1.9 / Review

Two Anniversaries

By Brian Andrews February 22, 2010

This month, two divergent histories of Bay Area art practices can be explored within one block of Minna Street in downtown San Francisco. SF Camerawork recognizes its 35th anniversary with the exhibition “An Autobiography of the San Francisco Bay Area Part 2: The Future Lasts Forever,” just as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) celebrates its 75th anniversary with a cluster of shows grouped under the banner “75 Years of Looking Forward.” Both of these exhibitions utilize their institutional histories as a point of self-reflection, and frame the works as the crest of a thoroughly cultivated avant-garde sensibility that will invariably carry both organizations to rich and successful futures. The divergent curatorial approaches of these exhibitions, however, reveal stark differences in each institution’s idea of the Bay Area’s creative legacy, the region’s place in the international art world, and its potential futures as a site of cultural production.

SFMOMA’s anniversary exhibits display an impressive body of work from its deep collections of modern and contemporary art. Like most major museums, SFMOMA is usually only able to exhibit tiny percentages of its current collections, relegating large quantities of outstanding artwork to storeroom and warehouse purgatories. The “Focus on Artists” component of the anniversary exhibitions pulls from these tremendous resources, giving over individual galleries to the display of single artists, including Clyfford Still, Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Kara Walker, and Matthew Barney.

While these works are phenomenal, what is notable is that the roster of artists consists entirely of internationally acclaimed superstars who have no specific connection to the Bay Area. This German-heavy, New York–centric show could be installed in any museum in the world to the same effect, adding little to the context of SFMOMA’s history. Instead of highlighting SFMOMA’s unique cultural position, the selections exhibit an insecure curatorial approach, as if the institution still needs to prove its international relevancy by showcasing broadly recognized, conventional blue-chip artists.

This timid sensibility extends to the Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art (SECA) section of the main exhibition, which features a large Barry McGee installation and a canvas by Chris Johanson. These two artists are some of the most internationally acclaimed recipients of the local SECA Art Award; however, they subsequently relocated the bulk of their practices to locations outside of the Bay Area. Unfortunately, this gallery missed the opportunity for the discussion and promotion of truly local contemporary art.

The notable exception and coincidental highlight of the exhibition is the work of Bruce Conner, which is included in two of the anniversary exhibitions. Since his death in the summer of 2008, Conner’s work has been widely exhibited and discussed in publications. The three-channel video installation Three Screen Ray (2006) is a randy montage of black-and-white stock footage ripe with sexual innuendo and provocative female nudes set to a pulsing early Ray Charles performance. The piece has a simultaneously titillating and embarrassing effect on the museum audience—delighting in the social frictions it creates within the context of a formal art museum.

Bruce Conner, THREE SCREEN RAY (composite), 2006; three-channel black-and-white video projection with sound, 5:14 min. Courtesy of Conner Family Trust and SFMOMA.

A divergent perspective of the Bay Area can be seen in “The Future Lasts Forever.” The exhibition is a complex, confusing amalgam of idiosyncratic and disparate studio practices—much like the Bay Area art community itself. On display are works actively engaged in political activism, techno-fetishism, mysticism, sexuality, identity politics, modern primitives, and other cultural movements. The exhibition draws not only from artists, but from collectors, collectives, and publications such as the underground magazine RE/Search and the 1970s gay porn magazine Drummer, the latter containing some of the early work of Robert Mapplethorpe. The conceptually playful and humorous Polaroids "Untitled (Aura Photographs)" (2002-2004) by Anne Collier appropriate techniques of “Aura Photography” for aesthetic purposes. Each image contains one portrait―of John Baldessari, Mike Kelley, Frances Stark, and other artists―in hazy fields of saturated emulsion, making light of the idea of an artist’s “vision."

Lynn Hershman Leeson, 24 Hour Roberta, 2009. Digital still image from Second Life. Courtesy of SF Camerawork.

In the main gallery, Lynn Hershman Leeson’s installation 24 Hour Roberta (2009) allows the audience to occupy her performed identity Roberta Breitmore via an avatar in Second Life. Visitors are enticed to navigate through a virtual retrospective of Leeson’s work, although the immersive effect is hampered due to the interface’s missing keyboard. The synthetic environment intentionally includes architectural elements surrounding her work, such as staircases and hallways; unnecessary in a digital space, they highlight the institutional frameworks that are inescapable in the practice of contemporary art.

SF Camerawork’s participatory, socially engaged exhibition does the difficult work of exploring the creative communities of the Bay Area, exposing the contradictions, conflicts, and radicalism they absorb from the public, as well as the individual artists who have produced the cultural histories these institutions represent.

 

"An Autobiography of the San Francisco Bay Area Part 2: The Future Lasts Forever" is on view at SF Camerawork through April 17, 2010.

 

"75 Years of Looking Forward" is on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through July 6, 2010.

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