René Yañez's son, Rio
Rio Yañez, curator and son of René Yañez, posing on front of his father's work at 'Studio Misión' exhibit.

“It was so personal to him. Only people who were really close to him saw this work.” 

Tucked into the corner of Thacher Art Gallery’s ‘Studio Misión: the Art Studio as Medium,’ sits an empty wooden work table and chair. Before his death at age 75 in May 2018, renowned Mission District artist René Yañez had planned for this gallery space, located at the University of San Francisco campus at 2130 Fulton St., to be a workspace where he would create art to be displayed on the walls. 

In an attempt to honor his father’s vision, René’s 39-year-old son, Rio Yañez, curated “Studio Misión,” which will open on Monday, August 19. The exhibit highlights René’s artistic process, featuring never-before-seen work from his personal sketchbooks and archives that he created in the final years of his battle with cancer between 2016 and 2018. 

He created much of the work on display when he knew his days were numbered. “This show and the show he had at the Luggage Store before he passed away were two of the things that kept him alive as long as he lived.” said Rio, “Those were solid things that were motivation.” 

“[René] said, ‘I’m gonna work on my books,’” explained Glori Simmons, director of the “Studio Misión” exhibit. “Since we don’t know what that would have been, I feel like this is as close as we could get.”

Yañez was a giant in the Mission District art world as an artist, curator, community activist and co-founder of some of San Francisco’s most important Latinx cultural institutions, including Galería de la Raza. He was constantly reinventing his work by harnessing new technologies, collaborating with different artists and experimenting with mediums. 

His son explained that since his father had dedicated most of his career to curating other artists’ work, he often didn’t display his own. He described going through his father’s sketchbooks to find artwork to display as an “emotional process” of discovery. “It was so personal to him. Only people who were really close to him saw this work.” 

Collage work from the sketchbook of René Yeñez exhibited at the “Studio Misión” exhibit.

These newer artworks include multi-layered collages combined with vivid oil pastel and bleach drawings, as well as 3D collages that Rio found “in the bottom of a box.” Each composition was different: Some were intricate and detailed, and others focused on a single figure. Some were bleak and raw, and others were chaotic and colorful.

“Part of what I’ve questioned is … how mad would he be right now,” Yañez joked. “Most people never saw this side of him.” 

René’s use of saturated color, as well as the motif of a diverging explosion of terrific chaos, is unique to his newer works. His son explained that his father’s “realization of his pending mortality” as well as the 2016 death of his wife, Cynthia Wallis, altered his art by “lighting a fire” in him. 

“He had always been very prolific in the way he worked,” Yañez said, “but especially in these last three years, [these realizations] just really energized and motivated him.”

In addition to his father’s newer work, the exhibit also pays tribute to his earlier art, displaying never-before-seen polaroid films the artist snapped, cut up and colored into art in the ’80s, capturing many of his close friends including artist Eva García and playwright Luis Caldes.

Additionally, the exhibit features various prints on tortillas from the memorable “Great Tortilla Conspiracy,” as well as a Dia de Los Muertos altar that Rio and his wife adorned with items from the artists’ home desk, including a plaque with his name on it, a cap reading “Mission Love,” various photographs, and a pair of his shoes in front of the altar.

Dia de Los Muertos altar created by son, Rio, for René Yañez at the “Studio Misión” exhibit.

Some 18 graduate and undergraduate students from the University of San Francisco also contributed, creating banners with a timeline of the artist’s life. After the opening, Yañez’s intended workspace will be stocked with his favorite materials and open for USF students to use as a studio for innovation and creativity. 

“There’s still a lot of mystery to his work,” said RioYañez, “For me, this is just a great opportunity to show and share this secret hidden world that he had.”

“Studio Misión: the Art Studio as Medium” by René Yañez is open from August 19 to November 4, 2019, at Thacher Gallery at 2130 Fulton Street. 

Contact Thacher Gallery (415)-422-5555.  

Admission is free.

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Aleka A. Kroitzsh grew up in Mumbai, India and now lives in Berkeley, CA. She is an English major at Dartmouth College and is passionate about poetry, hiking, and travel.

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