YEAR IN ART: A firestorm of controversy in the larger art world -- but here in San Francisco, visions were clear and wide-ranging
HAIRY EYEBALL/YEAR IN ART The year in art is ending on a note both sour and defiant. On Nov. 30, Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough, caving to criticism voiced by conservative politicians and religious groups, ordered the removal of David Wojnarowicz's 1987 video A Fire in My Belly from the National Portrait Gallery's exhibition "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture." It was a cowardly decision; one that ultimately has undermined the credibility of Clough and his institution.
It's unfortunate that it took an act of censorship to get art — specifically, art by an openly gay artist responding to the darkest hours of the AIDS crisis — back into the national conversation, but the chorus of condemnation coming variously from journalists and critics, art museum associations, and even The New York Times editorial page, has helped to do just that.
Additionally, Wojnarowicz's piece, which was uploaded to Vimeo by his estate and New York's PPOW Gallery soon after it had been taken down in Washington, D.C., has undoubtedly been seen by more viewers in the past month than it had at the Smithsonian, or perhaps even in past installations (as of writing this column, the uploaded version has received more than 18,000 views).
This will probably continue to be the case as more galleries and museums across the country, in an impressive show of institutional solidarity, screen and/or install A Fire In My Belly. Locally, SF Camerawork and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts held screenings earlier this month. Southern Exposure will continue to show the piece through mid-February, and SFMOMA is scheduled to screen the full-length version of the video in early January.
While I agree with Modern Art Notes' Tyler Green that SFMOMA's commitment to screen A Fire in My Belly is "a turning point" in this whole debacle (New York's four biggest art museums have remained silent on the matter), I find his characterization of SFMOMA as "America's most conservative, play-it-safe modern-and-contemporary art museum" a bit harsh. Certainly, this year's recently revealed SECA winners — three of whom, it must be noted, have been past Goldie recipients, including 2010 winner Ruth Laskey — attest to the fact that, for every groaner of an exhibit ("How Wine Became Modern," anyone?), SFMOMA is also committed to supporting artists whose work cannot be dismissed as "play-it-safe." For starters, the memory drawings of Colter Jacobson, one of this year's SECA winners, certainly fall along the continuum of queer portraiture displayed in "Hide/Seek."
This is not to encourage wishful thinking. While it's hard to imagine a San Francisco art institution doing something along the lines of the Smithsonian, I don't think anyone expected a reignition of decades-old culture wars, let alone in the very city where the Corcoran Gallery infamously canceled a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit in 1989. The shorter our cultural memory, it seems, the greater is our propensity to repeat the lowest moments of our history.
So, over the past few weeks, I've been going over the works, exhibits, and events that I was thrilled did happen here, all glorious reclamations of our Convention and Visitors Bureau's tagline, "Only in San Francisco." Here is an in no way complete rundown of some of the art I didn't cover in this column for a variety of reasons (scheduling conflicts, in-the-moment preference, critical laxity), save for the works themselves.