Ben Ospital opened Modern Appealing Clothing in the early 1980s, with sister Chris and mother Jeri. More than a retail space, MAC has evolved into a kind of salon for San Franciscans who drop by to shop, chat, and hang out amid artifacts such as a Bernard Maybeck drafting table and a rug woven by Valerie Gnadt from Ben’s old suits and dress shirts. A longtime supporter of local artists (he’s on the board of the Headlands Center for the Arts), the self-described “hunter-and-gatherer” has never stopped braking for flea markets and thrift shops – mixing his gleanings with gallery pieces and whatever ephemera happen to catch his eye.
Your home is filled with wonderful objects that are arrayed by theme, material, and more ethereal systems. Do you consider yourself a collector?
More like an obsessive! Or a style-centric Margaret Mead wannabe. I went to the San Francisco Art Institute in the ’70s, and I’m fascinated by the compulsion of artists to look at things over and over, and to keep creating, just as the collector must keep collecting. As I started acquiring pieces by my Institute friends, I became immersed in their processes and materials, and made a connection with the kinds of things I was finding in flea markets and hardware stores.
You have piles of books everywhere, a table by William Passarelli made out of stacked books, and trompe l’oeil books by Steve Wolfe, who is known for his painstakingly hand-wrought recreations of the classics. It’s very meta in here.
Yes, I am insanely attracted to the idea of collecting in multiples — the objects seem to converse amongst themselves. It’s all part of the compulsion. And I tried bookshelves once, but found them too confining; piles work better.
Many of your collections include pieces from the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, which you’ve long championed and which supports artists with developmental disabilities who work in all kinds of different mediums.
Yes, and they create with perhaps an even greater obsessiveness than other artists and less of a filtered lens. Next to the Cindy Sherman is a piece by Creative Growth artist William Scott. To me they’re similar in that he’s also dreaming about this other persona – where he’s a popular guy with lots of friends. Much of his work is of women, the girlfriends he hopes to have one day.
Another Creative Growth artist I’ve collected forever is David Worth, who makes little painted wooden sculptures of animals he sees on nature shows. Our relationship is symbiotic, speaking to the obsession of the artist as well as the collector. It also gives me joy to be a bit more democratic and to buy things with an eye that follows my heart – whether it’s a Catherine Wagner or a Diane Arbus or a David Worth or whomever. I have artist friends over for dinner and when they see this pile of wooden shapes they want to know who made it. They think it’s probably some MFA or other, because it’s so conceptual.
There are many connections here between what some people might think of as “high” and “low” art – and a kind of poetic moment when people aren’t sure which they’re looking at.
Exactly. If there’s anything I consciously collect, it’s the recognition of people’s processes, whatever it is they make.
I have these images that I bought at the Marin City Flea Market in the ’80s by a woman who photographed herself compulsively. I love it when someone looks at my wall and goes, “Oh, is that a Helen Levitt?” And I say, “No, actually, that’s a Maggie Williams.” And they wonder for a second if they should have heard of her!
Do you use this same eye at Modern Appealing Clothing in your role as a store owner?
We have T-shirts by surfer artists for $28, floral-printed coats from Comme des Garçons that cost a good deal more, and pieces by Heath Ceramics that were designed to reflect the colors of the fog and lichen in the Sausalito headlands.
Whether it’s for my home or the store, I always want to know the backstories, the dreams behind the pieces, and to share them with others.
You could call it a kind of artistic proselytizing.
Yes, especially in today’s world, when we’re pounded with technology and so many images and ideas, we need to ground ourselves with things that feel soulful, whether it’s something to wear or put on the wall. And I’m constantly deconstructing and projecting onto things that I see. I might be in a Target and realize, “Oh, my God. That blue toilet paper is the exact color as a Dries Van Noten shirt!”
Meaningful objects are imbued with stories. I have about 40 vintage handkerchiefs by a Scottish artist, Alec Finlay, who sews on labels that are a riff on 20th-century artists, like Handy Waterhole for Andy Warhol and August Morning for Agnes Martin. They make you reflect on the history of art. As do these plates I collect by Sean Sprague, who does contemporary portraits in the style of Delft. He had a show that was a whole series of porn stars rendered in full-on, old-school Delft portraiture, infused with that sense of nobility.
So another high/low mash-up. Which is also expressed in your ceramics – bright, slightly squishy Creative Growth pieces next to vintage vases and rare Roy McMakin vessels that are nonfunctional by design.
Nonutilitarian, but they do function: They make me happy! I love them all. They’re like families. When you come home, your pad has to be a response to the world you see and the world you want to live in; there’s a certain utopian quality. I’m the first to go into a minimalist room and say, “Oh, my God. If only I could live like that.”
But clearly, I can’t.
Deborah Bishop is a writer and editor based in San Francisco.