Arts & Theater

Early UC Davis artists defied elitism as ‘Out Our Way’ shows

‘Out Our Way,” a survey exhibition at the new Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, celebrates the founding members of the UC Davis Department of Art.

Richard L. Nelson established the art department in 1959, and for more than 30 years it was considered to be one of the most influential university art departments in the country. It’s a great irony that the art program, and the artists it germinated, would become one of this institution’s most important fruits.

The show tells the story of the original 13 faculty artists, some of whom gained international reputations. The wide-open expanse of California’s Central Valley perfectly reflected and encouraged the freewheeling creative spirit of the Davis faculty. The exhibition begins with work from each artist and reveals shared sensibilities or resolutely singular visions.

A salient feature of the art department was its interdisciplinary philosophy and communal identity. Students were encouraged to explore methodologies and materials. The art of the faculty reflects that formal and conceptual searching. A witty, enigmatic construction by William Wiley bounces off the bristling energy of a colorfully rambunctious Roy De Forest painting, and a gracefully looping work by Daniel Shapiro segues to Robert Arneson’s rude ceramic urinal in all its quintessential Funk. This lively group introduction sets the stage for the sometimes bumpy visual ride ahead.

Throwing an unprecedented and vigorous punch to the elitism of East Coast art, Arneson was one of the first ceramic artists to retrieve clay from the category of craft. He grafted Pop and Dada strategies to create iconoclastic objects drawn from everyday life. Most notable are the groundbreaking ceramic toilets and urinals he called “johns.”

Wayne Thiebaud’s early paintings of food also draw from common rituals of the everyday. “Cup of Coffee,” “Five Hot Dogs” and “BBQ’d Chickens,” all 1961, were pivotal paintings that focused on formal problem-solving. Spare ruminations on light and color, they laid the groundwork for his work to come. One of the most memorable, most radiant pieces in the entire show, however, is his little etching “Palms,” 1965. Bootblack lines delineate a closely observed row of skinny palms set against an empty ground. It is a minimal evocation of Sacramento River Delta light and space, a haunting work of visual haiku.

Other highlights include De Forest’s mixed-media drawings of fantasy worlds populated with wooden ships, blind men in porkpie hats, ocean liners, cryptic words, fingerprints, vomiting birds and panting dogs. A rich range of graphic tropes energizes his drawings. From smudges to incisive outlining to delicate scratching, the work reveals extraordinary sensitivity deceptively disguised in naïve simplicity.

The cryptic, punning, beautifully crafted conceptual work of Wiley alludes to sagas of the Old West, inspiring the descriptive phrase Dude Ranch Dada. Wiley cobbles together carved wood, text imprinted lead, salt, leather, ceramic, cotton, ink and watercolor to construct scenarios suggesting cowpoke encampments. His multifaceted work poses existential questions, and of his work he says, “Well, things that are enigmatic seem clearer to me than that which is supposed to be clear.”

Historical survey art exhibitions can bring to light formerly unknown, forgotten or under-recognized work.

The abstract bronze sculpture of Ruth Horsting is one example. Horsting, the first female sculptor to teach at Davis, was a hugely prodigious and experimental maker. Her organic, muscular forms were made from casts she took of her students’ bodies and from the trees she encountered in her daily rounds. “Turgor,” 1963, suggests the fragment of a tree branch into which she embeds a casting taken from a natural beeswax honeycomb, thus petrifying a fragile moment in time.

Another discovery are two early Manuel Neri sculptures. “Geometric I” and “Geometric II,” both 1966, are aluminum-faced boxes fitted together in minimal and tenuously balanced architectural gestures. Although vaguely suggestive of figures, they are a far cry from figurative sculpture for which he is best known. The abstract, juicily erotic hard-ground etchings of Daniel Shapiro are also a revelation.

“Out Our Way” is an invigorating exhibition documenting a seminal moment in a legendary department of art. Don’t miss it.

Out Our Way

What: Exhibit of 240 works by the first-generation art faculty of the UC Davis art department

When: Noon-6 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday and Friday, noon-10 p.m. Thursday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, through March 26

Where: Manetti Shrem Museum, 254 Old Davis Road, Davis

Cost: Free museum entry

Information:; 530-752-8500

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