originally published in World Sculpture News Winter 2000
Forever on the Move
San Francisco Bay Area Overview
by Amy Berk
Bay Area institutions are finally doing their part to support local artists, providing a sampling of the powerhouse sculptural and installation work that gets made in San Francisco and its environs, work that is often overlooked by the major institutions and the international scene. This attention to Bay Area artists is a trickle down effect that the new SFMOMA, inaugurated in 1995, and to a lesser extent the opening of the Center for the Arts in 1991, has had on the status of the local art community. In addition to this heightened visibility, increasing affluence and power generated by the dot.com revolution centered in San Francisco and its southern neighbor Silicon Valley has focused more and more attention on the Bay.
Opening just days apart, two exciting and provocative group exhibitions showcase many of the visual and conceptual ideas that artists living in the Bay Area are currently investigating. Museum Pieces: Bay Area Artists Consider the de Young takes place at the soon to be demolished M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in Golden Gate Park. Across town, Bay Area Now 2, the long awaited sequel to the successful Bay Area Now held in the summer of 1997, occurs at the Center for the Arts at Yerba Buena Gardens in the heart of downtown San Francisco.
The first Bay Area Now received such an enthusiastic response from audiences, artists, critics and curators that it is now planned as a triennial festival celebrating the literary, film/video and performing arts as well as the visual. Like the first, Bay Area Now 2 was curated by Center for the Arts Chief Curator Renny Pritikin, Visual Arts Curator Rene de Guzman and Associate Visual Arts Curator Arnold Kemp. Bay Area Now 2 bills itself as an inclusive survey of the Bay Area that "elevates artistic production" in the region. An inclusive regional survey with such lofty aims is virtually impossible to successfully accomplish, and many segments of the art world will inevitably be excluded. The concept of the exhibition also raises the question of the significance of regional survey shows in an increasingly global arena.
Nevertheless, Bay Area Now 2 does provide as good an excuse as any to organize a cross-generational, multi-disciplinary dynamic grouping of some of the outstanding Bay Area artists both emerging and well known. There is no theme per se beyond this, but connections and motifs emerge as artists respond to their surroundings and the social, political and cultural climate of the time in which we live. There are many exciting, innovative and funny pieces in this show that cause you to stop, consider and reconsider some of the notions you may have about San Francisco. Many of the thirty artists selected for this exhibition consciously or not so consciously address ideas that can be seen from an outsider's perspective as stereotypes of the Bay Area, an area filled with turn-of-the-millennium anxiety, rising real estate prices and information highway overload.
Tony Labat's "Big Peace II" (1999) standing just outside the Center for the Arts, welcomes you to Bay Area Now 2, as well as to San Francisco, the hometown of the flower-power peace and love movement. Center for the Arts is located in downtown San Francisco where many visitors pass on their way to conventions, shopping and hotels. This 12 foot tall off-center steel peace sign piece was originally designed for installation in Golden Gate Park, which many consider to be the birthplace of the hippie movement. Controversy ensued as local residents expressed concern about the present day hippies that now hang out there. In the end, the San Francisco Art Commission forestalled the installation, most likely permanently, of this monument to the movements of the 60s, in the place where it all started.
Once inside the building, what was once the Center for the Arts store has morphed into a multimedia Internet and zine reading café. Both the highest and the lowest current forms of communication media are accessible here. High-end high-tech computer images merge with the lowest – do it yourself zines necessitating only paper, a pen and a Xerox machine. This high/low aesthetic, quite popular in San Francisco, permeates the entire exhibition.
In the galleries, many of the artists play with other Bay Area archetypes such as new-age movements, Silicon Valley commercialization and outrageous real estate prices. "Metatherapy" (1999) by Neil Grimmer (with Maria Mortati) combines a few of these issues into one. He creates a business, Metatherapy.com, which offers New Age personal therapy over the Internet. If you register, every hour you will receive a mantra in a vibrating page. Using pagers, computers, glass and steel to produce little codes for life at the touch of a button, Grimmer combines body and machine, incorporating the high tech and the spiritual with art and commerce. New-ageism is also punctured by Lewis deSoto in his huge 25’ long recumbent blow-up doll "Paranirvana (self-portrait)" (1999). Inspired by the recent death of his father, deSoto inflates and deflates serious subject matter, filling a Reclining Buddha figure with air and inserting his own face for the Buddha's. He both points to our power and responsibility for our own spirituality as well as pokes fun at that conceit.
Bursting the high-tech silicon bubble currently enveloping the Bay Area like its famous fog, Erika Olsen Hannes uses the crawlspace under the stairs to present her special brand of feminist and feminine-pink kitsch. "Ciudad Ateuqirne" (1999), is Hannes's latest version of organized chaos: a scatter environment of dime store goodies and cast off circuit boards residing on a complex terrain of spray painted pink foam and green Astroturf. Trained as an electrical engineer as well as an artist, Hannes creates a hysterical Silicon Valley where tiny dolls dance and twirl and anthropomorphized computer keyboards roam. Car wrecks and an institutional apartment building built out of the foam formerly used to pack computer parts unmask the horror behind the hype, becoming part of the spectacle and the detritus of the communication highway.
The huge cost of real estate in the Bay Area is reaching an all time high with an occupancy rate of almost 100%. Mining issues of real estate for their artistic and sculptural value are John C. Rogers and collaborative team Castaneda/Reiman. "Landscape Floorplan, 1459 Clayton Street" (1999) is a to-scale version of the first floor of the home that Castaneda/Reiman share. Turning the horizontal on its head, this huge 40’ x 25’ x 10’ sculpture built out of 2 x 4's leans against the wall in the giant main gallery in Center for the Arts, creating a massive presence in a space that traditionally dwarfs all work that enters. Different rooms of the house are demarcated using their signature building materials such as low pile carpeting, blue foam insulation, drywall and plaster. Castaneda/Reiman transform standard building materials, a pastel palette and quirky senses of humor into finely crafted and elegant odes to minimalism, architecture, and notions of balance and permanence.
John C. Rogers exposes the inanities (and the complexities) of the live/work situation in San Francisco in his amusing "Live/Work Complex" (1999). A huge amount of live/work units have been built in the last five years or so, ostensibly to create affordable housing for artists. In the end, however, the artists are rarely able to afford these tony units. Rogers plays along, creating an architectural model of the Center and its environs as if taken over by Johnko Corporation and turned into a private (live/work) residence. The roof becomes a helicopter-landing pad, security increases to a 68-person 24-hour surveillance crew, and three-inch bulletproof glass replaces all the windows in Rogers’s all-too-real-estate.
San Francisco has also been known as a never-never land for adults, a place where twenty-somethings go to avoid, or at least put off, adulthood. The idea of the perpetual Peter Pan can be seen in Jim Christensen‘s eternal kindergarten class. This mixed media construction is painstakingly crafted from a school photograph taken in 1974. "Mrs. Cipriani's Kindergarden (Show and Tell - Jamie's Sled)" (1999) is an amazing small-scale recreation of Christensen’s classmates and classroom, turning memory into three dimensions and transporting us back to that time in all of our lives.
Along these escapist lines, there is perhaps no better way to float to freedom than in Alicia McCarthy’s charming cardboard boat. Using a bedsheet for a sail, "13 foot sail and row" (1999) is a vehicle to a better place, one where you can smell freshly mown hay instead of car exhaust 24/7, and a cardboard boat can sail forever. Also using the metaphor of a vehicle and working with cardboard is Andrew Li. This poignant installation consists of 11 small cars constructed out of cardboard and paper completely shrouded in clear packing tape. Eleven full size cardboard keys are displayed alongside the vehicles.
Also of note, not for reinterpreting the Bay Area but for reinvesting in history, both art historical and social, is J.D. Beltran’s beautifully lush installation which updates the genre of portraiture. Recreations of old master paintings complete with gilt frames reside next to video versions of the same, creating a tension between old and new, interpretation and elusivity, and the meaning of moving video vs. static paint. Finally, San Francisco is also known as a hotbed of, well, sex. And sex is what you see in Rachael Neubauer's nubile sculptural forms. These sexily surreal highly polished squat spheres show up in unexpected places in the Center’s lobby, coupling surprise with perhaps a tingle of excitement. Also pretty sexy are Ron Nagle’s plastic models of his own small ceramic totems. Here they are in uniform primer grey instead of his signature souped up hot-rod colors and textures.
While Bay Area Now 2 reflects on notions of the Bay Area, Museum Pieces: Bay Area Artists Consider the de Young, looks at the idea of a museum, especially this museum. Eighteen artists were invited to think about the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum itself, to investigate the inner workings of the museum space, and the people and the things that make up that place. Reexamining the museum has been de rigeur for quite some time in conceptual art circles, but the emphasis here is on the de Young, a museum which was built – or rather cobbled together – in a great many pieces over the last century, and which now faces demolition. What will rise from its ashes is one topic that these artists have in mind as this exhibition breathes life into the decaying shell of the de Young as it begins to reinvent itself for the next century.
"The site’s temporality and evolving identity are manifest in its history, from its original function as a fair pavilion in the 1894 Midwinter Exposition to an evolving museum serving a variety of roles throughout the 20th century" says guest curator and San Francisco based writer and art critic Glen Helfand. "The impending changes, which will result in a very different institution, also foster a sense of artistic adventurousness that can only occur in a site that is awaiting construction crews." The selected artists rose to the challenge, creating sophisticated intelligent work that transcends the boundaries of the de Young. Helfand, who is not affiliated with an institution, was able to tap into the renegade spirit and freedom that still exists and flourishes in San Francisco and which personifies what it means to be a San Francisco artist.
Many of these artists looked at the provenance of the building itself, the actual physical space. Conceptual artist David Ireland cut open a section of the gallery wall, floor to ceiling, exposing the black cement wall behind. Alongside the trash from construction workers of yesteryear that littered the space between the two walls, Ireland added his own mark, spray-painting his initials, D.I., on an interior girder. Ireland has often uncovered what already exists in a space, highlighting the history already present in a place. He also has used his initials as a way of marking place and time. Here, in "Disclosure" (1999), his mark marks the spot of an already existing "sculpture" hidden within the gallery walls.
Maria Porges also uses the physical space of the building in "Considering the de Young: An Audio Tour of the Museum" (1999). Mixed in with fairly conventional historical monologues about the museum and its collection are some gems including a description of the museum’s once cutting-edge heating system, which in the 19th century was "a work of art in itself" and how thieves made off with masterworks through the museum roof. These details disrupt the customary museum experience, illuminating the sculptural possibilities in everyday objects and encouraging a reconsideration of the museum space.
The museum’s collection as well as its physical space is utilized in an unusual installation of American 19th Century landscape paintings. Bruce Tomb/Kris Force/Jayne Roderick renovate an entire room, displaying paintings as sculptural objects in vitrines, exposing the backs of the paintings which normally hang against the wall, revealing reference numbers and travel histories. The encased paintings are arranged to create a broken but continuous horizon line, and sharp angles, metallic surfaces and strange sound elements add to the confusion and the wonder of "Vista Point" (1999). This unexpected and surprising treat, like Porges’s, takes viewers outside of the galleries devoted to this show and into other areas of the museum where interesting, usually unseen histories are disclosed and made accessible to a wider audience.
A visual highlight of this show is Rebeca Bollinger’s "The Collection (descending)", (1999). Her installation uses the entire collection of the de Young in a stunning and hypnotic video projection filling an entire wall of a darkened room. 65,000 images of the Fine Art Museum’s collection are turned into tiny squares of digital matter, creating row upon row of mesmerizing patterns. You can see the entire collection march by in 15 minutes in a frenzied display of pomp and circumstance.
Utilizing the environs surrounding the de Young in beautiful, unusual and thought provoking ways are collaborative art team Fletcher + Rubin; Chris Johanson; and Rigo ’99. In "Pool of Enchantment" (1999), Fletcher + Rubin investigate the pool that sits outside the front entrance of the museum beckoning visitors to throw a coin, or often a used cup, into its brackish waters. Three gallery walls are filled with large video projections of slow moving poetic pans of what lurks inside the murky pool, enveloping you in a dirty Giverny and pointedly touching upon what we deem beautiful. The fountain acts as a constructed environment for our collective hopes and dreams, perhaps like the works inside the museum itself.
Chris Johanson used Golden Gate Park as inspiration for his acrylic on wood installation craftily constructed out of scrap wood pieces. Denizens of the park appear in the fabulously titled "The Art for the People the Animals and Plants in no Hierarchy of Importance Order, the Museum is in There, In That Order in No Hierarchy of the Order". Hacky-sac players, the famed Golden Gate Park buffalo and drummers along with some of the trees that make up the backdrop for this museum-in-a-park appear here.
Another unexpected and provocative transformation of the museum itself is Rigo ‘99’s "Tate Wiki Kuwa Museum" (1999). Rigo turns the entire de Young into an alternative venue, a fictitious museum dedicated to showing the work of imprisoned American Indian leader Leonard Peltier, who many people believe is unjustly incarcerated. Rigo paints an outside section of the building turquoise blue and hangs two banners announcing a display of the paintings of Mr. Peltier, while his signature striped signage style embellish the structural supports that prop up the earthquake damaged de Young. Inside the building, Rigo fills a hallway with Peltier’s paintings, ending with a replica of a jail cell. The name of the new museum means "total freedom," and this non-traditional sculptural installation brings attention to the work that is left out of museums, in turn bringing into question the work that museums do display, and the nature of being free --unusual themes for a fine art museum to tackle.
Also of note is Meg Mack’s Bay Area fun(ky) floor piece built out of a collection of vintage art supplies and a romantic vision of the artist/painter. "Runway," a sculpture about painting topped with misshapen canvases references the traditional view that a museum is built out of paintings and paintings are built from art supplies. A snaky paintbrush is wrapped around one of the easels alluding to the possibilities of the pitfalls of the Garden of Eden vision of the life of an artist. Mail Order Brides, a collaborative trio, contributed "Home is Where the Art Is" (1999), a humorous installation that brings their special brand of down-home domesticity and research with subservient stereotypes into the normally staid museum. Another artist dealing with issues of inclusion and exclusion (like Rigo ’99) is Stephanie Anne Johnson, who enlivens a banal slide show of various pieces of the collection with the inclusion of a quirky circular image of the viewer, putting us on display alongside the artifacts.
It is human nature to want to catalogue and name (as many of the works in Museum Pieces demonstrate). As people struggle to find the connections between the work in these two shows, the question of whether or not there is a Bay Area aesthetic emerges and re-emerges. And if there is one, what does it look like.
Not only do these two shows not provide specific answers to those questions; in fact, the variety of work on display demonstrates the impossibility of even asking those questions as our world becomes more and more globalized, So, that being said, although there is no particular Bay Area aesthetic, the Bay Area continues to deliver on its reputation as an incubator of innovation and eccentricity, a place where independent vision and visual power can co-exist and where dissection and discussion of pertinent cultural issues keeps happening. Maybe now, with these two exhibitions serving to energize and enlarge audiences, potentially jump-starting international careers for many of these artists, talented artists will be able to remain in the Bay Area without being regionalized, and ride out the anxiety-fraught fin-de-siecle here, sailing into the next millennium in the sex-filled never-never land of the peace and lovable, live/workable Bay Area, and thrive.