On the north edge of Portsmouth Square on Washington Street, the old late night haunt of Beats called Nam Yuen has been abandoned for a long time. A few weeks ago, the organization Art in Storefronts transformed the facade with tiki tableau; an Orientalist dreamscape in orange and bamboo.
My eyes were immediately drawn to the Genthe Girls.
Arnold Genthe was a German photographer who made a name for himself in San Francisco before the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. His Chinatown work is still recognized. It was considered mass kitsch even then; a living made in dangerous alleys among opiated Orientals, or rather posing them as such for profit. The passing of time hasn't done much for Herr Genthe's reputation, but his images are powerful nevertheless. I admit that I am sometimes the same 'Occidental Tourist' as Genthe, camera out, shooting the natives. We are all just visitors here, though, right? Passing through.
Art in Storefronts has enlivened dead real estate around San Francisco by temporarily re-imaging the facade and drawing eyes through windows in hopes that a conversation erupts between passerby and the building. It can give back attention that hasn't been paid in ages.
The way AiS uses this problematic image and colors it with Warholian solids -- yellow, red, blue -- makes it contemporary again. It helps rehabilitate the image and hopefully, in the long run, the building.