Installation view of Clare Rojas's solo exhibition at SF Museum of Craft and Folk Art; courtesy SFMCFA

San Francisco neo-folk artist Clare Rojas expands her visual range in this pivotal show of new work, which dominates the intimate space of this small museum. This is a powerful, twistedly delightful exhibition. It further adds to the artist’s growing stature as one of the Bay Area’s most celebrated and prolific contemporary artists. In addition to this, her first solo museum show, Rojas’s work is also currently featured in a two-person exhibition with Barry McGee at the Bolinas Museum of Art, and, last April, the SF Arts Commission installed a commissioned work by her at the City’s international airport.
In keeping with past work, this show is bright and graphic. The flatness of the work references Rojas’s printmaking past; the influences of folk art, outsider art, street art, cartooning, illustration, and quilting remain strong. Rojas is rightly associated with the area’s “lowbrow” Mission School, which also encompasses artists McGee, Chris Johanson, and Margaret Kilgallen, among others. Comparisons among the artists can readily be drawn.
But Rojas is not simply a product of influences. Her voice, iconography, and message are distinctive and evolving. In this show, Rojas presents both smaller works, which are hung salon-style along one wall, and then numerous enormous works that cover the rest of the walls from floor to ceiling. Also on view is an amusing video, “Manipulation,” that Rojas contributed to with animation.
Throughout, the artist continues her references to home-life with figurative narratives that are often bizarre, verging on disturbing; a primary topic is gender/feminism. In one large-scale work, three women look to the sky, two expelling an upflowing substance from their mouths, the other from her eyes. In another, three male figures ascend a striped ramp/tongue that leads to a woman’s open mouth.
New here the artist also presents almost completely abstracted scenes, though references to the home remain; another larger-than-life piece is a minimalist home interior. Exploring formal uses of line, perspective, color, and composition, Rojas’s depiction of this comfort zone gets a little queasy. One high point of the exhibition is a huge “wall quilt” made up of numerous geometric panels, each painted one color, and arranged in a way that recalls childhood parquetry block designs; this surrounds a central seated female figure.
A critique that has been leveled at Rojas’ work is that it drifts toward decorative simplicity. Now, no. It has decorative elements that make it likable, just not too likeable. It pushes far beyond becoming vapid or ingratiating. Colors, shapes, and patterns clash in challenging, dissonant ways; there is a not-quite-right-ness that keeps us fully engaged. It is, indeed, the decorativeness that provides the hook; we stick around to feel the story.

In a 2004 New York Times review of Rojas’s solo show at Deitch Projects, critic Roberta Smith ended with the upbeat, “. . . this show generally brims with promise.” Clare Rojas is making good on that promise.

This review was originally published at Visual Art Source.

Gustave Caillebotte's "The Floor Scrapers"

Sit with this for a moment: beginning this late spring through January 2011, over two hundred iconic French Impressionist, Postimpressionist, Realist, and Naturalist paintings will be on show at San Francisco’s de Young Museum. And these works will never be seen again in such quantity outside of their home, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
Opening May 22 (and running through September 6) is “Birth of Impressionism,” which will feature about half the works and focus on Paris around 1874, when the first exhibition of Impressionist paintings took place. “There was a preponderance of different styles,” says  Director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco John Buchanan, “all at once and all in one city.”
Almost immediately following (opening September 25 and running through January 18, 2011) is the exhibition “Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne, and Beyond,” featuring Postimpression-ist work by the greatest masters of the genre. The de Young is the only venue in the world to get both shows.
How’d we get so lucky? It’s all about passion and good relationships. But first some background. The Musée d’Orsay is home to the world’s most comprehensive collection of nineteenth century French art, including Impressionist and Postimpressionist work, by design. Housed in what was originally a train station (note: the architect who transformed it into the museum, the renowned Gae Aulenti, is also responsible for San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum), created in 1900 for the Paris International Exhibition, the museum was launched in 1986. Its mission is to highlight Western art from 1848 to 1914. Its collection was formed by consolidating the best pieces from this period from the Louvre, Jeu de Paume, and the Modern Art Museum in Paris, as well as generous gifts from private parties. Many of the works coming to San Francisco were originally in the collection of Gustave Caillebotte; a painter himself (his stunning painting The Floor Scrapers will be on show in the first exhibition), he was also a man of great financial means. This allowed him to be an early collector of work by fellow artists. Interestingly as well, several paintings are making a return, having also been shown in San Francisco at the Panama Pacific exhibition of 1915.
In anticipation of its twenty-fifth anniversary next year, the d’Orsay is undergoing a major refurbishment. “The current director, Guy Cogeval, is a professional and personal friend of mine,” says Buchanan. “He asked if I wanted to make an exhibition with him.” Cogeval and Buchanan—who has a great love of nineteenth century French art and culture—met on several occasions to plan the show: two exhibitions emerged. And to that, Buchanan simply said: “I think we should do both.”
Viewers can anticipate what amounts to the rare experience of art history books come to life. The first exhibition highlights works by over forty artists, including such visionary masters as Edgar Degas, Frederic Bazille, Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Gustav Courbet. Highlights include: Degas’s The Dancing Lesson (1873–1876) and Racehorses Before the Stands (1866–1868), Monet’s Saint-Lazare Station (1877) and Rue Montorquei, Paris (1878), and Pierre Puvi de Chavannes’s Young Girls on the Edge of the Sea (1879), among so many others. Buchanan points out that he is particularly excited about the numerous fine Manets that will be here—there will be eleven, ranging from 1865 to 1882. “He was a great Naturalist,” Buchanan says, “yet he was close friends with the Impressionists. His work was influenced by seventeenth century Spanish paintings. He was the first truly modern artist.” Particularly, Buchanan singles out The Fife Player (1866). “We make direct contact with a real human being,” he says of the painting’s subject. “He’s gazing directly at us.” Another greatly anticipated work is what many of us know as “Whistler’s Mother,” American expatriate James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Arrangement in Gray and Black, no. 1 (1871). “It shows Realist and Naturalist tendencies,” Buchanan says. “And the influence of Japanese art.”
Running concurrent to “Birth of Impressionism” is “Impressionist Paris: City of Light,” at the de Young’s sister venue, the Legion of Honor (June 5 through September 26). Featuring over 180 prints, photographs, paintings, and books, it will add further context to the main exhibition.
Following, the “Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne, and Beyond” exhibition features 120 works focusing on late Impressionist masterpieces, as well as Pointillist paintings by such masters as Georges Seurat and Paul Signac. Some of what we can look forward to: Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night over the Rhone (1888), Portrait of the Artist with the Yellow Christ (1889) by Paul Gauguin, and Seurat’s The Circus (1891).
“This is a huge moment for those of us who love France and French art,” Buchanan concludes. “It’s like stepping into an art history book of late nineteenth century France.”

Grace McCann Morley

If you haven’t gotten swept up in the exuberance of celebratory zeal emanating from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), it’s time. The museum is utilizing the occasion of its seventy-fifth anniversary to look back on itself. In doing so, it provides us the opportunity to get a better sense of how rich and influential this art institution is, and has been since its inception in 1935.
The umbrella tagline for all events associated with the anniversary, “75 Years of Looking Forward,” couldn’t be more appropriate when describing SFMOMA, beginning from day one with the appointment of Grace L. McCann Morley as the first director. She set a tone for the museum that resonates to this day.
Born in 1900, Morley was raised in the Bay Area. Her early academic training was in language. She earned a master’s degree in French from Cal Berkeley and went on to become a teacher—one of the primary professions educated women pursued at that time. As fortuitous opportunity would have it, she was asked to also teach art history, which led to Morley studying Museumology at Harvard University for a summer. Out of this influential department—it was then a new field of study—came a whole generation of museum curators and administrators. Morley went on to become a curator at the Cincinnati Museum of Art and then director of what was then the San Francisco Museum of Art. 
Morley’s forward-looking museum philosophy positioned the institution as a community and educational venue. At the time, most museums were aimed at scholars, serving more as research institutes to the already initiated and repositories of precious objects. And typically those objects were old, already indoctrinated into the cannon of art history. Opportunities to see contemporary work were few. SFMOMA was only the second museum in the country to focus on art of the time; MOMA New York was the first having opened just six years previous, in 1929.
Morley’s populist view led her to offer a huge variety of exhibitions; she interspersed traditional art with more challenging work. Her belief was that she would offer something for everyone and entice people to stretch their art-appreciation boundaries. She also began to offer educational lectures and classes.
Reactions to her efforts varied to the extreme. While researching the current exhibitions, the curatorial staff unearthed a stash of hate mail, which spoke out against her showing unconventional and nontraditional styles, such as Surrealism, Dada, and Cubism. At the other end of the spectrum, on the final day of the hugely popular Pablo Picasso retrospective in 1940, an adamant crowd of over 1,300 visitors refused to leave when the museum was closing; they stayed until they were done absorbing the magnificent show. Morley inspired passions that no doubt matched her own; something everyone would agree on is that she was unwaveringly dedicated. For example, working with a very limited budget and a tiny staff, the museum presented 75 to 100 exhibitions per year for the first five years (in comparison, the museum today puts on 30 to 35, in a larger space, with a larger budget and much larger staff).
Over time it would become increasingly evident that the strong-willed and determined Morley was keyed in to the pulse of the rapidly changing art world. During Morley’s tenure, many artists who would become seminal figures received their first solo exhibitions at SFMOMA, including Arshile Gorky, Clyfford Still, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Robert Motherwell. That eye for emerging talent continues today; SFMOMA has also been the first museum venue to show Edward Ruscha, Matthew Barney, Jeff Koons, and Olafur Eliasson. Under Morley, the museum became the first to create a television show; run in the 1950s, it was the first television programming to focus on art. This was just one more creative and innovative way she brought art to the masses.
The museum has ever since been on the forefront of utilizing and embracing media and technology. It was, in 1987, the first to establish a media arts department, and with the creation in 1994 of the Interactive Educational Technologies program, SFMOMA has remained a leader in developing computer based, interactive educational features on art.  
Grace Morley led the museum until 1958. She earned the deep respect of the art world and general public the world over. On the occasion of the museum’s twentieth anniversary, she was featured in Time magazine. She also worked as a consultant for UNESCO.  From SFMOMA, she moved to India to help set up the National Museum there; Morley remained in India until her death in 1985.
Her legacy lives on in San Francisco. In addition to the many influential initiatives already mentioned, Morley is responsible for starting the museum’s permanent collection (it had no holdings when she began, which makes her ambitious and prolific exhibition programming all the more impressive), and making a commitment to supporting and showing the work of regional artists.
The current exhibitions, featuring in large part selections from SFMOMA’s outstanding permanent collection, give us all a unique glimpse at the history of the museum as well as an opportunity to understand, through experience, the innovative and progressive vision that began with Morley and continues to the present. The vibrant and inspiring dialog continues, and it’s open to us all.

Special thanks to Kara Kirk whose research and thesis project provided many of the facts and information on Grace McCann Morley included here.

This story appeared in the May issue of the Nob Hill Gazette.