At first, the white pop-up tent looks completely ordinary—just another bunch of beachgoers crowding around some sought-after shade on a hot Sunday afternoon in August. Once I scale down the cliffs and sink my feet into the sand of Ocean Beach, however, the difference is immediately clear.
"I like to think that I'm one of the only gallerists in San Diego who owns their own gallery," says Morgan Mandalay, the artist behind SPF15, a transient contemporary art space that's popped up under a white canopy five times at five different waterfront locations over the past several months.
"I don't pay rent so there's very little overhead," he adds with a laugh.
Carefully formed salt crystals by artist Angie Jennings dangle from blue yarn inside the canopy. More crystals are scattered across the beach alongside large and small sculptures depicting heads of men, which artist Chris Warr carves from wood, upholstery foam, salvaged plywood and other found materials. Jennings also has several mixed-media flag-like pieces staked in the ground and the performance artist herself is buried up to her neck in the sand. The juxtaposition of the feminine versus masculine works is purposeful, and something Mandalay hopes will read as an important conversation between a white male and a black female. He also wants people to notice both of the artists' attempts to colonize or lay claim to the beach.
The art crowd who came specifically to see the show is easily discernable from the growing number of typical beachgoers who stumble upon the installation.
"This is so totally awesome," says a shirtless man with a football tucked under his arm. He grabs a few snacks from the food table and says he's stoked so see art at his favorite beach.
"The people who just wonder by," Mandalay says, "they're the best."
Mandalay is an MFA candidate at UC San Diego whose own practice often dives into the classist divisions of the art world. He grew up in San Diego then went to art school in Chicago, where he started Sunday Project, a makeshift gallery in his living room. An extension of Sunday Project, SPF15 was launched when he returned to San Diego for his master's degree. He says the alternative-exhibition space is partly an attempt to combat the age-old issue of artist-led gentrification.
"I recognize this dilemma of running an artist-run space," he says. "You always have this hope that it's going to be a community space, but the reality of it is that you become a part of that gentrification process. Generally, the people who are coming into a contemporary-art exhibition space aren't the people within the local community—they are people from outside the local community who will eventually move in and displace those people. To me, opening up a space that functions already within a community space of the beach becomes inviting to a different segment of the population, but also becomes a way to enjoy art and not have it be this thing that displaces people and contributes to that problem."
SPF15 was originally proposed as a series of just 15 art exhibitions under the 10-by-10-foot canopy at beaches throughout San Diego County (Mandalay says he may end up doing more than 15 shows). The handful of exhibitions so far have featured both local and national artists including Allison Wiese, Audrey Hope, Chelsea Culp and Tim Mann doing mostly site-specific installations at places like Fiesta Island and Black's Beach. The next SPF15 show will feature Chicago-based artist Alex Wolfe's artsy teapot company, Dogshoppe, alongside hand-painted cookies by Sogi's Honey Bakeshop, which is run by San Diego native Sogoal Zolghadri. The show opens Sunday, Sept. 20, tentatively at Coronado Dog Beach.
SPF15 has no budget and none of the work is for sale. Mandalay looks at the project as part of his thesis and says the artists who show with him do it for the experience and exposure. Ultimately, he says people who participate understand that SPF15 is about getting contemporary art in front of a more diverse set of people simply by changing the typical white-walled, hoity-toity context.
"Because I grew up here in San Diego, one of the things I do think about is that it's really hard to get people to go to art exhibitions who aren't already part of the arts community here," he says. "And who can blame them? I mean, we're standing here—there are waves crashing against the rocks and a sailboat and the sun glistening—so who can really blame people for not making the time to break from that and go inside of an art space? But I don't think it's from lack of caring about art. I think a lot of people care about art in San Diego and this gives them the opportunity to have it brought to them."