Until March 2, 2014, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art presents Project Los Altos: SFMOMA in Silicon Valley, a multisite exhibition located in the downtown area of Los Altos, a town situated in the heart of Silicon Valley. Through the work of nine national and international artists, this exhibition explores the history and culture of this innovative region, the community of Los Altos and its surrounding areas, and the distinctive character of each artwork’s setting. The featured artists are Jeremy Blake, Spencer Finch, Charles Garoian, Christian Jankowski, Chris Johanson, Mike Mills, Kateřina Šedá, Alec Soth, and Jessica Stockholder.
On view at ten indoor and outdoor locations, Project Los Altos features existing artworks as well as newly commissioned, site-responsive projects, ranging from Jeremy Blake’s celebrated Winchester video trilogy to Alec Soth’s Silicon Valley portraits to Jessica Stockholder’s transformation of a public street intersection. While SFMOMA has previously commissioned works related to Silicon Valley, Project Los Altos marks the first occasion the museum is siting a major project in the region itself. The exhibition is free to the public and organized by SFMOMA in collaboration with the City of Los Altos and lead sponsor Passerelle Investment Company, a local group working to enhance the vitality of the Los Altos community.
Project Los Altos is part of SFMOMA’s extensive off-site programming taking place while its building is temporarily closed for expansion construction through early 2016. During this time, SFMOMA is on the go, presenting a dynamic slate of jointly organized and traveling exhibitions; outdoor and specially commissioned projects; and newly created education programs throughout the Bay Area and beyond. On view in Silicon Valley concurrently with Project Los Altos will be a collaborative exhibition with the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, Flesh and Metal: Body and Machine in Early 20th-Century Art (November 13, 2013–March 16, 2014).
“While SFMOMA is off-site, reimagining the museum’s role and exploring new ideas, Project Los Altos provides an exciting moment to capture the experimental nature of exhibition making,” notes Jenny Gheith, SFMOMA assistant curator of painting and sculpture. “With this collaboration, we’re thrilled to present a compelling platform for artists to make new work and for the community in Los Altos and the surrounding areas to engage with contemporary art in an unexpected way.”
“The City of Los Altos has a rich history of supporting the arts, particularly public sculpture,” explains Los Altos City Manager Marcia Somers. “By providing open space for a wide variety of art installations throughout the city, we enable residents of all ages to experience fine arts on a daily basis. This unique collaboration between the City of Los Altos, SFMOMA, and Passerelle strengthens the artistic presence already thriving in the community and welcomes a whole new audience to experience the beauty and charm of Los Altos.”
Located 37 miles south of San Francisco, Los Altos was initially an agricultural community known for its apricot orchards and small cottages. A period of significant growth occurred from the 1950s through the 1980s, and in recent years Los Altos has again experienced a moment of development and transformation. Project Los Altos reflects on this unique setting, and more broadly, Silicon Valley, a region of unparalleled importance in shaping contemporary life. Providing the exhibition’s foundation are Jeremy Blake’s Winchester trilogy (2002–4) from SFMOMA’s collection, and documentation of performance art that Charles Garoian organized with his students at Los Altos High School from 1969 to 1986, for which SFMOMA honored Garoian with its SECA award in 1974. The museum also invited seven artists to produce new work for the show: Spencer Finch, Christian Jankowski, Chris Johanson, Mike Mills, Kateřina Šedá, Alec Soth, and Jessica Stockholder. “The commissioned artists responded in vastly different ways,” states SFMOMA Curator of Painting and Sculpture Janet Bishop. “While some artists delved into aspects of Los Altos’s suburban charm, others sought out the vast tech culture that surrounds it. Several artists engaged people who live or work in the area, and a number of them explored the particularities of the exhibition sites.”
Representing all curatorial departments of the museum, Project Los Altos is curated by Jenny Gheith and Janet Bishop with Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher, Helen Hilton Raiser Associate Curator of Architecture and Design; Rudolf Frieling, curator of media arts; and Corey Keller, curator of photography.
Jeremy Blake (born 1971 in Fort Sill, Oklahoma; died 2007 in New York)
Winchester (2002), 1906 (2003), Century 21 (2004), on view at 242 State Street
Blake’s lush and colorful Winchester animation was inspired by the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, an elaborate and bizarre 160-room Victorian mansion built between 1884 and 1922 by Sarah Winchester, heir to the Winchester rifle fortune. At the turn of the last century, Mrs. Winchester also owned the first 100 acres that would become the town of Los Altos. Believing herself to be cursed by those killed by Winchester firearms, she was convinced that continuous construction on her house would keep their malevolent spirits away. Blake was fascinated by Winchester and the “fearful chambers of her mind.” In order to create this fluid, non-narrative video trilogy, Blake digitally synthesized and manipulated source material ranging from newly shot footage of the mansion to vintage advertisements, photographs, and cartoons. The first part, Winchester (2002), offers a psychological tour of the fears and beliefs that drove the home’s nonsensical growth. 1906 (2003), named for the year of the Bay Area’s great earthquake and fire, explores the construction and architecture of the house. Century 21 (2004), the trilogy’s final installment, references nearby theaters and incorporates glimpses of actors and artists whom Blake saw as quintessentially Wild West.
Spencer Finch (born 1962 in New Haven, Connecticut; lives and works in Brooklyn) Back to Kansas (2013), on view at 242 State Street
Finch explores the uncertain nature of perception and experience through careful recordings of the natural world. Often engaged with literature, historical figures, and events, his projects translate his observations into a range of media, including pastel, watercolor, photography, glass tile, fluorescent light tubes, and television sets. Finch has noted, “My work doesn’t capture a moment; it captures the fleetingness of a moment.” In Back to Kansas, he explores the subjective perception of color through vivid imagery from the film The Wizard of Oz (1939). In the gallery a grid of colors is painted directly on the wall and illuminated by light from a storefront window on State Street. The painting is scaled to the aspect ratio in which the movie was projected and the squares translate details from the film’s Technicolor scenes: the red refers to Dorothy’s ruby slippers, the green to the Emerald City, the orange to the poppies in the field. In daylight, changes in light alter the painting’s appearance, and in the minutes after sunset the colors slowly evaporate. Viewers can record the order in which they observe the hues disappear on a card provided within the installation.
Charles Garoian (born 1943 in Fresno, California; lives and works in University Park, Pennsylvania)
Documentation of performances with Los Altos High School students (1970–83), on view at 359 State Street
Over the course of a remarkable tenure in the art department at Los Altos High School from 1969 to 1986, Garoian developed a highly inventive curriculum with performance art at its center. For Project Los Altos, Garoian’s work at Los Altos High School is represented by a sequence of images documenting a select group of performances that he staged with his students. In Ice Happening (1970), the artist and his performers sought community participation by soliciting donations of “water to be frozen in any kind of container.” Using more than a ton of ice that showed up at the school, the students built a structure and then watched it melt away. For Watermelon Sculpture (1972), the students arranged melons in a grid on a platform. The students then systematically cut the fruit smaller and smaller—transforming the visual character of the grid. For Drill Team (1973) Garoian and his students inserted themselves into the school’s classic homecoming parade. Inspired by a Bruce Nauman work of the same name, the participants joined the fleet of Porsche convertibles transporting the homecoming court, drilling into wooden boards as they marched, followed by decorative floats and the traditional drill team and pom-pom squad.
Christian Jankowski (born 1968 in Göttingen, Germany; lives and works in Berlin)
Silicon Valley Talks (2013), on view at 271 State Street
The work of Christian Jankowski is a performance that engages often unsuspecting collaborators to innocently collude with him, making them participants in the conceptualization of the work and “co-authors” of the final result. The collaborative nature of Jankowski’s practice is paramount, as each participant unwittingly contributes his or her own texture. For Project Los Altos, the artist invited some of Silicon Valley’s most visionary entrepreneurs, programmers, and thinkers to provide talks on everyday topics beyond technology, such as “falling in love” or “holidays.” The speakers use industry language and jargon exclusively to reflect on these topics, while never promoting or addressing their actual businesses. The resulting collage of familiar ideas and lesser-known vocabulary provides a playful venture into the future art of communication. Jankowski’s Silicon Valley Talks asserts that the speakers are already using language of the future when what is now avant-garde technology-speak will have entered common conversations—not only in this region but throughout the world. Jankowksi presents these recorded talks in a space with a small stage as a tongue-in-cheek response to the reality of our constant communication.
Chris Johanson (born 1968 in San Jose, California; lives and works in Los Angeles)
Door Sculpture to Talk About the Idea of Different Possibilities You May Have to Process Your Life (2013), on view at Lincoln Park; I Do Not Know But Am Open to Learning (2013), at Village Park; If You Are Open to It You Can Find a Sign That Can be a Sign (2013), at First and Shasta Streets; The Field Became an Orchard Became a House and Became an Orchard (in Los Altos) (2013), at Civic Center Orchard; You Have Seen It Before and I Hope You See It Many More Times (2013), at 242 State Street
Johanson came of age as part of San Francisco’s Mission School—a loosely connected, community-minded group of artists who emerged in the 1990s and were inspired by street and skate culture. With insight and humor, he creates deceptively simple paintings or roughly hewn sculptural environments that serve as armatures for personal, social, and comic concerns. In Los Altos, Johanson created a number of outdoor sculptures at locations throughout the downtown area. At Village Park—a 20-foot-tall inflatable question mark stitched from mismatched swatches of recycled fabric floats above our heads and reflects the philosophical situations that life offers. In the apricot orchard Johanson wrapped a reclaimed wood door around the base of a tree, reflecting his interest—as a San Jose native—in the site’s connection to the region’s agricultural past. Three additional doors appear in Lincoln Park; they are vibrantly colored with customized frames and handles, and each is open to different degrees, inviting visitors to walk through them. At First and Shasta Streets Johanson added new text to extend a poetic statement found at a traffic sign. Behind 242 State Street, on the building’s custom-painted rear face, a mirror with writing on its surface offers a place for reflection.
Mike Mills (born 1966 in Berkeley, California; lives and works in Los Angeles)
A Mind Forever Voyaging Through Strange Seas of Thought Alone: Silicon Valley Project (2013), on view at 169 State Street
Mills is perhaps best known for designing album covers for popular indie bands, and directing the Academy Award–winning film Beginners (2010). His work for Project Los Altos recalls his early short films including The Architecture of Reassurance (2000), which portray the ennui and anxiety in America’s suburbia. Mills’s project is in three parts, which address the recent past, the present, and the future of Los Altos; its title A Mind Forever Voyaging Through Strange Seas of Thought Alone: Silicon Valley Project refers to the Apple Computer Company’s first logo, which contained a quote from Newton. Mills selected the Costume Bank on State Street, established in 1973, as the site of his installation, and was interested in Los Altos’s transition from an agrarian community to a town in the center of technological innovation. In the project, the past focuses on 1976—a pivotal year for the town—by pairing an issue of the Los Altos Town Crier with official documentation of the formation of the Apple Computer Company that was produced the same week. The present is represented by eight costumes recreated from outfits worn by residents of varying ages and backgrounds. And the future is seen in a video of interviews with children whose parents work in Silicon Valley.
Kateřina Šedá (born 1977 in Brno, Czech Republic; lives and works in Brno–Líšeň and Prague)
Everything Is Perfect (2013), on view at 359 State Street
Marked by collaboration, Šedá’s projects often involve a community of participants who are brought together in order to address a situation or issue. Her orchestrated actions center on the lives of ordinary people and on furthering communication through shared experience. Whether she is synchronizing the daily actions of a village or holding a contest for neighbors to draw the view from their front door, Šedá’s meaningful shifts alter perceptions and the definition of normalcy. Her commission project evolved from conversations that she had with people who live and work in Los Altos and Los Altos Hills. Everything Is Perfect, based on The Guinness Book of World Records, focuses on the everyday attributes that make a person unique. The call for participation begins on the opening day of Project Los Altos, and over the course of several weeks, visitors will be able to access the project’s website (www.everythingisperfect.org) and submit applications at the artist’s exhibition site. Šedá will select and meet with “ordinary talent winners” whose images will be displayed in the gallery as part of her work.
Alec Soth (born 1969 in Minneapolis; lives and works in the Twin Cities)
Silicon Valley (2013), on view at 359 State Street
For this commission, Soth produced a suite of 20 photographs depicting the cultural landscape of Silicon Valley. In his artist’s statement, he described the challenge of visually describing a place whose operations are largely invisible: “Whether it is for gold or citrus or celebrity, California has always attracted dreamers and prospectors. What is so fascinating about the most recent rush in Silicon Valley is that the harvest is invisible—the gold is in the cloud.” To produce his idiosyncratic and unexpected portrait of the area, Soth photographed in a variety of locations, ranging from the campuses of major technology companies (including Facebook, Google, and Hewlett-Packard) to less expected sites, such as computer repair stores and local restaurants. Shot with a large-format camera in black-and-white, Soth’s pictures range from the outright comical to the unabashedly romantic. He states, “I wanted to strip the pictures of color and shadow and depict the whiteboard of possibility this place represents.” Above all, however, the photographs invite viewers to reconsider our collective cultural mythologies about Silicon Valley, technology, and progress. An award-winning and widely exhibited photographer, Soth is also a member of the esteemed photography collective Magnum Photos.
Jessica Stockholder (born 1959 in Seattle; lives and works in Chicago)
Cross Hatch (2013), on view at Fourth and State Streets
Since the 1980s, Stockholder has explored the pictorial potential of sculpture through vibrantly colored installations and autonomous floor and wall pieces. Her site-specific installations have been called “paintings in space”; they often consider the architecture that frames them and use color to amplify the significance of the location. For Color Jam (2011) she playfully transformed an intersection in downtown Chicago. Stockholder observed, “The corner is canvas, stage, pedestal, and frame against which the public can view a parade of shifting color relationships.” In Los Altos, Stockholder’s Cross Hatch visually reconfigures the intersection of Fourth and State Streets through painted color and geometric form. She explains: “Drawings are made on the road all the time—inadvertently with oil from cars and trucks, and with paint laid down by road maintenance crews.” Metal bleachers offer a heightened view of the patterned surface and a place to sit and watch as pedestrians and cars add to the composition. Eventually, the vibrant colors will fade, weathered by the elements and marked up by vehicles and passersby.
Image: Spencer Finch, Study for Back to Kansas, 2013; commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, courtesy the artist; Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago; and James Cohan Gallery, New York; © Spencer Finch.