"Kiki: The Proof is in the Pudding," Ratio 3's summer show honoring a now-legendary mid-1990s gallery in the Mission, , generated a surprisingly broad buzz, thanks to its range of notable artists with SF roots.
And then there was "Bay Area Now 5," a show that people, unfortunately, weren't really talking about. Ambitious in intent, this edition of the regional survey hoped to offer a spin on international biennials. It included artists who recently moved to the area from distant countries, some guest-curated shows-within-the-show, and off-site events. But the result felt unfocused. Its off-kilter array of bizarre inclusions such as Edmundo de Marchena's jaw-dropper of a sculpture, a jiggling prosthetic genital homage to SF's history of sexual compulsion failed to please artists (both in and out of the show), appease local galleries whose artists were not represented, or register with a public looking for the current pulse of San Francisco art. Challenges to the market-based art world and programs that avoid the usual suspects are welcome strategies. But in this case, the quality of individual projects was subsumed by the muddled institutional vision of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. What is the point of "Bay Area Now" again?
Perhaps the misfired attempt would be forgivable if it hadn't been bracketed by equally undercooked exhibitions ("The Way That We Rhyme," "The Gatherers: Greening Our Urban Spheres," and the cryptic "transPop: Korea Vietnam Remix" a show in dire need of contextualizing wall labels). YBCA has a new visual arts director, former San Diego Museum of Art curator Betti-Sue Hertz, who will take the helm in early 2009. She has her work cut out for her.
As resources become more precious, frugal ingenuity is likely to take precedence in local art offerings. To cut costs, museums will be having fewer exhibitions with longer runs (some extending beyond six months). These time frames offer opportunities for deeper scrutiny or heavier bouts of boredom. Something like SFMOMA's current "The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now," even if it doesn't live up to its promised scope, reflects an interest in collaborative involvement and the appeal of low-rent materials rubber bands, anyone? Audiences are enjoying themselves, maybe even making repeat visits.
Perhaps homespun critical fantasy is the order of the day. The Wattis Institute's "The Wizard of Oz," for example, fused a ragtag collection of contemporary art and historical artifacts into an amber-hued vision of the crumbling American dream. I wish I'd been able to see the Jeff Koons sculpture installed in the Château de Versailles, a more extravagant example of a visually and conceptually pointed spectacle Koons' mash-up of European and American relics forms another kind of dreamy Oz. Click your heels three times and repeat after me: there's no place like home.
GLEN HELFAND'S 2008 TOP 10
1. "Oranges and Sardines," Hammer Museum
Returning SFMOMA curator Gary Garrels' current "conversations on abstract painting" exhibition in Los Angeles is one of the most satisfying, artist-friendly shows ever.
2. Philippe Vergne, lecture at San Francisco Art Institute
The recently-appointed director of the Dia Art Foundation offered incisive, inspirational, and witty takes on the melancholic state of the arts.
3. Speed Racer: The IMAX Experience (Andy and Larry Wachowski, USA, 2008)
This color-drenched amusement park ride of a movie lacks coherence and features the world's most irritating child actor, but two-plus hours of nonstop electric rainbow CGI at IMAX scale turns eye-tickling into an endurance sport.