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For many galleries and art spaces already struggling to adapt to rent spikes in San Francisco, the indefinite closure of non-essential businesses due to Covid-19 guaranteed some level of catastrophe. After nearly 150 years in operation, the San Francisco Art Institute announced that they would not accept new students in the fall (they later reversed this plan following a $4 million surge in donations—but said they would need to raise another $4.5 million to make it through the fiscal year1), and Workshop Residence, an artist-led design gallery and retail space, revealed their August closure in a recent newsletter.
Guerrero Gallery, which opened in 2010, is no stranger to adapting to adverse circumstances. After just three years of operation in their original brick-and-mortar location in the Mission District, Guerrero Gallery shuttered in 2013. Owner Andres Guerrero staged exhibitions in his home2 before relocating in 2016 to a warehouse in the rapidly gentrifying Bayview neighborhood. On April 28, with economic pressures mounting amidst a global pandemic, Guerrero Gallery announced the closure of that space, citing the “current circumstances.”
Despite the closure, the gallery opened a virtual exhibition just a month later. The title of the show, Stimulus, exudes a cheeky self-awareness—both of the apathy of virtual exhibitions within a fraught cultural moment and of the failure and feebleness of governmental attempts to jumpstart a frozen economy. Epitomizing the tension caused by renting physical space, which for the foreseeable future holds small businesses in an untenable balancing act, the exhibition was staged in real space for a short time. Works by 16 artists were mounted sparsely in a cavernous, abandoned warehouse on the city’s fringes, but the exhibition is available to view only through online photographs of its installation.
In the vast concrete building, each work in situ reverberated against rows and rows of identical columns that stretched into darkness—the context simultaneously reinforced and subverted the disembodiment of virtual viewership. Against this vacant industrial backdrop, the intervention of often humorous, sometimes critical work felt appropriate and oddly comforting. Cheryl Pope’s appliquéd banner, I’m Not Good at Being Vulnerable (2016), hung from an overhead industrial pipe, the empathetic text all the more relevant given the blatant exposure of its installation. Video was projected against the roll-up garage door of a loading dock (Jaime Muñoz, Untitled, 2015), oil paintings edged with spray paint merged with pre-existing graffiti (Alfonso Gonzalez Jr., March 2020, 2020), a full-size inflatable limousine took shape (Stephen Powers, No One Rides for Free, 2006), and small works were mounted on cement columns (by Matthew Craven and Tosha Stimage).
On one column, strips of taupe paint peeled in tight curls from their cement support to form parallel borders around Craven’s collaged Struggle (2020). Within the collage, two views of the same agonized figure from the Hellenistic marble sculpture, Laocoön (2nd century BCE–1st century CE), are displaced into a yellowing forest landscape with a gridded sky penciled-in overhead. In this installation, the eroding cement pillar echoed the chiseled marble depicted in the work, while the peeling rinds of paint fortuitously mirrored the serpent-wrapped limbs of the collaged marble statuary.
Sofie Ramos’ Cake Tester (2020) offers a layer cake of nylon flowers, plastic rhinestones, and candy-colored latex paint sprinkles on the half-round of a ceramic plate. The satisfying mix of kitschy textures and bright colors conjure inert nostalgia for childhood parties. In Stimulus, the piece was installed on a cement wall. Fittingly, the wall’s sun-bleached red paint had turned a chalky pink, like a recycled plastic tablecloth. Though Ramos’ work is inherently joyful, its placement against a fading backdrop begged a somber question: when will we be celebrating together again?
The lack of human occupancy is a haunting overlay in virtual exhibitions generally, but this is heightened in Stimulus by the enormity of the emptied warehouse. The inclusion of INSTALLATION (2020), a performance work by Brontez Purnell, punctuates this desolation. Documented with a single photo, Purnell sits crouched, appearing vulnerable and wet in a pool of spilled water, in front of a shock of hot pink graffiti. The image implies the occupation of abandoned space—from organized efforts by protestors to quasi-legal artist warehouse spaces. However, without video demarcating Purnell’s movements in the space, the photo leaves only a soft trace of the physicality that Purnell presumably enacted. Representing the only living body in the exhibition, the photo’s limited scope leaves something to be desired, exposing the constraints of online art experiences while mirroring a collective need for physical connection.
Because of their spaciousness, streets, parking lots, and outdoor parks have become the sole sites of public collectivity. The reclamation of these public spaces has offered space for mourning, protest, and interventions with public art. In utilizing such a large building, during a time when access to space feels like a particular kind of privilege, Stimulus’ sparse population of works felt particularly bare. This may be apt, given that the experience of navigating virtual art spaces is frequently one of feeling “marooned,”3 a visual isolation that eliminates the material, social, and situational aspects of art viewership. At its best, Stimulus turned this contextual failure into an organizing principle—embodying the hollow isolation of shelter-in-place. Still, while scrolling through the online presentation, the warehouse seemed to act merely as a photo backdrop, thus formally reverting into the virtual standard the exhibition aimed to upend.
Ariel Zaccheo is a curator and writer working in San Francisco. Her writing has been published in Surface Design Journal, American Craft Magazine, and Art Practical. Her research focuses on queer and feminist studies as applied to contemporary craft.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 21.