Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art

Kansas City, MO



The Lighter Side of Bay Area Figuration


Humorous, whimsical and satirical works of art by San Francisco Bay artists are on display at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art's new exhibition "The Lighter Side of Bay Area Figuration." On view through June 18, 2000, the show features 56 works by artists such as Wayne Thiebaud, Robert Arneson, Roy De Forest, Richard Diebenkorn, and Viola Frey.

"This exhibition will remind people that it's OK to laugh out loud inside a museum. These artists in San Francisco's Bay Area -- often excluded from exposure in New York and Los Angeles -- long have used humor as a vehicle for their 'seriously' funny art," said Kemper Museum Curator Dana Self. (left: Wayne Thiebaud, Cakes and Pies, 1994-95. Collection of Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, gift of the Enid and Crosby Kemper Foundation. © Wayne Thiebaud VAGA, New York, NY. Photo, Don Wayne)

Comic art in the Bay area began to flourish during the late 1950s in deliberate defiance of New York's avant-garde. San Francisco's distance from the center of commerce and criticism fostered a renegade mentality and a tendency toward personal forms of expression. Bucking mainstream trends by combining humor with lowbrow artistic media and techniques became a badge of honor for many Bay Area artists.

The hub of humorous figurative art was the University of California in Davis, a sleepy and relatively remote campus town 70 miles north of San Francisco. Although their aesthetics differed, most of the Davis artists explored humorous narratives, whether in clay sculpture or representational painting. The UC-Davis art department included artists Arneson, De Forest, Thiebaud, Manuel Neri, and William Wiley. There, Thiebaud painted his whimsical still lifes of ordinary objects from gumball machines and yo-yos to pies and cakes, like the exhibition's painting Cakes and Pies, 1994-95. Roy De Forest painted his canvases filled with wild-eyed, pointy eared dogs, and printmaker William Wiley produced his quirky alter ego, "Mr. Unatural." (left: Joan Brown, Portrait of Bob for Bingo, 1960, oil paint oncanvas, 29 x 28 inches, Collection of Joyce and Jay Cooper, AZ, Photo, Jay Cooper)

Arneson was the most influential artist to emerge from Davis in the 1960s, spearheading the figurative clay movement with humorous sculpture. Arneson's wit and satire often took on political figures and his artistic heroes, lampooning everyone from Ronald Reagan to famous painter Pablo Picasso whose likeness is found in the 1980 sculpture Pablo Ruiz with an Itch. About his art, Arneson said, "The things that I'm really interested in as an artist are the things you can't do--and that's really to mix humor and fine art. I'm not being silly about it. I'm serious about the combination. Humor is generally low art, but I think humor is very serious -- it points out the fallacies of existence." (right: Roy De Forest, Country Dog Gentlemen, 1972, polymer on canvas, 66 3/4 x 97 inches, Collection of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, CA. Gift of Hamilton-Wells Collection. © Roy De Forest. Photo, Don Myer)

Students who emerged from the Davis art program include Deborah Butterfield, David Gilhooly, Bruce Nauman and Peter VandenBerge. Ceramist David Gilhooly's zany frogs and Peter VandenBerge's "carrot-people" followed Arneson's example. VandenBerge's carrot works were later replaced by ceramic busts of persons sporting whimsical headwear, like 1998's Hostess, a larger-than-life portrait of woman with a teapot perched on top of her head.

In the early '70s, the Davis artists exhibited under the banner "Nut Art," but by then the action had shifted to Berkeley and Oakland, CA, where a group of satirical painters gathered. These artists combined humor with "bad" techniques to rebel against the mainstream models. But where the Davis artists produced lighthearted, playful art, the East Bay painters preferred scorching humor and satire. James Albertson parodies middle America family life with excoriating wit. Robert Colescott deals with stereotypical perceptions of African-American sexuality in works like Les Demoiselles D'Alabama vestidas, a commentary on Picasso's famous painting Les Demoiselles d 'Avignon.. (right: Raimonds Staprans,Way Too Many Unruly Oranges, 1998, oil paint on canvas, 48 x 43 inches, Collection of the artist, San Francisco, CA. © Raimonds Staprans, Photo, Almac Camera)

A 72-page catalog, written by exhibition curator Susan Landauer, chief curator, San Jose Museum of Art, accompanies "The Lighter Side of Bay Area Figuration." The catalog, featuring color images of works in the exhibition, is available in the Museum's gift shop.. After closing at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, the exhibition will be on view September 3 through October 29, 2000, at the San Jose Museum of Art.

Read more about the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Resource Library Magazine

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For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 2/1/11

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