#Hashtags: The Trouble with the Mission School

#access #gentrification #street art #painting #historicity

A panel at the San Francisco Art Institute on October 20 in conjunction with the Walter and McBean Galleries exhibition Energy That is All Around – Mission School: Chris Johanson, Margaret Kilgallen, Alicia McCarthy, Barry McGee, Ruby Neri, posed the question: “Mission School: Yes or No?” The general consensus, both on the panel and in the wider Bay Area arts community, was a qualified “Yes.” On the panel, Natasha Boas, who curated the SFAI show, described the intense resistance with which her question—”Was there ever really a Mission School?”—was met when she began her research on an essay of the same title that was included in the Berkeley Art Museum‘s catalog for its 2012 solo exhibition by Barry McGee. Artists refused to address the concept, objected to the label, and were otherwise evasive, even when (perhaps especially when) they had personally benefited from association with the group.

Alicia McCarthy. Untitled, 1996. Oil and latex on panel. 84 x 84 inches. Collection of Jeff Morris, Oakland. Photo by Johnna Arnold/SFAI.

Alicia McCarthy. Untitled, 1996. Oil and latex on panel; 84 x 84 in. Collection of Jeff Morris, Oakland. Photo: Johnna Arnold/SFAI.

In parallel discussions within the community and on Facebook, a common response to the question was, “Yes, but who cares?” Most people agree that the critical mass of artistic activity in San Francisco’s Mission District in the 1990s met the social and formal criteria for a “school” of artists: shared influences and connections that congealed into apparent stylistic and material affinities, and that informed later generations. Why, then, does the mention of this widely recognized and influential movement in recent art history provoke a polarized response from both the artists customarily included in the group and those who are not? Understanding the hostility to the Mission School label requires an appreciation of the many ways in which this Bay Area movement prefigured controversial developments in American contemporary art and urban space over the last 20 years.

“Mission School” artists were among the first wave of young, college-educated, white and mixed-race loft dwellers to move into the historically Latino Mission District in search of cheap rent. They took inspiration and materials from the culture of the streets, incorporating found wood, graffiti, empty bottles, and hand-painted signs into paintings and installations that were by turn tragically abject and impossibly cool. The artists displayed a keen awareness even then of the problems of gentrification and cultural displacement, as evidenced by Chris Johanson’s The Survivalists (1999). Berkeley Art Museum Assistant Curator Dena Beard, another panelist at SFAI, described how Barry McGee aimed to literally restore the images of people who had been priced out of the neighborhood in works such as his series of portraits done on found glass bottles. Ambivalence about the circumstances that supported their rise while displacing their neighbors is undoubtedly one reason why these artists appear less than comfortable with their artistic association with the Mission. Compounding this is anxiety over art-world hyperbole that credits a small group with inventing ideas and styles evident in the zeitgeist that they borrowed and remixed in their works.

Chris Johanson. The Survivalists, 1999. Mixed media; dimensions variable.  Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Johnna Arnold/SFAI.

Chris Johanson. The Survivalists, 1999. Mixed media; dimensions variable.
Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Johnna Arnold/SFAI.

Boas referenced an installation at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in which McGee, Kilgallen, and Johanson were represented in a permanent collection display bearing an adjacent wall text that claimed the Mission School was “the most significant art movement to emerge out of San Francisco in the late 20th century.” That claim inspired her SFAI show, which seeks to expand the circle of quintessential Mission School artists to five rather than three, and to correct the gender imbalance in the SFMOMA grouping. By way of understanding the discomfort that the “Mission School” label provokes, imagine the embarrassment that artists who are barely in their 40s must feel at being so sweepingly elevated in the canon of contemporary art, high above their community of teachers, mentors, and peers. The very factors that contribute to that assessment—their incorporation of a street aesthetic, their embrace of found materials and commercial techniques—are not inventions but continuations of trends that surfaced in mid-century American art by Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Bridget Riley, and others, synthesized with popular art forms such as folk art and graffiti writing. Regardless of whether the Mission School represented the best of Bay Area art in the 1990s (a claim that is endlessly debatable), the group represented the aspects of Bay Area art that were most easily understood and absorbed by the New York-based art mainstream. Their departure from the rigid formalism of post-minimalist New York was a return to established concerns rather than a revolution of the sort put forward by the identity-focused and performance-oriented artists who experienced a brief heyday in the same era.

Energy That is All Around: Mission School (installation view with work by Barry McGee in foreground). Walter and McBean Galleries, San Francisco Art Institute. Photo by Johnna Arnold/SFAI.

Energy That is All Around: Mission School. Installation view with work by Barry McGee in foreground. Walter and McBean Galleries, San Francisco Art Institute. Photo: Johnna Arnold/SFAI.

In fact, the palatability of the Mission School’s “radical” art practice for museums and galleries is the essence of its staying power. The SFAI show is unfailingly elegant and visually appealing. Despite its street pedigree, the work does not feel at all out of place in the white cube of the gallery. McCarthy, Kilgallen, and Johanson in particular shine in the context of an old-school painting exhibition such as this. To be sure, there can be no objection to a good-looking show, or to art that rewards viewing with pleasure. However, this represents preservation of, rather than departure from, existing artistic norms. Few Bay Area or New York institutions have taken a commensurate interest in other, less marketable work from the region that has had a similarly widespread influence on younger artists. The machine performance artists Mark Pauline/Survival Research Labs, Matt Heckert, Chico MacMurtrie, Kal Spelletich, and Christian Ristow (who made the Mission their base during the 1990s); the culturally hybrid painters including Hung Liu, Enrique Chagoya, and Robert Colescott; the Mission street painters such as Rigo 23 and Eduardo Pineda; and the Latino action-based artists Carlos Villa, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, and Tony Labat have all informed the work of the Mission School artists whose renown has eclipsed theirs.

Margaret Kilgallen. Untitled, 1997. Paint on wood with coins; 29 x 15 x 5 inches. Collection of Alexandra Bowes, San Francisco; Courtesy of Ratio 3 and the Estate of Margaret Kilgallen. Photo by Johnna Arnold/SFAI.

Margaret Kilgallen. Untitled, 1997. Paint on wood with coins; 29 x 15 x 5 in. Collection of Alexandra Bowes, San Francisco; Courtesy of Ratio 3 and the Estate of Margaret Kilgallen. Photo by Johnna Arnold/SFAI.

Furthermore, the ascendance of the Mission School in Bay Area art history is a fairly recent phenomenon. Critic Glen Helfand coined the term “Mission School” as late as 2002 to describe an art movement that was already on the wane. Gallerist Jack Hanley was instrumental in bringing this work to the national stage, where it was picked up by Jeffrey Deitch as of a piece with the new gallery-minded “street art” of artists such as Shepard Fairey and Banksy. Margaret Kilgallen’s untimely death in 2001 added a layer of heartbreak to the growing myth. These are all legitimate reasons why interest in the Mission School was piqued.

The complaint from artists both within and without is less that these artists are celebrated, and more that their peers and predecessors are not. The relentless emphasis on the Mission School as the defining contemporary art movement of the Bay Area in the late twentieth century perpetuates a sense that this community does not support its own until they leave and find support elsewhere, thereby driving local talent out of town or forcing it underground. In parallel with other forms of gentrification, the success of one group whose efforts are more easily absorbed by a neoliberal economy depresses the prospects of other groups who are less readily consumed. The Mission School’s elevation obscures the contributions of countless less-privileged artists whose practices are not as lucrative or deemed as valuable to an institutional system producing history in accordance with the interests of money.

Energy That is All Around – Mission School: Chris Johanson, Margaret Kilgallen, Alicia McCarthy, Barry McGee, Ruby Neri is on view at SFAI’s Walter and McBean Galleries through December 14, 2013.

 #Hashtags is a series exploring the intersection of art, social issues, and global politics.