San Francisco Modern Art Museum Reopens

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Twin Walls Mural Company’s artists Elaine Chu and Marina Perez-Wong, with their mural entitled, Our Ancestors’ Wildest Dreams, 2020. Photo: Courtesy of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Last month, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art welcomed visitors with a free admission day to celebrate its second reopening since a shelter-in-place mandate was imposed a year previously. The first reopening, in October, required masks and physical distancing, but only lasted until December, when case-numbers spiked. This attempt is more cautious, with reduced hours and timed entries, in addition to masked social avoidance. Both museum cafes remain shut. These measures,nas well as vaccinations, make it likely that the institution will remain accessible.

In addition to the permanent collection and new works in photography and video, two closely related exhibitions stand out. Close to Home and Bay Area Walls feature local artists with pieces that respond to the ongoing public health crises and fight for racial justice.

Close to Home features seven artists working across medias. Klea McKenna addresses the inaccessibility of facilities to develop and print film photographs during the public health crisis. Her series presents pieces made using handkerchiefs she treated with photo chemistry and dye and exposed to light, symbols of infectious disease and an artist’s persistence.

James Gouldthorpe’s several small paintings, COVID Artifacts, is a mosaic-like collection of recent iconographies: N-95 masks, ballot boxes, portraits of healthcare workers. In its totality, it embraces what many of us have experienced over the last year: honing-in on essentials while confronting global upheaval.

Andres Gonzales’s series Sempervirens (Always Flourishing)is a meditative examination of Redwood trees in his Vallejo neighborhood. The photographs evoke the impact of wildfires in Northern California, and the potential for new growth that the Redwood symbolizes, a theme carried by the second exhibition.

In Bay Area Walls,seven more artists occupy entire walls throughout the museum, a form of fortification in conversation with Trumpian rhetoric. Erina Alejo’s My Ancestors Followed Me Here is a set of photographs documenting responses to recent events in the Mission district. Mural of Breonna Taylor and Eyad al-Hallaq, 2020, is a fresco of the titular victims of police brutality on a Valencia Street storefront. No Amount of Money Will Save You, 2020,depicts another shopfront, with the same words spray-painted on a metal rolldown gate.

Adrian L. Burrell’s It’s After the End of the World, Don’t You Know That Yet?, consists of photographs featuring the artist’s sister, mother, and grandmother posing in white satin suits at Oakland locations. In Regeneration, 2020, the oldest woman leans on her cane in front of a mural reading “shut it down”, shackled Black hands depicted beside the words rising like wings from her back. The piece was painted by Twin Walls Mural Company, comprised of artist’s Elaine Chu and Marina Perez-Wong, contributors to the SFMoMa exhibition.

Chu and Perez-Wong’s mural Our Ancestors’ Wildest Dreams, 2020, shows several young women dancing on water, a tree blossoming vibrantly in their midst. Beneath the water are submerged police cars and national monuments, Washington’s Mount Rushmore likeness among them. This image of demolition and celebration poses the question at the heart of both exhibitions: what can grow from the collapse of society as we know it? 

The thrill of these shows isn’t that viewing art in-person suggests that we might soon return to a state of pre-pandemic normalcy. Instead, the artists highlight the enduring impact of the last year and orient us toward new futures. They strike a hopeful and unapologetic chord, a call to action, reminding us of the great potential following periods of radical disruption.