Letter from the Bay Area

I recently spent two days shuttling around San Francisco and Oakland doing studio visits. Everyone always wants to know what an “outsiders” assessment of their local scene is, and this trip was no different. Many of the artists wanted to know if I thought what was happening in the bay area was different than what was happening in Los Angeles. I have to say I didn’t really experience a huge gap in regionality in this regard. I suspect the proximity of Northern and Southern California—despite their temperamental differences—and that old beast the internet has conspired to produce a field where there were far more similarities than differences. Sure, some LA studios are a lot larger than San Francisco ones, but many of the Bay Area studios I visited were in super cool buildings—old military barracks, or building and compounds that were artists owned and run for decades were the highlights—but like any day of studio visits anywhere, I often found myself on the outskirts of town, in newly gentrifying neighborhoods, in the basements of people’s homes and in odd mixed use spaces. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein the studio is the studio is the studio. And yes, they were all a bit damp and a little chilly.

The mix of artists was quite diverse. Day one started immediately from the airport and showcased the Bay Area’s incredible range of art and artists. There were folks working in and expanding wildly the tradition of craft. Josh Faught is productively crossing the wires of gay history and an expansive weaving tradition, making text and fiber based pictorial works that are as witty as they are incisive. Ruth Laskey similarly uses a loom but she produces meticulous weavings that summon the 1960s minimalist challenges to painting. David Huffman’s painting studio in Oakland was filled with brightly colored canvases that explored the now almost century long dictionary of abstract painterly marks, infusing them with the long struggle for civil rights in the United States. Meanwhile Amy Franceschini shared her work as part of the design/urban planning/artist collective XXX XXX. Particularly cool was their co-opting of urban “junk space” for community driven gardens and spaces. Luckily for me I was staying in SF’s historic Japantown so I was able to fortify myself with a huge bowl of Ramen. Day two continued my adventures in the land of Uber and Lyft, as I ultimately wended my way to an amazing outcropping overlooking the bay to the studio of painter John Bankston, whose paintings play with the logic of childrens’s coloring books, fantasy stories, and the problems and pleasures of queer desire. It was also a day which proved that artists are often really historians at heart. Desiree Holman was exploring the bizarre history of eugenics and extraterrestrial abductions via video and performance. While Carrie Hott shared reams of research about the history of artificial light from whale oil to the lightbulb, knowledge she then deploys to make sculptures, installations, and small chap books style publications. My day ended with Sadie Barnette, whose delicate collages and drawings highlight the history of the Black Panther movement, particularly her own father’s role in the movement, and the effect of the movement on him. In the long Lyft ride back to SF, over the always beautiful Bay Bridge, I thought a lot about how dedicated artists have to be to both follow their curiosity and to confront the daunting space of the studio every day. I am always in awe of the profound levels of commitment artists have, on the one hand to explore their own psyche and interests, and on the other how hard they work to communicate what they know and have discovered to others.

Thoughts of bravery and generosity followed me into my amazing meal at Rintaro. (I pretty much ate Japanese food for my entire stay.) On my last night UC Berkeley Art Historian Julia Bryan Wilson graciously agreed to interview me for a public talk held at The Lab in the Mission. Julia asked me a particularly tough question—one about the internal workings of museums in relation to the ongoing efforts so many of us are involved in to diversify our staffs, our collections, and our audiences. There was something about the vibe in the room, the engaged and cool feeling of the assembled audience, that prompted me to be a lot more honest and disclosive than I usually am. The transparency and honesty was rewarded by a really probing Q&A where the historical liberal, dare I say radical, history of the Bay Area was in full effect. In these hard times the room felt like a gathering of like-minded souls…a small reminder that art and church have often gone hand in hand, for both are, at their highest aspiration, about belief in and faith in the possibility of making the world better than when you found it.

After that we did what artists have been doing for at least 150 years—we all trundled off to a bar to keep the conversation going…


Helen Molesworth is the Chief Curator at The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles, where she recently curated the first US retrospective of the Brazilian artist Anna Maria Maiolino and the monographic survey Kerry James Marshall: Mastry. From 2010–2014 she was the Barbara Lee Chief Curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) Boston, where she assembled one person exhibitions of artists Steve Locke, Catherine Opie, Josiah McElheny, and Amy Sillman, and the group exhibitions Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933–1957, Dance/Draw, and This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s. As head of the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Harvard Art Museum, she presented an exhibition of photographs by Moyra Davey and ACT UP NY: Activism, Art, and the AIDS Crisis 1987–1993. From 2002–2007 she was the Chief Curator of Exhibitions at the Wexner Center for the Arts, where she organized the first US retrospectives ofLouise Lawler and Luc Tuymans, as well as Part Object Part Sculpture, which examined the influence of Marcel Duchamp’s erotic objects. While Curator of Contemporary Art at The Baltimore Museum of Art from 2000–2002, she arranged Work Ethic, which traced the problem of artistic labor in post-1960s art. She is the author of numerous catalogue essays and her writing has appeared in publications such as Artforum, Art Journal, Documents, and October. The recipient of the 2011 Bard Center for Curatorial Studies Award for Curatorial Excellence, she is currently at work on an ambitious exhibition inspired by the American painter and film critic Manny Farber and his 1962 essay, “White Elephant vs. Termite Art.”