3.21 / Best Of: Year Three

Best Of: John Zarobell

By John Zarobell August 16, 2012

Image: Ricardo C. Rivera. Self, Time, Reflect, 2012 (performance still), MATCHA: Taking Up Space. Courtesy Asian Art Museum, San Francisco. Photo: Kaz Tsuruta. © Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.

Best Old Museum Learning New Tricks: Asian Art Museum

The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco is a city institution that has launched a rebranding campaign in the past year. As much as the use of advertising tactics by a nonprofit public institution makes me want to run for the hills, I have to admit that I have been impressed by the new energy that the Asian has demonstrated in the past year under the directorship of Jay Xu. In November, I reviewed their blockbuster exhibition Maharaja: The Splendor of India’s Royal Courts, which was augmented by an exhibition of the work of Sanjay Patel, a contemporary animator and illustrator who also designed the promotional material for Maharaja. The current exhibition, Phantoms of Asia: Contemporary Awakens the Past, is the Asian’s most ambitious foray yet into contemporary art. Visiting curator Mami Kataoka, the chief curator of the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, with the help of Allison Harding, the Asian’s assistant curator of contemporary art, organized the exhibition to engage with the Asian’s storied collection by placing installations throughout the museum as well as within the special-exhibition galleries. Successfully balancing the need to bring attention to the Asian’s permanent collection while innovating in the special-exhibition domain, Phantoms renews the relevance of the institution’s historical holdings.

This authorized presentation has been augmented by the quasi-unauthorized actions of Imin Yeh, a San Francisco artist who used a grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission to purchase one of the museum’s upper-level Jade Circle memberships. From this position, of a benefactor with privileged institutional access, Yeh developed further interventions that skirted the edges of legitimacy. SpaceBi, a mini exhibition she curated as part of a series of performances in the museum, also took over a section of the shop windows as an installation of work by nine local artists. Thankfully the Asian, and in particular its educator for public programs, Marc Mayer, had the good sense to embrace Yeh’s activities and even to capitalize upon them. The museum officially acknowledged Yeh’s work with the July 26, 2012 event “Taking Up Space” as part of its Matcha public programming series, which featured performances by a wide range of Bay Area artists who responded to the institution’s inheritance. Nonprofit community organizations were also invited to participate, making it a one-night-only hub for regional artists and arts organizations while providing a fabulous, if sometimes irreverent, tribute to the reasons this museum exists in the first place.

Best Exhibition Pairing: San Jose Museum of Art

The spring exhibitions at San Jose Museum of Art (SJMA), Renegade Humor and Mexicanismo: Through the Eyes of Mexican Artists, demonstrated what successful curatorial experimentation looks like. Side-stepping the litany of monographic projects typical of museum programming, the respective curators Jodi Throckmorton and Kristen Evangelista showed what happens when a museum director allows her curators a wide berth to organize projects that explore their passions.

Though designed individually, these interlocking exhibitions encouraged expansive thinking about identity and locality, but they also provided a lot of humor to remedy the serious demeanor of much contemporary art. The latter was especially true of Renegade Humor, which also reconsidered intergenerational dynamics in West Coast art making of the past few decades. Works by classic figures such as William T. Wiley and Robert Arneson were paired with those of next-generation humorists such as Squeak Carnwath and Enrique Chagoya. Both of these exhibitions were also enriched by the inclusion of works expressly commissioned for each.

Aside from the presence of Chagoya’s work in both exhibitions, there are also considerable overlaps in presenting the variable techniques that contemporary artists employ to use and misuse signifiers of national identity, often in humorous and irreverent ways. This is especially true of the younger generation of Mexican and Chicano artists profiled in Mexicanismo (on view through September 23, 2012). The ceramics of Jamex de la Torre and Einar de la Torre employ hackneyed imagery, such as images from lucha libre and skulls, to create fantastic tchotchkes while Máximo González weaves devalued banknotes into tapestries in a neo-craft critique of capitalism run amok. Betsabeé Romero’s tires carved with Mesoamerican designs reconsider car culture and its connection to Mexican identity, a topic equally relevant to Mexican Americans. Pairing the art of Mexicans and Chicanos provides an innovative lens through which to investigate culture, tradition, and locality.

Sadly, Mexicanismo was Evangelista’s swansong at SJMA, but I look forward to discovering what the museum’s new senior curator, Mónica Ramírez-Montagut, will develop in the years to come.


Renegade Humor, installation view, San Jose Museum of Art. Robert Arneson. Colonel Hyena, 1985; glazed ceramic on painted metal base; 75 ½ x 17 x 24 inches; Gift from the collection of Morgan and Betty Flagg, Atherton, CA. William Wiley.Tantrum Art La Grande, 2001; acrylic base mixed media on canvas; 60 x 96 in. Gift of the Lipman Family Foundation. Courtesy of the San Jose Museum of Art.

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