John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.
The Savernack Street Gallery lies behind an inaccessible San Francisco storefront, and can be seen through an aperture about 0.5 inches wide.
Follow this process to visit San Francisco's hippest art gallery of the moment: Go deep into the Mission until you spy a group of people idling outside an old auto-parts shop. Get in line, and when your turn arrives at the front door flick a light switch oddly placed on the building facade to illuminate the room beyond. Smoosh your eyeball on the door's peephole and absorb the fine art just beyond reach, whether it be a flickering light show reminiscent of Poltergeist or gruesome photos of raw meat.
The Savernack Street Gallery debuted in May and has since intrigued the city's art crowd, or at other times, irked it. "So I drive across town to do what? Look into the Savernack Street Gallery premises through a peephole in the front door – and that's the deal," kvetches one visitor. "The door's locked. But wait. It's opening and someone's coming out. I ask if I can go in and take a look around. 'No.' And this is the gallery's inaugural show? Oy!"
This patron is missing the point of the gallery, which is that it's only accessible through a reverse peephole. Local artist Carrie Katz built the gallery in her colleagues' unused studio to comment on the difficulties a recent MFA grad (that's her) faces when trying to crack into the art world.
"You're on the outside looking in a lot. I wanted to create a physical representation of that," says Katz, who's in her early 30s and lives in Outer Sunset. "Historically, there's always the reality of artists struggling financially, and it's especially hard with the current lack of funding for the arts in this country." The barricaded room is her statement that "I wanted to start a gallery, but all I could afford is something that you can't walk in."
For a gallery designed to keep people out, Savernack has ushered in an impressive series of artists. One was Peggy Ingalls, a maker of miniatures, who fixed a fake, itsy-bitsy "room" to the interior side of the peephole. Visitors looking in were treated to this Alice in Wonderland visage, seeming to show something vegetal lurking in a vitrine:
The next monthly show was put on by Katz and her boyfriend, Miles Ake. The pair recorded all their social interactions for a year, then arranged them inside the gallery like a library's staff-only stacks. "It's really private – you can get a glimpse, but you can't read it," she says:
You'll have to take the gallerist's word that this next collaboration between Greek artist Dimitra Skandali and San Francisco's Sandra Osborne was cool, because it doesn't show up well in photos. "It was a dark room with lights flickering and a moon eclipsing in the corner... and also a poetry thing that was projected," Katz says. "You had to be there, kind of like theater":
Polish artist Piotr Bujak – a self-described "sad ninja of chaos" – took these ominous photographs of bloody meat. "He said it was about violence and consumers and war and stuff like that":
The next exhibit, opening in early September, will feature the work of a "professional dominatrix, champion submission wrestler, and artists’ model" whose performance pieces often feature gnarly physical interactions (and sometimes a bull-riding champion). After that, in 2014, comes a show by an anesthesiologist who will be transforming the peephole into a kind of microscope.
Word of Savernack's existence has infiltrated the art world, but many of the people who attend its monthly openings (featuring a sidewalk table of munchies, but no alcohol due to zoning issues) are neighbors and curious joggers. And Katz is fine with that. "I just want it to be a gallery on the street for everybody," she says. "I'm really hoping the average person and not just the art crowd drops in."
The unusual art house has already inspired at least one copycat installation: a "cinema" in a Mission alley where you watch abstract movies through a peephole. Katz is planning on collaborating with the woman behind that project to spread more squinty galleries throughout San Francisco.
"We're talking about doing a gallery crawl, like a pub crawl, between all the peepholes," she says. "If I can get the funding to get more peepholes in different neighborhoods, I'd like that – little secret things all over the city."
Images courtesy of Carrie Katz and Savernack Street Gallery, at 2411 24th Street, San Francisco