UC Davis

Whenever I hear UC Davis mentioned, I never think of art or artists. I think of a friend of mine, Howard who graduated from their famous school of veterinary medicine, a DVM often flying down to South America to bring back exotic animals for the LA Zoo.

But surprise, surprise, UC Davis does in fact have a viable art department and during its origins in the 1960’s, some very formidable artists were brought in for their faculty by Richard Nelson. I learned this at the current PMCA (Pasadena Museum of California Art) exhibit titled, “You See.” Well, I hadn’t seen before but now I do.

The exhibit concentrates on only five artists on the teaching staff; all about the same age at the time they joined the Art Department. Two of them are old favorites of mine, Wayne Thiebaud and Manuel Neri; the other three being Robert Arneson, Roy De Forest and William T. Wiley.

They came to the faculty shortly after the abstract expressionism at the San Francisco Art Institute, the Bay Area figurative abstractionists like David Park, Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn, Nathan Olivera (to a certain extent), and the “Beats” like Joan Brown who was married to Manuel Neri and died by falling off a scaffold while working on a commissioned work in India. Some of these young artist teachers at UC Davis developed what became known as “Funk” art, clearly seen in the works of Robert Arneson and Roy De Forest. When you look closely at these five artists’ works being exhibited, you no longer see the cohesiveness of the former art movements.  Since their art exists in more than one camp, it shows early signs of the mirror’s shattering that we so easily see today in the eclectic clusters of styles being done and shown simultaneously.

In a way the variety of the UC Davis staff turned out to be an advantage for the art students, since it gave them quite a range of instructors to choose from and that resulted in a better fit between teacher and student. But art students of the sixties (like myself) remember fondly (I mean this sarcastically) that we more often than not received little or no art instruction, it was then all about creative feeling, inspiration. I still remember one of my instructors showing slides of Michelangelo and encouraging all of us to go home, take LSD and look at Michelangelo’s work while under the influence as he did on a daily basis.

Perhaps these five UC Davis instructors were an exception to the sixties, their students report good things about them. Obviously Wayne Thiebaud would have provided rather formal instructions from the very nature of his art. Wayne was a teacher who always conducted his classes wearing a coat and a tie; yes, all during the hippie era.

Included in the exhibition catalog is a section by Jack Reynolds, a former student of all five teachers that gives a good idea of the various artists’ teaching styles. Manuel Neri, he tells us, was all about careful sustained observation, daily practice and letting go of things that didn’t work.

Reynolds tells us much about William T. Wiley by explaining a rather “funky” painting in the show of a large unframed canvas with a crude slate blackboard painted on it then filled with geometric squares. Many of the squares are filled with graffiti-lined drawings in white paint. This was how Wiley started Reynolds’s class with him, he had this blackboard painting hanging on the classroom wall; the graffiti is the result of each class member being asked to do something in one of the squares, a teacher’s way of breaking the ice, I suppose.  To me, the exhibit painting looks like some sort of unsophisticated proto Squeak Carnwath painting.

The classes with Robert Arneson and Roy De Forest must have been some trip judging from the work hanging on the museum’s walls where the idea of “Funk” comes into full bloom. Arneson was the school’s ceramicists and there are plenty of his clay pieces in the show. De Forest, on the other hand, is working full time to demonstrate that he can draw so close to how a child would draw that he can fool you; sometimes he succeeds, and you have to hand it to him because that’s not an easy thing for an adult to do, irrespective of the final result’s artistic worth.

So the other day I gave my DVM buddy Howard a telephone call and asked him point blank if he ever took time away from dissecting his dead animals to take an art class when he was at UC Davis. I was hoping that he might have perhaps bumped into Neri or Thiebaud. “Nope” came the reply, “I never took an art class at UC Davis”. “Peasant,” I replied.

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