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Review: The de Young Open

The much-anticipated exhibition of submissions by artists from nine Bay Area counties

Paris Cotz
January 2, 2021
de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, California

The downstairs galleries of San Francisco’s de Young Museum are overflowing with a nearly indigestible amount of artworks. 877 of them from 762 Bay Area artists, to be exact. It’s staggering to imagine that only 8% of the submissions were selected from the pool of applicants for the year’s long-anticipated de Young Open. And, unlike 99.9% of museum exhibitions, everything was for sale. With practically every spare inch of wall space occupied—floor to ceiling—I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was wandering through a Bed Bath & Beyond with canvases in place of beach towels and cookware.

I tend to prefer smaller exhibitions, ones that I can go through slowly, that aren’t crowded, with people or with artwork. One of the reasons I go to a museum is to enjoy the analog viewing experience, and I do not like having to rely on my cell phone to properly appreciate an exhibition. However, the digital system that was provided—scanning a QR code to access the gallery guide—did offer me the chance to search the works that really drew me in at first glance.Since the system prescribed felt unwieldy, I resorted to taking a picture of each work that I liked, being sure to include its corresponding number, so that I could learn more later.

My favorites all had one thing in common: they were quiet. A notable work is Peter Wallis’ What Remains of the Dawn-Land, a sparse drawing featuring a Colonial soldier skeleton, women dancing ritualistically under a crescent moon, and an indigenous person in traditional clothing, all grouped together next to a suburban strip mall. The drawing’s parsed-out starkness, along with the vibrant pockets of color, stood out. The mystery of the figures, isolated yet conjoined on the same piece of paper, leaves one with murmuring questions. I can hear the silence and the stories of this old, unknowable American place.

Two other standouts were the paintings Outsider by Youngmin Kim, and Out on Moraga by John Musgrove. While paintings like Wallis’ do not correspond directly to Californian themes, these two certainly did. Outsider refers to the way the artist, originally from East Asia, characterizes their position as immigrant in California. They tell us, “I recognize myself as a stranger through the exotic landscape of trees scattered on a dry desert-like meadow.” I certainly felt this way on my first drive through California, over a decade ago, encountering the brittle, austere flora dotting the yellow hillsides.

The quicksilver abstract figure that takes up the foreground emphasizes a feeling of incongruence. John Musgrove’s painting, on the other hand, comes out of an intense infatuation and familiarity with a landscape. The scene near San Francisco’s Ocean Beach is unmistakable: the expansive, curving sky; dusty two-story apartments; open roads lined with parked cars; the absence of any visible people. Anyone who ventures out to the Sunset District (or is lucky enough to live there) will recognize this painting as a veridical yet highly stylized depiction of a beautiful, hopeful day in sunny San Francisco. Isn’t it a wonderful place to be?

When the de Young Museum closed for the second time in late November, I lost the opportunity to give these works the repeat viewing they deserve. If there were another iteration of this show, I’d like to see the art more spaced out—either physically or over time, split into two parts, just as Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive did with their inaugural “Way Bay” and “Way Bay 2.” For now, I will patiently await the day the de Young can re-open the Open. In the meantime, the works remain for sale and 100% of the proceeds go to the artists.

October 10, 2020 — January 31, 2021
de Young Museum
Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, California

Paris Cotz is the Arts & Culture editor at Dispatches Magazine. She works with the Associate Vice Chancellor of Arts + Design at UC Berkeley and lives in Berkeley, California.