Think of the 1980s and art and what comes to mind? Possibly Nagel, neon colors, jagged diagonals and geometry, paint splashes. Maybe the squiggles of Keith Haring, or the attack of Basquiat, or Jeff Koons’ kitsch. But for Julie Joyce, who curated this new show at the Museum of Art, it was a time of excitement for galleries, of a new trust in materials and finance, and lots of black. “Totally 80s: Gifts to the Permanent Collection” only nods to the clichéd idea of the decade in its title. There’s one example of neon. But there’s lots of black. (There’s more, too, in the other show she helped set up: the photos of John Divola, in the gallery around the corner).
Recent exhibitions from the Museum’s permanent collections have been too much of a muchness, with too much repetition of recently shown work. But “Totally ’80s” avoids that, thanks to recent gifts from the Broad Art Foundation in L.A. and Laura-Lee W. Woods and Robert J. Woods, Jr. There are only two familiar pieces here: Charles Arnoldi’s rough-hewn and brutal wood canvas, “Landfisher” and Al Held’s “Brughes II” that used to hang in the atrium, neon hoops and green building girders — an example of the brief “neo geo” movement.
But apart from that, this is sort of a mixed tape of Ms. Joyce’s early ’80s memories of being a Santa Monica undergrad, and the beginning of several iconic galleries like the Margo Leavin and others. These days, galleries have had to become bigger like the Gagosian, but all the small ones have closed, and the scene now centers on art fairs. (According to Ms. Joyce, a lot of this can be traced to hedge fund managers trading art like pork belly futures, another thing we can blame them for doing.) Galleries used to have conversations with each other, Ms. Joyce said. The works here also do that — from Jill Giegerich’s “Untitled,” a raised, tactile representation of a black, running faucet made from corrugated material — to R.M. Fischer’s “Shining” (1985), which looks like a giant faucet from afar — to Richmond Burton’s “Thought Plane 15” (1989), a large, black canvas that looks like a shooting range target.
The aforementioned “Landfisher” stands across the gallery from Claude Viallat’s “Untitled” (1981), a painted pattern that looks like bell peppers on loose canvases, zippered together. Both are splashy uses of dramatic color, and cause unease — Mr. Arnoldi because of the chopped-wood texture, Mr. Viallat because of the lack of orientation (the painting can be hung in any direction), and its pouch that juts out from the canvas. These large works are balanced by the midsize paintings nearby, most notably Donald Sultan’s two works with deep charcoal markings: “Black Lemon Black Egg” and “Lemons and Egg,” and Gary Stephan’s “Oyster” (1988), a hazy landscape of sorts that is interrupted by large, black pearls encroaching from the edges. (It’s the one work in the show that seems to predict the coming return of classical oil and acrylic techniques in pop surrealism).
Having walked with Ms. Joyce around the exhibit, her most uttered phrase was “they were very big in the ’80s. Which led to the question: what happened to them? Did they vanish because they didn’t brand themselves, a very ’80s idea with its roots in Warhol? Were they victims of a speculative bubble? In the case of Joe Andoe, whose dark oil, “Untitled (Oak Leaf)” is black upon black, he left painting and pursued writing (he’s since returned). Others just faded away. “Totally ’80s” presents a different perspective on what mattered during that decade, and feels very personal, like going through a scrapbook. I guess you had to be there.
“Totally ’80s: Gifts to the Permanent Collection”
When: through January 5, 2014
Where: Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1130 State St.
Cost: $10 general admission, $6 Seniors and Students with ID
Information: 963-4364, www.sbma.net