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.