By John Held, Jr.
I took an afternoon to acquaint myself with the latest happenings in the Tenderloin art scene. It wasn’t enough time, by any means, but it was a start. I’ve been associated with Ever Gold (441 O’Farrell) for a number of years now, so it’s not like this just popped up over night. But more and more galleries have. Just the evening before my drift, the Tenderloin galleries had joined together for a First Thursday “Upper TL Art Walk,” with sixteen galleries participating.
SFMOMA really dropped the ball on this one. They choose to close down the Museum during reconstruction with an outsourced program, spreading the wealth hither and yon in collaboration with other major cultural institutions in the area, unlike the approach taken by New York’s MOMA, which when faced with a similar shutdown, choose to relocate to Queens and introduce an undeveloped cultural arena to their upscale clientele. How I wish SFMOMA could have done the same by opening up in some renovated derelict Tenderloin building, not only introducing the developing scene to a wider public but garnering some much-needed street cred for itself. Missed opportunity. Four years of shutdown down the drain, as far as I’m concerned. Do I sound pissed off about this? I am.
White Walls Gallery (886 Geary) just opened up in a new location with its “sister” space, Shooting Gallery, which has been a pioneer in the hood. Billing itself as, “the premiere destination of urban and contemporary art in the Bay Area,” and ensconced in “a state of the art 5,000 square foot space…one of the largest galleries on the west coast,” owner Justin Giarla’s gallery kinda creeped me out. Obviously trying to take it to a higher level (“White Walls elevates street-based art to fine art.”), there were all sorts of backroom offices where earnest young art school grads were busily preoccupied with their laptops and giving out all sorts of attitude. It reminded me of Soho in it’s infancy, where the downtown galleries had to validate themselves to their uptown counterparts by hiring well heeled young sophisticates to hawk the latest hip happening. If the Tenderloin heads in this direction, it would be a shame. Not to say that there wasn’t some interesting work being shown at White Walls/Shooting Gallery. There was.
Fortunately just doors away, was Book and Job Gallery, which redeemed the scene for me. No slew of recent art school graduates here. Just a solitary figure tending his flock of Nan Goldin inspired photography and a grouping of zines. The art was scrappy and raw just like the neighborhood. The zines had titles like, “We Should be Dead by Now,” and “Forget it Already.” Punky without the pretension, it just seemed more inviting than a gallery with white walls striving to transcend itself.
If Book and Job Gallery was inviting, Look: A Gallery (720 Geary) was downright homey. I loved this place. How could you not love a place that sold art along side any number of trinkets including a Magic Brain Calculator and a tin of medicinal Pink-Eye Remedy. Phil and Nancy began the operation as a motorcycle repair shop and branched out. There are still fancy-ass motorcycles scattered about. There are also cigar box guitars by Patrick Ward, who told the owners to sell them for whatever they could get and distribute the profit to local street musicians. Talk about socially responsive art! Well, here you have it as a living breathing thing, and something that would be impossible to achieve down the block at 49 Geary, where the galleries are struggling for sales to pay the rent. That’s why these newly emerging galleries are so desperately needed. There’s room for experimentation and excitement.
SMAart Gallery and Studio (1045 Sutter) is also community based with facilities offered at affordable prices to kiln deprived ceramicists. Specializing in contemporary ceramics, owner Steven Allen is a working artist with connections to the wider clay community. What are those places called that offer suburbanites an opportunity to come in and throw their own ceramic cups and ashtrays? The name escapes me (oh yeah, Pottery Barn). SMAart escapes this trap. On hand are sophisticated examples of ceramic art on par with any showplace in The City and environs. In the front window are several examples of Richard Shaw’s trompe l’oeil walking men, concurrently on display at Gallery Paule Anglim (kudos to Paule for allowing permission for their exhibition – it’s what makes her the special person she is). They also have a work by my favorite local ceramicist, Wanxin Zhang, who presently has a larger showing of his work at the Sanchez Art Center in Pacifica.
The scene in the streets rivaled the art in the galleries. I found one street grate that could have inspired Cy Twombly. It was just awesome in its organic abstraction. During my hasty look-see, I spied spray painted murals that challenged anything in the Mission. It would take a cultural anthropologist, which I am not, to clue you into the differences between the Mission and the Tenderloin, and I’m not even going to attempt it. But there is a feeling that the two are drawing closer in temperament with the explosion of new galleries opening up in the Upper Loin. I’m coming back for more. Stick with me for Part Two after my future walkabout rounding out the burgeoning Tenderloin gallery scene.
For more information on the Tenderloin/Lower Polk Art Walk visit here.