A self-described “punk kid” from New Jersey, gallerist Jonathan LeVine always admired the bright colors and odd, playful aesthetics of West Coast visual artists — and LeVine’s tastes have held steady as he’s hit middle age.
So it’s no surprise that he’s curated a very colorful, very eclectic show at Heron Arts, “East Looking West,” that amalgamates a veritable who’s-who of West Coast artists who have something interesting to say — and who know how to say it.
San Francisco artists — Jeremy Fish, Mario Martinez (Mars-1), Ben Venom — are well-represented. But having works by L.A. muralist Shepard Fairey — whose red-and-black silk-screened pieces, like Pay Up or Shut Up, are commentaries on politics — helps give “East Looking West” a sardonic edge that’s worth inhabiting. And when you add the strange, creature-feature work of Gary Baseman, the geometrical and architectural-like renderings of Augustine Kofie, and the spray-paint canvases of Tristan Eaton, you’ve got enough of a draw to visit Heron Arts’ South-of-Market getaway.
It’s Jeff Gillette’s Disneyland Slumpark, though, that’s the exhibit’s focal point, because Gillette’s work is a sprawling vision of hell that mimics the global slums that the artist has visited for years. Interspersed in that vision of hell — sitting on shantytown balconies and hanging out on the flimsy shacks that comprise Gillette’s new work — are Disney figures with plastered-on smiles. Underneath the sign that says, “Disneyland: The Happiest Place on Earth,” are finely wrought facsimiles of those dense spaces that, in real life, offer such precarious support for families eking out whatever existence they can. Gillette is so skillful with his materials and his sense of knowing that Disneyland Slumpark seems like a real slum. That’s what’s so stunning: In miniature, Gillette captures the economic and cultural disparities of global capitalism and the stark communities that embody the haves-and-have-nots reality that is so apparent in countries like India (where Gillette has spent much time) and, increasingly, the United States.
It’s no surprise that other major artists collect, and are wholly inspired by, Gillette’s work. Banksy is a big fan. So is Wayne Thiebaud. And so, unsurprisingly, is Jonathan LeVine, who didn’t quite know what Gillette would make when he picked him for “East Looking West.”
LeVine is the “East” in the exhibit’s title — and not in an Eastern Hemisphere sense. He’s been promoting Gillette and Fish for decades at his New York and New Jersey galleries. Standing inside Heron Arts’ space on a recent Thursday night as he looked at Disneyland Slumpark, LeVine says that, “A lot of these artists’ work is really brightly colored, and I always thought that was because you guys have sunshine more year-round. And the sun is brighter here than it is on the East Coast.”
It’s true that “East Looking West” is a very “bright” show, but not in a Hollywood-lights kind of way. It’s more like Jackson Pollock bright, where the bold strokes are as much in your head as they are on the canvases themselves.
Jeremy Fish is one of the artists who’s championed the 40th anniversary of Precita Eyes Muralists, the San Francisco nonprofit that has done more for murals in the city than any other organization. Precita Eyes Muralists celebrates its anniversary with a big art and music get-together on Saturday, Sept. 30, from 6 to 10 p.m., at Github (88 Colin P. Kelly, Jr. Street in South Beach), where Fish, Mel Waters, and other artists will auction their work. Precita Eyes will also offer special 40th-anniversary walking tours in the Mission District on Oct. 21, Nov. 18, and Dec. 16, from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. There’s lots more to be found at precitaeyes.org, including images of all the memorable street art the non-profit has shepherded in San Francisco’s alleys and byways for four long decades.
“East Meets West” through Oct. 7 at Heron Arts, 7 Heron St. Free; heronarts.com.