A Generosity of Spirit: Bay Area Art Todayby Janet Bishop
As Connie Lewallen rightly suggests, there are widely varying sensibilities and modes of production in contemporary Bay Area art. One distinctive aspect of the visual art scene here—as I have experienced it over the last couple of decades—has less to do with a predominant aesthetic than with an ethos, specifically a generosity of spirit that runs through the way many artists approach their lives and practices today.
For artists who emerged in the ‘90s as part of what Glen Helfand christened the Mission School, and who surfed, skateboarded, played music, train-spotted, and tagged together, being there for each other was partly a matter of survival. They were also bonded by a connection to the city’s urban realities and a concern for the planet, were wary of consumer excess and appalled by war, and were much more likely to be collaborative than competitive.
Barry McGee and Alicia McCarthy, the most prominent of the first-generation Mission School artists still based in the Bay Area, have long been widely admired both for what they make and who they are. A sense of humanity pulses through their art—in the faces that populate McGee’s work and communities of lines that make up McCarthy’s grids. Both are known to acknowledge the importance of other artists to them within their shows. McGee made a shed to house works by Margaret Kilgallen in his 2012 Berkeley Art Museum retrospective, for example, and presented his dad’s drawings on Starbucks napkins in his latest exhibition at Ratio 3. In her recent SECA Art Award exhibition at SFMOMA, McCarthy devoted a wall of her gallery space to the work of her friend Aaron Curry, who passed away in 2016. Between them, McGee and McCarthy have painted hundreds of dinner plates to raise funds for the arts programming at the Mission District’s community-oriented Adobe Books.
Artist and former Adobe Books curator Amanda Eicher directly captured some of the beauty of these relationships in a piece called Genealogy—a web of the names of Mission-connected artists, writers, curators, musicians, and others that she wrote high on the wall above the store’s bookshelves in 2007. She then brought the piece up to date in a vastly expanded form in 2014 for the Oakland Museum and SFMOMA’s jointly organized Fertile Ground: Art and Community in California. The show included a section on the Mission scene, with McCarthy and Ruby Rose Neri (now based in Los Angeles) lending many works by friends from their own collections to tell a broader story.
Sensitivity to context is another way that artists here have demonstrated how they care. San Francisco has not historically been a great town for public art, but that is changing. Major commissions by local artists now appear prominently at the airports and at UCSF’s Mission Bay campus and hospitals. The UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, which opened in early 2015, is home to an especially impressive collection of public art made by artists who have very thoughtfully and effectively adjusted or expanded their practices to account for the vulnerability of the viewing population. Tucker Nichols’s 40 Flowers, installed throughout the waiting area and nurses’ station at the children’s infusion center, offers unapologetically cheerful images in a situation where words, as he’s said, stand a good chance of failing. And Clare Rojas, who by 2015 had veered away from narrative and was almost always painting abstractly, covered the public amphitheater outside the hospital with a mosaic featuring hummingbirds—life-affirming symbols of love.
The future is, of course, an open question. The region’s art schools are terrific, and there is plenty in the culture and geography here to stimulate creativity. It is increasingly difficult for artists to find affordable spaces to live and work in this now boutique city. But the spirit that I saw emerge in the ‘90s and that appears to remain in full force today suggests that artists—no matter what sort of work they make—are the best exemplars for how we are all more for being in it together.
JANET BISHOP is the Thomas Weisel Family Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. She has lived in the Mission District since 1992.