by Maria Porges
In Untethered — Stories of the Fillmore District, artists Monica Lundy and Rodney Ewing focus on the successive displacement of first the Japanese American and then the African American communities from San Francisco’s Fillmore district. Ewing and Lundy’s project was supported by a grant from the SF Arts Commission, and the individual works in the show are based on archival images picturing some of the people and places of the neighborhood during the first half of the 20th century. Over the decades that followed the 1906 earthquake, thousands of Japanese immigrants settled in the Fillmore– only to be summarily removed in 1942 and sent to internment camps. Newly vacant houses and apartments were soon filled with African Americans, drawn to the Bay Area by good-paying work in the shipyards. Almost overnight, the Fillmore became a musical mecca (the “Harlem of the West”), home to many nightclubs and a world-famous jazz scene. One of Lundy’s paintings, based on a photograph of a glamorous but tired-looking Billie Holiday, taken when she was jailed on a drug charge, is a reminder of that era. Other canvases feature a pretty, smiling young Japanese American woman, a baby in her arms as she waits to be taken away, and three well-dressed African Americans in Jack’s Tavern, drinks in hand, gazing calmly out at us.
Ewing’s works, screen-printed on paper and the glass of old windows in paint-stained frames (these hang in the middle of room, images on front and back simultaneously obscured and visible) seem darker in mood. Stains of pigment scraped across the paper’s surface are like a language of loss: as if the memories held by these pictures have been eroded, inescapably,
by time. The fragmented architecture in his Haints series is a reminder of the destruction that soon came to the Fillmore’s jazz clubs and worn Victorians in the form of Urban Renewal. After the end of WWII, cities across the US took to this ultimately misguided idea, declaring that razing and replacing large areas of so-called blight (in many cases, within lines drawn by thinly-disguised racism) would result in less crime and a higher standard of living.
As we now know, it didn’t work. San Francisco’s experiment with urban renewal became a textbook example of what not to do. In some ways, the backlash against the destruction of literally thousands of homes resulted in the city’s progressive political identity, although no policy or law has been able to stop the relentless gentrification that continues to drive out historical populations all over the Bay Area.
It is worthwhile to consider Ewing and Lundy’s project in the context of Sojourner Truth’s belief that photographs are a kind of proof of existence — a way to assert that all people have a place in the historical record, and not just the rich and powerful. What role, then, do artists' interpretations of such images play? Do they bring us closer to what took place, or push us further away?
The works in this show seem to do both. They remind us of loss, of the hidden stories (like the word story itself, tucked inside history), of all the awful past injustices—social, economic, racial– that continually come to light, day after day. Still, at times, the complicated, impastoed surface of Lundy’s paintings – several of which employ liquid porcelain and staining from coffee or tea — seem illustrative, didactic, schooling us while simultaneously seducing us, with their accents of gold and mica flake. The best of her works here is the hugely ambitious group portrait of a
visiting Japanese baseball team. There is something eerie and compelling about the line of squinting young players, each different and yet uniformly attired, spread across the stark, sunlit field. But Ewing’s images, delicate and dark, seem closer to expressing the elegiac bittersweetness of commemoration. Their shadowy depths serve as reminders of a past that no longer exists except in photos and in pictures like these, and of the once-proud enclaves that have slipped into oblivion: the collateral damage of “progress.”
# # #
Monica Lundy and Rodney Ewing, “Untethered — Stories of the Fillmore District” @Nancy Toomey Fine Art through November 26, 2016.
About the Author:
Maria Porges is an artist and writer who lives and works in Oakland. For over two decades, her critical writing has appeared in many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Sculpture, American Craft, Glass, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications. The author of nearly 100 exhibition catalog essays, she presently serves as an associate professor at California College of the Arts.