At the de Young, ‘Crafting Radicality’ Captures the Energy of a Local Moment

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Black and white graphic painting of woman applying gold eye drawings onto her body
Liz Hernandez, detail of 'Mi permiso secreto (My secret permission),' 2022; Clay, gold leaf, and vinyl paint on canvas, 72 x 60.5 in. (Courtesy of the artist and pt.2 Gallery, Oakland; Photograph by Randy Dodson, courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

The show’s title is a bit misleading. Crafting Radicality: Bay Area Artists from the Svane Gift, which opened at the de Young on July 22, sounds like an exhibition centered on “radical” craft practices. But if you’re picturing experimental basket weaving or guerrilla crochet, Gallery 16 of the museum’s first floor (formerly home to Cornelia Parker’s Anti-Mass installation) delivers a different kind of “craft.”

The artwork on view, 15 pieces from 12 Bay Area artists, all came to the museum in the same way: the titular Svane Gift, a 2022 acquisition of 42 artworks from 30 local artists. Crafting Radicality is the first of three planned exhibitions sourced from that gift, this one curated by Janna Keegan, assistant curator of contemporary art and programming, and Hannah Waiters, the museum’s curatorial collections fellow.

The generality of the show’s organizing principle is actually what makes it more exciting than it sounds: it’s a snapshot of work made within the constraints of Bay Area life and in response to this place’s particular blend of ideals, difficulties and art historical precedents.

Square work on panel with dark figures foregrounded by a heron and figure draped in a quilt
Sydney Cain, ‘The Child Opens Its Eyes to the Earth,’ 2022; Acrylic, iron oxide, steel, charcoal, graphite on wood; 96 x 96 in. (Courtesy of the artist and Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco; Photograph by Randy Dodson, courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Also, it’s just a really good-looking group show.

Angela Hennessy’s Body for a Black Moon is the central axis around which the rest of the show spins out — a six-foot-plus sculpture draped in synthetic and human hair (including the artist’s own hair), an elegant corporeal presence in the space.


Sydney Cain’s large multimedia work on wood panel operates on a similar spectrum, with materials like iron oxide, steel, charcoal and graphite gracefully detailing an ethereal group of figures. Beside it, Liz Hernández’s painting, in slight relief, shows a woman adorning her body with gold-leaf eye symbols, a handwritten message arcing over her head. We know, looking at Hennessy, Cain and Hernández’s work that these are just individual examples of a much larger personal lexicon; their meticulous, repeated labor results in refreshingly distinct styles.

Across the gallery, Sadie Barnette’s FBI Drawings, Legal Ritual takes her father’s FBI file and renders it overwhelmingly large across five framed works on paper. At this scale, the government’s intrusive, malign surveillance is blatant. And yet the monumental drawings are also impishly delicate: made with crisp powdered graphite that shimmers on close inspection, Barnette’s interventions stamp roses and Hello Kittys across the official documents, reclaiming them decades after the damage they inflicted.

Koak, ‘June,’ 2021; Acrylic, chalk, graphite, charcoal, Flashe, and pastel on canvas, 77.5 x 62 in. (Courtesy of Altman Siegel Gallery, San Francisco; Photograph by Randy Dodson, courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

The show’s most intense color comes from Koak’s June, a vertical canvas over six feet tall that features a glowing orange woman cradling a baby in her arms. The scene evokes both the tight domesticity of the pandemic (a face mask’s elastic band drapes over a dresser’s edge) and the apocalyptic environmental events that shape this region (her skin tone is distinctly akin to that orange sky day in 2020).

Contributions from Demetri Broxton, Woody De Othello (with a giant bronze fountain in the museum’s sculpture garden), Kota Ezawa, David Huffman, Rashaad Newsome, Ramekon O’Arwisters and Muzae Sesay bring intricate beading, watercolors, a ceiling-high work on paper and even more examples of the incredibly varied practices that make up the Bay Area’s many arts scenes.

It’s always difficult to contextualize the present moment. Are we witnessing nascent art movements, shifts in material approaches, future chapters of textbooks? I leave those questions to the historians. The thrilling part of this acquisition — and this show, by extension — is that these artists are making their work here and now, and visitors to the de Young will have even more opportunities to seek them out, wherever their careers may lead them.

Crafting Radicality: Bay Area Artists from the Svane Gift’ is on view at the de Young museum through Dec. 31, 2023.