The work of a museum is done behind closed doors, away from the public. We see the austere, carefully considered, hung and lit works in echoing galleries. Nothing of the work that is done during installation is shown to us, nor is the bureaucracy, paperwork, and deal-making that happens in the simple act of accepting new works into a permanent collection. (Not that we’d want to see this anyway.)
The benefit of all that work is on display now through Sept. 14, at Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s “Left Coast: Recent Acquisitions of Contemporary Art.” Curated by Julie Joyce, it’s a grab-bag of mostly California-based artists, mostly living, and shows the breadth not just of our particular brand of art, but the eclectic nature of Ms. Joyce’s curatorial eye. From painting and drawing to photography and sculpture, there’s a lot represented here, and a lot of work that has not been seen until now.
“We have so many more acquisitions than this and it was really difficult to decide,” Ms. Joyce says. “But of course we want it to be thematic, so that cuts it down a bit.”
The show features 37 works that are either Museum purchases or gifts. They range from the show-stopping Lari Pittman work “Transcendental and Needy” from 1990 — a mix of inscrutable symbols and numbers in acrylic featuring a Buddha-like owl — to the subtle and modest, like Lucas Reiner’s study of topiary, “On Washington Blvd.” from 2005.
One of the centerpieces is Kim Jones’ six-foot-long “Untitled (War Drawing Triptych),” which unfolds like some child’s pencil-drawn game of war, with mazes, armaments, oceans and strategic battlefields strewn with drawn trajectories. Jones’ almost outsider status gets a full display here, with war being reduced to symbols and maps. Mike Kelly’s “Apple Tree” work is also deceptively simple, with thinly drawn fruit colliding with some sort of dowsing rod. (Just describing this minimal piece is hard to do minimally.)
Mr. Kelly is similar to a lot of the artists here in that his work is now finding its way into collections and attracting a price point that the artist probably never dreamed about. Some artists are also very young: the 30-something Zach Harris paints abstract shapes (“Wine King”) but also hand carves the frames of his work into geometric patterns. Mario Ybarra Jr., who had a show at MCA two years ago, is also represented here with a photograph of the artist himself, shouting through a bullhorn on the top of a repossessed house.
Two sculptures are on display in each of the two galleries. Robert Wechsler’s “The Mendicant” is a cube made from interwoven, welded pennies, and just needs to be seen up close to appreciate the work’s intricate levels. And Ken Price’s melting and disturbing sculpture “Izaak” is typical of his alien ceramic work — it’s a nice surprise to see it here after seeing it (or a similar piece) over at Sullivan Goss a few years back.
There’s so much more to be viewed and mulled over, that a list will have to suffice: Brian Bress’ slowly moving video installation; Llyn Foulkes’ mash-up of two founding fathers in “Mr. President,”; Carlee Fernandez’ self-portrait with baby “Hues from Brown to Pink”; Roy Dowell, Lyle Ashton Harris, Jack Goldstein, Elad Lassry, and more.
“It’s kind of showing off what’s new,” Ms. Joyce says. “But I think it’s also at the time it emphasizes the importance of this activity to a museum’s survival and growth. We wouldn’t be anything without our permanent collection, and it’s nice to not only have an opportunity to do this and have a little bit of fun with it, but also to remind everyone what we do, and how we do. And that we’re always doing it, even if you can’t see it.”