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A Fond Farewell to Ratio 3, Closing After 20 Years in San Francisco

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Black gate in front of black storefront with white lettering "Ratio 3"
The front door of Ratio 3's current space on Mission Street, which is closed as of March 4, 2023. (Courtesy Ratio 3)

On March 7, the Mission District gallery Ratio 3 announced its permanent closure. “The time has come for us to close the gallery and explore other creative endeavors,” read the Tuesday email announcement. In an interview, gallery founder Chris Perez said future plans for the gallery’s space at 24th and Mission will be revealed in the coming months.

Ratio 3 represented artists such as Barry McGee, Takeshi Murata and Ryan McGinley, as well as the estate of Margaret Kilgallen. The gallery has shown over 182 artists in its 20 years of exhibitions, and has been central to various Bay Area visual art scenes.

When Ratio 3 opened in 2003, it was in a room in Perez’s apartment at Guerrero and 21st Street. The first show was an installation by Mark Shetabi, who built a hallway and small room inside of the 11-by-13-foot room Perez, his roommate, and his boyfriend had dedicated to the gallery. Through a peephole, at the end of the hallway, you could see two oil paintings. They sold the piece to a local collector. Perez says he thought, “Huh? I guess we can keep doing this!”

Wood floored gallery with large framed photographs on white walls
An installation view of Ryan McGinley’s show ‘Life Adjustment Center’ at Ratio 3’s Stevenson Street location in 2010. (Courtesy of Ratio 3)

Early possibilities

After graduating from California College of the Arts, Perez worked as a curatorial assistant to Larry Rinder at the Whitney Museum in New York. It was there that he met Barry McGee, who traveled to install Margaret Killgallen’s work in the 2002 Whitney Biennial.

Perez also met Ryan McGinley during his New York years. “One day, I was walking in Chelsea and saw the old Printed Matter bookstore,” Perez remembers. “I walked in and saw this little Ryan McGinley book published by Index Magazine and I thought, this is really interesting.” He emailed the publisher for the artist’s contact and made plans with McGinley to do a studio visit. With pen and notepad in hand, he climbed through Dan Colen’s room to sit on McGinley’s bed; the artist pulled boxes of photographs out from under Perez’s perch.

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Since then, Ratio 3 has put on five solo exhibitions of McGinley’s work, each one marking a specific moment in both the artist’s career and Bay Area art history. The haunting pop band Girls, fronted by Christopher Owens, played McGinley’s second opening in a quintessential late-2000s scene. The gallery was so crowded that Perez and his team pulled the speakers out to the street for the assembled crowd. It was raining, lightly.

“Everyone was so young,” Perez remembers, “the possibilities in life seemed endless.”

Wood floored gallery with eclectic mix of wall work, sculpture and video
Installation view of ‘Kiki: The Proof is in the Pudding’ at Ratio 3’s Stevenson Street location in 2008. (Courtesy of Ratio 3)

Carrying on vital work

By this time, the gallery had moved from the apartment to its second home on Stevenson Street, an orphaned half-block between Valencia and a freeway off-ramp. Kiki Gallery, the ephemeral and unmatchable curatorial project of Rick Jacobsen, which closed in 1995, had been just a block away from the new spot. In 2008, Chris worked with the artist Colter Jacobsen and writer Kevin Killian to curate a show honoring Kiki’s legacy and Rick Jacobsen’s work. It opened on Pride weekend.

“It was one of those shows that you kind of knew was important,” Perez says, “Not just for the art, but for the people.” In the press release for Kiki Gallery: The Proof is in the Pudding, it says that Kiki, as a noncommercial space, was a key player in the “nascent Mission School movement, giving it a homocore dimension and a political edge.” Ratio 3 has, in many ways, carried on this vital work.

Over the years Ratio 3 has opened a number of shows during Pride weekend. Last year, they stayed open late to inaugurate a retrospective of the feminist filmmaker and photographer Barbara Hammer that rivaled institutional presentations of the artist’s work. In 2015, they showed Hal Fischer’s Gay Semiotics. It was the first time the work had been presented in San Francisco in over four decades.

Large gray photograph of white shapes and lines adhered directly to white gallery wall
Installation view of Miriam Böhm’s ‘Detail IV,’ 2016 in the 2016 show ‘Vanishing Point.’ (Courtesy of Ratio 3)

Attuned to space

If the gallery has an aesthetic, it’s one of minimalism, clean lines, and pronounced experimentation with space. “It’s evolved, but essentially I like circles and squares,” Perez admits, recalling the early influence of Ellsworth Kelly’s Red Blue Green.

In the 2015 show Vanishing Point, his curatorial proclivity reached an affecting apotheosis. It was a conceptually based group show made up of single works from Fred Sandback, Feliz Gonzalez-Torres and Sol LeWitt, and a selection of pieces from Miriam Böhm and Mitzi Pederson. The result was a meditation on space and mark-marking, both subtle and all-consuming. Looking through documentation of some of the gallery’s 122 shows, the gallery used to have a motto: “Ratio 3: Bringing vastness to the mind.”

Consistently, shows at Ratio 3 are attuned to space and to the labor of creating exhibitions. Perez, gallery director Theo Elliott and other staffers transform the gallery to suit each show, taking pride in a willingness to tear down walls, design exhibitions, build screening rooms, carpet the gallery — whatever needs to happen for the work to feel right. “I’m a curator at heart,” Perez says, “I love creating installations.”

Darkened gallery with musicians, projected image and person in sound booth with mic
A performance of Amie Siegel’s ‘Winter’ in the exhibition ‘High Noon’ in 2019. (Courtesy of Ratio 3)

Always located in the Mission, from Guerrero, to Stevenson, to its third and final location at 24th and Mission, Ratio 3 has been a touchstone for numerous periods of artmaking, scenes, friendships and movements in the cacophonous neighborhood.

In the beginning of the pandemic, the gallery’s registrar and artist liaison, Haegen Crosby, curated a show of Bay Area painters, The Bell Weather Picture Garden. He worked primarily with younger, less-established artists to share a fecund, percolating creativity with the city. One got the sense of a new and emerging scene.

“I have a lot of love for San Francisco,” Perez says, resolutely, not goaded into bitterness about the myriad ways the city’s changed, “It’s been an advantage to not have the financial pressure of a bigger city, and to be able to take time. The gallery’s roster, the space it has cultivated, and the community fostered grew slowly, organically, and over the course of years.”

Square abstract paitning with blocks of green and red color on light gray background
Daisy May Sheff’s painting ‘Faint, Faint is My Track,’ 2021, included in the 2021 group show ‘Bell Weather Picture Garden.’ (Courtesy of Ratio 3)

In many ways Ratio 3 has been an access point for contemporary art in the Bay Area, consistently putting on shows with art historical significance and institutional levels of presentation. This almost reads like an obituary. Forgive that. It’s just that it is sad Ratio 3 will no longer be a space to visit in San Francisco.

Saturday, March 4, was Ratio 3’s last day. They held a closing event for the artist James Sterling Pitt’s show of ceramics, a concert by musicians Danny Paul Grody and Rich Douthit, who gave the space ambient, attentive harmonies. The Instagram announcement for the event ended coquettishly, “Thank you San Francisco!”

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When asked how he felt in those final hours, Perez said it was like waking from a long beautiful dream: “Art affords you that. It can go in any direction and it can go in any way. I’m lucky to have shared this dream. Now I’m rubbing my eyes, and I have to go pee.”

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