The best thing about living in San Francisco is that I can step out of my apartment and, without any planned route, find an art exhibition that I had no idea was happening. At the beginning of every month, I like to walk my rent check to my property manager’s office by the Civic Center. The Civic Center is a cultural crown of jewels in this city with a symphony, ballet, opera, library, and museum surrounding City Hall. SF is so cool that the city closes the Civic Center for massive events like a concert by Deadmau5 or the 2013 X Games Dew Tour complete with a skate park and dirt bike course.
On this particular rent-check-walk, I decided to check out the main branch of the SF Public Library at the Civic Center. If you’ve seen the 1998 movie City of Angels starring Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan, then you’ll understand this: it’s the same library that all the angels in black coats visit to read books and stand around looking creepy! Little did I know that there would not only be one exhibition, but five! Stumbling across these exhibitions in a space like a public library brought me back to undergrad and learning about the idea of curating. It’s an interesting position to be curating a show at a library — a local history and audience are engaged primarily with something else in the space (the books) but are somehow casually distracted, entertained, and educated by the exhibition.
The first exhibition I accidentally saw was called Three Artists Witness the Occupy Movement: A Plein Air Story. If it weren’t for the table jutting out in the middle of the walkway, I would have kept on going about my tour of the library, but I paused to see what the enclosed case had to offer. It was lovely paintings by three different Oakland artists who documented the Occupy Oakland and Occupy San Francisco events. The placard said “Exhibition continues in cafe wall display case, lower level,” so I decided to see what else was in this show.
The painting show was a lot of fun. It’s unclear who curated the show based on the text provided, but a little googling on the Internet leads me to believe that the show was originally presented as Occupy: The Plein Air Story and curated by Eric Murphy at Oakland’s Joyce Gordon Gallery last November. This exhibition cleverly puts three different artists side-by-side for a comparison of the same subject depicted in varying styles. John Paul Marcelo’s The Port Shutdown is an eerie march of shadowy dark figures, Anthony Holdsworth’s Occupy the Port of Oakland (2011) is a bright pastel palette of folks walking towards the sunlight, and Jessica Jirsa’s Closing of the Ports (2011) is a colorful cartoon-like gathering of characters.
After looking at the painting show, I turned around to discover the Mr. and Mrs. George F. Jewett, Jr. Exhibit Gallery and an exhibit titled A Little Piece of Mexico: The Postcards of Guillermo Kahlo and His Contemporaries. In a place like a library, the contributing parties to making the show possible are a paragraph in itself. Here’s who is billed as presenting the show: The San Francisco Public Library, the Consulate General of Mexico in San Francisco, the Department of Latina/Latino Studies in the College of Ethnic Studies and the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs of San Francisco State University, and City Lights Foundation. Wow!
The exhibition makes a fantastic case that the cultural identity of Mexico was shaped by the popularity of the photo postcard at the turn of the 20th century. With images from international photographers like Guillermo Kahlo, Abel Briquet, F. Leon, and CB Waite, the exhibition honors the iconic images that undoubtedly shaped the current contemporary branding of Mexico’s visual identity. The significance of this show to the local Mexican and Mexican-American population is palpable, while also revealing the country’s heavy influence on San Francisco’s own architecture and landscape design.
As I walked upstairs to check out a show about tennis, I noticed another show with fabulous architectural renderings. An exhibition titled UNBUILT: San Francisco spans five venues throughout the city and presents proposals for various buildings and urban spaces within the city that were never realized. My dad is an architect, so genetically so am I, and so this show was really interesting to me. Architects also have the best handwriting in the world, so there’s something about architecture and text that is always aesthetically amazing. As a resident and avid walker of SF for almost five years, I genuinely appreciated seeing these renderings and sketches for spaces that I’ve come to call home — it’s like walking into an artist’s studio or flipping through your old sketch book and seeing thoughts and ideas for past work that just never made it off the page.
Finally, and coincidentally enough for me as a blogger for a blog called Bad at Sports, there were two exhibitions highlighting sports — They Were First: African Americans in Sports and Breaking the Barriers: The ATA and Black Tennis Pioneers. Both exhibitions provide a more historical context (rather than visual) of the obstacles and triumphs of a marginalized group of athletes. Simple timelines line the walls of the library with photos and text reminiscent of a history museum show or even the waiting lobby to the “Soarin’ Over California” ride at Disneyland.
The best part of this entire SF Public Library multi-exhibition day was seeing artwork from the winners of an art contest for kids coinciding with Breaking the Barriers. Northern California kids aged 7 to 18 were asked to portray how they have broken barriers. As cynical as I’ve become now that I’m 30, there will always be a special place in my life in memory of the art opportunities I got when I was a kid. Growing up, my suburban New Jersey town offered plenty of art opportunities for kids that I completely devoured: art classes at school, annual art exhibitions at the mall, and contests for different purposes like a banner at an elementary school or the yearbook cover or the town’s New Year’s Eve celebration logo. How many high school students enroll in AP Art or go through the lengthy submission process for a college art application? It’s awesome that the library exhibition included this artistic component for the local kids, and its something I believe will be a special introduction for every participant, especially the winners. Watch out Hugo Boss Prize 2035!
Conclusion? Who knew a day at the library could be so fun and artsy!
Last week, I had a fascinating conversation with Lacey Haslam of Oakland-based BLOCK Gallery and artist Kari Marboe regarding their newest project titled Latham Memorial Fountain Unveiled. Six months ago, they connected over email and by November, BLOCK will be presenting Kari’s site-specific public artwork in Oakland’s downtown area — specifically on the site known as Latham Square.
It wasn’t until half way through our conversation that I realized that we were sitting in Latham Square, just a few feet away from the site-specific building windows that would house Kari’s artwork. Kari shared fascinating stories and trivia tidbits about the small section of the city known as Latham Square, which was named after the late-19th century pioneer family of James and Henrietta, and their children Milton and Edith. The family had fueled money and programming into Oakland, including education for children on animal rights. One hundred years ago, Milton and Edith created a memorial fountain to their parents that was for “both man and beast”. The incredibly historical Latham Fountain now sits in Latham Square – sans running water – as a source of inspiration for Kari’s newest work.
Jeffrey: So what’s BLOCK Gallery all about?
Lacey: BLOCK started experimenting in 2010, playing with the on-going question of what happens when we move artwork outside of the white wall gallery space — thinking about the function of art outside traditional institutions, whether that’s museums or galleries. What BLOCK aims to do is tap into the function of art, and activating art from a more inclusive and educational place. What started as an experiment turned into site-specific exhibitions, meaning curating the work based on what’s happening in the space and using the context of the space as the content of the exhibition. What this approach ends up doing is providing an outlet for not only the artist to exhibit work — maybe it’s a piece that they have already created or it’s a piece that responds to the space — but exhibiting concepts the artists are already working with and putting it in a space that anyone can walk into or by and say, “oh this relates to me because I’m interested in this idea as well”.
J: So where are you now, three years later?
L: BLOCK is now moving into public space. It now has two different spaces — the alternative spaces with full-on rotating exhibitions and now the public space, and that’s where Kari’s coming in as an artist who also incorporates public spaces in her practice. These exhibitions are free, public, 24/7 — I mean, there are no hours associated with when you can view the work. You are not walking into a well-lit cube between the hours of 10 AM and 6 PM; rather you are walking down the street or stumbling upon them by happenstance.
J: How did you meet Kari? How did you guys hook up?
L: She actually reached out because she saw what BLOCK was doing. She was interested in the program that BLOCK was building and said, “hey, here’s my work, maybe we can pull together some projects”. I looked at her portfolio and it was exactly what I was looking for — she works site-specifically, in the public sphere, but she also draws on what’s happening in that space. Since our first meeting she has been fully involved in the entire process.
J: So Kari, how did you get to know of the BLOCK sort of “thing” that was happening?
Kari: I first heard about BLOCK while I was just finishing up my MFA over at UC Berkeley. I had been creating site-specific text-based installations during my time there.
J: “Site-specific text-based”?
K: Artworks designed conceptually and physically for a particular space, and in my case made with text. For example, during our thesis exhibition I worked with Dena Beard to find a public and easily accessible spot outside of the Berkeley Art Museum to place a piece. She suggested taking over one of the panels outside of the museum on Bancroft which is normally used for internal advertising on upcoming exhibitions or events and found a 4’x4′ panel that was available during the time we needed. So I wrote a piece that talked about being exactly in that space, the motions of coming in and out of the museum, in poem form so people could sit down on one of the benches across from the work and enjoy it for a while. The label for the work was displayed right as you were walking out of the museum, so people were stopping and asking, “where is this piece of art, it’s not the Calder, where is it”. Another piece I worked for that show was with the East Bay Express.
J: The newspaper?
K: Yep, the free newspaper that comes out weekly. They were so kind and donated rectangular advertising space to me for seven consecutive weeks. My collaborator Erin Johnson jumped on board and we made a series of seven squares that spoke about the nature and functions of a newspaper. That was a fun project, especially since it was free and available to everyone. While I was working on that, I also spent a lot of time online, seeing what other people were doing with sites and where my text work could fit in. I somehow ran into BLOCK Gallery and it was exactly the type of thing I was looking for. I had never heard of a site-specific gallery before, or at least not one in the area, and was immediately interested in meeting the person behind it.
J: What was that advertising or marketing for BLOCK?
L: Gosh, at that point, it was very minimal. It started by hooking up with Oakland event calendars and bare-bone sites to say, “hey, I’m a program in Oakland and this is what I do”. It hasn’t been easy to put words to this type of program, instead I had to just do it, letting the installation images and the curatorial statements piece it all together.
J: So Kari, take me through that process of contacting Lacey.
K: After looking at BLOCK’s website I decided to send her an email with some links to my work. We got together and brainstormed on the types of sites that would be exciting to work with. While looking around in downtown Oakland we stumbled across Latham Square just before the City of Oakland and ReBar started their Pilot Project there.
L: In our first meeting, I mentioned wanting to do something in that little triangle where Broadway and Telegraph spilt — we didn’t know it had a name then. After seeing the Pilot Project and realizing that it did not involve any artwork — other than the street paintings — we started thinking about how to get in touch with the City, ReBar, what the logistics of doing a work there might be, what would a project there look like, and how could we help add to this newly pedestrian space.
J: So what is Latham Square? Are the Lathams an Oakland-based family?
K: I’m glad you asked.
L: Yes, here it comes!
K: When we thought we might be interested in doing the project here I went to the Oakland History Room of the Oakland Public Library — wait, have you ever been in that room?
K: Oh my goodness, it’s worth a visit! They have a specific room and librarian for all-things-Oakland on the second floor. The first librarian I met was already familiar with the Lathams and instantly pulled the files of James, the father, and Edith, the daughter.
J: So interesting! I just got the chills.
K: I know! They also have a database with scanned articles from the Oakland Tribune. I was able to search around and found an amazing article from April 10, 1913, that described a great deal about the fountain and the dedication ceremony. I mean everything from the color of the granite to Mr. Latham’s first job. The title of this piece – Latham Memorial Fountain Unveiled – is the same as the article’s title.
Kari continues to share the fabulous history of the Lathams. It is so fabulous that it has become the driving concept behind her installation. Text here would do no justice, and rather, a visit to the work of art would be most appropriate.
K: What I’m interested in is taking this history and creating a piece that combines that story — specifically the desires of motives of the Latham children for building the fountain — with themes of how the memories of citizens are preserved within city structures over time. It’s been just over a hundred years since the fountain was installed.
L: And at a certain point this piece will become part of Latham Square’s history as well.
J: Can you talk about some of the logistics of the piece?
K: Oh, boy. Site-specific pieces are about eighty-percent logistics and twenty-percent art making.
L: It’s been email after email, meeting after meeting. It’s an ongoing evolution. You don’t want to start on finalizing the actual artwork because so much can change.
J: Any details of those emails or meetings?
K: Well, we knew we had to talk to the Downtown Oakland Association.
L: The Downtown Oakland Association oversees a lot of different departments. Their main mission focuses on getting Oakland to be a more livable, more beautiful, more active, safer city. For example, they do the hanging plants on the lights, they have solar integrated trash compactors — great solution to any city’s trash management.
K: They have a certain amount of funding allocated for projects like ours. For instance, they helped Art Murmur get off the ground and have been sponsoring the Great Wall where large-scale video projections happen.
L: What’s fascinating about Oakland is that there is so much energy around the city’s re-identification through art, to position it as an exciting and relevant cultural hub. The crowds that turned out in the early days for the Art Murmur activated Oakland in a certain way, and now that First Friday has hit a plateau, I think there’s a lot of room for growth at this point. There is a ballooning need to gather around art again.
J: What’s BLOCK’s position in the Oakland art scene?
L: BLOCK is designed to be fluid on every aspect. When you’re not tied to a space, you’re not worried about the on-going programming of that one space. Being able to break away from that idea and bring art to a community or to places that people will frequent, and being able to use art as a sort of bridge for a new experience. In essence, the program is about activating art, activating space to further the experience. So, why is BLOCK in Oakland? That’s a fascinating question. There’s something here, there’s an energy here that San Francisco has, but it translates in a very different way. Oakland is primed for growth, has a sense of opportunity. The people we’ve come in contact with here have an authentic, raw enthusiasm for it. I haven’ seen that in any other space or city.
Latham Memorial Fountain Unveiled will be presented from November 1, 2013 to April 2014. For more information, visit http://www.block-gallery.com/locations/public-space/lathamunveiled
Last Saturday turned out to be one of the hottest days of the year in San Francisco. For anyone who doesn’t know, summer doesn’t arrive in this city until after Labor Day. Cashmere scarves and knit sweaters are all the rage in July, and by September the temperature and trends shift to hot days filled with sangria, tank tops and maxi dresses. I enjoyed the weather with a stroll through the galleries in downtown Union Square.
A couple months ago I wrote about the 49 Geary building in San Francisco’s Union Square, but the neighborhood is home to other galleries in separate buildings. After living in this city for several years, I realized that this would be my first time to some of these spaces. Passing through the hoards of tourists and a peaceful protest for Syria, I arrived at Gallery Paule Anglim. And what luck I had walking in and up the stairs, as Ms. Anglim herself was walking down the stairs and out, clearly in a rush to get away from the uncomfortable indoor heat this climate change has caused.
Regardless of the weather, which is never a topic of conversation in SF until this very month, it was a delight to see paintings by Pamela Wilson-Ryckman in an exhibition titled GPS. From the exhibition statement: “Precise knowledge of location gives one the illusion of control but knowing exactly where you are doesn’t necessarily mean you are in a good place. Rather than location it is often the experience of place that matters. How much information does one need to reconstruct a memory or sense of place? The answer is — not that much, imagination fills the gap”. I was most interested in Geppetto’s Jacket (2013) and it’s glaring painterly techniques, creating so much dimension of space for that “imagination”.
Out the door and on to the next, I visited for the first time Dolby Chadwick Gallery. As soon as I walked in, the speakers on the gallery desk were playing fun reggae music that fit perfectly with the tropical feeling in the air. It was a relaxing Saturday in the gallery — if I had to work I would be playing the same music! Guy Diehl’s awesome exhibition A Dialogue with Tradition sported realist paintings of still lifes that any art nerd could really appreciate. Some objects include books and postcards of historical works of art. From the exhibition statement: “his work is first and foremost ‘art about art,’ the lynchpin of his paintings is their references to other artworks”. After taking the postcard for the exhibition, I realized that my new favorite thing would be taking pictures of art and its exhibition postcard.
And once again, I was off to the next space I had never been to before until that day, the lovely two-story John Berggruen Gallery. Two shows were up: The Grand Anonymous by Linda Ridgway and the other of Important Works on Paper from the Past Forty Years by Chuck Close. I fell in love with Ridgway’s But the secret sits in the middle and knows (2011) — a bronze wall sculpture of blackened flowers — for its transcendence above kitsch. Sadly, it was already sold.
When I walked down to the main gallery level, I felt like I had walked into an old world Soho: 4 giant Chuck Close watercolors. But I’m a sucker for mixed media collage, so Study for “Keith”/4 times (1975) got me all riled up with excitement.
Finally, I stopped into Caldwell Synder Gallery and its ridiculously hip show by Marta Penter. The space itself goes on for days and it perfectly compliments Penter’s muted paintings of American culture just being alive and chillin’ and laughin’ and lovin’ and wearin’ jeans and listen’ to tunes. I’m reminded of Levi’s and Gap and wonder if she’s collaborated with either company, as they’ve been headquartered in San Francisco forever.
Like I had mentioned in my 49 Geary post, it’s hard to disassociate the art from the status of Union Square as the high-end shopping district of San Francisco. Several galleries in the city started off in the downtown area only to later move out to other less commercial areas. I, for one, love the play between art and commerce and luxury brands and cultural demand. I don’t mind that my art stroll can be stopped by seeing a fabulous abstract work of art in a window, or a fabulous contemporary Bang & Olufsen sound system. In the end, they’re both going to end up sharing space in someone’s living room.
I recently saw the trailer for Woody Allen’s new movie Blue Jasmine starring Cate Blanchett. There was an exterior shot of a cafe on the block I live on in the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco. I pass that cafe almost everyday and I never considered it to be so dramatic until I saw it in the trailer. I was reminded how vibrant the Mission is, and so I decided to take a walk around the neighborhood to visit some great art spots.
The Mission is a cool place — home to a dense Mexican community that is quickly becoming consumed by white affluent hipsters. Lots of homeless people in puffy down jackets slowly push shopping carts on Mission Street past tipsy Marina bros wearing aviators and the latest salmon-colored shorts. “Artisanal” is in the name of the game in this area, with highly priced food, home, and decor products in shops along Valencia Street.
The booming tech scene has spawned the tech renaissance populated by well-educated and well-paid 20 and 30-somethings that have injected the city with so much money that San Francisco has become one of the most expensive places to live in the United States. Private commuter bus lines for employees of companies like Apple, Facebook, and Google weave through the Mission, attracting very competitive rental fees on new and old luxury apartments.
Sprinkled throughout this urban grid are several art venues. From private galleries to non-profit spaces, the Mission is an eclectic mix as diverse as its inhabitants. The tech folk have yet to share and indulge their economic prosperity with the artistic community of the Mission, but eventually some kind of connection will be made. Until then, these art venues continue to produce and shape an active voice in the shape of San Francisco’s cultural identity albeit in the shadow of technology’s spotlight.
Just two blocks from the cafe in Blue Jasmine is the artist-run space Root Division. Several of my classmates from grad school have had or currently have studio space there. From the website: “Root Division is a visual arts non-profit that connects creativity and community through a dynamic ecosystem of arts education, exhibitions, & studios”. The space constantly holds calls for submissions and proposals for future shows and delivers a wide range of educational programming. My favorite is their annual juried exhibition titled Introductions. I’m a sucker for healthy art competition and the debut of emerging artists!
During my visit, I got a chance to check out the group show Electronic Pacific Satellite curated by Justin Charles Hoover. Digital and time-based media fill the space, but I’m still a fan of a standout like Gabby Miller’s Logistics from Sea to Land (For Giang and Nam) (2012). A large section of a steel shipping container is painted blue on one side and leans against a wall. Miller quotes a text from Marc Levin’s “The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger” that traces the shipping connection between the US and Vietnam. I giggle when I relate the shipping container to the enormous private tech busses passing through the Mission.
Some blocks away, I see Southern Exposure. From the website: “Our good friends THE THING will be in residence at Southern Exposure for the month of August before transitioning into their new Tenderloin storefront this fall. Six years ago, THE THING launched their first issue at SoEx; it’s only fitting that they return for the completion of their 20th, conceived by Tauba Auerbach. A wrapping party for the 20th issue will be hosted by SoEx on August 15″. The last time I was at SoEx, I participated in a wrapping party for the 19th issue by David Shrigley. This space is all about collaboration and sharing with passionate artists throughout the city.
I keep walking and I see Kadist, but its doors were closed this day. From the website: “Kadist Art Foundation encourages the contribution of the arts to society, conducting programs primarily with artists represented in its collection to promote their role as cultural agents. Kadist’s collections and productions reflect the global scope of contemporary art, and its programs develop collaborations between Kadist’s local contexts (Paris, San Francisco) and artists, curators and art institutions worldwide”. One night a couple years ago, Tony Labat invited several artists to share YouTube videos in this space. We all gathered around a projection screen and watched a variety of odd, funny, weird, informative, and emotional videos. The evening became the contemporary equivalent of an ancient scene of storytelling around a blazing fire.
After passing a yoga studio or two, I finally end my wandering on a block with two private galleries: Steven Wolf Fine Arts and Guerrero Gallery. I have an affinity for Steven’s gallery because I exhibited in the space last year. The first gallery room hosts Richard Kamler’s Twelve Food Trays on Ikea Shelves (1999 — Present). The gunmetal-colored objects display the last food item requests from death row prisoners. It’s quiet in the room, and spooky and grey and I know in the other room there is a working sculpture of an electric chair by Philip Zimmerman, so I get a little uncomfortable and I quietly back out of the gallery and cross the street.
Across the street at Guerrero Gallery, Adam Feibelman shows a bunch of artwork in an exhibition titledÂ Do with Me as You Will. While the space is naturally bright and airy like Steven’s gallery, there’s a different, lighter feeling in here. Maybe it’s the hand-cut paper pieces in pretty frames that seem more familiar in a gallery space. There’s sewing thread and pattern and images of cityscapes, so I think that it could be quite uplifting, until I consider the brown edges of the cutouts to be burnt and suddenly everything looks very spooky and ghost-like. What an intense block of artwork!
A couple hours of walking in the Mission can bring you face-to-face with the contemporary art scene of San Francisco. The sun is always shining, and it’s particularly rewarding when it seems like the rest of the city is covered in fog. Every space has an interesting perspective and is consistently delivering the kind of work that local artists enjoy making, and local audience members enjoy discussing. Now let’s try to get the tech folk to check it out!
This week: Our faithful correspondent Patricia Maloney sat down with former US Congressman Pat Williams and his son Griff Willams at Gallery 16 in San Francisco earlier this month to discuss the turbulence of the Culture Wars during the late ’80s and early ’90s. Patricia finally learned how legislating works in a conversation that ran the gamut from explaining Piss Christ to conservative parents and why Poker Jim Butte is the best place to catch some Shakespeare to how the NEA is vital to cultural production in rural communities and why now might be the moment to demand the return of federal grants for individual artists.
Rep. Pat Williams, who served Montana as its U.S. Congressman for nine terms, from 1979-1997, was Chairman of the House Committee that oversaw fiscal authorization for the NEA. He was one of the most vocal champions for Federal Arts Funding and has been credited for saving the NEA at a time when it was threatened with extermination by the religious Right. When the National Endowment for the Arts came under attack for subsidizing what some legislators considered sexually explicit art, Williams led the fight to save the agency. â€œAs long as the federal government can support the arts without interfering with their content, government can indeed play a meaningful part in trying to encourage the arts,â€ Williams told The New York Times. â€œThe genius of the NEA has been that the peer- review panels, made up of local folks, chose art and artists by using criteria based upon quality and excellence, never touching subject matter.â€
â€œHe was a tireless and fearless supporter of the arts,â€ reports John Frohnmayer, who served as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts during that tumultuous era. â€œHe risked his political career in doing so.â€ Frohnmayer recalls that Williams â€œcalled out the congressional critics of the Endowment for their duplicity and moral posturing.â€