Categorized | Reviews

Mission School @ San Francisco Art Institute

Barry McGee, Untitled, ca. 1999-2013, Paint on wood panel, 46 x 90"
Behind most worthy exhibitions lies a question, a line of inquiry that has intrigued the curator enough so that she willingly dedicates several months to pursue the research necessary for at least a preliminary answer. Natasha Boas’ exhibition, ENERGY THAT IS ALL AROUND, is an almost savagely thorough exposition of the work of five now middle-aged artists who emerged simultaneously in San Francisco in the early 1990s.
The looming question about this group, known widely as the Mission School, is: what does it mean to call a group of young artists a school, or a movement, or circle, clique or even group?
Chris Johanson, Margaret Kilgallen, Alicia McCarthy, Barry McGee, and Ruby Neri, lived in the Mission District of San Francisco throughout most of the 1990s and soon became thought of as a school. They shared a number of aesthetic values: in particular their work never could be found on fresh new art supplies. Rather, they chose to paint or draw on cheap, faded, stained and torn commercial paper, or pieces of quarter-inch plywood or doorskin found discarded in the street or at construction sites, or on walls, fences and freight trains.

Chris Johanson, This Conceptual Art Is An Energy Explosion About Positive Energy, 2002, Acrylic on birch panel; 60 x 60"

Secondly, their drawing styles were improvised, fugitive, rejecting of the abilities of a traditional skilled hand, and came soaked in arcane social histories, whether of surfing, skating, hoboing, or folk music, typography and design. When figurative, the work was influenced by comix, and it reflected the grittiest parts of urban life lived in post-student poverty.  They were the same age, lived the same way, in the same neighborhoods, liked or studied with the same artists, were aware of each other, and were inspired to try to top each other as their work became known. Many second-generation Mission School-inspired artists came along or were publically associated with them or might have been, until international travelling shows like Beautiful Losers solidified their reputation, and curators in New York like Ann Philbin, then of the Drawing Center, and Jeffrey Deitch, gave many of them exposure there. 

Boas opens her show by blowing away the attentive visitor or the possible skeptic with five virtuosic works. You can hear her challenge: “Have any doubt about Chris Johanson? Take the powder-blue field covered with radiating power flashes from 2000,titled This Conceptual Art Is An Energy Explosion About Positive Energy. Bam! Think Alicia McCarthy isn’t a contender? Bite on this swooping grey brown cliff undercut by pale ribbons of thin rainbow razor wire! Blam! Oh so you don’t know about Ruby Neri? Get a snootful of her suite of drawing and text works! Whap! Don’t know why Margaret Kilgallen was queen of typography and loopy pop affective design? Open handed slap! Any doubt Barry McGee is still the undisputed champ? Check out this fragment of text, pattern and found surface! Whomp.”  There’s also—first thing you see—a set of Neri black-and-white snapshots from the early ‘90s that serve as historical grounding. My favorite is a picture of young Margaret with her arms around a long-haired Barry (her husband) and a deadpan Alicia. They’re impossibly young; at the same time it looks like ancient history, like seeing pictures of Jay De Feo and Bruce Conner and Joan Brown hanging out, 40 years earlier, life’s pains and tragedies, triumphs and acclaim all out of sight. There are even three vitrines filled with correspondence and other fragile memorabilia. One feels grateful and amazed that this stuff has survived, while at the same time sadly aware of how even the most radical work can be historicized and somehow reduced, tamed.
Ruby Neri, untitled, 1994, paint on wood, 10.5 x 12.5 x 3.25" 
What have been the art/cultural occurrences in San Francisco that have achieved national recognition? Since World War II there’s been most prominently the Beat writers Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, et. al., and the bands of the ‘60s: Big Brother & the Holding Company, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane. More after the fact, recognition has come to the earlier Figurative Abstractionists: David Park, Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn, etc., and the Beat sculptors and painters: Bruce Conner, Jay De Feo, et. al. The Funk artists associated with UC Davis – William T. Wiley, Roy de Forest and Robert Arneson — are well known in the art world. The so-called Language poets of the ‘80s are celebrated (Barrett Watten, Bob Perelman, Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman) and even legendary within the miniscule literary community nationwide. It is fair to say that the Mission School fits in this list. Strolling through the show one finds corollary activity among the five. McCarthy’s wonderful diptych forming an abstract quilt of squared off

Margaret Kilgallen, Untitled, 2000, acrylic on paper, 8.25 x 5.5"

lines—one of the highlights of the show—is a “before” to Johanson’s “after” painting referred to above, in which her carefully composed lines are exploding into shrapnels of color. Another highlight, Ruby Neri’s grid of nine framed drawings—Such Thing Countless Wondrs, 1995 —includes handwritten textual fragments that reflect not only Raymond Pettibon but Chris Johanson’s more familiar musings. Her dinosaurs, Indians, horses and elephants could pass for Kilgallen’s work if the label were changed. Clearly these young artists were impressing, challenging, influencing and stealing from each other.

One of the best curatorial decisions of the exhibition is the inclusion of contemporary work. All four surviving artists (Kilgallen died of breast cancer in her early thirties) are producing first-rate work to the present day.  In fact, one of the most intriguing works in the show is Neri’s piece, Untitled (Table with Yellow Face), 2013. It is a tour de force of economy and innovative procedure that is an acute expression of the moment’s sculptural concerns and solutions. 
The last time San Francisco’s basketball team won the NBA title, Rick Barry, an athlete of surpassing talent in his prime, led it. I attended several of the games in that series in 1975, and recall thinking what a privilege it was to observe consummate human physical grace. Not only are the artists in ENERGY THAT IS ALL AROUND in their forties, they’re in their primes. It is again, a privilege to witness.
Energy that is All Around: Mission School: Barry McGee, Chris Johanson, Ruby Neri, Margaret Kilgallen @ San Francisco Art Institute, Walter and McBean Galleries, through December 14, 2013. 
Disclosure: A work by Barry McGee included in this exhibition was loaned to the exhibition by the author. 
About the author:
Renny Pritikin was the director of the Richard Nelson Gallery at UC Davis from 2004 to 2012. Prior to that he was the founding chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts from 1992 to 2004. In the past three years he has written catalogue essays on Cornelia Schulz, The Banka/Gordon Collection; the Slant Step, John Bankston, Tony May, Trimpin and Jim Melchert and numerous other artists.  He is a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he teaches in the graduate program in Curatorial Practice. Pritikin has given lecture tours on museum practice in Japan as a guest of the State Department, and in New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar, and visited Israel as a Koret Israel Prize winner.
Image credits in order of appearance: 
Barry McGee: Courtesy of the Artist and Ratio 3, San Francisco, CA 
Chris Johanson: Collection of Tom Peters, Los Angeles, CA; courtesy of Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, CA 
Ruby Neri: courtesy of the artist
Margaret Kilgallen:  Margaret Kilgallen estate and Ratio 3, San Francisco

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