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Arts & Culture » Art

Spirited disruption: Celebrating 150 years of the SF Art Institute

by David-Elijah Nahmod

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, 'Modern Attack,' 2020, screen print on muslin, velvet, various trimmings and tassels. Courtesy of artist.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, 'Modern Attack,' 2020, screen print on muslin, velvet, various trimmings and tassels. Courtesy of artist.  

Beginning March 19 and running through July 3, the venerable San Francisco Art Institute will celebrate its 150th birthday with an extensive exhibition of a diverse array of alumni. There will be a particular focus on Black, indigenous people of color and LGBTQ+ artists at the exhibition, which takes place at the institute's historic Chestnut Street campus and online.

Titled A Spirit of Disruption, the exhibit will include a large selection of artwork and archival materials which celebrate the ethos of the institution while highlighting the contributions of artists and individuals who have often been overlooked. There will also be a ten episode podcast which will supplement the exhibition.

"The podcast will be an opportunity for listeners to hear an expansive oral history of the San Francisco Art Institute across its legendary departments," said exhibit curators Margaret Tedesco and Leila Weefur in a joint statement. "Those who won't be able to see the physical exhibition will get the chance to experience it through this 10-episode historical deep-dive."

According to its press release, A Spirit of Disruption will include works by more than thirty alumni and faculty from the 1960s until the present day, as well as a dynamic media installation drawn from the school's vast archive. There will also be a section dedicated to artist model Florence "Flo" Wysinger Allen, who posed for countless paintings, sculptures, and drawings from 1933 until her death in 1997.

"150 years is a really long time," said Weefur. "I think something that has really been important to both of us is taking this 150 years and sort of re-prioritizing who is at the forefront of that history. Across the board we all know that in art history in terms of who has been historically celebrated predominantly has been a specific body or group of people; white, cisgender, variations of that. I think it's really been important to us to really dig deep into the history and not just lean on our own experiences of the institution and who we already knew. We wanted to find new people, we wanted to really allow the archive to reveal itself to us."


Brett Reichman: Satin Cock, 2006, Oil on canvas, 24" x 48", Courtesy of artist.  

Queerness, between the lines
Tedesco said that the exhibition is "an invitation to no longer read between the lines."

"What it means for me to say that in my long history is to witness a way in which, for instance, queerness exists in the school all along, but how it's addressed i.e. through the classroom, through the course descriptions," she explains. "I'm queer, so of course I'm very alerted to how things are coming across for the students, hearing stories from the students, or feeling like the students weren't exactly being celebrated who were queer. There were issues with homophobia, there were things said out loud that were just thrown at the wind. We are telling it more like it is through the podcast, through the exhibition itself, through the film/video experience. We're trying to engage and look at what has been between the lines. We want to bring that out. We don't need to read between the lines any longer."

Weefur explains why the show is called A Spirit of Disruption.

"Something that kept coming up is wanting the title to embody the essence or the nature of the school and the students," she said. "The idea of the Spirit of Disruption was able to really capture that essence. A lot of the students were really interested in disrupting the formality of the art world. Whether that was through a material practice or some kind of performative practice or if it was just a way of pushing against a kind of industry expectation, that spirit of disruption carried through throughout the Bay Area; anyone who comes out of SFAI, there's an Ouvre that they carry with them."


Philipp Weisman: Untitled, 1955. Oil on canvas. 24 x 20 inches. On loan from Pam Martin.  

Remembering Flo
The curators also took a moment to discuss the legacy of Florence "Flo" Wysinger Allen.

"Flo was an artist model for many of the art schools across the Bay Area," Weefur explained. "Most prominently at SFAI. She said, 'Honey, I am the art institute', and that was her famous quote. Flo was a really special individual. Not only was she an artist model who posed for innumerable amounts of sculptures, paintings and drawings, videos, etc. She also started the Bay Area Model's Guild, and she is in many ways the pioneer of topless modeling.

"For someone who was around the school for more than fifty years and posed for so many of the students she really was the Art Institute, and we wanted to make sure that we highlighted her history with the school and show just how much she contributed to that spirit of disruption. Here she is, this Black woman holding a pose for hours on end and developing relationships with all of the faculty and artists in the Bay Area to kind of recontextualize the image of the Black woman."

They both noted that Allen was also a singer and a hostess at the old Spaghetti Factory in North Beach. She was a journalist, and she worked for the longshoreman's union.


150th Curators Margaret Tedesco and Leila Weefur at SFAI's historic Chestnut Campus, 2020. Photo by Alex Peterson  

"Exceptional in all directions the more you get to know who she is," said Tedesco. "She was very sassy. We will probably have altogether twelve works on the wall drawn of her and painted of her, and one particular suite is coming from an archive, and they're incredibly gorgeous."

In addition to the more than 30 artists represented in the show, there will be a video and film room upstairs where almost 200 videos will be shown in the round.

"We created a round room, and they'll be two projectors and the videos will show independent of each other in this really interesting way of coming forth and we'll be able to hear the sound clearly for each video and then it will fade down and another one will come up," explains Tedesco.

Weefur pointed out that this is the first time many of these artists will share a gallery together.

"What I personally want attendees to take away from this is the discovery of the history of SFAI," said Weefur. "I want people to go into the gallery and say 'I had no idea this person went into the school; I had no idea that this person made this kind of work at the school.' Something that I think Margaret and I have done, kind of unintentionally because we are artists and curators, is make a lot of formal and consensual connections between a lot of the works. I want people to come into the gallery and to live with what we've curated and see all these parallels in different generations of SFAI alumni and faculty and see how each practice bled into each other."

Mask and social distancing protocols will be in effect for those who attend the show in person. Reservations are required. To make a reservation to see the show in person or online, and to listen to the podcast, visit: sfai.edu

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