Category Archives: San José Museum of Art

Crossroads

Across the landing from House Imaginary in the old museum building was a small collection of government funded prints of the “American Scene.” This is not something I consider myself to be interested in but I always take a walk through all the galleries just in case.

I’m glad I did so. I don’t like most of these but I love what they made me think of.

First off, San José is making the argument that Federal support of the arts is not just a good thing but it’s an inherently American thing. These are important colors to nail to the mast. The importance of art, sustaining that art, and for the rest of the public to access that art is something that we’ve abandoned today. At the same time I recognize the nature of this public art and how it functions as propaganda.

Thomas Hart Benton Cradling Wheat, 1939

Thomas Hart Benton
Cradling Wheat, 1939

The specific images in the exhibition focus on American life and locations. I found them especially interesting to compare with the Mexican Modernism prints which are roughly contemporary and frequently depict similar subject matter yet feel completely different. Where the Mexican prints are explicitly anti-capitalist in their celebration of manual labor and the common worker, the American ones don’t have that edge.

Yes, they celebrate manual labor and the common worker as much as, if not more than, the Communist prints did. But the framing is one of nostalgia. Pastoral scenes have that rosy Grant Wood* idyllic pre-industrial feel. Rather than critique the way that way of life is changing the goal seems to be comfort and reassurance.

*Many of his prints are on display here.

Leon Gilmour.
Cement Finishers.

The industrial and urban prints do better. They’re frequently grittier and show a wider spectrum of life in ways that remind me of 1930s photography. The artists are clearly inspired by many of the same industrialscapes that attract photographers and the social justice cause of humanizing the laborers is also something that occurs frequently in photography of this time. Showing people living and working in the hustle and bustle of the city is a new avenue of investigation.

I’m still intrigued by the subtle differences in how some labor images read “Communist” while others read as “Capitalist.” I’m certainly aware that a lot of the federally-funded artists had communist sympathies but while I can certainly view many of these as being pro-labor, pro-communist images, they’re subtle enough that I don’t have to and, without the museum framing things this way, it’s very easy to see them as pro-development instead.

Anyway I wasn’t expecting  to have these thoughts about this show and I’m pleasantly surprised that I did.

Leon Gilmour.
Pinnacles.

The last section of the room involved landscapes and nature studies. I really liked these in part because how much they reminded me of photography and paralleled the emergence of group ƒ/64. There’s that same sense of deep crisp focus and the seduction of contrasty light. There’s the awareness of how natural views can function as abstract imagery.

I’m curious whether one medium influenced the other or if there was just something in the air at the time which resulted in everyone seeing things in similar ways.

House Imaginary

Upstairs from Rise Up and California Dreamin’ is a large exhibition about housing. Given how housing is one of the most-pressing issues in the area, this is one of the most-topical shows that San José could do.

The works on display demonstrate interesting combination of “house” and “neighborhood.” While the two concepts are obviously linked, I can’t think of any of the pieces which actually bridge both and investigate that link. If anything, California Dreamin’ comes closer than anything actually in the show with the way it evokes both the architecture of apartment housing and the feeling of being in those neighborhoods.

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Zarina

The works which investigate the concept of “house” frequently touch on how home is what you make of it. There’s photography like Bill Owens’s images of 1970s Bay Area suburbia or Larry Sultan’s images of his parents’ retirement community. There are wonderfully personal images like Claire Rojas’s small, wonderfully-detailed paintings, Carmen Garza’s comfortable family scenes, and Gertrude Bleiberg’s sketches.

As much as the theme of the exhibition is housing, these works are specifically about the concept of home. The nature of the housing is ancillary to the fact that it exists. It’s what we do with, and inside, that housing where the real meaning gets created.

My favorite piece in the show was Zarina’s collection of floorplans of all the houses she’s lived in. These aren’t architectural blueprints; they’re sketches of the floorplans based on her memories. I love the concept since it ends up being about the house itself, it’s use, and the way the artist is remembering her life there.

Looking at all the floorplans together is fantastic. I can imagine how the rooms were used and think about how life must’ve been in each home. I can compare the floorplans from different parts of the world and get a sense of how differently (or similarly) buildings are built in each place. Do I want to know about the neighborhoods these homes are in? Absolutely. But more than any other piece in the exhibition this one gets at how many different levels housing leaves its mark on us.

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An Te Liu

The neighborhood side of the show is also not just any neighborhood; it’s almost always about planned communities—usually suburbs but there is some work about company towns in here. Lots of photography again from Todd Hido’s wonderful night photos of suburban light to Robert Isaacs’s photos of Daly City to David Maisel‘s aerial photos of suburban sprawl.

My favorite piece from this section of the show is An Te Liu’s selection of Levittown-inspired fabric prints which take delight in the patterns of development and the effect that row-upon-row of like-looking houses creates when abstracted just slightly. It’s both a lot of fun and wonderfully clever.

Looking at all these images of surburbia though made me realize that none of the artworks on hand were actually prepared to deal with the situation of how to fit a massive amount of housing into an area where there’s no open land to build on.

All the new housing development I’m seeing in the Bay Area hasn’t quite figured this out either. There’s not enough room to build single family homes but everything still has to have vestigial trappings of a yard or a porch. Every home is accessed via a two-lane street lined with endless two-car garages on each side. The supposed front doors can only be accessed by a alley which is so narrow that sunlight only reaches the ground at noon. The streets and sidewalks in these developments are not public land so you can’t actually walk along them unless you live there.

We‘re trying to build forms of housing on land that can no longer accommodate that form. And we‘re selling a myth of home use that doesn’t appear to exist anymore.

This was a tricky show to do. I liked it but it also made me sad because so much of it is looking into the past at our memories of what home was. I appreciate that San José is trying to address a topical issue but looking into our emotional memories of what home was is merely the beginning. Too much of this exhibition treats that concept as the end of the discussion.

California Dreamin

In the gallery right next to Rise Up was an installation of Won Ju Lim’s work—in particular her lightboxes and lighted rooms which evoke the dreamy nature of nocturnal cityscapes.

Untitled

Won Ju Lim California Dreamin’, 2002

California Dreamin’ is a gallery-sized piece where images of sunsets with silhouetted palm trees are projected through a structure of foamcore and acrylic. It’s extremely Los Angeles. This isn’t a knock on it since it’s supposed to be Los Angeles but it risks feeling out of place in San José. As a native Bay Arean, I always kept LA a bit at arms length—in large part because of how often LA’s identity seemed to subsume the rest of California’s.

It was only after moving to New Jersey that LA began to feel like home. Now, with the way the Bay Area has changed so all the strip malls that used to house mom and pop shops and restaurants have been replaced with up-market food chains and luxury condos, LA often feels more like the Bay Area I remember. Yes the geography and vegetation are different. But the sense of the place and even the sense of the neighborhoods feels like what I want home to feel like.

I stayed in this gallery a long time. Took a nice slow walk around the entire structure. Let my eyes get accustomed to the light levels so I could really take it in. There’s something about that late-sunset time when the sky is still light but everything else is dark that I love. It’s time to finish up work and go home in winter. It’s time to finish dinner and get ready for the night in summer. There’s something calming about it not being night yet but definitely not being day.

The structure in the center of the installation suggested housing styles which are uniquely suited for this time of day. On the east coast, you’re not going to be hanging out on a balcony or walking around the street at this time. The weather is rarely amenable to it and homes aren’t built to accommodate this kind of thing.

On the west coast, this is peak go out and take a moment for yourself time. I haven’t done enough of that this summer but this installation reminded me of that joy.

Won Ju Lim Memory Palace, Terrace 49 #1, 2003

Won Ju Lim
Memory Palace, Terrace 49 #1, 2003

The Terrace installations have a similar feeling except that rather than being in a room which reminds you of being outside, these suggest the feeling of looking out your window and seeing the neighborhood wake up as the sun goes down. I love these pieces a lot too. They‘re still very LA but the foliage is different enough that they also remind me of the Bay Area and being out at night in the Peninsula or the East Bay where there’s just enough elevation to make things layered.

That cloudiness of the layers of acrylic also suggests a bit of fog is an added bonus. There’s nothing like a bit of marine layer to remind me of home.

Rise Up!

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.

Robert Arneson. Five Times for Harvey, 1982.

Robert Arneson.
Five Times for Harvey, 1982.

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.

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Wangechi Mutu

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.

Also at San José

In addition to Fragile Waters there’s a lot of other good stuff going on in San José. A few highlights which caught my interest.

Victor Cartagena

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This was good. I love that it’s in collaboration with the farmworkers and really gets at the human costs of our food industry. The way that workers are sprayed with chemicals—fertilizers and pesticides—so that even when they weren’t working they couldn’t escape the job. The way laborers have to consume some of the product they’re picking in order to survive the day. The way the government treats them as disposable, unwanted cogs in the machine when they’re actually a lynchpin of the economy.

Yet even if we know of the human costs we don’t really know the humans involved. Cartagena shows us people—even names them—but proceeds to obscure them so that we have to look through the evidence of their labor in order to discern their features.

I did find it interesting that there was no mention of Kara Walker even though her Subtlety covered similar territory with regard to sugar three years ago. Cartagena’s work is different in that he’s used the actual likeness of one of the laborers, the resulting sugar masks also evoke the sugar skulls of Día de los Muertos, and they’re an explicit reference to Catholicism. 12 masks for 12 apostles. A table set for the last supper. The idea that this faith and culture is based on the miracle of transubstantiation and how life literally comes from the consumption of someone else’s body.

It just felt too similar not to mention that other artists are also working with the legacies of American sugar production. There’s probably an artist I don’t know of doing something very similar in Hawai‘i as well.

Darkened Mirror

Khvay Samnang Untitled, 2011 Digital still from video

Khvay Samnang
Untitled, 2011
Digital still from video

This was a nice supplement to the more-traditional old topographics of Fragile Waters. Where Fragile Waters is reminding us to get out and enjoy nature, Darkened Mirror is about pointing out how water usage alters the landscape and displaces people.

Your Mind, This Moment

A gallery of slow art. Most of these didn’t hold my attention. Mineko Grimmer however did. Her Mahagony Music Box taps into the kid of fascination I remember feeling about watching the Foucault pendulum at the Academy of Sciences when I was a kid. Something about watching the water drip and being surprised every time a stone falls. Plus it just sounds great. The sticks make a wonderful natural clack and the occasional string sounds at what feels like the perfect time.

Fragile Waters

There is but one Ocean though its coves have many names; a single sea of Atmosphere with no coves at all; the miracle of soil, alive and giving life, lying thin on the only Earth, for which there is no spare.

David Brower

Ansel Adams Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, WY, 1942

Ansel Adams
Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, WY, 1942

Ernest H. Brooks II Pirouette, Santa Barbara Island, 1981

Ernest H. Brooks II
Pirouette, Santa Barbara Island, 1981

Dorothy Kerper Monnelly Salt Marsh Island, Clouds, Ipswich, MA, 2005

Dorothy Kerper Monnelly
Salt Marsh Island, Clouds, Ipswich, MA, 2005

Ernest H. Brooks II 1996 Year of the Coral Reef, Sombrero Island, Philippines

Ernest H. Brooks II
1996 Year of the Coral Reef, Sombrero Island, Philippines

Dorothy Kerper Monnelly Rock Crevice Pool, Acadia National Park, Maine, 2001

Dorothy Kerper Monnelly
Rock Crevice Pool, Acadia National Park, Maine, 2001

I often find myself wondering whether the old style of environmental photography is still relevant. I’ve been tempted to read it as more of an epitaph than a call to action, but taking in San José’s Fragile Waters show has me realizing there’s still a place for it.

Ansel Adams is obviously the big name but it’s the combination of Ernest H. Brooks and Dorothy Kerper Monnelly and the way they expand on the Adams’s body of work which is most interesting here. There are many similar views—not the same, just similar enough to notice the familiarity in perspective—which work together to show how all water is indeed connected.

Their work hops from coast to coast and ocean to ocean yet in each location, while the photos are different, the perspectives are the same. This is a good thing. The way we value water is the same everywhere. The way we need water is the same everywhere. The way we commune with nature is the same. Everywhere. Water is so dynamic yet in all these photos it’s still and frozen in time. The photographers spent hours waiting for the right light or composition but that they also were just out in nature matters.

Where Adams is clearly focused on working the scene and creating an image and making his point, Brooks and Monnelly are much more zen about things. Specifically, there’s an underlying theme in their nature and environmental photography as being a means rather than an end. That a successful photography session is one which results in you feeling refreshed from being in the presence of nature. That the actual image itself makes no difference to whether you’ve succeeded.

It’s this change in perspective which makes their environmental photography so much more effective for me. Whereas the “see this pristine wilderness before it’s ruined” type of photography doesn’t do it for me, “this is the evidence of my time in nature” does. I can feel the mindfulness of it and the way that it emerges from the experience of just being.

Dorothy Kerper Monnelly Salt Hay, First Light, Gloucester, MA, 1998

Dorothy Kerper Monnelly
Salt Hay, First Light, Gloucester, MA, 1998

That the perspectives are similar and the experiences are similar suggests our shared humanity and relieves a lot of the selfish concerns I have about my own photography. A lot of the photos on display remind me of my own work. This could easily be cause for despair but it’s okay here. I’m not consciously mimicking anyone’s images, I’m just following the same process. My photos are different in that their part of my own experience just being in nature—whether it’s an isolated lake in the High Sierra or a artificial pond in an industrial park. They’re what I saw and the more important thing was that I got outside and away from everything else.

They speak to why it’s so important to preserve nature and natural spaces. Yes, conserving them for the survival of other life is important, but we need them for ourselves and our sanity too.

It’s easy to forget how important it is to get away and just take a walk. Get out in trees or along the water. Watch the wildlife. Play chicken with the waves. Touch the earth. Go for a swim. “Old topographics” nature photography like this serves as a reminder to get off the computer and get outside. Their environmental message is that reminder that we need to do this..

Ernest H. Brooks II Winged Wall, Antarctica, 2010

Ernest H. Brooks II
Winged Wall, Antarctica, 2010

The epitaph and elegy reading is still strong though. Monnelly has a number of beautiful photographs of winter ice captioned with the sentiment about how melting ice represents the return of life. This is indeed the traditional reading. However since Brooks’s photographs of Antarctica are in the same gallery, I was struck by the irony that melting ice also represents the beginning of the end.

It’s one thing to see and be reminded of how we all see and react to water in similar ways. Ice though is much more divisive. Many of us dislike it and celebrate its annual disappearance. At the same time, we need it. It’s what California depends on for its water and it’s a ticking time bomb as it melts in the North and South poles.

On Ernest H. Brooks

As an underwater photographer Brooks is very interesting to look at from a technical point of view. His equipment is incredibly important to his work and it’s very obvious in looking at how his prints go from traditional to digital that we’re watching him make the transition from film to digital too. I love that he’s committed to shooting in black and white even with a digital camera.

I also like how mixed his subject matter is. Animal portraits. Abstracts. People and their presence in the water. Underwater requires both more awareness as to what can make a good photo and the ability to react when it occurs. His switch to digital also appears to have opened up some above-water subject matter to him. His ultra wide clouds and Infrared Antarctica images are also good and with their emphasis on the sky, are very much in keeping with the way that many of his underwater photos treat the surface of the water.

I also especially enjoy the way the infrared shots interact with Ansel Adams’s red-fltered skies.

On Dorothy Kerper Monnelly

Unlike Brooks she very clearly has her equipment settled. Like Brooks she spends her time just in nature, revisits similar subjects and lets the photos come to her. I like her work a lot. Despite much of it being East Coast instead of West Coast her approach just speaks to me.

Her photos of marshes and shores feel like she’s making the same walks every day and really knows the lay of the land now. What to expect. Where the best location are. And as mentioned before, her photos of ice and snow are beautiful in how they capture how dynamic and sculptural their formations are.

I also love how frequently her work is gloriously low contrast. Brooks and Adams tend toward using the full range of tones—often with extreme black skies or backgrounds due to filtering in camera of because of fall-off due to the water. Monnelly though thrives on the fog and mist of early mornings and is smart enough to embrace all the wonderful midtones that result.

On Adams

Ansel Adams Point Sur, Storm, Big Sur, CA, 1946

Ansel Adams
Point Sur, Storm, Big Sur, CA, 1946

There’s not much to say about Adams. I know his work. We all know his work. I did find it odd though that there were two different prints of his Point Sur Storm photos yet the museum didn’t flag that they were from the same negative or comment on why both were on display. One was labeled 1946 and the other 1948 but nothing indicated that this was a printing date.

The 1948 print is larger and has had its contrasts reworked a bit. Slightly higher contrast overall and some of the shadow details are gone due to no longer being held back. The digital image here of the 1946 print is also higher contrast than what’s actually on display but you can see details in the lower lefthand corner which aren’t there at all in the 1948 print.

I’m used to Adams revisiting negatives decades later but in this case it feels more like he’s working through how he sees this negative. Given the way that this show  leans in to the Adams name—there’s also a display of his camera—I found myself wanting to know more about his process. At least we got to read a wonderful letter about juvenilia photo (also on display) which gets into how much work Adams put into his photography. It’s very different from the mindful experiential process that Brooks and Donnelly practiced but it’s great to see how considered everything is.

Tabaimo: Her Room

Tabaimo DanDAN, 2009 Video installation with sound 4 minutes, 34 seconds Installation view at James Cohan Gallery, New York, September 2011 photo: Jason Mandella © Tabaimo / Courtesy Gallery Koyanagi, Tokyo and James Cohan Gallery,New York/Shanghai

After seeing Border Cantos, I wandered through San José’s Tabaimo show. Seeing videos in an art museum is always a weird thing where I have to remind myself to give the loop some time to grow on me. It’s a good thing that there’s a space for short films that can play with not conforming to the expectations of plotting, etc. that we have about films shown in a theater. I just have to remember myself that I can’t judge these like I would judge a movie. Yes there’s often a start but I don’t always begin there. Nor can I expect it to hook me immediately when I start watching.

As an animation junkie, I liked a lot of  this show. Tabaimo’s pieces are more like video sculptures than films. They’re projected onto three-dimensional surfaces and often involve additional depth and dimension in addition to those surfaces. I especially liked DanDAN and the way it slipped through the different units and floors of an apartment building. I also found myself appreciating just the craft of putting together and staging everything. Juggling the animation, how the projection will hit the surface, and how the different projections will interact is an impressive amount of stagecraft.

I also always like looking at hand-drawn animation which mimics other media in its brush and line styles. This is especially true now when so much of the goal of computer animation is achieving a realistic look. Instead, I love when the animation still looks like drawings or paintings that have come alive. All of Tabaimo’s work has that sketchy/brushy quality and it’s just fun to look at.

At the same time, all of the work on display draws on cultural references which I don’t understand. This isn’t a critique of the art as much as it’s a critique of how it’s displayed. I don’t think really any of the museum goers will understand the textual or cultural references and while the works are named on the wall text, there’s not much about what those works are about. Which is a shame since I think I’d enjoy these all a lot more if they were presented in a way which took them beyond the “don’t these look cool” appeal.