MAH’s ‘Strange Weather’ contemplates humanity’s predicaments through art

“Number 215B” by installation artist Leonardo Drew in the MAH’s "Strange Weather"
The most dominant piece in the MAH’s “Strange Weather” exhibit comes from prominent New York installation artist Leonardo Drew and takes up the entire back wall of the second-floor Solari Gallery. Drew famously refuses to name his pieces — this one is simply titled “Number 215B” — nor does the piece contain an accompanying explanatory note. But the massive installation, made mostly from painted plywood, suggests an explosion frozen at the point of impact that evokes a natural disaster. In a MAH talk last week, Drew stressed that, as the artist, he wanted to allow the observer to define the artwork in his/her own mind, without his instruction or explanation.
(Wallace Baine / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“Strange Weather,” an exhibition running through Aug. 14, marks a high-profile collaboration between the Museum of Art & History and UC Santa Cruz’s Institute of the Arts & Sciences.

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“Strange Weather” is likely to be a spot-on theme for the decade ahead, both politically and environmentally. But it’s also the title of a high-profile new exhibition at the Museum of Art & History (MAH) in Santa Cruz. In the case of the MAH show, however, it’s wise not to take that title too literally.

The MAH’s “Strange Weather,” now showing in the second-floor Solari Gallery, is particularly notable because it is a collaboration between the museum and the Institute of the Arts & Sciences at UC Santa Cruz. It might follow that an exhibition called “Strange Weather,” curated by scientists, would be perhaps an educationally oriented, data-driven display of climate-change science. But in this case, in the push-pull between art and science, art comes out ahead.

At its core, this is an art exhibit; its title should be interpreted in the broadest metaphorical sense. The term “weather,” in this case, seems to mean any outside force or condition that affects the individual. That could mean a drought or a tornado, but not necessarily.

There are two core elements to understanding this show. The first is the collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer, a Portland, Oregon, real-estate mogul, billionaire, and arts philanthropist and collector. Schnitzer famously bought his first piece of art at the age of 14 and has since purchased more than 20,000 works; he helps support many of the country’s finest visual artists.

The second core element at play here is the curatorial eye of Rachel Nelson and Jennifer Gonzalez, both faculty fellows at the Institute of the Arts & Sciences, a program that uses the fine arts to explore issues of global importance. Nelson and Gonzalez are professors in the History of Art and Visual Culture. They’re also the curators who got to dive into the massive Schnitzer collection and draw from it the pieces in this exhibition.

Contrasting portraits by Hung Liu of two women titled “Official Portraits” in the MAH’s “Strange Weather” exhibition
Chinese-born American artist Hung Liu offers up contrasting portraits of two women titled “Official Portraits” in the MAH’s “Strange Weather” exhibition. The image at left is titled “Citizen,” and the woman’s proud gaze standing before a stalk of Chinese bamboo gives the image of a sense of dignity and purpose. On the right is “Immigrant,” a woman, shrouded and looking troubled, with a stalk of corn, a symbol of the U.S.
(Via Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History)

“It’s how artists have, over the last 40 years, articulated the entanglements between bodies and landscapes,” Nelson said, addressing the show’s theme. “Sometimes in the exhibition — though I don’t feel that it’s a dark exhibition — you can feel the sense of things falling apart and coming undone in the world, and you can see how humans are located within that. These aren’t artworks that say they’re about climate change. They are artworks that can give us amazing insights into how we’ve gotten here, and where we can go from here.”

The most dramatic work in the exhibition comes from New York artist Leonardo Drew. His “215B” takes up the entirety of the largest wall in the gallery. It’s a chaotic arrangement of painted plywood, in dark colors and spilling out in jagged fragments on the floor. “It really captures this moment of crisis,” said Nelson, “such as, say, right when a hurricane tears into a house, or a wildfire comes. And it freezes you in the moment. And so we can begin to think about how we got here, and what comes next.”

Nelson, the director of IAS, curated and organized “Barring Freedom,” an exhibition that took on themes of incarceration, prisons, and injustice. That prominent exhibition was displayed at the San Jose Museum of Art in 2020-21, and featured a public discussion and event with Angela Davis.

The “Strange Weather” show was curated at the height of the COVID epidemic. The entire artwork sorting process was done remotely — something that Nelson, in her long experiences as a curator, had never done before.

A self-portrait by Indigenous artist Wendy Red Star from the MAH’s "Strange Weather" show
As part of the MAH’s “Strange Weather” show, Indigenous artist Wendy Red Star presents a series of provocative self-portraits designed to evoke the cultural stereotypes that define mainstream imagery of native peoples. Four images, one for each season, are decorated with plastic and ersatz images of clearly staged and manipulated landscapes that sentimentalize and confine the experience of Indigenous Americans.
(Via Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History)

“We were very much looking through the collection to find works that would resonate with us,” she said. “Luckily, I had seen many of the works, which are from artists held in some of the most important collections in the United States. But it was the weirdest curatorial experience I’ve ever had.”

In conjunction with “Strange Weather,” the Sesnon Gallery on the UCSC campus will be featuring the work of Glenn Ligon, also from the Schnitzer collection. Also, on May 10, the exhibition will present an online talk with artist Edgar Heap of Birds, an Oklahoma-based artist whose work in the exhibition includes 24 monoprints that evoke protest signs.

“Strange Weather” is now on display at the MAH’s Solari Gallery through Aug. 14.

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