When the San Diego History Center in Balboa Park offered an illuminating exhibit earlier this year of Charles Reiffel’s landscape paintings, Daniel Foster had a question: “What’s going on now in the San Diego arts community with the interpretation of landscape?” asked Foster, the director of the Oceanside Museum of Art.
During his first year as director, that “what’s going on in the San Diego arts community” question has become common from Foster, as he increasingly turns the Oceanside Museum toward regional artists. Foster and the History Center’s director, Charlotte Cagan, started talking and then enlisted scholar Bram Dijkstra, who curated the Reiffel exhibit (which was shared by the History Center and the San Diego Museum of Art). The result is the first collaboration between the San Diego History Center and the Oceanside Museum of Art: “Nature Improved: San Diego Artists Interpret Our Landscape.” Dijkstra assembled a curatorial panel that included both directors, along with USD’s Derrick Cartwright and Mesa College’s Alessandra Moctezuma. Each recommended artists, who were discussed and then invited to submit works.
Ultimately, 25 artists participated, and it’s an assortment you are unlikely to see again on the walls of a single gallery. Dijkstra said “quality” was the primary criteria, and the exhibition reveals a diverse range of styles and reputation, from watercolorist Chuck McPherson to conceptual artist Eleanor Antin. It demonstrates a broad, inclusive definition of landscape as well. “It’s not the old notion of landscape as a pretty area in nature, a kind of uplifting field of nature,” Dijkstra said. “What’s important nowadays is the way we move through nature.”
On the boulevard
For this exhibit, “landscape” includes the way we move through our built environment. Some of the most striking works in the show are commonplace urban scenes, such Carol Lindemulder’s “Ramona Morning” (at the History Center) revealing a well-traveled stretch on state Route 78 that many San Diegans traverse on their way to Julian or Borrego Springs. “When most people drive through an area like that, they don’t pay attention,” said Dijkstra. “So when somebody like Lindemulder focuses on them, it forces us to reinvent our conception of what those facades are like.”
Even El Cajon Boulevard takes on a glow in Leah Younker’s “Lucky Lady” (inspired by the boulevard’s Lucky Lady Casino). It’s likely few people experience that feeling on the scene, but through Younker’s eyes, it takes on an unsuspected dimension. There are also a few smiles in the exhibit, especially at the History Center, whether from Antin’s unexpected staged photographs or Roman de Salvo’s wonderful “Naughty Pine.” Much of the pure landscape work, however, is not that far removed in tone from the pair of luminous Reiffels or the multiple canvases of Maurice Braun that are part of a rotating exhibit in a side gallery at the History Center (which may be reassuring, or disturbing, depending on your perspective).
In Oceanside, the entire museum offers context, as virtually all of its exhibitions deal with landscape in one form or another: “Escape: Stephen Curry,” “Entropy: James Enos,” “Contemporary Landscape Photography: An International Perspective,” and “Selections From The Doug Simay Collection.” The “Doug Simay Collection” exhibit, in its emphasis on contemporary art, is the most parallel to “Nature Improved,” even if it is considerably edgier. The Simay show also includes several San Diego artists, including Philipp Scholz Rittermann and Ernest Silva, whose work might have further enlivened “Nature Improved,” especially at Oceanside, if they had been included.
Foster expects the museumwide theme show to become an annual tradition at Oceanside (just as he would like collection shows to also become a regular museum feature). “Landscape is one of the critical, reoccurring subject matters in art history,” Foster said. “And obviously, this is something that excites our curatorial department — to take something like landscape and attack it from five different vantage points with our galleries.”
Like Foster, Cagan is completing her first full year as her museum’s permanent director, and she is also striving to instill a distinct vision rooted in regional art, which is often inseparable from regional history.
“Both museums share a vision of building our collections based on regional artwork and highlighting the breadth of our regional artistic heritage,” said Cagan. “We both are innovative in our approach, believe profoundly in the importance of collaboration to advance our mission and are experienced in community engagement.” Attendance and memberships are up at both museums (with the History Center surpassing 100,000 annual visitors for the first time in its history), and they continue looking for partners. In January, a selection from “Nature Improved” will be shown at the University Club downtown. “Collaboration is at the center of our philosophy here, doing our work and spreading our talent and art resources into the larger regional arts community through partnerships,” said Foster, who also sees “Nature Improved” as reinforcing his institution’s artistic mission.
“It’s a priority for us to be a premiere, regional art museum for San Diego,” he said. “And for Southern California.”