John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Stand at the perfect spot, and this trick-filled utility box blends seamlessly into the streetscape.
Despite the best intentions of the people who paint them, some neighborhood murals wind up looking so awful you just wish they'd disappear. Perhaps that was what Mona Caron was thinking about when she devised this brain-addling mural in San Francisco, which seamlessly blends into the streetscape behind it when viewed from the right spot.
The painting covers a utility box of some sort in the Lower Haight neighborhood, at Church and Duboce streets. Called "Manifestation Station," it depicts an idealized version of the intersection, with a garden growing on the sidewalk, a babbling brook in place of a bike path, and an open-air farmer's market instead of the blah-looking Safeway building. I've passed by it literally hundreds of times and never noticed the clever illusion; it took for This Is Colossal to recently point it out, and now I can't stop staring at it. I think I just want to see somebody accidentally walk into it, like a bird smacking into a window.
Most adults don't catch it right away, says Caron, because the ideal viewing height is 4.5 feet. It's the children that notice it, and they often have to compel their parents to bend down and see they're not crazy. "It's kind of made for kids – they get it immediately," says the 44-year-old artist, who lives in the neighborhood. "Adults think they see what's going on, but unless you have patience you're not going to really see it. You're going to see some distorted, weird drawing."
Caron, who got a commission from the city's transportation department to complete "Manifestation," seeded the artwork with details pulled from the futuristic novel After The Deluge. "I always do utopian, alternative visions of the particular location I am working in; it's one of the tropes of mine," she says. Here's a description of the book's plot; see if you can spot any similarities between the two things:
A teenage arsonist threatens a partially submerged mid-22nd century San Francisco. As a Public Investigator "tryout" seeks evidence across the utopian city full of canals and veloways, political and social conflicts erupt. When there is no such thing as property, what is crime, and how does a utopian society protect itself from bad behavior? Should scientists be as free as artists to create? What is a "free market" for work without and money and commodities?
As it happens, Caron also painted the Duboce Bikeway Mural visible in the background at top, which she worked into "Manifestation." Notice that on the utility box the Safeway has been demolished, but the bike-lane mural still stands. (Asked if she wishes that's what would happen in real life, she says, "Possibly.") Shift away from the precise viewing angle, and the manufactured reality of the mural falls to shambles:
This particular corner is full of visual trickery, as if people in the pungent marijuana cloud drifting over the Lower Haight need any help having their minds twisted. A while ago the city installed what appears to be a bunch of second-hand furniture pulled out of a hoarder's garage:
Get a little closer, though, and you'll notice they're made from molded bronze. Artist Primitivo Suarez-Wolfe crafted the rump-friendly installation, called "Domestic Seating":