by Patricia Albers
Before Montalvo was an arts center and residency program, it was the Saratoga summer home of James Duval Phelan, a San Francisco mayor (1897-1902) and U.S. Senator. In 1920, Phelan campaigned with the slogan “Keep California White.” A collector and patron of the arts, he believed that people of color could never assimilate the European aesthetic ideals he showcased at his villa. Of course, California has never been the white enclave of Phelan’s dreams. Chinese immigrants arrived during the Gold Rush. The land Phelan owned was once Spanish, then Mexican. For centuries, it was home to the Ohlone.
With Claiming Space: Refiguring the Body in Landscape on the grounds of Montalvo, the organization comes to grips, not for the first time, with its original donor. At the project’s core are eight contemporary outdoor works, mostly figurative sculptures, by Black, Brown, Asian-American and transgender artists. Add Stephen De Staebler, whose bronze One-Legged Woman Standing (1982–85) stands at the foot of the Great Lawn. De Staebler depicts a ravaged yet enduring female body, shockingly different from that of Francesco Fabi-Altini’s fleshy Eve only a few feet beyond. Fabi-Altini’s (1830–1906) Adam and Eve belonged to Phelan’s original collection. By including a few such pieces from the original estate in the exhibition, the curators sharpen their point that, although an exclusionary Western tradition once prevailed on this site, Montalvo now welcomes people and art of all kinds.
Elsewhere the exhibition loses its edge. Some figurative sculptures installed on the grounds, like Tim Hawkinson’s Sweet Tweet, are not included in Claiming Space, though viewers may assume that they are. Riva Lehrer’s self-portraits and portraits are included. Sort of. Lehrer’s paintings, which focus on queer and disabled people, hang in the Cottage Gallery, a separate space that isn’t clearly identified on-site as part of the exhibition. (The gallery is open half-days Thursday through Sunday and by appointment.) Visitors are left to make sense of the situation using a Google map, a rather confused guide, and low-to-the-ground signage with QR codes, which store information about the artists and works. Ironically, the signs’ placement and their reliance on QR technology make them inaccessible to some. What’s more, this interpretive material skips from one topic to another. It will frustrate anyone expecting thematic coherence.
However, no one I saw seemed inclined to quibble about interpretive strategies No one was attending an exhibition as such. They were strolling, playing frisbee, hanging out and sampling this or that work of art.
The most powerful and relevant rely on context and gesture. Visitors arriving from the parking area first encounter Hank Willis Thomas’ polished stainless-steel Strike (2021). Two disembodied arms rise as if from the earth. One hand wields a side-handle billy club. The other grips that arm by the wrist. The two are locked in formal and situational tension. Strike’s impact derives partly from the artist’s masterful use of understatement: Thomas gives viewers just enough to fire their imaginations. Some may picture an altercation like that in Louis Lozowick’s 1934 lithograph Strike Scene, from which the sculptor took inspiration. More will think of the Black Lives Matter protests or recent high-profile cases of police brutality.
Further down that same path lies the entrance to Italianate Garden. This tranquil space speaks of privilege, refinement, and European traditionalism. Pilar Agüero-Esparza’s 20-foot long, eight-foot tall Of Color (2022) curves in its midst. Thus, a manicured space graced with balustrades and Doric columns serves as a backdrop to the raw power of a piece that references Brown people abstractly. Agüero-Esparza weaves together strips of canvas painted mostly in brown skin-toned colors. She does so using techniques for making huaraches (Mexican sandals) that she learned from her father at his East Los Angeles shop. Of Color begs the questions of who is allowed where, and whose creations are considered worthy, and why? One pictures both the Mexican-American artisan and the white politician whose (immigrant?) gardeners planted and maintained his retreat.
Alison Saar’s cast bronze Winter (2011) is a more discreet presence. Saar depicts an archetypal female curled up on the ground. One of four allegorical figures that address nature’s cycle, Winter wraps her arms around her own body, signaling withdrawal but maybe also gestation. At Montalvo, she exists in counterpoint to Summer (of the Four Seasons), c. 1900, artist unknown, situated at the opposite end of the Great Lawn. Winter’s body is naked, compact, and low to the ground. Summer’s is draped, relaxed, and erect. Winter is the color of night, Summer a pale stone-gray. Winter feels like a kernel while Summer cradles a sheaf of wheat: the season’s harvest.
A few steps from Winter is the white ceramic Color Face (2013), an oversized self-portrait bust by the Chinese-American artist Wanxin Zhang. An oval patchwork of dripped multicolored glazes covers the center of his face. It alludes to Peking opera, in which actors don painted masks color-coded for their persona’s status or character: red for loyalty, green for grumpiness, blue for courage. Color Face draws, too, from the multi-millennial Chinese tradition of high-fired clay and from the practices of the California Clay Movement. Simultaneously self-revealing and self-concealing, indebted to both Chinese and American cultures, present and past, the piece suggests the complexities of personhood. That it and another by Zhang flank Phelan’s mansion is especially gratifying given that the virulently anti-Chinese politician denied Asians their humanity.
In another rebuke to such thinking, Montalvo’s visitors extend the theme of Claiming Space. As I walked around, I saw people of all kinds, colors and abilities. They, too, represent inclusiveness. That afternoon, preparations were underway for the wedding of a Chinese-American couple in the Italianate Garden. I’ll remember especially the little girl in white tulle, the flower girl perhaps, prancing across the Great Lawn, heading toward the garden and looking as if she owned the place.
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“Claiming Space: Refiguring the Body in Landscape” @ Montalvo Arts Center through October 15, 2022.
About the author:
Patricia Albers is a Bay Area writer, art historian, and editor. Her books include Joan Mitchell, Lady Painter: A Life and Shadows, Fire, Snow: The Life of Tina Modotti. She is currently working on a biography of photographer André Kertész.