December 08, 2020

Communal Exchange

Mary Lovelace O’Neal, Untitled, 1977–1978; Lampblack charcoal, glitter, masking tape, pastel on canvas; 84 in. x 144 in. (213.36 cm x 365.76 cm); collection SFMOMA, purchased with aid of funds from the National Endowment for the Arts; © Mary Lovelace O’Neal

Traces of glitter cling to the charcoal-saturated surface, revealing a barely visible luster within Mary Lovelace O’Neal’s quietly commanding Untitled (1977–78). Fluid lines of multicolored pastels — torrid red, rich purple, electric blue — and peeled-away masking tape cut through the inky expanse of velvety, unstretched canvas. Power emanates from this painting; the boldness of the pigments and deliberate, steady approach to mark-making give the impression of an artist completely clear in her vision and approach. As the initial visual impact washes over you, wonder progresses to something deeper. For Lovelace O’Neal, a prolific artist, educator, and activist, paintings like this have personal meaning beyond aesthetic explorations, abstractly expressing her experiences as a Black woman.

Organized by painting and sculpture curatorial assistant Meredith Van Dyke and Barbara and Stephan Vermut director of public engagement Tomoko Kanamitsu, the Revisiting the Museum Intercommunity Exchange (M.I.X.) gallery on SFMOMA’s fifth floor appears unassuming at first glance. But the artworks within reveal hidden and urgent histories.

Leo Valledor, Whose Blues, 1958

Leo Valledor, Whose Blues, 1958; oil on masonite; 49 5/8 in. x 49 1/2 in. (126.05 cm x 125.73 cm); collection SFMOMA, purchased through a gift of Phyllis Moldaw; © Estate of Leo Valledor

Across from Untitled, Leo Valledor’s Whose Blues (1958) explores color theory and harmony, gestural brushstrokes forming an energetic knot of blue and white pigments. Steeped in the Fillmore jazz scene and Beat poetry of Valledor’s native San Francisco, the painting plays with visual rhythm, its central frenzy of muted colors cradled within the stillness of the oily, black background. You can almost imagine watching a jazz band at an intimate club, perhaps the Blue Mirror, squinting your eyes until only the most abstract of visuals remain.

To the left of Valledor’s painting, George Joji Miyasaki’s multimedia collage Big Medicine (1982) takes a different approach to rhythm and color, shrinking gestural elements to abrupt strokes of pastel and focusing on pattern and repetition. Layers of paper and subtle geometric arrangements cover the immense canvas, creating a visually uneven surface like a mountain face (the work is from the artist’s Rocky Mountain series). Patterns unexpectedly mutate, interrupted by lozenges of paint and textured paper. Subtle variations of gray and cream triangles morph into dense pink and blue diamonds, more reminiscent of a harlequin’s costume than the natural world.

Installation shot of the Revisiting the Museum Intercommunity Exchange gallery. Foreground: Manuel Neri, Chula, ca. 1958–1960; background: George Miyasaki, Big Medicine, from the Rocky Mountain series, 1982.

Together, these works form part of an intimate exhibition dedicated to remembering the M.I.X. program and its legacy, one that speaks to its power in prioritizing local Black and brown artists within an institutional art context. It goes without saying, yet bears repeating, that artists of color have traditionally been excluded from the art historical canon, and that the art market’s attention in the US has been largely turned to New York-based practices and exhibitions. Led by program coordinator and curator Rolando Castellón, M.I.X. recognized that this narrow scope does a disservice to everyone, inhibiting access to resources and opportunities for those perceived as outsiders, preventing so-called insiders from learning about (and giving credit to) the dynamic aesthetic and critical achievements of less well-known peers. This latter point is clearly evident in the strength of the works on view in this gallery — an art world without the likes of a Mary Lovelace O’Neal, Leo Valledor, or George Joji Miyasaki would be depressingly inadequate. The creative paths taken by these artists — and countless others before, alongside, and after them — infuse the Bay Area (and our world) with possibility, forming a collective dialogue that underlines the region’s standing as a site for experimentation.

Intercommunity exchange. This wording is important in that it makes clear the intention to emphasize a shared convergence and belonging between multiple communities, as opposed to adopting an “us and them” mentality. Castellón, along with his collaborators, understood that the flow of information is never one-way: everyone has something valuable to contribute. M.I.X. balanced this ethos with an understanding of institutions as sites of knowledge and historical production. By organizing and documenting exhibitions by largely local artists of color, M.I.X. sought to recognize and contribute to a more expansive understanding of artistic achievement. A linchpin of this endeavor was the deployment of the museum’s resources to support local, living artists and educators — a critical investment, if we truly want to create a sustainable environment in which artists can live and work.

In her book, Feminism, Interrupted: Disrupting Power, writer and organizer Lola Olufemi states, “…if we wish to see a world of art and creativity, then we must remove the barriers to that creativity and the systems that kill artists.” Olufemi names these barriers as racism, poverty, and incarceration; systems of oppression that manifest in countless ways. Within an institutional art context, these obstacles directly affect (but are not limited to) who gets to make and access art, what is considered art, whose art is shown and whose perspectives are valued. M.I.X. was an attempt to change this reality; exhibiting works created by artists involved with M.I.X. as well as the larger arts community of that time is an important step toward reconnecting the public and the museum with this legacy and modeling more inclusive arts programming.

However, if we truly want to build upon M.I.X. and the museum’s other artist and community driven programs, holistic transformation is needed. In the short term, SFMOMA has the capacity to improve how it serves artists and communities. There are many people and programs at the museum who have been dedicated to this, as well as new efforts to address where the museum has fallen short. In the long term, museums must strive to un-make themselves, peeling away at their colonialist legacies and emerging as something new. If not, they may dissolve and be replaced by organizations grounded in different values. The M.I.X. of the present and future requires an intensified level of commitment to a truly diverse Bay Area culture, one that is focused on eradicating systems of harm and barriers to creativity.

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