by Renny Pritikin
When Margaret Tedesco and Leila Weefur were chosen to organize an exhibition celebrating the San Francisco Art Institute’s 150th anniversary, they faced a daunting task: how to select from among the thousands of alumni, staff and teachers associated with the school? The curators met the challenge of this historic moment by selecting, almost exclusively, women, artists of color and queer people. The result is A Spirit of Disruption, a two-part exhibition that might have been programmatic but instead is lively, informative and informed.
The first part, installed in the Diego Rivera Gallery, is a straightforward historical show divided into a few well-defined, well-chosen sections. One of them features the work of Henry Kiyama, a Japanese student who came to San Francisco before World War I to study art. His comic strips, describing life for Asian students, reproduced in large blow-ups, are alone worth a visit. Comics were enormously popular at the time in American newspapers, and San Francisco’s Rube Goldberg, one of the era’s best-known cartoonists, was clearly an influence on Kiyama. With a few simply drawn lines and texts so acute they could have been executed last week, Kiyama demonstrated a gentle insight into people and racism 100 years ago.
Another section, about the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and its impact on the school, features images of Curt McDowell, the popular SFAI filmmaker who died at 42. Also noteworthy is the miniature line drawing reproducing the iconic Queer Mysteries work by David Dashiell, who also died of AIDS, at 41. The enormous original scroll, now in the collection of SFMOMA, is a perverse concatenation of science fiction saga, medical drama and queer sex play: an unforgettable remnant from that excruciating era.
Jim Pomeroy, who died in an accident at 47 in 1992, was a mentor of mine, and, as his memory fades from public view, it’s fitting that one of his signature projects, a 1976 exhibition about Mount Rushmore, appears here. It was the first such show I’d ever seen and one that would influence my curatorial approach for the next 40 years. From his abundant research into Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor who created the presidential monument, Pomeroy fashioned a critique of how identity and history are manipulated by powerful political and economic forces. It was a hoot. Pomeroy showed how activism, fine art and kitsch could coexist — and how even Cher could be quoted, confessing she once thought Mount Rushmore was a natural phenomenon.
A final section in this first leg of the show is devoted to the contributions of African Americans, such as the photographer David Johnson, an early student of Ansel Adams, and the model Florence “Flo” Wysinger Allen, who worked at the school for much of the 20th century. A large photograph of students drawing her nude in what appears to be a 1940s classroom reminds us of the mores of the time, as do the dozen examples of paintings of her by students. Two standing cases in the center of the room display smaller items of historical interest, largely from the collections of the school library. Items range from mementos of the drag queen painter Jerome Caja to a box of chalk, a personal gift from Bill Berkson, the late poet, art writer and faculty member. A second case has more material about Wysinger as well as material regarding Angela Davis, who taught in the humanities department at SFAI from 1976 to 1991.
The second (and larger part) of the exhibition shows a selection of works from the past 50 years, packed into the Walter and McBean Galleries. Highlights include a vinyl floor installation by Jenny Odell. Placed like a doormat at the foot of a staircase, the piece consists of satellite images of 100 empty parking lots, configured as abstract shapes on a black background in the shape of San Francisco. Like John Lennon singing, “now we know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall,” Odell suggests San Francisco is in danger of becoming an empty cipher of corporate space. This is an example of the kind of internet-derived research projects for which Odell, who is also a writer and emerging public intellectual, is known.
Jay De Feo taught at the SFAI for seven years in the 1960s; her painting The Rose, which for years, remained hidden behind a wall at SFAI, is one of the great works of the 20th century. Here, a set of small Polaroids show her in various candid settings as both teacher and in the studio. While they fall into the genre of relics, they are noteworthy in their own right as an informal glimpse into a master artist’s behind-the-scenes style.
Brett Reichman contributes one of his signature oil paintings, conflating gay erotica and the properties of draped fabric. A disembodied set of cock and balls made entirely of satiny material, about a yard long, float in space, pretending to be a sleeve, preposterous and delectably pastel-colored. A small watercolor by Julio César Morales shows a man in the passenger seat of a car — minus the car. There is a tragic air about the piece, suggesting a ghost-like presence, possibly someone being smuggled across a border. He is transparent, his eyes are closed, his arms are crossed over his chest; he could just as well be hidden inside the seat as on it.
Fred Hayes, a long-time San Franciscan who relocated to New York around the turn of this century, contributes a set of twenty 8 x 10-inch, black-and-white portraits of African Americans. In the same way that baseball pitchers are taught to imagine themselves throwing the ball through the catcher’s mitt, Hayes’s portraits rocket through the surface and into the viewer’s midsection. Xylor Jane has a small gridded oil painting in four equal square sections, made of multicolored dots, dominated by yellow, that coalesce into numbers and receding spaces. It’s fun to wander the eye over.
Dewey Crumpler steals the show with two large canvases that by coincidence take up the theme of container ship catastrophe just as a similar disaster has dominated the news in the Suez Canal. In Crumpler’s version, a cargo of green bananas spill onto a beach and are tentatively explored by
somewhat befuddled land crabs, alongside a dented container. An adjoining mostly crimson-colored canvas recapitulates a similar event with a mountain of sneakers, calling to mind the mordant, but funny way Robert Colescott scored satirical points.
Leo Valledor’s minimalist painting, Ghost Ring, a white tondo, leaves partially raw canvas around the edges. It’s one of this segment’s standouts and one of the few formalist works in the show.
Mildred Howard has an effective rebus-like wall installation built of found items: framed collages, rulers, an antique red button, two framed landscapes and a 19th-century female daguerreotype. Together, they invite us to play detective, sifting clues. Alice Shaw, also employing a daguerreotype, depicts herself as a 19th-century psychic; her face, haloed in white light, creates a ghostly presence, which is amplified by a
reflection from the picture’s metallic surface onto a supporting shelf. The upstairs gallery features a rotating display of three side-by-side projections by different video artists. Judging by the selection on view when I visited, it is an inclusive array, with themes ranging from queer polemics and surreal performance to formal abstraction.
SFAI has a remarkable record of inclusivity and activism, at least since WWII. Ansel Adams’ Black students, Flo Wysinger, the beloved Black model; the hiring of Angela Davis; and the very early shows by Carlos Villa that anticipated multiculturalism are just a few examples of how SFAI became a model of fighting for equity, even while it primarily served privileged students.
Spirit of Disruption is a reminder of all the noted diverse artists who have trained and been employed at SFAI over such a long period of time. A second show, just as strong, could have been assembled with figures like Stephanie Syjuco, Carlos Villa, Tony Labat, Kehinde Wiley, Alicia McCarthy and many, many others. Given the struggle of medium-sized arts institutions to survive in the current economic and public health crises, it is a privilege to be reminded of how these organizations can be central to the construction of community in the art world. It is sorrowful that just when we need them the most, places like SFAI and Mills College are threatened with extinction.
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“A Spirit of Disruption” @ San Francisco Art Institute through July 3, 2021.
About the author:
Renny Pritikin retired in December 2018 after almost five years as the chief curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. Prior to that, he was the director of the Richard Nelson Gallery at UC Davis and the founding chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts beginning in 1992. For 11 years, he was also a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he taught in the graduate program in Curatorial Practice. Pritikin has given lecture tours in museums 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. The Prelinger Library published his new book of poems, Dramas and Westerns, in 2020.