Art Looks

How do you represent Black and Latino communities at major museum shows?

Faith Ringgold, "American People Series #18, The Flag Is Bleeding", 1967. Part of the 'Soul of a Nation' show at the de Young. © 2019 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy ACA Galleries, New York / Photo courtesy of Faith Ringgold / Art Resource, NY

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco started its Community Representatives program back in 1992 when it hosted an exhibit of the work of Henry Ossawa Tanner. But it was with the Revelations: Art from the African American South exhibit that “codified” the program, according to FAMSF’S director of education, Sheila Pressley. 

Pressley says that, like at many museums, the staff and the docents at the FAMSF are predominantly white, and they want people who represent the diversity of the Bay Area. The de Young’s Soul of a Nation exhibit (through Sat/15) has Community Representatives—20 college students who are paid for their work and eight volunteers. The upcoming Frieda Kahlo exhibit which opens March 21 will also have them. After that exhibit closes in July, the museum hopes to bring the representatives to work with the permanent collection as well. 

(Read more about the Soul of a Nation exhibit here. On Sat/15 at 2pm the exhibit hosts a talk with Bay Area musician and filmmaker Boots Riley.) 

“We’re a city museum and now we’re free on Saturday for Bay Area residents,” Pressley said. “The connection the representatives make is really, really helpful for new audiences who may not feel comfortable in museums. It’s so important to provide an array of representatives and different voices.”

The students who are working for Soul of a Nation come from local schools like Stanford University, University of California, Berkeley, the San Francisco Art Institute, and San Francisco State University. Pressley recently read over the applications from students to work for the Frieda Kahlo exhibit, and these are some of the things they said:

“As a child of two immigrant parents from Mexico, the opportunity to share my culture in a reflective manner is important especially considering today’s anti-immigrant rhetoric.”

“Previously, museums have been intimidating for me to approach. . . It would be an honor to encourage interaction and conversations with visitors like me.”

“Community work has always been a focus of mine— inviting and interacting with marginalized communities who usually do not feel invited or represented in higher art institutions to aid in breaking the stigma that galleries are gated spaces.”

Before they start, the representatives do a few sessions of training and some readings. The main idea, Pressley says, is for them to facilitate open ended questions, encourage visual thinking, let visitors have own reactions to the art and to draw out the visitors’ perspectives. Pressley hopes everyone coming to the museum will feel welcome and know that they don’t need any specialized knowledge to look at art. 

Some current Community Representatives—a student and volunteers—answered to a few questions about their experiences with the Soul of a Nation show by email. 

Blair Thomas shows a group around the piece ‘Gradual Troop Withdrawal’ by John T. Riddle. Photo by Gary Sexton


Why did you want to be a Community Representative at the Fine Arts Museums for Soul of a Nation?

I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself. To be able to speak about the artists who opened the doors for Black artists today is my dream. 

What are you studying in school?

I am a double major in Art and Psychology, and I hope to become an art therapist in the near future. 

When did you first get interested in art?

As long as I can remember, I read everything I could get my hands on. That soon led to me drawing all the things I read about and observed.

What do you like most about being a Community Representative?

I love seeing the excitement in people’s eyes. Talking about how it makes them feel and allowing the visitors to gain a deeper understanding of the work is amazing. 

What’s your favorite section or piece in Soul of a Nation?

My favorite piece is Gradual Troop Withdrawal by John T. Riddle. It is just so raw and open in a way that makes people connect with it. I love how it transcends the time of when it was created.



Why did you want to be a Community Representative at the Fine Arts Museums for Soul of a Nation?

Having had the opportunity of education and training was a ‘life changing experience’ with the Revelations exhibition. I thought SOAN was sure to broaden my intellect and deepen my passion and understanding the scope of artist talent, skill set and knowledge as well as the beauty of the collaboration among artists like Charles White and David Hammons.

When did you first get interested in art?

I’ve grown up with art exhibits, national shows, with limited African American artists. For me, exposure to African American Artists began during1963-83 with the Civil Rights movement. Honestly, my interest in history through art knows no boundaries now. 

What do you like most about being a Community Representative?

I like adding support and depth to a historical narrative and to some of the richest contributions in history. The personal exchanges enrich me deeply. I like drawing parallels with history… then vs now. 

What is your favorite section or piece in Soul of a Nation?

Charles White’s Wanted Poster No. 5 and Mississippi, David Hammons’ and Roy DeCarava’s work, and the work of Black women like Faith Ringgold, Betye Saar, and Jae Jarrell


Community Representative Cheryl Ward shows visitors around the ‘Soul of a Nation’ exhibit at the de Young.


Why did you want to be a Community Representative for Soul of a Nation?

I wanted to further my knowledge of work of this period and share what I have learned. I am an avid supporter of artists and an art collector, and I have done two previous shows (Jacob Lawrence and Revelations). I love being in museums!

When did you first get interested in art?

As a teen, spending time with an artist uncle.

What do you like most about being a Community Representative?

I liked the training and educational preparation for the experience and the lectures, discussions, and assignments. I also like sharing knowledge with interested visitors and hearing stories from others. It’s fun to meeting other Com Reps and to support students, encourage others to visit the exhibition and lectures, and to spend time in the galleries, watching reactions to the work and overhearing comments.

What is your favorite section or piece in Soul of a Nation?

Section: The “Los Angeles Assemblage” gallery [artists responding to the Watts Rebellion]. I have met many of the artists. 

Piece: So difficult to choose!  Barkley Hendricks, Frank Bowling, AfriCOBRA, etc, etc! 


Why did you want to be a Community Representative at the Fine Arts Museums for Soul of a Nation?

I was made aware of the opportunity to become a Community Representative by Belva Davis. She informed me that the de Young was seeking African Americans to discuss works of art in the Revelations exhibit several years ago.

As a person who has collected African American art and collectibles for more than 40 years, I was curious about this new opportunity.  Being in a position to have dialogue with museum visitors to discuss African American artists, struck me as unusual and therefore I wanted to be a part of this! It also demonstrated that the de Young was actively seeking African American input, which was a surprise. When I was invited to be a Community Representative for SOAN, I was delighted!

When did you first get interested in art?

I first became interested in art as a young adult while living in Washington, DC. in 1967, which was during the Black Power movement.

What do you like most about being a Community Representative?

The opportunity to dialogue with people face to face about art by African Americans and to listen to their respective views.  It is fascinating to hear these viewpoints from different ages and various ethnicities.  I especially enjoyed the children because the look on their faces when asked their opinion was fun. Typically a museum visitor looks at the works of art in silence.  And if they are on a docent tour, the docent does most of the talking.

What is your favorite section or piece in Soul of a Nation?

I do not have a favorite section or piece in SOAN. All of the art works speak volumes about the experience of African Americans from 1963-1983. Each artist’s work is unique and displays their different approaches to making art that reflects the time period. This is a talent that many museum-goers have never seen. And just to think—the number of artists in this exhibit are only the “tip of the iceberg” of the many accomplished African American artists.

In addition, I applaud the de Young for adding to this tremendous exhibit works by California artists with emphasis on Bay Area artists! Museum visitors have been enriched with African Americans artists being included in a major museum. It is my hope that now people will actively seek work of African American artists and if they find it absent from museums, request they include these Americans whose works deserve to be shown.

Through March 15
De Young Museum, SF.
More info here

Creativity Explored branches out with ‘Of here from there’ exhibition

Jesus Huezo of Creativity Explored with his art and paleta cart.

The first time artist Ana Teresa Fernández entered the Creativity Explored studio, she says she fell in love with the space.

“It’s like what you think of as a little kid that Santa’s workshop would be like,” she said. “There’s a bunch of individuals furiously working, and there’s this energy and creativity. I wanted to attempt to replicate this and extract this and create it somewhere else.”

The show of immersive installations the artists from Creativity Explored created working with Fernández, Of Here From There—De Aquí Desde Allá, will open Fri/6 at the San Francisco Art institute Fort Mason campus, and be on view through April 26. Animated and time lapse videos will be projected onto large-scale sculptures designed by CE artists—flowers, dragons, clouds, floating boats—that surround the visitor. Fernández videotaped the artists as they painted on translucent vellum, documenting their brushstrokes from the other side of the easel, like those of Jose Nuñez’s repeating bird figures and Roland Record’s growing labyrinths of lines.

As a visiting artist-in-residence, Fernández, who received her MFA from SFAI in 2006, did more than 15 workshops with CE artists, who have developmental disabilities. She explored the ideas of migration, home, and place with the artists, a large number of whom are from South America and Central America.
Fernández says she was fascinated by the way the artists made marks, the language of those marks, and how art was a means of expression for the artists. She’s taught at many schools in the Bay Area including Stanford University, University of California at Berkeley and SFAI, and the CE artists had something special.

CE artist Camille Holvoet paints with Ana Teresa Fernández as they capture the mark-making process behind Holvoet’s Ferris Wheel motif.

“There’s a certain obsessiveness when you watch them work and see the finished pieces, the layering. Like Corine [Raper] has her pastel in her hand and does it over and over in yellow, and then comes over it with pink and then blue,” she said. “Enkh-Amar Shagdarguntev did this piece in which he drew where he lives, and he does this beautiful line work to draw this building in orange. He drew in windows and doors. The line is almost like an Etch A Sketch. It overtook entire image, and it’s this entirely orange painting. For me, it’s like that line becomes the entire space and it begs the question are we who we are because of the community around us or is our community that way because of us?”

Fernández loved her year and a half of working with the artists at CE—and they loved working with her right back, says CE director Linda Johnson.

“I think that’s another part of Ana Teresa’s magic that she became a friend and mentor to the artists she worked with of whom there were dozens and dozens,” Johnson said. “She came in with incredible ideas and ran with their ideas, and whenever she shows up, she’s immediately surrounded by artists.”

Creativity Explored artist Joseph “JD” Green participates in a workshop with Ana Teresa Fernández to capture his mark-making process in real time.

The staff wanted to do a large-scale public art project as a way to connect CE artists with a broader community, Johnson says, and Fernández was the perfect partner.

“Our staff was impressed with her work, particularly her social sculptures and the way she interacts with issues and environments in a meaningful humble, and exploratory way,” Johnson said. “When she came to the studio, we immediately knew we made the right choice.”

Johnson says she’s excited the artists’ work will be at the Fort Mason campus of SFAI, and she particularly looks forward to seeing Jesus Huezo‘s paleta cart that he and Fernández collaborated on, which has paleta shaped postcards for the public to share reflections on.

The opening reception of Of Here From There—De Aquí Desde Allá on Fri/6 from 6-9pm is free and will include performances by poet Leticia Hernández Linares, dancer Vanessa Sanchez, and musicianTommy Guerrero.

Opening reception Fri/6. On view through April 26.
San Francisco Art Institute—Fort Mason’s galleries
Free. More information here

Electrifying art of Black Power in ‘Soul of a Nation’

Barbara Jones-Hogu, "Unite," 1971. From 'Soul of a Nation' at the De Young

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963–1983 was organized by London’s Tate Museum and traveled to Arkansas, New York, and Los Angeles before coming to the de Young Museum. But Thomas Campbell, the director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco made it a priority to bring the show to San Francisco.  

He did so because a show highlighting the artists inspired by the Civil Rights and Black Power movements and their influence on art seems so important now, says assistant curator of American art at the FAMSF, Lauren Palmor. She mentions something African American studies and art history Bridget Cooks said at the opening of the show at The Broad in Los Angeles. 

“She said, ‘I have good news and bad news. This show has never been more relevant,’” Palmor said. 

The relevance of the artwork can be seen over and over in Soul of a Nation, Palmor said. “A work by Phillip Lindsay Mason, Manchild in the Promised Land was painted in 1968, but if you cover the label, it could be a reflection on Travon Martin,” she said. “It’s galling to see how little has changed. The perspective in the painting is you looking down on a red target on the boy’s chest, like his body is a target for a potential aggressor.”

Installation photo of Phillip Lindsay Mason’s “Manchild in the Promised Land” in “Soul of the Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983” at the de Young Museum. Photograph by Gary Sexton

The show has the work of several art groups, beginning with the Spiral Group, a collective of New York African-American artists who organized in 1963 in direct response to the  March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Others include a group which started in Chicago, AfriCOBRA  (the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), and Just Above Midtown created in 1974 by Linda Goode Bryant.

Soul of a Nation includes figurative and abstract painting, prints, collage, sculpture, and photography. Photographers in the show include  Roy DeCarava who won a Guggenheim Fellowship, and Dawoud Bey, who has a retrospective, An American Project , opening at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on February 15. 



Faith Ringgold, “American People Series #18, The Flag Is Bleeding,” 1967

The de Young’s presentation will also include an expanded selection of works by African American artists working in the San Francisco Bay Area or works with a Bay Area connection. These artworks have a seven-pointed star in rainbow colors on the label next to them, a reference to Rainbow Sign, a community center in Berkeley that served as an art gallery, concert venue, and restaurant, hosting writers such as James Baldwin and Maya Angelou, singers Nina Simone and Odetta, and politician Shirley Chisholm as well as visual artists.

Elizabeth Catlett’s Black Unity, a mahogany sculpture of a giant raised fist, done as an homage to the raised Black Power fist at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics was shown at Rainbow Sign, as was one of Betye Saar’s most famous pieces, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, a mixed-media work featuring an “Aunt Jemima” mammy figure holding a broom and a rifle. Black Panther Party for Self-Defense leader Angela Davis said about The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, “This [work] is where Black feminism began.”

Betye Saar, “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima,” 1972. Wood, cotton, plastic, metal, acrylic paint, printed paper and fabric.. Photo Benjamin Blackwell

Another work with a rainbow star on its label is “Non-Violence” by Mike Henderson, who came from a small town in Missouri to attend the San Francisco Art Institute in 1965, and has been here ever since. Henderson, a film maker and blues musician who has played and spoken at several Soul of A Nation events, says he would work in the studios at SFAI until late at night, and walking home, police officers would stop him, sometimes more than once before he got to the Stockton Tunnel. “Non-Violence,” which shows a police officer with a swastika on his arm, holding a machete and about to attack an already wounded animal, was painted in response to that.

“I was very passionate about that issue when I did that painting,” Henderson said. “Where I came from there was no venue to talk about that. It was football and baseball and whatever was in the barber shop. It was the Bible Belt, and men didn’t talk about art and music—men played football and they fished.”

Henderson says when he came out here, he was moved to see people, like the Black Panthers, trying to make a difference. He didn’t want to be a person who just observed change, he said. He wanted to be part of it. It was after a demonstration when Martin Luther King, Jr was killed that Henderson decided to make movies.

“I was walking home thinking, ‘How can I make my paintings more powerful?’” he said. “I decided I could make them move.” (Some of Henderson’s experimental films are at the Haines Gallery with a show of his paintings until March 28). 

For Henderson, it’s wonderful to see all the art engaging visitors at Soul of a Nation. 

Nelson Stevens, “Uhuru,” 1971. Screenprint on paper.

“I really applaud the curators for doing the show,” he said. “For me, one of the great moments at the show was meeting this young kid from CCA who was there with his grandmother and mother. He was this young African American guy probably just out of high school, and I thought, ‘Wow this is fantastic!’ and I gave him my contact information. That show has had some free days for people to come and it’s reaching out to an audience that is silently hungry for the fine arts.”

Along with free days, the museum has scheduled many events to go along with Soul of a Nation. Upcoming: Jahi, from Public Enemy (radio) talking about hip hop and education on Feb. 22, and on March 14, poet, rapper, activist and filmmaker Boots Riley (Sorry to Bother You) will be there for the closing weekend. 

Through March 15
de Young Museum, SF
Tickets and more info here

Look! Up in the sky! It’s public art—with Premiere Jr.

I finally made it to Salesforce Park, a perfectly pleasant, perfectly sterile civic project atop the new Transbay Terminal. The downtown public space is billed as a “living roof”—the gardening, featuring plants from around the world, is impressive and sculptural, if far too overdetermined to feel outdoorsy—and the whole thing probably aspires to the urban-activation genius of New York’s High Line.

While it’s a lovely stroll, with features like a glass Salesforce Gondola ferrying people from the Salesforce Plaza below (it frustratingly only runs one way), there are three things which will keep Salesforce Park from attaining the cultural and even poetic highs of the High Line. First, obviously, the noxious branding. Salesforce, we get it, even if we still have no idea what that phallus-housed company actually does. Or where the public part of this project ends and the private part begins.

Second, the charm of the High Line, despite inciting a rampage of development and gentrification, is that you feel like you are walking though old New York (the path used to be a railway for meat cars winding above the Chelsea neighborhood), even peering into decades-old brick buildings and warehouses. The view from Salesforce Park, however, is completely unrecognizable as San Francisco, hemmed in by blinding glass towers and new construction. Even the area itself is disorienting—Rincon Hill has been rechristened as “The East Cut,” a chilling rebranding that only a broker could love.

Ned Kahn’s Bus Fountain at Salesforce Park

But most of all, Salesforce Park is starved for public art. There is plenty of event space and seating (hostile architecture, of course, wouldn’t want any homeless people to settle on a public bench!), even a Zumba arena and a large section where you can check out and play free board games. But apart from one fantastically whimsical sculpture (Ned Kahn’s thousand-foot long, boringly named “Bus Fountain,” which shoots streams of water up as vehicles pass below) and a Calatrava-like overpass bridge, there’s barely any artistic expression apparent. Contrast this to the dozens of murals, sculptures, and installations along the High Line.

How did this happen? Inside the Transbay terminal itself, as KQED arts editor Sarah Hotchkiss has described, are some large, intriguing installations. Just down the street, at the former Rincon Hill Post Office, you can see some of the most famous and historical murals on the West Coast. Imagine the bottomless-pocketed Salesforce commissioning 30 artist to create something for this outdoor 5.4 acres, an art-washing that would be welcomed by an underfunded scene. Maybe something’s on the way. As it is now, though, the whole thing feels somewhat bleak, like an open-air office. There’s a Starbucks.

Luckily, the rest of SF seems to be slowly waking back up to public art beyond those legendary Mission murals and neato windows—from the humungous, politically-conscious street art pieces going up in the (rapidly gentrifying) Tenderloin and Mid-Market areas, to tiny pop-up wonders like Peephole Cinema, which is exactly what it sounds like, and this adorable thing on Market I just noticed:

Neat window display along Market Street. Haven’t called yet.

Now, Hotchkiss herself, along with partner-in-curation Zoë Taleporos of the San Francisco Arts Commission, joins in the guerrilla-esque artifying with Premiere Jr., a wee billboard-cum-gallery in the Inner Sunset, on Irving between 7th and 8th avenues. They’ve rented the 72-square-foot billboard for a year, and will be commissioning four different local artists to take over the space, beginning with Lindsey White Sunday, February 9-April 19 (opening party Sun/9, 2m-5pm, outside the nearby Fireside Bar, where there’s the best view of the piece).

The thought of an artsy billboard immediately calls to mind the glory days of culture jamming and the Billboard Liberation Front. But while the politics behind Premiere Jr. may be more liberating than liberationist, there’s still a good dose of street-level (or rather, roof-level) subversion, especially when it comes to the state of SF’s public art.

Taleporos told me, “I currently work as a Public Art Project Manager at the San Francisco Arts Commission where I am involved in commissioning a wide range of artworks for public spaces, including murals, free standing sculptures, and architecturally integrated projects by both local and non-local artists. While San Francisco’s Percent for Art Ordinance allocates 2% for public art (New York and Los Angeles only allocate 1%), that funding is usually restricted to commissioning permanent public artworks that are tied to large stakeholder groups and complicated sets of restrictions.

“You don’t see a lot of temporary public artworks in San Francisco because funding opportunities for that type of work are hard to come by,” Taleporos said. “And the politics of public space are so robust here. So, when you have a self-funded project on a tiny, weird space that no one else wanted, a project that’s only on view for three months, you have nothing but freedom to experiment.”

Both curators have been involved with such projects before—Taleporos was a co-director and curator of Royal NoneSuch Gallery in Oakland and Queen’s Nails Projects in San Francisco. And Hotchkiss was the founder and co-director of Stairwell’s, a project that led walking tours and staged exhibitions in nontraditional spaces. But something drew them to this particular spot.

Zoë Taleporos and Sarah Hotchkiss, curators of Premiere Jr. Taken from the Instagram @premiere_jr

“I live very close to the billboard and have spent a lot of time waiting for the N Judah while looking up at it,” Hotchkiss said. “It’s extremely small, and only seems to exist because there’s another, larger billboard for it to hang off of. It is just such a weird little space, it was really calling for an art experiment to cover its surface. We contacted Clear Channel and it was available starting at the beginning of 2020—the timing worked out perfectly.”

Unsurprisingly, Clear Channel wouldn’t pony up any discount for the project, and the two are paying for the billboard and providing honorariums to the artists out of pocket. But “it’s surprisingly affordable to rent a 6-by-12-foot billboard for an entire year—more people should interrupt their neighborhood advertising!”

Challenge accepted. And a billboard obviously comes without the outrageous rent hikes driving so many small galleries to close. If you can’t survive on the ground, take to the skies. But what about the art itself? Lindsey White, the first contributor, is a visual artist who’s worked in photography, video, sculpture, and book-making. She won the prestigious SECA Award in 2017, and her work often summons humor and magic.

Lindsey White, Premiere Jr.’s first artist

“I haven’t made a billboard, but I did present a series of photographs in Copenhagen subway kiosks a few years back,” she told me. “My favorite exhibition opportunities are generally in alternative or public places, like SFO or the subway, so a billboard project is right up my alley. I love when art becomes part of an everyday, lived experience.

“I felt intimidated at first, because I wanted to make a piece that got people’s attention and was entertaining, but that also asked questions and tapped into an existential mind space,” White continued. “Hopefully, someone will be sipping their coffee as they wait for the N Judah, and they’ll look up at my billboard and be curious enough to call the toll free number.”

I asked White, without giving too much away before the unveiling, what was the inspiration for her piece? “A wig, fake mustache, buttons for eyes, and a big question. I wanted the billboard to feel kind of timeless, but have the ability to rattle around your head like a good jingle. I was also thinking about how every billboard in the Bay Area seems to be for a tech-based demographic. Why not push back with something a little antiquated? Either way, I hope people will get a good laugh.”

And, as an artist, what are her general thoughts on the state of pubic art in SF? “The San Francisco Arts Commission has developed a lot of great public projects, from airport terminals to kiosks,” White told me. “On another note, I think tech companies should stop paying artists to make art on their private campuses and instead support artists to make genuine public art for various local communities. Those sort of projects aren’t branded, they’re real. Most importantly, projects like Premier Jr. add to the long history of artist-run projects and keep San Francisco interesting.”

Sunday, February 9-April 19
Opening gathering Sun/9, 2pm-5am, outside Fireside Bar at 7th Avenue and Irving
Billboard location: 624 Irving Street, SF. 
More info here.

The joy of ‘Gayface’

"Zack" from the Gayface series by Lauren Tabak

“Well, you’re queer,” photographer-artist-musician-coolperson Lauren Tabak says to me, quite correctly, on the phone. “What do you think about when you’re putting together a look?”

I’m a ’70s kid who blossomed in the ’90s, so for better or worse, everything I wear is politically fraught, hopelessly ironic, and ever-shadowed by guilt. (Is this from a sweatshop? Am I appropriating anything cultural? Is this something Rosie O’Donnell would wear?) So basically, in all senses of that adverb, I’m a typical older gay person.

“When I came out, I pierced my septum so everyone would know,” Tabak, who’s of my general generation, told me. Ah, for the days when piercing a body part meant something.

‘Amaris’ by Lauren Tabak

Tabak has launched a series of portraits (on display at gallery-cafe The Laundry through March 30, opening reception Fri/17 6pm-8pm) that explores contemporary queer identity—how are we seen, how do we make ourselves seen, what does our constructed appearance mean—in an era of melting definitions and binaries, uploads and filters, apps and ad-targeting, liberation and backlash, branding and resisting.

“I was interested in, and became fascinated by, how people ‘flag’ their identities now,” Tabak said, referencing the ancient dress codes (colored handkerchiefs, bar t-shirts, items of clothing, etc) and the gay gazes/looks that used to be necessary to identify one another on the street, while swimming in a silencing sea of heteronormativity.

The series of striking portraits, representing a huge variety of folks, is a labor of love for Tabak, who said she started it at first to be able to hang out with friends and people she likes. (The portraits are shot in her home, and there’s been a lot of day-drinking involved.)

‘Sergio’ by Lauren Tabak

But soon the circle widened as she began to digest the sheer amount of individuality and originality in today’s queer looks. Compared to the “Castro clone” look of 50 years ago, which flagged a generation of gay men (and butch women), there seems to be an endless variety of styles that fall under the wondrously growing LGBTLMNOP umbrella. With such diversity, she became curious: How does queer visibility matter, here and now?

Each portrait is taken against a pink background (duh) and comes with an accompanying story from the subject about their llfe. (We’re debuting one portrait and story, Andrea’s, below.) For her show at The Laundry, Tabak will also include an audio element, in which you can hear each subject telling their own tales.

“Some stories are powerful and poetic, some are just funny, and some are totally unexpected,” Tabak told me. “One of my subjects, Miles, came in and I thought he was just another gay boy for a fun shoot—but it turned out he was trans, with an incredibly deep story about hiding himself. So this project also seems to be a way of bringing those stories to light, and maybe a way of keeping them in one place. I think of it as a referendum on the state of gay.” (One subject, Amaris, says in her story that the exodus of queer people from San Francisco makes her want to be as visible as possible, a beacon of queerness.)

‘Kyle’ by Lauren Tabak

So, I asked, in this moment of Instagram and Grindr, when everyone already shows their own Gayface to the world, how is this project taking a different and necessary approach?

“The people featured in Gayface aren’t just people I photograph, they’re my collaborators,” Tabak replied. “I’ll send them a bunch of proofs afterwards and we pick out ‘the one’ together. And then I’ll ask them why they like what they liked. Some of the time, they say ‘I look really hot’—which can be very affirming when someone else puts you in that light. But a lot of the time they say ‘I look like me.’ And I think that’s just such a wonderful alchemy to have happen in a collaboration like this.

“One thing I’ve discovered is that younger people don’t care as much about the heavier political meanings of how they’re presenting themselves to the world, like maybe someone from our generation would,” Tabak said. “They’re less about representation and more about ‘I’m just doing me.’ There’s an openness to that, which was unexpected. They’ve already claimed it.”

With so many flavors of queer at the moment, how will she know when the series is finished? “We live in a bubble,” Tabak says, again quite correctly. “My dream is to hop in an RV with my dog and travel the country, have these conversations with and photograph as many people as I can, and see how things are looking out there.”


Below is a debut portrait of Andrea, along with her story

‘Andrea’ by Lauren Tabak

Goldilocks and the 3 bears was my favorite book as a kid. I loved that this lost child found her perfect ”chair,” a safe space, a place she belonged, or so she thought.

This year I will have been out for half my life. The queer community I was born into was defined by gay and lesbian bars and the poster child was a blonde haired, blue-eyed lesbian comedian. While my curly hair is messier and darker than Goldilocks and my eyes are more gray than Ellen’s, I still pass for white. As a young queer I settled for this because at least I felt accepted, at least a part of me belonged as opposed to the whole of me feeling alone. 

Both sides of my family migrated from Mexico to Stockton. We would visit San Francisco often and I was drawn to the outright defiance of conformity that pervaded the SF of the ’90s. A place where immigrants, artists and outcasts sought refuge, a city where community meant everything. 

It’s taken me all the 37 years of my life to learn to silence preconceived notions around my identity. I embrace the power I hold, I am the legacy of my family’s courage and the “borders“ I am transcending for future generations are; toxic machismo, classism, homophobia, and racism. Growing up between two cultures meant that code switching was a means of survival and that has translated into how I navigate hetero/queer, genders/nonbinary, architect/artist, trauma/healing.

After two decades of living all over California, absorbing and immersing myself in the queer circles, latinx communities, and creative networks I finally find myself in San Francisco. My journey has taught me to unapologetically claim all the complicated layers of my existence. I have become uncompromising, and authentically me because I found my throne, it was in the mirror all along.

Through March 30
Opening reception Fri/17, 6pm-8pm
The Laundry, SF. 
More info here

Cartooning the Japanese Internment, through George Takei’s eyes

Harmony Becker illustration from the cover of 'The Called Us Enemy'

Harmony Becker, the creator of the comics Himawari Share, Love Potion, and Anemone and Catharus, was at her booth at an indie comic arts show in Brooklyn when Leigh Walton, with Top Shelf Productions, approached her and asked if she was interested in illustrating a book on the Japanese American experience. 

Becker didn’t know at the time the book was going to be about the Japanese internment—when 120,0000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated without due process during World War II. Specifically, the graphic memoir, They Called Us Enemy, was actor and activist George Takei’s story. 

“I think it was partially because of my style,” Becker said about why she was asked to do art for the graphic memoir. “One of the writers called it kind of Peanuts manga.”

San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum will have a show of Becker’s work from the book, along with some of her research and preliminary drawings. The show, They Called Us Enemy: A Graphic Memoir, which opens January 18 and runs through May 17, will also feature some original artwork from the Cartoon Art Museum’s permanent collection, including comic strips and animation from the 1940s. 

In They Called Us Enemy, Takei (along with co-writers Justin Eisinger & Steven Scott) tells the story of Takei’s family being ordered to go to a “relocation camp” when he was four years old. In February 1942, a couple of months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, forcibly removing people of Japanese descent from their homes on the West Coast and putting them in hastily built camps where they were incarcerated for the remainder of the war.

From ‘They Called Us Enemy’

After a few months housed in horse stalls, the Takeis took a train to Rohwer in Arkansas, the most eastern of the 10 internment locations. Then when his parents answered no to two questions on the government’s loyalty oath — about swearing allegiance to the United States and serving in the US military — they were sent to Tule Lake, a maximum security camp encircled by extra strands of barbed wire with 24 guard towers.

In his book, Takei also shares details about the politics of the time and in the camps with some people wanting to fight in the war on the US side, while others became more radicalized due to their horrible treatment by the US government. Takei takes pains to tell how his parents tried to shield him and his younger brother and sister, and how he and his father had many discussions about politics when he was a teenager. Takei takes the story all the way through to his studying acting at University of California, Los Angeles, and getting involved with Civil Rights to his getting the role he’s best known for, of Hikaru Sulu on Star Trek. 

The team behind ‘They Called Us Enemy’: George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, and Harmony Becker

Becker only had a few photos of Takei’s family to work from. Writing for comics it’s very clear what you need to do, she says, with directions about who is in a panel, and where they are standing. She met with Takei three times, and she says he has an excellent memory about that time in his life, remembering, for example, the exact layout of the two rooms his family lived in at Tule Lake. 

Becker says she was surprised how much research she needed to do to find out things like what canteens and radio looked like in the ‘40s. She looked at Dorothea Lange photos of the internment, and did Google searches, creating a Pinterest board. She also got a documentary from the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles that she found helpful.  

The book got the top spot on Publisher’s Weekly annual Graphic Novel Critic’s Poll, and Becker’s art was singled out for making it special and capturing the confusion of a child removed from his home. One reviewer wrote: “The art is simple, but very effective, capturing the struggles and bright small joys of a fragmented childhood.”

From ‘They Called Us Enemy’

Becker says she’s most pleased that Takei was satisfied with her drawings and that he told her she got his mother’s expressions right. 

Becker is Japanese American, and she had read about the internment as a child. She says what struck her most about Takei experience is his belief in America- even after everything he and his family went through. In the book, Takei writes about Ronald Reagan apologizing for a grave mistake and signing an act to give internees a $20,000 redress. After dinner talks with his father informed his belief that even with constant outrages such as migrant camps at the border, the United States is a democracy of the people, and people can do great things. 

“When I first started, I was almost a little cynical,” Becker said. “But George is so stubbornly patriotic that after spending time with him and hearing him speak multiple times, I was very inspired by his patriotism. He makes me feel proud to be American, which is not something I would usually say.”

January 18-May 17, 2020
Cartoon Art Museum, SF.
More info here

A 24/7 switchboard connecting participants to ‘The Dead Woman’

From 'A morta"

For her first solo show in California, Brazilian artist Cinthia Marcelle has converted the galleries at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts into a temporary radio station. Through computers at the Wattis and on personal computers or phones, members of the public here and around the world can participate 24 hours a day in Marcelle’s work, which is structured around Brazilian writer Oswald de Andrade’s 1937 play A morta (The Dead Woman). 

In this play, Andrade investigated the relationship between theater, life, and death, and he considered the social implications of artists’ relationship to their work and in the conflicts of everyday life. This reflected some of Marcelle’s questions about her art with rising social inequality in Brazil and around the world. 

Marcelle has worked in lots of different forms, including installation, performance, drawing and video, and Kim Nguyen, CCA Wattis curator, says her art has lots of attention to detail while being lighthearted and having a satirical humor. 

‘A morta’

“The proposition here is all of us together get to rewrite the script and retell the story,” Nguyen said at the opening of A morta. “The show embraces chaos and disorder.”

The characters in Andrade’s play are on the wall of the gallery—including “The Poet,” “The Precocious Tourist,” “The Living,” and “The Dead”—and the character name lights up when chosen by a participant. Through song selection those taking part at home or at the gallery, assume a role in the play, so their choices construct—and deconstruct—the script. 

The audio streams into the gallery space, where visitors listen to the sounds and voices, as well as the moments of silence. Nguyen and Marcelle say the exhibition was partly inspired by collective action, like that of protest movements.

From ‘A morta’

At the opening of her show, Marcelle, who has exhibited all over the world, including representing Brazil at the Venice Biennale, and who currently has work at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s SOFT POWER exhibit, said she was drawn to Wattis partly because of the window looking into the gallery from the street. 

“This work deals with outside space and inside space and brings it together,” she said. “This room is inside, but it’s automatically connected to outside because it will be online 24 hours a day.”

The gallery has been hosting public programs along with A morta, including Chris E. Vargas with a Transcestor Radio Hour, and PJ Gubatina Policarpio with a conversation on kinship. On January 10DJ Lynnée Denise will do a lecture and screening of her latest project, Circle Formation, an experimental video installation which uses the “ring shout” dance style “to highlight the link between gospel and the queer roots of disco and house music.”

The Wattis Institute
Through January 18
To participate online, go here

The unflagging, cinematic visions of James Tissot

James Tissot, "On the Thames," ca.1876. Image provided courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

A sharpshooter in the Franco-Prussian War, a society painter, and a watercolorist who did hundreds of religious scenes that inspired filmmakers, including Steven Spielberg and George Lucas—James Tissot lived an extraordinary life.  

It would be hard to find anyone who knows more about his life and work than Melissa Buron, Director of the Art Division at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and curator of the exhibition, James Tissot: Fashion & Faith, at the Legion of Honor. Tissot is the subject of Buron’s dissertation for her doctorate in art history from the University of London, Birkbeck College, and she spent years working on this exhibit. 

Co-organized with the Musées d’Orsay et de l’Orangerie, Paris, the show has about 60 of Tissot’s paintings, including 10 of the Irish woman he loved, Kathleen Newton. October, a large portrait of her wearing black with autumn leaves in the background, hangs in the entrance to the show. She and Tissot never married because she was divorced, and they were both Catholics.

James Tissot
“October,” 1877. Image provided courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Newton died young of tuberculosis, prompting Tissot to leave London where the two of them had lived together and move back to Paris. Desperate for some kind of contact with her, he attended séances, wildly popular at the time. One of the paintings The Apparition, long thought to be lost, is from a vision he had at one and shows Newton with a spiritual guide, both of them in a celestial glow.

Buron jokes that she would be glad to work on a screenplay about Tissot in her spare time and that she has already cast the movie in her mind. His fascinating life is one of the three core themes she followed in organizing the show, she says, along with his immense talent and how after being an international superstar, he has been somewhat forgotten today – this is the first solo show of his work in the United States since one in 1999 at Yale.   

Buron has her own theory about why Tissot is not as well-known as his contemporaries such as Edgar Degas and Edward Manet. He had no one to carry on his legacy.

“He never married and no heirs,” she said. “So he was a bit hampered in that there was no one to carry the Tissot torch.”

Another thing that might have contributed to his fading from view, Buron thinks, is how difficult the painter was to categorize. He wasn’t really an Impressionist, turning down Manet’s invitation to be in their first big show of 1874. He wasn’t a realist either, and he spent the last years of his life making hundreds of watercolors of religious scenes. 

James Tissot, “La Femme à Paris: The Artists’ Wives,” 1885. Image provided courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Also, after spending a little more than a decade in London, Tissot was viewed with some suspicion when he came back to Paris, Buron says. To combat that he decided to do something he thought was very French—paint Parisienne women.

This led to paintings like The Artists Wives, a detailed scene at an outdoor café. Tissot’s father was a textile merchant and his mother owned a milliner shop, and the artist’s love of fabric and fashion is evident in these paintings. 

Tissot worked in different mediums, including painting, watercolors, prints and enamel, and Buron says his work is both pleasing to look at and deceptively complex. He also had a sly sense of humor, she thinks, and during a tour of the exhibit, she points to an example: London Visitors, a painting with lots of blacks and greys that shows a family of tourists on the steps in front of the National Gallery, the clock behind them showing that it’s 10:30, suggesting they are leaving a half hour after the museum opens, having raced through to check it off their list before going on to the next thing.

James Tissot, “London Visitors,” c. 1874. Image provided courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

In what was considered scandalous at the time, the woman in the group looks directly at the viewer—or maybe at the man who left a still burning cigar on the steps in front of her. Tissot’s storytelling and wit are on display here as they are in another painting in the room, Too Early, which shows a father and his three daughters arriving, well, too early, for an event. The maids, recognizing the social faux pas, are peering around the corner and laughing at the hapless guests. 

The show ends with 22 out of 700 of Tissot’s ridiculously cinematic Biblical watercolors. They inspired filmmakers, including William Wyler, who in Ben Hur, used Tissot’s What Our Lord Saw from the Cross, as a model for a scene where viewer see the crucifixion in a sort of aerial view. Spielberg and Lucas used the painter’s version of the Ark of the Covenant, seen in Moses and Joshua in the Tabernacle, in their movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark.

James Tissot, “Moses and Joshua in the Tabernacle,” c. 1896-1902. Photo © The Jewish Museum, New York. Image provided courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

That Tissot’s works exerted so much influence on filmmakers and are still seen in popular culture can’t be ignored, Buron says. This series of watercolors were hugely successful when first shown in Paris and London before going on tour in the U.S. 

“There are reports of people walking through these galleries, falling to their knees in veneration, weeping at the spectacle of these images,” she said. “They are so famous and well know that the artist John Singer Sargent, acting as an advisor to the Brooklyn Museum of Art, said you have to buy these works of art, you have to differentiate yourself from that other little museum in Manhattan- the Metropolitan Museum- because if you buy these works of art, people will come to your museum forever.”

Legion of Honor
Through February 9

More information here 

‘Bureau of Aesthetics’ prioritizes Native arts

Native Art Department International, "Walk the Walk" (Sam Durant) 2018. Photo by Jeff Warrin.

With Native Art Department International (NADI), Jason Lujan says he and Maria Hupfield try to collapse distinctions and treat other artists in a way that would have been helpful for them starting their careers. Lujan says he has often been asked to participate in shows about Native art where the organizers ignored his experience and talents.

“Usually the way it went is they’d say, ‘I wanted to put together a show about Native artists, so I Googled it and your name came up,’” he said. “We wanted to prioritize what artists were doing as opposed to just who they were.”

The wife and husband, who now live in Toronto where Hupfield is from, started NADI when they were living in Brooklyn.  Their latest show, Bureau of Aesthetics, is now at KADIST, a nonprofit art organization. Mercer Union curated the show, and the artist-run center in Toronto is the first institution to take part in KADIST’s Art-Space Residency in San Francisco. Both NADI and Mercer Union focus on collaboration and collectivity, which they explore in this show. 

For example, KADIST’s windows to the street and their library displays examples of Bay Area collectives including Borderline Art Collective, ONE+ONE+TWO, Slingshot, Street Sheet/Coalition on Homelessness, and 3.9 Art Collective. 

Institutional ephemera displayed in KADIST’s windows. Photo by Jeff Warrin.

Lujan says working with these collectives meant a lot to him and Hupfield. As an urban Native artist, he finds that often institutions are more interested in including rural Natives.

“What you’ll have is a community of Natives in an urban area like this, but then they’ll bring someone in from Alaska to talk about being from whatever community,” he said. “So, we’re hyper-conscious when we’re brought in, we don’t want to be the kind of artists who are parachuted in, utilize resources, and then leave. Because we’ve seen it on our end many times.”

Lujan says he asked KADIST to put him in touch with artist collectives in the Bay Area. He met with them and asked them about their experiences. 

Some of the members of 3.9 Collective, a group of African American artists in San Francisco, told him about what had happened when there was an exhibit of Black artists from the southern United States in San Francisco. 

“I asked them, ‘How were you utilized as part of Black community here?’ and they hadn’t been utilized at all,” Lujan said. “When there was programming here, they found that there were Black artists here from the South who were passed over because the museum decided to fly in people from Georgia. That was exactly the kind of thing we don’t want to do.”

Along with the work from collectives in the window and on the bookshelves, pieces in the show include Double Shift, two hoodies sewn together with painted canvas connecting them that Hupfield and Lujan used to do a performance at the Nocturne Festival 2018 in Halifax, Nova Scotia; Drink for Two, five sake bottles with a pink lightbulb; and Walk the Walk (Sam Durant), with neon Walk/Don’t Walk crosswalk signs over the text “You Are On Indian Land Show Some Respect.” 

The exhibit also includes There Is No Then and Now; Only Is and Is Not, a video of Dennis Redmoon Darkeem a Black member of the Yamassee Yat’siminoli tribe, dancing in an empty theater, dressed in powwow regalia. 

From Dennis Redmoon’s “There Is No Then and Now; Only Is and Is Not,” 2018

Hupfield says they included this piece in an exhibition they were invited to take part in, On Whiteness, at New York’s The Kitchen.

“We kind of complicated the space because we came in with this piece that wasn’t just about Native Americans dealing with whiteness and the privilege of passing but looking at the way that race affects our communities. You can be white and passing but if you’re codified in another way as Dennis is, there’s a denying that he could be Native.”

Hupfield says working together, she and Lujan have done different kinds of things, including film screenings and curating shows. Collaborating is a kind of strategy, she believes. 

“We wanted to present ourselves as standing shoulder to shoulder with other artists,” Hupfield said.  “Being together we have a lot more power to create the types of opportunities that we were looking for that we weren’t finding.”

Through January 25
More information here

‘A Gothic Tale’ plumbs Legion of Honor’s haunting depths

Installation view of Alexandre Singh's 'A Gothic Tale.' at the Legion of Honor

Does Halloween have you in the mood for some film noir? Maybe some mirrored walls and alternate selves? Something SPOOKternatural?

Then head to the Legion of Honor (on the site of a former graveyard, muahaha) and see French artist Alexandre Singh’s show, A Gothic Tale (through April 12), which includes a 20-minute film, The Appointment, an absurd and dreamlike thriller. The main character wakes up to find “12 o’clock at the restaurant La Folie” written in his appointment book – but he doesn’t remember making the date or who he is meeting.

When no one shows up at the restaurant, he gets obsessed with solving the mystery. Nothing says haunting and creepy like organ music, and the film’s score, written by a Dutch composer, is performed at intervals on the museum historic Spreckels organ.

Still from Singh’s film ‘The Appointment’

San Francisco’s ties to film noir, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai inspired Singh, as well as the Legion being on top of a former cemetery. The mirrored walls in A Gothic Tale are a nod to a famous scene from Welles’ 1947 movie with a shootout in a hall of mirrors, and doppelgängers, or doubles, are a device used in Gothic literature.

These divided selves first popped up in German literature of the 1800s, and also have appeared in the work of Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King, famously in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Picture of Dorian Gray, and in TV shows like The Vampire Diaries. Many video games have some version of fighting an evil version of yourself. The Legion itself is a doppelgänger of the Palais de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris.

From ‘The Appointment’

Before entering the room where The Appointment is showing, you go through the Legion’s medieval art gallery, where doppelgängers, such as prints of Roman tombs by Giovanni Battista Piranesi and biblical scenes by Albrecht Dürer, hang on walls covered in mirrors.

Singh looked through the museum’s collection with contemporary arts curator Claudia Schmuckli, to find works for A Gothic Tale. He and art historian Natalie Musteata, who produced The Appointment, worked to create a surreal experience with prints that look like duplicates – but are mirrored, bastardized, or pirated, Singh said on the opening night of the show. 

“We are presented in this Hall of Mirrors with reflections of ourselves and reflections of characters where there are little eerie differences,” Singh told the crowd. “It’s an opportunity to celebrate the eerie, the uncanny, the strange, the horror in a museum context, which may sound odd, but then when you walk through these galleries and see all the decapitated bodies and Christ being tortured on the cross, it’s not so strange.”

Through April 12
Legion of Honor
Tickets and more information