All the Feels

Notes from the Field

Notes from di Rosa

All the Feels

By Aaron Harbour, Jackie Im November 25, 2014

A series in collaboration with community partners.

Notes from di Rosa is produced in conjunction with Art Practical's yearlong residency at di Rosa, in which the museum's collection serves as a focus and cornerstone for an in-depth exploration of Northern California contemporary art.

The di Rosa collection presents many barriers to easy interpretation. Assembled by husband and wife Rene and Veronica di Rosa as a private collection, it consists of approximately 2,000 works by more than 800 artists.1 We visited the collection one hot autumn afternoon with artist Erin Jane Nelson and found ourselves trying to understand: Who was this collector, why these works?

The di Rosa site is made up of a sculpture garden and several distinct buildings: the Gatehouse Gallery, displaying new exhibitions not necessarily from the collection, di Rosa’s previous home (referred to as the Historic Residence), and the Main Gallery, a more traditional museum setting for works from the collection.

After walking through the Historic Residence and Main Gallery for an afternoon and spending the following weeks reflecting, we slowly came to a clearer understanding of what we had seen. Clearer, but not transparent; despite their loud, sincere voices, these works maintain a secret core of irreducibility, and similarly the collection keeps an unknowable reserve. What you see here are our respective thoughts on the collection: in images (by Nelson) and in text (by Im and Harbour).

Nelson spent our visit taking well over a hundred photographs of the collection and the site, and subsequently cropped, edited, and added to these pictures. Her images capture the sense of being a visitor—slowly walking past work after work, attempting to digest it all but also realizing the futility of doing so with such a vast collection. Fuzzy in places and exaggerated in others, Nelson’s images function much in the way memories do, as personal recollection and re-creation.

Similarly, our own memories of the collection are slightly obscured, augmented by blurry iPhone photos and the occasional online search. But what seems abundantly clear is that the collection reflects the unique personality and tastes of the di Rosas. Richard Reisman, di Rosa’s first curator, once noted, “It’s hard to talk about the collection without talking about Rene. [H]e didn’t collect based on connoisseurship or because something was historically important, he collected from his gut."2 Taken as a whole, the collection tells a vibrant story of Bay Area galleries and artists—one filled with color, figures, and distinctive personalities.

In the Main Gallery, an outside curatorial vision has taken some of the objects in the collection and displayed them as a typical art institution would, with an eye toward chronology and a loose theme. The Main Gallery is the biography to the Historic Residence’s autobiography. Neither is more or less true; both are the result of omissions, individual preference, and the perceived tastes of an outside audience. While the Main Gallery takes a more museological approach, the Residence speaks to one person’s attempt to resolve the presentation of his collection and, by proxy, himself.

Objects such as tables, chairs, and bed coverings are as often art as they are their practical cousins.

While the three of us thoroughly explored the Main Gallery, it was the Residence that struck a chord. The Residence and Gallery are not physically connected, though one possible path takes you through a large-scale permanent installation—a cavernous chapel by Paul Kos—into a basement gallery with its own incredible hodge-podge of interesting objects. Left exactly as it was at the time of di Rosa’s passing, art is everywhere in the Residence, covering the walls and ceiling. Objects such as tables, chairs, and bed coverings are as often art as they are their practical cousins. No longer a home, the Residence is dormant, and the bathroom ceases to function, emphasized by a bathtub full of bowling balls. Likewise, the contents of the house, for the most part, will not be moved or removed, though occasionally shaken up a bit (as in the recent earthquake). A few recent additions include an image-rich guide to the works on display and two binders that invite guests to leave impressions of their visit.

From the large, vaulted living room, the Residence branches into an open loft area with a series of small rooms below, each filled with artworks. Placed on bookshelves, hung from ceiling to knee height on the walls, artwork fills the Residence; sketches by Ron Nagle and Kos coexist as equals with watercolors by Veronica di Rosa and children’s drawings. The hallway houses a small nook filled with a collection of hundreds of name tags with Rene di Rosa’s name, evidence of his patronage of countless art institutions and his presence at various private openings, events, and dinners. Seen together, all of these objects offer a glimpse into the essence of the collection, which is as much a portrait of di Rosa’s social life as a local arts patron and his self-conscious history making as it is about the work itself.

These works are about identity, but not in the collective/social sense.

The works in the collection share with the patron a blend of stream-of-consciousness decision making and self-aware exhibitionism. Artist and subject (often, but not necessarily, one and the same) engage in a strange reintegration of two motifs—surface decoration and the figure—missing from the high modernist traditions of abstract expressionism (mostly absent from this collection but present in spirit) and minimalism (a style completely absent from the works on display). Paint and/or glaze is applied liberally without being beholden to verisimilitude; swirls, brush strokes, endless small details mark every surface (marks that are also evident in Nelson’s images). These works are about identity, but not in the collective/social sense. Rather, the artists are presenting themselves and/or their subject flipped inside out, fully aware of art making as site for the contradictory effort to show the unshowable.

Di Rosa slowly minimized his personal space and maximized the area where he could share his collection within the Residence, until he finally had to leave due to health concerns. What is left is a portrait made out of portraits. The figurative works in the collection feel like proxy portraiture. The Residence was a relentless process of displaying his choices to the public and in turn displaying an ideal version of himself. We came to Napa to view the collection, and, while it illuminated aspects of Bay Area art history, it did more to shed light on the collector.

Erin Jane Nelson, Untitled, 2014; altered digital print. Courtesy of the Artist.

This heightened sense of the artist’s presence (and that of the collector) at times feels overwrought and forced. In another way of looking at it, there is a comic exuberance to the insistent nature of the artistic gesture, and viewed as a single, large group, this melodramatic effect is empowering. From the outside, melodrama can seem ridiculous, but at a certain point, this sort of over-sharing shifts and becomes highly potent. In performance and acting, serious realistic portrayal and melodramatic exaggeration are often at odds, but each has a place, a potential to succeed at affecting the viewer.

Maybe with visual art, the routes deemed more serious and conceptual align themselves with rigorous method acting. In these cases, dedication to purity leads the viewer to feel a powerful empathy with the character/work, and access is given to the ideas and emotions of the other. In works of melodrama, some of this empathy is lost. But we, the viewers, gain the right to feel.

The two books of drawings and notes by visitors in the Residence reflect this reaction to melodrama. The Residence as a whole, including the almost naïve heart-on-its-sleeve feeling of the works within, is echoed in the incredible drawings left by visitors: raw, quick sketches and signatures that are honest, silly, and oddly poetic. Think of a student in a museum, charged with drawing pictures of the various masterful sculptures and paintings on display; here, instead of depicting the various creatures in the works, the visitors invent some of their own. Nelson was particularly attracted to these drawings, and her photographs reflect this spirit of invention.

We approached this essay with an eye toward these drawings and comments. Our sense of this collection is that it is indeed a group of very deliberate choices nested one inside the other (i.e., not something found as-is and kept). It is artificial and at the same time that much more real. By engaging so fully in participation and self-display, di Rosa gives the viewer permission to feel fully and deeply.



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