Pub date June 30, 2009
SectionArts & CultureSectionVisual Art

It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood — won’t you be my neighbor? That classic American question is all trussed up and ready to go thanks to "Safe Word," a new exhibition at Chris Perez’s gallery Ratio 3 that peeks inside a nearby Mission District space: San Francisco’s lively new gargantuan factory of BDSM imagery,

An all-too-rare site-specific appraisal of urban landscape and activity is intrinsic to this show. Even before took over the 200,000-square-foot San Francisco Armory, the landmark’s fortress-like appearance and mammoth scale cried out for this kind of creative response. Back in 2003, reviewing a show of mixed media cubic works by Will Yackulic at the now-defunct gallery Pond, I used the block formations in Yackulic’s art and Pond’s across-the-street proximity to the Armory as an opportunity to take stock of the structure formerly known as San Francisco National Guard Armory and Arsenal, a neo-medieval brick goliath that was fully erected in 1914 and registered as a historical landmark in 1978.

At that time, the Armory was long dormant, but three years later, purchased the site to use it as a production studio. While’s location and activities have, unsurprisingly, generated a vast variety of local reportage, the five contributors to "Safe Word" don’t attack or celebrate the company — and its curious macrocosmic 21st-century update of old Hollywood’s studio system — so much as use its complex notions and representations of literal site and virtual space as trampolines for their own artistic imaginations.

In comparison to the clutter and overload characteristic of many group shows, "Safe Word" spreads nine works by a handful of artists across Ratio 3’s roomy confines in a manner that prevents any one piece from going neglected. To some degree, the standout works are those one first encounters upon entering the gallery. On the immediate right are four oil-on-panel paintings by Danny Keith that depict screen captures of grappling men from and In Keith’s paintings, two torsos become one — not through the penetration shots one associates with hardcore porn, but through beast-with-two-backs-and-one-head physical images that momentarily occur during wrestling bouts. The compelling puzzle of these human pretzels is that Keith’s carefully selected and at times broodingly emotive visions bypass or subvert or transform the power games present in the titles of the source material. (In contrast, an orange-hued painting by Francine Spiegel remains elliptical as a visual response to

Amanda Kirkhuff’s two graphite drawings (one on a large sheet of paper, another on a wall) are confrontational. On the far side of the room from Ratio 3’s front door, they greet viewers with (in one case) human-scale and (in another) larger-than-life full-frontal female nudity. Kirkhuff’s The Oldest Profession is like a 21st-century female answer to de Kooning. Thanks to a tit mountain and triangular patch of pubic forest, the piece’s faceless female torso flirts without sentiment with monumental abstraction — less obviously, and more wittily, Kirkhuff uses the magnified pixel or fractal block patterns of video in a manner that evokes’s brick façade. Kirkhuff’s The Burden is the closest thing to a self-portrait in the show. Its subject meets the viewer’s gaze with a casual strength and defiance. Viewed within the context of Kirkhuff’s past hilarious renderings of pop culture icons and monsters such as Monique and Dr. Laura, these works prove she’ll likely excel in a solo show context.

Two pieces within "Safe Word" reconfigure material from Takeshi Murakata’s installation Because I Know How to Relax, I Can Work and Play Better matches woman-on-woman BDSM video with new age relaxation audio. There’s a comic frisson between the imagery and the verbal instructions: when the voice-over asks one to imagine a hand reaching inside one’s body, a semi-literal corollary takes place on screen. And connections between BDSM and meditative practice becomes quite clear. The idea is a bit glib and easy, though. More evocative is Anthony Viti’s looping five-minute video Mission & 14th, a card-shuffle barrage of fast-forward on-the-set screen captures of men and women at work and at play before and around the camera. At the same time that Viti’s piece demystifies or ignores the rigid barricades that characterize activity, it also — like Keith’s paintings — defies the rules and perhaps rigidity associated with BDSM. Here, desire isn’t bound or laying down the law. Instead, it manifests as a polymorphously perverse blur.


Wed–Sat, 11 a.m.–6 p.m.; through Aug. 8

Ratio 3

1447 Stevenson, SF

(415) 821-3771