Tales of the City

San Francisco

Left: Musicians Ana Matronic and Justin Bond. (Photo: Drew Altizer) Right: Gilbert & George. (Photo: Thomas John Gibbons)

Valentine’s Day may be sweet and red, but the art world is better known for cool remove than sentimentality. So it is worth noting that three San Francisco museums made public shows of affection on or around the Hallmark holiday. The first stop last Thursday night was the opening reception of the Asian Art Museum’s exhibition of new work by Chinese artist Zhan Wang. It was a somewhat rare presentation for a museum less inclined to feature contemporary work than, say, Hokusai paintings (which are actually on view down the hall). Wang’s show included a series of sculptures involving California rocks, shown both in original and polished stainless-steel versions. More than one attendee noted that the similar metal “stones” in the necklace worn by the artist’s spouse were equally impressive. Hou HanruSan Francisco Art Institute director of exhibitions, curator of the Istanbul Biennial, and a pal of the artist—justified his quick exit for the museum store by saying, “I’ve got to buy something for my wife.” The centerpiece of the exhibition was a large topographic map of San Francisco made from, among other things, piles of metal restaurant supplies—a token of affection for the city.

Over at SF MoMA a different kind of East-meets-West endeavor was underway: the second of two evenings of outré cabaret called “Weimar New York: A Golden Gate Affair.” Both the audience members and the performers seemed energetic; perhaps it was all the glitter, wigs, and body paint. The former sat at tables spread out in front of a stage built out of the museum’s atrium staircase. The space’s corporate bank-lobby vibe seemed to have receded, perhaps because of the toned-down mood lighting, which veiled Sol LeWitt’s cheerful rainbowlike murals (though the bottles of red wine couldn’t have hurt). The somewhat formal introduction made by Frank Smigiel, the public-programs coordinator who spearheaded the event, seemed a tad out of place, given the parade of gender-bending entertainers on the receiving end.

Left: “Weimar New York” performer Orchid. (Photo: Drew Altizer) Right: Rijksmuseum curator Kris Schiermeier and Krista Brugnara, director of exhibitions at FAMSF. (Photo: Thomas John Gibbons)

Co-MC Justin Bond (of Kiki and Herb) made a dramatic entrance, in a glittery black backless gown and tuxedolike pants, that reminded me of Gerhard Richter’s 1965 painting Woman Descending the Staircase. Scissor Sister Ana Matronic was voluptuous in a filmy dress emblazoned with an Empire State Building. I shuddered when she noted that the previous night’s event was a five-hour affair. (Or, as impresario Earl Dax described it during opening remarks, “durational cabaret.”) What ensued was a parade of performers singing Kurt Weill songs and doing stand-up comedy, and various appearances by the Pixie Harlots, a chorus line of pouty boys in feathers and ripped fishnets who combine the spirits of the Cockettes and The Night Porter. The consensus at my table was that the funky mix of characters was a welcome contrast to the Hollywood wattage turned on for the gossip-fueling events at LACMA the week before. While it didn’t feel exactly edgy, the underground vibe of this Golden Gate affair was convincing enough to generate the psychic equivalent of a cloud of cigarette smoke in the museum lobby.

Queer-identified comedienne Marga Gomez delivered a spirited but sometimes-unconvincing stand-up routine about her two-day-long career as a performance artist. (She scored better with a rant about how unsexy the term partner is.) Penny Arcade, with greater experience in the genre, donned a crimson, sequined dress and glitter-encrusted red lipstick. She wittily lamented the demise of New York bohemia, overpriced art schools, and her equal dislike for Clinton and Obama. Still to come were standout performers with feline names—Tigger!, a boozy mess of a drag queen who did an athletic full-frontal striptease, and Meow Meow, whose skittish chanteuse persona flitted about the stage, audience, and staircase, inviting willing participants to help her make a costume change.

Left: Dede Wilsey, board president of the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, with FAMSF director John Buchanan. (Photo: Thomas John Gibbons) Right: Artist Catherine Wagner, designer Loretta Gargan, and Daniell Cornell, director of contemporary art at the De Young Museum. (Photo: Glen Helfand)

The three-hour show cut into the after-party at the adjacent W Hotel: the thirty-fifth-anniversary celebration for Manhattanite “Weimar New York” fans Stefan Sztybel and Philip Raya. There was time for just one toast before the bar staff chased us out.

Performance and lengthy gay relationships were also central themes the next night, at the opening of the De Young Museum’s truncated version of Gilbert & George’s Tate Modern–organized retrospective. (“It was four times bigger at the Tate,” Gilbert told me.) The pair, who have been together for over forty years, seemed well settled into their identity as “sculpture” and graciously navigated the reception, which was held at the top of the Herzog & de Meuron–designed building’s tower. The view was stunning, but the lofty party venue didn’t jibe with Gilbert & George’s professed interest in creating art for a broader public, so George—the ruddier, British-born half of the duo—announced their intention to go downstairs to be “with the people.” And so the duo rode an elevator down to the galleries to mingle with and pose for cell-phone snaps with their fans. I overheard a docent telling her flock about the artists’ use of the “abject object” in the typically colorful, epic shit piece Shitty Naked Human World, 1994, as the faint strains of former Dead Kennedys front man Jello Biafra’s performance in the museum’s atrium drifted into the subterranean galleries. Gilbert & George, however, seemed anything but abject. Wandering around in their beige and gray suits (respectively), the artists genuinely seemed to enjoy the attention, as did the folks who got to meet them. That night, just about everyone seemed to heart San Francisco.

Left: San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom with actress Jennifer Siebel. (Photo: Thomas John Gibbons) Right: Tate Modern director Vicente Todolí with Lehmann Maupin's Courtney Plummer and David Maupin. (Photo: Glen Helfand)