Critics Page

Why Grow? In praise of quiet influence

"A house/full of blackwomen," episode titled, Now You See Me, May 2016. Photo by Robbie Sweeny.

I arrived in the Bay Area to take a full time teaching job at UC Berkeley in 2003, having spent the previous fifteen years in LA. For a long time, I was homesick for the unapologetic ambition of that sprawling, gaudy version of a real city, and for the artists who had taught me to love it. With detectable scorn, people here would ask “did you liiiiike it there?” Yes, I did. The work of friends and teachers like Lari Pittman, Liz Larner, Billy Woodberry, Thom Andersen, or Cathy Opie had helped me to see where I was. Others, among them Mary Kelly, Mike Kelley, Catherine Lord, Allan Sekula, and Monica Majoli fed my attraction to violently close observation, to abjectly humorous truth-telling. The Bay Area art scene I could grasp seemed to me overly invested in its own local heroes, and prone to valorizing pretty, design-y, technophilic or conceptually lite art practices. I didn’t know jack! But people whose work I admired had chosen to live here, to stay here even if, maybe even because San Francisco was (and still is) a provincial city. B. Ruby Rich, Anna Halprin, Angela Davis, Judith Butler, Vincent Fecteau, Trinh Minh-ha, Dodie Bellamy, Kaja Silverman, Kevin Killian, Pamela Lee, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Larry Sultan, Moira Roth, Pauline Oliveros, Bill Berkson, and Connie Lewallen are some of those people.

"A house/full of blackwomen," episode titled, Now You See Me, May 2016. Photo by Robbie Sweeny.

Fourteen years into living and working here, I understand better why “local heroes” matter, and what they do that’s so important. I hope we’ll always have our share of erudite curators, educators, and canny art entrepreneurs who spend 3-5 years bringing the big wide world to town, then move on to bigger jobs in bigger cities. I’m grateful for the art and cultural historians teaching at Stanford, California College of the Arts (CCA). San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), University of California, Berkeley, and San Francisco State whose thinking and research have influenced my own so much. It’s beautiful here. The food and healing culture is insane. In the toxic shadow of Tech (truly a four-letter word) and its unconscious, unwoke colonialist settler spirit, I don’t picture the Bay Area art scene expanding or making bigger waves globally. But should it? Does everything have to grow?

Here are some quiet influencers, people, and projects carrying on aesthetic, social, and critical practices on a small scale, in intimate communities, who/which I think aren’t really invested in a global reach. OpenSpace, a publication hosted by SFMoMA and founded by poet Suzanne Stein, is now a broader platform edited by poet and critic Claudia LaRocco. I’m fed by the writers and thinkers I meet on its pages, and fortunate, recently for the introduction, via an OpenSpace event hosted by The Lab, to poet and movement worker Tongo Eisen-Martin. Tongo’s recitation of several long poems was one of the most inspiring events I’ve been to, EVER. Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian are like living literary national monuments, they are that generous, involved, and productive, as they write, anthologize, teach, host, and show up at their students’ and friends’ readings and openings. Laurie Lazer and Daryl Smith, who’ve run The Luggage Store Gallery (LSG) for twenty years, are a committed pair of curators. If it weren’t such an overused and inappropriate term, I’d call them real incubators. The “Mission School” Connie Lewallen mentioned doesn’t exist without LSG, for instance, but they’ve hardly stopped nurturing new art and performance since then.

"A house/full of blackwomen," episode titled, Now You See Me, May 2016. Photo by Robbie Sweeny.

Three more things: 1) Art has always been medicine and here, that’s obvious. The reach of Creativity Explored, Creative Growth, and NAID, nonprofits staffed by artists which support and facilitate the work of artists with developmental, mental and physical disabilities cannot be overstated. The particularly ingenious, urgently expressive and raw order in the work made by many of these client artists appeals to so many of us, and I see its unique stylizations in many “professional” artists’ work. 2) Amara Tabor-Smith and Ellen Chang’s A house/full of blackwomen is a multi-year, multi-site series of ritual events called “Episodes” asking the question, “How can [we as] black women and girls find space to breathe, be well and call home?” HFBW is installation art, street art, history-making, dance, spiritual practice, and movement activism. If so much of what gets called social practice art could possess a fraction of HFBW’s mature, rooted intelligence and authentic engagement, I would yodel for a week. 3) Artist and curator Margaret Tedesco sometimes reminds me of an acupuncturist listening at six pulse points for energy to reveal itself. Since 2007, she’s been presenting exhibitions, commissioning new catalogue texts, and producing print editions for her [2nd floor projects]. The modest, queer brilliance of so many of SFP’s shows testify to Margaret’s thirty years studying local and distant energy systems.

Finally, every scene, provincial or not, should be so fortunate to have a historian, witness, and cultivator as wise and committed as Connie Lewallen.


Anne Walsh

ANNE WALSH is an artist and professor of Art Practice at the University of California, Berkeley.