It May Be Art, But Does It Go With Coffee?

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 —–/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.

Filed under: Art, Front Page

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  1. mark

    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?

  2. rick fields

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

  3. taca

    very well said! and lots of more important things happening in the Mission, for sure….

  4. taca

    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, but at mission local???
    Please, how relevant this is?

  5. 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.

    • themissionman

      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.

  6. themissionman

    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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