- The Washington Times - Friday, May 7, 2004

The Kreeger Museum’s current exhibit of San Francisco Bay-area figurative art and its offshoots is called “The True Artist Is an Amazing Luminous Fountain.” That epigraph, originally written by artist Bruce Nauman in 1968, sums up the quirky, bizarre, puzzling — but always fascinating — nature of the San Francisco art movement that began in the 1950s. The extraordinary works in this exhibit — 44 by 18 artists — were collected by Rene di Rosa, 85, and his late wife, Veronica, who concentrated on Bay-area artists from the 1950s on. This is the first time a portion of the 2,000-work collection has traveled from California.

This show is certain to jolt visitors into a new awareness and appreciation of this challenging, contradictory West Coast art that’s seen too rarely in Washington, D.C.

Included in the exhibit are San Francisco’s North Beach beat-influenced art by Wally Hedrick, Jay DeFeo, Bruce Conner, Joan Brown and sculptor Manuel Neri, names most Washingtonians have never heard of. They associated themselves with beat writers such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs.

The group included anti-Vietnam War artists such as Robert Arneson, who made the show’s glazed ceramic “War Head Stockpile” filled with skulls and skeletons. Like Mr. Arneson, Viola Frey, Peter Voulkos, James Melchert (head of visual arts at the National Endowment of the Arts from 1977 to 1981) and Peter Shaw created their often surreal visions out of studios at the University of California at Davis. In the catalog, Mr. Melchert calls the ceramics “part conceptual, part funk.”

The “funk” movement, difficult for even art historian Michael Schwager to decipher in the catalog, was inspired by Europe’s notorious dada group, whose members favored unusual materials and shocking humor.

Eccentric shapes such as Bruce Conner’s “Cocoon,” a combination of nylon stockings, glass beads, costume jewelry and gauze, have what Mr. Schwager calls “an almost creepy beauty.” Clayton Bailey’s “Male Chair,” complete with male genitalia and strange-looking clawed animal feet, is shocking — as it’s meant to be. William Wiley, who shows at the District’s Marsha Mateyka Gallery, invites viewers into his “Spring Lush” watercolor with his usual ironic statements handwritten below.

The show begins with Mr. Hedrick’s “$18.00 Giant Power Heidelberg Electric Belt,” a spoof on advertising. Using ink on canvas, he managed to print tiny words — “DON’T SUFFER IN SILENCE,” “ARE YOU IN DOUBT?” “THE BATTERY” — on a canvas measuring 697/8 by 5 inches.

Mr. Hedrick and his first wife, Miss DeFeo, gathered artists such as Miss Brown and Mr. Neri — as well as such famed beat writers as Mr. Kerouac and Mr. Ginsberg — to their Fillmore Street address.

Miss Frey’s vibrantly painted huge ceramic portrait “Seated Figure with Vase” dominates the second gallery by both its size and ironic ugliness. Clearly a takeoff on Pablo Picasso’s many female clay images, the figure seems like the outcome of a competition to make the biggest clay sculpture. The expression on the face — with its fat, red-painted lips — is puzzling. She seems sensuous and threatening at the same time. The figure weighs 1,200 pounds and divides into bolted sections for shipment to different exhibitions.

Probably the exhibit’s most interesting works are the scintillating, fantastic dogs by Roy DeForest. Exhibit curator Jack Rasmussen says Mr. DeForest loves dogs in particular and animals in general.

With its glowing yellow eyes and lolling red tongue, his “Fred,” probably a dog who died, is incredibly appealing. “Fred” seems to smile even in death. The artist again pictures a dog in “Portrait of Artist With Dog,” where men and dogs cavort within a frame.

Mr. DeForest’s large “Camp of the Landscape Artist” in the next room is the show’s most imaginative painting. He shows a dog pulling another dog in a sled and carves human heads on the intricately sculpted frame.

The appeal of this exhibit lies in its kooky, outrageous variety and the ironic wit of artists such as Mr. Nauman, Miss Brown, Mr. Arneson, Miss Frey, Mr. Conner, Mr. Hedrick and Mr. DeForest. Visitors are likely to go away laughing and energized after looking at Mr. di Rosa’s incredible collection.

The only thing lacking in this marvelous exhibit is space. With luck, the other venues for this traveling show will be larger than the Kreeger.

WHAT: “The True Artist Is an Amazing Luminous Fountain”

WHERE: The Kreeger Museum, 2401 Foxhall Road NW

WHEN: Guided tours are given at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday through July 31. Tickets must be ordered in advance.

TICKETS: $10, free for members

PHONE: 202/338-3552

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