California Travel Log | de Young Museum

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This is the sixth post in my series covering my recent escapades and adventures in California. For more, check out Leslie’s California Travel Log.

Modern art, we meet again!

Is it just me, or does it seems like modern art is everywhere? In every art gallery, every coffee shop, every park, every you-name-it public location where art is sometimes found. Some of it is cool, especially when you read the stories of the artists or the backstory of the artwork. And then some of it just has an overwhelmingly mass-produced feel. “Is it art, or is it just cute?” is my general reaction to a lot of modern art that I come across.

Because I feel we are somewhat surrounded by trivial art, it is always a delight to be reminded by certain genuine pieces that modern art can be incredibly moving and monumental. Below are three pieces from the de Young Museum that were the most meaningful to me, in the order of Good, Better, and Best.

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As we walked up to the museum, it was hard to tell with 100% certainty that this was the right place. There were a few signs pointing to it from surrounding roads, but once we began to approach the building, the only telling clue that this was the art museum were the severe-looking hybrid gargoyle/sphinxes guarding the entrance. I just barely glimpsed these letters on the wall to the right of the entryway before walking inside and completely missing the subtle epithet. The portion of the wall inscribed with “de Young” was smooth, while the rest of the space was covered in texture. An art museum at its best – subtle, surprising, different and new from the visitor’s first interaction.

GOOD

particular kind of heaven

The artist of the above piece is Edward Ruscha. Here’s what the museum’s website offers in description of the painting:

Ruscha’s westward-facing California sunset resonates with the symbolic associations of the American West, particularly the perception of California as an earthly Eden or El Dorado and the locus for the ultimate fulfillment of America’s “manifest destiny” to settle the continent. Ruscha’s words, “A Particular Kind of Heaven,” hover over the horizon like a form of geometric skywriting and dominate the sunset sky. Related to, but isolated from, the context of language and clear communication, Ruscha’s enigmatic words invite scrutiny and pose an implicit question by drawing the viewer’s attention to the disjunctions between words, language, and meaning, but ultimately defying precise definition.

There were several other permanent pieces in the museum that were site-specific, dealing with California subjects and ideas. I loved how those pieces differentiated this museum from any other modern art museum. I felt like I was getting a taste of California culture, a different variety completely from Kansas City and the Midwest.

BETTER

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*Cue stars in eyes!* Now here is something familiar to me. Grand-scale woven metal tapestry? Got it, check! I have seen another work in this series before in my local art museum, the Nelson-Atkins. Time to confess: I was so excited to see this piece that I didn’t read the name placard, and now, writing this post, I’m having difficulty finding information on this specific piece stationed at de Young.  (I’m afraid their website is somewhat out of date. Either that or I just fail at finding information on the web.) “A magnificent, shimmering tapestry” is how a press release from the Nelson describes their installation of Dusasa I by Ghanian artist El Anatsui, big sister to the tapestry at the de Young. Dusasa I stretches 26 feet high and 39 feet wide, and weighs 350 pounds. The giant, shimmering work makes quite a striking impact. From the press release:

To construct Dusasa I, Anatsui collected thousands of recycled aluminum liquor-bottle tops and the strips that wrap around the bottle necks. He and his assistants flattened and punched six tiny holes in each colorful aluminum strip and arranged them according to the artist’s pattern. Then, using fine copper wire, they tied the strips together to make long rows. Finally, using the same copper wire, they tied the rows together. The finished work of art resembles a magnificent, shimmering tapestry.

The point is…

The title comes from two Ewe words, du and sasa, meaning a fusion of disparate elements on a monumental scale.

“Dusasa I reminds us that for today’s African artists, the traditional and contemporary are not separate, but entwined, and that art creation cannot be dictated by the availability or lack of conventional mediums,” said Nii Quarcoopome, curator of African art. “El Anatsui’s creation epitomizes the boundless imagination and inventiveness of 21st-century Africa artists.”

Boundless imagination and inventiveness? Quite so. The installation at the de Young Museum was very similar, if on a smaller scale, to Dusasa I in Kansas City.

BEST

 

From the placard:

This sculpture, Anti-Mass, is constructed from the charred remains of an African American Baptist Church in Alabama that was destroyed by arsonists. A companion piece entitled Mass was fabricated from a church in Texas destroyed by lightning.

Parker’s title uses the word “mass” as a reference both to the elemental substance of the universe and to the sacramental ritual at the center of Christian faith. The seemingly unrelated realms of science and religion thus are united symbolically in a monument to the positive power of creativity and belief to triumph over the negative forces of destruction and intolerance.

Parker’s levitating cube evokes not only the original structure of the destroyed church building, but also the gravity-defying nature of a miraculous religious ascension. It serves as a poignant reminder that true spiritual belief resides in the minds of the congregation, transcending the physical remains of the lost church.

What struck me most about this piece was that the resurrected pieces of the church suspended by wire were gently twirling and moving as you can see in the video – they were alive after a physical death. There was no breeze in the gallery, except for whatever air movement was created by passersby, and yet the hanging structure seemed to breathe and spin in response to the individuals looking on, spiritually alive and in touch. The structure visually represented the spirit of the church as it continued to live on after the destruction of its earthly form.

It goes without saying that these works of art have a definite place in the stories of society. They each make their mark on point and in style, clearly communicating a significant and heartfelt message.

What is your favorite piece of art, local or not? What about it speaks to you or makes it special?

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Wow, that got deep! Now, where were we? Next up in my California Travel Log will be a post about visiting the Painted Ladies and Alamo Square. And it will not be quite so analytical. Think, lighthearted trip to the park and pictures of colorful row houses. Fun!

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