Day-Tripping to Local Museums

by Sura Wood

From Sacramento to San Jose, museums around the Bay—and just beyond—are hosting compelling exhibitions.

As the Bay Area’s boundaries seem to expand each year, so does the opportunity to see thought-provoking exhibitions in galleries and museums that are a day-trip—or less—away from San Francisco. Following are a handful of destinations in the larger Bay Area and just beyond that are worth a visit.

The Crocker Museum

A 60+-mile east drive on Interstate 80 lands you in Sacramento, home to the Crocker Museum, which is currently hosting “Becoming a Woman in the Age of Enlightenment,” an exhibition of French art inspired by the words of French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir: “One is not born but becomes a woman.” 

In the 18th century, “becoming a woman” came with restrictions. Women couldn’t own property or hold political office and the prevailing view was that the only true path to womanhood was marriage. However, with the advent of the Enlightenment, a contentious debate known as the “Querelle des Femmes” (the woman question) raged over women’s role in society. Should women confine themselves to domesticity or find ways to define themselves outside the domain of family and home? While the show doesn’t necessarily answer these questions, it assembles over 120 superb paintings, drawings and sculptures by 18th-century masters Jean-Honoré Fragonard, François Boucher and Antoine Watteau, as well as lesser-known figures such as Le Prince, Cochin and Vestier, among others, that depict various aspects of women’s public and private lives.

Though a career in theater was considered unsuitable for respectable women, disapproval didn’t deter actresses such as Mademoiselle Clairon, who’s captured by Louis de Carmontelle in costume portraying Andromache in a vivid ink and watercolor. Jean-Honoré Fragonard is represented by two works on paper: “The Puppet Show,” featuring an appreciative audience of women and children, and “Standing Young Woman Seen from Behind,” a black chalk drawing of a demure, classically feminine woman attired in a lush floor-length dress. Fragonard’s wife and former pupil, Marie-Anne, was an accomplished painter of portrait miniatures in her own right but many of her works were attributed to her husband and not identified as hers until the 1990s. Her expressive rendering of an open-faced young girl is on view here. Other female artists represented in the show include still-life painter Anne Vallayer-Coster and the Neoclassicist Pauline Auzou.

Through Aug. 19;

Sonoma Valley Museum of Art

Historically, sculpture has been dominated by men, but Gwynn Murrill, Lisa Reinertson and Alison Saar, the artists featured in “Natural Affinity: California Women Sculptors in the Landscape,” a public art exhibition organized by the Sonoma Valley Museum, are established female sculptors who have made distinctive contributions to the medium. A selection of their works installed on Sonoma Plaza near City Hall—a short walk from the museum—addresses humanity’s relationship to the natural world. Observing animals in their habitat, Gwynn Murrill found her muse in the formal beauty and nuanced physical communication of California fauna. A half dozen of her bronzes of delicate-limbed deer, creatures frequently spotted around Sonoma, inhabit the park-like setting. With their graceful heads raised, they seem poised to dart away. Nearby is “Wolf Rider,” Lisa Reinerston’s life-sized bronze and redwood piece depicting a young woman crouched on the back of a wolf. Bound together, they recall the pairings in classical mythology of goddesses and their inseparable animal companions. Reinertson’s “Neptune’s Daughter,” a statue of a beguiling, blue-tinged girl with windswept hair, might have emerged full-blown from the sea. Gazing into the far distance, she cradles a pelican in her arms. Alison Saar, an African-American, L.A.-based installation artist influenced by Afro-Caribbean and Latin American folk art and spirituality, offers a pair of cast bronze figures, half of a four-part series ruminating on the mother-daughter myth of Demeter and Persephone and the cyclical change of seasons. “Summer,” a symbol of fertility, stands and clasps a pregnant belly, while “Winter” is curled in a fetal position on the ground, dormant and awaiting spring.

Through Oct. 21;

San Jose Museum of Art

Alison Saar also has a striking piece featured in “Rise Up! Social Justice in Art,” an exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Art that surveys a century of politically engaged, mostly figurative work. Saar’s tactile collage/sculpture “Deluge” (2018), which addresses beauty ideals and the charged importance of hair for African American women, consists of a carved wooden head crowned by a wiry ebony mane so long that it grazes the floor. The exhibit is drawn from the collection of J. Michael Bewley, a retired San Jose employment lawyer who spent his career combating workplace discrimination; the show’s diverse artists touch on a range of issues, from racial identity and gender equality to LGBTQ rights. Among the show’s highlights is Robert Arneson’s “Five Times for Harvey” (1982). It re-imagines the 1978 assassination of openly gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk in a series of five large-scale, mixed-media portraits: one drawing for each of the five bullets that struck him. Mickalene Thomas’s hand-crafted “Portrait of Qusuquzah #5 (2011), studded with rhinestones and glitter, is a celebration of black femininity by the female African American painter. Kara Walker, known for linocuts that confront the brutality of slavery, persistent stereotypes and the subjugation of women, is represented by “African/American” (1968). Walker has called this silhouette of a young girl tumbling through the sky with a collar and broken chain around her neck “your essentialist token slave maiden in mid-air.” Lesley Dill’s “Translucent Poem Girl” (1995) features a nude figure on stained muslin with an excerpt from Emily Dickinson’s poem “I took my Power In my Hand” scrawled across her body. Conveying vulnerability and foreshadowing the gender politics of the #MeToo movement, the piece, in which long white threads hang like exposed nerve endings from a woman’s naked form, seems to ask: “Do we have the courage to stand up to the forces against women?”

Through Sept. 30;