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The Right Trash 

Refusalon moves art in an alternative direction

Wednesday, Jan 31 1996
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In addition to the figurative hats of artist, curator, student, and publicist, Charles Linder wears a literal one: a baseball cap, with UC Berkeley's colors of navy-and-gold.

But over the bill, the cap reads not "Cal," but "Call," and when I do a double take, Linder catches me gawking.

Linder is the creative force behind Refusalon, an art space that since 1990 has housed some of San Francisco's most characteristically unorthodox works. His installations have included memorable titles like "Black Market RAM," "Granny Smith Smells Evil," and "Tabernacle of Haggled Vernacular," so it comes as no real surprise to learn that the "Call" hat is part of a planned sculpture series: He has, it turns out, another Bears cap that reads "Cowl." In scrutinizing the hat's slogan, I've played into Linder's artistic sensibilities. Such double takes are at the heart of Refusalon.

"I've always made up words," he says, after we laugh about the hat. "Refusalon was similarly an amalgam word I stole from the Salon des Refuses," a counterconservative art movement started in 1863 by Manet, Degas, and other avant-gardists.

Like the French refuses, Refusalon hones itself to the "refused children," alternative mediaists who comprise the Bay Area's peripheral art movements. From its new location at 20 Hawthorne Lane, Refusalon remains a venue that invites artists and audience alike to look closer at the world, to redefine for themselves what is art.

Linder's new digs reflect a move he himself might have predicted.
"I started Refusalon because as an artist I wasn't getting shows," he recalls of the gallery's early days. "I saw a whole genre of work -- that of my contemporaries and people I was meeting -- that didn't fit into the nonprofit zones, yet wasn't commercially viable." With that simple vision, he opened Refusalon on Natoma Street in 1990, colliding home, gallery, and work space into one. (Today, Natoma functions as his studio.)

"There are a lot of galleries, like Refusalon, that artists have started in their homes," he says. "I think it's a dynamic people respond to that reflects an urgency to their work: People aren't willing to send 20 slides to 20 galleries, but [instead] can create their own advocacy base, their own venue."

As Refusalon's "curative" director -- another amalgamated word, this time of "creative" and "curator" -- Linder himself regularly contributes to Refusalon's shows. With artist Katrin Sigurdardottir he created "Registry" 's walk-through stamp pad; for "Wake for the Embarcadero Freeway," he arranged with Dennis Shelden a "community mourning" with accompanying Dixieland funeral band. "For me, this is about forming relationships with artists, getting to understand what they do," he explains. "That's very important as well in the new space."

The Hawthorne venue is clean and sparse, a large rectangle of white walls and high windows, roughly twice the size of the Natoma space. Housed in the basement of the Crown Point Press Building, Refusalon finds itself a block from SFMOMA, a relocation certain to affect Linder's clients. Patrons are greeted by Sally, his brown boxer-pug mix, and under halogen lights they move comfortably about the room.

"What was difficult about Natoma was that we were hardly ever open, and people would get their cars broken into all the time," he says, shaking his head. "Despite that, we somehow developed a small client base that appreciated what we were doing; they were crucial in supporting Refusalon. They've also been really supportive of the new space, but the museum's incidental traffic will be a fringe benefit."

Linder is keenly aware that in such a location, Refusalon also stands at an ideological junction: the precarious corner of Alternative and Mainstream. It takes him a moment to utter the c-word: "It's scary, the ramifications of a space that's definitely much more -- uh, you know ... leans towards being commercial," he admits. "That's a real challenge for me. I have to figure out how to make that work, but it's ultimately why I chose to move. Plus, Tom's studio is in the building."

Tom turns out to be Tom Marioni, a longtime San Francisco artist whose groundbreaking Museum of Conceptual Art (MOCA) was an early venue for temporal work, and a place Linder cites as a precursor to Refusalon. A year ago, Linder presented a retrospective of Marioni's works, and still takes part in his "The Act of Drinking Beer With Friends Is the Highest Form of Art," a long-running klatch of artists that meets every Wednesday night.

"In getting to know Tom, I developed a real affinity for his work," Linder says of the scene-maker. "I feel that he set a precedent in the area for artist-run spaces. He was the first to make himself into an institution." Though active 25 years ago, long before Linder himself picked up a brush, MOCA was a similar alternative salon which "developed a social base, a dialogue around artists' works."

Refusalon's first installation in the new space features found-object works by collaborators Eric Saks and Patrick Tierney. Titled "Neglectosphere," the show reflects a second interpretation of Refusalon, that of refuse or trash -- items considered "useless" or "worthless." The exhibition highlights a series of sinister pseudo-explosives which, upon closer inspection, are created of broken electric-blanket timers and other electrical innocuities; across the room, several stuffed animals are strangled in bright plastic. The exhibit is quirky and ironic in its pathetic aesthetic, a Mike Kelley collision of kitsch and cool.

But it's "Neglectosphere" 's "surveillance devices," a dozen sculptures made of cardboard, broken doorbells, and other found parts, that best define Refusalon's soul. Each device looks coldly purposeful, until a closer look inside reveals it to be utterly functionless: After seeing the works, the viewer can't help but notice such look-alike boxes everywhere -- in public bathrooms, on building facades, even at home. The exhibit reawakens one's perceptions of the surrounding world, forcing the viewer to scrutinize everyday objects -- a "Call" hat -- previously ignored. And such opened eyes are Refusalon's general goal.

"It just seemed perfect, in a way, what Pat and Eric were doing, these pseudo-surveillance works and fake bombs, to [re]open us up with a bang," Linder laughs.

Yet even as the gallery's name evokes images of "garbage art" (Linder's 1992 "Dumpster Banquet" gleaned edibles from supermarket trash bins), a final interpretation of Refusalon remains: that of the gallery's refusal -- its unwillingness to comply -- with the restrictive definition of what it should be. Linder's upcoming show, "C3," features works by a British family: Pip Culbert, a seamstress whose sculptures resemble architectural plans, and her sons Rae and Clay Culbert, currently scavenging the desert in a homemade Lincoln convertible in preparation for the "epic installation." The exhibit, which opens Feb. 1, promises to be characteristically weird and unpredictable, another facet in Refusalon's iconoclastic jewel.

Linder insists that the heart of the gallery will remain unchanged. "Something people always really loved most -- and responded to -- about Refusalon is its spirit," he says, "and I think as soon as you start to be too concerned with overhead, that spirit will start to slip out. It's a real balancing act."

Perhaps Refusalon's place in the art community is by definition elliptical, a place that physical location can never fully affect. Or perhaps the gallery whose fliers read "Notice the Fine Print" simply provides a springboard for creative work in what many curators still perceive to be an artistically provincial city. "There will always be peripheral art," says Linder, replacing his cap while Sally gently snores. "I want to try to nurture the spirit of the work -- more than just try and turn a buck."

Refusalon, 20 Hawthorne Lane, S.F., 546-0158. Wednesday-Saturday, noon-6 p.m.; Thursday until 8 p.m.

About The Author

Colin Berry

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