27 Years Later, Nine Artists Consider Kiki Gallery—Within its Same Walls

Installation view of 'Peace: Nine Artists Consider Kiki Gallery,' with D-L Alvarez, 'Peanut' (left) and Cliff Hengst, 'Untitled' (right). (Delaplane)

When Sophie Appel and Cole Solinger opened San Francisco’s Delaplane gallery at 483 14th Street, they were unaware the narrow storefront was already a landmark of local art history. Theirs was a new enterprise, exhibiting young and emerging artists, many of them alums of the San Francisco Art Institute. But in the weeks and months that followed their October 2019 inaugural show, Appel and Solinger heard more and more stories from those who’d frequented the same spot in the early ’90s. They learned that Delaplane shared the address, a quarter-century removed, with a space called Kiki Gallery.

Despite a short existence, or perhaps because of it, Kiki is the stuff of legend. Founded in 1993 by artist and activist Rick Jacobsen, the gallery was only open for 18 months. During that time, Kiki hosted over 150 artists and performers, among them future international names and beloved Bay Area artists: Lutz Bacher, Nao Bustamante, Jerome Caja, Frances Stark, Chris Johanson, Nayland Blake, Catherine Opie, Rex Ray and Kevin Killian. Arts writer Glen Helfand remembers the space as “somewhere between commercial gallery and clubhouse,” a reflection of “Jacobson’s wit, showmanship, and endearing cynicism.”

The exterior of Delaplane, Colter Jacobson's flag residency (left) and Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo, 'Untitled.' (Delaplane)

The gallery came from Jacobsen’s desire to gather an arts community on his own, rather on behalf of an organization. Faced with his own AIDS diagnosis, he quit his job at a nonprofit and put all his money into the project. “If I couldn’t do anything firsthand about AIDS, I could be at least a motivating force in art—perhaps the next best thing,” he said in a 1994 interview.

The city at the time was devastated by both the epidemic and an economic downturn, but Jacobsen created something vibrant, irreverent and (paradoxically) lasting. The titles of his shows speak volumes: the scatological Caca @ Kiki; the gallows humor of Sick Joke: Bitterness, Sarcasm, and Irony in the Second AIDS Decade; and the self-referential artiness of Piece: Nine Artists Consider Yoko Ono, the gallery’s final exhibition in February 1995. Jacobsen died of AIDS-related lymphoma in 1997.

Decades later, in a very different San Francisco, the punny, carefully assembled Peace: Nine Artists Consider Kiki Gallery honors the site-specific history of 483 14th Street, gathering artists with a direct relationship to Kiki alongside a younger generation now considering its legacy.

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The show begins outside, where Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo’s window installation speaks directly to Kiki: “27 years / both born in 1993 / celebrating you / who / knew we would / be here in this / way / making a sa / fe space / for the bay / qu / eers.” With this overarching sentiment, Peace becomes a passing of torches—not just from one group of artists to another, but back and forth, between members of a multigenerational community.

For those without firsthand experience of Kiki’s heyday, a booklet put together by Wayne Smith includes ephemera and pictures of individual artworks, installations and performances. (Smith encourages viewers to visit the James C. Hormel LGBTQIA Center at the San Francisco Public Library for more of the gallery’s ephemera.) Additional archival material comes in Delaplane’s back room, where a vitrine displays the spread-out contents of Kikibox, a 1994 kit of editioned objects by gallery-affiliated artists.

Installation view of 'Kikibox,' 1994. (Delaplane)

This is not the first time an exhibition has been organized in memory of Kiki Gallery—Ratio 3 hosted The Proof is in the Pudding, curated by Colter Jacobsen and Kevin Killian, in 2008. But it is the first time the honoring has happened on-site, and the shape of the space lends Peace a special resonance.

The younger artists in the show respond as much to Kiki as they do the similar conditions of both galleries’ temporal surroundings: a pandemic, widespread unemployment, experiences of injustice, isolation and despair. In Kennedy Morgan’s very vertical panting (an homage to a Jim Winters screen print) After the Parakeet Attack, a scratched and bleeding green hand draws back a curtain to reveal what looks to be a solid, impassable surface.

rel robinson (who has written for KQED Arts) contributes a textile piece dotted with some of the most indelible images of the last four months: the sanitizer stockpile; the Ohio zombies; penguins freed from their aquarium bounds. The application of digital images onto tangible, domestic materials conjures a vision of a feed scrolled while propped up in bed—a new world experienced through one’s screen.

Installation view of 'Peace': Kennedy Morgan, 'After the Parakeet Attack (left); Ocean Escalante, 'Hole in the Wall,' 2020 (right); D-L Alvarez, 'Scar,' 2020 (above). (Delaplane)

Despite plenty of reasons for despair, some of the artists in Peace do find—well, peace. In Ocean Escalanti’s small acrylic painting Hole in the Wall, lush greenery and peeping eyes surround a vignette of two heads close together, a perfect depiction of the safe space described by Branfman-Verissimo’s installation. And back outside, Delaplane’s “flag residency” hoists a charming banner by Colter Jacobsen that resembles a giant, almost empty roll of polka-dotted toilet paper. (Caca @ Kiki, indeed.)

Representing the original members of the Kiki scene, D-L Alvarez, Cliff Hengst, Scott Hewicker and Jennifer Locke present works that reference both then and now. Alvarez’s delicate graphite-on-paper works, collectively titled Peanut, carry weight without explaining themselves, personal scraps of memory and influence that sit comfortably above Smith’s booklet, itself a Kiki scrapbook.

Next on the wall, Hengst’s untitled painting, reading “IT IS HER,” references a voicemail Yoko Ono herself left at the gallery, on the occasion of Kiki’s final show. The slight pink tinge at the upper right corner of the canvas is a nice echo of Alvarez’s other contribution to Peace, a dotted line of plaster and pigment that traces the shape of Kiki’s former loft at the back of the main gallery.

Installation view of Jennifer Locke, 'Séance for R.J. (Candle, Rubber, Levitation, Blood),' 2020. (Delaplane)

In a narrow hallway between the front and back spaces, a video by Locke fits snugly into an odd little corner, playing a short loop of repeated rituals—a seance for Jacobsen, but also an evocation of life under shelter in place. (A scene of a condom rolled over a dildo is nicely matched by Hewicker’s sex toy still life.)

The exhibition’s parting elements come from Sahar Khoury, in a stacked floor sculpture of boxes and a mixed media textile piece made out of an SFMOMA tote bag. “I like everything about you but you,” the modified canvas bag reads, a fitting comment on the museum’s recent inability to take a stance on racial justice.

There’s nothing monumental in Peace. Most of the work is small-scale, provisional, made with materials that don’t fit many definitions of “high art.” And yet in these artworks, the principles for which Kiki stood, the ideas that compelled Jacobsen to open its doors in the first place, persist. Peace underscores the importance of making art in difficult times—as a way of documenting, but also transcending. 483 14th Street is once again a space for the exchange of artistic ideas; in this case, a conversation that spans at least one participant’s entire lifetime. And until we can gather for events that might live up to Kiki’s legendary status, those exchanges will happen one viewer at a time, in half-hour increments.

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‘Peace: Nine Artists Consider Kiki Gallery’ is on view though July 25 at Delaplane (483 14th Street, San Francisco). Open by appointment, details here.