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Group Exhibition
San Francisco Art Institute
800 Chestnut Street, San Francisco , CA 94133
September 12, 2013 - December 14, 2013

The Mission School Gets Cross Examined
by Danielle Grant

Was there really such a thing as the Mission School? Energy That Is All Around, an exhibition at the San Francisco Art Institute’s Walter and McBean Gallery, tackles this question, taking a survey approach to a lot of early and some new artworks by five artists: Chris Johanson, Margaret Kilgallen, Alicia McCarthy, Barry McGee and Ruby Neri. In its gallery guide, the exhibition explains upfront that it is not meant to be an inclusive survey and implies that it’s not an argument for the canonization of the Mission School stamp, originally coined by Glen Helfand in a 2002 piece written for The San Francisco Bay Guardian, but instead:

The exhibition rather reveals the arc of a specific art movement through a continuum of works whose shared exuberance connects street- and studio-based practices, and aims to reveal (and challenge) how a “school” may form and evolve.

Curated by San Francisco native Natasha Boas, Energy That Is All Around is a beautiful exhibition of art associated with the movement in question. It is a careful and thoughtfully considered production with 130 objects that occupy a split-level 2,928 square foot gallery space with the appropriately displaced installation of artwork according to the genre’s requirements. By this I mean a viewer must often bend down to examine a work of art that has been installed in a corner and on the floor. One must stand back and crane the neck in order to enjoy an artwork hung far above the line of sight—an activity akin to straining to see a cool piece of street art in a high up and out of the way location. At times one must get up close, lean over and squint through the glassy surface glare to worship at the altar of many tiny objects clustered together in the faux laissez-faire style characteristic of this non movement. In all of these devices, the exhibition itself mimics the spirit of the art making. If I’m not being clear enough, an example might be Chris Johanson and his wife Johanna Jackson actually making the registrar desk and table station (See below: Untitled, 2013) where the appointed gallery girl/boy sits while actively not greeting you.  

CENTER: Johanna Jackson and Chris Johanson, Untitled, Wood and Fabric. 2013; Courtesy of SFAI.


The “Mission School” artists inhabited a shared geography. Some of them were really good friends and even lovers and spouses, while others were just acquaintances, but regardless of the social nuance, there was a scene, and a lot of great art was made in and around this scene and many of the artists are now “art world” famous infusing this period of creative production in a specific regional area with a kind of magical mythology that so far, doesn’t give up.

Even if we sit around and formally ask the question amongst ourselves, “Is there a Mission School?”, the activity in and of itself is a method for making the term endure—rhetorically reverberating into eternity. Was the intention there? No. Well, maybe. Does that matter? Not anymore, because it’s done. The Mission School is here to stay and this exhibition is yet another step in cementing the definition. While this show’s promotional materials don’t come right out and say there was a Mission School, the way it’s organized certainly implies that at least these five artists’ work influenced each other in a way that cannot be ignored.

Installation image: From right to left: Barry McGee, Chris Johanson, Chris Johanson, Ruby Neri, Alicia McCarthy(top), Alicia McCarthy (bottom), Chris Johanson; Courtesy of SFAI.


Among the many impressive things about Energy That Is All Around is the checklist document that assists in guiding you through the exhibition and identifies who made what. Though this is a group exhibition, works are interspersed with each other rather than each artist’s work being relegated to their own corner. One moment you’re in front of a Chris Johanson, the next you’re in front of an Alicia McCarthy, but you might not know it, without the inclusion of the amazing checklist (and I’m being very earnest here, because I used to work in galleries and I know what a pain it probably was to make). The intentional display of all the art mixed up together is obviously to show the viewer how undeniable it is that these works share a current of energy that is conducted by a harmony of vision. The intricate layout is successful, with the possible exception of Ruby Neri’s new ceramic sculptures, which felt out of place for me, but no less lovely in and of themselves.

Ruby Neri, Untitled, Ceramic with unfired glaze, 2013, (Barry McGee in background); Courtesy of SFAI.


The highlight of the show was Chris Johanson’s chillingly prophetic The Survivalists, a work made in 1999 during the height of the dotcom boom. This is a piece you experience, a large-as-life sculpture that projects from the wall into the gallery space. The two dimensional part of The Survivalists is arranged on the wall in graphic novel-like panels of narrative but the characters eventually make their way out of the story and into the third dimension, literally, banished into oblivion on a wooden plank. The Survivalists explores the idea of people coming out West to create a better life for themselves only to find that the story of Westward Expansionism is changing and that life in a place like San Francisco can be discouraging and often ridiculous—as one of the panels advertises: “For sale: Cozy One Bedroom Basement Condo, $300,000.” The great irony is, of course, fourteen years later, this “ad” wouldn’t elicit a batted eyelash from most San Franciscans. It’s topical even now, adding to the aura that the Mission School persists in relevance.

Chris Johanson, The Survivalists, Mixed Media,1999; Courtesy of SFAI.


Some of these issues were circuitously and slightly touched upon in a discussion, “Mission School: Yes or No”, moderated by Renny Pritikin and held at SFAI on October 20, 2013. The most fascinating panelist was Kevin Killian, who equated the Mission School quandary with notions of The West and how legends are made and perpetuated here. Among the many amazing things he had to say, the most enlightening sentiment in the context of this review came when he addressed the money factor—what assembling a group of artists together under a branded banner means for the art market:

I don’t know what artists feel about this tendency but from what I understand, the art market loves it. Yesterday I talked to a local gallerist who explained to me that if he could present one of his artists as part of an active group that people had heard of, he could charge five or ten times the price for one of their works.

Margaret Kilgallen, Untitled Paint on wood with coins, 1997; Courtesy of SFAI.


Energy That Is All Around might not come straight out and claim that there is a Mission School, even though it does try to make a case for a unified aesthetic located in a specific time and place. But what I like about this exhibition and all of its ephemera (the talks, the panels) is that it exposes the machinations at work in the world of art. When Glen Helfand coined the term “Mission School”, I’m sure those two words in print didn’t earn him more than a dollar each, but once the critics and curators open the discussion, the art professionals take note. When the curators start looking, they bring the institutions, and when the institutions become involved, the gallerists and collectors start swooping in and all of a sudden increasingly large sums of money have been exchanged because the world has a new “art star” where there was once an artist, and a “school” where there was once a neighborhood with kids, just hanging out, making cool shit.


—Danielle Grant


(Image on top: Installation image from Energy That is All Around; Courtesy of SFAI.)

Posted by Danielle Grant on 10/31/13 | tags: Street Critique

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