How I "Returned" to SFAI


On November 3, San Francisco Art Institute hosted a party called “Return to SFAI,” which celebrated the school’s alumni. I am no alum, and neither is my husband, but we snuck in as press anyway. Upon entering SFAI’s cute and serene courtyard we immediately saw a cult Bay Area personality–RE/Search Publications founder V. Vale, whose book Angry Women I purchased two weeks before at the Alternative Press Expo. One of the angry women featured in that publication, artist Karen Finley, was actually the main draw of “Return to SFAI.” She was to present a special performance. While waiting for Karen, the guests could enjoy live music, cocktails and food, spectacular views from the observation deck, and, with some luck, the company of old classmates.


The SFAI observation deck with a view on North Beach. Photograph by Bryan Glosemeyer.

The SFAI party impressed me with its laidback vibe. It didn’t seem like one of those events where people come to show off and be douchy. There were delegates of different age groups, from the mid-20s up to the stratosphere. I even saw a man who graduated in 1951! Most of the action was happening on the main viewing deck, but guests were free to wander off and explore the galleries. The Diego Rivera gallery contained a small exhibition of alumni-produced art, including samurai armor made of junk (by artist Jeremiah Jenkins).

Sculpture by Jeremiah Jenkins. Photograph by Bryan Glosemeyer.

“Return to SFAI” was generous in its drink offerings. There were punch fountains–two of them in the shape of urinals, evidently a nod to Marcel Duchamp–and mixology courtesy of The Bon Vivants. I don’t drink much alcohol due to health reasons, but I still managed to taste all of their luxurious fruity cocktails, since they were not very strong (by the end of the evening I was 99% sober). The funnest ones were distributed in mason jars–it was weird to see grown men and women with those, as if everybody suddenly developed a taste for baby puree. With the foodie subculture, you never know.


Punch in a fountain made by artist Gabriel Penfield. Photograph by Julia Glosemeyer.

Speaking of food–being quite hungry, we swooped down like vultures on every waiter on view and grabbed whatever tiny wonder was on their dish, as long as it didn’t have meat in it. The fantastical hors d’oeuvres included mashed potatoes mixed with salmon, slices of halibut on miniscule towers of beet pieces, and paper-thin black raviolis. The absolute winner for me was a dessert from Michael Mina–brown sugar rolls with jasmine cream inside (!!) I shudder to think how much all those decadent yummies might cost in a restaurant.


A Bon Vivants mixologist working on that mason jar cocktail. Photograph by Julia Glosemeyer.

After dancing to Debora Iyall’s bouncy post-punk tunes, everybody headed to the lecture hall to watch Karen Finley perform. Of all the performance artists I’ve seen, she probably is the most notorious, having publicly fought with the National Endowment for the Arts over such matters as the “decency” of her work. For SFAI she produced an art world-centered piece, with visual art and texts created via the “channeling” of various dead artists, including David Wojnarowicz, Mike Kelley, Frida Kahlo, Richard Diebenkorn, and many others. In other words, she acted as a “medium” who let the artists speak through her. The monologues, peppered with references to current events such as the Pussy Riot case, were sometimes banal and sometimes profound, with occasional grains of brilliant insight–Jay DeFeo, for instance, was called a purveyor of “slow art” (you know, like “slow food”). Finley’s delivery was intense and highly emotional, largely undisturbed by the inebriated audience’s unending hollers. The only exception was when a creepy bearded dude approached the artist so close that she got shocked out of the “zone” and screamed in horror. After that she repeatedly asked him to go away, but he wouldn’t move–for a moment I thought that things might take an ugly turn, but thankfully the man was shoved into his seat. Outright trolling was definitely not welcome at SFAI’s party.

After the performance we headed out into the night to look for dinner. That was a gorgeous night in San Francisco, and we were glad that we got to spend part of it in such a singular, inspiring place as SFAI. And oh (can’t help it), those brown sugar rolls–I will cherish the memory of them for a long time.


San Francisco Art Institute

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