Wince or smile at the title, but the Kreeger Museum's "The True Artist Is an Amazing Luminous Fountain" lives up to its promise.
Artmaking is a calling, the exhibition of Northern California art seems to say. A sense of experimentation, idea-sharing and an honest, hands-on approach weave through 50 paintings, ceramics, mixed-media pieces, watercolors and photographs from 1959 to 2000 by 20 artists. Moods jump from serene to manic to violent, often expressed as a good-natured affront. These works grab your attention.
After Kerouac, cool jazz and North Beach were over, the San Francisco region gave birth to a new kind of art, and Rene di Rosa, 85, a self-described "artaholic" who goes for "anything that smacks of life," began to recognize it. In the mid-1960s, diverted from studying viticulture by a buzzing art department at the University of California at Davis, he switched focus to become friend and patron, with his late wife Veronica, to regional artists. The result is the 217-acre "Di Rosa Preserve: Art and Nature" in Napa, a park-museum featuring some 2,100 works by 800 Northern Californians.
Drawing from this hoard, onetime Washington and Baltimore art figure Jack Rasmussen, now the di Rosa's executive director -- a Seattle native raised near San Francisco -- is aware that theme shows can be tricky if selected from a personal collection. However, he explains, "Rene's interests dovetail well with this region's core values and evolution as an art center."
Bruce Nauman, the punning, pranking conceptualist who studied at U.C. Davis, provides the exhibition's title -- a 1966 installation of six-inch cutout letters in hardboard, reinstalled over and around the Kreeger exhibition entry. It provides a kind of looking-glass metaphor for what lies beyond.
Viola Frey's off-kilter "Seated Figure With Vase" in the first gallery would be 10 feet tall if she stood up. This buoyantly glazed ceramic temptress with 1940s hair scowls with a vase between her legs. Besotted businessmen chase female nudes on the surface of the 1998 sculpture.
Ceramic sculpture has thrived in Northern California since Peter Voulkos (represented by a modest but instructive plate) first squeezed life out of clay in the late 1950s. Among exemplars here are Robert Arneson's disturbing pile of tiny corpses in a warhead shape, Richard Shaw's trompe-l'oeil ceramic-porcelain walking figure, and James Melchert's haunting "Ghost Jar With Butterflies" from the mid-1960s, with highly serene, Asia-influenced wall pieces from recent years.
Weaving a different kind of magic are the bleeding colors, intricate patterns, decayed materials and mystical cosmograms -- hallucinatory images tempered by Victorian clutter -- of early 1960s works by Bruce Conner. Similarly, Wally Hedrick's "$18.00 Giant Power Heidelberg Electric Belt" ad, a Warholesque appropriation, is a heady bit of creepy Victoriana from 1973 urging male potency. These are appropriate artworks for San Francisco, a narcissistic, pleasure-loving city older than anything else around it.
Edging further into a lingering hippie sensibility, David Best's tiny, modeled "Ribbon Merchant" and 3-D "Triangle Factory Fire" of Victorian nymphets and Islamic and Florentine patterns in black-and-white are darkly celebratory, perhaps to be expected from an artist known for his participation in the let-loose Burning Man art events in the Nevada desert.
Bay Area figurative art put Northern California on the map in the 1950s, and its legacy can be seen in Manuel Neri's paint-swiped truncated female figure, a kind of three-dimensional Diebenkorn, and Joan Brown's "Dancers in a City #4." This experimentally clumsy, Matisse-meets-Grandma Moses 10-foot-wide double canvas has interesting collisions of abstract and figural form, but a cliched keyboard and dancing hands, for this viewer at least, reeks of souvenir mug decoration.
Brown and most artists in this show felt the pull of funk art, a local trend in which counterculture thinking fused with an anything-goes, anti-art attitude harking back to the dadaists of the World War I era. The star of the genre is Clayton Bailey's outrageous, clawed ceramic "Male Chair" from 1963, offering a place to sit with hanging genitalia placed just so. If only museums would let people sit on art.
Roy de Forest's paint-spot compositions of himself with his dog are funk symphonies -- quite nuts and totally charming -- in which the frame becomes part of the narrative, and vice versa. William Wiley's punning "Monster? Us?" and "Moon Proof" are Mobius strip cartoons that, rather like the Internet, you can spend hours with and never quite know why. Once dubbed "Huckleberry Duchamp," Wiley is a national treasure who makes art both confounding and fun.
Which brings us back to Nauman. A student of Wiley's, he went on to make whispering rooms, neon kickboxers, videos of screaming clowns and carousels dragging horses that are confounding and often scary, but they are also viscerally understandable and often fun. The Kreeger show closes with Nauman's photos of himself using his fingers, like a kid, to make hideous mouth distortions as he explores ways to turn his body into sculpture. In the context of "The True Artist," you can't help but cheer him on.
Many categories blend together in this show, as Rasmussen astutely acknowledges in his essay for the catalogue ($18), which mixes typography and images like a CNN news screen on each page. Although some of his choices raise questions, like Robert Hudson's redo of Joseph Beuys's face (for what reason?), Squeak Carnwath's symbolism (is it overwrought?) and William Allan's cinematic surrealism (too L.A.?), and he left out the gloriously idiosyncratic Jess, Rasmussen deserves major kudos for this effort. I am compelled to complain, however, that making visitors carry around a sheet of paper to match numbers on the wall is deeply irritating.
Kudos also to the Kreeger for taking this show, which continues through July 31. The Bass Museum in Miami has just signed up for the tour, but no others outside of California, and that's a shame. All true artists make luminosity, but Northern California, land of brown hills and a city that can't be pigeonholed, had its moment, and outsiders need to experience it firsthand.