Bay Area Renaissance man/guerilla artist provocateur Frank Garvey has been lighting a fire under the ruling class and late 20th/early 21st century capitalism for over three decades. First with Theatre Concrete and later at the now defunct OmniCircus. Garvey’s social(ist) surrealist multi-media installations and live performances served as highly aesthetic litmus tests for the viewer’s class consciousness. The once permanent installation housed inside San Francisco’s OmniCircus that Garvey has likened to a sort of social(ist) surrealist Sistine Chapel deployed painting, sculpture (static and kinetic), robotics (an entire robotic red-light district including a preacher, a prostitute and a panhandler corrosively addressing homelessness and drug/sex addiction among other societal/class ills), video, computer animation, and original world music. Frequent live performances added singers, dancers, actors and musicians.
Although Garvey is being recognized here for his painting and drawing, GoBoy, an aggressive panhandling robot whose charred, skeletal body brings to mind an mutant Henry Moore/Rodin-esque shell of a figure plopped into an electric wheelchair in the wake of some nuclear winter, is arguably his greatest individual work of art. GoBoy’s exploits are the stuff of legend. Thankfully, some of his best moments on the streets of San Francisco have been immortalized on video in “GoBoy: His Continuing Adventures”, GoBoy goes to the Opera or crashes the Union Square Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony, where he harangues well-heeled pedestrians in front of ritzy I. Magnin (a now similarly defunct high-end department store). GoBoy is nothing if not confrontational. He doesn’t respect anybody’s personal space, preferring to almost literally get in-your-face as he screams in an unmistakably African American voice: “God says gimme 50 cent!!...I’m a veteran of the War…I’m just like you!!…I’ll visit you in your nightmares!!” Some people are amused, others visibly alarmed (in some instances literally back-peddling with GoBoy’s approach).
The crowning achievement of Garvey’s career, however, may have been getting himself and GoBoy kicked out of the old San Francisco Museum of Modern Art when it was still housed in the hallways of the Veterans Building on Van Ness Ave (It’s unlikely the artist would be able to breach the beefed up security at SFMOMA’s new, fancier home on Third Street). Miraculously, Garvey managed to get GoBoy inside museum (Perhaps he purchased an extra ticket?) For a few blinks of an eye, GoBoy freely roamed the hallowed hallways(with Garvey operating a remote-control nearby), to the delight (or disgust) of fellow museumgoers. He even made a brief appearance inside an exhibition of minimalist Robert Rymans “blank white canvases”, as the artist likes to quip. Of course, all good things come to an end. Museum officials were alerted and Garvey and GoBoy escorted out of the building in short order (so much for guerrilla art inside a modernist art museum). While open-minded patrons and employees may have been intrigued and even delighted, museum officials and others were not (One older male patron’s brittle knee-jerk reaction is captured as he repeatedly drones “I don’t like that bullshit”). The final moments inside the museum come to a crescendo with GoBoy badgering a shell-shocked security guard inside an elevator as the door repeatedly opens and closes (a captive audience indeed). This scene is both incisive and hysterically funny. It couldn’t have been scripted better.
Garvey’s winning entry in the painting and drawing category, Hell on Earth (1985) is part of a larger painting cycle christened “Wall of Ashes” that the artist has likened to a sort of social(ist) surrealist Sistine Chapel. Grounded in old master painting techniques (underpainting, scumbling, chiaroscuro, glazing), Garvey’s incendiary opus achieves a Leonardo cum Rembrandt-esque dark luminosity. Yet while they may be dark physically and thematically, Hell on Earth and many of Garvey’s other oil on masonite panels also possess an inner glow and glossy sheen not captured in reproduction.
The brightest area in Hell on Earth is the large apocalyptic orange halo generated by the fiery cyclone of a nuclear explosion that has gone off in the distance (mirrored in the towering colonnade of toxic waste stacks. Pillars of industrial capitalism.) A gargantuan mushroom cloud spreads into the foreground littered with seemingly lost souls and figures out of Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row” (“…the circus is in town…”) Along with jugglers and clowns, a diminutive tightrope walker teeters beneath part of a long cyclical poem in blood-red letters stretching across the top of the painting: “when preachers talk apocalypse they lie… the poor see Hell on Earth before they die”. A rickety homeless encampment/shanty town goes up in flames off to the right.
At Ground Zero, denizens in striped and polka-dot clown ware brandish crude cudgels as they fight amongst themselves (A nod to the great Spanish sur-realist Francisco Goya and a time-honored strategy for those in power), a motif reprised further back that finds a pair dueling with swords and shields on railroad tracks astride tall, spindly stilts. (Elsewhere in Garvey’s social surrealist arsenal, folly and futility are manifest in both painting and sculpture with One-legged Men at a Butt-Kicking Contest.) The most predominant feature in the foreground of Hell on Earth is the tightly-packed group of ashen heads gazing out from ossified pearlescent egg-like cocoons. (These ghostly ‘sack people’, as Garvey calls them, were once echoed in the large occipital bone of a blue whale that sat in the center of the Omnicircus stage. Not surprisingly, Moby Dick is the artist’s favorite book. Taking another page from Goya here, Garvey’s omnipresent sack people are the descendants of the Spaniard’s Men in Sacks.) While they’re more bone than cloth here, in the middle ground, we find a few sack people standing up, having awakened and apparently in the process of arising.
If Goya’s influence is felt heavily throughout, the 15th century Northern Renaissance proto-surrealist Hieronymous Bosch’s apocalyptic The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1490-1510) provides a blueprint for some of the stranger sights. A beaked creature with insect legs and large translucent wings lurks in front of a troupe of scantily-clad pom-pom girls (sex workers). A figure in polka dot shorts rides the skeleton of a small pet dinosaur(?) inside a massive concrete cylinder. Nearby, musicians beat on drums, clang on cymbals, blow tubas and wield golden horns to create a cacophonous music: The sound of Uprising, rousing the sack people from their from deep sleep.
Other indelible images include Mohawk-haired mourners in sunglasses kneeling before a fallen friend in front of a huge biomorphic bone sculpture as others who embrace a similar punk aesthetic poke their spiky heads out of round silos (hell holes that allude to the Cold War fallout shelters ubiquitous in 1950s America). Throughout this Dante-esque carnival of life, Garvey emphatically juxtaposes life-affirming biomorphism with Industrial capitalism’s rigid, soul- crushing geometry. Circles and holes are everywhere. An endless cycle of going around in circles. (Symbolized by a small red merry-go-round atop the railroad tracks). Life in late 20th/early 21st capitalist society for most people is a not very merry-go-round. It’s more like Ring Around the Rosie on a rigged roulette wheel.
It’s a shame that Garvey has yet to find a permanent home for his art. The lion’s share of it is gathering dust in storage or scattered far and wide, ripped from its original context. The band has broken up. Garvey’s installation really belongs in SFMOMA, either in whole or in part. At the very least, the museum would do well to purchase GoBoy (they have a history, after all) and Orgy of Doubt, another “Wall of Ashes” painting depicting North Beach’s red-light district would be instantly recognizable to anybody who has ever wandered past (or into) the strip clubs that dot the neighborhood. Located just a stone’s throw from the museum, this painting is a perfect fit and tourist attraction ready-made for cards and posters. (It has already been featured on a CD cover). Garvey’s sack people take an even more surreal turn here as they crawl through North Beach on spindly spider-like appendages. Daddy long legs on Broadway. Come on, SFMOMA. Step up and support your local artists.