After a Friday immersed in Santa Cruz arts, particularly the riveting new work by Robynn Smith at Michaelangelo Gallery, some great sculpture in the Felix Kulpa ceramics show with several Coeleen Kiebert’s beautiful profundities (and to see Mattie Leeds all boyishly happy about the most exciting new development (gossip, gossip!) at his Bonnie Doon homestead) all topped off by a fun look at Cruzio’s new digs (image of kids artmaking with the technological tools Cruzio provided) it felt like I’d thoroughly delved into the arts currents of Santa Cruz and it was just the right time to get out of town. So after a morning at the Tannery Arts Center with a group forming as a collaborative printmakers’ studio—it’s going to be SUCH an amazing place to work—and a cheerful catch-up lunch with MAH curator Susan Hillhouse, learning about the changes in the museum world, I drove to San Francisco with the usual impossibly long list of things I wanted to do thought it was already midafternoon when I started.
On the road—280 is gorgeous after all the rains, with the mountains to the left and the Palo Alto hillsides to the right, dark-soaked earth and vivid new green and that stormy watercolorist sky—I eventually decided to forgo the Pacific Orchid Show (an annual tradition when I lived in SF and often since) and, sigh, to skip my ritual visit to a favorite salvage yard—Building Resources, an art- and building-materials destination where something precious always leaves with me. But I did get to the three art exhibits I had hoped to see.
Braunstein-Quay is a consistent art destination—more because I’ve learned to have high expectations of the gallery than to see a particular show (but somehow missed the Judy Pfaff exhibit there, even though I’d normally travel a distance to see that artist’s installations). In this case it was “Tethered”, works by Michael McConnell who plays on a viewer’s struggle between fond memories of stuffed toys, the cuteness of fake fur and the creepy fascination of taxidermy animals to elicit a wincing grin at his assemblages of stitched-together toy animal fur over a taxidermy form—the snouts or paws meticulously realistically-painted but obviously un-real—the animal ensnared in a rope usually in a very unnatural position. His acrylic vignettes of patient bears, cougar, raccoon, stag, all bound up or tied down, play on our familiarity with images that glorify the hunted animal, but here the animals are captive, and still unreally alive. I didn’t love the work—not one of the pieces would I want to spend further time with—but the concept was provocative. The gallery was buzzing with the energy of 30 or more mostly 30-something hipsters with a sprinkling of elders in full discussion mode on this dull afternoon in the City. In the side gallery where the gallery hangs a selection of works by artists represented by the gallery, there was a huge Judy Pfaff plexi box, so all omens were good, not least the unbelievable luck (for SF!) of a parking spot right in front of the gallery’s alley-like Clementine Street.
I had read in the Chronicle about the effort to claim the no-man’s-land of San Francisco’s blighted mid-Market Street (between the Castro and Union Square area) by attracting known entrepreneurial change agents like the Intersection for the Arts ( for decades a powerful cultural pathmaker in the Mission District) some new art galleries.(What urban center has NOT recruited artists to act as pioneers in edgy central neighborhoods then stood back as their pioneers are priced out of existence by their own success?) and even former mayor, now Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom’s new offices—good move, Gavin. Looking for signs of change I made my way along the wide thoroughfare. The neighborhood after Nordstrom’s plummeted a few thousand aesthetic degrees to become an expanse of war-zone-like barricaded windows, shouting hand-painted signs, liquor stores and animated street people. I didn’t stop (didn’t see what he was going to do— till he did it) to let a man who decided just a moment too late to walk in front of me against a red light so that I knew I wouldn’t hit him and drove past him slowly at just the right distance for him to leap forward and kick in the panel of my passenger side door as he shouted a hysterical epithet. The meter maid driving right behind me looked off literally the other way when I turned to her, so I just drove on, another big dent, dispirited. The times are rough, people are angry; those on the margins tottering off the edge.
A garish white marble and gilt(-looking) International Art Museum (not yet open) shines like a surreal pristine island amidst tattered dirty fast food restaurants, cigarette vendors and liquor stores, perhaps a harbinger of things to come. I did eventually find the Market Street Gallery which had announced an opening that night. Near Franklin Street, a block from the Zuni Café, this part of Market in more prosperous times was a strollable street of antique stores and small furniture design outfits, but is now pretty much scarred, bummed and shuttered. A few galleries have risen and fallen over the years near here. W hen I found Market Street Gallery it looked kind of tepid like the most recent crop of unlikely hole-in-the-wall spaces, still closed this afternoon though theyre having an evening opening, so I drove on. I was headed back across Market Street toward the Mission District but since there was still time I turned north to Hayes Street and, as there was a parking spot (always an invitation to adventure) I decided to stop—for a coffee and a visit to one of my old faves in that neighborhood, Polanco Gallery with always friendly and knowledgeable owners and delightful objects mostly Mexican art. Hayes Street is always changing, but always manages to feel prosperous and expensively edgy in its mix of interior designers, designer-owned boutiques selling out there clothing, old bars and chic restaurants, (Or, not so chic but yummmmmmmy German restaurant, Suppenküche is nearby on Laguna), one-of-a-kind furniture and art gifts stores and, a Hayes Street institution you have to enjoy at least once, Marlena’s. But I just had coffee. A pop into Polanco and a block of window shopping, then it was time to make for SomArts.
SOMArts Cultural Center is a warehousey space with a quirky art landscape surrounding it, housing a theater, studios and a spacious gallery where “BREATHED…UNSAID…” was opening that night. Curator Katyta Min of Lumina Arts, in her statement wrote that the show “presents works forged in the exchanges between the geography of origin and places of arrival, bringing together artists who attempt to show how all of us can freely cross back and forth, regardless of these lingering borders, to create new spaces for understanding.’
The cavernous space made a stunning impact upon entry: a cube of silkscreened cotton banners dropped down from 11’ above the soaring ceiling, suspended from a grid, all the gentle almost transparent ribbons of cotton lapping around a child’s bed holding a giant sack of coffee in Tessie Barrera-Scharaga’s Malady of Third World Dreaming. The banners soft drape, the dreamy transparency of the cotton belie the images silkscreened upon them of the labor—including children—intent upon producing it. The coffee spills out upon the floor. There is a sense about it of a war hospital, blood spilled, the air of tragedy and mourning.
About 20’ from the entrance on the facing wall is an installation of several dozen giant photos—heads of people with script or cartoon drawings defacing them. These people have been detained. The piece by Victor Cartagena Tatuajes de la Memoria (Tatoos of Memory) uses the close-up portraits of these very real people, the humanity of them, to bleed through the “tattoos”, perhaps an excerpt from trial transcripts as well as crude cartoon pictures which, the artist writes in his statement, is “a graphic image from the illustrated method book that was implemented under the direction of the School of the Americas in El Salvador in the 80s; forty different ways to inflict torture.” Again, the beauty of the installation, these real people de-faced literally, is breathtaking.
Joel Tan & Nicholas Alexander Brinkley answered their own question in What is a (w)Hole?, in a piece that invites thought by variously interpreting the question in a huge wall sculpture literally depicting a hole in a spiraling space; below this, a bunker-type mechanic’s pit is sunken in the gallery floor, complete with steps down, shelves, café table, chairs and a kitchy cute feeling, but nevertheless summoning all the related associations of a bunker—hiding, surviving…The coup de grace is the installation of color photographs installed on the wall behind—photos of a military cemetery, perhaps in Colma, in which a landscape of white headstones rising above green grass becomes a pattern—with a number of vacant spots showing as a random pattern of green holes. The installation also has a random pattern in which there are missing photos. I spoke to artist Nicholas Brinkley who said the “empty” spaces in the cemetery were kept for spouses. I had no idea that spouses had any place in a military cemetery. The idea expands the sense of senseless loss to the whole interlinked root system of human connectivity. A member of the order of San Francisco’s Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence examined the work with Tan, who is also a member of that order, reminding me that, whatever our origins, we define ourselves by what we choose to do.
There were many thought-provoking works in this exhibition. Taraneh Hemami’s One Like No One neon sign in Iranian script reads in English:
Someone will come
Someone will come
…Calling for the hero…The artist believes, she writes, in “the possibility of heroism from every ordinary man and woman.”
Rarely does that hero come from outside: a case in point is the revolution in Egypt whose heroes found themselves standing in their own shoes. Looking at a series of political cartoons within a glassed table near the entrance, I met a fascinating artist in Hassan Fedawy, a Professor of Fine Arts in Alexandrea University, a writer and cartoonist for the Rosa Al Youssef newspaper in Egypt and often for al Jazeera. He had been very active in the recent uprising in Egypt and just returned to San Francisco three days earlier. Accompanied by a gorgeous bright daughter—I think she was 5, it was her birthday—he showed me his cartoon drawings published in the days leading up to the overthrow of the dictatorship and invited me to “friend” him on Facebook to read the weeks of his writings and images from the trenches, as it were. Just the day before this I had interviewed Futzy Nutzle, an artist whose drawings and cartoons reflected and commented on life in America in such magazines as Rolling Stone. The two artists share prodigious drawing skills and an ability to distill a complex concept within a telling image that packs a lot of Everyman punch.
There were several wonderful performances at the opening that night—a duo of dancers and singer-songwriter; a duo of violinist and spoken word artists. Stan Welsh and Margitta Dietrich were there, adding to the friendly atmosphere. Quite a place, quite a show, quite an event.
I returned to the Market Street Gallery space to find it packed—I mean Packed to Overflowing as the crowd stood watching a performance within the tiny space. What I could see of the art looked pretty iffy but the atmosphere was exciting. I didn’t stay.
So, I picked up a little Imperial roll from my favorite Vietnamese hole-in-the-wall and set off back to Santa Cruz through a rainy night, happy with my visit to SF’s cosmopolitan culture, happy to go home dented, but not downed.
The Exhibitionist is funded in part by a grant from the Cultural Council of Santa Cruz County.