SAN DIEGO — It's unprepossessing from the outside, to say the least. The only guide is a neon sign, unlit during daylight hours, announcing "ART."
At street level, 852 8th Ave., the home of Sushi, is a pair of bilious green doors. A cheap red carpet covers the broad steps leading to the second floor--hardly a stairway to paradise. There's something irredeemably seedy but nevertheless engaging about this well-trafficked entrance to San Diego's sole "performance art" gallery.
Among alternative spaces in San Diego, Sushi is preeminent in terms of longevity and reputation.
"Performance" as an art form came to San Diego in the early '70s through the presence at UC San Diego of Allan Kaprow, a seminal figure in the development of "happenings"--spontaneous, plotless, multimedia, theatrical events that emphasized process (as had abstract expressionist painting), chance or improvisation (through the influence of composer John Cage) and group participation. Another precedent was "body art" of the late 1960s. Barry LeVa, for example, hurled himself against the walls of a gallery of the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art in June, 1970, until he was bruised and wounded and both he and the walls were bloodied.
Also among the faculty at UCSD in the early '70s was Eleanor Antin, renowned performance artist. At that time, the campus was one of the few at which students could enroll in performance classes.
But until the creation of Sushi, performance art had little impact on the cultural life of San Diego.
The pivotal figure was Lynn Schuette, who opened Sushi in November, 1980. It is the fulfillment of her vision.
"I established Sushi to serve contemporary artists, to make their work more accessible to audiences without compromising their intentions," Schuette said.
"Our presentations have been eclectic, rich and challenging, ranging from the formal beauty and intellectual rigor of Kei Takai's dance to the lovable and demented vaudeville parodies of Ethyl Eichelberger, from the insightful and frightening characters of Eric Bogosian's 'Drinking in America' to the political activism of David Avalos and Poyesis Genetica.
"As long as artists continue to address the formal and informal, political and social, heartwarming and harrowing, blood and guts concerns of life in the '80s, we'll continue."
The gallery's name is a loose pun on Schuette's name (pronounced SHOOT-ee). Using the pseudonym Lin Sushi, she has written stories about early mishaps in her gallery. Incidentally, Schuette's own lyrical paintings and installations reflect Oriental influences in their subtle colors, eroticism and use of the fan form.
The northern Illinois native knew early in life that she was an artist. Her ambition led her to study art at the University of Illinois' Chicago campus and then in graduate school at UC Berkeley.
In the late 1970s, she was working for the Escondido Regional Arts Council and first began to develop her administrative skills. She left the council to try to support herself by selling her paintings, but she said the absence of collectors compelled her to recognize the immaturity of the San Diego visual arts community. She determined to help it develop.
In 1978, she joined Community Arts of San Diego as a grant proposal writer and later became its assistant director (1979-1981). In late 1979, she co-organized and financed "Artists Work Here," a project using artists' studios for performance and to display art. It introduced to San Diego the idea of alternative spaces for exhibits, as pioneered by artists in New York. It was a direct action by artists themselves to seek communication with the public without the constraints of commercial galleries and established museums.
The popularity of "Artists Work Here" convinced Schuette that there was an audience for performance art. In July, 1980, using her savings, she leased and renovated Sushi's current space, formerly the ballroom of a union meeting hall.
Although she initially operated Sushi as a private business, she has transformed it into a nonprofit, public-interest organization with a 10-member board of directors and a six-member artistic advisory board. Its financial support comes from members' dues, grants and ticket sales.
Schuette is Sushi's curator as well as director. For the lobby's exhibition space, she selects emerging artists for what she perceives as "the quality and integrity of their work and its appropriateness to the concept of the gallery."
Sushi's major business and the source of its fame, however, is as a venue for local and visiting performance artists. The most famous, and now a member of the Sushi board, is Whoopi Goldberg, who went on to achieve national attention with her solo performances in New York and starred in the film "The Color Purple."
A few of the other highly respected artists who have performed here are bald-headed Rachel Rosenthal, who once asked members of the audience to pierce her wrists with fish hooks; Jo Harvey Allen, who specializes in monologues about lower-class Texas women, and Philip-Dimitri Galas, who created several theatrical personalities now portrayed by professional actors in Los Angeles and San Francisco.