First stop? San Jose Museum of Art. This contemporary art museum is small, but they still curate several shows each year. Perhaps this schedule is too rushed for them, because certain galleries looked rather sloppy. For example, the first gallery we investigated contained portraits by a 20th century artist named Robert Henri. The pictures seemed to be hanging a touch low, below eye level. The labels beside them had good content, but the combination of small text and that under-eye-level position made them difficult to read. In places where the work of art was a video installation or a case filled with 3d objects, the label was still placed on the wall, often so far removed from the objects that it was difficult to relate it to the work. So, while a glass case filled with magazines, letters and other paper ephemera was arranged very neatly, I couldn’t begin to explain their significance or relevance to the artist because the connection was so poorly explained on the wall and there was not a single label in the case itself. An exhibit called Post-Portrait, contemporary portraits presented as a counterpoint to the Robert Henri show, seemed more organized and better stage, although the labels were still difficult to read due to the tiny size of the font.
Upstairs, a musty gallery housed a series of David Levinthal’s toy tableau photographs. The first thing you notice when you open the door is the stench of something old and moldering. If a curator told me that it was a sensory experience designed to put visitors in mind of an attic where vintage toys are found, thus tying the odor into the exhibit, I’d buy it – but I don’t think that’s the case. I think this part of the museum is just poorly ventilated. The rooms were dark and claustrophobic. I did like the art itself; it was grouped thematically and did a very good job of showing the highlights of Levinthal’s career.
Momentum: an experiment in the unexpected, took ten objects from the museum’s permanent collection and invited contemporary artists to intervene and reinterpret the art in any media they chose. Good idea. Some of the collaborations were side-by-side, making it easy to figure out the connection, but there were several orphan pieces that I never found the companion piece. Isn’t that weird? Either the reinterpretation was so radical as to be unrecognizable, or the pieces were placed so far apart I simply didn’t think to associate them. A final gallery contains the Sleight of Hand exhibit, which displays pieces from the permanent collection selected for their alluring style and use of detail. As a curated collection, I thought this exhibit was the strongest, but I wasn’t able to explore it in depth because time was up and the class needed to move on to its next destination.
Next up was MACLA (Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana, but no one calls it that since it’s a mouthful). They currently have a superhero-themed exhibition which has some really cool pieces, but unfortunately the way it was staged was really ineffective. Bright garish color was painted on the wall, meant to simulate the colors of 60s comic book panels, but these blues and reds didn’t always showcase the art as well as it could. The space is a bit weird, a big empty space with walls pushed to the edges. If you have a bit of sculpture to break up that empty space, it is fine, but every piece in the show was on the wall and isolated. I really liked MACLA’s labels, which had both English and Spanish text – very suitable to their multicultural audience.
Works/San Jose is a very small gallery that is almost triangular in shape. If I recall correctly, the space is owned by the city, and they donate it to Works for art display. It’s a grassroots organization, and it looks like it – no fancy staging here! Just stuff hanging from white walls. Since the theme of this show was “The Public is Personal”, and focused on images of San Jose life in parks and other public spaces, there were a couple of wooden benches sitting on grass turf placed throughout the room, but otherwise there was very little done to theme the gallery to the paintings and photographs on display. The art wasn’t particularly engaging, just watercolors of kids frolicking in the park or an old couple reading on a wooden bench. I’ve seen good shows and interesting shows at Works, but unfortunately this one was neither. They have a rapid turnover at this gallery though, so at least the next show is right around the corner.
The last stop on our tour was Anno Domini, a street art/alternative culture art gallery. Built into a converted movie theater, the space is raw, with unfinished walls and the remains of a theater stage. I like it. The grittiness of the room suits the dark and sometimes disturbing imagery of the works on display. Anno Domini does not highlight the pretty or the beautiful, but the raw art they hang is always interesting, at least. I was a little shocked to see that they use push pins for hanging – will a collector buy a $3400 charcoal drawing with gold leaf after the gallery put little holes in it? Apparently, this isn’t a problem. The gallery’s been around since 2000 and by now they must know what they’re doing. The owner happily came out and talked to us, and it was really interesting to hear her perspective on displaying art and marketing street art in a city not exactly known for a hustling, bustling art scene.