Shock and awe

Pub date January 14, 2009
WriterAri Messer
SectionArts & CultureSectionLiterature

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After 15 years of a labor of printmaking love in what has become the artistic heart of SoMa, Aurobora Press has to be out of its home at 147 Natoma Street by the end of the month. When the landlord came forward with a tenant able to pay three times what the press was shelling out for the historic back-alley building, built in 1907 with bricks from the rubble of the earthquake, Aurobora — no stranger to our languishing economy — was forced to pack its bags. Standing before a radiantly colored Jay Davis monotype in the press’s small office, director Michael Liener said that he was trying to stay positive and accept that "change is good." But he was clearly in shock, sounding somewhat otherworldly in his soothsaying. "We’re still figuring out where we’re going to land — maybe in a space, maybe not."

In order to lessen its moving load, the press is currently selling framed work at unframed prices, though Aurobora Projects, the press’s showroom in Menlo Park, will continue to operate. Sadly, Aurobora’s coveted residencies, which allow artists who don’t normally work in the medium to come in and make monotypes — paintings on paper, created by inking a flat surface and then pressing it in an intaglio press — are up in the air. In the tradition of early 20th-century artistic crossovers such as French Catalan sculptor Aristide Maillol’s exquisite woodblock illustrations, the residencies have helped artists discover hidden resonance within their own symbolic systems. For example, working in monotype without preconceived notions, painter Angela Dufrense captured the essence of Ivan the Terrible. Local sculptor Stephen DeStaebler saw his signature angel wings and rock-forms expand on paper.

Caught between dimensions and subject to the idiosyncrasies of a big, heavy press, the monotype medium is an ongoing experiment in temporality. Thus Liener is familiar with the unexpected. He stressed that he doesn’t harbor hard feelings toward the landlord, who helped Aurobora get the space in the first place. Liener had been on a month-to-month lease, but that doesn’t make it any easier to leave a space that he created from the ground up. "The question now is, do I have the will, the stomach, the bank account, to do this all over again?" he says. "It’s kind of the end of an era. When we first moved here, we spent four months ripping this place apart, exposing the bare bones, shaping a beautiful gallery." During Aurobora’s time at 147 Natoma, Liener and friends pulled down six rooms, took out the "cheesy carpet," and exposed and patched the site’s original floorboards.

"We were here before the [San Francisco Museum of Modern Art] opened, before the W [hotel], before all the development," Liener observes. "We were out here pioneering. This is just another example of what happens when an area becomes ‘discovered,’ ‘found,’ ‘populated’: the ‘pioneers’ can no longer afford their good work. I’m not unique. This happens everywhere in every city. When you create a really lovely space and you’re here for a period of time, it becomes a selling point for the next person to come in and kick you out." The tragedy is that it’s the quiet little places, the hidden spaces for meditation and contemplation, that always seem to disappear first. And what do we need most right now?