San Francisco’s Mission District, historically home to the first waves of Mexican and Central American immigrants, is now perhaps most famous for being the city’s gentrification ground zero.
This year, the neighborhood saw a new trend of establishments opening their doors: art galleries.
Voss Gallery, the latest to join the lineup, held its grand opening celebration and inaugural exhibit last Saturday. The titular collection, “Plants and Machines” by San Francisco artist Tim Irani, interrogates the relationship between a “gamified” reality and organic life in the form of flowers, ferns and various other “cartoonized” flora.
Walking uphill toward Valencia Street from the 24th St. Mission BART station, Voss Gallery, on the corner of 24th Street and Bartlett Street, is difficult to miss. Covering one wall is a massive mural emblazoned with the stylized script “Heal Gaia” against a backdrop of greens and blues. Overlooking the text is a woman clutching a swirling marble — Earth, presumably, accompanied by riots of sunflowers and fuchsias. In contrast, the gallery’s white, canvas-like vitrine seemed starkly colorless — until one noticed the array of oddly square-shaped plant sculptures behind the display glass.
Irani’s collection took the pride of place on the top floor of the gallery. One piece, which Irani called the heart of the collection, is hung on the back wall and features a blooming peony against a splotched backdrop of vaguely bean-like shapes. Entitled “Big Dipper” and presumably alluding to outer space, the airbrushed gradients on each peony petal and background abstraction glowed under a black light backlighting the frame. It could conceivably be a metaphor out of the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” or perhaps the album cover of a best-selling electro-synth band.
“A lot of art is more subversive, but this collection is straightforward. I wanted it to be simple to understand,” Irani said. He characterized the message of the exhibition as plants and technology being able to peacefully coexist.
Though many finished pieces may resemble geometric video game constructions, the pieces at their fundamental composition are made entirely out of jigsaw-cut wood — an organic substance to convey highly stylized, inorganic portrayals of nature. One piece, entitled “Face-Plant,” features a many-stemmed pot of flowers sporting a wide grin outlined in navy and gold. Another series, composed of three pieces aptly dubbed “Small Bush,” “Medium Bush” and “Large Bush,” saw a blocky Minecraft-esque tuft of wood panels evolve into curved green blades barely contained by a mechanistic wooden frame.
Irani, who holds a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of San Francisco, brings together his academic training and former profession as a game designer to create a collection that is part ‘90s-graphic kitsch, part interlocking 3D model. He calls the medium “structural paintings” — yet another unification of two elements previously held apart.
Descend below the ground floor, and replacing the psychedelic hues of virtual plant life is a second gallery showcasing the paintings of an array of local artists. Ashley Voss, the gallery’s founder, intends for the subterranean space to house “underground” performances and film screenings in the future. She views Voss Gallery as a site for the “new contemporary” in artistic experimentation and described the gallery’s location as helping to propagate its mission.
“We’re in the Mission and we’ve got the murals … I think it’s a space where we can feel at home,” Voss said, praising the neighborhood’s creative atmosphere. She was surprised to learn that the Mission has seen new galleries open, a reversal of a citywide trend of shuttering.
Tammy Pollard, an attendee of the event and gallery associate of another San Francisco gallery, Secession Art & Design, expressed a similar concern for the future of art galleries in the city due to high property rent and called Voss’ opening “life-affirming.”
The phenomena of disappearing art galleries displaced by exorbitant costs of living and the appearance of art galleries in a neighborhood displacing communities of color through exorbitant costs of living paint an odd parallel — even as they unquestioningly intersect.
Read another way, Irani’s collection — advocating for the peaceful coexistence of nature and technology in the shadow of Silicon Valley — gestures at an impossible utopia whose realization seems all the more unlikely with each passing day. The industry of the future rolls on, and whether we are allowed to stay within its orbit depends on our ability to pay the price tag.
The privilege of coexistence comes at a premium.