Robert Williams sat before a sold-out audience last Saturday and, wasting no time, immediately took note of his place in bucolic wine country.
“We're in a town here with artwork that might not be apropos,” the 72-year-old artist said, opening his talk at the Art Museum of Sonoma County in Santa Rosa. “So I'm in a position where I have to answer for this material.”
Of course, answering for his material seems an absurd requirement for someone like Williams, the famous artist and co-founder of Juxtapoz magazine, whose towering stature in the art world has been cemented for decades. But in wine country, where pastel landscapes and vineyard scenes dominate many gallery walls, Williams' exhibit Slang Aesthetics is easily the most cutting-edge art event since Christo erected his “Running Fence” across the wilds of Sonoma County.
A collection of mostly recent work totaling approximately 60 paintings and sculptures, Slang Aesthetics, running through Sept. 20, originally showed at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery (read KQED's review here). The fact that its next home turned out to be Santa Rosa was “very much a surprise,” Williams said before the event.
“I'm dying to see what the results are going to be, and the reaction,” he continued. “I've always been part of an outlaw world -- underground comics, and hot-rod art and stuff -- so this would probably chafe a few people in Santa Rosa. But on the other hand, it may be the first shock they need to get used to a changing world.”
Adapting to a changing world is a goal for the brand-new museum, a 15-years-in-the-making spinoff from the Sonoma County Museum, which opened just next door in 1985. Located in the city's former post office, an ornate yet small building, the Sonoma County Museum had long struggled with its dual mission to present both history and art in such tight confines.
“It was always too small,” said Diane Evans, Executive Director of the museum, at Saturday's event. “The history folks thought that we were only doing art, and the art folks thought that it was just a history building, and that we weren't doing art. So no one was happy. We always knew we needed to expand.”
Several options for expansion came and went over the years, but the museum has now finally split in two, taking over a building next door which previously housed a Conklin Bros. carpet store and warehouse. The former post office is now the History Museum of Sonoma County, and the Conklin Bros. space -- a roomy, open area perfectly suited to showing art -- has become the Art Museum of Sonoma County.
The exhibit comes at an exciting time for art in the region. Later this month, the Petaluma Arts Center opens a show of over 100 works on paper by Edgar Degas, while the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art has just opened an exhibit of work by Richard Diebenkorn. Meanwhile, in the wake of the 2013 dissolution of the Sonoma County Arts Council, the county has announced the hire of Kristen Madsen, Senior Vice President of the GRAMMY Foundation and MusicCares Foundation, as Director of Arts to create an optimum environment for art in the region.
Key to that mission, certainly, will be the new space in downtown Santa Rosa. Wasting no time steering into modern fare, the Art Museum of Sonoma County opened in April with a well-received, well-attended exhibit featuring work by Keith Haring, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Ed Ruscha, Andy Warhol, John Baldessari, Kara Walker, Robert Indiana and more.
Having planted its flag, the museum then kicked off Slang Aesthetics not with a wine-and-cheese reception, but with a hot rod street party that shut down the block -- full of people, Evans noted, that otherwise would have never come to the museum. “And it's my goal to get them to at least come back, or tell their friends,” she said.
Early next year, the museum will host an installation by Petaluma-based sculptor and art-car icon David Best. And after Slang Aesthetics, in October, the museum will open a “politically inspired” exhibit with artists from Oakland studio Magnolia Editions.
Until then, Evans believes in the thirst for edgier art in Sonoma County, and expects a high turnout for the show by Williams, who before Saturday's event dryly noted that “I'm not a wine taster, I'm not that affluent, and I'm certainly not an interior decorator” -- in other words, the typical wine-country lifestyle promoted by tourism marketers and glossy travel magazines.
“Maybe after this show they should go back to more mellow material, I don't know,” Williams chuckled, as his fans poured through the front door for the talk. “This is pretty rough material for a lot of people. This is art that has no responsibility for decoration.”