San Francisco

Queens Nails is Dead at Queens Nails Gallery

When confronted with endings, we mourn and ultimately accept. We feel some mix of disappointment and satisfaction that we were there before it ended, excitement that it happened, and sometimes relief that it is over. Queens Nails is Dead is the last exhibition for Queens Nails Gallery, an artist-run nonprofit gallery that opened in San Francisco’s Mission District in 2004. Featuring the work of Daniel J. Martinez, Marco Rios, and Jerome Reyes, the show and its blunt title evince more of a last huff than a last gasp.

Marco Rios. Despair Beyond Despair, 2011 (video still); HD video; TRT: 4:20. Courtesy of Simon Preston Gallery, New York.

Marco Rios. Despair Beyond Despair, 2011 (video still); HD video; TRT: 4:20 min. Courtesy of Simon Preston Gallery, New York

Yet last gasps are still there, appearing literally in Rios’s short film Despair Beyond Despair (2011), which reenacts a scene from a 1970 Dario Argento film in which the artist witnesses his own murder. Coming upon the violent scene, which appears to have occurred just after install and before opening night at Los Angeles’s LA><ART, Rios is locked out of the gallery yet trapped by the roll-down metal gate in the building’s entryway. He can’t help but watch the artist in the gallery die; he can’t help but still try to do something about it. Meanwhile, we, the viewers, take in both of their struggles while we stand there awkwardly entranced by the spectacle.

What does it mean to live and die in an art space? What does it mean for an art space to live and die? What does it mean for a community to live and die? While Queens Nails is Dead alludes to the ultimate ending, it hinges on the fact that although death always offers physical closure, psychological closure can be slow to follow. The back gallery, which features several wall-mounted works by Rios, suggests this most forcefully. Dark wood frames with red silk mats bear droopy glass fronts, manipulating the materials of the funerary ritual—silk-lined, glass-topped caskets—in a manner both sensual and elegiac. These empty yet impregnated frames suggest regenerative potential at the scene of death and this gallery’s legacy as a descendant of Deep River, an artist-run gallery Martinez cofounded in 1997 with a “strategic temporality” of a five-year lifespan. [1] LA><ART filled the void that it left behind, and Queens Nails is Dead seems an invitation for San Francisco to do the same for Queens Nails.

Jerome Reyes. Gold Blooded, 2013. Installation view, Queens Nails is Dead, 2013. Courtesy of the artist and Queens Nails, San Francisco

Jerome Reyes. Gold Blooded, 2013. Installation view, Queens Nails is Dead, 2013. Courtesy of the artist and Queens Nails, San Francisco

Yet artists like Martinez, Rios, and Reyes can’t help but try in the face of seeming futility, on the off chance that the effort pays off and some catalysis occurs. The three are linked philosophically in their commitment to activism and shared time in exhibition spaces and classrooms. Curator Julio César Morales, cofounder of Queens Nails, has effectively put into orbit the artists’ shared approach to the politics of space and community. However, a light curatorial touch with no didactics leans heavily on the viewer’s ability to piece these relations together; if not familiar with the artists or the space itself, it is difficult to fully access the show as a whole.

Reyes’s installation Gold Blooded (2013) takes up the main gallery space. Its walls, painted the green hue of so many hospitals and state-run institutions, feel oppressive. A rear-projection screen hangs from the ceiling, giving a view upward from a missile launching pad located on the demilitarized Nike Missile Base in the Marin Headlands. The doors open and close in a short video loop, their heavy shrieks lending the otherwise minimal space a grating atmosphere. Other sculptures bear the psychological weight of disciplinary tools: the scale of a 225-foot-long zip tie (entitled Rappeling for a blind jump into the heart of Chiba City), coiled like a rope and hung on the wall, magnifies its potential for protective and punishing functions. For those who can’t sink or swim is a curved aluminum and wooden rod that leans casually against another wall, evoking both a shepherd’s crook and a scythe. With its stark silence, a large circular white platform entitled Cerebra (Frank and Oscar text their directions to the search engine), elevated a few feet above ground by an armature, is the foil to the video, a seeming monument to the dormant missile launch pad which, in this context, still bears potential for action.

Daniel J. Martinez. Holiday in Cairo, 2013; neon; 48 x 42 x 5 inches; Courtesy of Roberts & Tilton, Los Angeles

Daniel J. Martinez. Holiday in Cairo, 2013; installation views, Queens Nails Gallery, San Francisco. Courtesy of Roberts & Tilton Gallery

San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood appeals to many for its convenience to public and corporate transportation, its mix of malodorous alleys and cute boutiques, and its restaurants that sell expensive and delicious variations on the neighborhood’s cheap and delicious ethnic food. It appeals as something authentic because it is a place that feels, looks, and smells alive. Martinez projects desire like this back onto this community—as his confrontational and wry language-based work often does—with an evocative neon piece that faces the street: “the sour stench of poverty and a snarling dog” alternates with the phrase “my purpose is to make war and write letters,” a Cartesian declaration of how the hand and the mind can change fates when war is waged as much in words as in deeds. Alternating between sans serif and script, the piece, entitled Holiday in Cairo (2013), projects personal and public ideology into the evening streetscape. Transforming a garish material language into a barbed poetics, it stopped viewers in their tracks for long enough, perhaps, to conceptually resonate.

When I left the exhibition opening to head home on the subway, I caught up with police outfitted in riot gear. They were headed to dismantle a group of protestors that had gathered at the 24th and Mission BART station in the wake of the hours-old, disappointing news that Trayvon Martin’s killer had been acquitted, what many perceived as symptom of a dying justice system giving way to racial profiling. Coming from the last opening of a gallery that is closing, there seemed to be parallels about humanity, our faith in transcendence, and our anxieties about its failure. The protestors embodied that last huff of a belief in activism, what Martinez had hoped for.

Queens Nails is Dead is on view through August 17, 2013.

Ellen Tani is a doctoral student at Stanford University and was Art Practical‘s 2012–13 Asian Contemporary Arts Consortium Writing Fellow.

[1] Lauri Firstenbirg, “A Model of Radical Temporality: Deep River: Los Angeles (19972002). Daniel Joseph Martinez: A Life of Disobedience (Ostfildjern, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2009): 178179.