Whenever works from the collection of Hunk and Moo Anderson are on display in a public place, people who enjoy contemporary art should absolutely make the effort to see them, even if the objects selected have been forced into as slender a conceit as De-Natured: Works from the Anderson Collection and the Anderson Graphic Collection, now on view at the San Jose Museum of Art through January 6, 2008.
The premise of guest curator Heather Pamela Green's exhibition must have looked promising in PowerPoint: Cherry pick some of the best pieces from what is arguably the best private collection of contemporary art in the San Francisco Bay Area, wrap those paintings, prints, and sculptures in a modest, if timely, rumination on global warming and urban sprawl, and then lead the viewer by the nose past pieces that bolster the curator's themes of Altered Environment, Estranged Surroundings, Mediated Nature, and Abstracted Nature. Unfortunately, the well-intentioned premise of this show and the reality of the objects themselves are not always in agreement.
In fairness to Green, shows like this are tough to pull off. First, they are crippled by the limits of whatever the collectors, even ones as visionary as the Andersons, have happened to collect. For example, one of Peter Alexander's paintings of the greater Los Angeles basin as seen from the air at night, with their dappled grids of artificial streetlights defining that landscape's characteristic natural topography, would have been perfect here, but perhaps the Andersons don't own such a piece. But a larger problem concerns the act of treating works of art like so many head of cattle to be corralled and branded with an idea that the artists themselves may or may not embrace. Would it be such a crime to permit the many remarkable pieces in this concise exhibition to simply speak for themselves? Forcing art into one box or another feels as unnatural as the world Green claims many of these artists are railing against.
The show begins with a brooding Terry Winters oil on linen from 1982 called Theophrastus' Garden. I had to look it up: According to Wikipedia, Theophrastus succeeded Aristotle at the Lyceum and wrote a whole bunch of books about plants, so the decision by Winters to transform Theophrastus' garden, of all gardens, into a virtually denuded, scorched-earth landscape suggests that artist is digging deep to express his frustration about contemporary humankind's betrayal of nature. It's a good start for the show, but things quickly get squirrelly. A few yards away from the Winters are four prints by Richard Estes from his Urban Landscapes I series. Described as "nightmarish" and evidence of the "horror of the city" in the catalog, the prints do indeed depict a lot of concrete and glass and steel, the building blocks of urban spaces. I guess, though, that I have always assumed that Estes had to have been at least somewhat fond of the landscapes he was taking such pains to photorealistically depict. To hear the curator tell it, these highly polished works of highly polished places are intended to give voice to the suffering of the soul for a truly natural world. Maybe Estes was simply trying to show us how beautiful the human-made landscape could be. If so, that would be an inconvenient truth.
Instead of dwelling on the exhibition's numerous other disconnects, better, then, to focus on the multiple visual gifts that are on display. There's William T. Wiley's Lame and Blind in Eden, one of the artist's loveliest watercolors from the late 1960s (although the suggestion in the catalog that Wiley was merely commenting on paradise lost does not exactly square with the watercolor's depiction of casual clutter and random disarray, much of which appears to be the result of the untidy practices of the artist himself). Next to this piece is the exhibition's showstopper, William Allan's Half A Dam, an almost 12-foot-wide painting of, yes, half a dam, blocking but not halting the progress of a wild, churning river. Among other things, I love how Allan has painted a salmon, as if it had been collaged Jess-like, on the riverbank's lovingly rendered rocks.
Donald Sultan's Factory Fire, August 8, 1985 uses generous amounts of inky-black tar and bilious-yellow paint on vinyl tile to conjure the smoke and stench of an urban inferno. Shooting Star by Ed Ruscha is predictably, but effectively, placed near a pair of Vija Celmins graphite drawings, which are just a few steps away from Paper Pool 14, a gorgeous David Hockney that has no serious reason to be here but is a treat to ogle nonetheless. Similarly out of place but a pleasure to see are Michael Lucero's Red Sea and Richard Diebenkorn's Ocean Park #60.
Even less central to the show's premise are the small Frank Stella lithographs and mid-size Sean Scully painting, which are so secondary to the proceedings they have been hung practically in a stairwell. Still, I'm grateful they are here, if not for the reasons the show's organizers probably hoped. All I can say is thanks Hunk & Moo!
De-Natured: Works from the Anderson Collection and the Anderson Graphic Collection is on view at the San Jose Museum of Art through January 6, 2008.