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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.
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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."
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.
As "Platform" has expanded, so has the number of submissions from artists -- and hence the quality of the work. The organizers no longer feel obliged to display whatever people have to offer: They can be selective, and it shows. In December, for example, Oakland artist Joyce Hsu presented a series of mechanical insect sculptures made of wood, plastic, and metal that seemed like a vision of Erector sets in the year 3000. Her large, fantastical models -- some suspended from the ceiling and set in motion with a motor -- were cute and creepy at the same time, with an obvious dark undercurrent. Graffiti artist Dave Warnke, whose "DAVe" stickers should be familiar to anyone who has set foot in a Mission bar bathroom, brought his cast of cartoon critters to "Platform" No. 9 in November. His crudely drawn creatures appeared in brightly colored collages, like tapestries covered with tiny smiling faces. For those who like a little action, "Platform" has begun an ongoing series -- a "Platform"-branded subprogram -- called "Art Attack," at which artists with varying styles collaborate on a live painting. The graffiti-inspired result at the Nov. 7 event (featured two weeks later at the formal November "Platform") was a remarkably cohesive, if bizarre, cityscape -- made of acrylic paint, enamel, latex, aerosol, marker, and acrylic pens on luon wood -- by Lee Fenyves, Ryan Stubbs, and Nathan Wilson. In the foreground, a robot had just had one of its arms chopped off; flames danced out of buildings in the background.
As "Platform"'s director of film and video, Bee Ngo has cultivated a well-rounded sampling of new shorts, of which four or five screen at each "Platform." The selection includes three pieces by award-winning Oakland director Brett Simon as well as the mockumentary Dance Machine, directed by John Benson and Ward Evans, which follows an uncoordinated, thirtysomething white boy as he trains for an upcoming dance-based video game tournament. (Ultimately, he's turned away due to an age limit of 16.)
"The quality didn't need to be perfect when we first started out -- we just needed something to show," says Ngo. "But as we started getting a larger audience, we had to define some sort of standard. We couldn't just show home videos anymore."
Still, the experience level of the artists runs the gamut. "We get artists who are already in galleries. But then there's those who have never had their work shown before who just need us to light a fire under their ass," Chandler says.
Part of what keeps "Platform" a grass-roots event might be that its organizers aren't seasoned veterans of the art world or industry insiders. Chandler and Ngo are both first-timers to their roles. Jennifer Benson, the show's fashion director, worked in her field for five years, but she's been out of the industry for the past four.
Benson explains, "We don't pretend to be experts -- we're just passionate. When people ask, 'How do you pull this off?' the answer is, 'Very little sleep, and a lot of hard work.'"
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