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.


Resource Library features these essays concerning Northern California art:

Jennie V. Cannon: The Untold History of the Carmel and Berkeley Art Colonies, vol. one, East Bay Heritage Project, Oakland, 2012

Landscape Painters of Northern California 1870-1930 by Harvey L. Jones

The Carmel Monterey Peninsula Art Colony: A History by Barbara J. Klein

The San Francisco Art Association by Betty Hoag McGlynn

The Santa Cruz Art League by Betty Hoag McGlynn

The Carmel Art Association by Betty Hoag McGlynn

Monterey: The Artist's View, 1925 - 1945 by Kent Seavey

The Society of Six by Terry St. John

Towards Impressionism in Northern California by Raymond L. Wilson

and these articles:

Artists at Continent's End: The Monterey Peninsula Art Colony, 1875-1907 is a 2006 exhibit organized by the Crocker Art Museum, including some 70 paintings, photographs and works on paper drawn from museums and private collections throughout California and beyond. It features work by eight artists of major importance to California's, and America's, art history -- Jules Tavernier, William Keith, Charles Rollo Peters, Arthur Mathews, Evelyn McCormick, Francis McComas, Gottardo Piazzoni and photographer Arnold Genthe. The exhibition also includes the work of more than 25 other artists, both well- and little-known, who each contributed to the reputation of what is now widely recognized as one of America's most important art colonies.

The Art Of Mount Shasta is a 2010 Turtle Bay Museum at the Turtle Bay Exploration Park exhibit for which William Miesse and Robyn G. Peterson, Ph.D, co-curators, say; "Most of the works in this exhibition, lent by museums, institutions, and private collections from around the country, stem from that San Francisco Art Boom. And these paintings are only the tip of the iceberg relative to the large number of Mount Shasta paintings in museums and private collections around the country. The current exhibition is representative of the extensive art history of the Mount Shasta region."

The Lighter Side of Bay Area Figuration is a 2000 Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art exhibit which contains 56 humorous, whimsical and satirical works of art by San Francisco Bay artists such as Wayne Thiebaud, Robert Arneson, Roy De Forest, Richard Diebenkorn, and Viola Frey. Comic art in the Bay area began to flourish during the late 1950s in deliberate defiance of New York's avant-garde. San Francisco's distance from the center of commerce and criticism fostered a renegade mentality and a tendency toward personal forms of expression. Bucking mainstream trends by combining humor with lowbrow artistic media and techniques became a badge of honor for many Bay Area artists. The hub of humorous figurative art was the University of California in Davis, a sleepy and relatively remote campus town 70 miles north of San Francisco. Although their aesthetics differed, most of the Davis artists explored humorous narratives, whether in clay sculpture or representational painting. The UC-Davis art department included artists Arneson, De Forest, Thiebaud, Manuel Neri, and William Wiley. There, Thiebaud painted his whimsical still lifes of ordinary objects from gumball machines and yo-yos to pies and cakes, like the exhibition's painting Cakes and Pies, 1994-95. Roy De Forest painted his canvases filled with wild-eyed, pointy eared dogs, and printmaker William Wiley produced his quirky alter ego, "Mr. Unatural." (right: Joan Brown, Portrait of Bob for Bingo, 1960, oil paint oncanvas, 29 x 28 inches, Collection of Joyce and Jay Cooper, AZ, Photo, Jay Cooper)

The Lighter Side of Bay Area Figuration is a 2000 exhibit at the San Jose Museum of Art, a compelling exhibition of approximately 70 works that deftly examines the historical, social, cultural, and aesthetic development of humorous Bay Area art. 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.

Made in California: Art, Image, and Identity, 1900-2000 / Section 1: 1900 - 1920 / Section 2: 1920 - 1940 / Section 3: 1940 - 1960 / Section 4: 1960 - 1980 / Section 5: 1980 - 2000 is a 2000 multi-part exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The exhibition goes beyond a standard presentation of California art to offer a revisionist view of the state and its cultural legacy. It considers both "booster" images of California and other coexisting and at times competing images, reflecting the wide range of interests and experiences of the state's diverse constituencies. The exhibit approaches the past 100 years thematically, presenting works that engage in a meaningful way with the California image. As opposed to a survey exhibition, Made in California moves beyond the established canon of artists and art works to include lesser-known works by celebrated figures as well as a wider range of artists, more in keeping with the diversity of California's population. It is the shared conviction of the exhibition organizers that this approach, intended to initiate a broader dialogue on California art rather than establish a new canon.

Made in Monterey a 2009 exhibition at the Monterey Museum of Art, is a sweeping exhibition of the most beloved and important works from the permanent collection created by artists in Monterey or by those inspired by the region. Beginning with the pioneering artists who sojourned on the Central Coast in the late 19th century (including Jules Tavernier and Raymond Dabb Yelland), the exhibition features significant works of Monterey modernists such as Armin Hansen and Margaret Bruton as well as photography visionaries Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. Two renowned works by Armin Hansen, Nino and Men of the Sea, have been conserved and make their stunning debut in this new presentation.

Majestic California: Prominent Artists of the Early 1900's is a 2007 exhibition at The Irvine Museum. At one time, California was considered a distant Eden, isolated within its own beauty. From snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the desolate splendor of the Mojave Desert; from flower-covered hills to countless secluded valleys and meadows; from the dazzling beaches of the south to the rocky coves of the north, it was a world of its own. The enthralling beauty of California is the principal reason that, starting in the middle of the 19th century, artists began to take the long, hazardous journey to paint its unique splendor. By the early 1900's, California had its own group of prominent artists who proclaimed that beauty throughout the country.

Moods of California, a 2007 exhibition at The Irvine Museum, portrays California as experienced by three differing yet equally passionate artistic points of view. Percy Gray (1869-1952), a superb watercolorist who was fascinated by the soft, gentle light and haze of northern California; Paul Grimm (1887-1974), a landscape painter who in his later years moved to Palm Springs and became famous for paintings of the desert; and Emil Kosa, Jr. (1903-1968) who became one of Hollywood's best known scenic painters and set designers, while distinguishing himself as a bold painter of urban Los Angeles as well as light-filled views of the countryside.

The Not-So-Still Life: A Century of California Painting and Sculpture, held in 2003 at the San Jose Museum of Art, includes more than 100 works of art by such artists as Guy Rose, Franz Bischoff, Armin Hansen, Lorser Feitelson, Stanton McDonald-Wright, Hans Burkhardt, Helen Lundeberg, Paul Wonner, Wayne Thiebaud, Mildred Howard, Edward Ruscha, Ed Kienholz, George Herms, Richard Shaw, Peter Shelton, Alan Rath, and Robert Therrien. Divided into three sections: 1900-1930, 1920-1950 and 1950- 2000, the exhibition traces the intriguing evolution of still life in California over the last century. It is a revisionist examination of the genre. According to the curators, what was once the most conservative form of artistic practice has been transformed into one of the more radical forms of expression. Contemporary still life is no longer "still" -- it has not only moved off the table, but off the wall and into three dimensions. The exhibition examines a great variety of styles and media, from Impressionist paintings of apples and oranges to witty ceramic sculpture, funky assemblage art, and electronic media.

Old California is a 2000 exhibition at the California Art Club Gallery featuring original paintings and sculptures inspired by the romance and hardships that built a land named after the 16th century Spanish fable describing the treasure island, "California." The exhibition features prominent genre and figure artists of the California Art Club: Kalan Brunink, William George, Dan Goozeé, Joseph Mendez, Joel Phillips, Vic Riesau, and early CAC artist, Theodore Lukits (1897-1992).

Also see: Pacific Coast Painting: Alaska, California, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington: 19th-21st Century

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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