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Bay Area Counterculture Is Still Alive at the San Francisco Art Book Fair

Vendors embraced the idea of San Francisco, the capital of all things counter-culture, whose art scene is still notable for being idiosyncratic and truly weird.

Entrance to the San Francisco Art Book Fair at Minnesota Street Project (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

SAN FRANCISCO — This past weekend, the San Francisco Art Book Fair (SFABF) took over the exhibition spaces at Minnesota Street Project (MSP). The annual event, which began in 2016, highlighted more than 100 international voices dedicated to the intersections between print and the fine arts. The event was co-founded by the MSP, which provides economically sustainable exhibition and studio spaces for artists and arts organizations, in collaboration with Colpa Press and the art gallery and store Park Life.

The San Francisco Art Book Fair at the Minnesota Street Project

I anticipated spending less than an hour wandering the event’s aisles, since the MSP isn’t the largest venue. Yet, I was still eagerly uncovering treasures after three-plus hours. The organizers curated a phantasmagoria of printed objects — from clothbound publications to saddle-stitched zines and merch of every description. SFABF is the only event of its kind in the Bay Area. Other events, certainly, celebrate the interactions of word and image, but none other looks at the idea of the art book with such breadth and diversity.

While there were plenty of objects that could’ve been at any art book fair, several of the vendors seemed to uniquely embrace the idea of San Francisco, the capital of all things counter-culture, whose art scene is notable for celebrating the idiosyncratic, the grotesque, and the truly weird. Below are a few of the publishers that exemplified that ethos.

David Kasprzak of Colpa Books at their booth

Colpa Press

Colpa is basically a Bay Area institution, as well as one of the co-founders of the San Francisco Art Book Fair. Their publications are in permanent collections, from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. Despite these impressive credentials, their publications maintain an underground, gritty vibe that feels like a giant middle-finger to the glossy, high finish, techy-centric lifestyle currently creeping into every facet of Bay Area culture. Of particular note were their series on 1990s rave flyers from San Francisco and Los Angeles (part of an expanding series that includes New York and Chicago), and, especially, their giant book See To Day. That latter tome features Risograph reproductions of lithographs of bootleg movie posters of Hollywood films by artists in Bangalore and other parts of India.

“Beware of Dog” by Mario Ayala at Colpa Press

Martian Press

19 in 2021, a sci-fi novel by Nate Pyper at Martian

Martian Press is the brainchild of artist and printer Stephanie Lane Gage, formerly based out of Milwaukee and currently located in Los Angeles. Speculative fiction and poetry are the primary focus at Martian, exemplified by its lit journal, Asterisms, which contains dozens of new and original writers whose work adroitly plays with sci-fi and horror tropes while exploring contemporary social justice issues. Especially cool, however, was a zine that Gage authored, titled Are You or Someone You Know Experiencing Paranormal Activity in Your Home or Business?. The work graphically interprets her poem about spectral hauntings through the lens of mental health awareness.

Asterisims, Vol 1 magazine of speculative fiction and poetry, Martian Press
Booth for the Creative Growth Art Center

Creative Growth Art Center

Creative Growth is a nonprofit gallery space that provides services and opportunities for artists with developmental, mental, and physical disabilities. Many of the publications featured their artists’ work, which reminded me of pieces that came out of the early years of the celebrated MFA program at UC Davis –– think the loose clay work of Robert Arneson and David Gilhooly, or the cartoonishness of Roy De Forest. For example, the paintings on wood by John Martin, arranged on the wall behind the table, exuded the effervescence and mythmaking qualities of the witty Nut artists. One work in particular featured a self-portrait of the artist attacked by a flying insect.

Collage by John Hiltunen at Creative Growth
Tiny Splendor, publisher portfolio featuring original works inspired by the year of the dog

Tiny Splendor

Based out of Berkeley and Los Angeles, this tiny press had some super fun books. For about a half-hour I was engrossed by a graphic novel titled Paper Mountain by Jee-Shaun Wang. The story follows a girl in a haunted boarding school trying to outrun a ghost who wants to eat her. The visuals are clean, stunning, and funny. Also on hand was an assortment of prints interpreting the theme of dogs — rooted in 2018 being the year of the dog. The prints also acted as a tribute to an exhibition at Double Punch centered on dog illustrations that the printer absolutely loved.

Paper Mountain, a graphic novel by Jee-Shaun Wang at Tiny Splendor

Breezy Circle

In 2014, Breezy Circle published an insightful and hilarious anthropological book called Gay Men Draw Vaginas, and at the book fair they had what appeared to be an astounding selection of works centered on various gender and body subjects. Yet, every time I passed by, there was a throng of visitors crowding the table and I couldn’t quite elbow my way in. My wife, however, was able to visit, and was rewarded with one of the Vaginal Fortunes they were giving out. Hers read: “To err is human, but to master the calls of all the birds in the Pacific Northwest with your vagina is divine.” She loves birds and lived in Portland, so she thinks it accurately forecast her vagina as best any fortune could manage. So, of course, we’re getting it framed.

Breezy fortune handed out by the publisher of Gay Men Draw Vaginas

The 2018 San Francisco Art Book Fair took place at Minnesota Street Project (1275 Minnesota St, San Francisco) July 20–22.

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