Photo: Douglas Sandberg /Artwork Â© Artist ; Photo Â© San, Courtesy Of San Jose Museum Of Art
The San José Museum of Art’s “Rise Up: Social Justice in Art” exhibition has San Francisco roots.
Walking into the exhibit, you are confronted with Harvey Milk — five of him — in Robert Arneson’s “Five Times for Harvey.” The piece consists of five side-by-side portraits of the former city supervisor, one for each time he was shot by former SF councilman, Dan White.
These portraits are the thesis of the larger gallery, whose title “Rise Up!” might feel like an imperative, a call to action. In reality, it is more descriptive than demanding, the whole exhibit dedicated to peeling back the layers of visibility and reminding us about the stories we do and do not see, particularly in the case of marginalized groups.
In Arneson’s case, this layering is literal — as if each portrait is a different sliver of Harvey Milk.
Each displays the same outline of the supervisor’s face, but filled with different strands of colors, woven loosely around the same smiling countenance, and representing the different eras of his life — from his flamboyant roots as “Mayor of Castro” to seconds before his assassination, in which Arneson has inscribed “Bang Bang” in black paint on Milk’s forehead.
In the final portrait his face is covered by a star, meant to represent “the dark moment of his death,” according to the museum catalog.
Except, the fifth portrait does not look deathly at all.
In fact, the last is quite possibly the most vital representation of Milk — his face cherubic and vivacious. In this way, the star takes on another meaning, reflecting how we see Milk today: glossed over by his celebrity (his literal stardom).
But Arneson’s series deftly avoids the dangers of romanticization. The spinning tendrils of color seem to bind the final portrait to the first four, so that the blue wash over the fourth Harvey’s eyes echoes the turquoise highlights in the second Harvey’s hair. Each picture evokes the one that came before it. This conversation between images reminds viewers of the many Harveys that formed the martyr — the thespian, the naval veteran, the teacher and merchant — that existed before the gay politician we learn about in history books.
“[The portraits] are much broader than just Harvey,” adds J. Michael Bewley, the art collector who donated Arneson’s portraits to SJMA. Bewley, a retired employment lawyer, first saw the pieces in 1987 and was transported back a decade to when Milk was shot. “They represent so much of what happened in San Francisco at the time,” he says, referencing the assassination of Mayor George Moscone (also by Dan White), and now-Senator Dianne Feinstein’s emergent political career at the time.
Photo: Courtesy Of San Jose Museum Of Art
Robert Arneson Five Times for Harvey, 1982 Mixed media on paper…
The moment of Milk’s death in Arneson’s paintings becomes a moment of resurrection: a new, symbolic Milk emerging in the cultural conscience. Harvey the star represents a moment in San Francisco’s history, a time of rebellion and change.
Today, the name Milk is synonymous with LGBT rights. But by showing the different Harveys, Arneson’s portraits ask: What do we lose when when someone becomes a symbol?
All the “Rise Up!” pieces resist the pull toward one-sided representation, instead revealing the many facets of artists with marginalized identities. With Milk, that identity is homosexuality, while the rest of the exhibition focuses on female artists of color.
For instance, there’s Mickalene Thomas’s “Photomontage B,” a collage of photographs of naked or partially dressed women, each enclosed by overlapping wooden frames that jut out from the canvas. Choose one frame, and you miss a corner of the couch; another and you don’t see the animal print in the background. It is an unavoidable confrontation with the many ways of telling a single story, and also a tangible reminder of the fact that every frame leaves something out of the larger picture. In this case, the larger picture might be representations of black women throughout time and that they are often portrayed through totalising tropes.
In its past life, the collection of frames hung in J. Michael Bewley’s law office.
“My firm dealt with issues of discrimination based on gender, orientation, age, race,” Bewley says, recalling his time as a practicing lawyer. “During depositions the other side would have to confront [these artworks] … to think about those things while they were there.”
Photo: Courtesy Of San Jose Museum Of Art
Bewley cares about more than message; it’s important to him that the pieces are beautiful as art, too. “When you think ‘social justice in art’ you worry that it will beat you over the head,” he says. But with his collection, it is just the opposite. Many of the pieces are subtle, and some, like the small palm tree photograph surrounded by pink and gold glitter, aren’t forthcoming about their connection to social justice. But the father of the artist Sadie Barnette was a Black Panther, Bewley explains, and in that palm tree is contained Rodney Barnette’s Berkeley — a place of political protest at a time when a man could get fired for his associations with the Black Power movement (as his daughter later discovered, he was).
In a world where female artists make up only 3 to 5 percent of major permanent collections in the U.S. and Europe, the collection also becomes a comment on the (in)visibility of certain identities in museums itself.
The gallery seems to be conversing with those statistics, boasting work from a diverse cast. From San Francisco artist Squeak Carnwath, to Mexican artist (and Stanford professor) Enrique Chagoya, whose cartoonish “Mano Poderosa” lampoons the United States’ perpetration of violence in the first Gulf War. The exhibition is like relief map, each piece bringing to surface something that might otherwise remain unseen.
It’s also drawing out a new cast of viewers: “I’ve heard reports that people who have never been in the museum before have come to see this show,” Bewley says proudly. He hopes his collection will cultivate a new age of art lovers — people like him some 40 years ago, who will see the art and be prompted to think of all that it contains.
Walking out of the exhibit is a little bit like looking at Arneson’s five portraits. No single piece stands out, no single conclusive thought, but rather the lingering impression of the multitudes of stories waiting to be told.
Emma Heath is an SFGATE staff writer. Email her with comments or questions at Emma.Heath@sfchronicle.com. Twitter: @emmabheath.