Abbatoir Blues

Healdsburg's SlaughterhouseSpace renders art out of death

The Inedibles Room, the corner nook of a former killing floor in the hundred-year-old SlaughterhouseSpace, does not smell anymore. Instead, with an atmosphere not unlike a concentration camp, it feels. The cold air weighs heavy on the skin, a dense, eerie imposition, and one cannot help but imagine the horrors of the inedibles, whatever they may be.

Through a pair of swinging doors, visitors find the slaughterhouse’s main room overseen by large winches, thick with rust-covered chain, which hang from the 35-foot-high ceiling. Bolted firmly to oversized rafters, the enormous mechanisms tower over stern concrete walls, used in their former life as hoists for stringing up doomed livestock. “Cows,” explains current owner Pat Lenz grimly, “are heavy animals.”

Once known as the Van Der Hoof Meat Co., this white building, echoing with a century’s worth of industrialized death, has been transformed by Lenz into an art space. If art is in fact life, as the saying goes, then Lenz’s exhibits and installations here serve to slowly erode the room’s former purpose. “This place served as a killing floor for many years,” she says. “Now it illuminates the experience of living.”

On Nov. 16, the SlaughterhouseSpace illuminates life by hosting its second annual Humane Slaughter Acts Festival, a daylong series of performance art by artists from around the Bay Area, hosted by Lenz and curated by Bay Area artist Jordan Essoe. “In a sense,” says Essoe, standing amid beef scales and carcass racks, “all of the work is site-specific to this space. The whole point is to get away from the white cube of the gallery space.”

Indeed. The tour continues past meat hooks and spikes to the hog room, where a solitary light shines down through cobwebs to a dusty hog stunner, a long, clawlike mechanism wrapped in dry, brittle duct tape. “They killed the pigs with this electric prod to the back of the head, this dual-prong prod. The cows were killed with that—you saw No Country for Old Men? That’s what they used. And this”—she motions to a rototiller-looking device—”is what they ripped the bristles off the boars with. It’s actually a beautiful machine.”

Lenz is a vegetarian and a PETA supporter (outside the building, a red neon sign flashes the words “Eat” and “Death”), but she consistently uses words like “fascinating,” “impressive” and “beautiful” to describe the residual industrial tools of death. A trio of Kentmaster reciprocating splitting saws, used to cut the heads off cows, are “quite amazing,” and she talks of possibly enshrining them on concrete pedestals.

“The building has this history, and I think it’s not anything I ever wanted to conceal,” she explains. “I find it inspiring. Art has a redemptive power, a way of healing what went on here.”

Lenz and her husband bought this property 10 years ago; they also own the adjoining Duchamp Estate Winery and the Duchamp Hotel in Healdsburg. Vineyards flank the driveway leading to a lawn-surrounded pool and numerous sculptures by Lenz, including a large bust of Marcel Duchamp. Louie, the golden retriever, wiggles and pants on the deck.

A sculptor and art major of Sarah Lawrence and Columbia University, Lenz knew she wanted to transform the property’s abattoir into a gallery. Last year at Miami Art Basel, she met Essoe. The two clicked immediately, and she offered him the opportunity to curate a performance-art festival.

“There was, in 1958, this legislation called the Humane Slaughter Act,” explains Essoe, now in the hog room, “which essentially attempted to find a legal way to mandate how killing could or could not be humane.”

“An oxymoron,” interjects Lenz.

“And I thought, well, that’s a conversation piece. That’s a good conceptual point to start at. That’s what I threw at the artists last year,” he says. “Some of them were a little bit more literal with that conversation, others were more abstract, and that’s exactly what we wanted. We didn’t want some overly didactic conversation about the rights and wrongs of slaughter. Because the space is already so heavy with that.”

Last year’s festival was a resounding success. This year’s theme is “Crosscut,” collecting nine different artists in a day of social practice work, bondage, fugitive forms, interviews, interactive video, interventionism and more. The festival is free, something that Lenz says is a reaction to the commercialism of the art world. “There’s something so refreshing—so generous—about performance artists. I think the idea of being generous back is nice.

“Plus,” she adds, “initially I wasn’t sure how it would fly in wine country. It’s an area where people come to almost escape from the harsher realities of the world. And performance art can be very—how should you call it?—in your face. It can embarrass people—not that that’s what we purposefully do—but it can make people uncomfortable, it can deal with issues that are not particularly comfortable issues.

“And so, it’s a risk. And people who come here are going to be taking a risk to see something which they may not even understand at first. So the idea of not charging right now is quite nice.”

Essoe agrees, pointing out that the remote, bucolic area charges the art with even more meaning. “Maybe it would be more subversive if it was in [San Francisco’s] Mission district, but there’s a lot of stuff like this going on there. The fact that even, as a visitor, you have to give so much just to come here, it really completes a utopic vision. It’s an act of mutual giving.”

Essoe grew up in Big Bear Lake in Southern California before attending the San Francisco Art Institute. A multidisciplinary artist, he works in video, performance, painting, photography and sculptural assemblage. He’s written about art for the San Francisco Chronicle and Artweek, and currently lives in the East Bay.

Lenz grew up in New York, where she studied sculpture at Columbia University in a program founded by the sculptor David Smith. For years, she sculpted with welded steel, but recently has favored fiberglass (“I have a finish fetish, what can I say?”). In addition to the annual festival, she hosts exhibits, installations and under-the-radar events at SlaughterhouseSpace.

When asked how often this cross-generational duo spend time together, they both respond, in unison, “Not enough.” Most of the time they share is spent under the coagulated grime and rods of unknown purpose at the SlaughterhouseSpace. But between Essoe’s production and Lenz’s support, the two share an obvious electricity for art and a love of the unusual starkness of the room’s history.

“It really just felt correct to have artists relate to the space,” Lenz says. “It didn’t de-sanctify it, you know what I mean? We do it on a killing floor. I don’t know how many animals were slaughtered here. There was a sense here that I didn’t want to spoil.”

The Humane Slaughter Acts Festival, featuring performances by Takehito Etani, Margaret Tedesco, Linda Ford, Jennifer Locke, Pam Martin, Travis Meinolf, Meredith Tromble, Kathrine Worel and Michael Zheng, takes place on Sunday, Nov. 16, at SlaughterhouseSpace, 280 Chiquita Road, Healdsburg. 3:30pm to 7pm. Free. 707.431.1514.

Sonoma County Library