When I first landed in San Francisco on a warm January night five years ago, friends took me to a literary reading at a Tenderloin dive bar and I instantly fell in love with the creative energy of the neighborhood. Shortly thereafter, I moved to the TL and found that it had not only a great vibe, but also delicious, affordable Asian food, great low-key bars, and provocative theater. Only one thing was missing, and that was a strong visual arts movement.
Back then, the art scene was pretty much limited to the Shooting Gallery, which opened up in the neighborhood some eight years ago. It's true that walking down Leavenworth to the Heart of the City Farmers Market offered up "interesting" opportunities for outdoor human expression, but it wasn't until two years ago that a full artistic movement started to grow at a rapid pace. A number of galleries rose to ride the vibe of the Tenderloin – one of the most fearless being Ever Gold.
Ever Gold is a hard-to-notice space wedged between a Vietnamese neurology practice and an SRO (single room occupancy) hotel. Its location is quintessentially Tenderloin: There's a Muni bus stop right in front, a Moroccan restaurant with daily belly dancing performances two doors down, a massage parlor two doors up, yet another massage parlor across the street next to yet another SRO along with a psychic, and the 1923 boarded-up Fifth Church of Christ Scientist.
The gallery was started a couple of years ago by five San Francisco Art Institute students, and now just two are in charge: Andrew McClintock and Greg Ito. Andrew told me that the gallery kept the name of the run-down jewelry store that used to be there – it apparently sold gold dental fillings and “scrap” gold to melt down and make into new jewelry. To this day, sketchy characters come into the gallery wanting to sell (presumably stolen) bling.
They wanted Ever Gold to be a place for artists to do things other galleries won't let them do. Here artists can play, provoke the viewer, and experiment with the space. From the beginning, the gallery wanted to push the boundaries of what art is. One promotional T-shirt reads, "Art Pushers in the Tenderloin.”
One-off installations are often created specifically for the gallery – such as "In the Kingdom of Charisma" by Chris Ritson, who spent three weeks there growing crystals and lotus plants in an alchemic exploration of how personal identity is constructed.
In March, inspired by Tom Marioni's conceptual performance "The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends Is the Highest Form of Art," Andrew and Greg built a full-sized makeshift bar inside the gallery as part of a four-day "Gentleman's Club" exhibit, while they acted as plaid-shirted bartenders for the occasion. Luckily, ladies were allowed too, so I sipped my drink while artist and avid hunter Charles Linder slow-roasted a whole wild boar out on the sidewalk for all to see and smell. Even for the Tenderloin, it was quite a bizarre sight. Even with all of the attention raised by the smoke, we weren’t bothered once by either the police or the neighbors. (Unfortunately, it didn't start a trend of pig-roasting block parties on the Tenderloin's sidewalks, as I would have immediately taken part.)
Having a bit of a washing-machine fetish (my dream is to not own a car someday, but a nice front-loader washer), I absolutely had to check out Ever Gold’s latest exhibition. The gallery was renamed “Ever Wash” for the month and turned into a minimalist laundromat by conceptual artist Guy Overfelt and curator Tony Labat.
They installed a fully-functional washer and dryer and invited visitors to do their laundry for free, with the gallery staff acting as attendants and "dealing" white powder detergent. I rounded up all of my dirty clothing and excitedly headed down, ready to get my free wash. Once I got there, though, I realized that the whole thing was being streamed on Justin.tv so that everyone online would be able to literally see me “air my dirty laundry” – just like in a TV commercial. I suddenly wanted to hide my red undies.
The wash cycle was 55 minutes and the same for the dryer, which left me with a couple of hours to kill. In the movies, the protagonists fall in love over a mismatched pair of socks, but in reality I found myself feeling observed by the camera and wondering what to do in this peculiar all-white laundromat with no furniture to sit on except a luminescent gold table. This got me thinking about the romanticized view of laundromats and washing machines in popular culture, glamorous appliances on TV commercials, objects of desire, and the embodiment of a material dream. Heavy stuff to think about when washing your clothes.
Being in an edgy neighborhood like the Tenderloin allows Ever Gold to be more edgy itself – to take more chances. In the same way the neighborhood has been open to the gallery’s experimentation, Greg and Andrew are open to the neighborhood and seek its participation in their shows. So far, in spite of the abundance of dealers and questionable characters, they haven't had any issues. Actually, Andrew says, the people dealing drugs on the block consider the gallery to be crazier than they are. In some ways, I’d have to agree.
Other art spaces in the Tenderloin also enjoy the freedom the neighborhood affords them, showing evocative works and challenging audiences in a playful way. Usually small and unassuming, these galleries are more often than not owned by young, passionate art lovers or artists themselves. Here are the ones I'd recommend for a crawl:
The Shooting Gallery, White Walls, Gallery Three
839 Larkin, 941 Geary, 941 Geary
Although Justin Giarla was a nightclub manager for 10 years and now owns four galleries in the neighborhood, he still looks like a skater boy from Southern California in love with street art. Naturally, this is the type of art you’ll find here: substitute “worldwide” for “SoCal” as he pulls in artists from, literally, all four corners of the globe.
The Luggage Store Gallery and Annex
1007 Market and 509 Ellis Street
This gallery on Market Street, which has been around for over 20 years, doesn't sell luggage, but if it did I would want to buy some immediately. The first time I saw its Tenderloin National Forest annex space on Ellis at Leavenworth, I couldn't believe such a cool place existed in a block that used to be full of dealers and needles. Now it makes pizza outdoors, hosts dance and music events, and lets artists-in-residency make things like mobile sculptures on wheelbarrows. (Now if only someone were smart enough to start up “The Art Gallery” and sell only luggage).
Space Gallery, Lopo Gallery
Right next to Hemlock Tavern, this gallery is also a bar, but obviously a very different one from most Polk Gulch watering holes. If a TV were to be found here, it’d be a purely conceptual interpretation of modern media – or something like that. One of its most recent group shows titled "Apocalypse Meow" featured not only the popular Laser Kittens, but also other awesome feline pop art. Enough said.
A cool little space with the best DJs and live music curated by Keiko Kuramoto, a Japanese animator, and Chimichanga, the resident corgi, who has an eclectic taste in art as well as napping.
The parties at this pocket-sized gallery are the perfect place to meet the hippest Loinsters in the neighborhood and catch up on the latest trends in not only art but also fashion of the moment, and whatever other parts of the loop you may be out of. It also curates a wall around the corner on Leavenworth that makes boarding on the 27 Muni pretty awesome.
Gray Area Foundation for the Arts
Formerly located in an ex porn theater (that must have been a cleanup effort) at 55 Taylor, this multimedia space recently moved to the Warfield building on Market Street where it now has double the space for its legendary parties, geeky workshops, speakeasy film screenings, and even yoga classes. If you are a data visualization nerd and want to see sound or laser sculptures, or the like, this is your bicycle.
Previously holed up in the tiny space called Timezone on Leavenworth, you can guess why this gallery had a case of space envy. Here in these new digs, there is no trouble inhaling all the room, hosting local artists that drift more toward mainstream yet stay just outside of it.