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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: Old Friends/New Friends Activation Event, Nov. 9, 2023, Creativity Explored, San Francisco

A few days ago, I received a tip about a dance performance, via Twitter messenger. The attached link and photo looked intriguing. The gist was that dancers would perform with or in response to a chunky ceramic chain.

Emma Lanier and Cauveri Suresh perform "Chain Mail" at Creativity Explored; Photo J. Norris

The entry gallery of the presenting venue, Creativity Explored, in San Francisco’s Mission, is abuzz. Guests are discussing Old Friends/New Friends, the exhibit at the center of the evening’s program. It includes a variety of artists all making work inspired by the idea of “collective amity,” or friendship, as the link that binds us.

There is a convivial vibe, as visitors stroll into the large back studio to examine shelves of artwork created by the neurodiverse and disabled artists for whom Creativity Explored is an artistic home. Some guests hold ceramic cigarettes between their fingers with a naturalness that gives away their status as former smokers. Exhibiting sculptor Reniel del Rosario, known for his clever sense of humor and an ongoing desire to take the stuffiness out of art, offers me one as we are introduced. His interest in crafting tongue-in-cheek everyday objects out of brightly painted clay, demonstrates a blend of the low-brow and folk-art qualities that define the work of classic Mission School artists like Barry McGee and Ruby Neri, whose work is also included in Old Friends/New Friends.

Large scale ceramic charm bracelets created by Del Rosario hang casually around the exhibition. Their chain links are decorated with whimsical fist-sized charms, reminiscent of my early-80’s plastic Bell Charm jewelry. Rather than being mass produced, these charms are one-of-a-kind handmade clay sculptures. One bracelet seems intended for a baby giant, or a giant baby, as its chunky chain is adorned with shiny silver-painted critters. Another bracelet sports a slice of pepperoni pizza.

A ceramic charm bracelet by Reniel del Rosario displayed in front window; Photo J. Norris

Tonight’s event is shaped around the activations of exhibiting artists Amanda Eicher and Del Rosario. In her welcoming remarks, Curator Natasha Boas speaks about French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s “The Politics of Friendship,” being the source of her inspiration. She expresses hope that through friend-based connections we may discover paths to imagining a collective future.

On the wall, Eicher’s mural reconstructs a portion of the latticed name chart of the original Adobe Books Backroom Gallery. On this evening she is joined by Adobe’s founder, Andrew McKinley, in the voicing of the mural’s names. McKinley and Eicher take turns. He reads from the right, as she sings from the left, memorializing an interdependent web of creative people whose artistry influenced each other’s.

Dancers and co-choreographers Emma Lanier and Cauveri Suresh are joined by Del Rosario as they introduce their dance-meets-sculpture collaboration entitled “Chain Mail.” I know from chatting with Del Rosario that this interdisciplinary trio has worked together a number of times in recent years. They share a pleasure in disrupting the formal expectations of their respective artforms. And what better way to conjure some dance mischief than by performing the entire first section of your piece seated in folding beach chairs with your backs to half the audience?

“Chain Mail” is an inventive and intriguing dance, which enlivens a fellow artist’s sculpted creations. It is an ideal fit for Old Friends/New Friends’s exploration of friendship and interdependencies. Unfolding over three sections from store front window, to interior hall, to end in the expansive main studio, the audience follows the dancers through the venue.

The brightly lit yellow painted wall of the display window projects a warm sunniness on Lanier and Suresh as they tap their toes, peer at passersby or drape their necks casually atop their chairbacks in unison, to the lulling repetition of a Philip Glass orchestration. Their synchronist movements mimic those of a long-partnered couple. Some individuation intercedes as fluidly skywriting hands develop a conversation with one another, before agreeing to move on with a herd of audience members following close behind.

Emma Lanier and Cauveri Suresh perform in the window of Creativity Explored; Photo J. Norris

Reappearing in white utility coveralls, bathed in acid-pink light and contained in the narrow confinement of a hallway, the dancers experiment with interconnections. Joined by gripped hands, they constantly adjust their handgrips, first high then low, over then under, cycling through various linkages as if pieces of an extending human chain. Bending, they each pick up a two-foot piece of ceramic chain. The clink of the clay links adds to the cycling tones of Glass’s music. Facing us, woven together, their arms cross, as each holds the end of the other’s chain. Having become the large human links that marry two disparate pieces of chain they process in tandem, creating a square.

The finale begins with the lowering of a long heavy chain from the studio’s mezzanine. As if a ship has docked and its anchor chain must be brought in, Del Rosario and Lanier feed thirty continuous feet of sculpted chain down to Suresh, who works at studio level, methodically coiling the cumbersome rope into concentric circles atop a worktable. A cord, tied to the end, safely guides the final links. Suresh then prepares the chain, separating it into segments by removing the zip-ties which had welded it as one.

Carrying an eight-to-ten-foot length of white clay chain draped between them, Lanier and Suresh side-by-side stride large geometric patterns. Each link cooperatively serves the whole; there is no proverbial “weak link” here. One imagines Del Rosario’s solid-link earthen chains are strangely fragile when mishandled, flexible in some ways and brittle in others, a metaphor for relationships.

With a new even longer chain is swathed in their arms, the dance expands in scope. While still creating formal shapes, the movement now includes cross steps, deep spread-legged squats and high kicks. As the music builds in excitement so does the speed and intricacy of the footwork, until the artists exit, leaving us hypnotized by the beauty and resonance of their memorable dance.

Review by Jen Norris, published November 10, 2023


Production Credits

Creativity Explored3245 16th Street, San Francisco, CA, 94103

Activations Thursday, November 9

5:00 – 7:00 PM at the CE Gallery

Reading of Adobe Books Genealogy by Amanda Eicher & Andrew McKinley

Chain Mail dance performance by Emma Lanier and Cauveri Suresh in collaboration with Reniel del Rosario.

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