San José Museum of Art

One of the things I haven’t done much at all of since COVID hit is go to art museums. I went to an exhibit the weekend before lockdown in 2020. I went to my next one in March this year. The fact that I haven’t yet written about the exhibit I went to earlier this year* indicates how out of practice I was.

*Yes I’m still working on it.

I’m not going to treat  museum visits as something that needs to be blogged about in order though.  If anything I’m going to do the reverse and try to say on top of other things while letting the old post languish. I’ll get to it when I get to it.

Anyway, I went to the San José Museum of Art last week. I’ve made no secret about how much I love this museum. Despite living on the East Coast I maintain my membership in San José (that the reciprocal benefits package is outstanding does help here) and enjoy visiting the museum itself whenever I can.

Pebbles and Kelp, Point Lobos, California, 1965

I visited primarily to see the Brett Weston show. Weston is one of those photographers where I generally can’t bring specific artworks to mind but who I must have grown up looking at in various Bay Area museums. I know I’ve seen his work in San José and Oakland but the degree to which so many of the photographs in the show felt familiar to me was uncanny.

It’s not that I’ve necessarily seen these specific images either. His approach to photography and the way he notices textures and contrasts is something that I clearly grew up looking at and absorbing. Do I take photographs that look like Weston’s (or even try to copy him)? Not really. But that when I’m out with a camera this is the kind of stuff I’m seeing and looking for.

Worm Tracks, California, 1937
Rock and Pebbles, Pebble Beach, California, 1976

What I love about his work is how it really is just about the contrasts and recognizing where those contrasts are. Sometimes these things are fairly obvious like where an insect has bored, the difference between wet and dry rock, or reeds and their reflections on a still body of water. Other times you have to see the potential and recognize how paint, puddled water, leaf veins, or pan grease will not only convert to black and white but what color the contrast is going to be in and how to filter for that.

It’s a wonderful way to see the world and the fact that Weston spent decades taking basically the same kind of photo shows how deep it goes.

He’s clearly a very adept printer who is able to print things super contrasty without crushing the hell out of his shadows or blowing out his highlights. Lots of details still in the deep blacks and bright whites as those tones tend to dominate the image but there are still midtones present as well. At the same time he’s fearless of letting things become silhouettes and abstracting them to just shapes. Lots of good lessons to learn and be reminded of as I process my own photos.

Mono Lake, California, 1966

San José has a few landscapes on display as well. I don’t find them as interesting but you can still see how he uses silhouettes and deep shadows in them and how he’s trying to find larger scale textures in the sand or the surf.

Sadly there was no catalog available. Looks like I need to set up a reminder to save up for a Lodima book—likely Abstractions 1 or Abstractions 2—since I do love those prints.

Also at San José

Louise Nevelson, Sky Cathedral, 1957

San José also had a small exhibition of works from its collection that represent the connection the museum has to the community. It’s this connection which is why, despite living in New Jersey, that I choose to maintain my membership. Of all the museums I visit,* San José is the one that consistently displays artwork which feels relevant to both my interests and to local interests.

*Or, given the pandemic, visited.

So yeah, walking in to the room and seeing Jay DeFeo, Robert Arneson, and Hung Liu brought a big smile to my face. Nice to see some local favorites in  my first visit to the museum in three years. Hung Liu in particular feels especially poignant and relevant given the last three years of perpetual foreignness and the demonization of Asian Americans that hase accompanied the pandemic.

I also got to take a really good look at Louise Nevelson’s Sky Cathedral which I’ve seen a lot over the years but haven’t taken a good look at since I moved to New Jersey. It hits differently now as I’ve gotten to know New York City better and have a better recognition of the items in the boxes and what process resulted in them being there.

Stephanie Syjuco, Chromakey Aftermath 2 (Flags, Sticks and Barriers), 2017

I also discovered some new-to-me works. I remember Stephanie Syjuco’s International Orange Exhibition years ago but I had not see her Chromakey Aftermath photos. These are very clever in how they erase the content of various protests—suggesting both ways that we can digitally change the content to suit our politics and how aware we have to be when viewing images of protests so that we’re not snookered by something that’s been faked digitally.

Judy Baca’s Raspados Mojados* was another new to me artwork. It would’ve fit in perfectly in the Mexicanismo show but I’m glad I saw it here. She’s mainly a muralist but using the raspa cart as a mobile mural of sorts is a great way of bringing her work into the museum itself and using a mechanism of Mexican labor to tell the story of Mexican labor.

*Better photos on her website.

All in all a very good visit. Neither exhibit is particularly large but together they hit the spot as I work myself back into museum-going form.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at njwv.wordpress.com, and the web at vossbrink.net

One thought on “San José Museum of Art”

  1. Haven’t attended the San Jose Museum of Art in years… and wasn’t familiar with Weston’s work until reading this post. Gonna try and go sometime in the near future… if anything to see specifically Weston’s photography. I’m a huge fan of black and white nature photography. But… you already know that… since I’m always commenting on your amazing photographs.

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