Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco July 19–November 16, 2008
Every three years, curators at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts comb through the region’s galleries, artist spaces, and studios to put together a survey of emerging artists called Bay Area Now. The triennial has been a must-see since it first launched in 1997, full of work that’s either great to look at or interestingly awful, and a way-station on the path to national recognition for John Bankston, Todd Hido, Chris Johanson, Barry McGee, Catherine Wagner, and numerous other artists.
But the folks responsible for this year’s edition seem to have succumbed to an excess of curatorial modesty. In the introduction to the BAN 5 catalogue, Yerba Buena director Kenneth Foster frets that the whole idea of a biennial or triennial may be outmoded, now that every shire and hamlet is staging its own “art event.” And what’s so special about the Bay Area, anyway? “Is edgier, more interesting work being done in other locales with more at stake?” he asks. The title of his worried ruminations: “Is Bay Area Now still relevant?”
Apparently he and his visual arts curators, Kate Eilertsen and Berin Golonu, lacked the courage to simply call the whole thing off. Instead they delegated much of the curatorial labor to others, stirred in lots of performance pieces and online links, and sought to goose the show’s relevance with dollops of traditional lefty politics.
As a result, the Yerba Buena galleries seem scanty and emptied out, like the site of a party that didn’t quite come off. An awful lot of the show is literally someplace else.
For example, Queens Nail Annex, an artist space in the Mission, was tasked with selecting a group of artists who also make music. But the Annex, where the visual work is shown, is several miles away and open by appointment only. All that’s on view at the Yerba Buena is a stand with two headphones plugged into an iPod.
Also frustrating are the show’s six “guided tours,” guest-curated by ybca exhibitions manager Valerie Imus. None but the most dogged visitor will see them, since they occur infrequently, some just once during the show’s run.
Even much of what is there…isn’t. Paul Scheik’s three black-and-white photos are vapid even by contemporary-art standards. Erik Scollon’s series of small blue-and-white ceramic pieces embellished with pictures of skulls, birds, and butt plugs—fetish Delftware—were offered to visitors, who were instructed to use them and send documentation to a Web site. By the time I got to the show Scollon’s shelves were empty, and I had to wait until I got to my home computer to see what had become of them. (Nothing very interesting, it turns out.)
Still, not everything is a blank. One of my favorite works is Jonn Herschend’s installation in the form of an infomercial-cum-training-session about ambiguity, shoes, and adultery with a tennis instructor. It’s pitch perfect, from the earnest but cheery tone of the video’s actors to the fake fern on the table next to the coffee carafe—and I didn’t have to wait for Herschend’s September 13 bus tour of “locations of public and private emotional crisis” to enjoy it.
Then there’s Elaine Buckholtz’s blue-lit room, a kind of new-age Rothko chapel that invites us to contemplate a lovely, constantly shifting grid of light on its floor. Joshua Churchill’s installation uses an amped-up soundtrack of the clanking, rumbling noises of the Yerba Buena’s own building, synced with flashing lights gleaming through rough floorboards, to create an ominous, exciting space that evokes natural catastrophe, social collapse, and the turbulent depths of the unconscious.
I also liked Donald Fortescue and Lawrence LaBianca’s Moby-Dick-inspired sculpture, reminiscent of a whale-sized Victrola, and Leslie Show’s small AbEx-style collages of icebergs. Ana Teresa Fernández’s paintings of a performance piece in which she mops the floor with her hair have a certain oil-on-velvet pizzazz, although I’m not convinced they’re an improvement over video.
On the other hand, too many artists have been encouraged to substitute political virtue for visual power. Works about toxic waste and coastline build-up look like they’re left over from a science fair. Brian Conley’s installation about Las Vegas war-gaming of real Iraq battles is a terrific idea but ends up being less than the sum of its many parts.
One of the walking tours highlights the role of unionized labor in the visual and performing arts with chalk stencils on neighborhood sidewalks. Back at the Yerba Buena, we’re treated to a video of two women in work clothes and orange bandanas stenciling a sidewalk and a pair of metal lockers holding their gear. It’s socialist realism, installation style.
Meanwhile, a piece by a “curatorial collective” about 1960s civil-rights struggles in Richmond, a historically black Bay Area community, features lackluster photos and flaccid sloganeering (for universal health care, against police brutality) that appear to have more to do with grant applications than the complexity and anguish of real struggles, past or present.
If the people who put Bay Area Now 5 together were genuinely passionate about these ideas, the show would at least have some retro-Stalinist energy. But the political rah-rah, like the outsourcing of so much of the selection process, seems to be mostly driven by a desire to evade curatorial responsibility. Humility is a virtue, but this year the Yerba Buena has taken it way too far.
Tessa DeCarlo claims to have a few illusions remaining.