The Armchair Art Show

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When the Bay Area shelter-in-place mandate went into effect in mid-March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, galleries in the DoReMi arts district shuttered. New exhibitions were postponed; current shows extended indefinitely. Galleries initially invited visitors to view exhibits by appointment, but most have since transitioned to online-only viewing spaces. 

Online observation generally consists of high-resolution slideshows, not so different from the images placed on gallery websites before the public health emergency, just more comprehensive. McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, housed at Minnesota Street Projects, is hosting a program of short films on its website, “Certainty is Becoming Our Nemesis,” in lieu of their now-extended exhibition Orlando. Ever Gold [Projects], also in Dogpatch, was set to debut a showroom for its new fine art subscription service [On Approval], which has been postponed indefinitely. The gallery instead launched an online viewing room of sample works available to purchase or lease for a flat-rate monthly fee, pro-rated with longer subscriptions.

The California College of the Arts, in Potrero Hill, hosted its graduating Master of Fine Arts students’ show online, claiming that it’s “not an exhibition” but “a record of time, place and a group of artists who inhabited a community.” That record consists of an interactive webpage loaded with install shots and critical writing mostly reflecting on present unprecedented times. The curators attempted to create dynamism with animations and fading text, but these visuals, rather than activating the platform, might more often prompt viewers to miss unobtrusive gallery walls.

Et al., in the Mission, mounted a one-night show of Craig Calderwood’s drawings titled Dressed for Space in Nintendo’s Animal Crossing, a virtual simulation which people with adequate technology could log onto. Those who didn’t own Animal Crossing software could witness the show through screen recordings of the digital world, facsimiles of Calderwood’s drawings mounted on the walls of a 3D model that users’ avatars traversed jerkily like a video game. The effort smacked of a virtual walkthrough tour, the limitations of which inhibited engaging with the work.

There’s plenty of art on view from the comfort of one’s couch, but when the latest gallery opening is just a click away from Netflix, the experience flattens into the malaise of binging. Art isn’t intended as straightforward entertainment. Galleries invite viewers to see how artists and curators wrestle with the present moment, or whatever moment constituted their present. Right now, that’s not happening. Creating a facsimile of gallery space, rather than an original viewing experience, is a stagnant response, entrenched in outmoded methods of documentation. 

Present-day approaches are partially the unavoidable result of arts programming that plans six or more months into a future that couldn’t have been anticipated to look like this one. But with the possibility that shelter-in-place might periodically pop up, galleries may ultimately develop exhibitions that grapple with the current physically distant moment, rather than continuing to act on the presumption that in-person visits are just around the corner.