San Francisco

Gordon Parks, Invisible Man Retreat, Harlem, New York, 1952, gelatin silver print, 24 × 20". From “Something (you can’t see, on the other side, of a wall from this side) casts a shadow.”

Gordon Parks, Invisible Man Retreat, Harlem, New York, 1952, gelatin silver print, 24 × 20". From “Something (you can’t see, on the other side, of a wall from this side) casts a shadow.”

“Something (you can’t see, on the other side, of a wall from this side) casts a shadow

In recent years, and in successive waves, San Francisco’s South of Market (SoMa) district has been transformed from an industrial zone inhabited by large working-class and transient populations to a “revitalized” commercial and cultural hub filled with upscale condos and dot-com offices. Shortly after Airbnb opened its new headquarters there last year, city officials forcibly removed homeless encampments under the freeway overpasses that crisscross the neighbor-hood. Less than a block away at SOMArts, one of the city’s few surviving nonprofit art spaces, independent curator Juana Berrío recently staged a multi-disciplinary show featuring seventeen artists who explore not only the political but the personal and experiential dimensions of homelessness and urban space, reflecting on what it means to live, work, and walk in a city pervaded by everyday violence and unfathomable inequality.

“Something (you can’t see, on the other side, of a wall from this side) casts a shadow” took its title from Ed Roberson’s ekphrastic poetry assignment, cited by Dodie Bellamy in her hauntingly strange and poignant essay “In the Shadow of Twitter Towers” (included in her 2015 collection When the Sick Ruled the World, on view in the exhibition’s reading room). The phrase invokes phenomena that are hidden, obscured, or overlooked, yet are nonetheless there: This description applies as much to pervasive networks of technology and capital as to the individuals left behind in the ruthless pursuit of profit. The exhibition opened with David Wojnarowicz’s photograph What is this little guy’s job in the world, 1990, which depicts the artist’s enlarged hand holding a tiny frog, like a quivering amphibious jewel: an image of bare life that viscerally suggests the simultaneous precarity and value of all sentient beings.

In contrast to a number of well-known examples of art addressing gentrification (Colab’s “The Real Estate Show” in 1980 and works by Gordon Matta-Clark, Krzysztof Wodiczko, and Hans Haacke), this show focused less on the ideological and institutional politics surrounding property than on a politics of aesthetics, perception, and embodiment. The works on view sought to destabilize what we know, see, and hear. David Hammons’s video Phat Free, 1995/1999, begins with a blank screen, filling the gallery with the sounds of what could be a free-jazz percussion solo but which, several minutes into the piece, turn out to be those of a man kicking a bucket down the street—revealing the possibility of freedom and lyrical expression within disenfranchisement. Themes of resilience were also taken up in a stretched-nylon sculpture by Senga Nengudi, R.S.V.P. Reverie-0, 2015, symbolizing the elasticity of the female body and psyche, and in Zoe Leonard’s Two trees, 1998, a photograph of trees whose bark has grown over and around the chain-link fence that confines them.

The show did not romanticize poverty, but rather challenged viewers to rethink cultural stereotypes about the victimhood and otherness of life on the street. Several works (including Catherine Opie’s Untitled #16—Freeway Series, 1994, an incongruously small, elegant platinum photograph of an enormous freeway overpass, and Yuji Agematsu’s zip:09.01.05 . . . 09.31.15, 2015, a grid of exquisite diminutive sculptures made of chewing gum, hair, dirt, and other detritus collected from the sidewalk) employed shifts in scale and context to reveal an unexpected and intriguing beauty in ubiquitous but often ignored pedestrian forms.

While the show gained particular resonance in its immediate vicinity, it also connected the local context to any number of historical global situations. Gordon Parks’s dreamlike photomontage Invisible Man Retreat, Harlem, New York, 1952, which imagines the protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s famous novel ensconced below the city in a hideaway decked out with blazing lightbulbs, drew an implicit link to the civil rights era, stressing individual resourcefulness and dignity in the face of injustice. Likewise, Phillip Greenlief’s pictorial “map score” Yerba Buena, 2018 (which the composer and saxophonist debuted to a rapt audience at the show’s opening), superimposed American Indian words onto a map of the area, referencing earlier, if ongoing, histories of displacement and erasure. The exhibition avoided pointing fingers and refrained from telling viewers what to think; instead, it attested to and heightened the capacity for curiosity, empathy, and improvisation as a means of recognizing—and bridging—the range of realities, past and present, that we all inhabit.