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Art Review/Auction: San Francisco’s Southern Exposure

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As I like to do once in a while, I have invited a guest writer to pen a piece discussing the visual arts, and this time SF's Jennie Rose comes in with a terrific discussion on one of the Bay area's most influential art venues.

Jennie Rose on Southern Exposure at SF

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, San Francisco galleries and non-profit arts support centers like Southern Exposure (SOEX) were filled with work by “state of the art bohemian poets, underground music heroes, revolutionary skaters, and graffiti kings and queens,” wrote Aaron Rose, co-curator of Beautiful Losers: Contemporary Art and Street Culture. 

Beautiful Losers, an exhibit first shown in San Francisco in 2004, encapsulates that period twenty years ago when those at the edges of society were thought to be key to the forward movement of the culture in general.

Jo Jackson, Margaret Kilgallen and Barry McGee, Josh Lazcano, Alicia McCarthy, Clare Rojas, Thomas Campbell, Dan Flanagan, Symantha Gates, Nell Gould, and Chris Johanson; these artists’ work showed that they shook off the parsing and packaging of the traditional art world.

The work attracted skaters, freaks and geeks, youth who made no distinction between a performance art piece by an industrial noise band and any other creative endeavor.

Though a few came to this through MFA prestige, Chris Johanson, a skateboarder with no formal art training, began by hanging up some drawings at Adobe Books, a bookshop in San Francisco’s Mission district.

Acting as a kind of ballast for the seismic seizures of the California arts scene, Southern Exposure has stayed true to its founding principles for the past 35 years: to provide artists – whether they are exhibiting, curating, teaching, or learning – an opportunity to realize ideas for projects that may not otherwise find support.

The organization, which started out like a co-op and is now “a pillar in the arts community,” as described by SOEX Associate Director Aimee Le Duc, is known for nurturing talent which later becomes celebrated.

True enough, Johanson, who has said that his work depicts “a world where nudist dancers, good vibes, emotionally centered people, forest energy and rainbows abut a sinister comic edge,” has a well-established career. In 2003, SF MOMA awarded him a SECA award, and his work was included in both the 2002 Whitney Biennial and the 2003 SITE Santa Fe biennial.

Work by Chris Johanson

As one nurtured by its support for his ideas, Johanson is invested in the continued success of Southern Exposure. For its 15th annual fundraising auction this year, Johanson donated two pieces, one called “Perception #4,” a color sugarlift aquatint etching.

Other established artists, many who have affinity for or loyalty to SOEX, donated pieces.  These artists included Catherine Wagner, Andrew Schoultz, David Ireland, and Ajit Chauhan. Chauhan donated “Safe Travels to the Now/Ass You Like It,” a piece in ink and graphite on paper.

The swath of work chosen for the auction always includes artists who have participated in an SOEX exhibition during the last three years. Some artists are invited to participate, such as Vanessa Marsh, a photographer and recent grad from California College of the Arts (CCA), who is likely to have an exhibition in the future.
Art by Tara Foley
One of the most recent to come up through this tradition is Tara Foley, who donated “Landscape number 12,” a gouache, tape, and pencil piece. A week ago Foley wrapped up Say Hello to Neverending, a solo show at Fecal Face Gallery in downtown San Francisco. Say Hello… charts the symbiotic relationship between destruction and creation by mapping a world ruled by juxtapositions.

“Sometimes we do have work that is purely aesthetic, but then again, when it comes to the artist, it’s really about the work going on in the community right now,” says Le Duc. “Right now it is work which is socially aware, and politically active, such as the work by Hank Willis Thomas.” Thomas donated a digital print called “Black Power,” a close-up of a mouth with a gold grill.

“Hank has an uncanny ability to unpack what it is about pop culture that institutionalizes racism,” says Le Duc. “He confronts the co-opting of the black male body. The words ‘black power’ in the grill, this hyper-hyper reality of seeing every pore and hair on this guy’s face takes it to ‘where is the power coming from?’”
Hank Willis Thomas
Southern Exposure never worries about what sells or looks good, nor does it invoke ideas of a historic or aesthetic canon. “That’s more the business of a museum.”

As Le Duc simply puts it, “We’re in the business of supporting emerging artists and artists and as they create new work. There’s no sense of hierarchy. We stay focused on the overall goal.”

Beginning the move to a new space, Southern Exposure plans to open the doors to spacious Mission district digs in spring of 2009, where it will continue its self-described work as a “daring, nimble, and accessible arts organization.”

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