Lately I’ve been working on an exhibition titled Way Bay—which I am co-curating with BAMPFA’s Film Curator, Kathy Geritz, and our Engagement Programmer, David Wilson (who is also an artist)—that will present Bay Area art, film, and archival materials from BAMPFA’s collection from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. It’s given me an opportunity to see lots of things that haven't been looked at for decades and to rethink the contours of our region’s culture.
While art critics, curators, and dealers may feel a need to define Bay Area culture in terms of a particular scene—i.e. a prevailing style or approach (the Bay Area Figurative, Funk, and Mission Schools are prime examples)—artists in the Bay Area seem to have accepted for a long time that such “scenes”—at least insofar as they insist on a predominant artistic trope—are fictions. Reflecting the sense of liberated subjectivity that is happily so much a part of our social experience, there is a relative unconcern in conforming to a coherent aesthetic or artistic demeanor. A benign anarchy prevails.
This lack of interest in defining a set of limiting conditions for Bay Area art at any particular moment is not only reflective of the liberated subjectivity of individual artists, but it is also more accurately reflective of the social conditions and the reality of art production across cultures and classes in our community. In truth, there never was a Bay Area art “scene” but only many scenes (and individual artists), some of whom were celebrated and others who were consigned to the margins of art history. Being absent from art history is not the same as being absent per se, and it is very much the case that countless artists in the Bay Area have made extraordinary contributions to their own communities and circles of friends, even as they made no mark whatsoever on the critical establishment or art market. The styles that have come to define the conventional, textbook history of Bay Area art reflect a dramatically limited reading of the character, quality, and importance of the actual work being made.
This is not to say that there was no such thing as Bay Area Figurative painting or that Conceptual art didn’t serve as a point of cultural connection for many Bay Area artists in the early and mid-1970s. However, neither then nor now could one accurately speak of Bay Area art as a limited set of styles and approaches. Artists themselves have generally ignored such categories and periodizations.
The freedom that Bay Area artists have generally felt to ignore the art world’s idea of who they should be has meant that little coherent criticism has evolved to engage the vast majority of local production. It is hard to fashion a critical framework in the absence of a historical narrative or clearly articulated aesthetic or theoretical position, all of which are low priorities for most Bay Area artists. Although disconnected in some ways from their art world peers elsewhere in the US and abroad, Bay Area artists see and feel themselves to be more connected to a diverse array of local cultural production in ways that often cross lines of community and class. Just one example is the broad impact that the three centers for adult artists with developmental disabilities (NIAD, Creative Growth, and Creativity Explored) have had on countless Bay Area artists, and vice versa.
There have been many instances in which artistic groups formed in the Bay Area out of shared enthusiasms or interests (though frequently cutting across disciplinary boundaries). In the late 19th century, for example, a dynamic community formed around the Oakland proto-hipster Joaquin Miller; that community included the gender-bending writer Yone Noguchi (father of Isamu Noguchi), the librarian and poet Ina Coolbrith, and the eccentric painter Xavier Martinez. The extraordinary art (not just painting, drawing, and sculpture but also video, performance, and literary work) that evolved around San Francisco’s queer club scene of the early ‘90s and Kiki Gallery is another example. The multi-disciplinary work of African American women in Oakland’s Malidoma Collective exemplifies this tendency today. Yet, in none of these cases were the artists involved aspiring to be the Bay Area art scene. Their association was passionate, contingent, and temporary. Indeed, as in so much that makes Bay Area culture so vital and significant, the participants have sought to find meaning and success precisely in their difference from others and from mainstreams of any kind.