The second exhibition at the San Francisco Arts Commission’s newly reopened main gallery space, housed inside the War Memorial Veterans Building, expands on its inaugural showing of just 10 Bay Area artists with Chain Reaction 12, a group show of 21 photographers, sculptors, video artists, painters and uncategorizable makers.
If that sounds like a lot of artists, it is. But in the airy new gallery, objects’ proximity to each other fosters a sense of camaraderie rather than crowding. The conceit of the Chain Reaction series is a chain letter of sorts. Seven initial entities, ranging from arts professionals to nonprofit galleries, selected one artist each. Those artists then each selected another fellow artist, and those fellows selected a final set of seven.
The seven “chains” create intriguing visual connections across generational and material lines, plotting a network of friends, inspirations and mentorships throughout San Francisco’s many art scenes. The arrangement of the exhibition, organized by SFAC associate curator Jackie Im and independent curator Alice Wu, positions particular chains next to or near one another for certain connections to become more apparent.
Transgressing gender binaries and celebrating decorative opulence, the exhibition begins with Craig Calderwood’s bedazzled puffy paint portrait of artist Nicki Green. (Get up close, you won’t regret it.) Then, Green’s own glazed urns, adorned with wreaths of chanterelle mushrooms and delicate illustrations, stand in front. The third member of their chain, Julz Hale Mary, smiles out of a photograph around the corner, wearing a wedding dress covered with the repeated phrase “he promised he would change,” hands clasped around calla lilies.
The chain started by 2nd floor projects’ Margaret Tedesco yields the most cohesive visual grouping, with two cut fabric collages from Anne McGuire, a painting by Bruno Fazzolari that bursts colorfully from the center of the linen canvas, and Wayne Smith’s Nascent, a saturated print resembling a striped sunset reflected over water.
Despite the fact that the 21 artists of Chain Reaction 12 share only addresses within San Francisco city limits (the show’s one prerequisite), certain visual elements emerge across groupings, including the curious domed shape seen in Smith’s print, Justine Rivas’ painting Sure no Problem. Take Care of Yourself, and Francesco Igory Deiana’s graphite on cardstock work Untitled (Haptic 06).
The range of subject matter, tone and media within the exhibition is sometimes disorienting, but these are juxtapositions one likely wouldn’t encounter in a more traditionally curated show. On opposite ends of the humor spectrum, Jonn Herschend’s music video for a Danish train station’s “official song” is gleefully silly, while Omar Mismar’s 11-hour video (subtitled An unfinished monument) is an abstract and somber memorial to civilians killed by Israeli bombing in Gaza.
If any summations can be drawn out of Chain Reaction 12, one is that art still exists in San Francisco, a city increasingly in danger of containing no artists at all. While there’s something affirming in this, there’s also an awful lot of 2D work in the show (Nicki Green, May Wilson, Binta Ayofemi and Taraneh Hemami provide the only sculptures), possibly symptomatic of the city’s space crunch.
At the same time, just a block away at 155 Grove Street, the SFAC’s Window Gallery contains an homage to artists who have left San Francisco, an installation by Ma Li. In Wish You Could Have Seen This, people who once contributed to San Francisco’s culture broadcast their messages back to Civic Center via Morse code. At night, images of the work they’re making elsewhere is projected in the window gallery.
While both Chain Reaction 12 and Wish You Could Have Seen This make tangible the networks that artists create to support and inspire one another, only one of them is optimistic about the future of visual culture in this city. Choose your viewing order wisely.
Chain Reaction 12 is on view at the San Francisco Arts Commisison Gallery through Oct. 15 and Wish You Could Have Seen This is on view at 155 Grove Street through Sept. 2. For more information visit sfartscommission.org.