Reopening: San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery

Review

Reopening: San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery

By Brian Karl March 17, 2016

The San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC) Gallery reopened on January 22, 2016, in a new space with the exhibition Bring It Home: (Re)Locating Cultural Legacy Through the Body. Now more than ever, questions surrounding the identity and potential agendas of the SFAC Gallery revolve around the idea that it is a public venue representing public interests.

The original gallery’s artist-generated founding in 1970 under the evocative name Capricorn Asunder launched a familiar narrative among late 20th century small- to mid-sized U.S. cultural organizations: Individual artists collectivize to address a perceived need for public exhibition space and their organizing efforts become appropriated by professional administrators, who quickly form bureaucracies of culture. Unlike nonpublic nonprofit arts institutions, the SFAC Gallery is ostensibly accountable to elected officials via a chain of other appointments and hires. In the current moment, the buck stops at, or at least pauses somewhat with, Director of Cultural Affairs Tom DeCaigny and sixteen appointed arts commissioners, who also oversee approval of public artworks at the San Francisco International Airport.

Bring It Home, curated by Meg Shiffler and Kevin B. Chen, consolidates several generations of self-consciously multiculturalist impulses in contemporary U.S. art practices. Layered on top of an even-handedness toward gender and some range of age representation, the attention to artist demographics in this show is evident, touching on cultural antecedents originating in far-flung points on the globe, from Asia to the Middle East to south of the U.S. border.

Noticeably balanced, for instance, are neighboring installations by Zeina Barakeh and Dana Harel. Barakeh is a Lebanese-born Palestinian video artist whose project manages to animate, at once playfully and seriously, a wordless narrative of power. Harel is an Israeli artist whose flowing pencil strokes and overlapping stucco relief form the image of a single human body intertwined with a vine-y plant onto a blank gallery wall. The other pieces in the exhibition are diversely arrayed in their placement, media, and materials as well. The insistently vertical physical presence of Ramekon O’Arwisters’s highly textural knitted sculptures evokes the artist and his grandmother as abstract statues of sorts, and are counterpoised to the smooth, low, horizontal pool of Jeremiah Barber’s dark, body-sized platform for a single human body to be laid out and/or performed upon. A text-based wall piece by Guillermo Gómez-Peña, the detailed collage works of Carolyn Janssen and Tsherin Sherpa pointing toward and complicating spirituality for individuals, the more evanescent projections of layered family figures by Summer Mei Ling Lee, and the shifting layers of postcolonial place by Ranu Mukherjee occupy different niches in other reaches of the space.

Guillermo Gómez-Peña. Quote from In Defense of Performance Art (2003), 2016; vinyl. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Scott Chernis.

Gómez-Peña’s multiple presences in the show particularly reflect the historical turn toward representing underseen cultural realms in recent generations. In addition to a live performance in conjunction with the exhibition, the single prominent pull quote from one of his longer works serves as a meta-statement of purpose for artists’ social function. Taking up Gómez-Peña’s long-pursued actions of cross-cultural resistance against stereotypes, prejudice, and marginalization, and likewise pointing to cultural viewpoints from Latin America, Vic De La Rosa’s elegant yet sharply critical flag pieces extend such artful critiques into the current moment.

In its overarching project of representation, the show engages with some of the tasks of the alternative nonprofit spaces that served San Francisco as dynamic yet stalwart creative incubators from the 1970s through the 1990s, such as New Langton Arts (now defunct) and Intersection for the Arts (currently a shell of its former incarnations, having abandoned the exhibition of art in its own space).

The initial exhibition at the new SFAC Gallery represents ethnic diversity and a range of cultural backgrounds for artists working in the Bay Area. However, the majority of the artists in Bring It Home belong to a professionalized class of creative individuals who have been tutored in MFA programs, prompting the question of which additional constituencies and what other function(s) a new SFAC gallery might serve in 2016 and beyond. This finely curated opening round proves true to SFAC Gallery's stated mission to “position Bay Area visual art production within an international contemporary art landscape.” The SFAC Gallery clearly aspires to show technically proficient, thematically coherent local talent, skewing toward younger to mid-career artists working in well-established media, as opposed to more deliberately experimental projects such as those nurtured by San Francisco alternative art space Southern Exposure (and a handful of smaller spaces with less longevity) in recent years.

Vic De La Rosa. Top to bottom: Numero Nueve, 2013; Numero Cinco, 2002; Numero Diez, 2013; mixed fiber. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Scott Chernis.

While it began as a hippie-ish collective enterprise of urban artists in the early 1970s, the SFAC Gallery has now grown up. To maintain relevance for many people, it needs to reflect current cultural realities in San Francisco and the Bay Area more broadly. The region has many constituent interests—among them the sometimes violent conflicts ensuing from intense racial inequities, developing queer and trans viewpoints, as well as a more and more precarious underclass threatened with socioeconomic insufficiency and outright eviction. It remains to be seen whether the organization’s public manifestations will extend even further to embody such concerns. An exhibition at the SFAC Gallery featuring work by and/or about veterans of foreign wars is rumored to be in the works for later this year. Fitting for the space’s location in the city’s veterans memorial building, this theme could speak to another complex set of underconsidered groups and social issues.

This first exhibition launched with a strong showing, and the question now arises: What will the SFAC Gallery become? How will it enact its public mandate and serve as not just a place for local art to be seen, but a place where art and artists can serve the public good by truly representing difference and challenging assumptions about San Francisco’s cultural and social systems in moments or ways that can’t be achieved by other means or individuals? Or will it serve more as a stepping stone for some artists on the way to greater participation in art markets such as the commercial realm of galleries, the limited valuation contexts of private collections, or the canonizing regimes of already dominant local cultural institutions such as SFMOMA? The question isn’t so much whether or not any individual artist deserves those kinds of endorsements and success, but rather what other, larger purposes such public organizations can really serve.

Cultural institutions in the United States too often manifest “not as entitlements or rights but as gifts from the wealthy members of society,” as artist Andrea Fraser has recently put it.1 Given the particularly intense struggles in the Bay Area today, where citizens are denied access to civil rights and basic resources by the structural discriminations of racialist and upward-funneling economic policies, the SFAC Gallery can perform a greater social role by further addressing these pressing issues in the cultural realm.

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Bring It Home: (Re)Locating Cultural Legacy Through the Body is on view at San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery, in San Francisco, through May 7, 2016.

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