Alt-Left: Local Heroes @ Berkeley Art Center. 1275 Walnut S. Reception May 29,. Artist talk May 20, 2:30pm. Show runs to June 17.

Alt-Left: Local Treasures

The term Alt-Right, a recent coinage, is shorthand journalese for the belief system of Donald Trump’s supporters, those white working class (WWC) populists whom Hilary Clinton, in an accurate but politically maladroit moment, called a “basket of deplorables.” Alt-right combines various strands of contemporary radical conservative thinking: nationalism,white supremacism, racism, religious bigotry, sexism, and nativism, flavored by a dash of populism. While the desertion of the WWC by both major political parties is now, weeks after election-day apocalypse, generally conceded. It has not yet become clear to Al-t-Righters that their interests will very likely be ignored as before by the new corporate oligarchy serving the ultra-rich: meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Our social safety net and even our social contract are now, in the Age of Trump, ‘negotiable.’

 San Francisco is perhaps the most politically and culturally liberal region in the country, its reputation for tolerance and progressive politics probably second to none. (Conservative political strategists play the “San Francisco liberal’ card with some regularity, in fact, mocking Political Correctness as a kind of mind control, not simply human decency transposed to the political realm. Bay Area artists have accordingly been among the most outspoken critics of mainstream, status-quo politics. The Berkeley art historian Peter Selz—who as a young man visited Hitler’s Degenerate Art (Entartete Kunst) show in Munich in 1937— writes, in Art of Engagement: Visual Politics and California and Beyond:

 Some critics and artists have argued “if it is political, it is not art,” while others stipulate that ‘if it is art, it is not political.” My contention is that not only can artists comment significantly on politics in their work, but political engagement in specific situations can produce authentic art. 

 Two years ago, I wrote about a show of contemporary artists fusing political content with an imaginative, even surrealist style:

 Artists have often served as cultural critics in the past, even, via satire, as moralists, in a bizarre way, and some continue to do so, even if people no longer look to art for education or moral edification. Paradoxically, artists employing traditional realism—creating windows into alternate or superior realities— most cogently point out the flawed unreal core of consensus reality…. [They] leaven their cultural critique with irony, imagination and humor, and exemplary craftsmanship. Through satire, they help us deal (square ourselves) with things as they are, illustrating what a long, strange trip it’s always been, as their spiritual predecessors Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel knew only too well.

 Alt-Left: Local Treasures is a Bay Area art response to the Alt-Right. It features work by three painters, Mark Bryan, Michael Kerbow and Ariel Parkinson; two collagists, John Hundt and Vanessa Woods; and a sculptor, Francisco Jimenez, who comment on history, politics and psychology with both deep feeling and a mordant, absurdist humor.  Viewers may laugh; viewers may cry. The present political moment calls for engaging with reality and abandoning  the cargo-cult consumerism that have dominated political discourse for three decades. To oppose and outlast the depredations of the immoderate minority, ‘the “radical rich” (David Frum),  the moderate majority, i.e., we the 99%, will require “radical hope” (Jonathan Lear), unremitting opposition, and eyes-on-the-prize determination. —DeWitt Cheng



The Legacy of David Park: An Invitational and Juried Painting show @ the Edward M. Dowd Art and Art History Building Gallery, Santa Clara University, April 3-28, 2017

Art professor and critic John Seed assembled this large group show with Santa Clara University art professor Kelly Detweiler. Below, the show/s premise, a celebration of the Bay Area Figurative painter David Park, whose commitment to self-expression through painting and depicting the everyday world —magically— make him an exemplary figure for painters today.  Park’s daughter, Helen Park Bigelow, was on hand for the panel discussion, which included Seed, Detweiler, painter Jennifer Pochinski, and myself (summoned from taking pictures from the balcony). A graceful tribute to Park by painter Kyle Staver, who could not attend, began the discussion. Thirty-seven national and international artists’ work, a glorious new venue (with a new Linda Fleming painted steel sculpture outside and a Dale Chihuly glass sculpture inside), a comprehensive catalog (available online), support from the Sam Francis Foundation and Harry and Margaret Anderson, three cash prizes, and an enthusiastic reception — congratulations to all!

The artists:
Jennifer Pochinski and Kyle Staver (both invited); 
Alex Bailey
James Bland
Marie Cameron
Linda Christensen
Ashley Norwood Cooper
Melinda Cootsona
Kim Frohsin
Sonia Gill
Phyllis Gorsen
Cynthia Grilli
Nancy Gruskin
Mark Hanson
Irene Cuadrado Hernandez
Mitchell Johnson
Betsy Kendall
Rachel Kline
Sue Ellen R. Leys
Kathy Liao
Fred Lower
Janet Norris
Gage Opdenbrouw
David Iacovazzi-Pau
Jill Madden
Nicholas Mancini
Sandy Ostrau
Catherine Prescott
Jose Luis Cena Ruiz
William Rushton
Francis Sills
Kurt Solmssen
David Tomb
Christina Renfer Vogel
Martin Webb
John Weber
William Wray

This exhibition is intended to pay homage to the art and values of artist David Park (1911-1960), the founder of the tradition of Bay Area Figurative painting. It does not include Park’s own works, but instead features the works of two invited artists and 35 artists chosen by a panel of four jurors. 
David Park’s figurative works are characterized by humanity, candor and bold painterly brushwork. The goal of the exhibition jurors was not to select art that mimics David Park’s style, but rather to select paintings that honor the legacy of Park’s artistic independence and integrity, and also his interest in painting people and places that held personal meanings for him. 

—John Seed is a professor of art and art history at Mt. San Jacinto College. He is also an arts writer and blogger whose writing has ap- peared in Harvard Magazine, Art Ltd. the HuffingtonPost and Hyperallergic. Seed wrote the catalog essay that accompanied the 2015 exhibition Interiors and Places': David Park, Richard Diebenkorn and Elmer Bischoff at Hackett Mill Gallery in San Francisco. 
—DeWitt Cheng is an artist, collector, freelance art writer, educator, and curator based in San Francisco. He has served as the director of Stanford Art Spaces and writes for numerous art publications including Art Ltd Magazine and Visual Art Source. 
—Andrea Pappas is an Associate Professor of Art History at Santa Clara University, specializing in American and Contemporary Art, Gender and Visual Arts. She holds a BA in Fine Arts from the University of California at Berkeley, and both an M.A. and PhD in Art History from the University of Southern California. 
—Jessica Phillips is the Director of Hackett|Mill Gallery, San Francisco, which represents the Estate of David Park. She holds a B.A. in English Literature and Art History and an M.A. in Contemporary Art from Sotheby’s Institute of Art, London. 

Global Studies: Portraits by Susan Matthews at IRiSS

Global Studies: Portraits by Susan Matthews

Institute for Research in the Social Sciences (IRiSS)

30 Alta Road, Stanford CA 94305

February 2017-February 2018


The Institute for Research in the Social Sciences is proud to announce an exhibit of paintings by the Oakland artist Susan Matthews. Global Studies features seventeen acrylic paintings on canvas that depict people whom the artist encountered while traveling in Cuba and Africa (as well as at home in the exotic Bay Area). Vibrantly colored, and drawn with a sure eye for characterization, the paintings are both depictions of sympathetic individuals and, implicitly, a plea for the broader perspectives that come with travel and personal engagement. They oppose the notion of tourism as the taking of photographic trophies: capturing picturesque subalterns before the inevitable ‘spoiling’ of westernization.


The majority of the works come from Matthews’ The African Icons series, made during a visit to Niger, in west Africa.  By combining metallic foils with acrylic paint, the artist creates secular, contemporary versions of the saints’ portraits common in Christian art since the third century, with the reflective sheen suggesting both preciousness (not preciosity) and immutability: W.B. Yeats’s “sages standing in … the artifice of eternity,” to quote his famous poem, “Sailing to Byzantium.” The Hausa text incorporated into some of the paintings is explained in notes in the wall labels that include details about the portrait subjects and the circumstances under which the paintings were made. “Drinking Water,” for example, is “ a portrait of a young girl carrying water in a plastic basin. Children are always at work. There is no other way to live. Each person in Niger gets an average of one gallon of water per day. Most people bathe and wash clothes in a nearby river.” “Garaya” is “a portrait of a young man who made up his own song and was playing it to the accompaniment of his garaya, a gourd with a few strings. The sound is beautiful. The text reads, ‘See, I really can sing.’”  Some of the proceeds from sales of these paintings and from related archival prints goes to support a village grain bank in Niger.


The large painting hung in the foyer,  “Rumba Taller Grafica,” depicts the outdoor performance of the Cuban folkloric dance, the rumba; at the Taller Grafica, Havana’s renowned printmaking workshop.  The series from which this comes, Secrets Under the Skin, is an examination of the links between African and Cuban cultures due to the slave trade’s involuntary emigration; made in collaboration with Jill Flanders Crosby of the University of Alaska Anchorage, the series debuted in Havana and has been exhibited in Anchorage, San Francisco and other venues, most recently in Dakar, Senegal, at the Dak’Art Biennale.


IRiSS is open to the public 9-5 M-F. For more information, please contact Curator DeWitt Cheng at 415-412-8499 and is the successor program to Stanford Art Spaces; it will also serve, when it goes online in March 2017, as a blog and art magazine focusing on the Bay Area.

Holly Van Hart's "Alive with Possibilities" painting exhibition @ SLAC Building 52, Menlo Park CA

Alive With Possibilities

Abstract Geometric Paintings by Holly Van Hart at SLAC Building 52


SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory is proud to announce an exhibit of paintings by the acclaimed Peninsula artist, Holly Van Hart. Alive with Possibilities, features eleven geometric abstractions in oil on canvas—with additional elements mixed into the pigment—that communicate the artist’s optimism about the creative life—in art, but also in other areas. Silicon Valley and the Bay Area are known for technological ingenuity, of course, and Van Hart, who became a painter after having worked for a long time in tech, embraces a wider definition that includes even traditional media.


Van Hart’s materials and methods, however, are by no means confined to oil paint. She also employs acrylic paint, and, mixed in, and lending texture (and a regionally appropriate conceptual context), silica wafers and silica sand.  (Art aficionados may remember that the Cubists of a century ago, Picasso and Georges Braque, added sand to their paintings in order to emphasize the tactility and materiality of these aesthetic objects that had jettisoned traditional illusionism.) Van Hart in the past explored a personal symbolism of birds’ nests, eggs, interwoven ribbons, and circles, all painted realistically, although the ensembles and implicit narratives were invented. In a 2014 article on that work, I wrote:


…[The paintings] are … both representational and abstract; and they express—well, let Georgia O’Keefe say it, succinctly: “I found that I couldn’t say any other way — things I had no words for.” Van Hart’s paintings, Romantic/expressionist depictions of birds’ nests enclosing eggs, are clearly symbolic, and thus out of step with … contemporary fashion…

Van Hart’s [exploration of metamorphosis and growth] derives in part from her long, successful career in industrial engineering and operations research in Silicon Valley, a locus of “creativity and unrelenting optimism[, and] … a place where anything is possible.” … These works about potential and metamorphosis, then, are clearly autobiographical, but they’re also universal (as the deepest, most personal work often is, paradoxically)…. Van Hart writes, “Each painting is a journey, requiring many layers of oil paint, and much inspection and introspection over a period of months.” [The Stanford painter] Nathan Oliveira … reminisced about studying in 1950 with one of his idols, the German expressionist Max Beckmann. The older painter’s English was rudimentary, so he advised the young Californian through his English-speaking wife: a painting life, he warned, probably with perverse pride, was “Sweat, much sweat.”


In this series, the artist employs simplified, geometric forms that clearly derive from the organic, natural motifs in the earlier realistic works. They also share the sense of discovery that inspired modernist artists, who saw in modern technology’s machine forms —Léger famously admired the polished steel cylinders of cannon barrels—the potential for a new humanity informed by scientific rationalism. They explored a vocabulary of elemental forms that would be transcultural and universally comprehensible — a visual Esperanto based on Cézanne’s famous cubes, cylinders and spheres. But while Van Hart shares simplified forms with Léger, Mondrian and others, her colorful exuberance suggests growth and metamorphosis rather than straitlaced, sober common sense. The dynamic, dancing shapes and carefully harmonized palettes in “Flourishing,” “Great Expectations,” “Intertwined” and “Life’s Twists” suggest contemprary versions of the vibrant, vital flower paintings of the Dutch Golden Age. Van Hart: “The world [including Silicon Valley] … is alive with possibilities.”

Welcome to, my new blog about the art of the San Francisco Bay area. I’ll be posting a miscellany of items here on a fairly regular basis: both current, timely material and golden-oldie articles that might be worth saving for the benefit of a grateful posterity. My old blog,, was discontinued a few years ago, when the host company changed hands, so I hope that this blog will avoid a similar dissolution. In any case, many articles from other publications written over the past seventeen years remain online at various URLs, including

While I will continue to write for publications like ArtLtd, and East Bay Monthly, there are times when a biog makes sense: some items fail the editorial newsworthiness cut, or the Procrustean space constraints of column inches (and readership patience); some pieces require immediate publication online. 

A word about the name, which is also the title of the art exhibition program that i manage at the Stanford National Accelerator Laboratory (aka SLAC) and the Institute for Research in the Social Sciences (aka IRiSS). The predecessor program, Stanford Art Spaces, ran into some branding issues, so a new name was needed when it was discontinued in 2016.

ArtOpticon is an invented word, suggesting a viewing device for art, an aesthetic version of Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope (in the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford). Fictional visionary inventions like H.G. Wells’ crystal egg and Jorge Luis Borges’ aleph also come to mind. Jeremy Bentham’s infamous panopticon, a guard tower at the center of a circular prison, is also implied—though not, I hope, his bizarre auto-icon. I’ve recently seen the word synoptic, referring here to the sum total of observers of the Trump presidency, a ring of sentries focused on the man at the center, Bentham in reverse. Autoptic is also a legal term, meaning eyewitnesses. 

In addition to art views and occasional reviews and interviews, I'll be posting about upcoming curating and art catalogue essay projects. There's a lot going on the the Bay Area, and nobody can see everything; but I am happy to share my art adventures, and hope others will do the same.