M. C. Escher and Op Art at the San Jose Museum of Art

I’ve been looking for an excuse to renew my membership in the San Jose Museum of Art (SJMA), and I found it today in the Escher exhibit they currently have on.

Just as context, about a year ago, the SJMA, formerly featuring free admission to all, had to start charging for admission when they lost their funding as their patron Knight Ridder, sold out to the McClatchey company. In retrospect, it’s the best thing that ever happened to the museum. I love the museum, but all too often their exhibits could be painfully sincere thanks to the indulgence of public funding. Now they have to give the locals a reason to pay to come in to the museum: the result is kind of like a small SF MOMA with a geekier vibe, or in other words, the modern art museum San Jose should always have had.

The museum was far busier that I expected it would be on this Easter afternoon. While Kelly explored the view from underneath a bench, I enjoyed watching the various ways people appreciated the optical illusions of Escher and the Op Art. Some people would walk past to get the kinetic effect, while others sat or stood quietly letting their mental perceptions process the movement. People were talking about it to each other, or studying the books laid out on a low table with armchairs around. Perfectly complementing the Silicon Valley demographic that would be drawn to it, the museum put a “Geek Critique” next to a few of the pieces that described the science behind the art. It was the perfect counterpoint to the Exploratorium in San Francisco, which shows the art in science.

The museum also connects to its audience in other ways, and connects its audience to each other. For instance, today it had a small California Funky gallery, with a piece by the godfather of the movement, Robert Arneson:photo0011.jpg

Next to the description of the piece was an invitation to call a number with your cell phone to either to leave a message telling others what you thought of the piece, or to hear what others had said about it. It was fabulously fun, even hilarious, to call in and hear others being art critic of the moment, in a way listening to a real art critic wouldn’t have been fun at all. In fact, you can call the number too: it’s (408) 795-2165. Just as context, if you look inside the “urinal” it’s yellow and has the word “smile” engraved into it.

Neil and Peter were equally intrigued by a multimedia piece called “Listening Post” which pulled text from the internet and posted them in a beaded skein, as well as speaking them out loud simultaneously. It was eerily entertaining, not just to them, but to the small crowd obviously entranced by it as well. I pushed my family into the exhibit featuring work by collage (and collagist) artist Jess, whose work I’d seen at other local museums. To keep my children entertained long enough for me to enjoy the exhibit, the SJMA had a magnetic collage table which let Neil and Kelly create their own surrealist Jess-style collages temporarily.

The museum isn’t even afraid to make its visitors angry with ugly mediocre art. It featured ballpoint scribblings by Il Lee, who’s apparently been scribbling ballpoint pens dry for 25 years. His wasted life struck me as more sad than infuriating, but then SJMA is still small and could only devote about 2 or 3 rooms to his rubbish. SF MOMA has the luxury of giving whole floors over to hacks like Brice Marden, so they can really piss me off, while still leaving me impressed enough with other features to keep me coming back.

But then, SJMA is now doing a great job in becoming a great museum for San Jose. All too often, non-profit institutions that lose their funding become pitiful beggars, with sub-par appeal and panhandleresque whining. SJMA clearly took another route, and remade itself into a valid art museum. If it keeps it up, it may very well expand and impress–and apall me–as well as major modern art museums can. And if it manages to reflect the technological edge and focus that makes San Jose unique, I’ll be impressed all the more.

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