Energy That is All AroundNovember 25, 2013
Curated by art historian Natasha Boas, Energy That Is All Around, on view at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) Walter and McBean Galleries, highlights the studio production of Chris Johanson, Margaret Kilgallen, Alicia McCarthy, Barry McGee, and Ruby Neri, who, with the exception of Johanson, met as students at SFAI.1 Boas attempts to disintegrate the calcifying nostalgia that surrounds their work as hallmarks of the Mission School by emphasizing the overlapping formal concerns of their paintings, drawings, and sculptures. This framework shifts the focus away from how deeply integrated street art and subcultures, folk music, punk, outsider art, and typography were in their lives as well as their art. Instead, Boas foregrounds the enduring collaborations that began while the artists were students, as well as their concurrent, dynamic discoveries around line and color that occurred individually and collaboratively.
Alicia McCarthy and Ruby Neri are the standouts. A 1996 untitled (and rare) oil painting by McCarthy draws one in with its siren call of polychromatic, wavering lines woven into a hypnotic grid.2 Such Thing Countless Wondrs (1995), a group of nine works on paper by Neri, assembles a set of pictograms that seems to provide a lexicon for the rest of the show with its combination of animals, figures, and fonts. Also remarkable is the small group of Johanson’s mostly untitled acrylic-on-panel paintings from 1998. Dark sentiments about pain, failure, helplessness, and rage crowd the monochromatic works, in which figures are layered almost to the point of obliteration.
But the exhibition’s linchpin is tucked into one of the vitrines devoted to correspondence, snapshots, and other ephemera. It is a page from one of McCarthy’s sketchbooks, in which she paraphrases Walter Benjamin: “Aura=relationship of distance/time and space.”3 Benjamin laments the “passionate…inclination to bring things close” (emphasis his) that spurs reproduction but strips a work of its aura.4 For the group of artists represented in this exhibition, the capacity to encounter their work without the attendant baggage of the Mission School moniker is almost impossible. But bringing the artists back to the place where they were students both collapses and expands the distance around the work, historicizing it even as we encounter anew its vibrancy, earnestness, and disruptive spirit. The gap of twenty years is felt in the juxtaposition of paintings that are heartbreaking in their youthful fervor with those that are sober with the received wisdom of age.
The ephemera also remind us why “school” was an applicable term for these artists’ activities. An academic institution indoctrinates certain ideological leanings and refutes others. The aesthetics of the Mission School reflect a conscientious rejection of modernist trajectories, and its collaborative activities corresponded to the predominant economic and social conditions of the Mission district at the time. As an ideology for San Francisco, the Mission School is still relevant even as its namesake neighborhood has radically transformed and derivative works have diminished the politics that informed the aesthetic choices of the original artists. If we remember why Glen Helfand coined the label in his 2002 article—to describe a group of artists committed to utopian ideals “about the power of fellowship and the possibility of being lifted up,” to resourcefulness in the face of economic hardship, and to radical personal politics—there are still lessons to be learned here.5
Energy That Is All Around is on view at Walter and McBean Galleries, SFAI, in San Francisco, through December 14, 2013.