Incline Gallery: A Conversation with Christo Oropeza and Brian Perrin
Located on Valencia Street in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission District, Incline Gallery is one in a small group of alternative spaces that has gained a foothold in an ever-shifting institutional environment. The gallery was born of support from another alternative arts space, Southern Exposure, and has flourished in the interim thanks to smart programming and a wholehearted desire to serve the greater Bay Area arts community.
When I found Christo Oropeza and Brian Perrin, co-founders and directors of the space, they were huddled in a side room, both clad in heavy black hoodies to keep warm. What follows is a conversation that includes their rationale for opening an arts space in the midst of an economic downturn, and thoughts on what ‘alternative’ spaces are and can do to help sustain the communities in which they operate.
Roula Seikaly: How did the two of you meet and come to collaborate on this space?
Christo Oropeza: We met at San Francisco State University (SFSU). Probably 2006 is when I started getting into the art department. He [Brian] was already a year ahead in the program.
Brian Perrin: Chris was running for some kind of school office.
CO: I was running for Creative Arts Representative.
BP: I told him if he got enough paper towels for us, that I’d vote for him. After State, Chris had thrown the idea of starting a collective called San Pancho Art Collective. We came together on that, and that lead to a couple of pop up galleries, two murals I think, and brought together a pretty cool group of people who still work together through here [Incline Gallery] or just maintain a friendship.
RS: What was the San Pancho Art Collective? Was there a mission, or organizing concept as far as whom you worked with?
CO: The way it came together was that we came from San Francisco State University. I was working at SFMOMA. Brian had his art contacts already. It was a weird, nice mix of people from San Francisco Art Institute that worked at SFMOMA, people from California College of the Arts and San Francisco State University. It was kind of bred from the idea that 90% or so of people that graduate from university arts programs stop making art, and so was a way to keep ourselves in check and a way to get San Francisco State University involved with students from other universities.
RS: For the San Pancho Art Collective, does it continue to keep you motivated to be working as artists, to maintain your creative practice? What does that look like?
BP: That was part of the goal, to pool resources and meet up and do drawing sessions. A lot of collectives share a space, or some communal aspect. We were more a group of people trying to encourage each other to keep making work.
CO: There are definitely remnants of that, the fact that we’re still working together. A lot of us are still around, and it’s nice that we’ve become this, in a way, a diaspora of San Pancho. We definitely flirted with the idea of bringing back some of the folks who were down from day one for that. But, do we function as a group anymore? No. But we keep each other in check. We keep track of what each other is producing. It started as 20 people, and then it got down to about 10 or 12, and then by the time we opened the gallery, it broke down to about five or six. It was putting to practice what we’ve been talking about.
RS: It sounds like sustainability where creative practice is concerned, beyond the confines of an academic setting, is something that undergirded the collective itself.
CO: Yes, exactly.
BP: And Incline was one of the reasons this was so appealing. We had this collective. We’re making work, and we’re trying to find places to exhibit.
CO: It was a whole other education. No one was really going to give us the opportunity to exhibit. I mean, people would, but we’re not going to stand around and wait for those opportunities.
BP: We would apply to juried shows, and friends were putting together short term exhibitions.
CO: We applied for the SoEx [Alternative Exposure] grant even back then.
RS: How many times did you applied for the grant?
CO: Six times, and on the sixth time we were funded.
RS: What changed over the six respective applications? Did you refine the idea of the gallery and what you were planning to offer? What did you better articulate?
BP: We started looking at our programming, and we ended up supporting a lot of people who had either lost spaces or were in between galleries and then looked at that as a possible project. That’s what we got the grant for: to put together a series of exhibitions that worked with curators who have lost their space or collectives or artists.
CO: Whereas initially we were trying to support emerging artists. Each time we came up with a project for the Alt Ex grant, we were reflecting a different moment in time that really honed into that. We could not only provide structure and support for Bay Area artists, but for curators that are in transition. That’s something in the last couple of years we’ve seen, that shift from downtown to other neighborhoods around the city.
BP: Another thing that helped us get the grant was Sholeh Asgary, who worked with us. Not as an intern, but worked with us and wrote that grant. I think that when you have someone else write about you instead of trying to describe yourself, it’s much better.
RS: As artists, how does creative practice exist in your life?
CO: I name myself as a painter, overall a creative. Everything from fashion to drawing, murals are pique interest for me. That’s how I want to approach making new work again. Multimedia is fascinating, particularly from an institutional perspective. How do you conserve time-based media, and creating time-based media to support some my paintings. Just mix it up. Make it interesting for yourself.
BP: I studied painting and drawing, and now am doing more sculpture. Also a lot of craft and woodworking, like crochet and looking at theoretical geometry, 4D shapes, and what would those look like. I’ve noticed a lot of artists looking at and producing well-made, handcrafted objects. I don’t know if it’s a return, resurgence, maybe a renewed interest.
RS: How does operating and all of the responsibility that comes with this space affect your creative practice?
BP: Definitely slows it down. I don’t make as much work as I would like to. Also, it influences the way I approach the work in the gallery in the way I think about how it hangs, for example. Logistical aspects are important. In calls for work, the statement “ready to hang” is much more meaningful now. It’s a huge pain in the ass when we receive something that isn’t ready to hang, and it’s surprising how many people don’t do that. Little things that make it easier for the gallery to operate.
RS: Is it primarily the two of you and interns who run the space?
CO: Yes, and with a lot of help from family and friends.
CO: For me, it’s also like playing catch. A few years ago, Brian took a sabbatical, a year off from the gallery. That’s when, for me, my practice really suffered. I had to focus on the gallery and keeping it open. During that time, I’m sure he [Brian] had a lot more time to work and develop. He switched from large-scale sculptural projects to crochet, which developed into a different of dyeing thread. This year, since he’s been back, I’ve been able to spend a lot more time making work, and I’ve recently moved into a studio at Pacific Felt Factory with the intention of making more work. Have I actually made more work? Well, the end of the year is always busy, and it was such a new space. I’ll be honest with you, it’s a huge challenge. It affects things like time management. But the same way, I’m inspired by all the people I’ve done studio visits with and every time I go back, I go within myself and re-approach the ideas raised by working in the gallery, and interacting with artists and curators.
CO: This year, we did a show called “Director’s Cut” where both of us made 10-15 new works of art. It was a super simple show, but it was a great experience to see what that looks like, to be really motivated to produce new work AND be responsible for promoting and hosting it and entertaining collectors. Luckily, we each sold about half of the pieces we exhibited. It was a good reinforcement that if we do apply ourselves, that there is a market for us as artists in the same gallery environment we’ve been supporting as gallerists. That was a big deal.
BP: That was the first time we ever showed our work together. We try not to show our own work very often, but it could happen again.
CO: You asked earlier about opening a gallery. Did you mean to suggest that there are too many alternative spaces or not enough in the Bay Area? I’d like to comment on that. The feeling we had when the San Pancho Art Collective started up, I still have that feeling. As unsettling and as unnerving as the possibility of the economy being a factor is, we started this at the worst time in recent economic history, 2009-2010.
We also got super lucky with this space, and remain super lucky. Sean Quigley (Paxton Gate owner), the master tenant, is someone who’s been in the neighborhood since the early 1990s. He’s someone who understands the context of the neighborhood as it used to be and is and has maintained their own business. He’s someone who still values art as a huge component of what should be here.
BP: It was his idea to have a gallery in here. He put it on Craigslist. Someone through SFMOMA sent it to us. I had just been laid off and he (Sean) wanted to do a bunch of trade work. I do carpentry. So, he had all this stuff he wanted done to the building to trade for rent.
RS: How much work did you have to overhaul this space, which used to be a mortuary?
BP: The floors were stripped down completely. Painting the whole space, putting in doors and windows, sanding and finishing every. All in all, it was a couple thousand hours between us. We have a lot of people – family and friends and people from the art collective – put their money where their mouth was and showed up. We’ve had a lot of help. That’s the sense of community that we keep building on. Whether it’s displaying work, or for helping the space come together. It’s important to maintain that.
BP: Off the bat, I think it’s something that’s artist-run, or at least has that influence. Something that’s not influenced by monetary gain. Something that makes it through it’s own steam.
CO: For me, it’s more of a feeling that you could walk into our space and have it feel like home. Like, ‘this is where I could feel a part of something’. Art is a love language, and I think that to be open. Using that to communicate with others has been a big challenge.
CO: I wanted to pivot back to something that artist Randy Colosky mentioned in his artist talk, something I agree with wholeheartedly. He mentioned that it’s important to give back somehow to the spaces, like Incline Gallery, where so many artists get their start. For me an alternative space is an important component to the growth of artists as much as the white-hot commercial or art fair circuit is, and that with artists there is always a connection. For example, Barry McGee has a piece on this wall when it was New College [New College of California, which closed in 2008 after losing its accreditation]. Meeting up with him years later, after we opened our space, McGee recalled that place and that piece fondly. There’s a connection with artists, and I think that’s the most important component of alternative spaces. No matter where those artists are or go, there’s a connection or link to an intangible feeling of home, where they got their start. It’s important to retain alternative art spaces for that reason.
RS: You mentioned an artist talk as part of programming efforts. What else do you want to offer on that front?
CO: Artist talks for sure, and studio visits for the interns, so that they are more comfortable interacting with the artists we’re about to show in the gallery. Workshops have been a good component over the last year and half, which are artist-run as opposed to us managing it. They’re important because they get audiences or workshop participants further into the art we’re showing.
RS: How would you describe the first five years of Incline Gallery? What have you learned in this early phase, and what would you like to accomplish in the next five to ten years?
BP: The first five years has been a lot of work, but totally worth it and necessary. I was talking with Christo and he mentioned that I took a year or so off and thought about not being involved with the space. In that time, I wondered what else I would do. In the end, it feels very natural. We made what we wanted to see. We got out of school and were looking for this place and couldn’t find it, so we did ourselves. With the help of a ton of people, putting in thousands of hours.
CO: I’d describe the last five years as some of the most exciting of my life. It’s been such a personal growth. So many individual and collective challenges that it’s felt like I’ve been in my own graduate school experience. Like, what program would we find that could be better than doing it on our own. It’s been, in terms of personal and professional growth and confidence building, amazing to fail hard and strike back harder. And to feel support from the artists, and from former professors especially. It’s amazing to go back to State and to hear all that support and encouragement. Those five years have been transformative. They’ve been professionally foundational, building us up. We’ve certainly grown in our professional relationship with each other, and I found a perfect fit with Brian. We’ve found a nice balance.
BP: It’s exciting because you’re wrapped up in it. It’s hard to believe we started five years ago. Even a little bit more, we’ve been at it for a long time and looked back and picked things out that are highlights throughout the years. The collection that me and my fiancee and I are building, a lot of it comes from Incline Gallery shows. It’s sort of a history of the space, but also a point in time in San Francisco.
CO: Brian mentioned collecting. He was at it two or three years before I was. Now that I’ve started collecting affordable, small pieces, that has developed my taste and that will help inform what kind of exhibitions we’re going to be presenting in the space. A big part is developing that taste, and allowing us to, in the future, let that taste develop in an organic way that’s not necessarily leading to opening a commercial space. We’re going to have fun with that. I hope in the next five years, that we can really cement the gallery and ourselves as a go-to alternative space.
BP: In the immediate future, and the recent past, we’ve been trying to extend our reach a bit. We did that pop up in Mexico City [“Carry On“, a pop up installation presented with ampersand international arts February 2015 that featured artists from San Francisco and Mexico City], and I’m doing one in New York. We’re trying to expand the network outside of San Francisco and find other spaces that are interested in the same things we are and how we could work together. More dialogue, more collaboration between these different cities and different people.
CO: Speaking to that, and how we’re building and growing individually and as partners, Brian is going to New York. I’m throwing a fundraiser here in February for David Linger and the program “Flying Under the Radar” and building and connecting his experiences between Rio de Janeiro and San Francisco. The project is forming, but basically he’ll take artists from Rio and from San Francisco for two weeks at time and pair them up. That gives me a lot of hope and excitement. We need to get out there, and bring into the city whatever it is that we can. We met a lot of great people in Mexico City we’re talking with, trying to bring one of the artists up here next year. So, that experience, if we can use that as a basis for growing the gallery, the more we’ll have to offer across the board.