Things were bit groovier in 1970, when the San Francisco Arts Commission founded a gallery space called “Capricorn Asunder” at 155 Grove Street. Think about it: can you imagine a city agency in the San Francisco of 2016 naming anything after an astrological sign, let alone adorning its doors with images of a fish-tailed goat?
Times got less groovy, of course. But the SFAC Gallery continued its programming in what we know as the Grove Street Window Gallery — until the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 and a temporary move to the War Memorial Veterans Building in 1996. “Temporary” stretched for 17 years, until the Veterans Building closed its doors for a two-year, $160 million seismic retrofitting project in 2013.
The SFAC Gallery reopens after this long hiatus on Friday, Jan. 22 with 2,400 square-feet of exhibition space just down the hall from its old quarters in the northeast corner of the building. With expanded gallery space, the opening encompasses a new commission, a small solo show and a 10-person group exhibition.
The first of the three is Enter: 126, a yearly series set to transform a nondescript glass-doored entryway into something that better telegraphs, “This is an art space, come look!”
A collaboration between architect Annette Jannotta and media artist Olivia Ting, Coalescence, as the entryway installation is titled, reuses packing tubes from the gallery’s new lighting system. Silent video shot within the Veterans Building projects across the cylindrical surfaces as they hang from the ceiling. Resembling giant wind chimes or the disembodied tubes of a pipe organ, Coalescence hovers between representation and abstraction, gently flickering an invitation to hallway passersby.
Moving inside, the SFAC Gallery next hosts a small tribute to the late artist Susan O’Malley in the form of photographs of her projects, three video pieces and a wall of colorful text-filled posters. The videos A Few Yards in San Jose and How to be an Artist-in-Residence in San Jose show O’Malley as a merry prankster messing around in suburban San Jose. She uses turquoise garden hoses, cloud-shaped bushes and tire swings in tightly-edited and wonderfully silly vignettes. They’re vivid demonstrations of O’Malley embodying the sentiments similar to those she later gathered in the series Advice From My Eighty-Year-Old Self, a collection of imperatives published by Chronicle Books and installed as bus kiosk posters up and down Market Street this month.
Shifting from an intimate memorial-like display to the gallery’s larger exhibition space and a completely separate show is a bit jarring. The walls open up, with tall windows facing McAllister Street. The elaborately titled Bring it Home: (Re)Locating Cultural Legacy Through the Body fills the expanded gallery space with everything from a wall drawing to textile works to projected video.
Co-curated by SFAC Galleries director Meg Shiffler and independent curator Kevin B. Chen, Bring it Home brings together artists looking at the body as a site of struggle and reconciliation. Human figures abound. Jeremiah Barber’s rice paper and ink doppelgänger melts into a black pedestal for Half Mass. A woman sweeps away colonial architecture in Ranu Mukherjee’s hybrid video Home and the World. In Summer Mei Ling Lee’s Into the Nearness of Distance III, cyanotype on cheesecloth images of her family members, already only visible from an angle, will slowly fade as they expose to sunlight.
Other works reference bodies through absence. Guillermo Gómez-Peña, who will perform at the gallery on March 11, contributes a quote from In Defence of Performance Art as wall vinyl. “Our main artwork is our own body…” it reads in part. Vic De La Rosa’s serapes convey messages both for and about the Mexican-American experience. One reads, simply, “assimilate.”
But sometimes the bodies aren’t even human. Carolyn Janssen’s phenomenal In any case, you are always there, a triptych print on panel over a wall-sized background image depicts tiny, often grotesque figures in a fantastical digital landscape; Hieronymus Bosch meets Second Life. Zeina Barakeh’s six-minute video Homeland Insecurity unfolds as centaurs invade a land of anthropomorphic horses to the glitchy beat of a synthetic drum. And Tsherin Sherpa’s brilliantly-hued 54 Views of Wisdom and Compassionresembles a giant sliding block puzzle, the shuffled image of a blue god with red-rimmed eyes.
With a calendar of public events scheduled throughout the exhibition, the SFAC Gallery is eager to reassert the War Memorial Veterans Building as its home base after two years “asunder.” The gallery’s mission, to make contemporary art accessible to broad audiences, will be better served in this new, larger floorplan. More business-as-usual than splashy grand reopening, the three opening exhibitions ground the programming with established local names and introduce a few welcome newcomers, but the most exciting thing about the whole space might simply be that there’s more of it.
The San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery grand opening celebration takes place Friday, Jan. 22, 6-9pm. Bring it Home: (Re)Locating Cultural Legacy Through the Body and Do More of What You Love are on view through May 7, 2016. Enter: 126 Coalescence is on view through Dec. 17, 2016. For more information visit sfartscommission.org/gallery.