A seller this week at the Alemany flea market stopped me and said, "Dude, I've got a really cool folder of artwork. You should come by and check it out."
I receive these impressive invitations from people because I've either sprinkled cash in their booths on previous occasions, or they've been told about me by their friends. This person, who comes in from a wealthy, provincial setting, knows me firsthand, and produces enough interesting material to have captured my imagination. Quickly, but not too quickly, I made my way to his stand where I was handed a fat portfolio of works on paper from the 1930s and 40s and asked for my opinion.
The scenario was grim in an Alemany sort of way. The flea market is at the base of a housing project, probably sited there because of its proximity to a wind channel. When it's calm and sunny at my house five minutes away, it's likely to be windy and cold at the flea. On this morning the wind made removing the work from the portfolio ill advised. I tried not to dwell on the circumstances of a seat-of-the-pants dealer, willing to expose his hoard to chance and the elements before understanding it's value, while sifting through the acidic, brittle paper in the folder.
"What do you think," he asked?
"Mediocre," I responded.
The drawings were done by a 1930s California College of Arts and Crafts student named Anne Johnston. I could find no mention of her on the internet, but it was clear from the material she had worked in some capacity as a commercial designer. Consisting mostly of art deco exercises and studies for prints, the work fell just shy of the pre-war, non-objective painting that excites me. Just when her sense of adventure seemed to be on the rise with some abstract movie mural design, she would lapse back into the safety of a traditional still life.
This frustrating sequence of predictability, however, was punctured by three startling exceptions.
I have a soft spot for pulpy, futuristic visions from the past. They speak to the physical disappointment I think we all feel from being promised jet packs and hovercrafts and given Ebay and Priceline. Predictably, 99-percent of these Buck Rogers fantasies are executed by boys and men. It's a totally gendered sphere for all the obvious historical reasons: men, technology, flight, fantasy; women, domesticity, earth, reality. So it was surprising to find a woman from the 1930s who had made drawings of futuristic urban spaces teeming with fantasy architecture and vehicles. Well she made three. One drawing in particular, however, fascinates. It's a Martin Ramirez type fantasy-scape with highway ramps coiled at impossible angles. Everything is curved, including the main building, which is topped with a nipple. It is fascinatingly feminine. The others are interesting but less obviously gendered.
Three drawings out of two hundred don't even start an argument for the breaching of a male preserve by a female artist. It could just have been a homework assignment from some professor at CCAC. But, based on Anne Johnston's other images, she could have made the connection between art deco design, the utopian architecture and urbanism it implies, and the literalizing of that ideology in a sci-fi fantasy format. Either way, the brief flowering of a very uncharacteristic urge in a young female artist in San Francisco probably died quickly, having almost nowhere to go.