Every three years the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts takes stock of the art scene in the Bay Area. Always a snapshot of an active and ever-changing world, the triennial has featured work by the famous, the obscure and the soon-to-be famous since 1997, curated by the good folks at the center itself (with a little help from friends).
This year, they chose to do something different. Sending out an open call late in 2013 for proposals from independents, YBCA passed curatorial duties on to people closer to the ground (meaning small to mid-size spaces and curatorial projects), choosing 15 out of the 50 exhibition proposals received.
This was an interesting move, especially given the region’s current situation, where bad news and economic hardship form a steady rhythm to a song of contraction and closure of art spaces in the Bay Area. The seventh edition of Bay Area Now adds a counter melody to that tune, demonstrating that the region’s famous innovative spirit and creativity are still alive and kicking.
Instead of bringing diverse artists together to form one portrait of the Bay Area, we get 15 different visions (and over 100 artists), creating a kaleidoscope that includes the large and the small, but remains oddly coherent — and surprisingly low-key. I would have expected a loud clutter from so many curators sharing space, but the show is sparse. Most of the exhibitions, which are all given their own separate spaces, are very focused and even minimalist when compared to years past.
Taking this to an extreme, Pied-à-terre’s McIntyre Parker decided to hang just one piece, a small, white-on-white construction by Teresa Baker in the middle of his dedicated space on the museum’s second floor. The gesture is a tiny bit of quiet. When I was there, with the gallery empty, it made me consider the space around the image, the places where the carpet has been stitched together and the patterns of wear that reflect multiple uses of the gallery over time. I am not sure that this piece will even be noticed when the museum is full. It felt like a bold move, but also a bit of a middle finger flipped. Then again, I appreciate Parker’s willingness to stand by just one object, subjecting it to unaccompanied scrutiny. Is less less or is it more? (Who knows?)
Maybe it’s my own personal lens, but I couldn’t help but see a reaction to the current economic debate at play behind much of the work. The challenging economy isn’t being addressed directly; instead, it’s seen in the practice of presenting work in small alternative spaces. It’s kind of a “where there’s a will, there’s a way” movement, reflecting and reviving the Bay Area’s DIY spirit.
Betti-Sue Hertz, YBCA’s Director of Visual Arts, says, “What’s exciting is that, no matter what the economy, people have a desire and a passion to curate exhibitions and work with artists to present artwork.” The curators behind Bay Area Now participants n/a, Pied-a-terre and [2nd floor projects] have all created exhibition spaces in their own apartments. Similarly, Stairwell’s identifies transitional spaces — like stairwells and hallways, spaces that you travel through to get from one place to another — and commissions new works to fit into those often unconsidered locations. True to form, they have taken over the main staircase that connects the museum’s first and second floor galleries, presenting Amy M. Ho’s meditation on a stairwell on top and beside the stairs and Mike Rothfeld’s paper mache alien egg forms wrapped underneath. (Potential for favoritism alert: Sarah Hotchkiss, half of the Stairwell’s curatorial team, with Carey Lin, covers visual art for KQED.)
And of course, Adobe Books Backroom Gallery has historically presented some of the best contemporary art in the Bay Area out of the back room of a bookstore, which has undergone numerous challenges and a relocation in recent years. They get the back room of the exhibition and present a beautiful multi-colored wood installation dedicated to the artist Shawn Whisenant, who died at age 32 this past March. (Another potential for favored treatment alert: that installation and three really fun “hugging chairs” that look like stuffed animals with big arms to wrap around whoever sits in them was produced by KQED’s own Kristin Farr with her husband Jeff Meadows.) Adobe’s space really reflects the personality of their usual gig, but with just a little more space to stretch out in. An installation by Erik Otto, a sound sculpture by Marc Kate and Brian Tester and large, colored-in silhouettes and funny wall texts by Lori Gordon — “today I feel like the earth is shrinking” — round out their show in a really satisfying way.
Another thread that runs through the presentation is the issue of labor — and again, revealing the labor behind the making and mounting of an exhibition is particularly crucial during this period. Dispelling the ideas that art is a hobby, that art is somehow not important to the local economy or that art isn’t really work is especially important just now. People who think such things have obviously never made art or witnessed what it takes to mount a large exhibition.
The Bay Area Art Workers Alliance (BAAWA) is a loose association of over 125 artists who work as on-call installers, preparators, conservators, and framers for institutions around the Bay. All of the work in their section is made from the materials, leftovers, traces and tools used to mount an exhibition. Listing all of their members, instead of just those who participated in the creation of the exhibition, the group questions the idea of authorship, especially as arts workers and installers within the museum setting.
At the risk of pissing off the local guild of art preparators (an exceedingly bad idea on my part), this presentation didn’t look fully cooked. My reaction proves how out of sync I am with the zeitgeist of Bay Area art; I polled fellow curators in the show about which exhibition they were most excited to see and the majority (perhaps wisely) pointed to this one.
But I have always had a hard time with the “conceptual pile of detritus” school of art. While some parts of the exhibition felt finished and were actually quite witty representations of the materials used to put together exhibits — a packing blanket that reminded me of a Rothko, for example — other parts just ended up looking random. I understand the desire to reveal the work behind the mounting of an exhibition, but it strikes me as odd that the folks responsible for making other artists’ work sing through attention to detail and finish would create something so UN-finished looking. The presentation needed just one final step to be successful for me; it needed to feel not finished, but completed.
I also didn’t get into the other piece that was generating advance buzz. I appreciated the concept behind diRosa’s Floris Shönfeld piece, but the presentation of videos of a vampire-inspired LARP (Live Action Role Play) game called Sanguine Dreams played over several nights on the grounds of the Napa art preserve just wasn’t that engaging. It felt like one of those “you had to be there” situations, and since I wasn’t there, I didn’t particularly want to go.
Another group, Important Projects, filled a wall with an uneven grid of funny and whimsical painted ads for previous shows presented in its Oakland gallery. The second half of their project also engages the labor behind a working museum; they have created an interactive mural that will be filled in over time by the center’s staff. Once completed, the mural will be left in place and painted over, saved perhaps for future excavation.
Several groups chose to present the work of just one artist. True to their mission of presenting the monumental (often within monuments, like the upcoming Ai Weiwei exhibition on Alcatraz), the For Site Foundation is showing three large sculptures by Nathan Lynch. They are blobby, big, beautifully lit, and colorful enough that you want to do a little dance around them.
SF’s Chinese Culture Foundation has a room devoted to Summer Lee’s video installation called Into the Nearness of Distance, which consists of two poetic black and white projections on sheets of gauze that float in the middle of a darkened room. Lee’s work is about failure, not a popular subject in the Chinese community, but most particularly her failure as a mixed-race artist to connect with her Chinese roots and a culture that she is not particularly rooted in. Notably, both Lee and Stairwell’s artist Amy M. Ho have concurrent shows mounted at the Chinese Culture Center and Et. Al respectively. (Et. Al is another of those above-mentioned spaces that presents art in unexpected places, situated as it is in the basement below a dry cleaner on the outskirts of SF’s Chinatown.)
Margaret Tedesco, on the other hand, just friggin’ went for it and decided to mount a bona fide museum show, something she cannot do in her usual exhibition space. And it kicks ass. Titled EROS/ON, Tedesco’s exhibition “unites the work of four Bay Area artists (Daniel Case, Nicolaus Chaffin, Johnny Ray Huston, the late Curt McDowell) in a provocative dialogue concerning the erasure of queer lineage.” The exhibition space is shared by photographer Case and sculptor Chaffin. Case’s large-scale landscape photos document well-known Northern California beach and park cruising spots, capturing the telltale signs of illicit activity. Chaffin’s sculptures are a little more enigmatic when it comes to the theme. Made of inner tubes and burned wooden posts, they are roughly constructed rafts, which may, I suppose, express a makeshift identity adrift at sea. Tedesco’s gallery exhibition will be supplemented with a screening of films by infamous Bay Area gay filmmaker Curt McDowell, along with a reading by Huston of works inspired by the films.
There are several other organizations not included in this evaluation. With 15 different curatorial visions represented, it would be hard to cover everything. Your ticket for entry does buy the opportunity to see 5 panels (out of 16) of a rarely-seen (outside of prison walls) mural made by inmates at San Quentin. We will have more on that in a separate piece about the San Quentin Prison Arts Project tomorrow.
Bay Area Now includes a film series and a whole slew of performances as well, tonight’s opening of the gallery show is just the beginning. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ triennial exhibition of Bay Area contemporary art runs July 18 through October 5, 2014. For more information, visit ybca.org.