When I go somewhere for the purpose of art tourism— Los Angeles, New York, or even further afield—I usually set myself a stunningly ambitious list of Things To Do in One Day. Here at home, the assumption always is that something can be left for another time, which usually means that I don’t see at least half of the things I want to, as life (or sheer inertia) intervenes.
So it was that I decided I would start with the premise that I could do in a day in San Francisco what I attempt somewhere else, leaving aside the question of whether or not it was a good idea to do so. I would start with three downtown gallery shows, proceed to view not one but two art fairs in different locations, then end the day with two gallery openings, one the inaugural show in a new location. Extensive driving would be required; public transportation was out of the question, as it would add about five hours to the agenda. There would also be lots of walking (one can never park anywhere near anything in SF) and a certain amount of—endurance. Here, with a few pictures to liven it up (until my phone died on the way to my last stop) is my story.
11:30-- After a quick and relatively easy passage over the bridge I begin my odyssey at Gregory Lind Gallery at 49 Geary Street with a solo show of Jovi Schnell’s new paintings. They are bigger, looser than before; beautiful surfaces, full of texture (among other things, she adds pumice to the underpainting for the silver grounds). There’s a hint of something like Joan Miró or maybe German/ Scandinavian/ Polish folk art. I have to write 350 words about this show, which is harder than it sounds, as it is too brief to really say much, for Art Ltd. Magazine. So I make notes, take pictures.
I walk down the hallway to Haines Gallery, where I make a beeline for the rear gallery to stare at Maurizio Anzeri’s mesmerizing embroidered (found) photographs, following the lines of thread that cross their surfaces. The pictures are all landscapes, this time; the last group I saw here was all portraits. I want to write at length about these, but an opportunity has not yet presented itself to do so.
So I cross the street to Anglim Gilbert Gallery, where it is the last day of Dean Smith’s show. Fortuitously, Smith himself is standing in the gallery when I get to the top of the stairs. This gallery has been in this spot for well over 30 years. Somehow it has remained, through all of the changes in downtown San Francisco, the Dot Com Boom and bust, and our serial real estate follies.
Dean and I have known each other for a long time and I am happy to see him and be able to ask him questions about his extraordinary drawings and collages, which are a kind of embodiment of time. I make a plan to write about them soon, thinking about how I will do it as I walk back to the parking garage and get into my car. On a whim, despite the fact that I think I know my way around the city (despite having only lived there for six months out of the nearly forty years I’ve spent in the Bay Area) I offer myself up to the phone. I would do that if I were in another city, wouldn’t I? Siri’s Australian-accented directions do a surprisingly good job of getting me to the FOG Design+ Art fair, located in one of the piers along the waterfront. I park on the top of the hill and make my way down to the entrance.
San Francisco has a sorry history with art fairs. Several have been tried here, but it is a small city (despite its glamor and disproportionate wealth) and, well, most of these fairs have had a little art on view worth making the trip for and a lot of awful crap. The good galleries take a booth at first and they make enough money to keep coming back at least two or three times but then it is just not worth it anymore, and the bad galleries are just so bad. At least, this is how it appears to us, the viewers/ visitors. There is much more to say, and much more that has been said about the general decline of retail and the desire of art dealers to get access to all that tech money, but the long and the short of it is that the FOG Design+Art fair has figured out a formula for success, successfully attracting several substantial, important galleries from New York (a few of which already have satellite operations in the Bay Area, like Pace and Gagosian) and from here as well. Booths showing important works of art are intermixed with those of galleries that sell expensive furniture and decorative art objects. FOG is in its fourth year, and is going strong, with 45 exhibitors and a wait list for booths. Or so they say on their website.
1:05-- The entry area of the fair is filled with massive floral art that includes four giant hanging walls of 235,000 roses simulating rug-like patterns, bookending an area where ‘floral artists’ are on the job, continually making smaller works out of various blooms. There is a lot of red—rich, dark red walls, red flowers, bright red carpet covering the spacious aisles. I find the flowers slightly creepy, but that’s just me, I am sure. In the fair, there are harmlessly beautiful paintings by Modern Masters (Kenneth Noland at John Berggruen’s booth), monumental ceramic ashtrays by Sterling Ruby (Gagosian), and many other things that one can enjoy walking past. Fancy, strange chairs.
There are also giant glass doodads, giant ceramic doodads—including a heart-stoppingly weird stoneware statue of a fairy, covered in emerald green flocking--and the perennial mid-century modern echt-tasteful stuff, though less of that than in the past. There is even a booth for a Paris jeweler, and while jewelry is certainly decorative art, it’s not really what I would describe as integral to design. The booth itself is totally intimidating, hiding its contents from passersby, and I don’t go in.
Soon, I find myself really enjoying Barry McGee’s shelves full of platters and ceramic sculpture, courtesy of Ratio 3. In aggregate, the display reminds me a bit of Ken Price’s series of installations called Happy’s Curios, the artist’s homage to Mexican souvenir pottery, though I have no idea if McGee knows that work. In general, throughout the fair, past and present, kitsch and elegance, seem to blend together in some kind of timeless blur. Sometimes, this is enchanting—Stephan Kurten’s gold-limned paintings of mid-century houses at Hosfelt Gallery, for instance, or the handsome prints from several decades on view in Crown Point Press’s booth—but still, something just doesn’t seem right. I keep thinking about that flocked elf. Has the FOG fair passed its peak? Maybe. Maybe not. I shrug my shoulders, and depart.
3:10-- I go back up the hill to my car and cross the city to the Untitled fair, where I end up walking nearly a mile from where I have parked with two other slightly lost middle-aged people. As we amble along, I ask them (as I asked several others I ran into at FOG) if they were attending both fairs. Virtually all have either already gone to both or plan to do so, though I seem to be the only person insane enough to do that on a single day. Though this is the first Untitled fair here, it is practically an institution in Miami’s December art fair madness, having started there five years ago as “an international curated art fair… that focuses… on all disciplines of contemporary art."
Once inside I wander the outer perimeter first and then try to make sure I’ve seen all the interior booths, but the layout is more organic than FOG’s straight aisles and my progress keeps being interrupted by conversations with people I know. (Plus, the type on the map I was handed at the front desk is so microscopic that reading it is clearly meant to be optional.) That’s fine—it’s all part of the experience—but by now I have seen quite a lot of art and visual fatigue is beginning to set in. I notice immediately that there are a lot of LA galleries here (there were hardly any at FOG) and galleries from Buenos Aires, Spain, and Mexico, all of which are showing interesting art. There are actually 55 exhibitors here from ten countries and several local nonprofits/ institutions, like the Berkeley Art Museum and Contemporary Jewish Museum as well as David Ireland’s house and the Headlands Center for the Arts. Most have something for sale.
There are also a few Bay Area galleries, of course. Interestingly, Anglim Gilbert (arguably, a blue chip institution and definitely an established one) is here, not at FOG. The work in their booth includes a profoundly cool stuffed cloth sculpture by Joan Brown, a certified Modern Master, of a figure astride a horse.
The of-the-moment work I see around me looks good against the bare concrete floors. (Exhibitors confide in me that standing on those floors in the penetrating chill of a damp January has been slightly unpleasant, though today seems OK. Possibly an oversight on the part of the Miami-based management.) Some of what I examine is silly but most of it is worth looking at and thinking about/ I find myself hoping that people buy this, instead of the giant doodads at FOG.
6:15--It’s dark out by now. I return to the car and drive to the outer Mission, to see Ratio 3’s newest show—six computer-generated prints by Takeshi Murata ranged around the walls of the cavernous gallery, lit up as brightly as a surgery theater—and to attend the inaugural show at Capital gallery’s new space. It’s upstairs from Ratio 3, but the entrance is on Lilac, an alley that runs behind the building, so I walk around the block. As I turn onto Lilac, I’m treated to an unexpected exhibition: on every surface, street artists have painted words, tags, and pictures too, including a deftly-sprayed portrait of Rosa Parks. I go up the stairs and into the gallery—much, much bigger than their former Chinatown space—filled with cheerful people and interesting art. It’s an auspicious beginning. I can’t take any more small talk or stimulation, however, so I depart and walk two blocks of Lilac to get back to my car. The entire way, the walls around me are completely covered with undulating letters and colors: an oddly comforting experience in the semidarkness, reminding me that art is all around us. And then, I drive home.
Later, as I go to sleep, I check the stats in my phone: 3.6 miles walked. Nine flights climbed (that was the hill behind the pier at Fort Mason.) Goodnight, moon; Good night, stairs. Good night, giant doodads and fancy chairs. Goodnight art and goodnight words. I turn out the light.