by Mark Van Proyen
This ninth triennial iteration of Bay Area Now is a hyphy exhibition in every sense implied by that charming Oakland-born neologism. It’s hyphy for its display of hyphenated identities and practices, its hyperactive display of those identities under the banner of aesthetic abundance, and its packaging of them inside the question of who gets to be an artist advanced at the expense of what constitutes an effective work of art. Curated by Fiona Ball and Martin Strickland and supported by an advisory group, the exhibition commemorates YBCA’s three-decade anniversary by presenting the work of 30 artists working in and across a large assortment of media and style categories.
By one measure, it is a kaleidoscopic cavalcade of diverse artistic identities holding space in a fraught, rhizomatic ecosystem of extremely variated production. By another, it is a noisy and chaotic flea market of reliquary artifacts (or arty facts) that trivializes the work that it pretends to celebrate by poorly serving the viewer’s experience of that work. I place myself in the latter camp for good reasons, chief among them being that I have already seen this tutti mixta approach to contemporary art curatorship about three dozen times during the past 30 years. It now strains patience and dulls any ability to regard it as being “challenging,” “forward-thinking,” or “energetic.” Two or three decades ago, this approach met its moment of triumphal globalism, but in our pre-A.I., post-Covid, stagflationary world-on-the-brink-of-world-war and impending ecological catastrophe zeitgeist, it is almost as trite and nostalgically anachronistic as a community mural depicting multi-cultural families tending an organic garden. Okay, maybe not that trite, but highlighting demographic changes underway for decades is now a routine move. The organizers’ claim that BAN 9 registers a post-Covid moment is unconvincing.
Thus, it’s unsurprising that the artists who come off looking the best are the few whose work finds physical separation from the clot and clutter of the overall exhibition rather than as manufacturers of components for a curatorial jigsaw puzzle. One example is Arleene Correa Valencia, whose contribution consists of an untitled small cubicle filled with objects (a steel bench and two steel doors ravaged and enervated by layers of desperate paint scratches) taken from an ICE detention facility in Portland, Oregon. One wall contains five small fabric collages that are achingly poignant reminders of how the immigrant experience alienates and shatters the lives of people on the run. In an upstairs cubicle, Golbanou Moghaddas presents a work that reaches back to pre-Islamic Persia, with a structure that evokes a Sassanian religious shrine and seven small, framed works on paper mounted on etched plywood, with an eighth mounted on the shrine’s exterior. Titled Seven and One Tales Under the Desert Stars (2023), it alludes to the esoteric mysteries of Zoroastrian cosmology and its ineffable impact on everyday lives. It’s a welcome refuge from the rest of the exhibition.
Another is Leila Weefur’s The Chapel of Becoming (2023), a multi-channel video featuring prayers, ruminations and anti-prayers that coalesce into a liturgy for a religion Weefur devised to celebrate and sanctify hybrid trans-gender identity as the saintly fruition of an otherwise incomplete cis-gendered dualism: a view similar to that of some South American tribal cultures that recognize five separate genders. Charlene Tan captures YBCA’s east-facing window with an intentionally incomplete project titled Homage: Dulay T’Boli. It consists of a large curtain made from nylon scrim containing multiple stands of shiny mylar that looked stunning in the mid-morning light. Other shapes made with paint markers indicate how a group of Tan’s collaborators will honor the Philopena weaving deity Fu Dulo T’Naluk by transforming the curtain into a tapestry throughout the run of the exhibition.
Courtney Desiree Morris’ Oñí Ocan (2023), a five-channel video cycle that forms a semi-circle around the viewer, also stands out from the congestion. The screens show scenes of ceremonial bathing, the bathers being full-figured people of color, mostly women, enmeshed and immersed in slow-motion moments of black joy set against kaleidoscopic backgrounds, cheerfully pouring viscous liquids over each other. An example of Afro-futurism? If not, it will certainly do until a better one arrives.
Peter Simensky’s contribution appears on a tall wall containing six hybrid works from 2022-23. Each includes audio components and an internal transmitter, which emits sounds that evoke the eccentric 1960s musical instruments of renegade composer Harry Partch. These re-purposed stereo speakers, set in elaborate structures tightly wrapped in metallic wire — presumably made from pyrite (aka fool’s gold) as indicated by the work’s titles (Pyrite Radio #1-6) — make for an elaborate pun on the kind of pirate radio that might emerge if censorship becomes extreme. Nearby, a welcome note of bright color and lighthearted reverie comes from a series of acrylic paintings by Chelsea Ryoko Wong, shoehorned salon-style into an area adjacent to a stairwell. They reveal clusters of cartoonish figures with various skin tones enjoying leisure activities such as skiing or beach bathing, all undertaken beneath a rainbow sky. Her cookie-cutter figures are often identical in size and have equidistant spaces between them. Still, she manages to make this lapse in painterly etiquette work in her favor. Wong’s smaller works on paper in the stairwell are also worth noting. Executed in watercolor and gouache, they reveal a charming, elegant fluidity, a welcome rejoinder to the brittleness of the larger acrylic works.
Masako Miki contributes some colorful sculptures to the exhibition, but they get lost in the crowded installation. I might not have noticed them had their appearance not prompted me to remember similar works at the Berkeley Art Museum from about five years ago, presented in an uncluttered solo exhibition. Janet Delaney’s photographic diptychs, interspersed throughout the show, reveal geographical aspects of San Francisco in before-and-after shots separated by several years or decades. They serve as pointed reminders of how much things have changed, evidenced by extreme contrasts between old and new architecture. Delaney’s photographs are all stylishly composed and printed in a way that conveys subtlety and seductive detail, but without their blue-painted background walls, they’d be lost in the distraction machine that is BAN 9. Everything else in the space fecklessly oscillates between kind-of-okay and not-so-hot, making much of being willfully idiosyncratic. Repeatedly, we are reminded that “Termite Art,” a term coined in 1962 by Manny Farber, loses much of its charm when the termites are contained in an overpopulated ant farm. “A peculiar fact,” wrote Farber about this type of art, “is that it always goes forward eating its own boundaries and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.” And so it goes with BAN 9.
In traditional circumstances, curators ply their trade through three related procedures. The first is selection, finding the best available, most relevant examples of a given mode of artistic production. The second is juxtaposition, using the techniques of exhibition installation to highlight, exaggerate and clarify affinities, correspondences and distinctions between the selected works. The third is exegesis, conveyed by explanatory texts arguing for the urgency of the pieces chosen. Bay Area Now 9 gets poor marks on all three counts. The selections appear to have been chosen according to the now-overdone Chinese menu theory of exhibition organization (“One from column A, two from column B”), thereby turning the exhibition into a cattle call of artists playing supporting roles in a bureaucratically oriented story about managed diversity and the placation of constituencies. As a result, the show trivializes most of the work, making for something that looks like the beached remains of the Raft of the Medusa. A 12-page exhibition brochure provides a feeble explanation in which the curators interview each other to offer cursory blandishments about the intentions behind the exhibition. Four of those pages are filled with 27 short testimonials penned by the featured artists expressing love for their respective Bay Area micro-communities, an outpouring seemingly intended to counteract the doom-and-gloom narrative about San Francisco now being promulgated by CNN, Bill Maher’s increasingly unfunny monologues and a great many other media pundits.
During the 1980s, the aforementioned traditional model of contemporary art curation fell out of favor because it was deemed a recipe for replicating hegemonic artworld structures. Thus, a new, less exclusionary model emerged. One name for that new model was coalition aesthetics, which took its cue from a 1988 essay by James Clifford titled On Ethnographic Surrealism, celebrating the transgressive
juxtaposition of incongruous objects intended to disrupt and reconfigure received narratives about their meanings in social space.2 In other words, works of art were recast as found objects needing curatorial completion, lest they not exhibit the sheer force of numbers that might make for a viral hit on social media. Today, this model looks like a nostalgic throwback to the 1990s, which in many ways was a throwback to the 1970s. Why? Simply put, what was once uncanny has since become routine.
In conclusion, a few proposals. Question the continued utility of the current Bay Area Now triennial format. Rather than overstuff a single exhibition every three years, take the pressure off by mounting BAN exhibitions more frequently; that way, inclusivity might be balanced with additional curatorial concerns. Partner with other exhibition spaces to achieve a more expansive representation of artistic activity that could be professionally highlighted in multiple venues. Devoting more resources to an actual exhibition catalog would also be worthwhile because it certifies historical importance. If none of these suggestions work, limit the selection of artists to no more than 20 in observance of the first rule of exhibition curation, which is to work within the available space rather than against it. Lastly, bring people with artworld experience onto the YBCA Board, which, according to the organization’s website, is now heavily weighted with marketing and communications professionals. No amount of messaging expertise can compensate for awareness of evolving trends and the perspectives needed to explain them.
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- Manny Farber, “White Elephant Art vs Termite Art,” Film Culture, no. 27 Winter 1962-63.
- James Clifford, “The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art,” Harvard University Press, pp. 117-151, 1988. Clifford cites documents of pseudo exhibitions organized by George Bataille in the late 1920s as examples of his idea of ethnographic Surrealism. The collaborative exhibitions of London’s Independent Group from the 1950s could also be taken as instructive examples of Clifford’s concept, as could any post-1991 iteration of Burning Man.
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“Bay Area Now 9” @ Yerba Buena Center for the Arts through May 6, 2024.
Cover image: Masako Miki: Animated Waterdrop From a Million Years Ago, 2023, Wool on XSP foam, maple wood, 36 x 36 x 36 inches; Possessed Ancient Tree Ghost, 2023, Wool on XPS foam, walnut wood, 76 x 48 x 42 inches.
About the author: Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries emphasize the tragic consequences of blind faith in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak’s interview on Broke-Ass Stuart’s website.