by Kara Q. Smith
This is really about how a lot of complex stuff around Art and Community intersect in a specific place, a foodie-focused space, 18 Reasons, nestled in the hip, critically-acclaimed (food-wise and otherwise) Mission District becomes a site of these two, and how great/problematic those intersections can be.
Firstly, here is what I was thinking... I’m wondering if I am overstepping my boundaries as some sort of Community Critic. I don't exactly see myself as a constituent of 18 Reasons; I have only helped install a show there with a friend and became fascinated with their art-related mission, living only two blocks from the space. Maybe since I don't go to their classes and can barely make the two hour openings, I felt I might be a little harsh or unwarranted as an outsider.
Personally, I’ve noticed (especially after reading some nice reviews this weekend) my tendency not to talk about art in many of my reviews, often talking about its context or environment. I realize this is sort of a Personal Problem, but hope to re-evaluate my approach when tackling such reviews...always room for improvement, I suppose!
When a space uses terms like “curator” and “exhibition,” having the best of intentions, complications can arise when the mission, the modus operandi if you will, of the space has little to do with art (though this hinges of course on what one can consider, by definition, art). Can art hold its own in these initiatives or does aesthetics fall away like a thin sheet to reveal only afterward praxis?
The most recent exhibition at 18 Reasons consists of photographs from small farmers in the United States. The photos, still, silent and properly executed exemplify the storefront space’s mission of promoting local, sustainable food creation and education. Beautiful and serene, Cecily Upton’s photo of a lifeless rooster obviously implores the viewer to consider the beauty in death at a caring hand, the real costs of sustenance, and a simple modern quotation of the classic “nature morte.” Each “artist” statement from the farmers involved in this exhibition discuss humbly their intentions in promoting their way of life, bringing us all back to our proverbial roots and encouraging us to think more holistically about what we put in our mouths.
While the space is run by an engaging and hard-working director, challenges arise in the access the public has to these photographs. In other words, this where it gets dicey for me. At 18 Reason, with class prices averaging around $30 for several hours of class or tasting time (modestly priced in the scheme of things, however expensive for me), there are few opportunities for those not attending these class events to view the artwork at hand. When classes are not in session in the space, black curtains are drawn across the windows, eliminating any street side viewing experiences. Generally speaking then, the thematic exhibition program is available to those able to attend and afford the classes, which by my generalized proxy are those interested in or already committed to pedagogical outreach of 18 Reasons.
Inherently I take no issue with this (as I am barely able to afford most museum entry fees these days…), but I do find complications with the term “community center” woven into the Mission Statement because I see little or no access or community outreach. Thus, the art can only preach to those members of the choir who have reserved their spot in the weekly line up of farmers’ talks, butchering classes and ice cream sandwich making demonstrations. Though there is limited programming in conjunction with this exhibition, the art provides contexts for these classes from the background, looming on the walls as each part of the pig is located. Inevitably great conversation pieces, I almost long for the art to have a bigger role in drawing people into the space and really bringing into focus the importance of the mission.
Art, or the space of art for good and ill, has become a catch-all for anything that doesn’t neatly fit into the world otherwise, and there are larger questions, within and without art, if art is the best space for this or if there isn’t a need for new, yet unknown paradigms.
Critical yearnings aside, I have been consistently impressed with the quality of exhibition programming hung on the walls surrounding the large community picnic table centered in 18 Reason's gallery space. When everyone is seated around this table, exchanging ideas and learning new food practices, the energy is palpable and the true ethos of community (hinging on commonality) emanates from the wood. I just hope it holds the potential to radiate as such from the walls.
--Kara Q. Smith
(Image: Cecily Upton, Untitled (Rooster), 2008, Image courtesy of the artist and 18 Reasons)