San Francisco's Greatest New Art Space, Will Brown

Will Brown is an actual guy. A very cool and nice guy, according to all who know him, plus a CCA Curatorial Practice graduate student. Once upon a time, not too long ago, Will was spending a lot of time by himself down at 3041 24th Street, which some of you may recognize as the address of the late, great Triple Base gallery. Triple Base was founded in 2006 by CCA Curatorial Practice grads Joyce Grimm and Dina Pugh (both class of 2006) and finally closed in 2011. Toward the end there, the space's main "resident" who was keeping it up and running and officially occupied was their friend Will.

If you've been down to that block of 24th Street in the last few years, around Harrison and Folsom, you know that it has become a lovely haven of art and food while retaining its Mission District feel. So three friends of Dina and Joyce (two of them also alumni of CCA grad programs) decided to step up and take over the lease. The idea of running their own experimental/conceptual gallery space, once conceived, seemed like an offer they couldn't refuse.

The question that almost derailed everything was what to name this new venture, but under their self-imposed 11th-hour wire came the stroke of genius. "Will Brown" is of course a spoof on commercial gallery naming conventions. It is also a benign inside joke, and a well-meant tribute to a friend. Keeping it in the family, so to speak. The three of them also liked the idea of operating as a singular, semi-authorless entity.

The three new proprietors of Will Brown (the gallery) are David Kasprzak (MA Curatorial Practice 2011), Lindsey White (MFA 2007), and Jordan Stein (a 2005 MFA grad of the San Francisco Art Institute). Far easier than picking a name was selecting the theme of their first show, which opened on January 27 and closed March 4. The provocative premise, like the gallery's name, was a refutation of art business as usual, and specifically a play on art ownership and art-world transactions. Illegitimate Business featured artworks and ephemera "with a peculiar provenance," in other words acquired by their (anonymous) lenders under less-than-totally-up-and-up circumstances. The original concept came from old conversations with the curators' artist friends Zachary Royer Scholz (MFA 2006, MA Visual and Critical Studies 2009) and Brion Nuda Rosch.

Most of the lenders were hip to the premise and got into the spirit. Each one contributed a short narrative, which was displayed next to the object, telling the story of the piece's acquisition. Several of these stories concerned limited editions. If Catherine Opie or Chris Johanson or Chuck Close is less than meticulous about destroying their artist proofs and you happen to pick one out of the trash and take it home -- or, say, if you happen to burn a copy of a loaner Jeremy Blake DVD -- what is the status of the work you possess? What threat does it pose, exactly, to the official numbered edition? Does it make a difference if nobody else ever knows you've got the thing?

Another arena of concern surrounded unintended ephemera. Scarlett Johansson's used Kleenex famously sold on eBay for $5,300, but somehow the discarded paper Kara Walker used in preparing a major museum installation is iffier to grab out of the trash, even if its provenance is easier to prove (without a DNA test, anyway). Somewhat along those same lines, if Martin Kippenberger literally plucks a piece out of his SFMOMA show and hands it to you, can you take it? Can you refuse, if it means hurting his feelings? Is the work even his to give in that situation?

Ultimately, Will Brown was hoping to get us to ruminate on the abstract question of valuation, and the chasm that can exist between the rules we've all had hammered into us by galleries and museums versus our instinctive inclination to cherish certain possessions and their associated memories. If you own something you can never sell, or would never want to sell, then what is the thing worth? In a remarkably succinct and conversational tone, the show powerfully laid out the different meanings of "worth."

What kinds of things didn't make it into the exhibition? The curators mention the seeds of David Ireland's bagel as having been offered up by one Ireland groupie, but dismissed as "too left-field." One lender had a great illicit piece but was only willing to loan it if the artist said it was OK, which provoked a conversation about whether this would in fact defeat the exhibition premise. In the end they decided it was fine.

The only PR photos that were circulated were installation shots that censored all the featured works, and the show itself took place in the gallery's basement, which is invisible from street level and accessible only by a steep stepladder, thus keeping the experience of visiting in line with the overall clandestine vibe. (I took pictures for the purposes of this article but will not share them for the sake of preserving the concept.)

Will Brown's subsequent exhibition, Untitled (Black Painting), took the theme of refutation a big step further by featuring outlines of "the most important black monochromes since 1915," painted with white lines on all-black gallery walls. If, since Kazimir Malevich's first Black Square, black paintings have consistently rejected color, representation, and individuality, then Will Brown's loving embrace of the tradition is humorous in a way, even if their refusal to present any actual art objects, in an entirely black gallery, is absolutely the logical next step in the evolution of the genre.

The ancillary programming for Untitled (Black Painting) was a deliberate and clever complement to the exhibition. "New Moon," presented by Jon Porras on March 22, was a live music and Super-8 performance inspired by 19th-century spirit photography. Anthony Discenza's "Black Hole Sun(day)" on March 25 was an opportunity to meet "Dr. Hans Reinhardt, Ad Reinhardt's megalomaniac brother, obsessed with black holes," plus black daiquiris. "The Hole Idea with the Post Brothers" on April 2 explored the concept of the "portable hole in cartoon physics," and the "Friday the 13th Goth Night Dance Partee" is best described via the full, official promo blurb:

Oh My Devil !!!(#&%&$(@) GET DARK and RAISE HELL from the depths of the no-art-no-more black drinks dark looks deep pockets facial incongruities meets bro with pins in his face but more kindly like an out-of-work runaway who doesn’t need no work anyway, no!! It’s Kasprzak’s birthday, too! !! ! ! WHAT !! And WILL BROWN needs a little dollars to keep getting at the DARK ARTS, so come support your most favorite non-violent JP Gaultier-jamming MISSION DISTRICT ART SPACE. The price of the ticket will be MORE than MORE than reasonable and seriolusly everyone you know will be there looking DEAD/HOT so how would you need even be there seriously think again. Music will be selected and played from the most deeply closeted Goth Lovers in the ENTIRE Bay (DJ POST BROTHERS et al). Peep the web for up-to-date information on playlists, morgue availability, soft cremes (corpse paint), Morrissey, the light at the end of the tunnel (maybe), terror bondage, idle threats, Alien Sex Fiend, Baudelaire, that movie The Crow, and wigs. Respect.

Don't miss out: Sign up for the email list -- wearewillbrown@gmail.com -- and check out the first Supportfolio, a limited-edition collection of photographs by Dru Donovan, Gregory Halpern, Sean McFarland, and Emily Prince (three out of the four are CCA alumni, again keeping it in the family).

When David Kasprzak is not at Will Brown he is serving as the current Kadist 101 Fellow, dividing his time between the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts and the Kadist Art Foundation. When Jordan Stein is not at Will Brown he is at his day job as an Arts Project Developer at the Exploratorium; he also produces independent publications under the name Glass, house, and works with Marina McDougall co-teaching workshops for CCA's Graduate Program in Curatorial Practice. When Lindsey White is not at Will Brown she teaches at the San Francisco Art Institute and makes art that she shows locally at Eli Ridgway Gallery.