Today we’re thinking about what “school” means as a way of codifying an art movement—that is, the politics, aesthetics, and ethos that are implied by attributing work to a particular school. In that vein, we present Anuradha Vikram’s review of SFAI’s 2013 exhibition Energy That Is All Around—Mission School, wherein Vikram analyzes the problematics of the Mission School attribution. This article was originally published on November 18, 2013.
A panel at the San Francisco Art Institute on October 20 in conjunction with the Walter and McBean Galleries exhibition Energy That Is All Around – Mission School: Chris Johanson, Margaret Kilgallen, Alicia McCarthy, Barry McGee, Ruby Neri, posed the question: “Mission School: Yes or No?” The general consensus, both on the panel and in the wider Bay Area arts community, was a qualified “Yes.” On the panel, Natasha Boas, who curated the SFAI show, described the intense resistance with which her question—“Was there ever really a Mission School?”—was met when she began her research on an essay of the same title that was included in the Berkeley Art Museum’s catalog for its 2012 solo exhibition by Barry McGee. Artists refused to address the concept, objected to the label, and were otherwise evasive, even when (perhaps especially when) they had personally benefited from association with the group.
In parallel discussions within the community and on Facebook, a common response to the question was, “Yes, but who cares?” Most people agree that the critical mass of artistic activity in San Francisco’s Mission District in the 1990s met the social and formal criteria for a “school” of artists: shared influences and connections that congealed into apparent stylistic and material affinities, and that informed later generations. Why, then, does the mention of this widely recognized and influential movement in recent art history provoke a polarized response from both the artists customarily included in the group and those who are not? Understanding the hostility to the Mission School label requires an appreciation of the many ways in which this Bay Area movement prefigured controversial developments in American contemporary art and urban space over the last twenty years.