Flux capacity

San Francisco Art Institute has shut its doors, but its alumni remain in new group exhibit at MONCA

"Rice Myself," photograph by Saeri Kiritani.

Before the In-Flux: Recalibrating The Unknown group exhibit came to MONCA this month, I hadn’t heard that the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) had shut down. In 2022, the beloved art school closed and in 2023 filed for bankruptcy. SFAI was the oldest U.S. art school west of the Mississippi. Founded in 1871, it boasted a who’s-who of faculty over the years—Ansel Adams, Mark Rothko, Angela Davis, to name a few—and had an impressive list of notable former students, such as Annie Leibovitz, Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead, and any number of leaders of the countless cutting-edge art and music movements to come out The City.

The In-Flux exhibition is here courtesy of SF Artists Alumni, which continues to put on shows and other events with former SFAI students and faculty.

The MONCA show is massive, filling up all three large galleries (plus many other little spaces) at the museum with pieces by more than 180 individual artists. Beyond acknowledging the big change in the artists’ lives due to the school shutting down, it’s a little challenging to connect such a large, diverse collection to the theme of the title. However, if nearly everything in the world is, or seems to be, “in flux,” then nearly anything could be on topic. Just navigating the show in the museum offers a constantly changing experience.

“gathered/scattered” (detail), by Luba Zygarewicz. (Photo by Jason Cassidy)

The art completely covers every wall. Some colorful large-scale works—such as LT’s “Don’t Look Back,” a self-portrait head against a bold blue sky—are enjoyable from many vantage points, but more often the greater rewards come from close examination. I had a lot of fun inspecting each of Luba Zygarewicz’s “altered teabags with found objects,” arranged it in a circle on the wall in “gathered/scattered”. Little buildings and flowers were painted against the tiny stained backdrops, with intact tags tangling from a string below.

The most memorable pieces for me varied wildly in style. I loved Paul R. Glaviano’s dry point etching, “Giants Killing One Another On The Battlefield With Gods Help.” The warped black-and-white figures pound on each other as a river of red blood forms between them. The abundance of colors in “Sal tree warrior” made Ujjayini Sikha’s large oil-on-canvas painting of an indigenous woman (and her cat!) from Jharkhand, India, particularly striking.

“Giants Killing One Another On The Battlefield With Gods Help,” etching by Paul R. Glaviano. (Photo by Jason Cassidy)

I probably spent the most time staring at Sanjay Vora’s “Two of us Once.” The oil, acrylic and gel medium has “a physical built veil” covering a painting of two figures. Moving backward and forward re-frames what’s hidden/revealed under that veil, which the artist says is there as a kind of “textural residue left by my endless seeking for meaning, truth and comfort.”

“Jessica at the Door,” oil on canvas by Chris Vena.

The digital exhibition catalog features hyperlinks to websites for most of the artists. Visiting them in these individual worlds, of course, offers a broader picture of the creators, and one of the most gratifying explorations for me was the galleries of painter Chris Vena. His “Jessica at the Door,” with a very pregnant young woman letting her belly hang way out of a half-shirt, might have been my favorite work in the show. But after clicking through his large-scale portraits, I found Vena’s incredible Bodies Upon the Gears series, featuring paintings of protests he attended in Arizona. The colorful oil-on-canvas paintings are bold and larger than life and very evocative.

The sites are just a bonus though. The real treat is to move through the flux in person. It’s a rare treat to have so many works from the San Francisco Art Institute and the greater art world right here in Chico—through May 12, at the Museum of Northern California Art.

900 Esplanade

– Non-members: $5
– Members: free (membership is $40/year)
– Monday-Wednesday: closed
– Thursday-Sunday: 11 a.m.-5 p.m.

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