SoMa’s 111 Minna Gallery Presents ‘Brain-Rattling’ Artworks
San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood, like much of the city, is a picture of disparate details: luxury, innovation and fine dining, shadowed by rampant homelessness, substance abuse and human suffering.
It seems appropriate, then, that SoMa’s 111 Minna Gallery is no home to vacuous art. In recent months, gallery owner Michelle Delaney has deftly selected artists who reflect the murmur of darkness and absurdity beyond the gallery walls.
Following a 2018 retrospective entitled “Walking, Talking, Stalking,” Colwell returns to 111 Minna with “Simple Pleasures Primal Terrors,” a collection of paintings that blister in their depictions of human crisis, chaos and malaise, rendered in his signature style of Social Realism skewed Surreal.
Paintings like “Encampment” and “Shift Change, ICU” are mirrors of a society in crisis, fatigued by growing wealth disparity and a global pandemic. Faces contort with concern and fear, or are otherwise slack with resigned unease.
It’s clear that Colwell’s history as an underground cartoonist serves his craft as a painter. In the ’70s, he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Robert Crumb and S. Clay Wilson, publishing a popular series of short stories called “Inner City Romance” with legendary counterculture publisher Last Gasp.
At the time, the underground comics scene in the Bay Area was heavily wrapped up in social commentary and satire, which Colwell was eager to participate in. A decade earlier, however, he was committed to Abstract Modernism, free of grand statements in the hippie era of peace and love.
That is, until 1968, when he refused the Vietnam War draft and spent 500 days in prison.
“It was definitely prison that made me shift my focus,” Colwell recalls. “If I hadn’t gone to prison, I probably would have continued painting colorful abstracts for many years.”
While paintings like “Encampment” are immediate in their commentary, pieces like the garishly hued “Old Sfumato Guy” prove slightly more subtle. The subject matter clearly concerns mortality, but, as Colwell points out to me, “there’s a Ukrainian flag in that picture.”
“Sheer Woman,” too, is quietly topical. A nude woman drapes herself in a sheer piece of cloth, standing within a partially destroyed building that reveals a burning city in the distance. Colwell added the smoke and flames in March of this year, he tells me, when the city of Mariupol was bombed by the Russian Air Force.
“At some point, I decided that art needed to say something, that visual art could be essays in the same sense that journalists or sociologists or philosophers or politicians have something to say about what’s happening in the world,” he says. “When I embraced that idea, it felt like all the abstract work I was doing was just wall decorations, maybe something that might harmonize with your furniture.”
San Francisco-based mixed media artist David Ball takes a notably different approach, creating abstract, emotive work.
“[When I first started working on fine art], I was more interested in abstraction than narrative, and had no interest in being a chastising moralist,” he says. “I just let what emerges emerge. Sometimes the work is light; sometimes it is heavier.”
The absence of narrative doesn’t preclude substance, however. Ball’s solo show, “Fanfaronade,” is a mesmerizing collection of “otherworldly abstractions,” almost entirely borne out of an enduring stretch of pandemic-enforced isolation.
“As I was alone all the time, I wanted to keep the work environment cheerier so I stepped away from the more tonal work I had been doing,” he says. “It was bringing me down, and people seemed to respond less to a grayed-out palette.”
Through collage, decollage and acrylic paint, Ball divined a series of abstract creatures in vivid shades of fuschia, plum, midnight blue and sage green. Figures that roam the frame of works like “Wanderers” and “Red Grume” elude characterization, an assembly of images culled from National Geographic, Architectural Digest and Homes & Gardens.
“My walks informed my work more than anything, as I was photo-documenting Downtown [San Francisco] daily throughout COVID,” Ball says.
Like anyone who strolls through Downtown San Francisco, Ball was privy to beauty and chaos, suffering and menace. Such themes are etched into vibrant works like “Revel,” as well as the melancholic “Counting Marbles.”
Regarding the title of the show, “Fanfaronade” — defined as “empty boasting” — he explains, “As an introvert, I find the whole process of self-promotion for shows to be very blustery so I figured I’d just call it what it is.”
His is a coolly detached perspective, one that echoes the entrancing yet evasive nature of his work.
Ball and Colwell differ in this way, however both artists produce works that inspire thought, feeling, curiosity and questions.
“I try to paint beautifully not to please the eye, but to shake up your thoughts, to rattle your brain,” Colwell says. “To engage both the eye and the mind.”
Guy Colwell’s “Simple Pleasures Primal Terrors” and David Ball’s “Fanfaronade” are currently on view at 111 Minna Gallery, 111 Minna St., San Francisco. For more information, visit https://111minnagallery.com/.