Utopia, mon amour

Arthur Tress, Bucky Fuller, and Harry Hay exhibits offer engagement and transcendence

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A ritual at the first Radical Faeries gathering in 1979, from "Radically Gay: The Life of Harry Hay" at the SF Main Library

marke@sfbg.com

VISUAL ARTS With Occupy gearing up again and a fresh round of election hell full upon us, another cycle of protest — and the urge to engage with the problems of the world while somehow escaping them — is in the air. The Oakland Museum's current "1968 Exhibit" (through August 19) offers a family-friendly, multimedia trip through the Bay Area's most famous political and cultural upheaval. But here are three ongoing shows that look closely at individual creators from the past whose work transcends nostalgia, transmits a fair amount of beauty, and drums up some idealistic lessons for the present.

 

"ARTHUR TRESS: SAN FRANCISCO 1964"

A miracle to inspire cafe artists everywhere. In 1964, 23-year-old NYC photographer Arthur Tress winged through San Francisco for a season, shooting the populace at a particularly turbulent time: the Republican National Convention, the Beatles' first North American tour, auto worker protests along Van Ness, the passage of the Civil Rights Act. He developed the negatives in the communal darkroom off Duboce Park, had an unremarkable show in the back of a cafe, packed the photos up at his sister's, and moved on. After his sister died, he found them in a box of her effects, and realized their significance.

And what a find: Forget Mad Men, this is the real 1964, perched on the edge of a cultural unraveling, its existential beehive slowly loosening into flower child ideals. The 70 photographs on show at the de Young, curated by James Ganz, expertly play with composition to bring rough social patches to artful life. A distorted shot of a George Romney presidential campaign poster delivers Orwellian chills. Screaming girls hoisting "Ringo for President" banners intimate repressed political hysteria. Dashing union workers form impressive phalanxes. Patrons at a Fifth and Market diner embody an microcosm of economic disillusionment. A transgender woman suns her hairy legs on the Embarcadero, a plaid-shirted boy holds up a hand-drawn hammer and sickle.

All of it coated with the glamour of deconstructed nostalgia, in which one can indulge and critique at once. But there's more: "You have throw into the mix a heavy dose of social commentary and criticism — the idea that the photograph can be a vehicle for social change," Tress tells an interviewer in the show's handsome if carelessly annotated catalogue. "You photographed street demonstrations, you photographed protests ... it was a way of becoming part of the movement."

Through June 3. De Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr., deyoung.famsf.org

"THE UTOPIAN IMPULSE: BUCKMINSTER FULLER AND THE BAY AREA"

Inside the great Henry Ford automotive museum just outside of Detroit, you can tour an actual Dymaxion House, designed by preternaturally productive designer, philosopher, and dissembler R. Buckminster Fuller. It's as perfect a realtime experience of walking around in someone's 1940s sci-fi Utopian dream as one can ever have. A polished aluminum mushroom cap subdivided into tiny rooms bursting with ingenious "squee!"-worthy gadgetry to handle all of life's projected needs, the Dymaxion House never took off as vernacular American architecture, despite its supposed ease of construction, light weight, and good intentions to house an expanding population. (Among its bland nemeses: rain, expense, and snarky architecture critics.)

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