Second Saturday: Is it art yet?

Sacramento is changing, and its monthly art walk provides a pretty good barometer.

Left: Artist Jeff Musser is armed.<br>Right: DJ Rock Bottom spins to a Righteous crowd outside Cuffs Urban Apparel.

Left: Artist Jeff Musser is armed.
Right: DJ Rock Bottom spins to a Righteous crowd outside Cuffs Urban Apparel.

Photos by Dominick Porras

During this past Second Saturday evening, a random observer might have concluded that they’d landed smack dab in the middle of Halloween in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, or perhaps at a Mardi Gras fête in New Orleans’ fabled Vieux Carré.

Of course, said random observer would have had to swallow a sheet of blotter acid and then wash it down with a pint of Jägermeister—along with several OxyContins, a couple of bumps of biker meth and at least a sixer of those “energy drinks” being freely offered by beverage- distributor street teams prowling Midtown—to arrive at that conclusion.

This is Sacramento, after all.

I’d begun my night crawl a few blocks east of ground zero, or J and 20th streets, at the Upper Playground boutique, where local comic-book horror-metal savant Skinner had covered the front room with hallucinogenic visuals, which included a trio of aliens impaled with large knives into a wall installation. Among the youngish throng that spilled onto the sidewalk in front was longtime local artist Kim Scott, a veteran of Second Saturday art openings dating back to the Phantom Galleries of the mid-1990s and earlier.

Scott was passing out flyers for an after-hours show at Surreal Estates, the north Sacramento artist enclave. I asked her how far back she remembered the Second Saturday art walk. She figured 11 years. “[The late gallery owner Michael] Himovitz was one of the people who started it,” she added.

At the time, the city was encouraging art-related development along Del Paso Boulevard, a plan that fizzled after the November 1999 fatal shooting of artist Kyle Billing. Although some galleries stayed put and a revival appears to be under way, the Del Paso gallery nexus soon shifted back to the relative safety of Midtown.

It was around 6:30 p.m. on a relatively cool and smoke-free July evening. Along 20th Street a crowd was beginning to form, but I still could get into B. Sakata Garo to see a group show featuring works by Wes Rodriguez, Melanie Lombard, David Linger and Dennis Raines. Even so, it was hard to stop in front of individual pieces to take them in; the pressure of the crowd compelled me to move, stop, glance and keep moving.

With art, this can be a problem. Artists pour a tremendous amount of life energy, or what Chinese esotericists call qi, into each creation, and usually it takes more than a quick drive-by for a viewer to drink in whatever energy radiates from the various works. So perhaps Second Saturday can serve as a reconnaissance mission for later, less hectic visits to galleries, at least for those of us who prefer unobstructed viewing.

Usually, the Second Saturday crowd pleaser is the 20th Street Art Gallery up the way from Sakata, which packs in a huge throng. But on this evening the audience was a light trickle, and the walls were hung with the kind of subdued California landscape fare one might expect to find at the more upscale Elliot Fouts Gallery, out on J Street in East Sacramento. There were no garish Bob the Dog paintings in sight, and no platters of cocktail weenies or bottles of Two Buck Chuck, either.

Artist Skinner and his crazy 3-D show jacks up the Playground.

Photos by Dominick Porras

Maybe it was too early, or maybe 20th Street Art Gallery had gone highbrow recently. From an entertainment standpoint, too bad; I still laugh when remembering a beret-rocking middle-aged painter who got all scribbled on box chablis and then tried to pick up any half-gullible woman who entered his 20th Street gallery lair, using dog-eared lines worthy of sketch-comedy satire.

Outside, a young band was starting to play.

Around 7:30 p.m., the street energy was becoming palpable, and it quickly became apparent that extra stamina might be required. A booth on a 21st Street alley just north of the trendy Bodytribe Fitness gym/gallery offered free “alternative energy” drinks, for which the street teamers in the booth were making fairly outlandish claims.

“Um, if I down this, I won’t get any embarrassing four-hour erections or anything?” I asked.

“If you do, it won’t be from the uzu,” the woman in the booth assured, winking and motioning at a couple of sterling examples of so-called San Quentin quail who were sashaying past. “You’ll just be happy.”

Yabba dabba doo.

I’d dropped by Bodytribe to see if proprietor Chip Conrad might be able to extemporaneously reel off the lyrics to “Too Drunk to Fuck” and follow with a pithy Derrida quote, but he was nowhere to be found. But the walls were covered with art, much of it by artist Michele Blanco, and a trio led by jazz guitarist Ross Hammond played quietly toward the back of the room, as a Trader Joe’s-style product-demo table offered tiny cups of vegan cocoa gelato. Yum.

Out front, Downtown James Brown, a street performer nearly as electro-shocked as his namesake, had a small crowd dancing and clapping along to his hard a cappella funk. That piece of sidewalk real estate, in the past, has been occupied by Art Lessing and the Flower Vato, an experimental rock group whose métier is all over the map; the group was one of the original performers to play Second Saturday shows regularly.

Minutes later, the Flower Vato, a.k.a. DJ Larry Rodriguez, showed up. “Man, the cops shut us down,” he said breathlessly, still somewhat in shock. Police officers had shown up down the street in front of Time Tested Books, where Art Lessing was playing, and demanded a permit. The band hadn’t gotten one, which cost $25, and neither had shopkeeper Peter Keat.

Which might be cut and dried as an issue, but a random survey of other bands—ones playing amplified instruments outdoors, which require a permit—found a few glaring inconsistencies. As Yet Untitled, a long-running jam band that occupied the corner of 21st and H streets, didn’t have one, although the owner of the Deep yoga studio indicated that it was incumbent on nearby businesses to get the permits. Given the context, she most likely had one.

Left: Artist Cheselyn Amato’s flower garden.<br />Top right: Adam Saake on the beat outside BrickHouse.<br />Bottom right: The jam that never ends (unfortunately not the jam that never was).

Photos by Dominick Porras

But the permitting, or lack of it, wasn’t the real problem. Generally, most cops aren’t as strong on aesthetics as one might like. This may explain why Art Lessing got shut down, while an embarrassingly lame cacophony on J Street, east of 20th Street, was allowed to continue for several excruciating hours.

On the north side of the street, in front of a tobacco bodega, a hapless blues-rock band cranked out what may have been the longest version of “House of the Rising Sun” ever attempted, replete with screechy, awful solos. Across the street, what appeared to be the amplified evangelical arm of a local Hindu sect was busy plying an endless hippie-rock jam featuring the venerable “Hare Krishna” chant, while around the corner in front of a Mexican restaurant in the MARRS building, a lounge-style act added bowling-alley, bar-ready cover songs to the noise pollution.

I’m not saying anyone should have been arrested, but a few plugs could have been judiciously yanked.

But there was some really swell music, too. The Barber’s Shop Automotive Alfa Romeo garage on 18th Street featured performances by Th’ Losin Streaks and the Bathtub Gins, along with vintage films from Scott Moon. And a pair of nimble guitarists on the corner of 18th and J streets, in front of the Gifted Gardener, played tasty Hot Club swing in the style of Django Reinhardt. But they were soon overshadowed by a mutant traveling drum line, with an entourage of clueless yokels in tow.

Rule No. 1: No one, outside of an I Love Lucy rerun, should be assaulting passersby with any kind of conga-line shtick in a congested urban area. Unless, of course, Fred Mertz is leading the line—which is impossible, because William Frawley has been dead since 1966.

Still, this snaking column of dumb racket meandered around Midtown for hours, leaving hundreds of annoyed, sour faces in its wake. I ducked into a comic-book store to avoid the din.

“No purpose, no reason,” one newly embittered comics nerd sneered. “I call them hippies. That’s what they seem like—marching around, banging on drums.” As for their followers? “Herd instinct.”

Which sums up what Second Saturday has turned into. Sure, there’s art to be seen, but a lot of the local artists and fans who got the scene going can be found elsewhere these days, like at the BrickHouse Gallery in Oak Park, which has a can’t-miss show hanging this month.

In their place has arisen a big fun street promenade, a once-a-month bonanza for merchants, bars and restaurants, where middle-aged suburbanites model the latest Tommy Bahama vacation togs while their younger contemporaries pose and mingle in Las Vegas-style douchewear.

As with any crowd dynamic, a good lowbrow freak show will trump more nuanced fare, which means the future is more inclined to feature belly dancers, strippers and drunken fraternity tomfoolery than anything novel and surprising.

But that’s Sacramento and its ever-changing nature. And how can you not love that?