March 11, 2010

Re: Mission

In January, at the opening of the Anniversary Show at SFMOMA, artist Colter Jacobsen and I found ourselves standing in the doorway of the SECA/Mission School room, which was kind of comical since Colter himself is frequently associated with the Mission School. Well, maybe not “comical.” Maybe “awkward” or “ironic” would be better. I pointed to the signage and said, “I guess the Mission School is official.” Colter nodded toward the Barry McGee assemblage bulging from the wall and said, “Yes, it’s pregnant and giving birth to itself.”

Barry McGee, Untitled, 1996

A few weeks later, when I return to take a better look at the works of Leslie Shows, Simon Evans, Barry McGee, etc., my feelings are mixed. It’s great that the museum is supporting younger local artists, but does this art with its found materials (a.k.a. garbage), skateboard images and graffiti, want to be there, all gussied up and crowning the walls of gallery 204B? I remember openings for these artists at Jack Hanley’s gallery on Valencia, Adobe Books on 16th Street, and Rick Jacobsen’s short-lived Kiki Gallery (1993-95) on 14th Street—musician friends or the artists themselves tormenting electric guitars, art lovers spilling out onto the sidewalk, swilling canned beer, smoking and talking a mile a minute, the crowd so dense that passersby had to walk in the street to get around them, neighbors calling the police. I remember the wooden fort-type structure Chris Johanson filled Jack Hanley’s with, how we had to climb on it and bend our bodies and peek through crevices to view the pictures he’d affixed to it. I remember the stench of cat urine at Adobe, the dust, the labyrinth of scenesters sipping red wine from plastic glasses amidst book-laden tables that prevented anyone but the most devoted from making it to the tiny back room to view the art. I remember the art serving as a backdrop to plays, poetry readings, and acoustical music sets—and Jerome Caja taking a bubble bath in a claw-footed tub during his opening at Kiki. I turn around and around in gallery 204B and no matter how hard I try, I can’t feel the aura of those raucous nights clinging to this work. This art, I think, has lost the battle. It is now one with the impenetrable cleanliness of the institution.

Chris Johanson, Untitled (Figures with black presence), 2002

When I walk through an art museum, I sometimes experience a rush of the living community that created the objects—this other place and era that was invariably filled with light, because aren’t all artists supposed to be obsessed with light, like they feed off vast amounts of brightness and they work in studios with huge plate glass windows and skylights. When I stand in front of an Impressionist painting, it’s not just any old light bouncing off the canvas, it’s the blinding sunlight of 19th century absinthe-fumed Paris reaching through time and shining on me. That’s a great museum day. On a bad museum day, all I see are objects ripped from context, denatured. The moisture-controlled air grows colder, more tomblike, and the art seems to be waiting, like crypted vampires in a Hammer horror film, waiting for a few drops of blood, a clueless archeologist’s bloody nose or a devotee’s dramatically cut finger, waiting so that they can reanimate and wreak bohemian madness.

Jorge Fick oil painting, hanging in my kitchen

In my kitchen above a prep counter hangs a square canvas from the early 50s, by the Detroit-born painter Jorge Fick (1936-2004), who worked at Black Mountain College with John Chamberlain and Franz Kline. The oil painting originally belonged to the late Donald Allen, who published many of Fick’s contemporaries in the Evergreen Review and the seminal anthology The New American Poetry 1945-1960. I don’t know the name of the painting nor its exact year. Don Allen told Kevin that Fick’s painting, comprised of gray, pale blue, and black rectangles, is of a window at Black Mountain. It’s soothing to stand at my cutting board and stare at this window with its opaque black panes. The painting is spattered with grease and tomato bits, it feels the changing atmosphere of my kitchen, the chill of winter, the flames under my tea kettle, the dampness of yesterday’s hail storm. Allen took better care of it, but I like to think the Fick is happy living with us. Like my mother’s cat, it’s been moved from a much cushier environment to my disgraceful funkiness, but it continues to thrive, to intersect with a living, breathing world.

Leslie Shows, Two Ways to Organize, 2006

You want to hold on to a scene, to make it last forever, but art communities are transitory, neighborhoods are transitory The Mission scene is over. No longer is it a cheap place to hang out and make art. Condos have replaced garrets, and outsiders take cabs to $$$ restaurants. When I lived there in the mid-80s it was nearly impossible to get a cab there because cabs didn’t bother going to such a shit hole. Some artists have moved to downtown galleries, others have left town. I hear Jack Hanley is closing his San Francisco gallery. The urinating cat at Adobe passed away. When I see artists I know displayed in a museum it’s a bit tragic, for that entry into the museum comes with whiffs of loss, of vibrant worlds that are no longer. Maybe it is my Mission scene, the one I remember, that is over; Kevin reminds me that, somehow, even in these inflationary times, a whole new crowd of young artists is working hard and doing beautiful things in the Mission; and that in fact many of the Mission School artists are still with us, Colter included. During the anniversary weekend “75 Reasons” show, we heard designer Jennifer Sonderby explain that she chose Leslie Shows’ Two Ways to Organize for the cover of SFMOMA’s 75 Years of Looking Forward catalogue because of the painting’s layering. Sonderby likened the history of art to geological strata, with each artist adding to the strata. What I see as the “real” San Francisco may be disappearing, but I realize that when I moved here in 1979, one month before Harvey Milk was assassinated, I was already stepping into an onrushing stream of hope and regret. Art museums. We love them, we hate them, with their canonized objects so far removed from their roots. The art museum taps into our fear of death, imbuing these fragile materials with immortality. When I reconsider Barry McGee’s bulging assemblage I realize, it’s not pregnant, it’s bulging with something from another dimension, trying to break through.

Comments (13)

  • Hey all,

    I’ve enjoyed reading all the comments. And rereading Dodie’s essay with all the comments in mind definitely expands the field.

    But to answer Chris, yes, the thing about the pregnant comment was intended to be a joke. Honestly, I hadn’t remembered saying it until I read Dodie’s post. It certainly wasn’t to discount any person or anyone’s art or school associations.

    And reading the joke now, I don’t really even know what i was implying as it’s sort of a weird concept to even fathom. How do you give birth to yourself? I don’t even get it myself!

    Maybe subconsciously I was referencing the idea of mis en abime from Dodie’s essay Barf Manifesto- “Now I’ve dived into “Everyday Barf” yet another time, and my perception of it keeps changing. With each iteration i could write another frame recontextualizing Eileen’s and my Barfs, and the piece could reflect and expand ad infinitum, like one of those drawings where a person is looking at a reflection of a reflection of themselves in a mirror or holding a box of cereal and on the box of cereal is a picture of themselves holding a box of cereal and on and on. Cereal, why am I thinking cereal? It’s like that knots and nots thing, and my mind wants this hidden reference to seriality, to the serial, to resurface.”

    I could say the same thing about my comment. What did I really mean? “I could write another frame recontextualizing” it.

    And about scenes, yes, there are many overlapping circles, all of which are in constant rotation and flux. I was certainly (and still am!) very much inspired, influenced, by the Mission School ripples. I remember when that article by Glen Helfand about the Mission School came out in the Guardian. Was that the moment of naming? Or was it earlier. Maybe it first came with monks and their Mission (sad). Suddenly when something is named you find yourself positioning yourself to that name. I’ve often joked that I’m actually a part of the Noe School as I live at the dividing line (voting district-wise) of the Mission and Noe Valley. I’m on Guerrero street (warrior!). I like the word Noe too (as Mitch pointed out it’s a paradox, claiming no “E” yet containing one). But I’ve always said that I live in the Mission. I still love it here, even though we miss(ion) many of the wonderful artists that have lived here.

  • Chris Johanson says:

    I was hoping I was reading misinterpreting the words. I am so glad too because I think you are awesome. When I think about all the people we all know, all the levels of closeness, small degrees of separation, time spent together at different times, the way everyone has supported each other at different times, I really feel a connection to it all and I know so many people feel the same way. I really learned about community in San Francisco. Lots of people are living in Sf and lots of people are living in different towns now but there is still a lot of connection going on and that is one of the main gifts of knowing all these like minded people.

  • Dodie Bellamy says:


    I wasn’t intending to say anything negative about the Mission School. My post was intended to be about the strangeness, the uncanniness of seeing people I’ve known in a vital arts scene being tombed in a museum. The comic, ironic, etc., wasn’t a criticism of the art or of Colter, just the strangeness of having him there as observer to a school of art he’s associated with. I took Colter’s pregnant comment to be a joke, not a discounting. If I presented him inadequately, I apologize.

    You’re right, so many people get left out when the Mission scene is discussed. The intention of my post was to honor the larger community in which such work flourished.

    I admire and adore both you and your work.


  • Chris Johanson says:

    Dodie, I am curious to know why comical, ironic, and awkward are words you use when describing the “SECA Mission School room” at the SFMOMA in relation to Colter Jacobson. It sounds like that is what you are doing. Or are you talking about the art in the room itself? And Whats up with the discounting Pregnant comment from Colter? Am I reading this wrong?
    I don’t want to go at length in describing the whole history of how art writers have whittled the whole community down to mentioning the same 5 artists in every article. But I will say that I have always said that my community of artists in San Francisco has always involved poets, writers, muralists, film makers, video, sound artists, photographers, many musicians, junkies, speed freaks, carpenters, mechanical wizards, sculptors, Hustlers of all kinds, etc.
    That is a fact.
    What shows up in a museum is always an ice cream cone on the tip of a snowy mountain.
    Hopefully someone will take the time and energy and make some comprehensive books on this era or eras of SF.
    Even though I think it is a hard town to stay in for a whole life unless you have a rent controlled apartment or have some other scam, I do believe it will always have a thriving art scene because of the towns mythology.
    From the beats, hippies, punks alone, it pulls young people toward it so they can go experience this history they know San Francisco has had.
    I always considered you both a part of Mission community. Dodie, because you are just a part of San Francisco art history to me. And Colter, because you also are weaved into a lot of different scenes of people in the neighborhood. Although you came on in the scene publicly a lot later than a lot of other people. I think that is what made the whole scene in the mission so great. it was an interconnectedness of people.
    I don’t live there anymore, I don’t know the dynamic anymore, but I have fond memories.
    And I do consider both of you to be mission artists.

  • Dodie Bellamy says:

    It’s interesting that Frida Kahlo is mentioned as an example of art enjoyed out of context, as she’s got to be one of the most over-biographied and mythified artists of all times.

  • Christine Wong Yap says:

    As someone from Daly City (which a friend once described as “more Frisco than Frisco”) this reminds me of the liner notes to one of Lookout! Records’ last compilations. In it, Lawrence Livermore (the punk rock impresario, not the scientist) declared the Gilman punk scene dead: “By the time you listen to this, the scene will be over.” The difference, though, was that Livermore was making an optimistic point: stay where you are and start your own scene. DIY doesn’t mean joining an existing scene or feeling nostalgic for a heyday that once was. It means getting on with it. So some Mission artists enjoy SFMoMA sanctioning, some don’t, and the rest of us stay and support places like Intersection and SoEx and/or flee to Oakland, outer Mission, San Mateo, NY, LA, Chapel Hill or whatever. The new scenes will not have the garbage-juice-soaked charm of the pre-hipster-playground Mission days; it’ll have its own funk or fragrance, and hallelujah for that.

  • Francesca (F.S.) Rosa says:

    And I thought MY kitchen was the last remnant in the neighborhood of disgraceful funkiness. Glad to know there are still other pockets of resistance. The canvases in my funkified domain are by Jono Weiss. A whole other world every time I look at them.

  • It seems that your response to the Mission School room at the SFMOMA is all based on your own interactions within the Mission District art scene at the time. Yes, the moment is greater than the work that remains. But that’s true for all art, for all art “schools”, for all art movements, for everything in life. When i stand in front of a Frida Kahlo painting, i can only enjoy the work for the work. I wasn’t there to know what life was like. For 99.9% of the art in the SFOMOMA i can only see the art. I didn’t have the chance to be in the moment. I didn’t hang out at The Factory with Andy Warhol. The salons of Paris. New Mexico in the 30’s and 40’s. It’s all in the past. Everything is in the past. So why does the Mission School room have to be any different? Just because you and i can remember Jack Hanley openings, Adobe smells, and just because we know some of the artists, doesn’t make the art created any less significant. In 20 years we’ll be lucky to even hear the name, “The Mission School.” Museums are graveyards for the visual past. And i’m fine with that.

  • Vance Maverick says:

    Good question — that’s something like the willed sceniness of “site-specific” work, at one end of the continuum (with “organic” scenes being the other). The Met guards’ show, mentioned here recently, is another kind of hybrid, arguably more organic.

  • Dodie Bellamy says:

    Thanks for all the comments here! Though I must say that concepts like “greatness” make me cringe a bit, with all their cultural/canonical baggage. One big point I left out of the article was to point up that some site specific work is made for the museum, such as that Ropes Course type drawing Matthew Barney did for SFMOMA. In that case is the museum itself the scene? Or perhaps it’s the era or some larger global matrix that would make such a drawing project appealing?

  • Vance Maverick says:

    For those of us who know art mainly from museums, this is a salutary reminder that the works in our museums originated in a scene, and while scenes have varied widely, and are all more or less unknowable to us, we do know and should remember that they were nothing like the museum. Not that that invalidates the museum (though as you say, not all works will flourish there).

  • It has always seemed clear to me that great works of art have an autonomous existence independent of location—whether hanging in the SFMOMA, the Mission neighborhood gallery, or above your couch, great works will fill the space with their magic, regardless.

    If a work of art seems to die in the museum, then its context is far too tied to the moment or scene in which it was created…and most likely will not last the test of time.

    If museums, such as SFMOMA, “take on meaning when we see what human impact they have and what is put in them,” to quote Renny Pritikin, then showing a narrow group of Mission School artwork that no longer lives on the streets of San Francisco, well, you have to wonder what is going on…

    Dodie, I’m glad you touch on this questionable issue of “officiating,” done by a museum. The art might have lost the battle, or maybe one should say the anti-authoritarianness of the Mission School times have been either highjacked or squandered…but the upside is that anyone who owns a Mission School associated artpiece has now seen their monetary investment skyrocket!!

  • Very powerful Dodie. You share so many ideas that’ve passed unformed through my head but I was never able to capture. Indeed, we seem to have approached some of the same themes from different directions this week. It is about death isn’t it, or, fighting the death or passing into irrelevance or history of one’s generation. Sometime soon you’ll say to someone, “That’s where Jack Hanley’s gallery used to be. It was really important.” And the young person won’t know, and the words will be so inadequate. I was reading in my word-of-the-day thing this morning about the phrase will-of-the-wisp. The derivation is from swamp gas, mythologized as a guy named Will who has a lamp, by whose dim light (wisp) unwary travelers are led deeper into the swamp at their peril. So museums as “whiffs of loss,” very sublime, leading us into the swamp of the past. But having worked at two museums that didn’t collect before my current gig, I’m loving being able to wander through our collection here at Davis and find remnants of other people’s pasts. But as you say, we must remember that they are fragments of lives, dried skins of once-living scenes that we can only partially know.

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