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Bawdy, witty show of 'California Funk' Art founders to hit the road

By Claudia Morain on August 23, 2007 in

The University of California, Davis, has assembled its largest public show of work by faculty members Robert Arneson, Roy De Forest, Manuel Neri, Wayne Thiebaud and William T. Wiley -- five of the most significant artists ever to live and work in Northern California -- in a traveling exhibit that will premiere on campus and then stop at four other cities in California and Nevada throughout the next two years.

The "You See" exhibit, made possible by a $60,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, will be on display from Sept. 27 through Dec. 9 at the Richard L. Nelson Gallery at UC Davis. The collection then travels to the Hearst Art Gallery at Saint Mary's College in Moraga, the Bakersfield Museum of Art in Bakersfield, the Donna Beam Fine Art Gallery at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and the Pasadena Museum of California Art in Pasadena.

"You See" at the Nelson will be on view from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays though Fridays and from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. The exhibit is free and open to the public.

"History was made in the Central Valley in the early '60s when five great artists came together on the same faculty for over a decade and changed the nature and perception of art in California forever," said Nelson Gallery director Renny Pritikin. "Because of the size of our gallery, most of their work in our permanent collection is in storage or on loan at any given time. We are tremendously excited to be able, for the first time, to display the best of these little-seen works in a single exhibit -- and to be able to travel the collection to small regional art museums that wouldn't otherwise have access to this work."

The exhibit will include 36 works from the Nelson's permanent collection. "The Palace at 9 a.m.," Arneson's enormous ceramic ode to his '50s-era Davis tract home, will anchor the show, together with three Thiebaud masterworks and three of Neri's most admired figurative sculptures. "Crash," Arneson's bronze homage to Jackson Pollock, is also included, together with rarely seen paintings, drawings and prints by De Forest and Wiley.

All five artists came to teach at UC Davis between 1960 and 1965. Thiebaud, at 86 one of the most popular and respected American painters of the 20th century, continues to teach UC Davis art students. Arneson, who played a critical role in the elevation of ceramics from craft to fine art, remained on the faculty until his death from cancer in 1992 at age 62. Neri, regarded as one of America's most important figurative sculptors and the leading Latino artist of his generation, was a faculty member for 25 years. De Forest, who died in May at age 77, also spent nearly a quarter century on the faculty, amassing a body of work that continues to reflect and shape Northern California culture today. Wiley, who developed perhaps the most original and influential drawing style of his time, spent a decade teaching and creating art on the Davis campus. The three surviving artists continue to make strong work well into their 60s, 70s and beyond.

The five Davis artists are sometimes identified with "California funk," characterized by bawdy irreverence, iconoclasm and self-deprecating humor.

"This was an era when many intellectuals wanted to step back from high-minded, idealist projects and metaphorically bring it all back home again -- to become grounded again after the upheavals of the 1960s, to take possession of the country after the derangements of American engagement in Vietnam and Civil Rights," says UC Davis art historian Simon Sadler, who wrote an essay for the "You See" exhibit catalog.

Julia Marshall, an art historian at San Francisco State University, wrote a teacher's guide for the exhibit, intended to help elementary and secondary school teachers use the "You See" exhibit as a springboard to introduce a new generation to Bay Area modern art.

"The UC Davis campus was originally an offshoot of the Bay Area art world but soon became a center of its own, one that in many ways eclipsed the Bay Area scene and invigorated and shaped the entire region," she wrote. "Perhaps the biggest accomplishment of the Davis/Bay Area artists at this time was the development of an alternative to New York, a regional art that spoke to and for Northern California and replaced the pretensions of the East Coast art world with an earthy, honest and vital local West Coast authenticity.

"Whether it is Neri's serious and raw explorations of human existence, Wiley's mystical contemplations, Arneson's investigation of his identity, Thiebaud's celebration of the everyday, or De Forest's happy fantasies, this is not a highly intellectual art removed from life; it is engaged with life."

Following the Nelson Gallery show, the "You See" exhibit will travel to these cities:

  • Moraga: May 3, 2008 – June 22, 2008, at the Hearst Art Gallery, Saint Mary's College
  • Bakersfield: Sept. 11, 2008 – Nov. 20, 2008, at the California Bakersfield Museum of Art
  • Las Vegas: Jan. 20, 2009 – Feb. 21, 2009, at the Donna Beam Fine Art Gallery, University of Nevada
  • Pasadena: May 31 – Aug. 9, 2009, at the Pasadena Museum of California Art

Media contact(s)

Renny Pritikin, Richard L. Nelson Gallery, (530) 754-6590,