Back from the Edge!

  • by Sura Wood
  • Sunday June 4, 2017
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"Tiny Bubbles," a phrase that prompts associations with old Lawrence Welk reruns or memories of wobbly champagne toasts, is actually the title of a new group show at the San Francisco Arts Commission Galleries (SFAC). The exhibition, the first in a series featuring objects from the city's Civic Art Collection, is designed as a dialogue with the work of Roy De Forest, the iconoclastic Northern California artist who's been a ubiquitous presence of late; four of his pieces are on display.

Curator Steven Wolf, whose former gallery had a history of presenting original, sometimes transgressive LGBTQ material, brings a similarly adventurous, irreverent approach that's anything but academic or obvious to his latest project. The intro text, where he lays out his novel thinking on De Forest, is an entertaining must-read.

Assembling a whimsical, edgy collection of nine artists such as children's book author-illustrator J. Otto Seibold, rapper Boots Riley, publisher V. Vale, prankster Longmont Potion Castle and local talents Kate Rhoades and Megan Reed among others, Wolf taps into De Forest's rebel streak. After breaking away from the oppressive trappings of Abstract Expressionism in the 1960s, the artist forged an idiosyncratic path, creating peculiar, wildly imaginative, color-charged menageries tinged with darkness and humor. Likewise, the participants here are wizards of strange, off-planet worlds and weird narratives of their own devise.

Take the late painter Jerome Caja. When he wasn't on stage performing at Club Uranus and other underground nightclubs in the late 1980s and early '90s, the beloved drag queen and charter member of the Popstitutes brought a theatrical flair to art that blurred the boundary between pornography and campy visual culture. In explorations of the absurd dimensions of sex and death and extremes of queer sexuality, Caja's struggle with his strict Midwestern Catholic upbringing is front-and-center in comic mini-melodramas trumpeting in-your-face sexual content and a cast of saints and sinners.

Over 30 of his small-format pieces, showcased in thrift-store frames and inspired by Indian miniatures, Hieronymus Bosch and possibly Russian orthodox icons, except for the scatological references, of course, are included in an installation, along with documentary footage of his life. Caja died in 1995 from complications related to HIV. Deploying tools of his trade: nail polish, eye-shadow, white-out, glitter, lipstick and crumpled paper - one piece, entitled "Shroud of Curad," is painted on a Band-Aid - and substituting dog bowls and pistachio shells for traditional canvases, he made work that's tart and self-referential. In "Nurse's Prayer," the masculine-looking harridan in need of anger-management training who admonishes her patient to "Fuck off and Die" is a nightmare out of "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest," and probably connects to Caja's illness. An assemblage with two rows of bottle caps and a red, one-room schoolhouse in the lower right alludes to the beating he took on a playground when he was a youth. An image of a screaming woman wielding a bloody carving knife, obviously an escapee from a John Waters movie, is framed by a cheerful blue gingham border threaded with yellow ribbon. No rest for the wicked, the innocent or housewives in Caja land.

Porpentine Charity Heartscape, a youngish, Oakland-based game designer and author of "Psycho Nymph Exile," has an ecstatic beat voice with a bite. In digital videos that skewer sexism and gender politics, she subverts dystopian sci-fi tropes and takes some jagged-toothed aliens along for the ride. "Eternal Biohellswamp War of Girls Slaughter," a video crawl that's good merciless fun, lists categories of females that could double as cheapie B-picture titles: 20 pony girls busting open vending machines, 80 void girls praying to the nebula, 8 gator girls experiencing imminent psychosis, etc. In "Marshmallowfungusbugpony," a short video whose name I wouldn't dare try to pronounce, a candy-colored squeeze toy, subjected to repeated injections from an air gun, squeaks as it goes through a life cycle of being pumped up and deflated. We've all been there, am I right?

Kate Rhoades, who's into a combustible combo of comics, painting and art theory, has produced "Precious Flamingo," a podcast miniseries that reflects this queer lesbian artist's quirky turn of mind, but deprives us of the delightfully whacky visual sensibility of her videos. Her audio tale travels from the gallery to the International Art Museum of America, a mysterious institution in the mid-Market district where all the artwork is by His Holiness Dorje Chang Buddha III, "who's either a super holy guy or a freaky fraud cult leader," explains Rhoades. After she's sucked into a lenticular print depicting two flamingos loitering outside the mouth of a cave, she's magically transported to an island populated with talking animals that bears a striking resemblance to Zanesville, Ohio. A new episode is posted every Wednesday at

"Boararina," a lavender vision in toe shoes and an ill-fitting ballet costume demonstrating a backbreaking arabesque, and the rowdy, hairy-chested, bikini-clad crew frolicking on a construction site are just some of the surreal, half-human, half-animal hybrids in Lisa Hanawalt's mischievous watercolor-and-pen illustrations. "Future archeologists might speculate they were the work of a demented cruise-ship entertainment director who stumbled upon H.G. Wells' 'Island of Doctor Moreau,' " notes Wolf, and that's an understatement. Something is clearly amiss in the world of the L.A. cartoonist's drawings, which were the basis for "BoJack Horseman," a Netflix animated comedy series whose off-kilter, often vulgar, comic-book spirit also informs the work in this show. A pair of "Shoe Birds," one trapped inside a robin's-egg blue, stiletto-heeled prison - a fate that could befall anyone - and another at the mercy of a high-heeled bootie pressed against its breast, dominatrix-style, inhabit a universe as fully realized as the fantasy dollhouse sets of Wes Anderson's films.

Last but certainly not least, Megan Reed's collaged, foam-and-plaster sandwich-board sculptures, which could be mistaken for discarded prototypes of 1950s robots or stage sets for a kids' musical. Unwieldy and disarming in deep magenta, insistent purple and day-glow orange, they barge into the frame, chugging into view like cartoon clown cars that started themselves up and are rumbling down a road near you.

Through Aug. 19.