Rigo 23, In progress view of 'Madre Tierra (Mother Earth),' 2018. (Courtesy of the artist and di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, Napa)
I will freely admit to accidentally driving past di Rosa’s unassuming Carneros Highway driveway on more than one occasion — at 50mph and on a long stretch of rural sameness, it was easy to miss. But that was before the Napa-area art destination rebranded as di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, got a new sign and painted their gate a bright, eye-catching blue.
The entrance isn't the only thing that's new. Be Not Still: Living in Uncertain Times is the first exhibition in the newest chapter of di Rosa’s long and colorful existence -- one no longer soley focused on its namesake's extensive collection, but on artist-driven collaborations and social engagement. Gone are the metal sheep on the hillside, gone are the funk art assemblages, the massive William T. Wiley canvases, and, really, most of the collection formerly on view in the giant space of Gallery 2. (Before you panic, all that art’s not gone gone, it’s just in storage.)
All this cleaning house makes way for a guest-curated exhibition on surveillance and three new artist commissions from Ala Ebtekar, Allison Smith and Rigo 23, addressing ideas of citizenship, the rise of white nationalism and the fallacy of American exceptionalism, respectively.
If those seem like big ideas, that’s the point.
But is it all too much “new” all at once? Regular and longtime visitors to the di Rosa may feel this way. (I overheard a surprised “Where’s the car?” at the exhibition’s press preview, likely not the first nor the last such inquiry.) But times being what they are -- confusing, dystopic, fractured, rife with conflict -- it’s crucial for smaller, more nimble arts spaces to address the morass of current politics and culture in their programming.
Be Not Still gently guides visitors from the familiar to the new. In Gallery 1, authors Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian sifted through works collected by Rene di Rosa himself (between 1950 and 2010), assembling a group show titled There’s a Dark Secret in Me, named after a lyric in Kylie Minogue’s 2001 song “Can’t Get You Out of My Head.”
Across a variety of media, their selections touch on observation, vulnerable bodies and attempts at camouflage. In Bill Owens’ photograph Untitled, he captures a Christmas living room scene; Reagan’s face beams out of the television set, a government intruding into private space. In Carlos Villa’s Blue Piece, figures emerge from a field of blue paper pulp, crawling out of anonymity and into individual focus. Catherine Wagner’s 7th and 8th Grade Science Classroom, Moss Landing Elementary School captures a lesson on the anatomy of an eyeball, stuffed and segmented specimens of birds on display above the blackboard.
“We went searching for artworks that spoke to us of unease and dispossession, tragedy and loss,” Bellamy and Killian write in their exhibition essay. The result is unsettling, possibly anxiety-inducing, but ultimately a testament to the depths of di Rosa’s collection -- that the “uncertain times” of 2018 can be channeled through a group of works sometimes over half a century old.
Gallery 2 leaves the collection behind, but maintains the feeling of unease, rendering it contemporary.
In the original promotional materials for Be Not Still, issued long before the North Bay fires delayed the exhibition’s opening by almost four months, Allison Smith’s chosen focus was listed as “North American fundamentalism,” in keeping with her practice of engaging with history through performative objects and traditional crafts. But after the violent August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville and the death of counter-protester Heather Heyer, Smith turned her focus to the symbolic objects of the present.
In her piece Untitled (blunt instruments), cast bronze tiki torches lay horizontally around the base of a large-scale white pedestal. The pedestal sits statue-less, a black tarp draped over its top, just as the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville is currently concealed. It’s a difficult piece to look at, and a difficult moment in recent history to attempt to contextualize, either as a viewer or an artist. “Smith aspires to historicize the present moment,” the exhibition guide says, “as a strategy to move beyond it.”
Rigo 23’s Madre Tierra (Mother Earth) heightens the tension by encouraging viewers to pass through narrow passageways created by his towering white walls -- vertical extrusions from a gigantic version of the American flag spread across the floor. Along one of the white walls, handwritten facts and figures chart the United States’ endless involvement in international conflict. These are the facts Rigo finds “exceptional”: the ability for a country to preach peace, equality and democracy while practicing none of the above.
Ala Ebtekar’s contribution to the exhibition expands the concept of “citizenship” beyond national boundaries, asking viewers to consider their roles as global citizens. In Luminous Ground, he transfers the first ultra-deep wide field image of the universe, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, onto square tiles made from California soil. Rendered in a cyanotype process, the field of stars shifts between macro and micro scales, sometimes resembling a Pollock-esque action painting instead of the distant night sky. It's a hopeful, more optimistic note to end on, as long as you don't dwell too much on the distance between an embrace of global citizenship and the current state of the world.
The fact that the projects in Be Not Still come from the artists themselves is a rare kind of institutional generosity. The structure of the year-long exhibition series (Part 2 opens with four new artists in June) places trust in visual art and artists -- to address difficult issues and to spark generative conversations. These are the kinds of encounters that might bring us to a greater understanding of our own convictions, even in the midst of uncertain times.
'Be Not Still: Living in Uncertain Times, Part 1' is on view at the di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art through May 27, 2018. For more information, click here.
For arts stories you won't read anywhere else, come to KQED's Arts and Culture desk.