By Benjamin Wachs
Richie Rhombus arrived in San Francisco in 2010, to help move a sculpture, with $20 in their pocket. Over the next ten years they became a mainstay in San Francisco’s underground art scene, creating events that were never advertised in the newspaper or forgotten. They appeared in galleries, public spaces, private homes, and places that you had to technically break the law to access.
There were the dinners that explored food as an emotional medium; tea parties in a series of trees; a series of theatrical performances across an island…Richie served up an ongoing feast for those in the know.
Richie doesn’t like being referred to as an “underground artist,” though. Especially since they also create work that is open to everyone. Many of their events are ticketed in very conventional ways. “I’m a storyteller,” they say. They just sometimes tell stories in visual media, and sometimes in performance, and sometimes in conceptual art. “I like the experiment and I like to challenge things, and I do diverse kinds of art. Yet I feel it all resides in storytelling.”
Perhaps it’s not so much that they always do underground art, as that it is the underground art scene that celebrates them.
In 2020, during the height of the vaccine-less pandemic, they left San Francisco to go somewhere else. Anywhere else. “I was bored,” they said.
They came back in early 2022, just for a few weeks—maybe a month or so—to rest and recharge. I sat with them outside, on a sunny day at The Tarragon Cafe in the Lower Haight, to talk about what’s left of the “weird art” scene in the San Francisco Bay Area.
I asked them where they want to see us go. What they hope we can achieve next.
They leaned back, took a deep breath, and then said: “I don’t care.”
Richie Rhombus is never coming back to us. Not really. Maybe to visit, but never to live again.
But they’re willing to tell the truth about us—and who we are—to a degree that is uncommon. After living through the art scene in San Francisco for 10 years, they’ve toured around the rest of the country, and have answers for an art scene that’s in an identity crisis.
“Is doing the kind of art you do different in San Francisco than it has been around the country?” I asked Richie before they’d even gotten their coffee.
They took it in stride. I have never seen Richie do anything but take things in stride. Their demeanor suggests that there’s never any need to shout, ever. They talk softly enough that you sometimes need to lean in to hear. They often come across as a vagabond with a secret.
“In a sense it’s easier to make this art in San Francisco because no one checks it,” they said. “No one will critique it or challenge it or say anything about it, so there’s like no response. And that makes it easier because no one’s going to tell me that I’m doing it wrong, or that I should do it this way, or that this isn’t allowed. So there’s no friction at all.”
You can do things in a frictionless environment that might be impossible anywhere else, which Richie took advantage of. “It’s also the reason I wanted to leave.”
This is a theme we’ll come back to again and again: that San Francisco’s art scene is a place where anything is possible because nobody is going to tell you you’re doing it wrong. One of the ways our scene is different is that we are more permissive, and supportive.
That attracts a certain kind of person.
“I think San Francisco’s sunny and people come here because it feels good,” they told me. “The people who really like to challenge things are sometimes miserable. If they’re always challenging people it’s not necessarily fun. It’s intellectually stimulating, but it’s not somatically stimulating. I think people here care about how the art they create feels, how the scene they’re in feels. They want it to feel good. Which is fine. We need less of that but not to deplete it. I think maybe half as much good feeling.”
On the other hand, “The Bay Area underground art scene is really empathetic and it’s very friendly. I’ve been a lot of places, this has been the most caring and friendly place I’ve ever been. That’s the reason I’m back right now: I was extremely lonely, and I was suffering hard core mentally from that, and I needed people to be nice to me, so I came here.”
Is it working?
What we lack in a challenging critical infrastructure we make up for in getting to feel good. We may be tortured artists, but we’re living sensual lives. The rent here is expensive, but love is cheap.
Richie does not have a sunny, supportive, disposition. They were an artist in New York for 10 years, and still carry the pace and hard edges of that city with them. “I left New York because I was bored. 10 years is a long time,” but also because they had a partner who was forced to leave the country, and New York was suddenly haunted by the lack of someone.
They don’t say anything more about that. Richie is soft spoken, wears thick layers even when it’s sunny out, and won’t be pulled into a conversation they don’t want to have. They know how to be silent. If you want to know the style they’re going for, they say “I try to embrace being a clown who doesn’t look like a clown.”
They first came here to help a friend in Eugene, Oregon, move a giant sculpture—a tugboat and a freight train spliced together—to Oakland. Richie decided to stay.
“He made the sculpture even though no one believed he could or offered him any support,” Richie said. “That was really impressive, and his motto which I have adopted as part of my motto is: ‘I know it’s impossible, and that’s why I’m going to do it.’”
They had $20 to their name, “and no idea what I was doing here.” Their first apartment was a storage unit that was actually a 1960s horse trailer that someone rented for $100 a month—provided they could prove that they had a job.
“So the next day I got a demolition job, and I convinced the person to forward me the check one week in advance,” they said. “I handed that proof in to this office that proves that I’m working, so I could rent this horse trailer to live in, and then the next week I quit. So for a whole year I lived in a horse trailer, except that I couldn’t live there legally, so I built a trap door in the bottom of it with a rope, so I could get out every night through this trap door and back in, and that’s how I moved to the Bay Area.”
The first artistic community they belonged to here was “a group of anarchists who were heavily influenced by traditional clowning, DIY culture, and getting drunk.”
They were also the first artistic community in the Bay Area that Richie saw disappear. “A few years later, they were all gone. Really they were already leaving when I got here. They scattered. I don’t know where they are now.”
But they gave Richie enough of a start to get a reputation for interesting art experiments.
Richie was a co-founder (with Albert Alexander) of Appetite Obscure, an art and food collective that for several years did events every month, each one combining food and unique emotional or theatrical experiences.
Most often, they did potlucks called “Interactive Dishes,” where each person brought a meal that had an interactive element to it designed to provoke thought or emotion. But they were even better known for their special events.
“My favorite was called Chronos Island, and that was off of Red Rock Island off of the Richmond Bridge,” Richie said. “We got six sailboats to grab people from the land and bring them on to the island, and we had theatrical performances stationed on all different locations of the island, including this cave which was this location where people once hid dynamite. So we had performances inside the cave, on top of the island, within all the structures, and it was all related to food and time. I think it was 150 people on this island that you’re not allowed to have anybody on. That was pretty special. That was one of my favorites.”
Another was Tea and Trees, which was a tree climbing experience where each different station in the tree had a tea sample or ceremony.
After Appetite Obscure Richie cofounded Metaphysical Twin with Nicky Dyal. Together they created social events designed to provoke embodied experiences.
“One was called the Lying Party, which was a party entirely based on the concept of not telling the truth,” Richie remembered. “That was interesting. In order to get into the party you had to lie, and as soon as you got in you got your money back, because the price of the ticket was a lie. So everything in this party was based on lying, but a very human and honest interpretation of lying, because it’s like a taboo thing, but something a lot of people do in a lot of different ways.”
There were other individual shows, and a video series called News From Nowhere that they still produce today.
But by 2020, “I felt like I was plateauing here as an artist. I’d been here over 10 years, and I feel like 10 years is a good enough reason to leave somewhere, no matter where it is.”
After they announced they were leaving, a significant portion of the underground art scene threw them a goodbye party, which culminated in their surreptitiously passing them a suitcase filled with cash—a unique gift from a community that prides itself on giving unique gifts.
Since then they’ve done an artist residency in France, lived in L.A., in New Mexico, in Seattle, in small rural areas where one can be truly alone, and done a tour of 17 different locations for their newest performance art show. They landed in Chicago, and have now returned here, for a little while, because they want to be surrounded by people who will make them feel good again.
“I didn’t find what I was looking for,” they admit. They want to try New Orleans.
I first met Richie in 2018. People had been telling me we should meet for years. We saw each other later at several events. In 2019, I went to a solo experiential art show they had at a gallery in Oakland. Its run was technically over but they opened it up just for me to bring a few friends along and see their art. They gave us a guided tour.
As part of the experience, there came a moment where we all had to speak truths to one another—truths that we otherwise might not say.
Richie turned and looked at me. Their soft voice was certain but not aggressive. “Everyone tells me you’re this amazing artist, they say you do magic,” they said. “I’ve never seen it. I’ve never gotten that experience from anything I’ve seen you do.”
The people I had brought to the gallery tried to step in and vouch for me, but I asked them not to. It might have been the most direct, honest criticism I’d ever had since coming to San Francisco. I was delighted. I hadn’t seen Richie since.
How else, I asked now that we were face to face again, is the Bay Area distinct from other underground art scenes you’ve been encountering?
They gave me the same look they’d given me the last time we’d seen each other.
“The parts of San Francisco’s art scene that I was involved with were, I think, really influenced by European Surrealism and European Situationism,” they said. “Other cultures have surrealism too, but I feel like San Francisco’s is a very particularly European Surrealism, as opposed to say Japanese Surrealism, which is a lot more violent and has a reaction to historical events, neither of which exist here in the underground. There was a time when European surrealism was a major movement, it was popular in other places like New York, but those other places stopped doing surrealism and moved on to other things, while we’re still working in that tradition of Surrealism and Situationism. It’s still very prevalent. There’s also a difference I’ve noticed between that European Surrealism and Magical Realism, which a lot of places now practice. Magical realism has a reference to society and culture and contemporary events and politics, while surrealism can be completely exempt from politics. It can just be weird. Magical Realism isn’t prevalent here. European surrealism is very prevalent.”
Wait…wait…I had to stop them. Were they saying that the Bay Area art scene isn’t interested in politics? Because they’re right that there’s a strong component here of “art for art’s sake,” and “whimsy for whimsy’s sake.” They’re 100% right about that. But…San Francisco artists? Not politically engaged?
“Yeah,” they said. And this time they didn’t hesitate. “I’ve seen a lot of non-political art here, and I’ve seen art that is politics with bad art attached, and I’ve seen art that just references politics. But I haven’t seen as much this combination that is both great art and strong politics that I’ve seen in more intellectually-oriented scenes like Chicago.”
Their point isn’t that there’s no politics in art around here. It’s that we don’t blend art and politics well. Politics and art combined end up being less than the sum of their parts because we don’t know how to do them together.
“Places that do Magical Realism, like South American cultures, and some African cultures, they use their art to deal with these things. They couldn’t escape from the politics. I think with European Surrealism, some people had the leisure to just be like ‘Whatever. I can do this crazy thing, and I’ll do it in my studio, and show it in a gallery, and be in my own bubble.’ The art we’re descended from is a way of separating ourselves from cultural events, and that shows. Even if we want to be political we treat our art like it is its own world.”
Meanwhile, the activists tend to treat art like graphic design—a way of decorating politics, rather than actually influencing it.
Thinking back on the art and politics I’ve seen here, I have to say that sounds right to me.
Then there’s the sex.
“The sexual revolution connected with Surrealism here,” Richie said, “and The Bay Area has pretty intense sexually liberated ideas in part of their culture, and that influences people’s artistic processes a lot more here than in other places.”
Other places probably have just as sexually active scenes as we do, Richie thinks, but those places are much larger and much more populated—meaning that the impact of the sexual revolution is more diffuse.
“Per person, per capita, the sexual liberation is higher here.” That concentration makes a difference.
Then there’s the drugs.
“I noticed just how prevalent drugs are as soon as I left,” they said. This is as close to shocked as Richie gets. “When I was there, drugs were so influential that it was practically unavoidable for me, and I’ve realized I don’t like that, actually.”
They’re enthusiastic about the advances in drug assisted therapy. “From what I hear it’s extremely effective, which I think is cool,” and they’re glad the Bay Area is at the vanguard of it.
But they’ve decided it doesn’t actually help the art.
“You can get your mind blown, and that’s fine, but you don’t have to keep getting your mind blown. You don’t have to blow your mind apart after it’s blown. I think that’s an avoidant thing. People find it harder to entertain themselves without some sort of medium in-between things.”
The popularity of ketamine at underground art events is, they think, a symptom of that. “It dissociates you from the world. I’m totally anti that. That is the opposite of what I’m trying to do.”
They shook their head. “I’ve been performing in multiple cities. The different uses of drugs in each city, it’s a noticeable difference.”
“Well,” I asked Richie, “if San Francisco’s underground art scene is so focused on extending this European surrealist tradition, are we at least good at it?”
They considered the question for longer than I would have liked. Then they took it in a different direction.
“Something unique about San Francisco,” they said slowly, “is its interest in tracing community based thinking and networking as part of its artistic process. Community efforts and outreach are almost always included in art experiences. No matter what the project, there’s usually some attempt to bring people together in some ways. I think that combination of surrealism and community based processes, that’s what people here are especially good at.”
But there are fault lines in that sense of community. Not surprisingly for an area coping with gentrification so severe that only FinTech algorithms can afford to live here now, those fault lines come from money.
There is an emphasis on monetization, Richie says, that wasn’t as present even a decade ago. They won’t let me name names, but they’ve been shocked by the way some of their artist friends in the Bay Area have embraced the selling of immersive experiences with a capitalistic fervor.
“I mean, most people do jobs that I wouldn’t do, so that’s no surprise, but the way (some people) in the art scene embraced art for capitalism’s sake, that’s strange to me,” they said. “And it’s new for us, and it’s growing.
None of this surprises me either. Until recently, we used to be a scene that focused much more on decommodified art. The San Francisco art scene, through Burning Man, is actually responsible for getting “decommodification” accepted as a legitimate word in dictionaries worldwide. We were the people willing to put enormous effort into experimental art experiences that had no future or much hope of breaking even. It was one of our central pillars. One of the things that defined us.
From my point of view, much of the way the San Francisco art underground has changed in the last few years has been a move away from unique art experiences that were hard to do and even harder to repeat and therefore extremely difficult to monetize, and towards “immersive” events that are much simpler to set-up and easy to repeat and therefore lend themselves to monetization. When you decommodify art, when you remove it from commerce and abstract transactions as much as possible, you open up whole new possibilities and cast off the need to make things repeatable—which is to say formulaic.
Richie agrees that this shift has happened. “It’s actually really impressive what people have done to create these events. They organize them to scale and make money, and they’ve really mastered that party model. They’ve got the sound system, the DJ thing, some creative stuff, some acoustic music, the experience rooms, they are good at mobilizing people and getting them to volunteer, they have definitely figured something out. It’s just not my aesthetic: the needs of capitalism have turned the art into a party. But it is a good party.
That’s the schism I’m prepared for. What I’m shocked by is the other fault line they see. The one that we’re on opposite sides of.
By now Richie had gotten an ice tea, and a sandwich. They’d been impressed by the way The Tarragon Cafe infuses a subtle mango flavor into their tea. They were happy. They were no less blunt for it.
“Decommodified art is a luxury that artists with day jobs have,” they say. And it drops like a bomb between us.
I am firmly in the “artist with a day job” camp. Richie is firmly not. They’re trying to live on art alone.
“All those people (doing decommodified art) have jobs,” they say. “The people who have a job that’s not creative and want to do art things on the side have the freedom to fuck around and make it not about money. But the people who are exclusively artists, they have to figure money out. It’s difficult. And so non-commodified-ness is a privilege from having a job.”
Part of the reason San Francisco doesn’t have adequate funding for artists, they suggested, is precisely because so many artists with day jobs (like me) have embraced a philosophy that while making money from your art is nice, art itself actually shouldn’t have anything to do with money.
“I could be wrong, but in the 10 years that I was here I didn’t see the viability of an art career here,” they say. “I never got the sense that we had a proper art scene for local artists that was really funded. Since then, I have seen it elsewhere. There are places where you can be a professional artist and that’s your full time job. You get shows, you get commissions, you get grants, and these things make it possible to do that. It’s not easy, but Chicago, L.A., they have paths to do that. It’s not really viable here.”
As an artist who at once condemns reflexive capitalism and who wants to make a living as an artist, Richie may be in an untenable position in the Bay Area.
“I have been trying to figure it out. That I somehow lasted this far in my life existing in a radical way is a miracle. How am I not dead?” They didn’t laugh or chuckle. They meant that question. “And I just had to live a harder life. I just live less and buy less. And I think that’s not the case with people who have a job that pays them a lot of money so that they can live a radical lifestyle. And I’m not proud of that, that’s just the way my life has been.”
Then they chuckled, just a little bit. “I’m not the one to be a role model for a career. I’ve never had that much money. If people want to be making more money then there’s probably strategies that they can choose. I’m just not interested.”
But it bothers them. This is the only time they admit to being annoyed in the entire time we talked. That San Franciscans with day jobs romantically hold up the idea of a life dedicated to the arts as our highest good, while also believing decommodified art is a moral necessity. We’re demanding that artists like them somehow square that circle.
They never make this personal, they don’t turn on me for even a second, but I have been a public and vocal proponent of exactly the sort of paradox they’re talking about: an artist with a day job trying to find more ways for artists to make a living while also saying that the highest expression of art can only happen away from commerce.
Have I been telling a person who was willing to sleep in a horse trailer with a trap door so that they could focus on art that they shouldn’t get to make a living?
I felt like apologizing to them. I didn’t.
The complicated thing, they told me a moment later, is that the artists with day jobs aren’t necessarily worse artists than the full time artists.
“Sometimes people who are only focused on pursuing their art are so particular and idealistic that they don’t have a worldly view. Like they don’t have a diverse view of art history, art aesthetics, and they have this narrow anarcho-DIY aesthetic, and they make particular art. I don’t know if it’s better or not.”
They considered a moment longer.
“I don’t think you need to be poor to be a good artist. You can be wealthy and be an amazing artist, you can be poor and be an amazing artist. You just have to be really creative and know what your influences are. But the parties of the anarchistic artists are definitely more fun.”
Philosophically, I think I’m right: art has the potential to get more interesting and engaging as it gets more decommodified. Pragmatically, Richie’s right. If San Francisco wants a leading art scene, or even a good one, it needs more artists to make a living.
We met with a handshake, we left with a hug, and once again I don’t know when—or if—I’ll see Richie Rhombus again. They plan to sneak out through the trap door.
Richie planned to leave, but a literal hurricane disrupted their travel plans and they’re still here, “doing as many projects as I can to fill the void of uncertainty.” You can learn more about what they’re up to, and sign up for their occasional email list on their website.