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Just as fast-food restaurants install uncomfortable plastic seating and play painfully bad music to keep people circulating at a steady clip, art galleries typically offer Spartan white walls and vast, benchless spaces, calculated to discourage tourists and window-shoppers from lingering. The Back Room, a new art space located in, yes, the back room of Adobe Bookshop in the Mission, aims for a different kind of art experience: It wants to be your friendly neighborhood gallery.
Conceived as a salon of sorts, Adobe has long been a gathering place for artists, writers, and thinkers. On any given night you're likely to find a curious blend of folks sacked out on the couches and chairs of their adopted living room -- reading, sleeping, and talking. The gallery space itself is intimate (read: tiny), but manages not to appear as an afterthought. And once you've seen the artwork, you can always flop down on a couch in the bookstore to contemplate or discuss it. Amanda Eicher, the gallery's founder and curator, envisions the Back Room as a catalyst for the store and for the Mission as a whole. She hopes that its presence will encourage members of the local community to shake off the jarring events of the last few years, during which rising rents and rapid gentrification forced many longtime residents out of the area and cast a shadow of apathy or outrage on others.
Those who knew the Back Room in its former incarnation as a dank, sticky-floored storage space will be stunned by its transformation. A bit disappointingly, Eicher has stuck with the conventions of gallery design: clean white walls, track lighting, and discreet vinyl numbers beneath each work. As she explains, "I wanted the space to be really recognizable as a gallery, in contrast to the chaos it came out of." The walls and ceiling of the old space remain visible above the new walls, though, and their decrepitude balances the pristine gallery perfectly -- whether poetic or simply practical, this concession to the space's history is crucial to its vitality.
The gallery's first exhibition presents pieces by Yutaka Sho, a designer and aspiring architect whose work, appropriately, explores the practice of creating spaces. Her projects are smart, sophisticated, and engaging, displaying a curiosity about life that most contemporary designers lack. Though the drawings and conceptual models on display could easily be taken for finished artworks, they are in fact exploratory, traces of an organic process that guides Sho from abstract idea to physical object.
Sho designs from the inside out, challenging herself to feel an idea before letting her analytic side take over. Commissioned last year to make a table to support a sculpture of an infant, Sho began by attempting to experience each of her senses anew, as a baby would. Model of the Space Around Two Hands, an experimental model delicately carved from a single block of wood, makes visible the negative space between two palms touching; it was inspired by Sho's experience of her own heartbeat in her palm as she investigated the sense of touch. The finished table (as illustrated in a book of past and present projects displayed at the show) functions as a hand, cradling the baby to protect it from the ground below. Sentimental? Perhaps in the hands of another designer, but Sho keeps it subtle and elegant, deliberately eschewing the literal form of a palm in favor of clean, slightly undulating lines.
A fascination with roots (literal and metaphorical) permeates much of Sho's work. One of the most complex projects on display is Family of Furniture, which was inspired by a block of wood Sho found floating in a river at Yosemite. The block dried and fell apart, revealing a network of roots that had grown within its waterlogged cavities. Fascinated with the contradictory development by which the log's growth caused its destruction, Sho likened it to a family, each member struggling to grow and learn without splintering the group. She created a model from this concept by positioning stele-shaped pieces of driftwood in a tight circle on the surface of a larger block of wood, then carving holes under each piece (or "family member") that meet in a void at the center of the block. According to Sho, this cavern represents a common space for shared knowledge and experience, a necessity if each member is to thrive. On view nearby is a luminous graphite drawing of this model. The image's surface is dark and shimmers faintly, yielding in the center to a glowing expanse that echoes the contours of the family group, with bright white roots extending downward.
The leaps Sho takes from these models and drawings to her finished objects are mighty -- and sometimes disconcerting. In a later drawing from the Family of Furniture project, she has resolved the amorphous shapes of the model into a traditional dining room set: six chairs surrounding a table, with an armoire nearby. Granted, the furniture is quite lovely, with gently curving lines designed to complement the shapes of the bodies that will occupy them, but the emotive quality of the model and drawings has faded.
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