SAN FRANCISCO — I have always wanted to knock something over in a museum or art gallery. Not because there are particular works of art that I feel merit unceremonious destruction (although there definitely are), but simply because it’s the Wrong Thing To Do, and therefore holds a dark allure, like kicking your shoes off a dock and watching them sink, or jumping onto the subway tracks, or peeing on your boss’s desk. I imagine the shattering of glass, the violent crash against the floor, cratering parquet or leaving pockmarks in smooth concrete. The shorn gum print, the broken marble, the dashed commercial hopes and annihilation of minutely mapped feng shui; horrified interns, livid gallerists, scandalized gallery-goers, my reputation forever demolished. It would be horrible. And I have to order myself not to do it every time I enter a place that displays art, or anything valuable and irreplaceable.
When I first heard the thud over the din of chatter at FraenkelLab, it felt like a reprieve: Someone had finally done it, and it wasn’t me. This was at the space’s opening, the first days of venerable Fraenkel Gallery’s offshoot location, which has been billed as an “adventurous, risk-taking” new venue. Its inaugural exhibition is Home Improvements, a group show curated by filmmaker and “Pope of Trash” John Waters. All in all, a reasonably good place for some other person to have done the Wrong Thing, so I wouldn’t have to. My sense of release, new freedom, and a future so bright, however, was short-lived. The gallery owner and Waters himself were standing over the empty plinth from which the piece had fallen — and laughing, demonstrating to another attendee how it worked: Suppress the pedal at its foot and the piece, artist gelitin’s “Untitled” (2012), which looks like one or several brightly colored plush toys bound together with twine like a half-digested Elmo doll pulled from a dead owl’s gullet, sprang from its base and fell to the floor. It was supposed to work that way. No reprieve for me.
Things not “working” in the way they’re expected to is a theme of Home Improvements. A toilet bowl freshener is stuck to an improperly placed fire alarm with dangling, cut wires. The dirt covering a large wall mirror is in fact shellacked on, phrases like “Pray for Death” fingerpainted unerasably in the dust on its surface. Ventilation grills are painted on boards. A clear plastic tarp covered with pieces of brown packing tape, the kind one would use to wrap a framed photograph for shipping or storage, is itself hung on the wall, like a photograph. Waters contributed a piece of his own to the show, “Bill’s Stroller” (2014): a pram fitted with a BDSM body harness rather than a regular seatbelt, its hammock made from fabric decorated with the logos of gay bars and sex clubs.
There is probably nothing in the show that would provoke the kind of revulsion Waters’ early films did; Home Improvements isn’t shocking so much as slyly witty and irreverent. Most of the pieces require double-takes and elicit cerebral, rather than visceral, responses (although the BDSM stroller may well outrage touchier fans of babies and vanilla sexuality). Home Improvements’ overall effect, however, is intensified when one considers its context — the geographic and chronological context, that is, of the show. FraenkelLab is situated a short walk from Mid-Market and SOMA, neighborhoods being fast subsumed by startup offices, tech headquarters, and the artisanal coffee shops and hoodie boutiques that cater to the tastes of their workforce. It’s mere blocks away from City Hall, which houses a mayoral administration largely recognized as being fully beholden to Big Tech and its Big Money. The big-name galleries opening in San Francisco and Silicon Valley (as opposed to the smaller ones that have closed due to the stratospheric costs of operating in the area) have made a point of courting the tech class. This is evidenced by where they situate their new locations (Pace, for example, has two outposts in Silicon Valley: one in Palo Alto, the educational hub of tech’s elite engineering echelon at Stanford University, and one in Menlo Park, home to Facebook), and the sort of work they feature (such as Pace Menlo Park’s current collaboration with Japanese art collective TeamLab’s “digital playground,” Living Digital Space and Future Parks).
So there’s something deliciously subversive about an old-guard, establishment art gallery mounting an adamantly low-tech, analogue art show that celebrates dysfunction, messiness, and thwarted purpose, and doing it at the vortex of an industry that fetishizes streamlined, enhanced, digitized functionality — which John Waters might agree is a pretty bland fetish. Home Improvements is a feat of trolling to be expected from a much younger, angrier, upstart (or startup) gallery than Fraenkel. Maybe this is how the establishment disrupts itself.
Home Improvements continues at FraenkelLab (1632 Market Street, San Francisco) through May 28.