Art City Project celebrates the spirit of California with ‘Way Out West’

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Alvin Wu/Staff

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The state of California is more than  just a destination — it is a symbol, an ideology and, at times, an illusion. It’s the Gold Rush, Hollywood, counterculture and the tech boom. The San Francisco-based Art City Project uses the idea of California-as-concept as a launching point for its “Way Out West” public art exhibition, showing until August 17 at the Heron Arts gallery and on the streets of the Inner Mission District.

“Way Out West” moves beyond the traditional gallery setting by transforming public spaces — namely buses, billboards and transit stations — into vehicles through which art can reach the community. Featuring works from more than 20 contemporary artists with California roots, the project includes gallery pieces as well as several outdoor installations that truly serve to distinguish “Way Out West” from any other art show.

“We imagine San Francisco and California as this place where great things come to happen, whether they’re by chance, whether they happen with a lot of work and effort and months of planning,” curator Tova Lobatz told The Daily Californian at the show’s opening reception. “It’s a place where bright and beautiful things happen … We wanted artists to reflect on the history of California and the current state of it.”

While the premise for the show may be novel, the art on display at the indoor gallery fails to convincingly articulate the theme. Few of the pieces leave any sort of lasting impression, which is due more to subject matter than artistry. But it is nearly impossible not to notice Alia Penner’s Warhol-esque Life Magazine covers or artist Casey Gray’s delightfully indulgent “California Love,” which reappears as a billboard on Valencia and Duboce streets. Gray paints a vibrant dreamscape, bringing his childhood to life on canvas while fully encapsulating both the real and the imagined California. Disposable symbols of West Coast culture that range from plastic pink flamingos and bikini bottoms to rainbow-colored windmills give “California Love” a scrapbook feel to which anyone who has grown up in California can certainly relate.

Outside the gallery at Heron Arts, “Way Out West” spills into the surrounding neighborhood, with artwork peppered from Duboce to 19th streets and Valencia Street to South Van Ness Avenue. The public exhibition aims to contrast wealth disparities in San Francisco’s Inner Mission District by placing “billboards at an abandoned gas station just blocks from multi-million dollar homes; massive posters above pawn shops, next to bars with $15 artisan cocktails; ads on the buses and bus stops that ferry San Francisco’s working class along the same routes used by private tech company shuttles,” according to the press release.

“Putting art where ads are is a really powerful thing because you can address someone when they’re least expecting it,” said Jenny Sharaf, who curated the exhibition along with Lobatz. “They’re just walking, and art catches their eye.”

Despite the good intentions of the show’s curators, it’s hard not to see these installations as somewhat dismissive of the abundant street art in the area. Andrew Schoultz’s surveilling metallic “Eye” billboard on Mission and Sycamore streets, for example, is barely noticeable compared to the graffitied skulls sprayed onto the restaurant below, despite its commanding presence inside the gallery. “Way Out West” brings art to a neighborhood whose storefronts and alleyways  already pop with color and character, whose alleyways  are like galleries in and of themselves.

“It’s just another platform. You can’t be so sacred with where art lives and where art is supposed to be,” Sharaf said, addressing some of these concerns. “That’s part of the problem; we’re trying to break that wall so that art is for everyone. If the same artists that show at the museums and galleries of the cities are outside, then they just get more exposure to people that maybe don’t have money to go to the museums. Hopefully, (‘Way Out West’) just gets more people into art.”

If there is one way in which the exhibit certainly succeeds, it is in renewing appreciation for both sanctioned and unsanctioned art in San Francisco’s Inner Mission District. The plan of the exhibit’s outdoor installations serves as a treasure map, guiding visitors through the neighborhood — past fruit stands, abandoned buildings and eye-catching street art — to the surfaces of repurposed billboards and transit stations that take on new meaning when removed from the context of an indoor gallery. “Way Out West” is more than just a celebration of California art and culture — it’s a reinterpretation of the relationship between art, community and artists.

“Way Out West” runs until August 17 at Heron Arts and the Inner Mission District in San Francisco.

Grace Lovio is the arts editor. Contact her at [email protected].