In the summer of 1993, San Francisco was not a happy place. Ravaged by AIDS and crushed by a slumping economy, the city was full of people stuck in the dark gloom of waiting — waiting for a diagnosis, waiting for a job, waiting to move back home, waiting for death. San Francisco the waiting room. A horrible appointment.
One person, however, wasn't waiting. Rick Jacobsen had received his AIDS diagnosis, quit his job, and invested every bit of money he had (and some he didn't) in a tiny art space at 14th and Guerrero. For the next 18 months, Kiki Gallery became a beating heart in the stagnant city, a place for queer artists to show work, stretch boundaries, scream into microphones, and dance. The gallery featured little-known artists whose names have since become familiar: Catherine Opie, Jerome Caja, Wayne Smith, Lutz Bacher, Keith Mayerson, Vincent Fecteau, Mark Gonzalez, Scott Hewicker, Cliff Hengst, Chris Johanson, D. L. Alvarez. Its first show, "Caca @ Kiki," was scatological; its last, a tribute to Yoko Ono, was titled "This Is Not Her." Evidence that the gallery had made the scene came in the form of a phone message from Ono herself, who called to say, "This is her. Yoko! The proof is in the pudding." Kiki closed in March 1995, after Jacobsen grew too weak to sustain the spectacle.
Ono's recorded incantation haunts Ratio 3's current show "Kiki: The Proof Is in the Pudding," a retrospective by writer Kevin Killian and artist Colter Jacobsen (no relation to Rick). Along with Ratio 3 owner Chris Perez, the two have painstakingly unearthed work that showed at the original gallery and added some new tributes. Catherine Opie's vividly colored 1993 photographic portraits of Justin Bond and Jerome Caja evoke the twin spirits of the era: the corseted Bond looking prim, the wild-eyed Caja looking prophetic. (Bond has since become famous for his drag persona Kiki, although he is tight-lipped about whether his Kiki or Kiki the gallery came first.) Nearby hang four drawings from Keith Mayerson's "Pinocchio the Big Fag" series, which recast that fairy tale for the fairies. Caja's thrift-store paintings perform another kind of recasting by adding pistachio shells painted with clown faces to a cheesy photo of a couple silhouetted by sunset, or faces painted on bottle caps to an Indian scene.
Nayland Blake's altered greeting cards, which first appeared at Kiki's AIDS-gallows-humor show "Sick Joke," feature one with the mordant punchline "You were on the placebo," while Brett Reichman's "Time Is/Time Was" diptych emits a gorgeous unease, showing two clocks painted in a bilious palette, ticking away. Likewise bilious is Jim Winters' "Parakeet Attack," in which an Eddie Munster-ish little boy maintains a ditzy composure even while being scratched in the face by the titular birds. In "Hunt," an early work from D.L. Alvarez' paint-by-number series, coolly raucous outlines of animals and landscapes encircle numbers that correspond not to colors but to lines of text.
Rick Jacobsen, who had been working for ACT UP, knew little about art when he started Kiki. He was given invaluable advice by Blake, who had just begun to make a name for himself (his "Negative Bunny" video plays at the current show, featuring a hilariously annoying stuffed rabbit). More importantly, perhaps, Kiki allowed artists a respite from the market, and from conformity. "In a way, it was another step toward the Mission School of do-it-yourself, politically charged artwork," Killian says. "There was an emphasis on gender issues and sexual issues that just brought everything out in the open, for better or for worse."
But, he adds, "I think also, every artist has a space, a place that's like a Never Never Land, and Kiki was like that. The times were so grim and terrible that as [artist] Wayne [Smith] says, everybody was really depressed. A lot of the work was angry and ugly. Maybe it could only have existed at that moment."
In a zine accompanying the retrospective, Larry Rinder, newly appointed director of the Berkeley Art Museum, traces Kiki's influence on Mission District art and beyond. Its legacy can be found in the "elevation of the value of insouciance," Rinder writes, and "in the relegation of market concerns to the lowest of priorities."
In its heyday, the irreverence of the work shown at Kiki must have seemed shocking to many. In the current show's manifestation, it can only be described as valiant. As with so much bravery, there's a little bravado in the mix. Some of the work is more bark than bite, including bongs fashioned from cans and dolls that seem more juvenile than trenchant. Maybe that's the point, though — this is, after all, work culled from the Mission School's anxious youth. At the show's June 27 opening, attended by many of Kiki's original denizens, there were tears. "Many people reported having mixed emotions," Killian says. "They weren't sure they wanted to relive those times."
After the original Kiki closed in 1995, Rick Jacobsen returned to his mother's home in Wisconsin. He died two years later, promising to reincarnate as Michael Jackson's first child. Who knows? Maybe that's his soul behind Prince Michael I's veil, plotting a return to influence.