Sophie D. ‘26
I was initially torn on what to write about for the Arts ‘23 wrapped. There are examples of art all around us, all the time: art on campus, in the Bay Area, and in the greater world. The entire last year of visual art in the “greater world” could not be condensed into a single article, of course, and although visual art on campus would be the most specific to our community, I ended up ruling out that option because I wanted to bring in a wider scope that wouldn’t be found in an Artist of the Week post. So, I chose the option in the middle: visual art exhibitions in the Bay Area. I also made this choice after realizing I had been to more than five different local museums, all at different times in the year, so I might be able to give a rundown of my thoughts from all of those exhibitions.
To address the obvious, I'm undoubtedly biased (and by no means an expert) in my choices for the “top 10”, since I haven’t gone to every museum and exhibit in the Bay Area, and I’ll have different ideas of what is interesting and impactful from others. That being said, I’ve included references to classes and events on campus to make my choices relevant to the CPS community, because my favorite thing about art museums is the way they connect history, art, and everyday life! All exhibits are in chronological order, ordered by closure dates, and while some have unfortunately closed since I visited them, others are still open to visitors. Thanks for reading, and I hope this article inspires someone to visit a local art museum or create art themselves!
SFMOMA: Joan Brown
Joan Brown, After the Alcatraz Swim #3 (1976)
The showing of Joan Brown’s works at the SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) explored phases of the artist’s career: the transition from her early expressionistic paintings to a more abstract, bold style, with an added flair entirely her own, and later, the effects of a near death experience on her art. Joan Brown was an artist who drew inspiration from the Bay Area, and was even more tied to the location by her love of swimming in the bay. This interest took her to a semi-competitive swim from Alcatraz, which went wrong when a large boat caused a wake that almost drowned her and multiple other swimmers. Beforehand, Brown painted a piece titled The Night Before the Alcatraz Swim. Afterwards, still unable to fully confront her trauma from the incident, she created a series of drawings of “after the swim” to help her cope. It was most fascinating to see the changes to her art in the “after” paintings. In one of them titled After the Alcatraz Swim #3, the main scene is calm except for a chaotic “painting within the painting”, representing the pastime that Brown loved, but still almost killed her. Using mostly self portraits, Joan Brown’s work highlights her personal progression, throughout different styles and symbolism affected by pivotal experiences in her life, like her swim in the Bay. Although this exhibit has closed, listen to this 1979 interview to hear her perspective on her art!
BAMPFA: Out of Africa
Doug Aitken, Diamond Sea (1997)
Unlike the majority of this list (with some exceptions), “Out of Africa” wasn’t confined to one artist’s works, but instead was a collection of pieces all exploring “extraction, exploitation, and displacement for economic gain” in Africa (specifically in South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Namibia). As I walked into this exhibit at the BAMPFA (Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive), I was drawn towards one of the dark rooms where they show short films. I sat down and looked towards the screen as a scene unfolded: abandoned houses, covered in layers of sand, on an otherwise barren desert landscape. Without a human in sight, the remnants of a town sat baking in the sun, eroded by the sea air wafting from the beach nearby. The only sounds and movements came from giant machines scooping and dropping sand into piles. All of these elements combined made the film thoroughly unsettling. After reading and researching further, I learned that this film was Doug Aitken’s Diamond Sea, and was set in a diamond mine off the coast of the Namib desert in Namibia. The area has been closed off to humans since 1908, and is home to almost no organic life. Recalling this exhibit now, I thought about it in relation to our CPSWeek theme this year: Conscious Consumerism and Media Awareness. The idea that a diamond, a small thing we assigned immense material value, would be enough of a reason for this level of extraction and destruction forced me to reflect on how a consumer perspective shields me from the process of commodity creation. The film also introduced a real life example of machines replacing humans in a field normally requiring manual labor, making me consider the effects on the environment and local populations. Check out some of the links above to learn more, or this digital gallery for some stills from the film!
OMCA: Angela Davis, Seize the Time
Herb Bruce, Free Angela (1971)
Angela Davis’ exhibition at the OMCA (Oakland Museum of California) was most notable, in my view, for how it represented the power of the masses in political and social change. One of the most well-known American political activists in the 1960s and 1970s, Davis was a Marxist communist, part of the Black Panther party, and advocated for prison reform. When she was charged with three capital felonies and unjustly tried in 1970, a campaign swept up around her, condemning the false charges and trial. Ultimately, she was declared innocent. Of course, this didn’t “cancel out” the injustice– it was wrong for her to be tried in the first place – but the immediate, mass action that followed exemplifies how a single person can become the symbol that inspires, guides, and fuels an uprising. By having Angela Davis at the center of their Seize the Time exhibit but mentioned in newspaper clippings and drawn on posters, the museum shows how she was seen by the public, and became the catalyst for a movement that grew to be much larger than her.
If I had to pick a favorite part of the exhibit, It would probably be watching her interview playing in one of the rooms. In this case, she wasn’t exactly the “artist” behind the exhibit – more so, the inspiration – but that made the interview all the more interesting, because she talked about the movement from her perspective, at the heart of it all. I was also surprised to learn about how local her movement was. Oakland was where major gatherings and demonstrations of the movement took place. Additionally, Davis has taught at a variety of Bay Area colleges, including Mills College, UC Berkeley, and San Francisco State University. This exhibit is now closed, but here's the OMCA website for more information!
SFMOMA: Kehinde Wiley, An Archaeology of Silence
Kehinde Wiley, An Archaeology of Silence (2021)
Kehinde Wiley’s most famous artwork might be the portrait of president Barack Obama that he painted in 2018, but if you’re currently a Sophomore, you might recognize his work from the cover of your second semester Atlantic reader. The painting is an imitation of the 17th-century French painter Jacques-Louis David’s “Napoleon crossing the Alps”, yet Wiley himself takes the place of Napoleon, heroically positioned on a rearing horse. By painting a Black figure in the European Neoclassical style, Wiley discards the historical exclusion of Black people from such works, and elevates himself to the level of power that Napoleon has in the original painting.
Just like the cover of the Atlantic reader, many of Wiley’s art pieces – including ones I saw during the show An Archaeology of Silence at the De Young in January 2023 – merge a Black central figure, or main character, with seventeenth and eighteenth century Western style and symbolism. Despite entering the exhibit without any prior knowledge on what he was referencing, the emotion and technical skill in each piece blew me away. Backgrounds in his paintings are filled with vibrant scenery; the poses and expressions of his bronze statues, slightly larger than life-sized, are realistic to the point of seeming like they might open their eyes and start breathing any minute. He managed to combine bright patterns, Renaissance-style bronze figures, and almost peaceful, sleep-like poses to portray martryed victims of racist killings in the U.S., using breathtaking but sorrowful visual elements to hook the viewer and engage them with deeper meanings. From visual, conceptual, and historical perspectives, Kehinde Wiley’s works were amazing to behold. Since this is a brief overview of only one of his collections, I encourage anyone who wants to know more to visit these extra resources, or to research more on their own: The US Premiere of “Kehinde Wiley: An Archaeology of Silence” at the de Young Museum; Brooklyn Museum: Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps.
Asian Art Museum: Afruz Amighi, My House, My Tomb, 2015
If you’re a part of the majority of CPS students who have taken (or are taking) Asian Worlds, you’ll appreciate, or at least recognize, the references to Mughal history that Afruz Amighi’s My House, My Tomb makes. I visited the Asian Art Museum in January of 2023, during my Freshman year, meaning the course was still fresh in my mind. While porcelain teapots made me pride myself on my knowledge of the Silk Road and statues of bodhisattvas on my knowledge of different branches of Buddhism, the history behind this installation mirrored lessons from class the most out of the art I saw that day. In Asian Worlds, you learn about the white mausoleum (the Taj Mahal) that Mughal Shah Jahan built for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal. You also learn that he (allegedly) planned to build a second mausoleum in black stone for himself, which would mirror the white one in everything but color. However, if this legend is true, he wasn’t able to follow through with this plan, because when he died he was placed beside his wife in the white Taj Mahal. Amighi’s hanging artwork includes both the white and black Taj Mahals, what could have been, side by side. To her, the two represent the beauty of Indo-Islamic artwork (something else you learn about in Asian Worlds!) under Shah Jahan, and the Mughal dynasty as a whole. The most intriguing part of this artwork to me was how modern, almost abstract, the artwork looks before you realize its historical significance (and once you do, how triumphant it feels to know the reference!).
De Young: De Young Open
I visited the De Young Open in December, over this year’s winter break. The idea of the exhibit was somewhat new to me; when I think of museums, I either think of historical artifacts or of more recent art created by specific, well-known artists. The De Young Open breaks the requirements of an artist’s popularity or a piece’s historical significance to enter. Although you do have to be eighteen or older to submit, you don’t need to be famous to have your artwork displayed; its goal is to give exposure to local Bay Area artists. The beauty of this was being able to see vastly different styles, mediums, emotions, and social issues represented all in one gallery– a slightly overwhelming experience, but also extremely inspiring. Since it’s an annual collection, I would encourage artists (once you’re eighteen, if you aren’t yet) to submit, and for anyone interested to attend the 2024 exhibition. Read more about it here!
SFMOMA: Pacita Abad
Pacita Abad, Anilao At its Best (1986)
Pacita Abad’s quilted artworks immediately intrigued me when I visited the SFMOMA this winter, because of their dense, flowing patterns, and how many details, colors, and textures are packed into each piece. Abad was born in Basco, Philippines in 1946, and visited 60 different countries across 6 continents in her lifetime, explaining the wide spectrum of cultural influences in her art. In the 1970s, Abad traveled to San Francisco, and fought for the rights of Asian and Latin American immigrants. She was so involved in activism that she decided to pursue law, and was even granted a scholarship at UC Berkeley to attend law school, but declined to travel the world and research further. This was another reason I found her work so fascinating– the inspiration she found so close by, here in the Bay Area. Personally, as an artist who values vibrancy in my pieces (and coincidentally loves to paint sea life), I left the museum that day greatly inspired by her work. Unfortunately, this exhibit will have closed by the time this article comes out, but as always, for more information, visit any of the linked websites or research more on your own.
Legion of Honor: Botticelli Drawings (Closes February 11, 2024)
Sandro Botticelli, Study for the Portrait of a Lady in Profile to the Right (ca.1485)
In Seventh grade I learned about the Italian Renaissance– the new techniques, shift and ideology, and the artists who came out of it, Sandro Boticelli being one of them. The showing of his drawings at the Legion of Honor was special to me because it included a form of art that I don’t normally see in museums: sketches. When I think of works by “the masters'' (''the masters'' referring to the most influential artists of the Italian Renaissance period, like Boticelli), I normally think of their most famous, detailed pieces, the ones which took years, maybe even decades, to complete. Seeing Boticelli’s sketches revealed his process, a more personal, intimate part of his art, especially because he didn’t expect them to ever be shared with the public. The most fascinating to me were displays that put sketches and their corresponding finished paintings side-by-side, allowing you to see his thought process- what he added, what he subtracted, and what he kept from the sketch when creating the final piece. Since I saw this exhibit in the winter, this exhibit is open until early February! To learn more about the exhibit or Boticelli himself, tickets are available on the De Young website.
BAMPFA: Duane Linklater, Mymothersside (Closes February 25, 2024)
Brian Jungen, Duane Linklater, Modest Livelihood (2012)
Ontario-based cree artist Duane Linklater’s exhibition Mymothersside is his first major survey exhibition, and included everything from films, paint on canvas, sculpture, and even 3d-printed objects. Walking into the exhibit, the scale of the art in the first room caught my eye; one of the pieces (dislodgevanishskinground, 2015) consisted of the wooden skeleton of a tipi taken off of the ground and rearranged on the wall, with a piece of linen hanging off of the point where all of the poles met. It had an eerie quality to it, as if the skin of a huge animal had been stripped off, only a flap and the bones beneath remaining– yet it was more deliberate and complex in structure. As stated on the BAMPFA website, Linklater’s goal is to represent his culture beyond the stereotypes (like a tipi), taking historical practices from his culture (hunting and fur trading, for example) and carrying them into the present day by practicing them in his everyday life and including them in his art. Hunting in particular was represented in a silent short film of him, his friend, and his friend’s uncle going moose hunting, titled Modest Livelihood. This was probably one of my favorite pieces that day, because of how the nature imagery, color grading, and quiet of the film all combined to give the film a peaceful, cozy mood– as if the onlooker were there with Linklater, seeing what the camera saw. Since the exhibit is open until late February, to see the pieces or learn more, tickets are available here!
BAMPFA: Sin Wai Kin (Closes March 10, 2024)
Sin Wai Kin, Dreaming the End (2023)
Sin Wai Kin’s works at the BAMPFA are the most recent, in creation and in the installation of the exhibit, in this article. Composed of the two films, The Breaking Story (2022) and Dreaming the End (2023), the showing is the artist’s first ever solo exhibition. During my visit to the museum in December, I spent the most time in the dark room mesmerized by Dreaming the End (2023), a short film including stunning visual aspects like makeup, outfits, scenery, and the intellectual element of an immensely creative and intricate storyline. Admittedly, this exhibit confused me when I was sitting there watching it, but that's what made it so fascinating. The story was there, each character playing their role and all of the outfits, settings, and dialogue part of a message, but it wasn’t in plain sight: I couldn’t wrap my head around it all at the time, and it took me some more thinking and research afterwards to better understand it. If you find that kind of art piece frustrating, then this exhibit might not be for you. If you’re like me, though, and enjoy art that takes some time and thinking to unravel, then I would recommend visiting this exhibit (it’s open until early March!). Tickets are available on the BAMPFA website.