Left: Current Art, Right: Previous Art

At Ritual Coffee on Valencia, photographs of people at Burning Man, dressed in outfits that range from tree to cheetah to cowgirl, line the walls. The exhibit — photography by Julian Cash, a longtime documenter of Burning Man culture — would seem unremarkable if it weren’t for the minor neighborhood controversy surrounding the photos exhibited before it.

On June 27, a series of 20 x 20 photographs by the artist Varese Layzer was taken down from the shop’s walls after just six days. In a letter to Layzer, Ritual’s owner, Eileen Hassi, explained why:

You’re going to think I’m the bad guy in this situation, but allow me to explain my position: Your art is serious work. It’s too serious for the cafe. It’s dealing with real stuff, real emotions, loss, attachment, family, death. It belongs in a real gallery, where people are in a space to contemplate these things. The art that belongs in a cafe is fluffier stuff, stuff that doesn’t make people think about the tough questions in life: pictures of telephone poles, birds sitting on the wires, tapestries of heavy metal lyrics. Whimsical stuff.

In the letter, Hassi went on to offer to introduce Layzer to some gallery owners.

Your artist’s statement is safe, just tucked away. It was just too intense for people looking for escapism with their coffee. I have another show ready to go, so please let me know when you’ll be taking the show down.

In her artist’s statement, Layzer explained that the photographs — of dingy, well-worn rooms, sparsely furnished — were taken while clearing out her parents’ rent-controlled apartment on the Upper West Side after her mother’s death. On her Flickr page, she posted Hassi’s letter in full, as well as a statement disagreeing with Hassi’s reading of her art.

I offered to remove the statement —vareservoir.com/making-room-up-now–/statement — which was the only thing that made Hassi write that the show was about death. The actual pictures can be interpreted in many ways. I do not think the show is about death.

Hassi told Mission Loc@l that she is working on a longer letter of explanation and would not comment at this point. Layzer could not be reached for comment. But inside the cafe, reactions to the art, both current and previous, were muted.

“It seems relevant to this week in San Francisco,” said Julia Neunan of the current art, referring to the colorful costumes of last weekend’s Gay Pride parade.

Another customer, Paul Kim, said that he actually preferred the previous art to what is showing now. He’s not a fan of the partial nudity on display in Cash’s photos, and found their subject matter strange for a coffee shop. But in their favor, he said, they’re “edgy” and add color to the space.

“I think the artwork is interesting,” said Cassandra Bauer of the current show. She mentioned that she found some of Cash’s photography “painful,” but also expressed the belief that “art is a form of freedom of expression.”

But is it appropriate for the walls of a coffee shop?

“It is up to the owner to decide the type of art that they want on the walls of their business,” said Bauer. “The owner is creating an atmosphere with the art that they choose to show.”

UPDATE: Julian Cash gives his own perspective on the controversy (and on art in general) here.

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19 Comments

  1. Sure. Remove the art that has a little meaning behind it and replace it with something from Burning Man. Ugh. I just threw up in my mouth a little bit.

    I’m officially done with Ritual, and have happily taken my business to Philz.

  2. Hassi’s first letter was flip and condesending. Moreover, knowing that her next art selection would be viewed under a microscope should have warranted something less tacky than the Cash exhibit. Maybe the current curator should be fired as well.

  3. You left out the bit in Hassi’s letter when she says Layzer’s work is so serious it deserves to be in a proper gallery with wine and cheese. What if Ritual served wine and cheese? Would Layzer’s art be considered unserious enough for Ritual patrons? What if we bring our own wine and cheese Eileen?

  4. you are all lost in a dense fog. somewhere in the world there, at this very moment, there are real problems.

  5. Ha! Silly Missionites! This is great publicity for both of them, the coffee shop and the artist! Keep biting on it!
    I understand that this is published at missionmission.org, but at mission local???
    Please, how relevant this is?

  6. Just to be clear, Ritual signed a contract with me stating that the work would be up for six weeks. A representative of Ritual approved the work and the statement. I checked in with Ritual at every stage.

    And by the way, I am and always was available for comment.

    1. Fact of the matter is that indeed your work is too beautiful and meaningful for the shallow souls of Eileen and John. I long ago boycotted the place when John threatened to physically attack food service workers because they received the permit that Eileen could not get. Thankfully, this new hypocritical act on their behalf has exposed your touching work to a larger audience than those are willing to still put money into Eileen’s pockets.

  7. Hi Journalist Heather,

    Here is how you described my show…
    > people at Burning Man, dressed in outfits
    > that range from tree to cheetah to cowgirl,
    > line the walls.

    Here are some of the images from the show…
    http://bit.ly/bmcoffe

    Are just “phoning it in” and describing the show without actually taking the time to go to Ritual and see it for yourself?

    To show my work, you used a very small part of this 60′ banner, rather than any one of the full sized images. Was this laziness?
    http://bit.ly/criticaltits

    I like a lot of your writing Heather.

    Thank you for your part in celebrating the creativity in the Mission.

    Keep it real,
    -Julian

    1. Julian,

      Cassie and Jenna, the two reporters who wrote the story, did go to Ritual in person to check out the show, talk to people, and take photos. I’m assuming they felt that a full-sized image would be too out of scale with our site, where everything is so small that most of our photos are close-ups by default. The description of the characters is also theirs. I’m flattered that you dig my writing, but I’m currently managing the site, so this story, and just about everything else we’re posting right now is the work of other reporters. Many thanks for the links to the show itself – I’ll put that into the body of the article.

      Best, H.

    2. Julian
      I stopped in to see your “work”. You are the one phoning it in. Congratulations on your friendship with a soulless hypocrite like John Rinaldi. I see why you would enjoin yourself to him since you appear to enjoy photographing nude people and King Rinaldi wears no clothes.

      1. Yeah. So name a portrait photographer who doesn’t like to do nudes? Man Ray, Dali, Leibowitz, Mapplethorpe, La Chappelle…even that lady who dresses infants as flowers. Its the human form, lady. Get over it.

  8. Hey Mission residents, when are we going to get the picture that John Rinaldi and Eileen Hassi are creeps?

    1)They openly campaigned against chain stores on Valencia WHILE AT THE SAME TIME operating a chain store on Valencia.

    2)John Rinaldi threatened violence on the workers operating a food cart in Dolores Park EVEN THOUGH Eileen Hassi had campaigned to operate a food cart in Dolores Park

    3)John Rinaldi operates an unlicensed business on Cesar Chaves St. (which he refers to as Army St.) while at the same time has tried to get the license removed from other people’s business

    4)John Rinaldi begins his postings by denying that the art was taken down because of Eileen’s feelings on the subject matter EVEN THOUGH Eileen herself wrote the that those are the very reasons in her email.

    John Rinaldi and Eileen Hassi are not dumb people. They play a political game of subterfuge and deception. These two will happily burn down the Mission if they can profit from it. Reject Ritual Coffee, their are many other options that you can enjoy with a clear conscious

    PS. I might add the Chicken John Rinaldi also would prefer that you not read The Mission Local because he prefers the gay old late nineties/ early aughs when he could get away with this kind of stuff without fear of exposure.

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