I finally took my annual trip to the San José Museum of Art late last month. I’d like to go more often but I’m only in town in the summer. I’ve been very pleased though that amidst all the changes in the Bay Area over the five years since I’ve left that San José has kept the quality up and is still presenting art that is relevant to the Bay Area rather than falling into the trap of chasing those blockbuster traveling shows.
The main show this time is Rise Up. It’s a collector-based show but rather than featuring the same name-brand artists, it features a collector who actually has his own taste and vision. He started collecting by acquiring Robert Arneson’s Five Times for Harvey and then just took off in acquiring art from all kinds of under-represented artists.
The Arneson origin story of the collection is why things are framed as “social justice.” Most of the rest of the works on display though are not about outright protest or responding to a current event. Instead the central theme is one of representation. That they’re so relevant to today’s issues is a demonstration of how rarely we see these voices in mass media.
In some ways I’m annoyed by this mischaracterization. In other ways I really like it. Arneson may be the only white male artist in the show but by using the protest art framing, San José avoids making this a Race™ exhibition. We should be used to galleries full of art by people who aren’t white men. These artworks should also be presented as universal. And that’s exactly what San José quietly does here.
This show also blows up the idea that the silver lining to Trump would be that “at least we’ll get some good art.” The pieces on display go back more than three decades and speak about the pride and perseverance it takes to survive in this country as an underrepresented group. It’s art that typically doesn’t make it into mainstream collections but the sentiments of life and survival are as appropriate now as they were then.
Of special note in this exhibition is the wonderful selection of artwork by Black women. Kara Walker, Mickalene Thomas, Sadie Barnette, Alison Saar, and Wangechi Mutu are all on display and their work in particular shows how limited the mainstream representations of black womanhood is.
The expressions of who they are, how society has treated them, how they feel about themselves. and what gives them strength confirm that the best way to break stereotypes and see people as human is to have a multitude of representations available. Not one artist on display or one character in a movie. Many of them, each with their own character and point of view.
The art is also frequently moving without the othering gaze that so-often occurs when I see these subjects in a museum. I just wish this were the standard for what art is without having to come up with some kind of hook for why it’s appropriate today.