The Mission School (of Painting)

I was asked to respond to the question, "Was there ever a Mission School?" for an upcoming catalogue accompanying Barry McGee's retrospective at Brooklyn Art Museum. When I told a few friends about my attempt to document some other Mission 'schools' it seemed that most of them were not aware of any aesthetic or market phenomenon called The Mission School, which was first named by art writer Glen Helfand to identify a certain 'neo-folk' 'urban rustic' hybrid under the influence of graffiti, comics, mural traditions, skate and zine cultures, recycled wood, sign painting, and SFAI art school painting concerns, that emerged in the mid-90s as a kind of Bay Area style, centered in the Mission neighborhood. The style, or collection of resonanting styles, is linked to many artists including the following: Barry McGee (Twist), Alicia McCarthy, Chris Johanson, Andrew Schoultz, Ruby Neri (Reminisce), Margaret Kilgallen (Meta), Rigo 23, Aaron Noble, Clare Rojas.

Work shown above: Clare Rojas (top) and Margaret Kilgallen (lower). Kilgallen demonstrates one of the Mission school exhibition tactics, a group of tightly bunched paintings that accumulate to mural-scale.

A few of the schools I know in the Mission (in-process draft)

Keith Hennessy

For those of us who were in the Mission before the mid-90s and are still here, the idea of a Mission School (of painting) is an odd joke. The work that blossomed here at that time can’t be separated from the vibrant and complex scenes – artistic & political, migrant & resident – that have made this neighborhood noteworthy for generations. Naming a Mission School in the 90s masks the problematic complexity of the School’s roots in both SF indigeneity and gentrification. San Francisco and Oakland in the 90s were vibrant and engaging sites for artists and activists. Pre 9/11, pre-dot-com boom and bust, street artists around the Bay were mostly ignoring the gentrification of the world. We watched the rents get higher as more and more of us moved to Oakland (or LA, Portland, Tennessee, Berlin…). We flooded the streets in ’91 to protest the first Gulf War and whether we were queer or not, we were somehow moved by both the devastation of AIDS and the queer cultural tsunami that crashed against the hetero shores. Many of us, but not all, blossomed in this fast-paced and turbulent time. But the art structures that supported us (or not) and the aesthetics that inspired us (or not) had been evolving since at least the early 70s, since the cultural revolutions of Chicanos, feminists, gays and lesbians rewrote the text of San Francisco streets, especially in the Mission and Castro and the evershifting borders between them.

Mission High School

– the visual focus and community center. A big underfunded vibrant public highschool that frames the south end of Dolores Park, where Latino teens and SF Mime Troupe audiences and gay guys in speedos and hella hipsters and dog walkers and babysitters and tennis players and pot/smack dealers and the homeless have been getting schooled for generations. Doloroes Park is also home to both the Dyke and Trans marches and countless other gatherings of folk that make up the other America of Mission School ethics and aesthetics, which in DC are referred to as San Francisco values.

Mission Mural School

– since way before the mid-90s, thousands have come here, and even more have grown up here, getting schooled in the art of public wall painting. From Muralistas Feministas to Galeria de la Raza’s digital murals, from Precita Eyes ongoing schooling and public touring to Clarion Alley Mural Project and all the alleys where Mexican/Mission style murals meet the latest trends of art school kids and the anarcho politics of everyday life in the activist Mission.

Mission School of Public Performance

– From weekly low-rider processions on Mission Street in the 70s to Contraband’s dance rituals in the Gartland Pit at 16th & Valencia (site of a landlord arson that killed elderly and disabled tenants) to Jo Kreiter’s 2010 performance with dancers flying along the epic muraled walls of the Women’s Building on 18th Street. The Aztec dancers are probably the most ongoing phenomenon of Mission School performance. They always lead the annual dia de low muertos procession and can be seen blessing many events, from the anniversary of the Chicano Moratorium to marking the site of a recent murder at the corner of 24th & Shotwell.

New College of California

– Now a dead and defunct school but its legacy lives on in the visions and labors of the many of us who studied and/or taught here when no other university wanted us. From 1971 to 2008, NCOC was a site for leftist schooling, community organizing, political fundraisers, feminist psychology, socially-engaged conferencing, and three generations of activist artists and lawyers.

The book stores of the Mission

– For many of us, this is where we really went to school, I mean in the traditional sense, of (re)learning how to read books and the world. Modern Times is the flagship of leftist bookstores but it has always thrived in relationship to a social and spatial eco-system that includes so many other independent (say what!) bookstores and zineshops including Adobe, Dog Eared, Borderlands, Needles and Pins, Goteblüd, Bolerium, Forest… And most of these bookstores exhibit local art, and talks about local art.

The Roxie

– This is where Mission residents and tourists go to get schooled in independent film, specially the low-budget, the local, the weird, the queer, and the dissident.

Dance will never be sold like art, so there will never be a noted

Mission school of dance

that is written about in the NY Times. But there is and has been for 30+ years a Mission school of dance that is marked by some of the same hybridities and tendencies of what is referred to as Mission school painting. Thousands of dancers live here and come here to take class and rehearse. Mission dance schools include Dance Mission (home of the world’s longest running feminist dance company, The Dance Brigade), ODC, Capoiera Abada (now renting the former site of Dancers’ Group/Footwork, site of an occupation in 2000 when the dot-com era landlords raised the rent 400%, forcing eviction), and the many smaller studios in Project Artaud and the Sears building. Dancers in the Mission rehearse all year long for Carnival which showcases dances of the entire world, with a particular focus on dances of the Americas.

The Mission (like any complicated, dense, and historically rich neighborhood) has a diverse and rich eco-system of schools, that share and/or compete for, limited architectural, social, and fiscal resources. If we scratch the surface of Mission School painting to reveal the values, ethics, aesthetics of the movement, we find the same things taught at

Meadows-Livingston School

, a 30-student elementary school for African-Americans looking for any alternative to education systems that will always expect them to fail. Meadows-Livingston operates out of a converted farmhouse under a massive freeway vortex at Cesar Chavez & Potrero. Called

The Farm

when it was reclaimed in the 70s, the building has been host to punk shows, Mime Troupe performances, countless exhibits, artist housing, the Pickle Family circus, and Survival Research Laboratories, while also operating as an actual urban farm for Mission youth. Clearly this scene is a significant tap root for Mission School painters who hybridize high and low, folk and pop, legal and illegal, cartoon and fresco, white dude and everyone else.

The Burrito School

– If you are what you eat then the Mission School is about 50% burrito, the SF indigenous hybrid of Mexican fast food. Without El Toro, Cancun, El Farolito, La Taqueria, Papalote, Mission Villa, La Rondella, El Tonayense, El Mariachi, and the margaritas at Puerto Allegre the Mission painters would have starved or made some other kind of art. The late night crowd is also well-fed on Salvadoreña and now Oaxacan food, especially pupusas.


about nationalism and capitalism

The visual and conceptual tendencies of the Mission School can be spotted in trendy art scenes all over the world. That is to say, that globalism with its inescapable hegemonic tendencies, is always in effect. What makes a dollar in San Francisco will inspire and influence the work that gets made elsewhere. And vice versa. We used to call it co-optation or selling out.

Keith Hennessy is one of tens of thousands of queer and dance refugees in the Bay Area. He has been working (studying, teaching, performing indoors and out, protesting, altering billboards) in the Mission since 1982 and lives on Folsom near 24th.