California dreaming

Metal quilts and radical piss-taking marks YBCA's Bay Area Now

Western promise: Ben Venom's "Don't Wake Me Lucifer" quilt

HAIRY EYEBALL In his review of the latest Venice Biennale, Boston Globe art critic Sebastian Smee threw down something of a gauntlet when he wrote, "The received wisdom is that contemporary art is mostly about ideas. In truth, however, it's mostly about gestures."

Smee's generalization offers plenty to chew on and plenty to disagree with. For starters, it implicitly presents one of art's oldest chicken-egg scenarios — one that was muddied decades ago by Marcel Duchamp and later Conceptual Art — as a false choice between thought and spectacle, sustained engagement and capricious showmanship.

But it can also be read as a pretty spot-on diagnosis of the current moment in art — at least, as refracted through the fun house mirror of the Biennale — in which having a gimmick, however thought through or critically engaged, or bringing out the big guns guarantees attention in an increasingly crowded market already clogged with gimmicks and big guns.

Bay Area Now, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' triennial snapshot of local creative culture, is the closest thing the Bay Area has to the Biennale and also, thankfully, the furthest thing from it. Still, Smee's comment provides a useful rubric for navigating its sixth installment, which is full of gestures (some well-executed, others not so much) that at times overshadow the ideas (some half-baked, others worth mulling over) they're meant to put across.

Visual art curators Betti-Sue Hertz and Thien Lam have pared the number of participating artists, now augmented by art collectives, to a tidy 18. This smaller range gives each participant's work — most of it created especially for BAN6 — a little more breathing room, although the exhibition's layout isn't exactly conducive to following the connecting threads (environmentalism, geopolitics, Americana, and local subcultures, among other topics) unspooled in their curators' statement.

Tammy Rae Carland's wonderful series of work about the self-effacing price female comedians have had to pay (and continue to pay) to get a laugh is the first thing you see when you enter. But her photographs of local comediennes in ambiguous forms of self-presentation, text pieces that isolate the painful punch lines of Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers, et al., and banana peels cast in brass are spread between two floors: a confusing arrangement if you don't directly proceed up the stairway next to which Carland has created an elegiac installation that, save for the large helium balloons suspending a porcelain microphone, is also easy to miss.

YBCA's main gallery is another case in point: it's a good site for large installations that pack a lot of visual impact (think Song Dong's Waste Not or Nick Cave's soundsuits), but can pose a challenge for arranging groups of smaller-scale pieces coherently. It's too bad, then, that the three box-like structures housing works by Brion Nuda Rosch, Rio Babe International, and Chris Sollars cut diagonally across the space like a semipermeable wall of shipping crates. Incidentally, these installations are also some of BAN6's least compelling pieces.

Harder to ignore is Ben Venom's See You on the Other Side, a giant quilt whose centerpiece motif of snakes sprouting from a human skull, all made from old metal band T-shirt scraps, only becomes visible as your eyes adjust to the surrounding negative space. It is, in a word, awesome. But it's also a canny fusion of craft traditions already present in metal subcultures — the quilt is flanked by two cut-off embroidered and studded denim vests, familiar handmade vestments of the tribe — with an older American precedent.

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