Sunday, April 06, 2008

Chuck Arnett's Hardcore Hippie Sex



The first art retrospective of the culturally important Chuck Arnett (1928-1988) is being held through April at the oddly situated GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender) Historical Society, on the third floor of a building near Mission and Third.



Arnett was a gay Southern ballet dancer who became a touring Broadway dancer in the late 1950s, and ended up putting down roots in San Francisco after a "Bye, Bye Birdie" tour, and then went on to help visually create both the masculine iconography of the first leather gay bars in the world and a lot of the San Francisco hippie scene during the 1960s.



His first and most famous exposure was in the legendary 1964 Life Magazine issue of "Homosexuality in America," with its two-page opening photo spread of the Tool Box bar and its leather men mural in the non-gentrified Yerba Buena neighborhood South of Market (see picture above).



It's hard to overstate how revolutionary and exciting that imagery was for that particular moment in time, and it launched a gay migration to San Francisco that continues to this day.



Arnett was living and working with a loose group of friends, including the artist/dancer David Barnard, the artist/sculptor Michael Cafee, the artist Bill Tellman, and the choreographer Carlos Carvajal. The latter left the San Francisco Ballet in 1969 after a few too many battles with the conservative administration over youthful psychedelic ballets such as "Kromatica," and started his own company called Dance Spectrum, with many of its productions designed by Arnett.



It was this core group that basically formed the nexus between the hippie scene and the outlaw gay sex culture which was flourishing South of Market.



They designed a set of "Folsom Street Tarot Cards"...



...painted murals, decorated, bartended, managed and created scenes at a series of wild bars over the years, which stretched from The Tool Box, The Stud (in its 1960s Folsom Street incarnation) to the No Name (where the Powerhouse is now), the Red Star Saloon, the wild Balcony on Market near Church, and finally The Ambush, which was a great, mellow two-storied joint that effectively merged the hippie scene and the gay bar scene before and during the great dying off of a generation from AIDS.



Even though the place is not very welcoming from the outside, the Historical Society turned out to be staffed by a friendly crew...



...and the historian Martin Meeker is trying to do justice to a cultural moment that is in danger of falling through the cracks.



It would be nice if the show could be moved to the underused gay community center on Market Street after this showing. And a note to the newly renamed "Museum of Performance and Design" in the Veterans Building: somebody should get to work on a show of Arnett's dance designs while there are still friends alive who have access to his work.

1 comment:

namastenancy said...

This show is just perfect for the center on Market which also makes it a lot more accessible. There is a lot of empty space in that building; I know because I live right around the corner from it and wonder why there isn't a permanent museum there - or more gay-themed art events and performances.