his sentiments is to embrace bewilderment and enter with full emotional openness.
Shalo will be giving a tour of Valley on October 31 at 4:30 p.m. Specifically, he'll be sharing narrative components of the work that aren't in the show, and giving a tour of "Medusa Lake," a mysterious landmark within its underlying narrative landscape. If you want it to be, it could be the most otherworldly experience offered this Halloween.