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The most telling artifact in Energy That Is All Around is a letter artist Alicia McCathy received from her school, the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), back in 1992. In it, the dean of students chastises her for campus graffiti, which he says “looks like shit,” and goes on to explain:
If those anonymous graffiti artists delude themselves that this is art, they are mistaken. Adolescent? self-indulgent? inconsiderate? – yes. Art?… no, at least not very interesting art – just mediocre attempts at appearing ‘subversive.’
The dean concisely articulates many of the criticisms hurled against graffiti writers and street artists, brash stereotypes that linger today and hinder the art form’s acceptance by some orthodox corners of the art world.
Curated by Natasha Boas, Energy That Is All Around makes the case that the Mission School, a group associated with the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), is one of the major art movements to emerge in the 1990s and continues to inspire people around the world. Writing in the accompanying catalogue, Boas explains: “These postpunk Mission School artists would soon become international icons for new generations of makers and art students with their raw, immediate, and gritty street and studio practices and their spontaneous exhibition-making impulses.”
The show, which is mounted at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery, highlights five artists associated with that wonky, folksy, colorful, and DIY aesthetic that came of age in San Francisco’s Mission District. Chris Johanson, Margaret Kilgallen, Alicia McCarthy, Barry McGee, and Ruby Neri are the focus of this exhibition, and their art demonstrates a clear kinship.
The exhibition is one of the first to give the movement an art historical treatment, but the curator unfortunately shies away from telling the story of the movement in the gallery, preferring to let the objects speak for themselves. There are advantages to this hand-off approach to curation, inviting the viewer to make the connections themselves, but in a show trying to make the case for why the Mission School matters it weakens the argument. The question on whether the Mission School, a term first coined by critic Glen Helfand in 2002, is really a “school” is debatable, but Renny Pritkin, writing in the catalogue, brings up another meaning of school that is useful in understanding these artists, “I would add the metaphor of a school of fish, moving together to foil common enemies.”
Considering the Mission School as something that emerged in opposition to the world around them is useful. It encourages you to consider the artwork as a foil not only to the polished hyper-capitalist world of Appropriation Art, the ennui of 1980s German painting, and the glowing screens of digital art, but also to the rise of the 1990s tech scene, the Culture Wars, and the march of urban gentrification.
Some of the artists in the show, notably the men — Barry McGee and Chris Johanson — have long been in the art world spotlight. Another, Margaret Kilgallen, is posthumously gaining recognition for her folk-inspired lettering and clean linear style. Alicia McCarthy and Ruby Neri are the two lesser-known artists, and they certainly hold their own in this grouping. Long a recluse, McCarthy has purposefully shied away from the limelight, which has hindered any commercial or museum-related success, while Neri’s highly personal visual vocabulary is varied, perhaps too varied, making it hard to discern a uniform style.
To the uninitiated, it can be hard to distinguish some of the works by Kilgallen from those by Neri, McGee, or others; Boas explains in the catalogue that it was a conscious curatorial choice to blur those lines. All the artists incorporate hand-drawn lettering, cartoony figures, painterly abstract forms, and detritus in their art, which strengthens the case for a “school” of art but can make it harder to consider each artist’s unique contribution to the larger conversation.
Where the exhibition stumbles is in the installation, which is more precious and archival than it should be. While the endless arrays of small drawings, paintings, photographs, and densely exhibited collection of papers help historicize the art movement, the prevalence of lesser works diminishes the power of more important pieces like Chris Johanson’s “Restorative Moon Sculpture #1” (2011) and “The Survivalists” (1999), the latter being one of the highlights of the exhibition.
Created just before the first dotcom bubble burst, “The Survivalists” is filled with snippets of conversations about real estate, security, violence, and conflict. One talk bubble reads, “I think people can open up and co-exist …,” while another says “Hi there, I’m a $400,000 box room. Won’t you come live in me?” Two small drawn figures push shopping carts into the gallery space, and they look like they could fall off the edge of their precarious perch if they went any further. “The Survivalists” taps into some of the anxiety surrounding the larger forces that were transforming the city without falling into cliché. A year after this work was completed, San Francisco was reeling from a severe economic downturn. But people soon realized the recession was only momentary, as within a few years the tech industry was back, stronger than ever, making the city more inhospitable for all the marginal figures that are often the subjects of the Mission School.
If you consider that Johanson, Kilgallen, McCarthy, McGee, and Neri were all reacting against the corporatization of their beloved city, then the rough-hewn style as an act of resistance makes more sense. In contrast to the techno-utopianism of California’s powerful computer industry, where hardware and software was becoming sleeker, more user-friendly, global, and minimal, the Mission School artists’ focus on the local, folk, craft, intimate scales, personal meanings, and the pleasure of play is a stark contrast. Artists in the Mission School are also comfortable exploring the contradictions all around them. In Johanson’s “Dome” (2001), a small figure praises his new rural life in an obviously expensive geodesic dome — it is an absurd, but familiar moment for those who have ever dreamt of leaving it all behind.
The most perfectly curated corner of Energy That Is All Around features an unexpected grouping of Ruby Neri’s “Untitled (Table with Yellow Face)” (2013), Margaret Kilgallen’s “Untitled” (1997), and Barry’s McGee’s “Untitled” (c.1990–2013), which was commissioned for the show. McGee’s patchwork sensibility is an ideal contrast to Neri’s cool tabletop of ceramic and plaster objects. All three works elevate found objects that have been transformed in the artist’s studio, but they also demonstrate careful attention to detail that is a big step away from the DIY aesthetic that normally dominates their work. If the earlier work is messy and rough, here each artist demonstrates a clarity in their work that isn’t reacting to the world as much as transforming it.
If street art and graffiti were one of the unifying aspects of the Mission School, today if feels like that world is more of a historical footnote than a direct influence on the work of those artists still making work. I wanted to love Energy That Is All Around, and its promise of offering this group of artists their due, but ultimately I couldn’t because it was cluttered with too many small works that didn’t really have a lot to say. The catalogue, on the other hand (not to mention the limited edition zine created by Johanson), is where the case is made for the Mission School through the words of its advocates and participants.
The success of artists and movements can often be gauged by their influence on younger generations of artists, designers, and creatives, and in the case of the Mission School, these artists have inspired legions of emulators. But the objects themselves in Energy That Is All Around are not enough to tell the story of this Bay Area movement, which was engaged in an “art of resistance,” to use Dina Pugh’s words from the catalogue. While the idea that these artists were fighting against the floods waters of corporatization is a brilliant one, there are only a few works in the galleries that appear to have waged that war.
Energy That Is All Around closes at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery (100 Washington Square East, Greenwich Village, Manhattan) on Saturday, July 11.