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Lindsey White’s ‘Fantastico!’ Is an Elegy for SFAI — and an Indictment of Academia

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White-walled space with hanging text piece over desk, video tower, sculpture and wall work
Installation view of 'Fantastico!' at Casemore Gallery, San Francisco (Chris Grunder/Casemore Gallery)

The opening of Lindsey White’s latest solo exhibition, Fantastico!, at San Francisco’s Casemore Gallery, was a pancake breakfast. The format was fitting: It wasn’t just a celebration for White’s latest body of work, but for San Francisco’s art community.

The reception was packed with people I knew from my days studying at the San Francisco Art Institute, including White, who taught at the college for over a decade until its closure in 2022. After that, she accepted a position as Director of Contemporary Practices at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. A year later, she left academia and moved back to San Francisco.

Fantastico! deftly reflects the rollercoaster of her last few years, offering a meditation on the failings of higher education and the absurdity of American politics, art school and parties. The show’s title refers to another bygone San Francisco institution close to White’s heart: a now-shuttered party supply store in SoMa that was once a major inspiration for the artist.

“Sometimes if I felt lost, I would just go there and walk around,” she said. But when she found out it was closing in 2020, she “walked through the aisles weeping.”

The closure of Fantastico provides a distillation of many of the show’s themes. “It’s a metaphor for a lot of the shifts and changes in San Francisco,” White said.


Another thing the party store and SFAI had in common (besides their closure) was the celebration of community and gathering. That thematic thread is especially poignant in the wake of COVID’s devastating effects on the local arts scene, capping off a decade of artists being continuously priced out of the Bay Area.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is the sculpture Closed for Business SFAI 2023, an eight-foot wooden tower with three screens recessed into its surface, playing video footage filmed inside the shuttered campus. The notably empty school seems frozen in time, the darkrooms and painting studios waiting to be filled, the common areas devoid of the goth kids and hipsters sharing cigarettes and arguing about performance art. Only one human presence is momentarily visible on screen: the school’s longtime librarian and archivist Jeff Gunderson, who can be seen packing to move the school’s archive downtown.

Plywood tower with three screens showing stills from video tour of closed school
Lindsey White, ‘Closed for Business SFAI 2023,’ 2024. (Chris Grunder/Casemore Gallery)

I ran into Gunderson at the pancake breakfast, and we stood together, vicariously wandering the halls of what was once a pillar of the Bay Area’s art community. We both wept. I hadn’t seen inside the campus since it was boarded up a couple years ago, and it was almost exactly how I remembered it — except for the people who made it what it was.

The former campus was recently purchased by a group of investors led by philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of the late Steve Jobs and a major player in funding the construction of a “tech utopia” in Solano county. Powell Jobs and her advisory board have announced intentions to renovate the campus, but retain its purpose as some sort of arts institution.

This acquisition feels like too little too late for White. “[SFAI] could have been saved by the same person who bought it,” she said. “The legacy is broken.” As much as Closed for Business is about remembering the school, it’s also — like all grieving — about letting it go.

gallery with gray-painted back wall, sculpture and wall works
Installation view of ‘Fantastico!’ with ‘Academic Affairs,’ the painted back wall. (Chris Grunder/Casemore Gallery)

Concurrent with the exhibition is the publication of White’s book What? Is? Art?, which features photographs taken inside SFAI and essays by anonymous professors in higher arts education. The authors bemoan the unrealistic expectations put on educators, the lack of fair compensation and the horrors of academic bureaucracy. While these stories elucidate the precarious state of higher education, the issues in both the book and Fantastico! extend well beyond academia. American politics, too, are often bogged down in the unbelievable. Increasing censorship and limits to autonomy combine into what often feels like a farcical clown show.

The wall-hanging artwork FORCES OF EVIL IN A BOZO NIGHTMARE features the titular slogan (and Beck lyric) written in capital letters around the frame of a mirror, shattered in places to reveal a brick wall behind it. The motif of the wall is repeated elsewhere in the show, especially prominently in the conceptual painting Academic Affairs. While the piece’s slate gray wall visually references SFAI’s architecture, it also brings to mind the literal stonewalling of professors and students common in convoluted academic bureaucracies.

Framed work with 'shattered' sections of scratched mirror revealing brick wall
Lindsey White, ‘FORCES OF EVIL IN A BOZO NIGHTMARE.’ (Chris Grunder/Casemore Gallery)

Tiny toy dogs, collectively titled Naysayers, dot the walls of the gallery, holding signs in their droopy mouths with messages like “Promote yourself,” “That’s life!” and “Expendable.” A larger, animatronic dog croons Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” from the mouth of a Halloween mask. These institutional watchdogs do more watching than hounding, sitting by forlornly while the forces of evil take their course. The Sinatra soundtrack, ambient throughout the exhibition, rings like a cautionary tale to those who dare stand up for themselves.

But we needn’t do so alone. Looking around the opening of Fantastico! I was reminded why I still call San Francisco home. It’s the same reason White moved back.

“There are a lot of incredible people here,” she said.

We may be in a bozo nightmare, but we’re in it together, watching the dark dramedy unfold.

‘Fantastico!’ is on view at Casemore Gallery (1275 Minnesota St., San Francisco) through July 13, 2024.

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