Category Archives: museums

New Oakland Museum pt2

My trip to the Oakland Museum also allowed me to check out the new Gallery of Natural Sciences.* Unlike with the California Academy of Sciences, while I visited the Oakland Museum a lot as a kid, I do not really remember the old galleries here. Looking through the new galleries though I can see that there must have been a lot of dioramas and taxidermy animals. The new galleries use and repurpose a lot of the old material into displays that are often nothing like the static dioramas.

*The Oakland Museum has been updating its galleries over the past few years. The other new galleries opened  in late 2010 at which point the Natural Sciences one closed for these renovations.

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There are birds all over the gallery—both flying overhead and perched on things—in ways that bring museumgoers into the exhibit. There are still some free-standing glassed-off displays but because most of the exhibits are more immersive, those are the exceptions and can highlight specific things now.

The galleries go on a tour of California, visiting 7 key regions,* and highlighting the ecology of each area and why they’re important, distinct, and how we’ve used them. The bird and animal displays are especially notable in how they’re wildlife which is local to those areas yet is completely different than anything I ever see at zoos. I don’t know why the only place I can expect to see local wildlife is in Natural History museums** where the wildlife is dead, stuffed, and posed. Zoos almost never have pens of local animals where you can learn about animals that you might be lucky enough to see in the wild.

*Well, 6 plus Oakland. Which I’m fine with since seeing the natural history of where the museum is—and the home of who’s most likely to visit—is in many ways the most interesting part for me. I loved seeing how many oaks really used to be there and looking at all the ways that waterways have been diverted into underground culverts as the city developed.

**Well, also kid-centric junior museums which also function as wildlife centers.

I’d love to see zoos take this approach and had a section devoted to the local wildlife and ecosystems. I’d love as a local to be able to bring my kids to the zoo and and really teach them about the animals they might see in the wild. And I’d love as a tourist to be able to actually learn about an area through visiting a zoo. Right now, it’s the science museums and aquariums which do a better job at teaching me about where I am. And that makes me sad.

So many of the images here are about what we’re doing to the landscape. And who in particular is doing it. It’s up to us to see these images and ask the questions about whether we’re doing the right things or if the right people are doing them, and if not, what the right things are and who the right people should be.

—My review of Inspiration Points

The land use, land management thread also continues through the whole natural sciences wing. Every display mentions how we’ve used a place, how we rely on it for some resource, and what our impact has been on the plant and animal life there. The displays also get into discussions about what we should do with places in the future as our resource needs change or as the existing resource becomes stressed or as the ownership of the place changes hands.

And the ownership question is especially interesting. Tejon Ranch and Sutter Buttes in particular have fascinating displays about the ownership issue and the points of view of Indians, private owners, and State Parks—and how public ownership may not always considered the best course of action by people who you’d think of as being anti-private ownership. Public ownership often means public access, which is not always the best thing for preservation.

Other highlights

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One, more old-style display needs to be mentioned since it was my favorite thing in the whole museum. The egg drawers are awesome. The display is just a file cabinet full of boxes of eggs, each box containing a clutch of eggs from a specific bird. But opening each drawer and comparing everything—sizes, colors, shapes, number—is not only great fun to see all the varieties but is also an exercise in thinking about species vulnerability, location on the food chain, nesting habits, etc.

It’s a shame that this collection hasn’t been digitized since this kind of typology is just fascinating to look through. It’s not just the sheer variety of options, it’s that, while we’re familiar with eggs as a concept, we never actually see them in the wild unless something’s gone horribly wrong.

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Speaking of horribly wrong. When we get out into the ocean habitat, they have this display of an albatross from Midway island. Which is awful but also looks somewhat staged. I had to pull up Chris Jordan’s work to show that things are actually worse than this looks.

I found myself wondering which came first, Jordan’s photos or this display,* and if it’s this display, if perhaps that’s why Jordan’s photos seemed oddly familiar to me when I first encountered them.

*Well, not this display but the the albatross specimen.

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I also took a quick walk through the California History Gallery. Not enough to comment on it in general but just to see it again and check out anything that I didn’t remember seeing before. I like the gallery but have never had the time to really give it a good looking over. In this visit though I did see the technology “garage” for the first time. It’s part of an exhibit on how California has influenced the current world and is more of an exhibit on what is currently trendy* than being actual history.

*e.g. Burning Man

In the technology garage, while there were lots of computer artifacts* what caught my eye was the interaction board which asked how our lives have changed because of computer technology. As expected, there were a lot of positive comments. I found myself enjoying the negative ones. And the ones which buy into analog fetishism,

*Worth looking at but nothing like visiting the Computer History Museum in Mountain View.

The idea that computer technology is antisocial always amuses me. One of the amazing things I’m seeing with my kids is how they’re able to videoconference with their family members. We live in New Jersey, everyone else is in California, but we can talk and see each other daily, if need be. This is normal to my kids. I think it’s life-changing to my parents who, without the videoconference, wouldn’t be able to see and interact with their grandchildren for months at a time. It’s so much easier to interact and talk to people now that it amazes me how people have become so blasé about it.

Similarly, analog fetishism is one of those things that comes up in photography* all the time. I get it. Old technology** is cool. Mechanical technology which doesn’t succumb to bit rot is especially cool. But we’ve been talking about the digital vs analog thing for decades now and have gotten to the point were old digital technology has become outdated to the point where still using it is a bit of a statement as well.*** This is going to happen more and more. It’s not a magical analog/digital thing as much as a technology evolution thing. After a while, old technology goes from being merely outdated to something that reminds us how the world used to be.****

*And music and movies.

**Sufficiently old.

***I’m thinking of things like CD collections and classic NES games.

****For example, Jim Golden’s Relics of Technology. It also may be worth reading my thoughts upon viewing Dieter Rams’s 1970s design work.

With specific regard to cameras, I’m curious which digital cameras will become the retro-fetish cameras. We hit the point a year and a half ago where digital cameras were coming out that had been optimized toward specific kinds of shooting. I don’t think people will be nostalgic for VGA images. But for things like the GoPro once other kinds of wearable cameras hit the market? Maybe.

Inspiration Points

Ted Orland, One-and-a-Half Domes, Yosemite

Ted Orland, One-and-a-Half Domes, Yosemite

I’ve never liked how photography is in its own distinct wing. I don’t even like considering it distinct from “the other arts” and much prefer seeing it in conversation with painting, sculpture, etc. This isn’t an “equal status” thing but instead recognizes how photography is a tool for communication. Fixating on what is or isn’t photography misses the greater point that these images exist and interbreed with other images, photographic or non.

My post here introducing Hairy Beast

My last museum trip of the summer was to the Oakland Museum. This was partly to get my Fenton’s fix but I was also interested in the Inspiration Points exhibition since it promised to mix photography, painting, and drawing in the galleries. One of my continuing interests with photography is how it can get out of the photography wing and be exhibited alongside, and in conversation with, other artworks. This doesn’t happen often* so I like to keep an eye out for those cases where it does and go see the show with an eye for how the show itself guides the conversation.

*Why I was so excited by SFMOMA’s Flesh and Metal. And the Jay DeFeo exhibition before that.

The Oakland museum show is a little bit of a mixed bag here. It breaks the concept of California Landscape Art into distinct views and themes, some of which end up being heavily biased toward specific media. So no conversations in those room although there is food for thought about why some themes may be tougher for certain media to handle.

Since each theme ends up being somewhat distinct in character, it makes sense to go through the themes. First, the themes which resulted in galleries which were mixed media.

Anne W. Brigman, The Heart of the Storm

Anne W. Brigman, The Heart of the Storm

Mystic

While being mixed between paintings and photography, a lot of the works in this gallery were heavily biased toward pictorialism—or the paintings that those photos were trying to evoke. This isn’t a complaint as it’s quite nice to see those two concepts mixed together so we can actually see how they inform each other.

At the same time, it feels like a somewhat limited take on what mysticism can mean as it biases more toward early-20th-century concepts of myths and the “unspoiled” land in the west rather than looking at the different ways people have developed the landscape for spiritual reasons over the past century.

Exploitation

This theme is of course the flip side of the mystic landscapes. How California is full of natural resources for us to use or conquer is the real state mythology. Documenting the land as we impose out will on it is something everyone—from artists to corporations*— does here. In this case, the method of documentation doesn’t really matter. I don’t get the sense that these works are in conversation although it is interesting to see how commercial both photography and painting can go in terms of serving corporate needs.

*Sigh.

What’s more interesting is how all these works can be read in multiple ways now. Many of the exploitation artworks originally glorify the men or companies which were taming nature. While this reading is still valid, that they’re now displayed under the heading “Exploitation” means we’re looking at them differently. What was originally optimistic is instead something we’re supposed to reflect on and think about how to change—both our actions with the landscape and our readings of corporate propaganda—moving forward.

Recreation and Tourism

It’s interesting that Recreation and Tourism is a distinct theme outside of exploitation. Not all of the exploitation of California’s resources is through using them up. Recreation and tourism is just as important a part of land management and just as important an industry to the state. Big trees. Big water. Big mountains. These are the landscapes which sell the California image as tourist destination for seeing and taking in and exploring nature.

These are also the landscapes that photographers and painters tend to consume and emulate the most. Where the exploitation artworks are clear what industry they’re depicting, many of the recreation ones end up pointing the finger back at the viewer and the artist and make me think about the fine line between how our desire to see and use these places both allows for their preservation as open space and risks degrading them through overuse.

Beth Van Hoesen, Point Richmond

Beth Van Hoesen, Point Richmond

East Bay

There’s also a gallery dedicated to East Bay landscapes. This is nice to see because it’s local—both the views and the artists—and while the exhibition is about California, it’s also always nice to see items of specific local interest included too. There are a lot of stereotypical nice landscapes on the East Bay but I prefer seeing the depictions of things we typically don’t think of as being picturesque.

Locals have a tendency to undervalue what’s interesting about where they live even while being triggered with intense senses of home from things that non-locals won’t ever understand. It’s those local-specific details which I enjoy seeing the most.

Now, on to the themes which were heavily biased in favor of a specific medium.

Pastoral

This section was all paintings* and pretty much all a nostalgic** view of California as an agricultural paradise. Not really a style of painting I like though it is interesting that there weren’t any photographs present. It’s not like photography can’t do the nostalgia thing.***

*Except for one Edward Weston photo. Oddly enough.

**Making the Weston inclusion even odder.

***Off the top of my head I’m thinking Pirkle Jones would be a good fit here. Or possibly Ken Light.

Between how we also react to old photos as inherently historic and nostalgic documents and how so much of the current trends in photography have been centered around faking and mimicking nostalgia as a reaction to the ubiquity of images and our loss of our lazy-man’s editor, there’s plenty of opportunity for photographs here.

All that said, I think there’s an element of nostalgia which requires things to be kind of made up. Photography, while not real, trades on reality in a way that paintings do not. Looking at nostalgic paintings comes with the understanding that things don’t actually look like that in real life. Looking at photos, especially landscape photos, still comes from a place where we expect the photo to be real.

Yes we should know better here.

Joe Deal, Front Lawn (Watering) Phillips Ranch, California

Joe Deal, Front Lawn (Watering) Phillips Ranch, California

Urban vs. wild

Meanwhile this theme was all photos, many of which were New Topographics type work. And while this made some sense to me since one of photography’s specialties is highlighting incongruent elements such as this urban vs wild theme, it’s not like people stopped painting or drawing the California suburbs.

And the urban vs. wild theme is in many ways about “California style” developments* which are meant to bring the outside in or incorporate controlled wilderness in the midst of suburbia. This isn’t an exclusive to photography thing at all.**

*Something that I wasn’t fully aware of until I moved East and saw homes listed as “California style” which look nothing like anything I’ve seen in California but instead feature more open floor plans and bigger windows and try to seem like they’re closer to nature.

**A lot of Hockney paintings (one of his joiners was in this gallery) seem to fit here. As does a lot of Bechtle.

Still, as with the nostalgia images, the difference in how we approach paintings compared to photos I think is a major reason why this gallery is photo-biased. The fact that the photos are “real” makes the incongruity more believable here.

Robert Dawson, Private Property, Lake Tahoe, California

Robert Dawson, Private Property, Lake Tahoe, California

Dystopia

This was also all photos. Which, didn’t surprise me at all. The dystopia photos, more than anything else here, are treated as evidence of landscapes taken to illogical extremes. You could create images like these in paintings but something about finding these in the wild makes the point better.* These photos are often wry and funny just as often as they’re sad. They’re also the images I liked the most in the exhibition.

*Sandow Birk’s drawings are pretty dystopian but even when referencing specific things, they’re pretty clearly made up.

Many of the dystopian photos revolve around land use and the weird juxtapositions between private and public. Looking through the rest of the galleries in this show, it’s clear how this idea is a constant issue in all the different themes and as such is really the dominant concept in the California landscape.

So many of the images here are about what we’re doing to the landscape. And who in particular is doing it. It’s up to us to see these images and ask the questions about whether we’re doing the right things or if the right people are doing them, and if not, what the right things are and who the right people should be.

California Academy of Sciences

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Finally visited the new California Academy of Sciences. While I have fond memories of the old building, even as a kid I was aware that it was a bit of a throwback to an earlier age of museum. Dusty dioramas and dark, prison-like fishtanks and terrariums paled in comparison to what I could see in Monterey. So it was nice to see a new building with updated displays and tanks.

I especially love the updated aquarium since not only are the tanks nicer, the large Farallon Islands tank highlights a major local marine sanctuary which is distinct from the Outer Bay exhibit in Monterey. That aquariums tend to have such a local focus is one of the reasons I’ve started preferring them to zoos.

Despite not being local, I do like the rainforest exhibit as well since it’s always nice to have exhibits which you’re truly inside to the point where you need to doublecheck that you’re not removing anything when you exit. It’s especially great for kids since it’s truly immersive. I still have to boost them up to see things but there’s no “walking to the next enclosure” downtime.

At the same time, I did find myself looking for things I remembered from the old building.* Besides the alligator pit and the dioramas, not much is left.** But I was pleased to see the dioramas—even if they still feel so dated—even after being updated with projected moving backgrounds. There’s something about the continuity of being able to show my kids how my grandparents learned about the world which appeals to me.

*Like the electric eel (present), piranhas (not present), and foucault pendulum (present).

**Compared to the San Francisco Zoo where much of the old zoo is still there, lurking behind and peeking through the fancy new stuff.

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Monterey Bay Aquarium

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Another visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It’s been a year. This time we managed to explore the whole aquarium more although we spent a lot of tim in the special tentacles exhibit. I was on kid duty and didn’t get to photograph much. They’re at the stage where they run from tank to tank and “see” things really quickly. But large tanks hold their attention for a while. As does looking out over the bay and seeing all the cormorants leaving their nests and returning with fish.

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San Francisco Zoo

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It’s been a few years since I’ve been to the San Francisco Zoo. My observations from my previous visit still stand, but this time in addition to thinking about the animals on display, I found myself thinking about the zoo itself and how it’s kind of a throwback to a lost era.

I have mixed feelings about the San Francisco Zoo in particular. A lot of zoos I’ve been to are completely redone with all fancy new enclosures. The San Francisco Zoo on the otherhand, while there are plenty of new enclosures, has still kept a lot of its WPA-era infrastructure. This is simultaneously depressing since they’re really not the best places for animals as well as exciting since if you squint, you can see glimpses of the past and imagine what things used to be like when all these animals were exotic reminders of how big the world was.

I found myself looking a lot at the old infrastructure this time. Both because as my kids get older, I find myself trying to remember how the zoo was when I used to visit it at their age, and because I enjoy the idea of the zoo containing reminders of how our past society was. And how much we’ve learned about animals since then.

A lot of these photos are close to being ruin porn. At the same time, they’re also me chasing my own memories and ghosts—including the fact that we bought a Zoo Key this time.

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Of course, I was also trying to take photos of the animals. One of my childhood memories of the zoo was how the animals were always hiding.* That’s thankfully no longer the case today. The animals were all out, and quite often lively and healthy looking. So that was nice to see. And nice to photograph.

*In hindsight, it was probably because their enclosures were so depressing.

And the kids had a good time chasing down the Zoo Key boxes and seeing all the animals. Except when things got a bit smelly.

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Emily Fisher Landau Collection

In addition to Levinthal and the Initial Public Offering shows, San José also had a traveling show from the Whitney which focused on the Emily Fisher Landau collection. I’ve been increasingly blah on collector-centric shows as they’ve all started to look the same to me: decent art surveys which make sure to hit all the big names in a collect-them-all fashion but never say anything about the collector beyond thanking them for donating the collection to the museum. Oh, and there’s often a nice cushy catalog with the donor’s name in big letters on the cover.

The better examples at least have nice samples from all the big-name artists. The best examples have multiple nice samples from those artists so you can really learn about them.

The Landau collection is one of the better examples in that it’s a bit collect on of each but manages to choose a good sample of each artist.

Still. It’s hard to do a writeup for this kind of show. So as with the Initial Public Offering show, this is just what caught my eye.

Rodney Graham. Oak, Middle Aston, 1990

Rodney Graham

Photographywise, it’s always nice to see real dye-transfer Egglestons. Especially now that that process is dead dead.

It’s also nice to see a few Peter Hujars in the flesh. I need to look at more of his work.

And Rodney Graham’s large upside down photo print emulating the camera obscura experience is an interesting idea. It’s not as magical as a true camera obscura but it does suggest a bit of the same change in our relationship with the image subject that a camera obscura or view camera can produce.

John Baldessari. What This Painting Aims to Do, 1967

John Baldessari

I still like most everything Baldessari does. Neil Jenney makes me laugh. And John McLaughlin’s “simple” collages are a brilliant idea worth stealing.

Glenn Ligon’s piece about profiling is disturbingly, depressingly, still relevant today.

I noticed that Jasper Johns’s flags in 1973 have 50 stars (they didn’t in 1968) and now I’m wondering if the change was intentional.*

*Note: Hawaii became a state in 1959.

Keith Haring. Untitled, 1985

Keith Haring

David Wojnarowicz. Untitled, 1990

David Wojnarowicz

And between the Hujar photos, Haring print, and Wojnarowicz collage, I started to realize how brief but intense the AIDS epidemic was.* I grew up during it so it was just always there for me.* Now, three decades later, it’s become apparent that there’s maybe a decade of art which reflects the fear and loss and despair and confusion of the disease as it rampaged through the art community and the gay community.

*I’m using past tense here because I’m really talking about the period of time when the disease was pretty much a death sentence in the West and we were just figuring out what it was and how it infected people. It’s obviously still an epidemic in parts of the world from an infection point of view. But it’s no longer the death sentence it used to be and I don’t get the sense that we, culturally, are as scared of it like we were then.

There’s something both dated and uniquely raw about the AIDS artwork. For as much stuff as was going on in the world over the decades covered in this collection, a lot of the art just ignores it and focuses only on the art world. This is not a criticism, just an observation. The AIDS-related works are one of the few cases where the art confronts and reacts to world events. It’s also extremely personal and it’s still very powerful to see art where the artist is reacting so viscerally to what’s going on.

At the same time. Yeah. We no longer care about AIDS the way we did then. It’s still something to fear. But it’s a different fear than it used to be and as a result, the art feels dated since we’ve moved on to other causes.* I can see already how I’m going to have to explain to my kids how things were when I was growing up.

*Compared to the Ligon piece I mentioned earlier which is also personally reacting to current events but which reflects a situation we’ve not made any clear progress on improving. So his piece feels not just fresh and relevant, but disturbingly so.

Initial Public Offering

One of the things I like about the San Jose Museum of Art is how it frequently just shows new acquisitions in shows which basically state “we thought this was interesting and think you may too.” I’ve seen some interesting things there over the years—Listening Post being a highlight—and I was interested in their latest installment.

It’s not really an exhibition you can talk about as a whole. These are various works of art—some of which are boring and others of which really grab you—and the only common thread is that they’re new to the museum. But there’s always something which makes the whole visit worthwhile or which I want to remember and talk about.*

*Well, besides David Levinthal which was so good that everything else could have been awful and I’d still have considered my visit a success.

So. Highlights and thoughts that occurred to me while wandering through San José’s Initial Public Offering:

Sandow Birk. Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Sandow Birk’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights really stood out. I already like his work after seeing his Dante drawings a few years ago. This is even more amazing. It’s not a piece to read the declaration in,* rather, it’s enough to know that the entire declaration in written there and spend your time scrutinizing the rest of the drawing. There’s a lot to see—much of it directly relevant to the current state of Silicon Valley.

*Better to get that from the UN website.

Gleaming glass towers of progress and comfort on one side. Slums and squalor and poverty on the other. Inequality, especially regarding access to basic rights, everywhere. Security cameras and surveillance all over. That the monument is falling over and propped up is just overkill. I stayed in front of this and looked at it for a long time.

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From a less serious point of view, I really liked Stephanie Syjuco’s International Orange Commemorative Store. It’s nice to come across art that just makes me laugh. This is one such piece. While it’s relevant to the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Area, it’s also just a funny commentary on the way we merchandise everything.

Why not an International Orange store? I found myself kind of wanting a Giants cap with the logo in that color.

Sam Hernandez. Dichos y Bichos II

Sam Henandez’s Dichos y Bichos was another piece I looked at for a while. Many of these I recognize. Many I do not. But I’m always struggling to come up with Spanish idioms (especially when trying to explain English idioms to Spanish speakers) so it’s nice to see these.

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I also really liked Clare Rojas’s paintings. Lots of detail and gesture but also something very controlled from a folk craft point of view about these. I especially liked how they were displayed together in their own cluster.

I’m gradually turning into a Mission School fan and it’s nice to see local museums focus on that movement.

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I really liked the new Eric Fischl painting. Not much to say except that I always love these kind of gestural drawings (though this painting is huge) that manage to evoke so much with such ease.

Jay DeFeo; Three Mile Island #2, from the series One O'Clock Jump

Jay DeFeo is awesome. As usual. She sees things the way I wish I could see things as a photographer. And she paints or draws them in ways that are extremely photographic, but also which are possibly beyond the capability of a photograph. Her objects—in this case a tape dispenser—become renderings that transcend being representations of the product and instead suggest character and soul. I could look at her work all day.

John Chiara. Fort Barry at Bonita Point (right)

John Chiara is interesting. Especially when displayed with his comment:

I’ve kind of made photography as…labor intensive as it can be.

I’ve gradually been moving away from process fetishism. Especially in photography. Not because I believe that stuff never matters, just that all too often it’s treated as if it’s all that matters. It’s easy to become enamored with the process and forget that the end product also matters. At the same time, of course the process informs the end product.

I’m not too taken with this photo. But I appreciate how the museum tries to strike a balance between focusing on the process and asking viewers to think about how the process influenced the piece by limiting the locations (and environments) in which Chiara could actually take a photo.

It was also nice to note that many, if not most, of the pieces in display are either by local artists or of specific local interest. I’ve always liked how I can get a fix of local art in San José. It pleases me to see that they keep on pushing the collection that way.