September 2011 Bay Area Now @ Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Installation View: Bay Area Now, courtesy Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
Now – September 25, 2011

Every few years, the bay area takes over the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Bay Area Now, a triennial in its sixth edition this year, showcases local visual artists, performers and filmmakers and the work they have, ostensibly, produced locally. With a “local is as local does” thrust, the BAN shows tend not toward the curated cohesion that we may find more familiar these days. Meaning, a single message behind the mixture of media or references can be contradictory or jarring at a show like BAN. That said, I enjoy roaming freely, an attitude especially conducive to this year’s BAN edition. And that said, for the purposes of this review, I am looking at BAN from a singular, Bay-area-centric perspective. In other words, I have selected two works that seem most influenced by the San Francisco/Oakland/Berkeley environment; a focus which, in point of fact, begs the question of a Bay Area Now kind of show, right. Which is to say, why would the curators include the likes of Allison Smith or Richard T. Walker (both superstar artists whose work I admire), when their BAN work does not actually show a creative process related to or, should I say, inflected by the Bay? I’ll leave that answer to the curators.

Installation View: Bay Area Now, courtesy Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

1. Suzanne Husky

I first saw Suzanne Husky’s work at Southern Exposure in its annual juried show in 2004. (By the way, SOEX is my favorite non-profit Bay Area arts space. It’s historical, but not institutional, led by a group of smart forward-thinking art lovers whose global focus still pays generous respect to local practitioners.) Husky’s soft sculptures with photo print-out faces were amusing, cute even, and crafted with DIY flare. In the years since, her work has grown to lush fairytale environments. Far from inane, these Husky-worlds embody a political and especially environmental focus. That focus is reactive and site-specific; each installation a pastiche of the world outside the gallery.

At Bay Area Now, she uses her creative platform as a public forum, a globally-minded choice which is otherwise absent in the BAN show. Her installation of habitable structures constructed from found wood, Sleeper Cell Hotel, calls on visitors to consider degrowth as an alternative to economic growth, urban farms over mini-malls. With her characteristic home-grown aesthetic, the installation is deceptively homey, like your grandma’s, but different, unless your grandma is the likely to brandish an “Activism is not Terrorism” sign on her front door. Whereas a lot of “activist art” tends toward the didactic, Husky’s transcends the annoying-aesthetic that often weighs down the politically-minded artwork. She mixes humor with grave realities, as well as alternatives or solutions already underway. In other words, Husky doesn’t seem desperate for you to join up, but the invitation is there. To that end, Husky offers up a place to see her idea in practice at the Hayes Valley Farm, a city farm just up the street where she’s installed a seed library and who knows how many heads of lettuce.

2. Rio Babe International

My other favorite work, for its Bay Area-ness, is Rio Babe International Presents the World’s Fair 2011, a sensual hedonistic foil to Husky’s Sleeper Cell Hotel. Installed as literal neighbors, World’s Fair and the Sleeper Cell Hotel build a small Bay Area city in the middle of a whole lot of conceptual realities. Basically, World’s Fair is a reconstruction of an Oakland city home/cottage business reduced to its most essential public parts, that is, the front yard and the living room. The front yard features kitschy Home Depot lawn scores with a techno twist – the pedestal where a vase or a mailbox might live features a television showcasing fashion shots of posing hotties and the windows have a) a video vase of flowers and b) a neon storefront sign. Step around the corner, and the living room overflows with a hip hop remix that still thrums my inner sanctum days later. The catchy tune accompanies a totally out-there-silly music video that crosses the genres of hiphop, electro pop and Punjabi, with booty dancers as rampant as dweeby ones.

   Installation View: Bay Area Now, courtesy Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Rio Babe International labels itself a conceptual art brand. Though girded by two artists (Sam Strand and Kirby McKenzie), Rio Babe International called on the expertise of at least a dozen collaborators who helped them with such things as: putting that raunchy/funny video in a tabletop, reupholstering an antique fainting sofa in non-sequitur fabrics, and painting interior spaces on the computer. I have to admit that my affection for this installation has nothing to do with the World’s Fair premise. Frankly, I don’t really buy it. Having been to a world’s fair, I feel like I can say with good authority that this has nothing to do with anything global. Which is exactly the point, I think, of this Bay Area Now inclusion. Meaning, Rio Babe International is so totally Oakland to me that I just can’t help but smile. It’s fun; it’s ironic; it’s intergalactic; it’s urban. Like Husky, "Rio Babe International" have recreated a reality that they cherish and that they live within and that they’d defend with the help of an endless supply of East Bay co-conspirators. I’d even venture to call the Husky/Rio Babe comparison a great SF/East Bay metaphor, where the funny/serious and the funny/ironic meet somewhere in the underground.

Sara Blaylock

Sara Blaylock was born and raised in Milwaukee, schooled in Oakland and has since lived as an artist, writer and educator in Western Massachusetts, Barcelona and rural Holland. She is presently studying in the Visual Studies PhD program at the University of California - Santa Cruz. Her artwork and writing can be found at:

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