Beat the Schlock

Artists who mock suburban banality may have new seated duck to shoot -- North Beach

Darrell Fletcher and Jon Rubin, those wacky chroniclers of Bay Area banality, may soon turn their tal-ents toward perhaps the most hackneyed corner of San Francisco — North Beach.

The city's Arts Commission is considering the two artists — who have spent the last couple of years creating works that plumb the profanity of Northern California's suburbs — as candidates to construct a yet-to-be-determined piece of public art to accompany a new North Beach parking garage.

Thus it should be. For if ever a place deserved to be condescended to by postmodern artists, it's where the bridge-and-tunnel kegger-dudes strike Italianate poses at cappuccino bars; the high school principals stuff videos into their coats at Big Al's; and the fish-in-a-barrel tourists trudge up from Fisherman's Wharf about to shed their fortunes for plates of sodden, North Beach pasta.

And if a pair of artists were ever up to the task, it's Fletcher and Rubin.
They gained fame on these pages a year ago when they launched an exhibition at S.F.'s Patricia Sweetow Gallery titled “A Couple of Months in Fairfield.” They had mined their experience as Fairfield-sponsored artists-in-residence to assemble a series of images that portrayed Fairfield's vacuous, consumerist spread of tract homes as … a vacuous spread of consumer-filled tract homes. The fact that SF Weekly told readers as much (under the heading “Art of Betrayal”) infuriated Fletcher and Rubin. They harangued Weekly staffers by phone for nearly an hour, insisting they had only the most innocent of intentions.

“We didn't betray anybody,” Fletcher lamented then.
But it seems that seducing backwoods city fathers with postmodern deconstructionist shtick, then shaming their hosts with brilliant artistic critiques, has been the Fletcher-Rubin modus operandi for a while now. In 1996, these Oakland artists based an entire show on the office cubicles of Richmond city employees.

Fletcher and Rubin's current exhibit, “Wanderings and Observations in Walnut Creek,” is a whimsical, yet biting, portrait of bedroom-land. That it appeared in the Bedford Gallery, which is run by the Walnut Creek Department of Cultural Services, didn't please the city fathers.

“They blindsided us,” Walnut Creek Mayor Gene Wolfe was quoted as saying when the exhibition opened in September. “I anticipated that it would be interesting to see what the artists picked out, and I was so let down.”

What Rubin and Fletcher picked out was the evidently heretofore ignored question “Where's the Creek in Walnut Creek?” The creek, the two artists discovered, is a ditch that goes underneath a shopping mall. So Fletcher and Rubin took the next obvious step: They got a video camera and perused the ditch, so they could later give gallerygoers a video tour of the city's primary physical feature.

As part of the exhibit, they also reproduced in oils a series of hand-drawn maps showing how to get from one garage sale to another. They set up folding tables laden with garage sale knickknacks. They photographically chronicled a day in the life of a meter maid. And, as with pieces they prepared for the Fairfield show, they mounted house images from a real estate magazine, portraying them as works of art.

“Specifically, the mayor of Walnut Creek was not happy,” says Susan Newkirk, community arts specialist for the Bedford Gallery, and some city council members also criticized the exhibit.

Which begs the question: Can you do serious artwork that portrays Walnut Creek without at least grazing the sensitivities of city boosters? How about Fairfield, or Richmond?

Or North Beach?
Tonia Macneil, San Francisco's curator of public art, canceled a breakfast meet-ing that might have shed light on this question.

“We're actually going to have to cancel our meeting tomorrow because we've got a conflict, so, you know, I think we would prefer to reschedule after the North Beach project has been approved by the [Arts] Commission. Also, if you have any further questions, you might call our media person,” Macneil said in a phone message.

Truth be told, we don't need a media person to answer our questions on public art in North Beach. If it were truly honest, we know that an artistic deconstruction of the neighborhood would have to at least allude to:

* Drunken Financial District guys fumbling for quarters at the Lusty Lady.
* Clove cigarette types seeking the beat muse at City Lights Books.
* Marin cinema titans “slumming” at Tosca.

* Business-trippers, who think they're in a red-light district, asking passers-by for dates.

If their recent history is any guide, Harrell Fletcher and Jon Rubin are the right men for the North Beach beat.

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