Elevating the Platform

An art gallery-cum-dance club lures the masses

It's 9 p.m. on Thursday, and the line in front of 25 Lusk St. in SOMA is more than 40 people deep, snaking back and forth along the sidewalk in an "S" pattern. Two off-duty cops, hired as doormen, hold the line until the bottleneck at the front loosens. The manic rhythm of breakbeats leaks from the upstairs room, which is elbow-to-elbow with bodies.

In such a clublike atmosphere (minus the snide bouncers and brisk pat-downs), the attendees might forget they're there to see an art exhibit. And that's just fine with Noel Chandler, curator of the art party "Platform."

"Going to an art gallery is intimidating," says Chandler, a red-haired, 29-year-old Kansas native, when we meet in the living room of his house in early January. "Eliminating that intimidation has probably been the biggest reason for our success."

When Artists Collide: The remarkably cohesive result 
of a "Platform"-sponsored collaboration among Lee 
Fenyves, Ryan Stubbs, and Nathan Wilson.
When Artists Collide: The remarkably cohesive result of a "Platform"-sponsored collaboration among Lee Fenyves, Ryan Stubbs, and Nathan Wilson.

On the third Thursday of each month (Jan. 16 was No. 11), "Platform" showcases a fresh slate of 15 to 20 emerging practitioners in the visual arts, film, fashion, and music. The organizers' goal is to hype a disparate array of talent in a snob-free setting (the sliding-scale entrance fee tops out at $10), in the process connecting with as large an audience as possible.

Fusion events that blend the art world with club life are no longer rare in San Francisco. Perhaps the mix is inevitable in a city where DJs seem to outnumber registered voters. For example, the nonprofit charity group Altruity hosts a happy hour every Thursday at Cloud 9 to spotlight new artists, DJs, and chefs (yes, chefs), and 111 Minna Gallery has been putting art and music together for years with parties like the Wednesday romp "Qoöl."

But "Platform" -- the brainchild of Chandler and his longtime friend Bee Ngo -- seems to be upping the ante in size of audience and scale of production. Since it began in March 2002, "Platform" has exploded from a modest gathering at the cozy Za Spot pizzeria to a party of more than 900 people that shifts venues every couple of months. The upcoming event on March 20, which will bring back 100 of "Platform"'s artists from the past year to celebrate its one-year anniversary, is expected to draw about 2,500 people. (Its location hasn't been announced.)

"They really have their act together," says Dano Williams, co-founder of Altruity. "Their events are why I moved to San Francisco." To many like Williams, "Platform" is visual evidence that the underground art scene is back in full swing.

"There is a ton of young talent in S.F. that's leaving its mark on a daily basis," says Nate Van Dyke, a 23-year-old Marin artist whose comic book-style paintings on birchwood were a highlight of the November show. "'Platform' is definitely turning into a movement of its own. I think it will leave its mark in ways yet to be determined."

Perhaps it's poetic justice that the same economic downslide that vanquished a jillion dot-coms has helped nourish "Platform"'s growth. With commercial vacancies in the city at nearly 22 percent (compared to about 1 percent in 2000), there's an abundance of venues in which to house an event. In addition, some say the slumbering economy has awakened the "closet" artists -- creative people who were laid off from their day jobs or who simply burned out and are now refocusing on more personal pursuits. This group includes many of "Platform"'s 15 or so volunteers.

"Getting laid off was probably the best thing that ever happened to me, because it's allowed me to see how great the art community here is," says Lee Fenyves, whose illustrations were featured at "Platform" No. 3, last May, and who has since volunteered to design the event's magazine, Platforum.

Of course, recessions have downsides, as well. The artwork at "Platform" hasn't exactly sold like ice cream on a hot day. But even that's starting to change: Take a look around at any "Platform" event and you'll see an increasing number of people -- many of them on the far side of 50, with notebooks in hand -- who have clearly not come to hear DJ Scott Carrelli.

"I think the number of buyers is growing because this is where things are happening," explains Chandler. "They want to be able to say, 'I just purchased a piece of the underground.'"

To call "Platform" an "underground" party may be a misnomer, considering its growing base of sponsors (such as Pilsner Urquell and Seghesio Family Vineyards, which supply beer and wine, respectively, in exchange for reduced prices on ads in the magazine, or Martin Building Co., which donated the space at 440 Jessie St. where two of the recent "Platform"s were held). Then again, not being considered underground isn't necessarily a bad thing.

"When you say 'underground,' that inherently means to me that it's kind of cliquey," says Karine Versace, a writer for the online event calendar Flavorpill who's currently co-directing a documentary about a group of local artists known as the Mission School. "What I like about 'Platform' is that it's not exclusive. It's hip without trying to be hip."

Indeed, the crowd could be categorized as kitchen sink San Francisco. Many of the artists are from the Mission, and while the apparent Marina types are likely friends of the fashion models and designers, a lot of them are here because they see it as the cool place to be. The hippies and Burning Man folks are definitely in attendance, plus a smattering of punk types (blue hair and fishnets, etc.) and clubbers, as well as a few hip hoppers and professional dancers. It looks like every race is represented.

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