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SFAC 40th Anniversary

Celebrating Arts in SF

For the next two months, the San Francisco Arts Commission will celebrate its 40th anniversary with two simultaneous exhibitions across all three of its spaces — the Gallery on Van Ness, the Grove Street window space, and the lower level of City Hall.

Chain Reaction XI, the eleventh installment of artists who were selected to exhibit by other artists, and Replay, a retrospective focused on the SFAC’s own history, both offer a vivacity and complexity unique to the Bay Area.

Both installations debuted in mid February at a release party populated by friendly faces, both familiar and brand new, as well as by several babies suited in rompers made of what appeared to be eco-friendly shag carpeting. And indeed it was a family affair—SFAC Gallery Director Meg Shiffler and her colleagues picked out former gallery directors, thanked generations of Bay Area artists and patrons, and accepted a fancy plaque naming February 12th San Francisco Arts Commission Day in the City of San Francisco.

Shiffler and others, including Arts Commission President PJ Johnston and SF Director of Culture Affairs Luis R. Cancel, stood on a painted white bench at the front of the Main Gallery to address the slightly drizzle-damp and smiling crowd. Around them stretched out the majority mostly colorful, mostly witty pieces that form the figurative links in Chain Reaction XI.

Highlights of the pieces on display in the Main Gallery include now rather notorious work by Justine Lai, as chosen by Enrique Chagoya and Kara Maria. Lai’s series Join or Die features an almost terrifyingly earnest Lai making love (all kinds of love!) to various American presidents.

Which of our Commanders in Chief in the buff can be found in Chain Reaction XI? Lincoln, Jackson, and Grant — whom Lai transforms into a naughty, naughty spanker! But Lai’s glowing palette and a near-flawless execution hold the eye as surely as the priceless expressions on her subject’s faces as they pose in flagrante delicto. Her canvasses leap from the heaviest, palette-knifey strokes to unbelievable delicacy and back again.

If Lai steals the main gallery portion of the show, the most compelling set of artistic linkages in Chain Reaction XI is to be found across the street on the lower level of City Hall. The photographers on show here — among them Robyn Twomey, James Chiang and Scott Polach — speak to one another through both the explicitly established chains and a kind of fascinating nearness of subject matter and theme. Mostly landscapes and portraits, the selection runs the risk of seeming too meager, but instead shines with a bare honesty: these are the faces of our city; these are our streets.

Just as highly recommended — and of particular interest to locals — is Chain Reaction XI’s sister exhibition, Replay, also located in City Hall. The collection of posters, ephemera, and photographs traces the SFAC’s history back to its founding as Capricorn Asunder Gallery in 1970. The tiny, huttish building on Grove had a pair of purple doors embellished with lightning bolts. Here is the familiar kitschy near-ickiness the Bay Area will never entirely shed.

As one progresses through the exhibition curated by Kelly Lindner the indomitable creative spirit native to San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland becomes startlingly clear. A decade or so after its founding, Capricorn Asunder faced and overcame serious threats of censorship. On the road to becoming a focal point for emerging and established artists, the SFAC — as Capricorn Asunder and its later iterations — fought key cultural battles for civil rights and for the arts as worthy of civic support.

Visitors should note the fact that this exhibition, which documents the charmingly nefarious doings of the Bay Area arts underground, is in fact, located underground. The City Hall Gallery, with its long tiled corridors, has a kind of very-clean-subway-station/ladies-powder-room feel. Such unintentional coincidence, such innocent punnery, forms the necessary counterpart of the rage, often deservedly self-righteous, that makes Bay Area art so potent, so heady, so often unforgettable.

Replay and Chain Reaction XI serve to remind us that creativity and self-expression are the necessary counterparts of social and civic progress—that in the Bay Area, an irrepressible, even naïve spirit of play and a wild clamoring for justice are inextricable from one another. The San Francisco Arts Commission’s mission statement now insists that without art, we are not fully human. That’s a hard statement to define, in the final analysis, but there’s something else one knows for certain—San Francisco would not be such a wonderful, whimsical, worldly city without the SFAC.

http://www.sfartscommission.org/gallery/2010/chain-reaction-11

http://www.sfartscommission.org/gallery/2010/replay