The de Young Museum, incorporated in 1874 and rebuilt and renovated as recently as 2000 is the preeminent art museum of San Francisco. This article will talk about a video collection by DIS Collective, a stained glass window by Schaechter, and finally an old friend by James Whistler.
This museum greets the viewer with a large video installation, “Genre Non-Conforming: The DIS Edutainment Network” from 2017 by the DIS Collective with a hoard of collaborators. DIS Collective is worldwide, but headquartered in New York City. Artist collectives are sort of like rock bands, except they make visual or conceptual art. Valentin de Boulogne (1591-1632) some four hundred years ago made his “Birds of a Feather” with his friends, and more recently Bruce Conner’s (1933-2008) collective was called, “Rat Bastards.” The Red 76 Collective of the 2000’s had dozens and dozens of artists. On its website, the DIS collective states, “Across its various endeavors, DIS explores the tension between popular culture and institutional critique, while facilitating projects for the most public and democratic of all forums – the Internet.”
Here the DIS Collective has created an “edutainment channel,” which both imitates educating entertainment and parodies it. One video simply has a host asking people at a public fountain what they think an egg is. Another video has a detached head explain friends and enemies while his headless body draws on the whiteboard. A third video has a mouth talking with an eyeball inside of it, the “host” of the network, which is a CGI avatar created by Chus Martinez. A fourth video show a chef ordering supplies from a lizard alien, who seems put off by the demands. These works individually would be comical and effective as political works, but together they form a more potent and strong message that maybe a single forceful painting wouldn’t get across. It’s not clear what the disembodied head has to do with the lizard man. However, it is clear that the work the audience has to do in order to connect the two videos is heavy lifting for the audience, and this makes both works more effective because of the work the audience must do. Plus, this is just really cool.
A stained glass window by Judith Schaechter (b. 1900’s), “Resurwreckage,” (2001) shows a woman praying over a bloody rabbit on a highway. A shadowy spirit darts out from the rabbit, as purple mountains, maybe from Sierra Nevada, loom in the background. This work is simplified such that the woman’s face is a caricature of pain and sorrow, and her action in this scene is a histrionic gesture, to pray over road kill. Where stained glass was usually used in churches to tell Bible stories, here Schaechter dodges Biblical symbolism, because where the road should “cross” in the painting like a crucifix, Schaechter leaves it unchecked. This American Gothic seems similar to the works of Flannery O’Connor, such as in her book A Good Man is Hard to Find, when she wrote short stories making fun of both the need for religion and the flabby practitioners too lazy to do the required work. One might say Schaechter’s stained glass work is lonely for faith and religion because it references a need for faith without a reason to be faithful. The atheism of this woman is of a piece with her prayers because her lack of faith trivializes everything. If she believed in the afterlife the loss wouldn’t be so terrible.
I met an old enemy at the de Young Museum and he took me by surprise like stepping near a piece of wood with a nail in it. This is James Whistler’s (1834-1903) “Frilthy Lucre (The Creditor)” from 1879 – literally: dirty money – and the painting shows the robber baron Frederick Richards Leyland as an ugly peacock monster grasping at a piano amidst bags of money. The story behind the is Leyland hired Whistler to paint Leyland’s room of fine China, especially with peacocks. Whistler fought with Leyland, and Leyland sued Whistler, which ultimately bankrupted the young painter and forced him to make a humiliating escape from England. I saw saw this painting in Washington, DC at the Freer Smithsonian Museum next to its sister, the actual room Whistler painted and I cried because Whistler’s problem with his patron could just as easily be a poor man’s problem with the idiotic and corrupt Washington, DC city government, run by Congress. Here San Francisco has a parallel set of problems and this city is well known for its class divisions in spite of its progressive politics. This work is bitter, deceptive, and petty, and could easily (dangerously) bring out such feelings in the viewer. Whereas most art critics think Whistler’s time in England is forgettable, the de Young museum’s curators think there is an important lesson here, this museum surely hope their 20-something programmers aren’t as regretful as Whistler after they dedicate years of their lives to vain, failed startups. I cried when I first saw this painting at age 26. At age 30 it’s someone else’s problem. This laugh at someone else’s expense is the point of the painting, but there’s only so much time in life to waste thinking about bitterness.