Winter break in a college town is a good time to seek out exhibition spaces that may fly under the radar during busier times. This month, I revisit the art on display at the Humboldt State University Library. Not everyone realizes that paintings, drawings and sculptures mingle with the books that populate the library's three floors. If you glean information from the library's website in advance, it becomes easy to plot the artworks as destinations in their own right, or as waypoints on a private walking tour. The shortlist of must-see artworks that follows only represents a small sample of the works on display but it should be enough to get you started.
If you haven't done this before, it is worth your while. If you haven't done this recently, you'll find positive changes in the wake of renovations that took place in summer of 2016. For example, the canoe crafted by Hupa and Yurok artist and traditional boatbuilder George Blake that I wrote about in a previous column was moved from the ground-floor site it had occupied since the late 1980s to a new location on the second floor, with better lighting and a custom-built pedestal.
If you're a regular, you'll miss seeing the most iconic artwork in the library's collection, the show-stopping Martin Wong triptych "Portrait of Bill McWhorter in Convertible with Boy and Dog," which normally hangs to the left as you enter. It's out on loan as part of the Bronx Museum of the Arts' Martin Wong retrospective Human Instamatic, due to return next month. For now "Colorful Clouds Spread on Mountain," a painting by Po Y. Chung, hangs in its place instead.
On the north side of the second floor, don't miss the statues in bleached redwood that Bruno Groth collectively titled "The Unfoldment." These are larger-than-life figures of tall men and women the color of bone, with chiseled jawlines and rudimentary facial features. Some sit erect with great dignity; others stand in pairs or group themselves in uncommunicative triads. Their physical attitudes seem modern, as do their rationalized and streamlined contours; this mid-century aesthetic is borne out in details of dress that emerge from the redwood grain — here a trouser crease, there a mid-calf hemline.
I was struck by the degree to which these figures embody what we think of as the key convictions and aspirations of their time. Their regal carriage is imbued with mid-century optimism and that (perhaps now largely vestigial) American confidence that tomorrow will in fact be populated by people who are better and more upright — people whose destined progress will be guided by the principles of science and reason. They could only have been made in the 20th century.
As for Groth, he is in some ways a mythic figure: Born in 1905 in Stolp, Germany, he found his way to Humboldt County after immigrating to the United States in 1923 and lived here most of his life until his 1992 death, making art that was "inspired by nature, life and death," according to library sources. Groth belonged to that storm-tossed generation of European modernists that collectively did so much to transform United States culture when they arrived in the early 20th century as immigrants and refugees from war. To stand before the sculpted figures in this corridor is to realize how transformative the influence of these men and women must have been in Humboldt at the time.
Another such artist is the painter and printmaker Julian Stanczak, whose vividly colored Op Art silkscreens "Trespass," "Filtration" and "Sequential Chroma" appear to pulse and vibrate on the walls of the library's second floor. Stanczak's biography was equally marked by the tumult of the 20th century. Born in 1928 to Jewish parents in Borownica, Poland, he was interned with his parents at a Siberian labor camp during World War II and had his first solo exhibition at the Stanley Hotel in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1948. He studied at the Borough Polytechnic Institute in London from 1948 to 1950 and with Josef Albers at Yale University, where he received his MFA in 1956 before taking up a faculty position at the Cleveland Art Institute. The optical patterns and saturated hues of these lithographs from 1979 shuttle viewers straight back to the future.
While high modernism is unexpectedly well represented here, more recent works on display feature the pop subject matter and eclectic approach to style that have characterized more of the art made here (and elsewhere) in past decades. On the first floor, a rainbow-colored quilt by Eva Jalkotzy Henneberry (1944-2010) titled "Julia" celebrates the action of forest activist Julia "Butterfly" Hill, who lived in a 180-foot redwood south of Scotia for 738 days between 1997 to 1999 to protest the Pacific Lumber Co.'s logging of old growth redwood forests. In Henneberry's deliriously zany, intricately stitched fabric-arts tableau, the elfin Hill perches in a massive redwood whose shaggy trunk looks to have been stitched together from a dozen different shades of brown. She is flanked by angels and by enormous, brightly colored butterflies that allude to the activist's name.
If you were seized by Humboldtmania after reading Andrea Wulf's biography of the scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt and/ or hearing Wulf lecture at Humboldt State University this fall, you will appreciate the final work in this week's column — the late 19th century portrait of von Humboldt that hangs in the hallway on the library's first floor. The figure has been copied by a relatively unskilled, possibly self-trained hand from a widely circulated portrait engraving: The subject's pose, facial features, expressions and attire are essentially identical from the bust up, right down to the inlaid design of the decoration prominently positioned beneath Humboldt's lapel. Humboldt's hand, positioned rather clumsily and incongruously over a scrap of writing paper, appears to have been loosely transposed from another source — perhaps the well-known 1859 portrait of Humboldt by Julius Schrader at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The portrait depicts Humboldt in advanced age — when the scientist's epic journeys lay behind him. The unknown artist compensated for this by placing his subject in front of a sketchily envisioned ridge intended to evoke the slopes of Chimborazo, the Ecuadorian peak where a 33-year-old von Humboldt climbed in 1802 to an altitude of 19,286 feet, a world record at the time.
These and many other works of art can be seen on long-term display at the Humboldt State University Library. For a list of artists whose work is currently on display and location information for individual pieces, go to library.humboldt.edu/about/art.
Humboldt State University Library is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. through January 15. Call 826-3431 for more information.