Homecoming Kings

San Francisco

Left: Artist David Ireland. (Photo: Peg Skorpinski) Right: Lawrence Rinder, dean of the California College of the Arts, CCA Wattis curator Jens Hoffmann, and Hayward Gallery director Ralph Rugoff. (Photo: Nikki Ritcher)

Institutional memory is rarely as sentimental as it was in the Bay Area last week, when several respected curators made high-profile homecomings. Things kicked off on Wednesday with Ralph Rugoff’s visit to the Wattis Institute for the opening of “Amateurs,” his group show surveying strategic uses of amateurism in contemporary art. Rugoff is currently the director of the Hayward Gallery in London, but he helmed the Wattis from 2000 to 2006 (heady days when Matthew Higgs was also part of his curatorial team). The irony of the exhibition’s premise was well suited to an art school—the gallery is on the campus of the California College of the Arts—where many young artists aim to buff their work to a professional state.

The show features several of Rugoff’s old favorites—Jeremy Deller, Andrea Bowers, Jeffrey Vallance, Michele O’Marah, Jim Shaw—as well as some relative newbies to the local scene, among them Jennifer Bornstein and Johanna Billing. Only a few, such as Harrell Fletcher, attended the reception, but the low-key opening crowd had its share of ardent fans—both for the artists and the curator. Thomas Demand, in town for a weeklong teaching stint at the San Francisco Art Institute, was excited to meet painter Robert Bechtle, who was himself checking out a work by the Long March Project.

Rugoff seemed happy, noting that it didn’t take him long to get back into the Wattis groove. He must have had a flashback watching the hors d’oeuvres disappear into the mouths of hungry students. No snacks remained when Lawrence Rinder, the Wattis’s first director and current dean of the college, introduced Jens Hoffmann, current Wattis director, for the official remarks.

Left: Dealer Chris Perez with Jacquelynn Baas, interim director of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, and artist Lutz Bacher. (Photo: Glen Helfand) Right: Artists Robert Bechtle and M. Louise Stanley. (Photo: Peg Skorpinski)

At that point, I ducked into the show for a quick session with the Unlicensed Therapist, a project artist Josh Greene first realized in 2001, when, the catalogue notes, it sparked concern from the California Board of Behavioral Sciences. In a compact office-style installation outfitted with couch, chair, and a well-placed tissue box, I unburdened myself of work-related anxieties (my words were confidential, Greene calmly assured me). Reentering the reception, I bumped into an art consultant who admitted she was depressed. “The Pennsylvania primary,” she said, rolling her eyes. Gossiping about unfilled administrative positions (and decampments) at various local art institutions, however, brought some levity to our conversation.

Memories went back a bit further at the thirtieth birthday bash for the Berkeley Art Museum’s Matrix program, which, when launched, was among the country’s first museum contemporary-art project spaces. Crossing the Bay Bridge during Friday rush hour tested my nerves, but I finally arrived and made it up to a terrace gallery in the Brutalist museum building, where a crowd of trustees, artists, and museum staff had gathered beneath a sign featuring the title of a James Lee Byars installation: THE PERFECT AUDIENCE. I just missed remarks from guest-of-honor artist David Ireland (who, being somewhat frail—and popular—was at that moment being escorted to another event by two assistants), and Constance Lewallen and Elizabeth Thomas, Matrix curators past and present, respectively. I couldn’t see who was speaking, but I did spot a nattily dressed Rinder, who also held that post before his stint as a curator at the Whitney, standing nearby.

Left: Steve Beal, provost of the California College of the Arts, Carlie Wilmans, executive director of the Phyllis C. Wattis Foundation, and Anne Hatch, CCA chairman of the board of trustees. (Photo: Nikki Ritcher) Right: Filmmaker Martha Colburn and writer Kevin Killian. (Photo: Glen Helfand)

The roster of curators past and present was represented via an exhibition, fittingly titled “Matrix Redux,” that featured works from former shows, which, along with a slide show of works by artists not included in the exhibition, brought to mind a retrospective of the various actors who have played James Bond—some having made more of an impression than others during their reigns. Hoffmann whispered something to me about the fleeting eight-month tenure of Chris Gilbert, who departed the museum in May 2006 amid controversy over one of his exhibitions. “Weren’t all his shows about Venezuela or something?” Hoffmann asked. Indeed, all two of them were.

A moment later, the crowd erupted with howls of approval when it was announced that Rinder had accepted the position of director at the Berkeley Art Museum. Scuttlebutt about this development had been circulating for weeks—we were all discussing it at Rugoff’s opening—but the excitement was charged with genuine surprise and good will at Rinder’s return to Berkeley. He regaled us with recollections of his first days at the museum in the late ’80s, sporting “cutoffs and hayseeds in my hair,” and with anecdotes about Raymond Pettibon accidentally dropping his cash honorarium on a Berkeley sidewalk and Kiki Smith getting all earth-mothery with trustees. It wasn’t clear how those memories will play into the hundred-million-dollar capital campaign he’ll have to facilitate (the museum is planning a new building designed by Japanese architect Toyo Ito), but he didn’t seem to be breaking a sweat on Friday, proclaiming: “I’m so thrilled to be here!”

At that point, the party opened up to the cheaper-ticket crowd, who seemed happy to be there as well. We all wandered the tiered galleries, watched projected animations by Martha Colburn (an upcoming Matrix artist), and listened to Deerhoof play an eclectic live set in a gallery usually hung with Hans Hofmann paintings. On my way out, I snagged one of the commemorative cupcakes frosted with numbers that referred to the sequentially titled Matrix shows. “123 is the number for ‘V-Girls,’” an enthusiastic woman behind the buffet told me after consulting a sheaf of papers. I had to rack my brain when I got home before I recalled that this was the short-lived institutional-critique performance group that included Andrea Fraser. Here’s hoping that art history and dessert are linked more often.

Glen Helfand

Left: Artist and critic Jordan Kantor, artist Thomas Demand, and Jens Hoffmann. (Photo: Nikki Ritcher) Right: M. Louise Stanley. (Photo: Peg Skorpinski)

Left: Artist Luke Butler, curator Raimundas Malasauskas, curator Veronica Wiman, and curator Berin Golonu. (Photo: Nikki Ritcher) Right: Matrix curator Elizabeth Thomas with artist Sergio de la Torre. (Photo: Glen Helfand)

Left: View of a video piece by Chris Larson. Right: Former Matrix curator Constance Lewallen, with artists Lewis deSoto, Laurie Reid, and John Roloff. (Photo: Peg Skorpinski)