San Jose Museum of Art

photo: John Hazeltine

San Jose, CA



The Lighter Side of Bay Area Figuration

September 3 - November 26, 2000


Opening September 3, 2000 at the San Jose Museum of Art, The Lighter Side of Bay Area Figuration is a compelling exhibition of approximately 70 works that deftly examines the historical, social, cultural, and aesthetic development of humorous Bay Area art. Running through November 26, 2000 the exhibition - the first to identify and examine this genre - highlights the work of artists associated with the University of California at Davis, such as Robert Arneson, Roy De Forest, and Wayne Thiebaud, and with artists associated with the East Bay, such as Robert Colescott, Joan Brown, M. Louise Stanley, and James Albertson. (left: Richard Diebenkorn, Round Table, 1962, oil on canvas, 69 7/8 x 63 1/2 inches)

The Lighter Side of Bay Area Figuration, which was co-organized by SJMA with the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, is the inaugural exhibition curated by SJMA's Katie and Drew Gibson Chief Curator Susan Landauer. The exhibition, which premiered at the Kemper, was expanded by Landauer for the San Jose presentation to include an even wider range of work which is reflective of the overriding theme. Landauer states: "A word on my concept of humor: I decided early on to conceive of humor in its broadest, most inclusive sense. Some works might make viewers laugh out loud; others may provoke a smile, while still others will probably induce no more than unexhibited amusement. Humor in this show ranges from light-hearted, playful jest to grotesque social critique. It is interesting how personal humor turns out to be. What may be offensive for one viewer may be sidesplitting to another." (left: Joan Brown, Portrait of Bob for Bingo, 1960, oil on canvas, 29 x 28 inches)

The 16 artists included in the exhibition are: James Albertson, Robert Arneson , Clayton Bailey, Elmer Bischoff, Joan Brown, Mark Bulwinkle, Robert Colescott, Roy De Forest, Richard Diebenkorn, Viola Frey, David Gilhooly, Philip Morsberger, David Park, Peter Saul, Richard Shaw, M. Louise Stanley, Raimonds Staprans, Wayne Thiebaud, Peter VandenBerge, William T. Wiley and Paul Wonner. (left: Roy De Forest, Country Dog Gerntleman, 1972, polymer on canvas, 96 x 92 inches)

Landauer comments, "In the early 1960s, it became a badge of honor to buck New York-generated trends by combining humor with lowbrow artistic media, notably ceramics fired with commercial hobbyist glazes."

Robert Arneson, one of the most influential Bay Area artists represented in the show, together with Peter Voulkos, revolutionized the medium of ceramics by elevating it from traditional craft to fine art. Arneson was the "leader of the pack" that centered around the UC Davis campus during the '60s. By working with both clay and humor, he also broke two high-art taboos, creating a "double whammy" in the words of one of his former students, artist Richard Shaw. Arneson satirized everyone from Picasso to Ronald Reagan with his large-scale figurative sculptures, even to the point of creating a public brouhaha over his controversial public art commission memorializing George Moscone for the new San Francisco Convention Center.

Wayne Thiebaud, who began his career as a cartoonist, is another key artist of the UC Davis group. Thiebaud depicts mundane, mass-produced objects such as pies, cakes, gumball machines, and sunglasses in a highly developed, painterly style more akin in sensibility to Pop art. Thiebaud's humor is subtle and whimsical as opposed to Arneson's razor-sharp lampoons of political figures, social mores, and even himself. Landauer states of Thiebaud's work, "The humor in his work is far from parody, but rather is the result of mentally distilling his imagery through a process he called 'essentialization.'" (left: Wayne Thiebaud, Cakes & Pies, 1994-5, oil on canvas, 72 x 64 inches)

Other UC Davis artists included in the exhibition are William T. Wiley, known for complex, finely drawn paintings that incorporate his personal mythologies as well as "Duchampian" puns, bits of Zen Buddhism and Western Americana; Roy De Forest, recognized for his capricious paintings populated with wild-eyed dogs cavorting in brightly-colored, crazy-quilt jungles; David Gilhooly and Peter VandenBerge, who each took the medium of clay and created irreverent, humorous works that poked fun at the absurdities of the American way of life; and Clayton Bailey, credited as being the zaniest of the Davis group, who is represented with a series of robots, such as "Robot Pet" (1990), constructed from cast-off appliances, light bulbs, and bits of found objects. (David Park, Cousin Emily and Pet Pet, 1953, oil on canvas, 46 x 32 inches)

In the 1970s, the action shifted to the East Bay - Berkeley and Oakland - where another group of satirical artists formed and continues to work today. Landauer states that, "Like their Davis predecessors, these artists combined humor with crude techniques as a way of rebelling against mainstream models. But where the Davis artists generally produced playful art, the East Bay group prefers scorching satire." Among the artists in this group are Robert Colescott, M. Louise Stanley, James Albertson, and Peter Saul.

Robert Colescott, who is represented in the exhibition with five paintings, uses humor to target deeply ingrained stereotypes of African Americans. Ranging from exposure of sexual stereotypes to skewed versions of American and European history, Colescott casts a cold, satiric eye on white racist attitudes. A classic example is his parody of the landmark painting by Gericault, "The Raft of Medusa" (1819). In Colescott's "The Wreck of Medusa" (c. 1978) he not only demystifies the art historical masterpiece as a sacred object, but also comments on the fact that African Americans have been written out of history and excluded from high culture. Landauer states, "Like Albertson and Stanley, Colescott understands that humor is often the best weapon to address the most serious problems of society." Other figures in the East Bay scene include James Albertson, whose paintings parody middle-class American family life with excoriating wit; M. Louise Stanley, an early feminist, who targets female foibles and gender relations within her work; and Peter Saul, who is a classic satirist who addresses social ills and political pitfalls with a cartoonish rancor. (left: Robert Colescott, Les Demoiselles d'Alabama vestidas, 1985, acrylic paint on canvas, 96 x 92 inches; right: Robert Colescott, Colored TV, 1977, acrylic paint on canvas, 84 x 26 inches)

The Lighter Side of Bay Area Figuration, which is organized by the San Jose Museum of Art and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, MO, is accompanied by a 70-page four-color catalogue with an essay by Susan Landauer and artists' biographies by SJMA Assistant Curator Karen Kienzle; co-published by SJMA and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art.

Deborah and Andy Rappaport are lead sponsors and Adaptec is corporate sponsor of the San Jose presentation.

Read more about San Jose Museum of Art in Resource Library Magazine.

Please click on thumbnail images bordered by a red line to see enlargements.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 3/23/11

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