Interview: Cliff Hengst, Scott Hewicker & Lawrence Rinder on Kiki
by Mary Katherine Matalon & Claire Ruud
Last week, …might be good had the opportunity to sit down with Cliff Hengst, Scott Hewicker and Larry Rinder. All three were in Austin for …might be good’s sister project testsite; Larry and Cliff were the most recent round of collaborators with their project testsite 08.3~The Window of Art. During their time in Austin, …might be good learned—as Claire describes in this issue's "From the Editor"—that all three were involved with Kiki, the wildly unconventional gallery run by Rick Jacobsen. As artists who work both collaboratively and independently, both Cliff and Scott presented work at Kiki. Larry—who recently accepted the position of the Director of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive—was the Curator for Twentieth Century Art at BAM when he began attending Kiki’s openings and performances. Fascinated by the vitality of art community focused around Kiki, …might be good asked Cliff, Scott and Larry to recount this moment in their shared history.
…might be good: Cliff, when did you move to San Francisco?
Cliff Hengst: I moved to San Francisco in 1987 from L.A. Ostensibly, I came to San Francisco to go art school, but really I was coming out. I went to San Francisco Art Institute for three years and at first, it was not what I wanted it to be. There were a lot of grateful dead poets sitting around drinking coffee and playing their guitars and I was like, this is just not the scene I want to be in. But eventually I found there were others like me at the school who I bonded with and started doing art. After I graduated, there was this kind of queer world opening up in the city. Lesbians and gays in San Francisco were asserting and empowering themselves. Queer Nation was active in the early 1990s and ACT UP in the late 80s and early 90s. Around that time, Rick [Jacobsen] founded Kiki, a gallery in the Mission district with which Scott and I were heavily involved.
…mbg: How was the establishment of Kiki related to the gay and lesbian activism that was going on at the time in San Francisco?
CH: It wasn’t really. Rick had his own agenda—art—in opening the gallery. But there was crossover because a lot of people who were involved in activism also happened to be artists. Rick did stuff in ACT UP and Queer Nation, but that was never really his thing. At Kiki, there was never an overt political program going on. I always felt that it was art first, and if there was a blurry line between art and politics in some cases, then so be it.
…mbg: Why did Rick name the gallery Kiki?
CH: Kiki was, I think, a French term of endearment, but was also a reference to shit. Sexuality figured very prominently in Rick’s life. The gallery’s inaugural show was called Caca @ Kiki in 1992, and all the artists in the show created work that referenced shit either directly or indirectly.
…mbg: Cliff and Scott, what kind of work did you contribute to the shit show?
Scott Hewicker: I was doing these sock puppets at the time. And I made this sort of brown chain of sock puppets eating each other. They weren’t stuffed or anything, but they had google-eyes. But they were ugly, ugly, worn out, holey, dirty socks. There was nothing pretty about it. There was a chain of them and they were eating each other kind of like a snake eating its tail. It was called Food Chain.
CH: I had done these two sheets of slides that were just pinned up to the window and they were all the reaction shots of the audience on Oprah. I taped a show and stopped it to take a picture of every audience reaction. The piece was called Cataract.
Larry Rinder: In addition to exhibitions, Rick also held performances at Kiki. There was this really old, rickety balcony that could hold maybe three or four people and during performances there would be all these people that were crammed dangerously into this small space.
...mbg: What kinds of perfomance?
SH: I remember that Aaron Noble did a performance there before he became known as a painter. He did this weird confrontational piece where he really engaged the audience. He brought people up from the audience to sit on the chair on stage then he would question their sensibilities about certain things. It was such a small space to have such a powerful performance. And I remember it was the only performance he ever did like that.
CH: And there was this show that he [Rick] did there, with this drag queen Joan Jett Black. It was like a talk show. Joan Jett Black and his sidekick Babette. And she would have these guests, it was like a real variety show—they would have interviews with guests and musical acts. As part of this variety show, Scott and I did a performance called Matthew & Rejoice where we played ex-gays turned Christians. We acted very caustic and very straight. We wore ties and passed out Jack Chick tracts and we sang kids’ Christian songs.
SH: like super syrupy and weird songs…
CH: And we played it super straight. People didn’t really know what to make of it. Some thought it was real.
…mbg: So the people at Kiki didn’t know you from everyday life and understand this was just a performance?
SH: Yeah people didn’t know us, or at least they didn’t know me at the time. It kind of touched a weird nerve—I remember looking out at the audience at Kiki and everyone was frowning.
…mbg: From what you are describing it sounds like at Kiki, there wasn’t a core community in the same way there was at, say, the WOW Café in New York. According to the stories about the WOW Café, there was a core group of lesbians that all knew each other—so if for example a butch lesbian played it femme in a performance the audience knew it was an act.
SH: I think Rick was a catalyst for everyone meeting and hanging out.
LR: People also go to know each other at Kiki through the plays that Kevin [Killian] created and presented there. These plays usually had at least a dozen people in them—and none were professional actors. Kevin always just chose people he knew, like Scott and Cliff. He often would cast people in parts that vaguely resembled themselves in not very flattering ways and it would come out as the person read the part.
SH: The first one was about Prince.
…mbg: The musician?
SH: Yeah. It was a pop life show all about Prince. I believe this play might have been related to a show called Pop Life, curated by Glenn Helfland at New Langton Arts in 1992.
CH: I remember wanting to be in those plays for so long. Finally, Kevin gave me the part of a straight guy who was a detective in a scene with Tanya Harding.
…mbg: So were there rehearsals for these plays or were the performances improvised?
LR: The performers would rehearse once. During the actual performance they’d hold their scripts.
…mbg: And were there costumes?
SH: It depends. Some people get really into it and have costumes, others don’t. Other people don’t even try to act, they just play it really straight, and it’s really funny that way too.
LR: And there have been dozens of these plays, there’s always one in production.
CH: Yes, actually there’s one coming up in September. Now the plays take place at California College of the Arts.
…mbg: Has the effect of these plays changed over time? Do you think the plays are received differently now that they’re no longer presented at Kiki?
SH: They’ve gotten better. He’s perfected the form a little. They’re faster, they’re funnier. And you know, I wrote one with him and he’s such a machine, he can type so fast and the lines just pour out of him.
…mbg: So Larry, did you know Rick when he started Kiki?
LR: No, I met him there and I never knew him well. At the time, I was the curator of The Berkeley Art Museum’s Matrix Program. I had come to Berkeley in 1988 from the New York City where I had been very involved in the East Village art scene. I didn’t really know the San Francisco art scene at all and Kiki was really my first introduction to a kind of core San Francisco energy. During my initial visits to Kiki, I sensed that there were things going on in San Francisco that were as interesting as what was going on in the East Village.
…mbg: It sounds like there was a really interesting scene happening at Kiki. Did the gallery get a lot of art world coverage?
CH: Towards the end, Kiki did get some coverage because of the Yoko Ono show. You know, she [Yoko] did call.
SH: The subtitle of the show that Colter[Jacobson, a San Francisco based artist] and Kevin are curating about Kiki is “the proof is in the pudding” and that comes from something she said in the phone message she left for Rick.
CH: Rick was walking on cloud nine. He would say “sit down,” and then he would just play the recording and look at you. Listening to the recording, at first, you’d be like, “it kind of sounds like Yoko Ono,” and she said something like “It is her. The proof is in the pudding,” and then she went “wah wah wah wah.” And you were like, “oh my god, it is her.” Rick did the show really before the curve of Yoko Ono adoration. She still had that stigma of breaking up the Beatles. And so when the show came up, it was a big moment for her.
…mbg: Larry, did your experience at Kiki influence In a Different Light, the exhibition you curated with Nayland Blake in 1995 about queer sensibility in relationship to contemporary art.
LR: Well, In a Different Light grew directly out of my experience at Kiki. Originally, I wanted to do a show of the Kiki community at the Berkeley Art Museum while the gallery was still there. It felt like there were a lot of people at Kiki because the space was so small—30 people felt like a crowd. But in reality, no one knew what was happening at Kiki outside of the small community associated with it—and so I thought doing a show at BAM would expose this great work to a lot more people.
I contacted the artist Nayland Blake and asked him what he thought of the idea. He was a smart guy but he didn’t mince words. He said “It’s already happening there, so why recreate it? It’s artificial. You should consider what potential you have uniquely in this context. You’re a curator at a big fancy museum with relatively huge resources—you should think about how you could do something different that would benefit this community that hasn’t been done yet.” So Nayland and I talked and talked and talked. Ultimately we arrived at the idea that the purpose of the exhibition at BAM would be to intercept or contribute to what was happening at Kiki and to put this work in a historical context. We decided to do a show looking at 20th century American art and visual culture and the resonance of gay and lesbian sensibilities. Structurally, the show was based on the structure of Kevin’s plays. The show was divided into nine different groups that functioned as nine separate conversations.
…mbg: How did you define “gay and lesbian sensibility” for the purposes of curating the exhibition?
LR: Well… loosely. My initial impulse was to say “what is gay and lesbian sensibility? And who can we put in the show to prove it?” And Nayland strategically intervened and said, “Well that’s a bad idea. Let’s just choose art we like.” He wanted to do it much more intuitively. Nayland talked about it [the process of curating the show] as a surrealist game; we would intuitively come up with specific works or specific images that needed to talk to each other—for instance, a Zoe Leonard photo and a Richard Hell album cover. Then we would build on those groupings until they became clusters. Those clusters included not just people who identify as a gay or lesbian, but straight people or people of undetermined sexuality or no sexuality.
…mbg: What kind of reactions did In a Different Light provoke in the San Francisco scene?
SH: I was incredibly proud to be in In a Different Light. And at the time, I remember thinking, “this show’s not too risqué;” I thought that I could take my parents to it. Of course when I did take my parents to the show, all the sudden I noticed all the phallic imagery and all the vaginal imagery—and my dad was very shocked. I didn’t realize that we had been in this bubble in San Francisco where we could see all this queer imagery and it didn’t feel so shocking to us. But then when outsiders came into the exhibition, they were really floored. So in that sense the exhibition did introduce our work to a larger public. I wonder what it would have been like if the show had traveled.
LR: We tried to send it around and no one would touch that show.
…mbg: What was the press reaction like?
LR: The press reaction was very positive. There was a full page review in The New York Times. The only complaint we got was from this very reactionary Catholic group called The Catholic League. They sent a letter of complaint. The visitor book was this priceless, wonderful document that had a lot of extremely positive stuff in it. But I also remember this comment that said, “I’m a young gay man that’s just about to come out of the closet and your show has made me decide to stay in. If this is what it means to be gay, then I don’t want to have anything to do with it.” So that was pretty bad.
Our whole experience organizing the show, getting loans, was so positive. When I would call people and tell them about the show and ask for valuable things, say a Charles Demuth watercolor, auction houses and collectors who had never heard of Berkeley Art Museum would say, “Oh, this is great. We want to help you with this; we’ll pay the shipping.” But on the other hand, we couldn’t get any funders. I think our largest funder was Steamworks which was a gay bathhouse. And Jim Hormel, God bless him. So every time you eat SPAM…
…mbg: What do you think has changed about the San Francisco art scene since the closing of Kiki and In a Different Light?
CH: I don’t know—the queer thing is definitely not what it used to be. The scene is kind of integrated.
SH: And it really shows how people are over the gay scene now—it’s considered trite. And it seems like the scene is really now a music, band scene.
LR: One of the things I love about the San Francisco art scene is the integration between visual art, and music and performance and writing. It’s very integrated—straight, gay and young and old. There are 20 year olds and 75 year olds at the same events—I think it’s a mature community in the best sense. There’s a lot of well informed people, a lot of energetic people and there’s a lot of tremendously great art and music and writing being made in the Bay Area right now.
*To see Cliff Hengst and Scott Hewicker's latest collaboration, a blog project for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, please click here.
Mary Katherine Matalon is Coordinator of testsite. Claire Ruud is the Managing Editor of ...might be good.