Shotgun Review Archive

Kiki: The Proof Is In The Pudding

By Patricia Maloney July 26, 2008

Lutz Bacher's 1993 aptly named Butt Photo--for that is what it is, an oversized black-and-white image of two clenched and dimpled cheeks--has pride of place in Kiki: The Proof is in the Pudding, on view at Ratio 3 through August 2, 2008. Placed well above eye level on the far wall of the gallery's main room, it sets the proper tone for the show: a sort of insouciant provocation. Catherine Opie's portraits of the performer Justin Bond and the artist Jerome Caja (also from 1993) most effectively convey this sensibility. The latter does an aggressive number on the viewer/object relationship. Caja's poorly applied makeup and ill-fitting dress set against a bright green background offer sufficient reasons to stare, but after a moment that reasoning seems a flimsy excuse in comparison to the withering gaze he volleys with, an expression that demands to know what it is I am looking at. It is the first time I have nearly apologized to a work of art.

Kiki: The Proof is in the Pudding; installation view, Ratio 3, San Francisco, June 27 to August 2, 2008. Courtesy of Ratio 3.

Organized by writer Kevin Killian and artist Colter Jacobsen, Kiki includes a broad sampling of artworks originally shown at the Kiki gallery during the mid-nineties. Located in a tiny space on 14th Street in the Mission, not far from where Ratio 3 stands now, the gallery presented an array of art that is, by turns, irreverent, brash, poignant, or solipsistic. The space was founded and run by Rick Jacobsen, a charismatic and consummate performer who was also--according to his obituary--an "activist, theatrical producer, substance-abuse counselor, bookseller, and certified massage therapist." Jacobsen ran the space for eighteen months, until his illness—AIDS-related lymphoma—forced its closure in 1995.

Perhaps the most telling aspects of the gallery were the exhibition titles. Caca @ Kiki was the name of the inaugural show, followed by others, including The Bong Show, Fanta, Sick Joke: Bitterness, Sarcasm & Irony in the Second AIDS Decade, and the final show, Piece: Nine Artists Consider Yoko Ono, a tribute to the artist/musician/cultural icon. (She makes a stealth appearance in Kiki: The Proof is in the Pudding, in the form of a voice message to the gallery from 1995: "This is her. Yoko! The proof is in the pudding!" It emanates every five minutes from a speaker mounted in the corner of the back room). There is no mistaking Jacobsen's agenda for the gallery was foreground on defiance wrapped up in acerbic humor.

Assembled here and now because of their common provenance, the works on view do much to suggest that resistance, loss, giddiness, and self-preservation were the prevailing sensibilities of San Francisco a decade into the AIDS crisis. There is the inevitability that the further one moves away from an event or period of time, the less visceral it becomes, and the more willing one is to rely on a collective narrative for recollection. Even in moments of crisis or trauma, there exists both the deep and personal defensive of what one knows to have happened, and the relief of releasing it to the past, where it can be stacked up against events of greater or lesser degree to ascertain its significance. Which is where art intervenes. It somehow ensures that what one intimately feels will be visible or accessible in the story everyone tells.

Kiki: The Proof is in the Pudding; installation view, Ratio 3, San Francisco, June 27 to August 2, 2008. Courtesy of Ratio 3.

Inadvertently then the included artists, in the process of creating art that challenged ideas of gender and sexuality also preserved an alternative history. Since so much of the work utilizes the body as a public declaration of self, it inevitably speaks to the limitations placed on a body in a particular time and place. For example, the innate perversion of childhood fairy tales are fully unleashed in Keith Mayerson's drawings from the 1993 suite Pinocchio the Big Fag, which turns the Pygmalion myth into a coming out tale. Lampwick & Pinocchio (Keanu & River) depicts the title characters locked in an embrace, albeit with long nose and the ears of a jackass, intimating that while the prohibitions on pleasure may have been fully thwarted, a price has been extracted.

With the inclusion of Mayerson alongside early drawings by Chris Johanson the exhibition could fit neatly into an art historical narrative that places the gallery at a crossroads between identity politics and the nascent Mission School. However, it also succeeds in pulling the work out of that context and returning to it a present tense of urgency and protest. Somehow, this is most aptly reflected in Nayland Blake's video Negative Bunny (1993), which cajoles the viewer in a squawking, falsetto voice, demanding credibility and attention for its negative status. "It's really a power trip and you should examine your motives" and "You couldn't be more negative than me," he chides. Both Blake and Opie refused to allow the motives that relegated queer identities to the margins to go unexamined, and demanded a conversation around who sets the terms of representation. "You're not giving me anything," the bunny implores, and its strained voice is impatient with waiting for acknowledgement.

Other works lose their significance in formal gesture, such as Rex Ray's drawing Untitled (Yoko LPs), which offers little in the way of tribute to Ono. Conversely, Dodie Bellamy's description of Cliff Hengst's 1995 emulative performance included in the 'zine KIKI RICK YOKO CACA produced for the exhibition wonderfully evokes the haphazardness and potential energy that surrounded the gallery and drew so many people to it. But as someone who arrived in San Francisco ten years after the gallery's closing, I also experienced a feeling of bewilderment at the exhibition opening. How did I not know that Nayland Blake has spent so much time here? My own laziness, perhaps. But that question is simply part of a larger one about the currency of memory, and why some things hold on long past their expiration date while others get clamped down on too quickly. If it was good to shut the door on this frenzied moment for a while, perhaps Kiki: The Proof is in the Pudding, was a necessary reminder of a history waiting for acknowledgement.

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