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Somewhere in Advance of Nowhere

Youth, Imagination and Transformation

The new exhibition at indie arts space Intersection for the Arts predictably foregoes gallery gambits and examines the power of public art to create communal transformation. The concept of public art, at least in the art world, has largely been confined to high-brow ideas of site-specific installations meant to evoke eyebrow-raised reactions.

Even the ascendancy of graffiti culture and guerrilla art as legitimate genres has given way to commodification and easily packaged goods, from sneakers to iPods. While the commercial world seems to be swiftly cornering the market on marginalized art forms, artist and educator Evan Bissell has created a body of work that isn’t about making money but rather, about celebration of community and the individuals who comprise it.

Bissell’s collaborative exhibition, “somewhere in advance of nowhere* youth, imagination and transformation” was created in collaboration with young poets affiliated with spoken word and youth development organization Youth Speaks. Bissell’s work is a series of monumental portraits of the poets -- ones that pop with energy and the kind of vitality you might expect to see at one of the subject’s slam events.

In an era in which mainstream society’s hop-on-the-bandwagon depiction of “youth culture” has been reduced to egregious stereotypes and exploitative marketing campaigns, Bissell’s attempt to create authentic, enriching works that highlight the strength and individuality of each of his subjects is especially poignant. Given that the project is a collaboration, the 18 acrylic and oil pastel paintings (reminiscent of mural drawings in both their accessibility and bulk) also contain snippets of the young people’s poetry. The media’s glorification of youth culture has always predominantly been a vehicle for inveigling the impressionable with creature comforts and other things only money can buy, so it is refreshing to encounter Bissell’s portraits, which rather than stripping the youth of their individuality, accentuate their personal stories and use them to galvanize social change and awareness.

Bissell has described his work as being “derived from models of participant-directed education where the desires, needs, and interests of participants are the basis for the creative process.” Indeed, spectators may find themselves questioning the portraits’ potential for inciting community transformation, but the very fact that these were images created in collaboration with others underlines Bissell’s emphasis on how community support can be used to mobilize groups of people and bring them together through the power of creativity.

While Bissell’s general aesthetic is simple, it is used to glorious effect. In one image, Ebony -- a young bespectacled woman whose face is frozen in a contemplative yet gleeful grin -- is so palpably rendered that she nearly seems present in the flesh. A caption from Ebony’s writing borders the work: “As a poet, you’re in the business of suffering for other people’s inspiration and entertainment.” It’s a tantalizing statement that creates tension between the poet’s sometimes difficult reality (which viewers can get further wind of in the free verse that acts as a backdrop) and the joyful vigor of the image. Ebony is a real person, and we can feel it.

The remainder of the portraits are similarly rich and textured. As one stops to linger on Bissell’s vibrant colors, or even the clothing and accessories of each individual (which serve to clue us into his or her style and personality), it is easy to be tantalized by the subjects’ laughter, their restlessness (summed up in the rendering of their gesticulations and facial expressions), and their wisdom and aspirations. JT, who conveys the intensity of a martial arts master, sums up the general weltanschauung of the young people: “My voice represents a necessary counter-narrative to the majority of what’s expressed in mainstream society.” Far be it from the glazed-over teens and tweens that populate the media, these are youth who are already making waves in their respective communities through the power of their voices and visions.

While the gallery pieces give viewers a full-bodied glimpse into who the young poets are, the exhibition also includes 15 portraits placed in various sites throughout the community, which gets to the heart of what Bissell appears to be saying about art’s salient function of creating monuments to everyday heroism. In many ways, the portraits out in the public are even more stunning and powerful than the gallery pieces. The young poets chose the sites and neighborhoods in which their portraits were placed on the basis of their connection to that community. This is crucial, because Bissell’s brand of socially conscious art ensures works to anchor his subjects’ images and words directly in their own communities. Like the murals that festoon various San Francisco neighborhoods, the young people get to literally become a part of their physical landscape and to experience the validation that comes from visibility.

Of course, this is an interactive project, so aside from the portraits that comprise the exhibition, the show also includes collaborative portraits created by arts educators and young artists between the ages of 13 and 21. Additional artwork and public art workshops will also be conducted in relationship with the project. The various activities around “somewhere in advance of nowhere” are brilliant and necessary components of a show that proves art doesn’t have to be used to promote consumption. Rather, art can be an invigorating tool for telling our community’s stories and creating widespread connection and change.

somewhere in advance of nowhere*: youth, imagination and transformation runs through November 22 at Intersection for the Arts, located at 446 Valencia Street between 15th and 16th Streets. Gallery hours are Wednesdays - Saturdays, noon¬5pm. Admission is free and more information is available by visiting www.theintersection.org or by calling 415-626-2787.