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Back to Reviews 98

  report from san francisco
by Tim Gilman-Sevcik

Keith Haring

San Francisco MoMA
The San Francisco art scene is definitely in an upbeat mood these days. Both the city and its art spaces pride themselves on their free-wheeling, alternative outlook. So the arrival of David Ross to direct the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art -- after he was ostensibly chased out of the Whitney Museum for embracing just such alternative fare -- has been received by the public with some enthusiasm.

Keith Haring at SF MOMA
Needless to say, the San Francisco MoMA dominates the local scene, and despite the fact that it is the second oldest contemporary art museum in the U.S. after New York's Museum of Modern Art, the museum peacockishly flaunts its anti-stodginess. Ross arrived just in time to oversee the opening here of the traveling Keith Haring retrospective, which was accompanied by a dance party, dubbed "PoP," that turned the museum into a nightclub packed with San Francisco club kids. The much-hyped event resulted in a line of ticketholders (and ticketseekers) that ringed the museum.

The people want a party, and with Haring they get it. The exhibition itself emphasized Haring's pop-icon status. Large-scale paintings in his signature graffiti style were interspersed with the artist's grade-school drawings, the contents of his wallet, his tape collection and assorted memorabilia that presumably provides "context" but is actually standard celebrity fare. And the link between celebrity and commodity could not have been made clearer than by the placement of a booth selling Haring paraphernalia right in the middle of the exhibition.

Whatever the critics might say about his work, its value as a marketing tool for increasing museum attendance is unquestionable. The museum reported a 36 percent increase in ticket sales a month into the four-month exhibition. No one can argue with financial success, but as marketing takes over the museum, one can't help but question how art will distinguish itself from the louder, stronger and more popular forces of mass culture.

Martin Kersels

Martin Kersels

Martin Kersels
Martin Kersels at Yerba Buena
Renny Pritikin, chief curator at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, which is just across the street from the MoMA, observed that the PoP Party was not that unusual in San Francisco. Opening parties at Yerba Buena have long made his gallery space into "the place to be" in the city that night. Attendance fell off at the latest Yerba Buena rave, however, perhaps because it took place only two weeks after the Haring party.

The survey of Martin Kersels' rickety, multi-media sound pieces at Yerba Buena was a noisy affair -- obviously, a condition that appeals to the artist. The space was dominated by Loud House, a corrugated metal building that booms, shakes and shudders as a monitor on the roof shows the very large artist spinning in circles and falling to the floor. Another work with the same kind of energy is the clever and self-descriptive sound pieces, Attempt to Raise the Temperature of a Container of Water by Yelling at It.

These pieces tend to cancel each other out -- both figuratively, as Kersels again and again tells us that he is huge, overweight and sticks out, and in actual physical terms, as the noise level of one piece drowns out the sound of another completely. The constant sense of counterpoint, disturbance, interruption, seems both provocative and infuriating. In Objects of the Dealers with Soundtrack, Kersels has rigged his dealer's office space with looping soundtracks that create a hilarious din whenever you pick up the phone, open the drawer and get a fax. At least it would be a din, if only a greater one weren't surrounding you in the exhibition space.

Capp Street Project merges with CCAC
The Capp Street Project, which has sponsored artist residencies and site-specific work for years, has lost its rent-free status and closed its gallery on Second Street. The organization has now allied itself with the California College of Arts and Crafts. CCAC is expanding its Oakland campus into San Francisco proper, and says that Capp Street will be incorporated into exhibitions at CACC's four spaces, with the first new residency slated for Feb. 1999.

Capp Street closed down in style, though, with a final installation by Gary Hill, titled 23:59:59:29 -- The Storyteller's Room. Hill plunged the vast open space in total darkness, broken up by flashes of bright light that illuminated the room and imprinted onto your retinas the image of whatever you were looking at. As you waited in the darkness, or peered about, trying to discover what you were supposed to be seeing, a soundtrack quietly muttered disjointed phrases that themselves seemed like echoes.

After 15 minutes of playing in the dark, it became clear that there was some low-level illumination. This turned out to come from video images projected across one, two or even three of the walls. Like the phrases on the soundtrack, the video projections slipped in and out of perception. You couldn't tell if they continued after the flash, or were regulated by its rhythm.

Hill plays at being a high-tech storyteller of your past, showing you memories in video images of streets, staircases, windows and highways, images that you remember but can't grasp, can't pin to specific times or places. You know them, though, as if you have discovered them flitting through your own memory, and project them on the wall -- flat, colorless, fleeting.

The Halflifers at Jennjoy Gallery
On the first Thursday of each month, the San Francisco art public flocks to openings at commercial galleries located around the office building at 49 Geary, home to the respectable and well-established Stephen Wirtz and Fraenkel galleries, among others. Newly opened among these upscale venues is the Jennjoy Gallery, where the floors are made of compressed board, not hardwood, and the work is often chopped up and carted away after the show, because it's too big to fit in the office-building-sized elevator. Jennjoy Gallery is ambitious, with its program of innovative work by young artists who aren't a guaranteed sell.

An artist team called the Halflifers -- Anthony Discenza and Torsten Z. Burns -- installed the most exciting piece at 49 Geary in recent memory. Barnlanders consisted of two prefab sheds lying on their sides and opening like a clam to reveal a kind of "nerve-center" of Halflifer operations. The Halflifers "exist in a permanent flux of emergency and recovery, where ritualized disasters are catalogued and explosively re-staged." They approach the world as helpful and heroic children, with a Play Skool esthetic, thrown into a world as disaster-prone as the nightly news. They equip themselves with gear necessary for a survival and rescue expedition -- bundles of shovels, extension cords, utility lights and safety goggles -- a heroic mission to save the self by any means necessary.

The ludicrous states of preparation and action, illustrated between the barn installation and their videos of recent adventures, create a world caught in a construction of television and reality, out of tune, but earnest and hopeful as shown by their efforts to do battle with their disastrous "normal" existence, which as we can see is simultaneously too far away from our reality, and too close.

TIM GILMAN-SEVCIK is a freelance journalist.