Two exhibitions, one at San Francisco’s SOMArts and the other a public art project in Old Oakland organized by Block Gallery, aim to explore some of the greatest issues facing the Bay Area today, including the impact of new tech wealth, housing dispossession and evictions. Each takes a decidedly community-oriented approach, engaging a wide-reaching number of artists and supporters, while raising questions about who the audience is and how they are meant to receive the work. They are not flawless efforts, but they are also not lessened by experimental risk taking — and you should see both if you can.
“Place/Displaced”: This show, through Saturday, Dec. 13, at SOMArts Cultural Center and jointly presented by Bayview Opera House, presents dense commentary on the Bay Area’s shifting real estate market and the city’s sense of place. The exhibition is jam-packed with artworks, a traditional hallmark of SOMArts shows, which often prioritize large numbers of participants as opposed to tightly curated exhibitions. Whereas this curatorial style can overwhelm small or subtle works, in this case the crowded gallery seems representative of the growing number of displaced residents and the disharmony of opinions that swirl around the current real estate boom. Although the exhibition succeeds in presenting a lot of voices, it struggles to allow adequate space for everything.
More than 40 artists are featured in this exhibition, organized by newly appointed curator Melorra Green, who was previously visual arts coordinator for San Francisco’s African American Art Culture Complex. There is little confusion in the gallery about who or what is driving displacement in San Francisco — Mark Harris’ massive mural “The Emperor’s New Clothes” (2014) foregrounds the exhibition with a larger-than-life-size portrait of Mayor Ed Lee riding astride a white shuttle bus, a triumphant fist raised in the air.
Nearby, Sergio De La Torre’s “Eviction Notice Form” (2014) presents excerpted legalese from an eviction letter in looming black text. Divorced from particulars, the form’s language draws a razor-sharp line between the emotional impact of its undertaking and the “strictly business” practicality of an eviction notice.
A compelling program of the exhibition is a participatory family-style meal, with food prepared by the People’s Kitchen (advanced booking required), that promises to bring “everyone to the table” to discuss the housing crisis and the future of the arts and artists in the Bay Area. Based on the voices present in the exhibition, and their strength in numbers, the conversation is bound to present a rousing cacophony of irreverence and rebellion.
Resource — Public Art in Old Oakland: The uncanny video installations organized by Block Gallery Director Lacey Haslam that line the historical storefronts of Ninth Street are offset by the eerie weekend sparseness of Old Oakland and its tall Victorian facades seen at night.
The wailing audio of George Pfau’s video “Between I and Us” (2014) disconcerts passersby — I saw more than one person startle in response to Pfau’s jarring sound installation while walking through this late 19th century architectural enclave, perhaps already primed for the possibility of ghosts. Kari Marboe’s “Henry House” (2014) channels this more directly by presenting discrete site-specific texts extracted from historical accounts of the building housing these projects; one excerpt suggests that past sorrows are embedded in the layered paint on the walls.
Loosely organized around themes of “competition and consumption,” the project statement attempts to weave a narrative from the recent rise of new tech wealth in San Francisco, the displacement of many former residents to Oakland and the current water crisis — but all of this imposes an unnecessarily heavy intellectual tax on the experience of the work. Ultimately, these ideas don’t all carry over, and it doesn’t really seem to matter.
Each of the eight installations grapples with different visual effects, with some commanding the space more viscerally than others — Doug Garth Williams’ morphing figures in “Four Generations” (2012) is plenty creepy from a distance and only more so up close. As a passing experience in the street, the project offers new ways of seeing the familiar — it might aspire to ask larger questions of this moment, but maybe it doesn’t need to. Maybe it is enough that art changes what we think we already know.
Christian L. Frock is an independent writer who writes about art and public life. Twitter: @invisiblevenue
Place/Displaced: Paintings, drawings, sculpture, installation, video and ephemera. Through Saturday, Dec. 13. SOMArts Cultural Center, 934 Brannan St., S.F. (415) 863-1414. www.somarts.org.
Resource: Sound and video by seven artists in eight public window spaces. Friday and Saturday evenings through Dec. 27. Ninth Street, between Broadway and Washington Street, Oakland. (510) 473-7986. www.block-gallery.com.