1.2 / Review

Bellwether

By Renny Pritikin November 5, 2009

Artist-run spaces emerged in the late sixties because museums and commercial galleries wouldn’t show installation, performance, video and other new hybrid forms. Such spaces popped up in every decent-sized American city because politicized artists wanted to put new lefty concepts such as participatory democracy into practice. The movement empowered artists to operate their own institutions and determine the context and content of their exhibitions. With the recent death of New Langton Arts in San Francisco, Southern Exposure’s rebirth is reassuring to progressive-minded artists and aesthetes of the Bay Area that such ideas still have a bellwether.

“Bellwether” is in fact the name of the exhibition that Southern Exposure’s disparate crew of artists, administrators, and curators shaped to celebrate their 35th anniversary and the opening of their new facility. Located just blocks from SoEx’s original home on Alabama street, the new 2600 square-foot gallery is handsome and appropriate. Designed along commercial gallery lines familiar from Bergamot Station in LA to Chelsea in New York, it is a ground-floor space primarily lit by street-facing glass walls abetted by a mixture of fluorescent and incandescent lighting. The concrete floors are a perfectly neutral setting for the artwork. A handsome set of spiffy work stations in the offices attest to a highly professional organization taking itself seriously. There is a modest-sized but functional classroom, befitting an institution that has made education one of its signature commitments.

John Herschend. Embrace of the Irrational, 2009 (production still). Courtesy of the Artist and Southern Exposure, San Francisco.

It’s not only the economy that has killed off a number of artist-run organizations in recent years. The ‘90s saw museums and kunsthalles like Yerba Buena Center for the Arts embrace all the exhibition values—if not the political values—of the small organizations. The San Francisco spaces—Galeria de la Raza, The Lab, SoEx, Langton, SF Camerawork, and others—have found their reputations for representing the boldest new work diminishing. For “Bellwether”—whose curatorial idea is to solicit visions of the future—SoEx has opted to put almost all its chips on new, conceptual artist projects.

Commissioning is always a risky way to approach major exhibitions, since the failure rate can be so high. If an institution defines itself by risk, though, that’s something its audience comes to expect and accept. However, in terms of arguing for the continuing raison d’etre of artist-run spaces, curatorial acumen needs to demonstrate that it is more informed and iconoclastic than mainstream institutions. It is important to note that SoEx is publicly reiterating the continuing centrality of its mission to give younger artists significant opportunities; this is admirable, and vital. Of the ten works included in “Bellwether,” there is a bell curve of successes, near successes, and disappointments, but the definitive identity that the artist-space field seeks remains elusive.

By far the most original and successful of the commissioned works is by Jonn Herschend. His video, Another Fine Mess (part 2--Embrace of the Irrational, Lessons from the Romantic Movement), shot with state-of-the-art crispness, documents a fictional art lecture that quickly descends into chaos engendered by incompetence, egomania, pretension, and assorted other entropic catastrophes. It is hilarious, produced and directed with a confidence and clarity very rare in art video.

Ant Farm. Discovery, 2009 (video still). Courtesy of the Artists and Southern Exposure, San Francisco.

Adjacent is a wall work by Ant Farm, whose participants now include long-time San Francisco architect/designer/artist Bruce Tomb. They also offer a sophisticated and subtle essay on documentation, memory, and manufactured history. Two wall-mounted video monitors ostensibly document the discovery of a long-lost Ant Farm relic in an underground missile base and its remounting in a spooky computer server room right out of science fiction. Between the monitors is a gorgeous, if slick, corrugated plastic display of hundreds of thumbnail images downloaded by the public at Ant Farm’s show at SFMOMA last year. It’s nice to see this Bay Area treasure continue to deal with important contemporary issues such as data management, while making fun of themselves as unearthed fossils at the same time.

The collective Nonchalance shows the ability to create complex narratives in a Borges-like labyrinth of false identities, pseudo-correspondence between aggrieved collaborators, and other fabricated myths. They’ve constructed a vitrine with eccentric objects: the aluminum-foil set of Charles LeDray-style hats is particularly charming. Nonchalance also participates in the trend to make gallery exhibitions the hub for required treks out into the surrounding community to encounter clues and other found or placed real-world discoveries.

Whitney Lynn exhibits a tiny self-contained hut of the survivalist persuasion, meant to parody the psychology that produces such behavior. Jay Nelson shows a related artist-bike-vehicle work. Both pieces insufficiently distance themselves from the work of such artists as Andrea Zittell and Kenji Yanobe, not to mention Ant Farm. The latest in Renee Gertler’s series of jittery, stick-based installations needed much more space. Lordy Rodriguez presents another in the long line of once-clever, now common, artist-conceived alternative countries (see: micronations.net: how to start your own country or join someone else’s). Christine Wong Yap contributes a very modest double-mirror piece. Finally, the students of Southern Exposure’s art education program produced a photomural depicting their own noirish, apocalyptic vision of the future. A work by Liz Glynn had not been revealed at the time of this writer’s visits.

Jay Nelson. The Golden Gate 1, 2009; bicycle parts, luan plywood, hardwood, pvc pipe, fiberglass and resin, glass, silicon, canvas, foam pad, kitchen material, 5'6" x 4'6" by 7'6". Courtesy of the Artist and Southern Exposure, San Francisco.

Courtney Fink deserves to be singled out for particular praise in marshalling this enormous logistical nightmare and fundraising miracle. She should be appreciated as a cultural heroine of San Francisco. I fully expect that upcoming exhibitions will stretch toward what we so desperately need SoEx to do: make us question everything we think we know about art.

Bellwether is on view at Southern Exposure through December 12, 2009.

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