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About this blog: John Barry is the creator of trAction Painting, a process/performance genre in which he applies paint to large surfaces with bicycles, roller skates, and other wheeled conveyances. With Bill Carmel and other associates, he has bro...  (More)

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The 2020 de Young Open

Uploaded: Nov 24, 2020
By Bill Carmel, MFA

In celebration of the de Young museum’s 125th anniversary, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF) are hosting The de Young Open, a juried community art exhibition of submissions by artists who live in the nine Bay Area counties: Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Solano, and Sonoma

. Due to COVID-19 restrictions the de Young is closed until further notice
Where: de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, Golden Gate Park, S.F.
Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays–Sundays; closes Jan. 3
Admission: $6 to $15; free for ages 17 and younger
COVID-19 directive
Contact: (888) 901-5545,

Note: To view the exhibition

In the 12,000-square-foot Herbst Exhibition Galleries, 877 artworks by 762 Bay Area artists hang “salon-style,” installed edge-to-edge and floor-to-ceiling. Selected from 11,514 artworks submitted by 6,188 artists from across the nine Bay Area counties, they are arranged in rooms that convey certain themes suggested by their wide range of content. These themes include: social, political, cultural, and sexual identity; COVID-19; human rights; community (urban and suburban); environmental; abstract; technology; art and art history; nature; figurative; verbal; and still life. Artists in the Media room represent a variety of styles, including animation, documentary, computer-generated imagery, montage, and narration. The exhibition is awesome to behold…what the old-time salon and Academy exhibition halls must have been like.

Can You Hear Me Now?! 24 x 18 x 1. #18. Orin Carpenter.

This raw and vital painting is one of the first works to greet the public. Carpenter speaks of the hideous murder of George Floyd and the BLM outrage at social, judicial, and political inequity, as well as his “acting as if” a Black artist could stand against the status quo. This painting exudes pain, frustration, and power. He uses a collage-of-images technique that is common with contemporary artists. Some artists use grids, but Carpenter uses a more random composition of painted and pasted elements that surround and overlap the central figure. The way the figure is outlined in blue then white is particularly effective. The images that cover the sensory organs of the face, the connection of the right eye spectacle form to the “I AM A MAN” protest sign hanging over the heart and lung area, the tag labeled “Ethiopia,” and the typeface lettering give us context for this dynamic shout-out.

On with the Show

Diversity (ethnic, race and gender) leads the parade. Universal themes abound and thread their way throughout the genres: the play of light as the illumination of ideas; realism (identifiable imagery) as a window into the work; contrast and juxtaposition of things to establish meaning; and bravura to capture attention to the human condition. What remains with me from my exhibit walk is that the themes are not as important as how artists relate (see, think, and feel) to these themes. Choice of content and point of view are as important as what is depicted and how they may be idealized or abstracted. There are many surprises, shocks, and lots of popular styles and genres presented with individual flair.

Lagoon, 18 x 36 x 2, #509. Suzanne Siminger.
This painting is a guided walk into the bucolic coastal wetlands of California. As in many of the other works that speak of nature, light is one of the most important pictorial ideas. In Lagoon, light interacts with elements of the earth, water, and sky. These colors and textures are resplendent. Siminger says in her artist’s statement that she wants to revel in the beauty of local places as she paints. The complex but subtly balanced composition and rendering of natural forms are as personal, idyllic, and captivating as it gets. Landscape paintings have been commonly produced since the early Renaissance, but this one is rare in its presentation of brushstrokes that create a well-defined pattern of light and dark shapes representing foliage and landforms that transform the pictorial space in a natural way. Colors and shapes representing reflections on the water and shadows on the land are handled masterfully. What I like most about this painting is that it conjures up a thought of a recumbent earth, covered with a cloak of vivid flora and tidal water, with a soft breeze flowing above. Siminger invites us to stop our walk for a while, sit with this place, and enjoy a visual conversation.

How Much Is Too Much?

Most astonishing is the diversity of voices in this exhibit. Wave after wave of feelings and thoughts (imaginative, provocative, relevant, and inspirational) quickly overwhelmed me. The overall quality of the work is considerable, so choosing only four examples from the de Young Open for this blog was difficult. It is wonderful that the seven jurors, three from the art world and four from the de Young, could agree on 12% of the artists who submitted. Then the curators pull the threads together into a cohesive, glorious show.

Beauty Will Save the World. 42 x 30 x 1 3/8 #451. Tino Rodriguez.

This painting highlights pollinators that are being exterminated by pollution right now throughout the world. Realism, environmental consciousness, and symbolism in the style of Giuseppe-Arcimboldo (1526–1593) combine into a powerful and beautiful portrayal of ecological disaster in our COVID times. The use of black background could have taken this painting into the realm of hokey and trite. But it’s not. The black emphasizes the intense colors of the insects, and their arrangement allows the central figure to dissolve and reassemble in an ephemeral, fluttering way. Yes, it is beautiful yet understated in its global implications. This is a looking glass into terrifying unintended consequences of our disregard for the planet.

Process Made Visible

It is difficult to know what criteria the jurors used to select the art, but the creative application of craftsmanship, connections to big ideas, effective design, and expression of personal vision were part of the assessment process. The stated optimal theme, “On the Edge,” features some truly edgy work.

Mansplaining (Disgraced Patriarchal Monument) 59 x 19 x 19. #70. Kathy Aoki.

This powerful and rude sculpture satirically pokes fun at traditional artifacts such as heroic portrait busts and presentations in aesthetic institutions such as art museums. Aoki masterfully renders the male arrogant posture, and the pigeon masterfully patinas the monumental visage. I especially like the ball sack chin (no skin off Rodin’s nose). This piece is specific in its sarcasm yet broad in its aim. As I prepared to move on in the exhibit, I didn’t feel skewered until I slipped in the pool of blood surrounding my feet.

A Modest Proposal

The de Young Open exhibit sharply contrasts with the majority of what is in the permanent collection on display in the rest of the de Young museum. The list of sponsors at the museum’s entrance and the crowd-pleasing big-name shows indicate that the regular collections, purchases, and exhibitions represent the interests of the private art market and corporate philanthropy and sponsorship. However, much of the evolution of what is currently taught in some schools and promoted in aesthetic communities is focused on multicultural and multiethnic content, a more inclusive, equitable, and empathetic social order. This kind of thinking is represented in the de Young Open as well as in community galleries and other museums that hold open exhibitions. After visiting the Open exhibition, I concluded that I can’t be the only one with thoughts like this. So, I queried other artists, both exhibiting and not, to see who shares this sentiment. Could the museum take the outcomes of its Artist-in-Residence program and the other regional residency programs combine and expand them into one great exhibition venue?

Like AIR programs, this Open exhibit gives the public an opportunity to witness a local snapshot of cultural evolution. It is possible that this exhibit only scratches the surface of what’s going on in the outermost fringes of the current cultural landscape. So, in the spirit of creative research and development, let’s invite artists to explore and make work that challenges all of us to take a deep dive into ourselves. Then exhibit the result, again and again. Call it the “Ring-of-Fire Rooms.”

This show is the vaccine our artists need during this COVID-19 pandemic, a time of extreme hardships. It is a proactive answer for living artists forced into recession and isolation. With this show, the FAMSF boards of trustees and esteemed staff present a significant expansion of its mission to connect, inform, inspire, and engage divergent creative communities. The depth of creativity, the variety of authentic voices and identities, and a synthesis of old and new ideas in this exhibit call us to continue; a logical next step may be to enfold the powerful example of the Open as a continuous project into some of the exhibition halls and rooms featuring the permanent collections, not to replace them but to enhance them. Keep the de Young Open alive! Let this exhibit become a new normal for the Fine Art Museums of San Francisco that supports the art of the living present.

Don’t let it become a flash in the pan.
What is it worth to you?


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