Objects, Dumb and Otherwise: Scribbles 013-015 from the Anderson Collection

At the Stanford Arts Review, we find the Andersons’ generous gift to Stanford a cause for both public and intimate celebration. We encourage you to visit the collection, force your expectations of art out the door and open yourself to discomfort. For what is modern and contemporary art, after all? Scribbles on a canvas, clean lines, exultations of color that arise in all their material glory from the human mind. 

We now bring you a weekly series where our writers confront each painting and sculpture in the Anderson Collection, from 001 to 121. This week: Terry Winters’ Dumb Compass, David Gilhooly’s Hoarding My Frog Food, and Deborah Oropallo’s Houdini Challenged.

013. Victor Liu on Terry Winters’ Dumb Compass

Museums are a testament to the calming thought that everything fits into a system of relations. Even something as amorphous as art can be organized. The Anderson features Bay Area Figurativists, California Funk artists, and Abstract Expressionists—each with a room of their own, museum text helpfully outlining thematic through-lines for the sake of art newbies.

However, I soon arrived at curious little room united by something other than a historicized movement. “Dumb Objects.” The familiar museum-y crispness of the serifed text bestowed this kindergarten expletive with a strange authority. “These works ask us to consider many possible meanings of the word dumb,” it cooly explains.

I refused to believe that the curator was grasping for straws, but “Dumb Objects” had me—dare I say it—dumbfounded. Was Dumb Compass a suggestion of gendered bodies and array of material wealth, skewering the white-picketed myth of the American dream? Perhaps this swath of obscuring brushstrokes denotes the fog of our deluded contemporary existences, revealing instead impotence? Did I spy with my little eye a coded Jasper Johns reference in the center?

Or maybe it’s a Dumb Compass precisely because it isn’t supposed to take us anywhere. Imagine Winters, thumbing through Artforum and laughing at the overwrought analyses and sweeping generalizations of art historian hotshots. “Not even close, Sigmund Fraud,” he cackles to himself.

014. Ava Lindstrom on David Gilhooly’s Hoarding My Frog Food

Some works of art are so explicit as to be inscrutable.  Such is David Gilhooly’s Hoarding My Frog Food, which, in a case of disarming titular honesty, shows a man hoarding his frog food.  It is a great pillar of glossy nonsense.  Maybe the moose on the top knows what’s going on.  Below him, a man tilts a cuplike boat, laden with froggy sandwiches and pierced improbably by fish.  The whole thing rests on a clump of more fish, brown like the moose but a school rather than an individual.

The heterogeneity of the piece is subtle at a first viewing and disconcerting at a second one. The late artist David Gilhooly belonged to the Funk movement, a mostly Bay Area reaction against the increasing trend towards abstraction in art.  By manifesting concrete, specific reality, Funk art challenges the supremacy of abstract images.

But to dismiss this piece as simply a representational exercise is to deny the value of both its form and its content.  It is this specific conglomeration of absurdity, this amphibian sandwich trove, this watchful moose, that lend Hoarding My Frog Food its interest.  You have to walk around it to appreciate how shiny it is–like a waxed orange.  The glossy finish and the clumpy shapes are reminiscent of childhood art-class attempts at ceramics.  Sometimes it seems odd that the adult imagination can build sculptures infinitely more grotesque and intricate than that which children coax from clay.  Other times, Hoarding My Frog Food, with the man’s glazed arm both hoarding and protecting his sandwiches, seems too gleefully artificial to be anything but grown-up.

015. Fred Robson on Deborah Oropallo’s Houdini Challenged

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Anderson Collection is that almost every one of the 112 donated pieces of art was hung somewhere in their house. Now, I would not be one to complain if I had a Pollock over my bed, or if I had a Rothko in the living room, but I’m not sure where I would have put Houdini Challenged.

Because, appropriately enough for Halloween, Houdini Challenged is genuinely terrifying. The overall color scheme is full of shadows: dark and ominous. There is a crimson red square, a suspiciously similar shade to blood, and the sole cheerful color used, a kind of golden yellow, only serves to ensnare Houdini. Houdini himself is pale as a ghost and seems to be suspended in a half dead state of unconsciousness. Combined with the painful looking apparatus, it almost looks like a kind of sadistic torture scene.

It’s not the kind of painting I would want in my bedroom. My early morning, bleary-eyed, semi-conscious self would not cope with such a fright. And unless the Andersons had a penchant for scaring their guests, I’m not sure you’d want it in your living room.

After much reflection, I think I have decided where I would hang it: the study. Because beneath the fear, there is optimism. Houdini always escaped. He could be handcuffed, nailed in a packing crate and dropped into a river, but he would find a way. While struggling to deal with some challenge, it would be reassuring to know that Houdini always wriggled out.

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