75 Reasons to Live: Renny Pritikin on Robert Arneson

Renny Pritikin, director of the Nelson Gallery at UC Davis, discusses Bay Area artist Robert Arneson and his political portrait Harvey (1982). Pritikin places Arneson’s work in the context of political art, Funk Art, and the historical moment in San Francisco at the time of the assassinations of George Moscone and Harvey Milk.


Remember the end of Manhattan, when Woody Allen asks himself what makes life worth living? Last January, during SFMOMA’s three day 75th anniversary celebration, 75 people from the Bay Area creative community gave extremely short talks—7.5 minutes or less!—on a single collection work of their choosing. Someone called it ‘manic splendor’—and it was. You can follow the 75 Reasons to Live talks as we post them by checking in here.

Palimpsest 8

“Palimpsest, i.e., a parchment from which one writing has been erased to make room for another.” H.D.

“The practice of painting is much more a habit, rather than being something exquisite.”

Luc Tuymans

Pink Glasses


blank spots and

areas of color

where details are erased, left out—

particular areas of bold, deep color, [Orchid]

more quiet faded-looking color

or grays and

black but areas are filled

up with color

salient is the

puzzle-like quality


of photographs,

drawings, translated

from reality

from somewhere else?

laterality, aqua or

cerulean, ultramarine

or navy


roses in a yellow sky

like a hangover from

witless seeing

darklit sun

from the awareness

of windows

areas like objects

Art School Confidential

Spring, at art school, is an emotionally schizophrenic season. The weather tends to be glorious (and pollen-filled), as it was today, and campuses pulse with alternating currents of stress, anxiety, hope, exhaustion, and celebration as everyone lurches to the finish line. That was definitely the mix at SFAI this evening, when the campus was buzzing with multiple activities — MA thesis presentations, exhibitions, food carts, bands, red plastic cups, and a keg. To this was added the Northern California stop of Teach 4 Amerika, a Creative Time–sponsored project by the contrarian art collective Bruce High Quality Foundation. San Francisco is the next to last stop in an 11-city tour of American art schools. (Full disclosure — I invited them as part of SFAI’s Visiting Artists and Scholars Lecture Series, which I coordinate.) The group, perhaps best known for their ambulance/hearse/gallery in the last Whitney Biennial, has been touring in another potently reconfigured vehicle — a tattered limo, crudely painted to look like a school bus.

The Teach 4 Amerika bus, parked at SFAI

According to their Wikipedia entry, the BHQF was “created to foster an alternative to everything,” this tour intending to counter the pervasive model of art school, which their spokesperson, of a group of Bruces named Seth, termed “MFA-mills.” The presentation itself fit right into the seasonal ebullience and anxiety combo. It started off with convivial spectacle — the lecture hall was littered with multicolored balloons as the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band, perched in upper seats, belted out American standards and late model rock hits, and BHQF members, wielding a bazooka-like device, shot tie-dyed tour T-shirts and pint-size pennants to an audience primarily composed of art students. The transformation of the space was remarkable — a room more used to witnessing art history lectures or artist talks, now hosted a cross between a game show and pep rally.

An audience of artists, with balloons and beer

San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band, in the peanut gallery

BHQF is nothing if not snarky, and the Powerpoint presentation was just that, essentially offering a child of the 1970s as the model for the current, aspiring art student. While comprised primarily of images that played like art-savvy America’s Funniest Internet Nuggets (and numerous clips of Barack Obama), it couldn’t live up to the energetic pre-show promise. In a nutshell (though more often, the presentation compared art school to a nut house via numerous clips from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest“), Seth’s point is that the increasing cost and accredited standardization of arts education is anathema to the core of creative activity — if you took away all the galleries, art schools, art fairs, museums, etc., would people still make art? He went on to suggest that the very real increase in art schools, and the students that graduate from them, has little to do with an expanded market or exponentially rising interest in contemporary art.

All of which is true, but the argument, which admittedly is condensed here, seemed thin. Neither did it seem to resonate with this crowd, as the semi-situationist presentation didn’t offer a glimmer of an alternative other than a lunatics-are-running-the-asylum sense of escape. There was a fittingly contentious tone to the audience’s questions, which called out the lack of articulated options, trouble with the choice of so many Hollywood generated images, and BHQF’s complicity with the institutions they critique. The answers weren’t always satisfying, and yet the Bruces did manage to stir up dust and dialogue (which they’re following up with a less public conversation at a local alternative space). Ironically, it seemed that many of the students, and maybe even faculty, seemed to express more resolve in their choice to be engaging in an art education.

I was reminded of something that was spoken earlier this semester in a professional practices course (another thing called out in the Bruces’ arch polemic) that I’m co-teaching at CCA. We had invited a group of artists who got their MFAs three years ago, and are each approaching their life as an artist their own way. When we asked them if any of them regretted the sizable loans they’re in the early stages of repaying, none of them did. They all admitted they’d do it again in a heartbeat. You can’t help but wonder if BHQF would say the same about this tour.

Positive Signs #14 & 15

Positive Signs is a weekly series of interpretive diagrams, quotes, and speculations on creativity, optimism*, and the lives of artists, published every Wednesday through June.

3 dimensions of explanatory style: permanence, pervasiveness, personalization. Explanatory style is the manner in which you habitually explain to yourself why events happen. The skills of optimism do not consist in learning to say positive things to yourself. What is crucial is what you think when you fail."

Christine Wong Yap, Positive Sign #14 (Three Dimensions of Explanatory Style), 2011; glitter and neon pen on gridded vellum; 8.5 × 11 in./21.5 × 28 cm

Positive Signs 15: two reasons to have hope for optimism: 1, basic pessimism is not fixed and unchangeable; 2, you can learn a set of skills that free you from the tyranny of pessimism and allow you to use optimism when you choose.

Christine Wong Yap, Positive Sign #15 (Two Reasons to Have Hope for Optimism), 2011; glitter pen on gridded vellum; 8.5 × 11 in. 21.5 × 28 cm

*Notwithstanding brief forays into the nature of space, stuff, experience, and cognition.

Next Wednesday: Positive Signs #16, 17, & 18 on pervasiveness, permanence, and personalization.
See all Positive Signs to date.

Shop Talk 2 Respondent: Clark Buckner

Stephanie Syjuco, Shadowshop, 2010–11; photo: Dominic Santos

On Thursday, April 14, Open Space and Art Practical hosted the second of three conversations organized loosely around issues and themes raised by Stephanie Syjuco’s multiartist project Shadowshop, on view now. Today we present three responses to that evening. Do join us for the last evening of discussion, on Thursday, May 12. Please welcome critical theorist Clark Buckner.

Would the Real Artist Please Stand Up?

The second round of Shop Talk was framed by the central question posed by organizers Suzanne Stein and Patricia Maloney: “What is the perceived value of the artist’s production, or practice, and how does it change as art or artist traffic in different environments? The question developed out of the issues raised during the first gathering of Shop Talk, concerning whether Stephanie Syjuco’s project for the museum, Shadowshop, was beneficial for or ultimately at the expense of the artists who participated in it. Originally these issues were posed primarily in terms of finances and professional development; and, during the second round of Shop Talk, they were first taken up again in a similar vein, as a matter of cultural capital and institutional validation.

Artist Charlene Tan asked: was it fair for contributors to Shadowshop to claim to have shown at SFMOMA? Some clearly thought so. Tim Roseborough explained that he had forced his way into the museum’s 2009 exhibition The Art of Participation by taking advantage of an opportunity to bid on gallery space offered by artists Joachim Blank, Gerrit Gohlke, and Karl Heinz Jeron, in their work 1rst Public White Cube. While once he had thought that his presence in the show was accordingly illegitimate, Tim said that now indeed he included it on his resume, and thought that participants in Shadowshop ought to do the same. But others drew a distinction: Stephanie, not the museum’s curators, solicited the artists in Shadowshop. As one person cleverly put it, their work was “in the museum, but not of the museum.” However, a remark by Suzanne suggested that these apparently opposing positions might be reframed (dialectically) as altogether consistent with the intended role of the project within SFMOMA. Shadowshop, she reminded us, was part of the larger exhibition The More Things Change, which surveys art of the last decade collected by the museum.  In this regard, the work in Shadowshop was clearly set apart from the art the museum had sanctioned by adding to its collection. At the same time, however, Stephanie’s project served as a supplement to this very narrow set, by providing space for other artists who have indeed contributed to the development of art over the last decade, even if they have not achieved the same degree of success, or simply work beyond the reach of the museum’s radar. In this way, while distinguishing it from the art collected by the museum, SFMOMA simultaneously extended its sanction to the work in Shadowshop — albeit indirectly, by way of Stephanie’s curatorial discretion.


Shop Talk 2 Respondent: Jasper Bernes

Stephanie Syjuco, Shadowshop, 2010–11; photo: Dominic Santos

On Thursday, April 14, Open Space and Art Practical hosted the second of three conversations organized loosely around issues and themes raised by Stephanie Syjuco’s multiartist project Shadowshop, on view now. Today we present three responses to that evening. Do join us for the last evening of discussion on Thursday, May 12. Please welcome poet and critic Jasper Bernes.

The second Shoptalk seemed to run aground, rather quickly, on the question of whether Shadowshop “devalued” art and artists by asking them to submit to various mercantile (and mercenary) constraints. People in the room espoused what seemed to me a surprisingly expansive sense of the artist’s vocation, and were quick to produce hoary notions about the specialness or freedom of art. Which is fine, I guess. Except that this freedom turned out to mean not freedom from mercenary concerns but participation in a very special market — the gallery system — whose chief distinguishing feature is that it allows everyone to pretend that money isn’t going to change hands at some points. The gallery system, it turns out, provides people with a simulacrum of such autonomy from market. So, as one gentleman sitting in front of me paradoxically suggested, flirting with markets in the manner of Shadowshop actually compromises the market value of individual artworks. Steering clear of things like Shadowshop is the surest path to those five- and six-figure sales prices. I don’t know that there’s much to say about this. It seems like OK advice, I guess, if one wants pragmatic guidelines for success. I think some of the people present wanted that pragmatic conversation, and some people wanted something else.

Overall, what stuck with me was a kind of tone or mood. There was a palpable sense of scarcity and even desperation in the room, and though it was clear that Shadowshop had tapped deep-seated and long-standing resentments, I couldn’t help but feel that those resentments were left unnamed.  This sense of scarcity points to the very real character of the economic world we currently live in, as all around us capitalism in general and in the U.S. exhibits its diseases of old age. This is what strikes me as profoundly different about Shadowshop in comparison to other artistic experiments with economic value and exchange, most of which seem predicated on the possibility of endless abundance, where art can create value ex nihilo merely by convening a set of bodies in a given space. Art as fictitious capital. But no more — such fantasies of abundance probably seem as naïve today as the optimism people once attached to Obama.


Shop Talk 2 Respondent: Erika Staiti

Stephanie Syjuco, Shadowshop, 2010–11; photo: Dominic Santos

On Thursday, April 14, Open Space and Art Practical hosted the second of three conversations organized loosely around issues and themes raised by Stephanie Syjuco’s multiartist project Shadowshop, on view now. Today we present three responses to that evening. Do join us for the last evening of discussion on Thursday, May 12. Please welcome poet Erika Staiti.

Suzanne Stein, community producer at SFMOMA, and Patricia Maloney, editor of Art Practical, begin the second Shop Talk conversation with opening remarks and a useful framework. They pose two questions [What is the perceived value of the artist’s production, or practice, and how does it change as art or artist traffic in different environments? and What are the economic realities for artists?]; identify six overarching categories [sustainability, autonomy, transparency, authorship/anonymity, valuation, and motivation]; and use quotes from the respondents to the first conversation to provide context for the group.

Amanda Hughen, Shadowshop participant and Shop Talk presenter, is the first to respond. She says that for her, being an artist is less about being successful or making money and more about her identity as an artist. She thinks through the idea of what it might mean to “cling to an identity.” Following her comments come others, about what we consider “work” and how people see the world through their own filters. The contributors start with themselves, their experience, or their practice or their thoughts, and end with a general idea that could be expounded upon should someone choose to pick up the conversation from there. The discussion is organic and inclusive, an open field where anything can come up.

Then, a shift in dynamic occurs. Someone voices a strong sentiment about Shadowshop — how it strips the intention and spirit of the artwork it holds; that if the same piece can sell for $1,000 in a gallery and it sells at Shadowshop for $200, it is not the same work. The work is likened to a cheap object rather than a piece of art worthy of its price. Hughen mentions that she has two different works in the shop — mugs crafted specifically for Shadowshop (made under the name Sweat Equity and Co.) and also some of her prints with her name on them. She says in the shop environment she is more comfortable selling the mugs than her own work. There’s some discussion about whether artists feel they can put their participation in Shadowshop on their resume, or more accurately, whether they can put SFMOMA on their resume. Another person discusses his opinion that both curator and artists could have been more thoughtful about their participation; that artists don’t know how to price their work; and that it would have been a very different project if the artists contributed their own work set at the price that it cost them to create. I nod along to some of these comments, but gradually I become alienated from the lines of thinking in the room. The conversation has shifted in style, from an open exploration to targeted complaints and criticisms.


Release Ai Weiwei—An Overseas Chinese Perspective

Love the Future. Chinese Consulate, New York City.

Love the Future — Chinese Consulate, New York City, April 2011. 'Love the Future' is a code for 'Ai Weiwei,' an innovation springing from censorship in China, where the results of internet searches for Ai's name are are censored.

As previously stated on this blog, arts institutions and concerned citizens are calling for the release of artist Ai Weiwei, who was detained by Chinese authorities.

Ai’s whereabouts are still unknown. According to FreeAiWeiwei.org, today marks the 22nd day since Ai disappeared.

Readers seeking additional perspectives might see “Release Ai WeiWei: An Overseas Chinese Perspective,” an op-ed I posted on New America Media.

Shirin Sadeghi interviewed me about it for New America Media Radio. You can listen to the segment as an MP3 here.

JACK SPICER: A Non-Tragic Universe

Because April 2008 was when Open Space first appeared, I thought it might be nice to mark its third anniversary with an interview with the poet Jack Spicer from June 17th, 1965. It is published by Jacket magazine online. Click HERE to read it.

And to get a sense of the impact he has had on the San Francisco creative community click HERE to read a short bio online at Poets.org.