BARchive :: Art Lick Gallery

  • by Michael Flanagan
  • Thursday April 28, 2016
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On the corner of 19th Street and Castro the mural of a laughing gorilla is evidence of another time in the city, when mortality, art and politics collided in atmosphere that was at times serious and other times hilarious. The "Laughing Gorilla" was painted by David Seibold, who with Luiz da Rosa was one of the owners of Art Lick Gallery at 4147 19th Street.

Art Lick had an oversized impact in the three years it existed (from 1989 to 1992). Perhaps that was because art seemed so vital in the midst of the AIDS epidemic. Seibold certainly saw art as an essential part of life.

In an article in the Bay Area Reporter from December 21, 1989, Seibold told Wendell Ricketts, "An art lick is similar to the concept of a salt lick - a necessity of life. And a 'lick' is a taste of something, which is what we present here. We don't give just one flavor. The palette is constantly changing."

It was not the only gallery that had been in the Castro. It was preceded by Wakefield Poole's Hot Flash of America (at 2351 Market Street) in the 1970s and Chrysalis Gallery (451 Castro) which closed in 1980. But there were two trends which were particularly important during its existence.

The impact of AIDS on the art world was just beginning to be fully appreciated in the late 1980s. Visual AIDS organized the first Day Without Art on Dec. 1, 1989, within months of the gallery's opening. There was also a full scale backlash and attempt to censor art under way, particularly art related to gay topics.

Primary among these were the denunciation of Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" on the floor of the U.S. Senate in May, 1989 because of National Endowment for the Arts funding for the artist's work and the subsequent cancellation of the show "Robert Mapplethrope: The Perfect Moment" in June, 1989 by the Corcoran Gallery.

In part as a reaction to the forces of censorship and funding concerns of galleries, a movement to bring art into the community began. Seibold addressed this in his comments to Ricketts.

"Our goal in opening Art Lick was to provide an alternative to 'downtown' gallery spaces - places that sometimes present art work as being so precious and intimidating that it's really unapproachable."

I spoke with renowned photographer Daniel Nicoletta, who exhibited at Art Lick as part of the "Eros" show in 1990. He reflected this notion of moving art out of downtown spaces.

"There was a convergence with the club scene happening as well; it was a melting pot with places like Club Uranus," said Nicoletta.

This certainly was evident in the work at the time. Club Uranus DJ Michael Blue was one of the models for Nicoletta's photos which were exhibited at the Eros show. Nicoletta also spoke to the use of non-traditional spaces in the creative process. "Caf´┐Ż Flore was our office."

Another importance aspect of art outside of downtown galleries was the use of agitprop protest and posters as political and social commentary by groups like Boy and Girl With Arms Akimbo, Electric City and ACT-UP (the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power). The late '80s and early '90s was also the era of the Akimbo's "Just Sex" and "Sex Is" posters and the use of the iconic "Silence = Death" and similar visual rhetoric from ACT-UP. This trend certainly informed the artists and exhibitions at Art Lick as well.

The first major show at the gallery, Christopher Enzi's "Inferno & Other Scenes" from November 2 to 17, 1989 challenged sexual repression in an era of backlash regarding AIDS. It was described in art calendar listings in the Bay Times as "Elaborate photos of men as demons cavorting in hell."

Ricketts' separate Bay Area Reporter article mentions aspects of the show that incorporate performance and sexuality as well.

"Seibold and da Rosa allowed themselves to be splattered and daubed with fluorescent paint, posed alongside thistles and snake skins and photographed under black light. The result, Enzi's series of giant color photos, was a startling collection of images, a thoroughly modern exploration of an ancient sort of paganism."

Michael Johnstone's "Spiritdance" show, which was on exhibit at Art Lick from January through February 1990, included a variety of media which was strongly influenced by the epidemic.

Johnstone told the B.A.R.'s Jay Newquist, "I find myself painting people taking care of other people. I have lost many friends to AIDS, but at the risk of sounding maudlin, my colors are brighter and I don't share a morbid fascination with death, not as a nihilistic movement."

I asked Michael to reflect on what it was like to exhibit in the Castro during the midst of the epidemic. He said, "There were hundreds of fast-forward lifetimes inhabiting our eyes."

"Compact," a show by Jerome Caja, was at the gallery from April 1 to 22, 1990. The April Fool's Day opening of 120 miniature paintings was captured in the B.A.R. by Dave Ford.

"Gender-unspecific admirers, critics and junket queens sipped marshmallow-spiked grape Kool-Aid and paid Jerome homage, while s/he munificently dispensed candy rocks from a tray by her throne."

The art work was taken seriously, however. Steve Abbott reviewed the show in the B.A.R. saying, "Jerome reminds us that the deepest spirituality (and beauty) lies where we might least expect to find it - in our very own daily lives."

Referring to the audience for this show versus the crowds at the Mapplethorpe show, which was breaking attendance records, San Francisco Examiner art critic David Bonetti told Ford at the opening, "a hundred thousand people should come to see this. "

Writing later that year in The Advocate, Gerard Koskovich noted the success of the exhibition in that a third of the works displayed were sold.

In retrospect it's important to remember that Jerome was not only a character, he was a successful artist; and that Art Lick was not only the center of the art scene that rejected the downtown gallery world, it was a successful gallery as well.

"Bear and Aphra," one of Jessica Tanzer's photos that were exhibited at Art Lick Gallery in 1990. Photo: Jessica Tanzer

"Eros," a group show, ran from June 20 through July 15, 1990. Described in the Bay Times calendar as an "Exhibit of mostly photography & paintings by male & female east & west coast artists that best & sincerely expresses the erotic that lies within everyone."

The exhibit included work from Michael Blue, Jim James, Michael Johnstone, Dan Nicoletta, Jessica Tanzer and others, and was an important sex-positive response to the climate at the beginning of the '90s.

As Seibold said, the gallery's palette was constantly changing. They continued to present both group and one- and two-person shows, including shows with both Jerome and Jessica Tanzer through the end of 1992. Seibold died in Oct. 1992 and da Rosa left the gallery earlier the same year. After a series of other businesses took residence, the popular Spunk Salon is currently at the corner space.

To say that Art Lick was groundbreaking is an understatement. The amazing thing is that the curators and artists accomplished this while still remaining a warm community space for art. Echoes of a small studio on 19th Street still resound around us to this day. I await the day an enterprising curator revisits the essential work done there.

The author would like to thank Jessica Tanzer, Daniel Nicoletta and Michael Johnstone for their assistance on this article. For further information on the gallery visit "Art Lick Gallery Remembered" on Facebook at:

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