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Color Is Pure Feeling: Paintings by Dennis Conkin

Exhibition Run: Feb. 1 - Mar. 30th, 2018

The Tenderloin Museum is pleased to present a collection of new work by painter Dennis Conkin. The eight abstract canvases on display are the fruits of his largely self-taught painting practice, developed over three decades living in the heart of the Tenderloin, and communicate the artist’s emotional relationships with color. Conkin is well known in the neighborhood for his work as a community activist and as a reporter for The Tenderloin Times, focusing on issues of homelessness, AIDS, and mental disability when few would. As such, his non-representational paintings strike an intriguing counterpoint to the linear, narrative nature of chronicling the news. “Art is the story of humanity’s quest for love and awareness, for insight and understanding about our lives,” Conkin told the Tenderloin Museum. “Art is also ecstatic celebration, belonging to no one, and, fundamentally, art saves lives.”

Conkin hit the TL in 1984 when he was 32 years old, “sleeping in shelters, living on the street. You know… just living in the Tenderloin.” However, he swiftly found that he had a vital role to play in the community. A lifelong writer and painter, Conkin fancied himself a poet and was drawn to a community journalism class. He displayed an innate talent and, by the end of the year, was on assignment for The Tenderloin Times. His first published article, covering the opening of Boedeker Park, is on display as part of the Tenderloin Museum’s special exhibition, Voice of the City: The Tenderloin Times, 1977-94. Over his career at The Tenderloin Times and later the Bay Area Reporter, Conkin broke many stories, and his advocacy led to the founding of the Tenderloin Self-Help Center and the Tenderloin AIDS Network.

As someone who lives with mental and physical disabilities, Conkin possessed a sensitivity to those marginalized issues and broke new ground in local reporting through his coverage on mental illness, homelessness, poverty, and the overlooked Tenderloin neighborhood. There is an acute sensitivity present in Conkin’s parallel craft of painting as well. “Painting is emotion. Color is about the heart. The way I arrange color, deal with color, is pure feeling to me,” said Conkin. “A lot of what my job is as a painter is trying to communicate my internal experience to another.” Impactful community journalism and a robust, expressive painting practice share more than an empathetic, communicative nature. “I guess you could say I am an investigative painter,” laughed Conkin, “ but I think the synergy is that in investigative reporting, there is often a sense of urgency because you’re writing about some crisis. When I paint, I find my best work comes out of a sense of urgency. Not a pressure, but a need to share an internal state. I want to share that awareness.”

Conkin paints in his home of 30 years, located on the lobby floor of a converted SRO on McAllister St. “I guess I’m stable,” chuckles Conkin, yet he is anything but stagnant. That sense of urgency pervades his studio space, prolific output, and even extends to his materials. He has no patience for oils; instead, he prefers acrylics: “I can’t wait 3 days for oil to dry--I need instant gratification!” While studio space is tight, the afternoon light coming over the backyard from the Dorothy Day Community retirement home makes ideal light to paint by. Conkin identifies strongly as an Abstract Expressionist although he derived his practice with no formal training--an intuitive, compulsory painter. He admires the work of Lee Krasner, Sister Corita Kent, Sam Francis, and Frank Stella. Always dedicated to furthering his craft, Conkin has been exploring a newfound interest in color theory. “Returning to the color wheel, understanding the relationships between colors, all the technicalities... all the stuff I didn’t get when I didn’t go to art school” said Conkin. This collection on display in the Museum’s gallery are from a recent, prolific period during which Conkin was reconnecting with “spending the rest of my life on art.”