Sacramento on a warm June afternoon embodies the city's position as a capital of California ethos. It may not be an art center, but it's a place where idiosyncratic, perhaps crackpot ideas take shape and blossom on sun-heated expanses of fertile flat land, (i.e. affordable studios). There's space enough for thinking to grow, and for dreams to be realized outside the spotlight. I was there sifting through a range of national submissions for the August juried show at Axis Gallery, an artist co-op that affirms some ideas about community spirit. Some of the most impressive art I saw came from distant states -- Iowa! Hawaii! -- making me consider that there are options for creative freedom outside of increasingly expensive urban environments like San Francisco.
More frequently, artists in SF are bemoaning the construction crane shifts that are reshaping creative, countercultural enclaves into gleaming, LEED-certified condo towers and gastropubs. This urban evolution is complex, driven by public policy, which doesn't often prioritize the history and future of creative culture.
Jess, VIIth Wave
That afternoon in Sacramento, I visited the Crocker Art Museum, a metaphorically apt but experientially awkward conglomeration of historic Victorian and corporate-contemporary architecture, where the current exhibition concerns a generation of San Francisco bohemians. An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle is an abundant collection of works by a community of Northern California artists, poets, and filmmakers. Jess, who made remarkable paintings and dense, playful collages, and Duncan, a revered poet and public intellectual, exchanged marriage vows back in 1951, a radical, if not legally binding act. The show conveys a sense of maverick art culture during the second half of the twentieth century, conjuring the romance of notorious confabs, legendary galleries, queer culture, and characters who loomed large in the aesthetic universe of Jess and Duncan.
Jess, The Enamord Mage Translation
I adore Jess' intricate collages and gloppy Translation works, dimensional, detailed dollops of what resemble topographical paint-by-numbers painting dimensionalized with thick shiny layers of oil paint, though the real surprises are his early paintings merging abstract expressionistic and Bay Area figurative impulses.
Duncan's visual art isn't as strong as his poetry, yet it's wonderful to see his projects in this arena, as are the works of lesser-known artists. I was taken with James Broughton's 1953 film The Pleasure Garden displayed on a modest flat screen, which conveyed the sense of play he had with his cast of creative friends who danced and posed on the grounds of a dilapidated mansion. Much of the show's appeal is in its evocation of California history, of a San Francisco teeming with artistic vitality.
Richard Kallweit, Ultimate Painting (detail), 1966.
Later that day I encountered more evidence of historical regional experimentation at the opening of a show at the Mills College Art Museum. West of Center: Art and the Counterculture Experiments in America, 1965-1977, is an exhibition of maverick communities who merged aesthetic practice with political aims to remake the notion of American lifestyle. It is focused on groups of people working on the West Coast, many out of the Bay Area, and while a next generation of artists, also covers a time frame when Jess and Duncan were still vital forces. This show has a rollicking feel, featuring: a giant, inflatable plastic sculpture with a zippered side that allows viewers to enter by the Ant Farm collaborative; documentation of Anna Halperin's dance actions; Black Panther posters; and a gallery devoted to the drag stylings of The Cockettes and the Angels of Light, members of which performed, somewhat feebly, before dusk on the museum's outdoor patio. While the show is more like a visit to a state expo than an art/culture essay, it makes a fitting companion to the Crocker show, recalling and resurrecting as it does cultural production that has reached a historically ripe age. These shows exist, perhaps, because we hunger to be reminded of previous models.
It's useful to consider questions these shows raise as part of an evolving regional art history. Is the creative spirit of Burning Man parallel to the cavorting characters in Broughton's film? Do the tech and food scenes hold similar cultural resonance? Will the expanding SFMOMA make the city a more hospitable place for working artists or one more out of reach? Time will tell, as these exhibitions attest. They are heartening, entertaining projects, just the kind of thing that continues to fuel my California dreams.
An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle runs through September 1, 2013 at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento. For more information, visit crockerartmuseum.org. West of Center: Art and the Counterculture Experiments in America, 1965-1977 runs through September 1, 2013 at Mills College Art Museum in Oakland. For more information, visit mcam.mills.edu.