Wednesday, December 14, 2011


The Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art (SECA) is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year with the publication of an art history book detailing the award winners it has encouraged over the last half century, along with an exhibit on the fifth floor of SFMOMA.

At the press preview last week, Alison Gass (above left) and Tanya Zimbardo (above right), who edited the book Fifty Years of Bay Art: The SECA Awards, gave short speeches about the award's history and the four 2010 winners who were being given a concurrent exhibition of their own on the fifth floor. The women spoke in fluent ArtSpeak, dropping phrases such as "quotidian materials" and "ongoing modernist dialogue," and when director Neal Benezra went to the podium afterwards he asserted, "Those two are amazingly articulate." They were also perfectly comprehensible if one were fluent in ArtSpeak jargon but if not, not, as Gertrude Stein would say.

The book they edited is attractive, with lots of pictures and interesting historical tidbits, but the fifth floor exhibit is something of a misconceived mess. Instead of simply attempting a chronological look at award winners like the book does, somebody has decided to break various rooms into ArtSpeak thematic spaces with the signage above.

Some of the work is superb on its own, such as Heap of Elements for a Body, About to Act or Finished Activity by 2006 SEC Award winner Leslie Shows above...

...but much of the exhibit is later work by previous winners which doesn't make a lot of sense, such as the 1999 Loom by 1992 Winner Hung Liu above...

...or the 2004 Japanese Maple II by 1996 Winner Anne Appleby.

There is another problem, which is that the once-every-two-years SECA Awards go to anywhere from one to 5 artists, but the pool of nominees starts at around 250 and is slowly whittled down to 30 finalists. At that point, curators and members of the Association get into a chartered bus and visit the various finalists in their studios, who they then proceed to reject in favor of The Big Winners. This sounds much more like Discouragement than Encouragement of Contemporary Art. (The painting above is the 2003 Bronze Cowboy by John Bankston.)

In a footnote in the accompanying book, the authors admit:
"In contrast to the shows organized for the ICA Boston's Foster Prize or the Tate's Turner Prize, SECA exhibitions do not include the work of artists shortlisted for the award. The SECA shortlists were historically confidential and are largely absent from archival materials related to the group. The names of finalists appear in SECA publications from 1990 on. Since 2008 the shortlist has been included in the press release announcing the award recipients and posted on the museum's blog."
That must make the rejected artists happy. (Above is a small sculpture from 1977 Winner David Best before he started making temples at Burning Man.)

Here's a suggestion. Show the work of all thirty artists who make the finals every two years, and give prizes and more exposure to the Award Winners. Art is subjective as can be, so that one person's Best is not going to be somebody else's Best. For instance, the four 2010 winners are a strikingly anemic bunch, with the 2009 Twill Series (Jet Black) above by Ruth Laskey being one of the more vibrant pieces. A greater contrast among various artists would make everyone look better, and it might even encourage rather than discourage contemporary art


namastenancy said...

You were more tactful and restrained than me. "Anemic" - what a great term.

sfmike said...

Dear Nancy: Thanks for the kind words.