Visual art in 2021 explored big issues and didn’t shy from controversy
Ana Teresa Fernández stands in front of her sculpture “On the Horizon” during its installation and viewing party on June 20 at Ocean Beach. Photo: Jana Asenbrennerova / Special to The Chronicle

In 2021, the Bay Area returned to cultural life in museums, galleries and public art events as venues renewed in-person programming while remaining ready to adjust to new restrictions and variants.

Continuing 2020’s calls for widen representation in culture, we saw the launch of the Minnesota Street Project Foundation’s California Black Voices Project, a grant program that featured an opening exhibition in the 1275 Minnesota St. atrium curated by Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins, as well as projects by artists Toni Scott and Leila Weefur. LGBTQ art was also given notable attention with the presentation of an original rainbow Gay Pride Flag by Gilbert Baker at the GLBT Historical Society Museum, the “Queer Visions” lookback at LGBTQ nightlife history at the Haight Street Art Center and a celebration of queer artist Jerome Caja at the Anglim/Trimble gallery.

A piece from Sadie Barnette’s latest exhibit “Inheritance” at Jessica Silverman Gallery in San Francisco. Photo: Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

San Francisco gallerist Jessica Silverman moved from her space in the Tenderloin to new digs in Chinatown, where locals Clare Rojas, Catherine Wagner, Woody De Othello and Sadie Barnette were subjects of solo shows.

In public art, Dana King’s “Monumental Reckoning,” featuring 350 sculptures symbolizing the first group of Africans enslaved in the United States, and Ben Davis’ Illuminate the Arts’ “Lift Every Voice” installation notably changed the Music Concourse at Golden Gate Park after the removal of a statue of slaveholder Francis Scott Key last year.

A thrilling, temporary public work also got an opportunity for more life. Ana Teresa Fernández’s eco-sculpture “On the Horizon,” consisting of 16 6-foot plastic tubes filled with seawater, was initially installed twice at Ocean Beach as a commentary on climate change and inequality. It went on to be part of the For-Site Foundation’s “Land’s End” exhibition at the former Cliff House, where it is currently on view through March 2022.

And the family of San Francisco artist Ruth Asawa debuted a new online audio tour of Asawa’s public works, stretching from San Jose to St. Helena.

Here are some other standout moments from the year.

People stop to view “Night Watch”, a floating media installation created by Shimon Attie that displays portraits of refugees granted asylum in the U.S, as it nears the Bay Bridge in San Francisco on Sept. 17. Photo: Nick Otto / Special to The Chronicle

‘Night Watch’

In September, Shimon Attie’s floating barge installation “Night Watch” felt like a comeback moment for art gatherings. The collaboration between Boxblur and the Immersive Arts Alliance featured a 20-foot LED screen affixed to the vessel traveling the San Francisco Bay for three nights with Attie’s video portraits of 12 refugees granted political asylum in the United States playing on a loop.

The performance coincided with Attie’s show “Here, Not Here” at the Catharine Clark Gallery. The activations around the area meaningfully combined technology and deeper questions about the asylum and refugee crisis.

Betty Yu on a July 14 media tour of teamLab’s “Continuity” at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. Photo: Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle

TeamLab’s ‘Continuity’

The inaugural exhibition at the Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang Pavilion at the Asian Art Museum was an exciting look ahead for the institution. The Tokyo-based art collective’s projected digital work “Continuity” not only included completely original moving artwork and soundtracks, but also piped in fragrances for a truly immersive experience.

Forget the sudden rash of projected shows big in pop culture that riff on existing art like “Immersive Van Gogh”; for half the price, you can take in teamLab’s virtual garden.

“Continuity” by teamLab: 1-8 p.m. Thursdays; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Fridays-Mondays. Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Through February. $25. Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., S.F.

Ricky Rat trolls a fnnch honey bear on Rose’s Cafe on Union Street in S.F. on April 23, 2020. Photo: Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

Fnnch polarizes San Francisco with honey bears

Discussions about fnnch and his signature honey bears reached a fever pitch this year, with fans claiming the work is meant to be uplifting and cute while critics view the work as a branding device that’s a symbol of gentrification.

In response, the new street art mascot Ricky Rat rose up as a kind of anti-honey bear while activist group Gay Shame created a papier-mache honey bear being decapitated by a guillotine.

Joan Mitchell, “Sans neige,” 1969. Photo: Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, gift of the Hillman Foundation; Estate of Joan Mitchell / Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, gift of the Hillman Foundation;© Estate of Joan Mitchell

SFMOMA excites with notable exhibitions while still trying to navigate forward

A year that included exhibitions of Joan Mitchell, Nam June Paik and San Francisco native Tauba Auerbach should be an unqualified success for the San Francisco institution. But the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is still finding its way forward after a rocky 2020, even with two shows — “Bay Area Walls” and “Close to Home: Creativity in Crisis” — notably focused on local artists’ responses to the coronavirus and ongoing social justice reckonings that hit the institution hard.

This year, the museum disbanded its volunteer Modern Art Council, closed the beloved Artists Gallery at Fort Mason and cut its celebrated film program, as well as ceasing its online publication “Open Space” and podcast “Raw Material,” citing budgetary constraints.

SFMOMA also continues to work on its Diversity Equity Inclusion plan and search for a successor to director Neal Benezra, while still facing both internal and external complaints.

Artist Judy Chicago (center) on Oct. 16 after directing her “Judy Chicago: Forever de Young” smoke installation at the de Young Museum in S.F. Photo: Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle

Judy Chicago gets her due

Artist Judy Chicago was celebrated in four Bay Area shows in August: “Judy Chicago: A Retrospective” at the de Young Museum; the solo show “Human Geometries” at Jessica Silverman Gallery; a section of “Experience Leonard Cohen” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum; and in the Berkeley Art Museum-Pacific Film Archive’s “New Time: Art and Feminisms in the 21st Century.” The near-simultaneous debut of the shows will go down in local lore as “Judyfest: The weekend the Bay Area went Chicago,” and was a fitting acknowledgment of the underappreciated feminist creator of “The Dinner Party.”

However, Chicago’s “atmospheres” installation “Forever de Young” in October was a polarizing event, with some applauding the work while people downwind (and residents near Golden Gate Park) asked whether clouds of colored smoke were an appropriate artistic medium during Northern California’s fire season.

“Judy Chicago: A Retrospective”: 9:30 a.m.-5:15 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Through Jan. 9. $15-$30. De Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, S.F. 415-750-3600.

“Judy Chicago: Cohanim”: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Through Jan. 2. $16 general admission. 736 Mission St., S.F. 415-655-7888.

“New Time: Art and Feminisms in the 21st Century”: 11 a.m.-7 p.m Wednesday-Sunday. Through Jan. 30. 2155 Center St., Berkeley. 510-642-0808.

Wangechi Mutu’s “I Am Speaking, Are You Listening?” at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. Photo: Gary Sexton / Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Legion of Honor balances tradition and looks to future

The Afro-futurist sculptures installed in the courtyard and Rodin galleries of the Legion of Honor for “Wangechi Mutu: I Am Speaking, Are You Listening?” are a strong recommendation for curator Claudia Schmuckli’s contemporary series at the museum. The work was not only beautifully juxtaposed with the art and architecture of the venue, but also inspired visitors to ask who those spaces were designed for.

The museum nodded to history with curator Renée Dreyfus’ “Last Supper in Pompeii: From the Table to the Grave” exploring the art and lifestyle artifacts of the doomed Roman city and “Color Into Line: Pastels From the Renaissance to the Present” featuring 80 masterworks of the under-celebrated medium by curator Furio Rinaldi.

“Color Into Line: Pastels From the Renaissance to the Present”: 9:30 a.m.-5:15 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Through Feb. 13. $15-$30. Legion of Honor Museum, 100 34th Ave., S.F. 415-750-3600.

Woman’s Ensemble: Coat and Dress, fall/winter 1986; Woman’s Dress, fall/winter 1986; Woman’s Dress, fall/winter 1988; by Patrick Kelly. Photo: Philadelphia Museum of Art

Fashion exhibitions widen representation

“Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love” was a giddy explosion of style, color and culture in curator Laura Camerlengo’s celebration of the 1980s fashion pioneer who broke many of the industry’s racial barriers as a Black American fashion designer in the 1980s. The “Mode Brut” exhibition at the Museum of Craft and Design was another wearable high for Creativity Explored, the Mission District gallery and art center for developmentally disabled artists who explored concepts of gender, accessibility and identity through their garments.

“Mode Brute”: 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday. Through Jan. 23. $10. Museum of Craft and Design, 2569 Third St., S.F. 415-773-0303.

“Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love”: 9:30 a.m.-5:15 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Through April 24. $15-$30. De Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, S.F. 415-750-3600.   

Carrie Mae Weems’ “American Monuments I,” 2015-2016, digital c-print. Photo: Carrie Mae Weems / Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Carrie Mae Weems’ powerful survey at Fraenkel Gallery

“Carrie Mae Weems: Witness” was a fitting first solo exhibition of the artist at Fraenkel Gallery that felt perfectly timed to ongoing cultural explorations of Black identity and womanhood.

Weems, newly represented by Fraenkel, preceded “Witness” by curating a separate show of Diane Arbus photographs at the gallery. Among the most resonant works in “Witness” were pieces from the artist’s “Museum” series, where she depicts herself clad in black staring down monuments and architectural icons of the art world.

Replica of Parliament Funkadelic’s iconic stage prop, the Mothership. Photo: Odell Hussey Photography

Oakland Museum of California reopens with renewed mission

When the Oakland Museum of California reopened in June after being closed 15 months, it debuted excitingly refreshed outdoor spaces by landscape architect Walter Hood and architect Mark Cavagnero. In August, “Mothership: Voyage Into Afrofuturism” delved into the movement best known for the writings of Octavia Butler and the Marvel film “Black Panther.” This year also saw the temporary closure of the Great Hall exhibition space after water damage caused by Bay Area rainstorms, pushing the museum’s “Edith Heath: A Life in Clay” exhibition to 2022. Also on the museum’s agenda: a total re-evaluation of its internal structures to better exemplify the organization’s values of inclusion, equity and community.

“Mothership: Voyage Into Afrofuturism”: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Friday-Sunday. Through Feb. 27. $7-$21; free for children age 12 and younger. Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St., Oakland. 


Deborah Oropallo and Andy Rappaport, still from “Uprising,” 2021. 3 x 4K video projection with two-channel sound; 9:36 minutes. Edition of 8 + 2AP.

‘Uprising’ puts monuments discussions in focus

Deborah Oropallo and Andy Rappaport’s three-channel video installation titled “Uprising” helped quantify the recent removals of Confederate monuments around the country, depicting more than 200 toppled and defaced works. Watching as the wraparound screen went from vacant to populated with overlapping images of graffitied Confederate statues set to Rappaport’s berserk carousel soundtrack felt like a fitting final gesture to the monuments’ legacy.

By Indana