Luminously Figurative: Rare Look at Quirky West Coast Movement

By Shaw-Eagle, Joanna | The World and I, August 2004 | Go to article overview

Luminously Figurative: Rare Look at Quirky West Coast Movement


Shaw-Eagle, Joanna, The World and I


Joanna Shaw-Eagle is a staff writer for The Washington Times.

The Kreeger Museum's current exhibit of San Francisco Bay-area figurative art and its offshoots is called "The True Artist Is an Amazing Luminous Fountain." That epigraph, originally written by artist Bruce Nauman in 1968, sums up the quirky, bizarre, puzzling--but always fascinating--nature of the San Francisco art movement that began in the 1950s. The extraordinary works in this exhibit--44 by 18 artists--were collected by Rene di Rosa, 85, and his late wife, Veronica, who concentrated on Bay-area artists from the 1950s on. This is the first time a portion of the 2,000-work collection has traveled from California.

This show is certain to jolt visitors into a new awareness and appreciation of this challenging, contradictory West Coast art that's seen too rarely on the East Coast.

Included in the exhibit are San Francisco's North Beach beat-influenced art by Wally Hedrick, Jay DeFeo, Bruce Conner, Joan Brown, and sculptor Manuel Neri, names most Easterners have never heard of. They associated themselves with beat writers such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs.

The group included anti-Vietnam War artists such as Robert Arneson, who made the show's glazed ceramic War Head Stockpile, filled with skulls and skeletons. Like Arneson, Viola Frey, Peter Voulkos, James Melchert (head of visual arts at the National Endowment of the Arts from 1977 to 1981), and Peter Shaw created their often surreal visions out of studios at the University of California at Davis. In the catalog, Melchert calls the ceramics "part conceptual, part funk."

The "funk" movement, difficult for even art historian Michael Schwager to decipher in the catalog, was inspired by Europe's notorious dada group, whose members favored unusual materials and shocking humor.

Eccentric shapes such as Bruce Conner's Cocoon, a combination of nylon stockings, glass beads, costume jewelry, and gauze, have what Schwager calls "an almost creepy beauty." Clayton Bailey's Male Chair, complete with male genitalia and strange-looking clawed animal feet, is shocking- -as it's meant to be. William Wiley, who shows at Washington, D.C.'s Marsha Mateyka Gallery, invites viewers into his Spring Lush watercolor with his usual ironic statements handwritten below.

The show begins with Hedrick's $18.00 Giant Power Heidelberg Electric Belt, a spoof on advertising. …

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