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Performing tricks in San Francisco
Alex Hetherington on the San Francisco art scene.
In the background, foreground and middle ground (and these are often interchangeable) is the narrative of a city with earthquakes, technological innovation and radical writers; golden opportunities, old and new money, and a bridge synonymous with dreams and suicide. In a country in economic turmoil, with lay-off, bail-outs, financial metamorphosis, a new President promising to wipe clean an era of disaster creating a paradoxical mix of depression and optimism, San Francisco is shaped by hippies, gay communities, radicals, drugs, activists, minorities and adult film.
I perform a trick in San Francisco: as participant/observer/writer/artist/outsider, a unique circumstance which allows me to observe and participate, while retaining an enthusiastic detachment. While my constant return here is about a series of relationships I have with women in the city, and not its diverse politics, its Queer sensibilities or its utopian portrayal. Rather it is about a series of small galleries, a circuit of forceful and motivated women who run them, whose activities as artists, curators and producers best describes my magnetic pull to San Francisco, here in troubled, exciting and disorientating times.
This article reports specifically on a series of small spaces in San Francisco, their ethos and the personalities who organize them, exposing meticulous, sensitive and acutely intelligent models of contemporary art practice and activities.
Anne Colvin, Tart, The Colony Room and the Skank Bloc Bologna publication series
Situated in an alley close to the downtown district of the city is Anne Colvin and Neil Mackintosh’s laboratory: home, studio, gallery, production office and publishing house. These expansive and synchronized activities describe a continuum between art-making, curating and programming that has materialized as one of the most exciting ventures in the city. Originally from Edinburgh, Colvin moved to San Francisco from London in 1997. She sees Tart as a continuum of her art practice - blurring the boundaries between her psychological investigations in time, found material and the construction/destruction of the image with an assimilation of other materials, artists, writing, moving image, and crucially performative experiences, combined with the potency of self-publishing. Her two most recent activities: Skank Bloc Bologna publicationand The Colony Room, testify to a methodical commingling of theory, illumination and happening, with an emphasis placed on the triggering of further dialogs with the audiences who experience these works.
Skank Bloc Bologna Edition #3, launched recently at the The New York Art Book Fair, is a loose leaf collection of works, multiples, originals and reproductions, by a group of internationally renowned artists. This edition included Jessica Brier, Tim Etchells, Ryan Gander, Alasdair Gray, Marie Jaeger, Lucy Keany, Neil Mackintosh, Tom Marioni, Mark Orange and Ara Shirinyan. The publication is based on free association between the art works and the numerous narrative combinations this generates - it is a group-show-in-an-envelope, that self-devises with the editorial decision to absorb, collect, assemble and distribute. Colvin’s editorial strategy analyses, edits and conveys this to form a kind of diversionist action; it creates a disruptive enterprise that insists on inquiry and self-induced conclusion and is an interventionist’s method to experiencing art.
This tactic is repeated at The Colony Room: a celebration of the legendary Colony Room Club, London Soho's notorious private drinking den which was run up until 1979 by the infamous free spirit, Muriel Belcher, who paid the young Francis Bacon ten pounds a week and free drinks to bring in the clientele. He did, and Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, and Henrietta Moraes were among the regulars. Colvin’s re-enactment involved a number of artists over weekend slots at New Langton Art’s Garage space to propel this endeavour into the here and now. A socializing, improvisational, immediacy imbues the project, with performances, readings, video, music, decoration and a special cocktail created to memorialize the original space and reinvest in its anarchy, its evocation of a revolution. The program saw collisions between the exaggerated conceptual noise band Rubber O Cement and introspective Tim Etchells, between Oliver Farley’s moving film dialog on siblings, gender, geography and sexuality and footage of the Cocteau Twins live.
The Colony Room functions as the re-enactment of a specific era in contemporary art, modulating between history, networking and a re-interpretation of past enigmatic events. It coherently argues for a revolution in a readiness to experiment, to take risks, and to receive inspiration from this project as a happening/laboratory, transporting London from the 1960s, to a make-shift gallery, here in a Folsom Street garage space among the leather bars, thrift shops and gay discos.
Jessica Silverman, Silverman Gallery, and This is A Myth, Ben Shaffer
Silverman Gallery has occupied two spaces in San Francisco: it started in a basement space in an industrial district of the city, however its present home is a white store-like space in Sutter Street, closer to the activities of the financial and retail quarters. It retains, though, a vigorous on-the-edge mind-set, occupying a territory between its Fluxus inspirations (Sliverman’s grandparents own North America’s largest collection of Fluxus work) and an explicitly ‘emergent’ program working with local and international artists.
Jessica Silverman, who has run the gallery since its inception in 2006, has created a forceful voice in the San Francisco scene by generating a program that neatly links the city and its artists with operations across the globe. Her roster of artists includes TV addict visual artist Desirée Holman, currently a recipient of a major award from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the beguiling pencil drawings of Israeli, Los Angeles-based Yuval Pudik and the photography of artist Job Piston, exploring sexuality, intimacy and voyeurism
It is though a more spiritually considered magical installation that takes over Silverman for the transition from 2008 to 2009. Los Angeles-based Ben Shaffer’s This Is A Myth fills the gallery with numerous drawings, paintings, sculptures, liquor (‘spirits’) and mirrored video projections that ruminate on chaos and order, myth, consciousness and narrative. The installation is the result of a series of emails he sent to friends, a kind of electronic train of thought rendered here as sketchy, imprecise, colourful, golden interactions: part-painting, part-drawing, part-object. Shaffer is obsessed with the construct of meaning within symbols and here he explores gender, the sacred, religion, spiritualism and alchemy through the distortion of their symbolic terminology. The effect is a poetic tangle of restless ideas and subtle gestures that rely on sympathy and acquaintance with spiritualism and its codes and an openness to experience their hallucinatory persuasions. Shaffer’s myth making is an alluring activity, one that questions our belief systems and the potency of these symbols that turn ‘beliefs’ and ‘truths’ from abstractions to realities.
Sandra Percival, New Langton Arts and Julio César Morales
Founded in 1975, New Langton Arts is one of the seminal alternative art spaces that have influenced a generation of artist-run spaces across the globe. Its comprehensive archive of contemporary art practices in performance, media and installation (which during a recent installation project by artists Tercerunquinto was offered for sale), includes exhibitions and works by the likes of Anthony McCall, Martha Rosler, Allen Ruppersberg, Charles Ray, Tony Labat, Tony Oursler and Tacita Dean. It cultivates through experimental engagement and the artist at the forefront, a program dedicated to challenging the boundaries of conventional art practices and maintains itself through a rigorous system of fundraising activities: auctions, donations, sponsorships and affiliations.
This merger of avant garde fidelity and capitalist ingenuity is led by its current director Sandra Percival. On show when I visited was “tomorrow is for those who can hear it coming” by Mexican San Francisco- based Julio César Morales. It featured the film Interrupted Passage, a re-enactment of the encounter between General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo and the American militia, known as the Bear Flag Revolt, that resulted in the Treaty of Guadalupe where the territory of Alta California was transferred from Mexico to the United States. The work is about immigration and the influence of the Latin American condition in its illegal and legal forms that appear in California as a result of cultural adjustment and economic assimilation. The Passage of the title is about the precarious, politically charged border between the geographic states (US and Mexico), about the peripheries between acceptance and success and denial and failure, a composition on the nature of capitalism itself, and timely reminder of its recent unravelling.
Ratio 3 run by Chris Perez offers an eclectic program of installations, solo and group show in what could be articulated as a current trend in California/San Francisco visual art: painterly, hand-drawn, colourful, craft-led, precise, complex and beautifully rendered and presented, yet with an overtly lo-fi styling. Its subtext is described as “Bringing vastness to the mind”, epitomized by artists like Lydia Fong, Ben Peterson, Jose Alvarez, Barry McGee and Jonathan Runcio.
Jack Hanley , superstar space in the midst of more overlooked ventures, offers San Francisco a direct line to the glitzy art fairs and art press fanatics. Currently on show is Texan Shaun O’Dell’s Sound From A Rock, an exploration on the intertwining realities of human and natural systems ordered round collage and gouache drawings on paper and pigment on clay pots. These works are complex arrangements saturated with Californian mysticism, a naïve fantasy of colour, repetitious motif and airy compositions that fuse city noise with symbols of the vast wilderness that occupies our romantic ideals of American space.
Triple Base run by Joyce Grimm and Dina Pugh is “a project space that strives to facilitate new and innovative ways to promote and assist emerging Bay Area artists, to instigate dialogue with artists from various regions and to encourage cross-disciplinary collaborations.” Dream With Everything That Fades Away, a group show with Guillermina Baiguera, Chris Duncan, Linda Geary and Scott Oliver employed intuitive art making processes, with deliberate attention given to the formal qualities of materiality, luminosity and colour. It continues a current trend in Californian art towards drawing, mark-making, traditional materials and aesthetic considerations above the conceptual.
Artist and curator Margaret Tedesco’s Second Floor Projects is a gallery space within her apartment and presents in these domestic surroundings a challenging programme of installations and group and solo shows. Her current show is Zen with a Lisp, with David Enos, Frank Haines, Wayne Smith, Johnny Ray Huston and Cedar Sigo, featuring drawings, painting and collage. Tedesco is a prominent Bay Area artist and these shows extend her visual art practice through their occupation of her home/studio space; she invites writers and critics to contribute texts or essay to accompany the works, as well as limited editions, extending the potency of the projects outside of their distinctive, homely environment.
SF Camerawork focuses on lens-based media, extending its remit through the publication of a bi-annual journal, lecture series and a broad education programme, it is similar to Edinburgh’s Portfolio Gallery or Glasgow’s Street Level Photoworks, but points toward a more radicalized interpretation of lens-based media under the direction of its curator Chuck Mowbly. Currently on show is a guest-curated show of South African video, Test Patterns, which explores identity, citizenship and the post-Apartheid condition housed within the territory of the current American psyche between the Neocon Bush presidency and the saturating optimism of Obama’s White House.
Two independent online arts journals offer a broad insight into visual arts practice in the Bay Area, both with a keen eye on international activity: they are Stretcher , run by Cheryl Meeker, Amy Berk and Meredith Tromble; and Shotgun run by Scott Oliver and Joseph del Pesco, an open forum similar to Interface that invites new writers to contribute to dialogs and criticism to the framework surrounding the very diverse art practices within San Francisco.
[Postscript: Thank you to the original California woman, Janie Korbel. I also wish to extend my gratitude to TART founders Anne Colvin, and Neil Mackintosh, Sam Spiewak at New Langton, Chuck Mobley, curator at SF Camerawork, the artist Franz Schnaas, Jessica Silverman at Silverman Gallery and friends and artists Ishan Clemenco and Cheryl Meeker for support, advice and generosity.]
Alex Hetherington is a visual artist. He lives and works in Edinburgh, Scotland and Rohnert Park, USA. He is currently working on a research and development project Modern Edinburgh Film School at ESW, 2013.
First published: a-n.co.uk January 2009
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