The legendary slant step, first discovered in a salvage store by William T. Wiley in 1965, is the subject of a show of works by 50 Sacramento Valley artists at the Nelson Gallery on the University of California, Davis, campus.
The strange object, made of wood and rubber covered with tacky green linoleum, clearly has a purpose, but no one has been able to figure out what it is. It might be a shoeshine stand except for the riser that extends from its back. It could be a stepstool but it would throw you off balance.
It seems to be a perfect metaphor for art itself, Nelson Director Renny Pritikin points out in his catalog essay for the show. The object, which has achieved cult status, notes Pritikin, is "odd and distinctive in appearance, carefully constructed by someone but with no apparent use."
Nearly 50 years after its discovery, the object, says Pritikin, still resonates with the artists of our area whom Pritikin calls "flatlanders."
The first Slant Step show, which included works by Wiley and Bruce Nauman, as well as Sacramentans Ron Peetz and Phil Weidman, was a "landmark in the underground history of Bay Area art during the 1960s," Thomas Albright wrote in his history of painting in the Bay Area.
The first show was funky indeed since Nauman and Wiley took all the works off the wall and off their stands and piled them in one corner of the gallery, much to the disgruntlement of the other artists included. Somehow the original slant step disappeared during the run of the show, reportedly stolen by Richard Serra and taken to New York.
Eventually, the slant step ended up in the hands of former Sacramentan Frank Owen, who along with Art Schade formed the New York Slant Step Preservation Society, which donated the mysterious object to the Nelson Gallery and Fine Arts Collection. It stands at the center of this show, worn and torn, but still fascinatingly enigmatic.
A brainchild of artist Joy Bertinuson, this incarnation of the slant step show (there were previous shows in Berkeley, Davis and Sacramento) is a terrific display mostly of variations on a theme, though some works stand alone and are nearly as enigmatic in this context as the slant step itself.
The show begins with a sculpture by Wiley of a duncelike character named Punch holding a facsimile of the slant step. As is Wiley's wont, the sculpture is covered with pun-filled stream-of-consciousness writing and is a good introduction to the antic nature of slant step art.
The exhibition around it ranges from Steve Kaltenbach's sleek modernized slant step made of rubber and orange plastic to Liv Moe's wonderfully wrought fruitcake in the form of a slant step. The frosting even mimics the green linoleum.
Along the way you will find Rachel Clarke's video of the slant step being pushed and pulled into strange shapes through computer animation, Ron Peetz's homage to the slant step in the form of a drooping street sign and a melting puddle of asphalt in the shape of the step, and Ken Waterstreet's wry art-history fantasy with Vermeer painting the slant step in his 17th century Dutch studio.
Among the other standouts in the show are Chris Daubert's exquisite glass bead slant step, Mike Stevens' slant step with a briefcase and a duck's head emerging from it, and Goia Fonda's meticulously rendered slant step against a complicated fabric pattern. In a completely different vein, Gina Werfel scores with an abstract expressionist painting based on the form of the slant step, and Hearne Pardee gives us a humble and tactile version of the slant step in buff clay.
An interesting sidelight of the show is a series of drawings done by Frank Owen's students at the University of Vermont that portrays the fetish object in a variety of modes. Appropriately, they are hung near a small bronze figure by Gar Ugalde in the form of an African fetish standing on the slant step.
There are just too many exciting works in what may be the show of the year to describe them all. It's a wonderful compendium of works by artists of our own area responding to a theme that has a colorful history and remains an inspiration in 2012.
FLATLANDERS ON THE SLANT
Where: Nelson Gallery, Nelson Hall, UC Davis
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Thursday and Saturday, through Aug. 17 Cost: Free
Information: (530) 752-8500