The 2010 SECA Art Award recognizes four deserving Bay Area artists "of exceptional promise and talent" with an exhibition at SFMOMA that opened on December 9, 2011. Marking the 50th anniversary of the Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art's existence, the museum has simultaneously mounted an expansive group show, Fifty Years of Bay Area Art, containing works by past winners. While Fifty Years succeeds in pointing out SECA's ability to help guide local artists to prominence, it unfortunately overshadows the current winners in what should be their triumphant and shining hour.
The recipients of the 2010 award -- Mauricio Ancalmo, Colter Jacobsen, Ruth Laskey, and Kamau Amu Patton -- were winnowed down from a list of 250 original applicants in a "nerve-wracking selection process" (according to wall text). Housed in just two galleries (one split to create a dark room for Ancalmo's work), the exhibition has a feeling of forced closeness that -- after the five or so large spaces given over to Fifty Years -- doesn't seem at all necessary.
If the SECA award represents current trends in Bay Area art, it makes an argument for two strains: in one, technology is turned against itself to serve an artist's purposes; in another, artists make labor-intensive process-based work. The former is a reductive description of Patton and Ancalmo's interests. The latter encompasses Jacobsen's drawings and Laskey's woven works. But the four artists operate under such disparate formal and conceptual concerns that their works create a diverse and engaging group show.
Mauricio Ancalmo, A Lover's Discourse (detail), 2010; courtesy the artist and Eli Ridgway Gallery, San Francisco; c. Mauricio Ancalmo; photo: Johnna Arnold.
The most dramatic piece comes from Ancalmo. In A Lover's Discourse, a multimedia installation features a wildly spinning 16mm projector suspended from the impossibly high gallery ceiling. A complicated set-up allows a turntable and the projector to influence each other's output, creating a darkened room in which the projector's black and white looped film is sometimes in focus and sometimes impossible to decipher as it zooms by. All the while, a sped up, slowed down, or reversed LP provides an eerie soundtrack for the experience.
Kamau Amu Patton, Feedback 1, 2010; collection of Marcus Keller and Robert McMillan; c. Kamau Amu Patton; photo: Tomo Saito.
Patton shares with Ancalmo an interest in older technologies and abstracted sound, neatly book-ending the exhibition. Unfortunately, Patton's works, a combination of paintings, sculpture, and amplified sound (an oppressive droning, as if bombers were looping continuously overhead), are ill-suited to share space with that of other artists, especially Laskey's quietly mesmerizing twill pieces.
Ruth Laskey, Twill Series (Jet Black), 2009; collection of Robert Hobbs; c. Ruth Laskey; photo: Don Tuttle.
In brief wall texts, the exhibition provides quotes from the four artists to illuminate their processes, providing tantalizing snippets somewhat more fleshed out through interviews in the very nice exhibition catalog. This concern with honoring artists' voices continues through Fifty Years of Bay Area Art. Loosely grouped into four thematic "constellations" (very generally: place, abstraction, narrative, and appropriation), the retrospective showcases a number of now-familiar names. Certain threads are made apparent in the groupings that reinforce accepted notions of what Bay Area art looks like and concerns itself with.
Colter Jacobsen, I'm Searchin', 2010; courtesy the artist and Corvi-Mora, London; c. Colter Jacobsen; photo: Ian Reeves.
Standouts include Rosana Castrillo Díaz's delicate graphite drawings, Kota Ezawa's lightbox image from the series History of Photography Remix, and Laurie Reid's Love Litany, in which two huge sheets of thick paper systematically covered with light watercolor dots resembling Braille hang against the wall, curving elegantly into the air at the bottom.
Fifty Years of Bay Area Art is accompanied by a hefty publication covering all SECA winners from 1967 to present along with the group's considerable number of additional accomplishments. Co-organizers Alison Gass and Tanya Zimbardo also conducted a number of oral history interviews with past winners, made available in the galleries and online. The result is overwhelming in one visit -- so much is presented in terms of actual word and supplementary material that it demands repeat viewings.
Ultimately, it is a case of bad timing for the 2010 SECA Art Award winners. Their work is in no way less accomplished than that of past winners. It is arguably more relevant to current audiences. Nonetheless, their celebratory exhibition is eclipsed by its surrounding company: on all sides, fifty combined years of now-established art (strategically chosen to prove SECA's prescience) is provided not as a booster to the current winners, but to those behind the award.
2010 SECA Art Award: Mauricio Ancalmo, Colter Jacobsen, Ruth Laskey, Kamau Amu Patton and Fifty Years of Bay Area Art: The SECA Awards are both on view at SFMOMA through April 03, 2012. For more information visit sfmoma.org.