1.11 / Review

Chain Reaction 11

By Jessica Brier March 24, 2010

"Chain Reaction 11" is the eleventh in a series of exhibitions at the San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC) Gallery to adopt the “chain letter” format for concocting a survey of Bay Area contemporary art. The exhibition series ambitiously spans three decades; it began as an annual show in 1985 and has been revisited sporadically in recent years. This incarnation sprawls across three locations: the gallery on Van Ness Avenue; the ground floor of City Hall across the street; and a small auxiliary window space on nearby Grove Street, which was the SFAC Gallery’s original space. This exhibition revisits an early programming model and celebrates the gallery’s fortieth anniversary.

This show foregrounds the side of the art world generally relegated to the background: the constellation of relationships and interests that exist behind the scenes, driving the production and programming of the work on view. These things that are often observed offhand but rarely considered seriously become the show’s premise; it’s fun to find out what (and whom) artists like and who knows whom, especially in a relatively small city. The information we gather about personal and professional affinities between artists, writers, gallerists, and curators is more than just juicy fodder for gossip; it moves the art world in serious ways. The content of a work and the relationships behind it are completely intertwined aspects of art making, and this exhibition addresses that phenomenon head-on.

Each chain of the show begins with “advisors, curators and luminaries” who choose one artist to exhibit in the show. The first “link” is always an individual or group that is somehow affiliated with the gallery, such as current and past members of the Advisory Board, past and present staff, and artists whose work has passed through the gallery at key moments. The first artist then chooses another artist, and so on. Chains vary in length and can take any number of directions. 

Uniquely, Kamau Amu Patton, Chris Bell, Elaine Buckholtz, and Floor Van Herreweghe chose to collaborate on a single, multimedia installation to fill the challenging storefront-like space on Grove Street. In a show that takes a set of rules as its central methodology, it’s refreshing to see one group break the rules and come up with more of an exquisite corpse than a group of discrete works. Chains in which artists share similar practices are not necessarily the most successful. For instance, although the chains in City Hall present a variety of photographic approaches, this section of the show felt the most static. On the other hand, while video artist/filmmaker Paul Clipson and minimalist sculptor Walter Logue work in

divergent mediums, the artists, connected by just one degree of separation in a chain, share a deadpan sense of humor that nicely bounces back and forth between them. Each chain has its own pocket personality and acts as a mini group show, making the larger group format more digestible.

Relationships, conversations, and interactions between artists are not only the subject of the exhibition, but a theme that also appears in some of the work. Glen Helfand describes the work of Christine Wong Yap, his pick for one of the chains: “Her artwork is about all of us, as she creates barometers of public mood, and usually aims to spread some good vibes with astute visual choices―skills I knew she’d apply to the chain.” Many of these artists created brand new work for the show, heightening the sense of excitement for sharing ideas. Yap’s piece is, aptly, a distorted mirror, a device that has become one of her signatures. Paul Clipson’s four-channel video resonates well with Yap’s piece, as both artists make use of recycled and reflected images and memories to create a new shared experience. Clipson presents four found monitors, each with ghost images burned into their screens from years of monotonous security footage, and overlays them with his own psychedelic strobe-like images.

Another standout is Michael Arcega’s text and video piece, in which Arcega ran the Filipino national anthem through spell-check on his computer, resulting in a text that is half false translation, half gibberish. He then hired a professional opera singer to perform this hybrid, placeless script. Ideas of how to translate experience and identity (and Arcega’s darkly funny suggestion that this pursuit may be totally futile) run throughout the show.

This survey, housed in three diverse venues, is also very much about space. The Grove Street window gallery presents a logistical challenge in that visitors can’t actually enter the space, so artists are forced to innovate. Likewise, the ground floor hallway galleries of City Hall can only accommodate two-dimensional work, and the chains of photography-based work in "Chain Reaction 11" are housed here (Robin Twomey’s work is a standout in this group). The Van Ness gallery therefore feels like the natural culmination of the show, hosting works in a variety of mediums. These venues are a reminder of the gallery’s crucial role in the chain as a whole; each space represents a different way of engaging the public with contemporary art, reflecting the gallery’s mission in a kaleidoscopic and clever way.

Quality is hit or miss in some cases, but this is the gamble of what the wall text calls an “artist driven exhibition,” the exciting and unexpected result of relinquishing full curatorial control. Ultimately, the show feels splintered and disjointed in the best way. It is an exhibition about process, not in the studio, but in daily interactions that shape the way art is made, displayed, and received.


"Chain Reaction 11" is on view at the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery through May 16, 2010.

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