Historically known as a refuge for bohemians, San Francisco has welcomed those who’ve veered off the beaten path with open arms. The city has been home to some of the most radical and unorthodox artists of our time.
Acción Latina’s upcoming group exhibition “Somos/Funky”—featuring 19 artists and running from Sept. 20-Nov. 8 at the Juan R. Fuentes Gallery—seeks to celebrate this colorful history of counterculture with a vivid collection of artwork created by some of the curators’ favorite, uncategorizable artists.
Josué Rojas who, along with Fátima Ramirez co-curated the exhibit states, “For as long as I can remember, it’s been the misfits, the beautiful weirdos—they are the colors in the fabric of the SF I know and love. The show features people with a unique vision: An Afro-Latinx muralist, a queer chola OG, a southpaw hand-style king, an unsung mural restorer, a Mission exile paintress, children of refugees, bandits, misfits, undocumented documentors of counter-culture, fallen heroes Spain Rodriguez and TOPA—these are SF’s cutty native daughters and sons.”
Isaac Vazquez Avila is one of those interdisciplinary artists. Avila’s artistic style is difficult to pinpoint and that’s just how he prefers it. The indistinguishable peculiarity present in his pieces is what comes naturally for him. Fitting into a specific bracket of style is last on his list of priorities.
“I don’t really care too much about trying to define it or find a very specific cemented explanation about my work,” Avila said. “I think the fun part is for someone else to see it and think to themselves, ‘Maybe this is what this piece means. Maybe this is what’s going on here but I’m not sure.’ The doubt and uncertainty that art can bring is what I feel is important.”
Avila was born in Mexico City, raised in Salt Lake City and has been living in the Bay Area for the past 16 years. The materials he incorporates into his sculptures are often found around the city, whether it be a flyer, pieces of paper, or a wooden frame someone happened to leave out on the curb. Avila is constantly drawing inspiration from his surroundings and names that quality as a typical mark of an artist.
“Part of what it is to be an artist is being curious and aware of your surroundings,” Avila said. “So if I’m out, I can’t help but notice the spaces that I’m in and maybe things that I can pull from them to use in my work. I’m just always on the hunt for those kinds of things.”
Upon visiting artist Gustavo Mora’s Oakland studio, curator Fátima Ramirez was struck by his bold abstract sketches of cars, skulls, and volcanoes. “These are images that we’re surrounded by in the Mission that Gustavo reimagined, putting his spin on traditional Mexican linocut printing and watercolor, oil painting techniques even, ultimately resulting in the creation of his own imaginary world.”
“What struck me about Gustavo’s work was the repetition—almost a mirroring of individual characters floating in noisy city scenes filled with scribbles and a type of cross-hatching in the background. I was intrigued and wanted to learn more.”
Familiarity with ourselves is on the forefront of Ramirez’ mind, “I love the way that Crystal Galindo and Valeria Olguín remind us, perhaps women in particular, about the importance of loving our bodies unapologetically. For example, Vále invites us to make fun of ourselves, to let the world know we really like burritos y qué? Crystal also has this great way of featuring powerful, underrepresented people, encouraging us to show our whole selves, including those tan lines and curvas some of us try to hide.”
Another artist who’s found inspiration in the streets of the city is painter Anna “Girlonbus” Kirsch. Girlonbus, who now lives in Vallejo, was born and raised in San Francisco up until the first dot com boom in the year 2000. She and her family were ultimately evicted. The impact San Francisco had on Girlonbus, however, has endured and is evident in her catalog of artwork growing up.
“I grew up in the Excelsior District and my mom did her household shopping between there and the Mission District. As a child, growing up exposed to the amazing mural art in the city definitely played a role in my interest in art.”
Her San Francisco childhood even inspired Girlonbus’ moniker. “I’ve been a lifelong bus rider to this day,” she said. “My fondest memories were on Muni growing up.”
Girlonbus’ cartoonish-style painting is often described as reminiscent to another well-known Bay Area painter and graffiti artist, Barry McGee, using bright combinations of color to bring life to her off-beat characters. While Girlonbus has been creating cartoons since she was much younger, it was her time spent within the Oakland community—going to weekly “Bad Luck of the Draw” draw nights curated by Chris Micro and Veronica Leon—that encouraged her to start showing her work in local group shows. The element of community remains very important to Girlonbus, especially as the number of local folks being forced out of their long-time homes due to the rapid gentrification of the Bay Area increases.
“Businesses and families are being pushed out of the community and it’s becoming harder everyday for artists to really make it here. I struggle with it too,” she said. “The hardest thing of all is that most of us have day jobs and we make art because we want to, we’re not doing it to make money. We want to share with our community so money is not the goal but at the same time, artists do have to survive. Those who are moving into the city nowadays aren’t doing much to help preserve what makes this city what it is, they’re only destroying it. We need more support for local businesses and artists here so we can save what makes this city so special.”
Painter Oliver “El Misft” Chanax shares a similar sentiment. El Misft was also born and raised in San Francisco where he cultivated his love for painting and Chicano culture. De Marillac Academy in San Francisco’s Civic Center had a hand in fostering El Misfit’s artistic passion during his time as a student there. As a sign of gratitude for the school and encouragement for students who find themselves navigating their own passions, El Misft contributes a number of his own pieces to the school’s annual benefit in order to raise funds for scholarships.
“Even though I don’t personally gain any money from it, I still love contributing to [events] like this,” he said. “I’ve met lots of amazing people and donors through these auctions and when I look back in hindsight, I realize I learned so much when I was a student here, and I think it’s amazing that they show these kids that if you have a goal, you have to go for it.”
El Misft, like many of the artists in the show, followed his own instincts when it came to his creativity. In school, El Misft explains that his art teachers would try to impose rules on his work but ultimately accepted he would stay true to himself.
“I had grown accustomed to working with my own twist and style in every piece that I did and in the classes that I’ve taken, I always felt like I was limited with my own creativity because I was expected to follow certain ground rules in my art classes. I had to bend the rules in each class to get the kind of work that I wanted done.”
Floyd Tangeman and Piper Alan are artists who dropped into the Juan R. Fuentes Gallery one day, “They showed us work that we couldn’t quite categorize and that they personally struggled to articulate but that made us think, ‘What is going on in there?’ Their art seemed to be a sort of mind map, a way to organize the many thoughts in their heads.” Ramirez remembers, “For example, at first glance Floyd’s work might seem a busy world of chaos but if you look closely, you start to see patterns, repetition, an attempt to understand the political weirdness we’re currently surrounded by.”
El Misft attributes his tendency for creative risk-taking to art icons like Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh and Banksy.
“I look at their work and think it’s amazing that they reached a point of success that didn’t require for them to know where they were categorized in the art world yet the audience thought they were interesting,” he said. “Thinking about them helps remind me to always just take the risk and put out the work that I want to put out.”
These artists—and others in the show—exist as clear personifications of San Francisco’s uncompromising free spirit. The genre-benders and rule-breakers are the folks who have made this city the inimitable haven that it is today and with each work of art that’s made, comes a fresh glimmer of hope for the fate of the city.
Co-curated by Josué Rojas and Fátima Ramirez, the opening reception of “Somos/Funky” will take place at Acción Latina’s Juan R. Fuentes Gallery on Sept. 20 from 6-9 pm, and will feature works from the following artists: Topa, Lucía Ippolito, Christo Oropeza, Ozzy, Yano Rivera, Gustavo Mora, Girl On Bus, Spain Rodriguez, Floyd Tangeman, Piper Alan, El Misft, Crystal Galindo, Señor Frijol, Vero Majano, Josué Rojas, Xavier Schmidt, Caleb Maldonado, Isaac Vazquez Avila, Valeria Olguín Ontiveros
Story by: Elissa Jiménez