Forget euphemisms. Brion Nuda Rosch calls his gallery what it is. The Hallway Bathroom Gallery is the hallway and bathroom of his modest Mission District apartment. Rosch, an artist and former curator at the Adobe Books Backroom Gallery, began curating exhibits in his home in 2005. In 2007, he rested. And in the second half of 2008 the Hallway Bathroom Gallery has re-emerged with three successive group shows, each exploring a particular genre. Landscape showed from August 30 to October 5; Pattern will show from December 13 to January 24. Portrait is the current show. On display through November 30, it features work by twenty-four artists, most from places beyond San Francisco.
Forget outside. The Hallway Bathroom Gallery is the opposite of exposure. It cultivates enclosure. Protected in a domestic space, curled up like a snail in a shell. To access it, you must either attend an opening, visit on Saturday afternoons, or e-mail Rosch to set up an appointment. The apartment is up a long curving staircase; you must ring the bell and stand on the front steps and wait for him to descend. It is like visiting a friend.
Go inside. Rosch embraces and even emphasizes the gallery's domestic, private qualities. He made tea for me; his cat nuzzled my foot. His embrace is a relief. It means you don't have to spend your time trying to forget you're in some guy's apartment looking at art. Instead, you are reminded again and again, until the environment becomes another layer of the exhibit. Rather than the exposure of the street, Rosch's gallery confronts visitors with a startling degree of seclusion and intimacy. This confrontation is as central to the exhibit as the art on the walls.
Forget genre. The artists in this show approach portraiture not as a set of constraints, but as an orienting principle within a field of limitless experimentation. Their work extends down the long, narrow hallway like a story. It begins with Pamphile 'Barb' Beaudion by Chicago artist Rachel Niffenegger. A gouache face colored in swirling magentas and greens melts into a white background, dissolving and forming at the same time. A woman drawn in pencil stares out with intent eyes from Space Spirit by Bill Donovon of Brooklyn. An infinity sign, the word "Love" and two small animals are drawn above her head, a cryptic arrangement that alludes to meaning without letting viewers in on the code. Heidi Anderson's From Fall is next. A delicately drawn female face painted in self-aware innocence -- streaks of color create a triangle, a bird sits on her head, a squirrel below her chin. Leaves rest in her hair. Like Space Spirit, the painting has a quasi-mystical appearance. Both artists' symbols are highly personal and thus opaque, letters from an inaccessible language that express unease rather than enlightenment. Barcelona artist Michael Swaney's Papi Chilo Zulu is an accretion of forms and patterns that result in an almost symmetrical head-like shape. Done in a ballpoint pen, Papi Chilo Zulu reminds me of drawing as a child -- when one shape effortlessly led to another, when you're old enough to know what symmetry is but not old enough to achieve it.
Sit down. I'll admit I didn't want to go into the bathroom. A toilet and garbage can fill the small rectangular room and a row of faces wraps around the walls. The only way I could look at the art and write in my notebook was to sit down. But don't worry, the lid was closed. I spent my time in the bathroom staring at just two pieces. In New York artist Jessica Williams's Theo #2, heavy white hair frames a narrow, sunken face against a black background. Artist Mishel Valenton uses color as form in Kate, layering turquoise, yellow, and red paint to build a female face; the eyes are left as black sockets. "Kate" appears as though covered in face paint; I imagine her running around a campfire at a backwoods psychedelic party. But that could just be me.
When I left, I looked for a line that separated my experience of the gallery from my experience of the exhibit. None existed. Portrait is a strong show on its own, I decided, but it is nested within a larger exhibit, one that includes Rosch's apartment building, his hallway, his bathroom, even Rosch himself. It is the conversation between these two exhibits that is on display. It is an intimate dialogue, one about daily life and comings and goings. Still, we are invited to put our ears to the wall and listen in.
Portrait is on display through Sunday, November 30, 2008 at the Hallway Bathroom Gallery, 391A South Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. To arrange an appointment, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Editor's Note:] In a similar vein, check out Megan Wilson's Home (see review). Home is another great, alternative way to view art in an intimate setting and another excellent Thanksgiving weekend activity that will keep you away from the increasingly depressing mall.