Step through the doors of Southern Exposure and enter a dreamed-up world. This realm, complete with its own architecture, heraldry, and visions of the future, was created over the past month as part of the Mission Voices Summer program. High school students, youth leaders, and teaching artists gathered twice a week to build The Unreal World through multi-disciplinary, collaborative art projects. Dreams -- of both slumber and the future -- shape this festive and colorful exhibition of sculpture, collage, and textile work.
While the Mission Voices program operates based on workshops led by teaching artists, the students and their imaginations are at the forefront. This is especially the case with Hanging Flags, where varying interests manifest themselves as vibrant designs and declarations. In combination, the fifteen flags hanging from the rafters of the Southern Exposure gallery seem to celebrate a long run of athletic victories. One additional contribution, a floor piece by Julian Reyes titled Random Wolf, takes the idea of the flag as trophy a step further. Splayed out like a rug, his faux-fur hide is covered with googly eyes and felt shapes, speaking to a personal system of symbols and a universal sense of humor.
At the back of the gallery space hang Woven Dreams, three oversized dream catchers affixed to the walls. Made using scraps of cloth the students brought from home, the multicolored loops trail to the floor in ribbons of varying length, looking as if they could take flight at any moment. These pieces capture student artist Artisha Gardner's enthusiasm for this year's program, which she described as "everything coming together to make one big picture."
Fittingly, pieces in the exhibition alternate between individual and group efforts. Territorial Journeys, a large-scale hand-painted map of San Francisco, features an anonymous network of pathways between the Mission Voices participants, their homes, and the central node of Southern Exposure. Dome Home is a continuation of this, providing a physical space for the intersection of those different lives and introducing the architectural philosophy of R. Buckminster Fuller into The Unreal World.
The dynamic collages Plans for Utopia feature artistic proposals for improved city life. Play and technological advances are forefront in these optimistic depictions of the future. Small clipboards next to each collage offer up white sheets of paper asking, "What does this work of art mean to you?" Pencils are provided. In several cases, underneath the growing number of enthusiastic and thoughtful responses, the artist's own words are printed on a blue sheet of paper.
This is a surprisingly elegant -- and evenhanded -- way of addressing the often sticky dichotomy between an artist's intention and a viewer's reaction. This is where The Unreal World excels. While providing student artists with the tools for artistic self-expression, the exhibition opens up a dialogue around that work to any and all comers.
The very first piece in The Unreal World, What Do You Dream Of? provides pens, handmade paper, and clothespins for visitors to add their own dreams to a hanging line already crowded with contributions. They range from extravagant to earnest. One reads: "Meet Beyoncé." Another: "I dream of getting out of a group home." A third proclaims: "I dream that I will become an artist." For all those involved in this year's Mission Voices project, this is not so much a dream as a statement of truth.
The Unreal World is on view at Southern Exposure through August 27, 2011. For more information visit soex.org.