The Well-Appointed Garage
Emerge 2001

©2001 by Stephanie Lee Jackson


quilt by Anna von Mertens, 1999




As I walk into the 2001 GenArt San Francisco Emerge exhibition, almost the first object which hits my eye is a brand-new, bright red Mercedes-Benz sedan, displayed in a niche that in former years had been given over to actual art. For about a tenth of a second I am, perhaps pardonably, fooled, given that during one recent visit to an MFA show I encountered a used motorcycle with a For Sale sign on it, no doubt a raw portrayal of the economic desperation of the young artist. This Mercedes installation has no edge of irony as an excuse; it just looks cluelessly inappropriate. But if Mercedes-Benz paid for some decent wine at the opening, and people in uniforms to refill the glasses, hooray for them. Emerging artists can use all the support they can get.

Blocking out the Mercedes, therefore, I go earnestly to explore what this years hip alternative curators have deemed worthy of Bay Area notice. It s an eclectic lot--arrogant video installations blaring across from meek wax-and-graphite canvases, insightful photo essays sucking the oxygen from solipsistic meditations on kitsch. It is a carnival of the rich, the ebullient, and the immature.

One thing I notice is the wide range of apparent Attitude Factor among the artists. In general, the less arrogant the attitude, the more powerful the work. Three quilts by Anna Von Mertens have me calculating whether I could possibly beg, borrow or steal the $2800 apiece, and wondering which one I d choose, and why the hell the Mercedes people hadn t already snapped them up. These quilts, excuse me, are works of Art; hand-dyed in precise, subtle colors, hand-stitched in patterns of topographic maps, circuit diagrams, and bird migration patterns, each one a piece of sheer poetry. Can you imagine sleeping under Western Sky/ The Sky Color of Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle at 4:00 PM, October 23-29, 2000, Night Sky/ Bird Migration Patterns of North America ? Owning a quilt like this could bring one closer to the harmonies of the universe.

Anna herself writes, I choose to work in a very labor-intensive medium, not out of some kind of martyrdom, but because I believe the aspect of touch, a kind of narration with my hands, brings an intimacy to my pieces that could not be obtained any other way. With an MFA from California College of Arts and Crafts, Anna recently received the prestigious Studio Award at the Marin Headlands Center for the Arts. The wind- and ocean-swept Marin Center seems a perfect place for the genesis of such gentle work.

In contrast, across the aisle, Rick Danielson has placed a teddy bear upon a shelf, apparently unrelated to the video of himself carrying a camera on a stick around the site, animated by subtle facial expressions and accompanying incongruent occurrences. Upon first glance the video is mildly perplexing; after two impatient minutes it lives up to its billing as wryly humorous and somewhat bizarre. Nevertheless it compels little introspection, and I move on to the enjoyment of Kirsten Bahrs Janssen s animated sculptures, whimsical machines that generate piles of chewed thread in different brilliant colors at the touch of a button. They make offhand references to both industry and legend, but mainly they just fun to play with.

Another compelling project is the photo essay by L. Jessamyn Lovell, who frankly documents the struggles of her own family; an absent father, a diabetic, bedridden mother, a brother with disfiguring burn scars, and a sister who appears to have mentally checked out of the chaos around her. You can almost tune in to the noise and sniff the squalor of poverty and frustration. Her attitude, however, is one of patient observation and acceptance, devoid of rancor or disgust. She writes, I think about my mother in her bed day after day and it keeps my spirit alive knowing that I am doing what I know how to do in response to the situation. I would not be alive if I did not make art. I would have given up a long time ago...[they] understand that I am not trying to exploit them. They understand that it brings us closer together. The overarching message is one of the ferocity of the human spirit despite overwhelming circumstances.

A voluminous collection of paintings by Deth P. Sun, although energetic, technically proficient, and selling briskly, falls short of any cohesive, well, anything. He claims to be influenced by Barry McGee, and says that everything else I ve been doing, I really don t know how to explain other than personal symbols and such. The cartoonish content, versatile aesthetic, and junkshop installation format seem less influenced by McGee than copied from him, but one could choose worse role models. s young, confides another artist. He wore headphones the whole time we were installing and didn t speak to anybody.

Liz Cohen s contrasting photographs of two Panamanian residences, the vibrant crash pad of a transsexual sex worker and the splendid but sterile high-rise apartment of her grandmother, are a study in both economics and personality. These two homes are less than two miles apart, but a world away from one another, she says. The work does not invite obvious political generalizations; the grandmother s palace may be sybaritic and overstuffed, but the sex worker s shack, with its rows of fancy shoes and gay altar to the Virgin, looks a lot more interesting.

I have a mildly amusing time tiptoeing through Michael Arcega s installation, This Placement, a room with fish in bubbling electric light bulbs hanging at various levels, and water on the floor. For a piece about displacement, it seems oddly predictable--surrealism revisited, perhaps. The predictability factor goes double for Abner Nolan s pieces, which win the award for Wonderful Idea Executed With Overwhelming Banality. His professed intention is to bear witness to the stories told by personal objects, old snapshots and other memorabilia, a theme which could have unlimited and scrumptious possibilities. The specific images he chooses, unfortunately, are so generic as to tell no stories whatsoever. For example, he takes a faded black-and-white photo of a suburban house, blows it up, and superimposes upon it the handwritten scribble, 53 Cherrywood Avenue. Thanks, Abner, s nice to have my curiosity satisfied.

GenArtSF s mission is to strengthen and empower young artists, to cultivate a new generation of art audiences, and to connect the arts community to the community at large. Given the packed nature Emerge openings, I d say they are doing a fine job. They actively encourage art collecting among the younger generation, providing panel discussions and free pamphlets on Collecting Art: A Beginner s Guide. Some of the installations may turn out to be problematic once you get them home, but you will never regret the quilts.

Emerge 2001, sponsored by GenArtSF, featured Michael Arcega, Megan Cump, Rick Danielson, Jennifer Fiore, Justin Hunter, Kirsten Bahrs Janssen, L. Jessamyn Lovell, Rajkamal Kaur Kahlon, Carrie Leeb, Deth Sun, Abner Nolan, Brett Simon, Anna Von Mertens, Daniel Ross, and Liz Cohen. Jurors were J.D. Beltran, artist; Berin Golonu, Editor-in-Chief of Artweek magazine; Rupert Jenkins, Director, SF Arts Commission Gallery; and N. Trisha Lagaso, Executive Director, Southern Exposure. Exhibited in the San Francisco Art Institute graduate studio garage space, 701 Chestnute, 7-18 through 8-5, 2001.