These are uncertain times. We are a country at war, unemployment rates are rising, the economy is in a shambles, mega-companies are shutting their doors, and the governor of Nevada contends that a 36 percent decrease in university funding will make for a brighter tomorrow.
If that were to happen, countless educational programs would be on the chopping block. The depth of impact on the community at large is inestimable. Say there was no more funding for … UNLV’s Donna Beam Gallery. Then we would be denied the immense pleasure of a show like You See.
The individuals assembled for You See are Left Coast art gods, key players in one of the many cultural shifts that erupted in California during the 1960s and ’70s: West Coast funk. “I can’t remember when we have had a group of artists of this caliber [in one show],” says Jerry Schefcik, gallery director and exhibit curator.
Originating in the Bay Area, funk was nursed at nearby UC Davis, where the movement’s artists taught. From the mid-’60s on, the reputation of the art department grew exponentially, based on the cross-germination of the wildly diverse (materially) yet consistently impeccable output of its core faculty: Wayne Thiebaud, William T. Wiley, Robert Arneson, Manuel Neri and Roy De Forest.
These days, funk is primarily thought of as a ceramic style, but its presence here transcends the confines of specific media. Reacting against minimalism and abstract expressionism, funk skipped down the block holding hands with pop art—but hummed a much sunnier tune. Dada-esque, it understood the significance of serious absurdity in serious times. The everyday provided the playing field, from Life magazine to what you had for breakfast; materials were up for grabs, as was imagery. High and low collided in earnestly personal work where black humor and optimism were prevalent. It’s joyful. “There is a light to it … we can laugh at ourselves here,” says Schefcik. The influence of Bay Area funk on young artists is undeniable (see LA Now); its timeliness is eerie.
Arneson and De Forest dominate the funky cool vibe. Arneson’s twisted silliness is a thrill ride. His portraits are vibrant, but ceramic pieces like “Monolith for J.P.’s Final Drive” and “Wish Full Force” reach a whip-smart crescendo.
De Forest’s naively sweet drawings and paintings in humble materials and bright colors make you feel straight-up happy. The delightful “Drawing” from 1972 uses pencil, pastel and marker in a childlike fantasy—a clear forefather to the faux-naïve style popular from San Francisco to Williamsburg, Virginia.
Neri’s figurative sculptures are less overtly playful, but no less irreverent. Gorgeous in a decaying-Roman-statues-covered-in-shimmering-bird-crap kind of way, they play nicely with Donna Beam’s elephant in the room: a giant column. Gallery as Roman ruin?
Wiley’s vaguely automatic and often autobiographical work brims with heart and humor. His elaborate, lovingly executed prints, drawings and assemblages are whimsically narrative, filled with figures and text as if they’re pages from a diary. “Only the Brave Sea” and “Mr. Unnatural” welcome you into Wiley’s worldview, without pandering.
And Thiebaud? I always think I’m going to be bored to tears with his paintings of quotidian plates and pies. But face to face with his masterful technique and singular ability not only to see color but also to help us see it, it becomes obvious that no one can make a cup of coffee more alluring than Wayne Thiebaud.
You See: an exhibition at an educational institution facing a grim future. As a learning tool, it reveals historical trends relevant to contemporary practice. As a community resource, it offers that ineffable essence that only art can provide—a richer life experience. The exhibition gives us light, levity and laughter, along with the gentle reminder that education isn’t just for students.