Anyone seeking to understand the fulcrum on which the “axis of cultural authority” briefly tilted from East to West during the 1960s and 1970s would do well to examine two concurrent exhibitions: The Candy Store: Funk Nut & Other Art with a Kick, at the Crocker Art Museum, and Everything is Possible, Nothing is Probable: the Legacy of the Candy Store Gallery, organized by Curator Kelly Lindner for Sac State’s University Galleries. Together, they open a window onto what is widely regarded as a golden era, instigated, in part, by a small-town gallerist named Adeliza McHugh (1912-2003) whose contributions have gone largely unheralded. A third local show, New Flavors: Collected at the Candy Store, which appeared last fall at the Manetti Shrem Museum of Art in Davis, would have run in tandem with the two under consideration here had the pandemic not upended everyone’s schedules.
While the ostensible subject of these shows is Funk, the exhibitions show that some of the strongest work from this period came from artists who were unaligned with it. Documented in a deeply researched essay by the Crocker’s Associate Director and Chief Curator Scott Shields and a superb documentary film (The Candy Store: Adeliza’s House for Odd Birds) by Laurence Campling, the two shows, with their overlapping artist rosters, operate as one. Combined, they afford a multifaceted view of a gallerist whose tastes and influence evolved considerably over the gallery’s 30-year run, a timeline nearly triple that of its closest relative, the Dilexi Gallery, which operated in San Francisco from 1958 to 1969. With a few notable exceptions, the bulk of what the Candy Store showed came from white male artists – hardly a surprise given the marginalized state of women and people of color, then and now.
With little prior knowledge of contemporary art, McHugh, a grandmotherly, chain-smoking, Utah-born Mormon, opened the gallery in the then-sleepy town of Folsom, becoming, at age 50, the impresario of a newly formed avant-garde that had no commercial outlets. (She initially opened a confectionary in the same location, which the health department shuttered. Undeterred, she kept the name and enticed unwitting customers to buy art.) The year was 1962, and Funk — a blend of Duchampian absurdism, Dadaism, Surrealism, assemblage (a la Rauschenberg), and Beat-era aesthetics — was fast becoming the region’s dominant strain, a rebuke to the orthodoxies of Abstract Expressionism and the austere formalism of East Coast Minimalism and Conceptualism that came later. Less a style than an attitude, Funk defined itself through idiosyncratic personal narratives that lampooned middle-class values without venturing too far into politics. (The term was coined in 1967 by the artist Harold Paris in an article called “Sweet Land of Funk” that he wrote for Art in America.)
McHugh, despite her seemingly conservative upbringing, was no bumpkin. She previously lived in San Francisco and New York, where she frequented galleries and museums with her then-husband, the novelist and journalist Vincent McHugh. By all accounts, she had an extraordinary eye. Maja Peeples, speaking in Campling’s film, which debuted March 4 at the Crocker, describes McHugh’s purchase of a watercolor from an antique shop in New York. It turned out to be a Winslow Homer. That instinct translated well to the Candy Store, though not always easily.
Some of the artists who populated McHugh’s initial roster were already tending fast-moving careers, and for that reason, they were sometimes reluctant to consign artwork to an unknown dealer operating in a town best known for a state prison. But as stories circulated of paintings and drawings being snapped up within hours of delivery, studio doors opened, and before long, the small Victorian house that doubled as McHugh’s living space became a destination, a family-friendly salon at which artists gathered to not only to show and sell work but to exchange ideas and socialize. Part of what catalyzed the scene was the absence of bully-critics like Clement Greenberg, an ideologue who routinely told artists how and what to paint. That, coupled with the anything-goes ethos bubbling up from an emerging counterculture, freed artists to do as they pleased.
McHugh’s methods matched their sensibility. She allowed collectors to pay on time, even going so far as to deliver and install artworks to the homes of potential buyers with no down payment, no obligation to buy. Word-of-mouth spread the gallery’s reputation, as did an influential travel column by the actor Vincent Price, himself an estimable collector.
There were, of course, schisms among the ranks. Even after Peter Selz codified the term Funk in 1967 with a groundbreaking exhibition of the same title at the University Art Museum in Berkeley, not everyone embraced the label. Roy De Forest and Clayton Bailey, two stars of the UC Davis faculty, coined the term Nut Art to differentiate themselves, though the basis of that designation was never, to the best of my knowledge, formally articulated. Jim Nutt, key figure in the Chicago-based Hairy Who group who Irving Marcus brought to Sac State, accompanied by his wife, Gladys Nilsson, another virtuoso, were massively influential. The group, which later included Karl Wirsum, set itself apart by painting misshapen, awkwardly engaged figures, reflecting an interest in cartoons, advertising and outsider art, the latter represented here by Joseph Yoakum (the subject of a 2021 exhibition at MOMA). Three of Nutt’s former students, sculptor Michael Stevens and painters Suzanne Adan and Nate Shiner, inherited the Chicagoans’ sensibility and ran with it, producing some of the region’s most consistently engaging work, about which I’ll say more.
In the beginning, McHugh populated the Candy Store with art faculty members drawn from UC Davis and Sac State. Each, to borrow a baseball term, harbored a “murder’s row” of talent, which McHugh supplemented with referrals and gleanings from Artforum. In addition to Arneson, the gallery’s primary stable included David Gilhooly, Roy De Forest, Jack Ogden, Sandra Shannonhouse, Don Reich, Peeples, Marcus, Nutt and Nilsson. These “first-tier” artists, as Shields dubbed them, form the core of both shows, and that emphasis, as you might expect, leads down some well-trod paths. The real surprises come from selections the curators made from the one hundred-plus other artists McHugh exhibited before closing the gallery in 1992.
The Crocker show, drawn from its near-encyclopedic collection, is the largest and most ambitious of the two. It’s also the strongest, best-looking exhibition the museum has mounted in recent memory. Highlights? Arneson’s clay sculptures should rank high among them. But they don’t. Missing are the works that made Arneson a sensation: the genitalia-adorned toilets and telephones, the egghead sculptures, the Moscone bust that earned him national notoriety, the anti-war sculptures of the George H.W. Bush era, the tortured busts he made at the end of his life when he was undergoing chemotherapy, and his re-creation of Jackson Pollock’s 1943 masterpiece Guardians of the Secret, possibly the greatest work ever created in clay. Their absence, through no fault of the Crocker’s, reflects the fact that these works were scooped up by bigger, better-endowed museums.
Consequently, the strongest ceramic sculpture in the exhibition comes from Peter Vandenberge and Robert Brady, former Sac State instructors whose elegant works eschew the messy aesthetics of Funk. Brady submits a lacerated, unglazed self-portrait, with arms raised as if under arrest. Vandenberge is represented by three enormous clay busts on a low pedestal, one of which shows a solemn-looking Alberto Giacometti whom the artist befriended in Paris. (A stunning drawing of Giacometti, also by Vandenberge, makes you wonder why the artist never pursued two-dimensional work.) For examples of great drawing and Arneson at his best, skip the ceramics and look to his loosely
rendered, warts-and-all self-portraits. Pick (1980) shows the artist with a finger up his nose; another, Tonguing (1980), depicts him sticking out his tongue. They demonstrate as well as anything, the raw, joyful vulgarity that prevailed during Funk’s heyday. Luis Jimenez’s scenes of groping couples do the same with a raunchiness that calls to mind Robert Crumb’s caricatures for Zap Comix. Cupid’s Revenge (1984), a watercolor by M. Louise Stanley, shows the god of desire leering at a man mounting an assault on a bare-assed female statue – a bold act of detournement typical of the feminist wit Stanley has long deployed.
De Forest’s animal- and figure-packed paintings, with their bold colors and pointillistic surface nubs bordering on psychedelic, are another of the exhibition’s highlights. Recollections of a Sword Swallower (1968), for example, a large canvas divided into interconnected vignettes, comes close to representing the artist at his best, when, in his final decades, he began placing images and sculpted shapes onto the frames of paintings, complicating narratives that were dense to begin with.
McHugh often stated her preference for “art with a kick,” and of that there’s no shortage. At the Crocker, the hardest-hitting work comes from Luis Cruz Azaceta, a Cuba-born painter who briefly taught at UC Davis. His bloody, body-strewn narratives tell of life under Fidel Castro and New York during the AIDs crisis. They leave little to the imagination. By contrast, a small Jim Nutt panel painting (see above) from 1970
called But the Game Was Over! shows the hooded head of a person presumably awaiting execution. Built of clashing patterns that obscure identifying details, it points to, among many things, how different cultures portray violence. Latin American artists tend to depict it graphically; Americans and Europeans often lean toward Surrealism. Examples of the latter come from painter Don Reich and Sandra Shannonhouse, a ceramicist. Reich’s two drawings, filled with hybrid creatures — half-human, half-animal suspended in space – suggest more than a passing familiarity with Max Ernst, Joan Miro and Fernando Botero. At Sac State, Shannonhouse’s two sculptures — Postmistress and With Hand on Hat (both 1979) — hang side-by-side from the ceiling like skeletal marionettes. The first shows a spinal column topped by a hat; the second consists of what look to be bloated innards suspended over a pair of boots. Viewers familiar with the film Repo Man may be reminded of a similarly macabre scene involving a ’64 Chevy Malibu, a neutron bomb and a pair of smoking boots.
More than anything, these shows demonstrate the diversity of McHugh’s tastes and the range of eccentric personal expression that made this period historically significant. While some it falls into identifiable categories, the strongest examples remain, for the most part, sui generis. Take Irving Marcus.
He employed a Fauvist color palette, but his outlook was hardly sunny. Starting in the mid-1970s, he began painting from news photos, which he fashioned into intersecting color fields that functioned as multi-planar stages for nebulous (and sometimes nefarious) plots involving humans and animals in urban and rural settings. He rendered them like a caricaturist, contorting their bodies into anatomically impossible positions and situating them in equally improbable physical spaces. While Marcus eventually stopped painting directly from news sources, headline events were ever-present in his work, as were, one suspects, dreams, traumatic memories and crimes such as those at the Crocker. They include Doesn’t Every Horse Have a Pool? (1972) and Study for Dead Guerillas (1973). Both defy easy analysis.
Suzanne Adan’s paintings also present enigmas. Comprised of figures, objects, animals, text snippets and symbols, they owe an equal debt to Nutt and Nilsson, evidenced in frozen-in-time dream sequences. Like the visionary artists that inspired the Chicagoans, Adan works obsessively, building grounds from small scalloped marks executed in a heavy impasto. They have a flattening effect. And when I say flattening, I’m speaking not only about object/ground relationships but about the emotional tenor of the paintings themselves, which exhibit a bound, mute quality, like that seen in Flying Saucers (1993), the work on view. Nate Shiner, another disciple of Nutt and Nilsson, fascinates with two small paintings, one in each show, that read like comic strips built from modularly constructed landscapes rendered in a primitive glitch aesthetic. The strongest of the two, Magic Mail Order House: The Corrective Phase (1972) (at Sac State), is littered with excerpts from tacky advertisements, cryptic quote bubbles and snippets of imaginary comics – prefiguring (at a vastly smaller scale) the free-associative approach David Salle took in the 1980s.
Stevens, the other inheritor of the Nutt/Nilsson legacy, is a self-constructed hybrid. Over the past four decades, his work has mirrored America’s discontents in freestanding sculptures made of hand-carved animals, figures and objects that conjoin in unwieldy totems, hinting at hard falls his characters seem destined to take. Wall-mounted works feature sculptural elements affixed to thrift-store landscape paintings of pastoral or religious scenes that Stevens reworks to warn of unseen dangers. In both regards, Spike (1988), a giant dog measuring 88 x 86 inches built of wood slats, follows suit. Look between the “lines,” and you’ll see eyes peering through the gaps: the family dog recast as an agent of the emerging surveillance state.
William T. Wiley, who taught at UCD until his career kicked into high gear, wasn’t much of a presence at the Candy Store. He appeared only sporadically in group shows and is represented at the Crocker by a single outstanding drawing called Unkl Skam (1988). Nevertheless, his influence hovers over both exhibitions, nowhere more than in Arthur Gonzales’ The Din of the Quilt (1992), an ungainly ceramic
sculpture at Sac State. It shows two heads stationed at opposite ends of a colossal dunce (or wizard’s) cap, a fixture in Wiley’s oeuvre often accompanied a ubiquitous bits of wordplay (“Wiz-dumb”). Gonzales turned the cap into a hollow vessel and stuffed it with a quilt belonging to his grandmother. However, the overwhelming presence is of Wiley, signaled by a ceramic crow, one of two birds Wiley routinely used to portray his alter ego(s).
Wiley, as it happens, also played a role in the life of another occasional Candy Store artist, Joan Moment. Before she arrived in Sacramento, she participated in some of Wiley’s earliest performance pieces when both were at the University of Colorado; she as a grad student, he as a visiting professor. In 1970, when Sac State sought to diversify its overwhelmingly white male faculty, it turned to Wiley, who recommended his former student. Two years later, when the Whitney Museum’s curator Marcia Tucker began scouring the West Coast for talent, she tapped Moment for the 1973 Biennial and a solo show the
following year. (She was one of three Sac State faculty members to receive that honor; the others were William Alan and Jim Nutt.) Gibbon (1973), the work displayed at Sac State, and Spring Rain (1975), at the Crocker, come from the same series seen at the Whitney. The first shows the world’s fastest primate, isolated against a patterned ground, walking upright with arms raised for balance — glowing, as if illuminated by tiny bulbs. Both dotted paintings, made with acrylic on neoprene and rubber latex mounted on canvas, reflect the then-current penchant for non-traditional art materials and an avid interest on Moment’s part in Eva Hesse, Yayoi Kusama, Aboriginal bark paintings and Byzantine mosaics.
Given the surfeit of artworks spread across the two shows – 144 objects created by 54 artists — you could chart a different course and come up with an equal number of other outstanding works, a testament McHugh’s vision. “All of it was good,” said Peter Vandenberge (speaking in Campling’s film) of the number of stars who exhibited at McHugh’s gallery. “That just happens once, and that’s it.”
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The Candy Store: Funk Nut & Other Art with a Kick” @ Crocker Art Museum to May 1, 2022.
“Everything is Possible, Nothing is Probable: the Legacy of the Candy Store Gallery” @ Sac State University Galleries to May 27, 2022.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.