Dialogue: UC Davis

The new Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at UC Davis highlights the significant and ongoing legacy of this Northern Californian artistic bastian.


This month should mark a significant moment for the Northern California art scene, one that has been nearly 60 years in the making: on November 13, viewers will witness the grand opening of the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at UC Davis. More than just a showcase for contemporary exhibitions, the museum will also be a venue for education, and, appropriately, given the rich legacy of the art scene here, experimentation. While this sprawling campus—sited roughly 20 miles west of Sacramento and 75 miles east of San Francisco—is known for its veterinary science and agricultural studies, it’s also home to a formidable art department, steeped in a longstanding creative legacy that reverberates far beyond the surrounding fields and pastures.

The UC Davis art department was launched in 1958, when Richard L. Nelson, the department’s founding chair, assembled a philosophically and artistically diverse group to form his faculty; several of them went on to become highly influential and widely recognized artists nationally and internationally. This first generation faculty includes Wayne Thiebaud, Robert Arneson, William T. Wiley, Roy De Forest, Roland Petersen, Manuel Neri, Ralph Johnson, Ruth Horsting, Daniel Shapiro, Tio Giambruni, Jane Garritson, and John Baxter.

Nelson’s approach championed individuality as well as critical intradepartmental discourse. The atmosphere encouraged challenging norms and questioning the establishment—a philosophy the artists embraced, both personally and collectively. “They pushed each other to be expansive in what constituted a work of art, and to disregard traditional disciplinary boundaries,” explains Rachel Teagle, the museum’s founding director. “UC Davis’ first generation artists encouraged each other to be radically open and experimental, and over the short course of a decade were known as one of the most inventive creative communities working together in the United States.”

From Left: “Picnic,” 1965, Roland Petersen, Oil on canvas, 68″ x 52″
University of California Davis, Campus Recreation and Unions. Gift of the artist to the Memorial Union Gallery, 1972. Photo: Ben Blackwell. 

“Cup of Coffee,” 1961, Wayne Thiebaud, oil on canvas, 18″ x 12″
Gift of Fay Nelson, Photo: Ben Blackwell © Wayne Thiebaud/ Licensed by VAGA, New York Photos: Courtesy University of California, Davis,
Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art.

Out of that original faculty came work that was distinctly Northern Californian, reflecting the disruptive countercultural leanings of the West Coast. By example, Thiebaud’s food paintings: “Before Pop Art coalesced as an idea and became a well-known movement, it was a crazy idea to paint contemporary images of food,” Teagle reminds us. “Thiebaud’s paintings arrived on the scene at a time when Abstract Expressionism prevailed as the only meaningful mode of painting.” Meanwhile, Arneson explored the practical, humble medium of clay to express political and social issues, and De Forest, Wiley, and also Arneson became foundational voices of the smartly witty, colorful, and cartoony Funk Art movement, which also rallied against Abstract Expressionism. As a group, “they were pivotal to the generation of artists in the United States that moved art-making into a global dialogue,” notes Teagle.

This approach of challenging students and faculty alike to examine what makes art art and encouraging personal expression remains today, as does an open, less formal academic atmosphere. “We are encouraged to teach what we want to teach,” says current faculty member and painter Hearne Pardee. The department continues to operate under the philosophy that “art should be what you want it to be,” he notes. “If it’s interesting to you, you don’t have to explain it.” The faculty members remain, in Pardee’s words, “an offbeat group”—they also remain diverse and have strong art practices of their own: by example, Pardee comes from the formal Hofmann school of painting and actively exhibits work; the school recently hired Iranian artist Shiva Ahmadi, who works primary in watercolor and exhibits nationally and internationally; and Annabeth Rosen, the Arneson Professor of Ceramics, “keeps a very high profile for ceramics,” notes Pardee, “very much in the Arneson mode, but with her own approach.”

Interior of the lobby viewing the Events Plaza of Manetti Shrem Museum of Art
Photo: Iwaan Baan

The opening of the museum will celebrate the art department’s beginnings with the exhibition “Out Our Way,” which will feature works by all twelve of the original faculty and demonstrate the pivotal role this creatively open environment had on their work. On view will be 240 pieces spanning a variety of media—painting, sculpture, drawing, and prints—and also exemplifying the aesthetic diversity of these artists. On display alongside the works will be ephemera from that time, including photographs, video, and printed materials, to provide context.

An anticipated highlight of the show is the first ever reunion of Arneson’s Johns series, ten ceramic sculptures of toilets and urinals, a riff on Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. Other highlights include Petersen’s colorful Picnic series paintings, Neri’s Ceramic Loop IV, De Forest’s Painter of the Rainforest, and Thiebaud’s Cup of Coffee, among others. But perhaps most intriguing about the show will be the rare opportunity to see chronologically similar work by this socially and geographically cohesive but radically different group all brought together.

On view concurrently will be two contemporary works, Hoof & Foot: A Field Study and A Pot for a Latch, as well as the exhibition “SO – IL / The Making of a Museum,” which gives viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the museum’s creation. Hoof & Foot is commissioned large-scale video installation by Bay Area–based Guggenheim Fellowship recipient Chris Sollars, which, with side-by-side imagery, parallels the experiences of Davis students with those of the livestock on campus. Mexico City–based artist Pia Camil’s A Pot for a Latch invites the public (on designated days) to trade their own belongings for those on the work’s six grid panels. The work is inspired by the alternative economies of Camil’s native Mexico and the gift-giving ceremonies of indigenous people. Meanwhile, the opening event will feature a gigantic custom “ribbon” made of 400 interlocking foam and fabric loops, created by Davis alum Lisa Rybovich Crallé.

In addition to its changing exhibitions, the museum’s outdoor areas feature large-scale artwork, including Wiley’s interactive sound sculpture Gong, Yoko Ono’s Wish Trees for Peace, and Copper Cageand Rosemary Place by Sandra Shannonhouse (Arneson’s widow).

Not to be overlooked, this $30 million museum itself—designed by Brooklyn-based architectural firm SO – IL (Solid Objects – Idenburg Liu) in conjunction with Bohlin Cywinski Jackson (BCJ) of San Francisco—is stunning. Immediately upon approach, one is greeted by the signature design feature, the sweeping Grand Canopy: comprised of 910 perforated triangular pieces, it covers 50,000 square feet. The shifting light that’s allowed through the canopy’s perforations gives the space underneath a fantastic sense of movement, creating an ever-changing experience and highlighting the intense light this area is so well-known for (and which has had a notable impact on the art made in this region). This area will serve as a space for outdoor exhibitions and events, including film and video.

Going inside, the interior measures 44,490 square feet and encompasses the lobby, gallery space, a lecture room, and studio space to be used by students and visiting artists. The abundant use of glass makes for light-filled indoor space and allows those walking by to see in: just one of the many ways in which the museum has been designed so as to encourage all comers to experience it. Additionally, the lobby area features an eye-catching electric blue couch that winds through, serpent-like; custom designed by BCJ (as were the accompanying circular tables and other furniture throughout the museum), the intent of this open design is to create a lounge-like entrance area, welcoming contemplation and conversation. The building itself features primarily curved lines, which (in addition to being seismically sound) gives the space a gentle, soft feel. Putting a cap on the Shrem’s please-come-in approach: it’s free to everyone.

The museum offers an ongoing opportunity to draw on the university’s illustrious past. Notably, there will now be space to feature work from its 5,000-piece collection, which has largely been sitting in storage due to lack of exhibition space. This collection, established in 1971, began as a repository of master works to use for study by the art department. It has since grown to be much wider in scope; among its holdings, Nelson initiated a mandate that each graduating MFA student gift the school a piece; past graduates include Bruce Nauman and Deborah Butterfield.

Recent gifts to the collection continue to add to the possibilities. Given in conjunction with the museum’s opening, these include four major works by Thiebaud, given by the artist (the museum is a major holder of Thiebaud’s work, having examples from every phase of his career, while the artist himself has donated 77 of his works to the school) as well as a gift of 101 works from Shannonhouse, including work by her and her late husband as well as pieces by artists who were students, were visiting artists, or taught at the university—among them such figures as Judy Chicago, Jim Melchert, and Richard Shaw.

That said, it will also be a venue that continues, and expands on, the university’s lively art dialogue with the now—the works by Sollars and Camil exemplify that intent—as well as the emphasis on the exchange of ideas. And this goes beyond ideas exchanged within the art department, drawing on the university’s strength as a research institution: “Our program… engages all forms of creativity, including everything from yoga in the galleries to a discussion about interspecies medicine. Our museum is home to big ideas and challenging conversations,” Teagle says. “[It] perpetuates the interdisciplinary experiementation that is at the core of UC Davis’ values.”

“Early Hours at the Pike,” 1950, Edward Reep, oil on canvas, 20″ x 36″
Collection of Susan Reep and Mark A. Smith.
Photo: courtesy Bakersfield Museum of Art


The Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art does not stand alone as the only opportunity to experience contemporary art and culture exhibitions in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Both university-associated and stand-alone art venues pepper the inland corridor. These spaces offer programs that delve deeper into local, regional and California art scenes, providing unique experiences to see work that isn’t covered elsewhere. Among them, north to south:

STOCKTON Located in a staid brick edifice in Victory Park, the Haggin Museum has numerous eclectic historical collections, but also the largest collection of historical fine art in the Central Valley, including a dozen works by Hudson River School painter Albert Bierstadt, with several depicting Yosemite. Exhibitions cast a wide cultural net: up through January are two musically inspired exhibitions, “Medieval to Metal: The Art and Evolution of the Guitar” and “Dave Brubeck: Jazz Ambassador.”

MODESTO The Central California Art Association is a non-profit group run by volunteers and local artists; the group supports the Mistlin Gallery in the civic center in Downtown Modesto, an education venue which sponsors local shows and events like the annual “Young At Art” youth showcases. The city hosts a Third Thursday Art Walk among local galleries and performing art centers.

TURLOCK The School of the Arts at Stanislaus State in Turlock sponsors three separate exhibition venues. The University Art Gallery (UAG) on campus supports the broader goals and vision of the art department, recently highlighting works by Modesto artist Andrew Cain; while Art Space on Main (ASOM) extends the offerings of Stanislaus State into historic downtown Turlock. Most recently on view through October 28 were haunting mixed media works by Stanislaus State professor Martin Azevedo, examining issues of iconography, allegory and masculinity. Behind the venue is the Building Imagination Center, which offers an exhibit space for video art in the Central Valley. On view through Nov 26 is a work by Matthew Gottschalk, titled “Day of the Dead.” Also in Turlock is the Carnegie Arts Center, located in the 100-year-old Carnegie Building; this fall, the galleries will feature pop-up exhibitions with work by art faculty from CSU Stanislaus and Modesto Junior College.

MERCED Founded in 2011, by UCM Professor ShiPu Wang, the spare UC Merced Art Gallery, on the newest campus of the UC system—which itself opened only in 2005—allows students the chance to curate and install and work with visiting artists. On view from Sept 19 – Nov 10, 2016, are elegant ink paintings by visiting artist Guan Zhi, “Majestic Clouds and Water.”

FRESNO The Fresno Museum of Art has grown since the 1940s from a space created by local artists to show their work into a widely recognized museum that exhibits both regional and national artists. Its offerings include a range of modern and contemporary work and socially relevant exhibitions. Past exhibitions include “David Ligare: River / Mountain / Sea” (2013), “Joseph DeLappe: Social Tactics” (2014), “Anne Scheid: Body / Land III” (2016), and a recent survey of “Fiber Art Masterworks” this summer. Currently on view through January 2017 is “Scales of History,” by Bay Area painter Hung Liu, recipient of the museum’s Distinguished Woman Artist Award for 2016. Also in Fresno is Arte Américas, the largest non-profit Latino cultural center in the Central Valley. Offering arts exhibitions, performances and workshops, this “Casa de la Cultura” has been one of the hubs of the city’s burgeoning downtown Arts District since 1995.

BAKERSFIELD Founded in 1956 as the Cunningham Memorial Art Gallery, for sixty years the Bakersfield Museum of Art has shown work by significant local artists while also hosting visiting exhibitions. In 2001, the museum expanded to its current building, where it has featured such notable shows as “Roland Petersen: A Retrospective” (2013–2014), “Legacy in Continuum: Bay Area Figuration” (2012), and “Dennis Hare: Without Restraint” (2015). Currently on view are several shows celebrating the museum’s 60-year anniversary, including “A Fresh Look: Children Curate from BMOA’s Permanent Collection,” and “Edward Reep: Eight Decades of Painting.” On deck for 2017 will be shows on Western photographer Bob Kolbrener, emotional portrait artist Stephen Douglas and LA realist landscape painter extraordinaire Marc Trujillo.

Lead image:
Exterior shot of the Manetti Shrem Museum of Art
events plaza under the grand canopy
Photo: Iwaan Baan

VIAchérie louise turner
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Chérie Louise Turner is a Berkeley-based freelance writer and also editor-in-chief for the San Francisco-based magazine, the Nob Hill Gazette. Her freelance writing has appeared in Tahoe Quarterly, Artweek, and ArtNews, among other publications. Cherie’s publishing experience includes serving as managing editor of Tahoe Quarterly, the editor-in-chief for Nevada Home, and the publishing coordinator for Hackett-Freedman Gallery. A former nationally competitive bicycle racer, Chérie is now also a competitive runner.