In Final Show (For Now), Gallery 16 Works Take on New, Bittersweet Meanings

Installation view of 'The Violets in the Mountains Have Broken the Rocks' with Tucker Nichols' work on the left wall and Cliff Hengst's work on the right wall. (Courtesy Gallery 16)

The first show I visited in 2021 was also a last: Gallery 16’s final exhibition in the ground-floor SoMa space it’s leased since 2005. This moment has been coming—the building’s new owner wanted to raise the rent more than threefold, and gallery founder Griff Williams long ago negotiated their time in the space till the end of January. But what he didn’t expect was to still be looking for Gallery 16’s next home.

The show, The Violets in the Mountains Have Broken the Rocks, is a direct outcome of the move, the result of packing up lingering objects and editions and seeing them in a wholly new light. Just one work was made for the show, a 40-foot-wide mural painted by Tucker Nichols that ties together the key words and phrases of life during a pandemic. Among them: “Brian you are muted,” “droplet,” “do you grind your teeth” and “the orange day.”

It’s a glossary of newly relevant terms organized into a chaotic mind map. Against that backdrop, the rest of the objects in the show arrange themselves like prescient talismans or examples of better times (both past and future). The show is, for the most part, encouraging. Its namesake is a delicately embroidered linen cloth by Cliff Hengst, bearing the final lines of Tennessee Williams’ play Camino Real, a message that in this context reads as the slow yet eventual triumph of art and beauty over seemingly insurmountable adversity.

Detail of Tucker Nichols' 'Sneeze,' 2020. (Courtesy Gallery 16)

The sentiment of Hengst’s text is echoed in a neon light piece by Meryl Pataky, visible through the gallery’s enormous 3rd Street-facing windows. Her hand-shaped letters glow blue: “We have done so much with so little for so long that now we can do anything with nothing.” It’s a quote with a nebulous origin—Mother Teresa? Konstantin Jireček? the U.S. Military?—but one that would have looked right at home last summer, in the upraised arms of a Black Lives Matter protester.

The show has a loose curatorial construct, in part because nearly everything reads differently after 2020. This means some of the smallest details in the group show are the most poignant. Atop Libby Black’s painted paper trompe l’oeil sculpture Silver Lining is a replica of a House of Prime Rib matchbox, a reminder of precariousness of the Bay Area restaurant industry, and just how many beloved spots we’ve lost in the last year.

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Another detail comes from the context of a print’s production. Ala Ebtekar’s Equation of Time, a dazzling cyanotype of the night sky, was made on the gallery’s roof in 2017. The image of stars was fixed in place by the power of our most important star, the sun. This circular relationship continues even in its final, framed and mounted state: at the print’s center, a die-cut eight-pointed star reveals shiny silver leaf beneath. As the cyanotype absorbs light, its starry window reflects it back out.

Libby Black, 'Silver Lining,' 2015. (Courtesy Gallery 16)

When Gallery 16 last moved (from 1616 16th Street to 501 3rd Street), San Francisco was just beginning to emerge from the dot-com bust. Williams says the amount of empty commercial space we’ve seen during the pandemic is reminiscent of those years, with several significant differences. Back then, vacant SoMa spaces opened the door for clandestine art projects. Charles Linder, who’s exhibiting a neon sign and bullet-riddled, powder-coated gas cans in the current show, used to re-key former tech offices in the early 2000s (without permission). He’d then stage exhibitions in them, where he showed artists like Tucker Nichols.

In a 2003 episode of KQED’s Spark program, Linder leads the crew to a “studio visit” with Nichols (a cavernous office space likely once filled with cubicles and Aeron chairs), where the artist has drawn a mural of hand-written tech jargon. They play the whole situation completely straight.

Now, Williams says, despite the number of “for lease” signs up around town (including one directly across the street from the gallery), commercial real estate rents aren’t dropping. At least, not enough for Williams to know where he’s headed next.

Ala Ebtekar, 'Equation of Time,' 2017. (Courtesy Gallery 16)

Like so many major events waylaid by the pandemic, Gallery 16 will leave its current space without being able to gather its large community of artists and audience-members for a final farewell. Instead, The Violets in the Mountains Have Broken the Rocks gathers their proxies in the form of artworks. In that sense, it’s a warm and eclectic show. Spanning the Gallery 16’s nearly three decades of existence, the exhibition’s pervasive message is one of resilience—in spite of cycles of boom and bust, opportunity and scarcity.

But without a destination or a reopening date in sight, it’s hard not to worry on Gallery 16’s behalf. Ten months into a pandemic, empty spaces continue to court businesses that no longer exist at rents that are nowhere near reasonable. If an actual re-keying of locks is out of the question—and maybe it shouldn’t be—we need a metaphorical re-keying. We need art to once again fill the empty physical spaces of the Bay Area.

‘The Violets in the Mountains Have Broken the Rocks’ in on view at Gallery 16 (501 3rd St., San Francisco) through Jan. 20, 2021. Details here.