Fine Arts Respites This Holiday Season

by Sura Wood

The hush of a gallery or museum can be a soothing antidote to the hectic pace of December.

Though diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 15, the late Hong Kong ink artist Wesley Tongson was able to channel his creativity into the otherworldly landscapes and Zen-infused paintings that, he once wrote, “flow(ed) from a world beyond.” His work is the subject of an exhibition at the Chinese Cultural Center, Tongson’s first U.S. solo show in over 30 years. “Wesley Tongson: The Journey” includes 23-plus artworks that trace the reclusive artist’s evolution, from early work that grew out of and transcended his classical training in traditional Chinese landscape painting, through the mature, dynamic pieces in which he employed ink rubbing, textured marbling, splash ink and paper-crumpling techniques. Among the sensuous paintings on view—many of them paeans to nature—are mythic mountainscapes shrouded in mist, blood-red plum blossoms clinging to bare black branches; calligraphy executed with strokes of solid black interspersed with gray filigree; and a pair of ink washes, inspired by prolific 20th-century painter Zhang Daqian, in colors that range from deep teals that evoke a roiling ocean to a magenta sunset over indigo seas. Tongson later dedicated his life to Buddhism and retreated from the art world, toiling in solitude in the last decades of his life. During this final period he relinquished the brush and relied solely on his nails and fingers to create mesmerizing works of art.

Through March 9

750 Kearny St., San Francisco

For centuries, women of the remote Mithila region in northeastern India have painted the walls and floors of their homes with festive, stylized images of deities, fertility icons and emblems of protection, a practice passed down from mother to daughter. Their work might not have been discovered but for two natural disasters: a catastrophic earthquake in 1934, after which British Colonial officials, scouring the rubble, uncovered and then documented the colorful artifacts; and a severe drought 30 years later, when the government encouraged the women to create paintings that could be sold commercially to generate much-needed income. The Asian Art Museum spotlights the latter pieces in its exhibition “Painting Is My Everything.” Works by 17 artists, most of whom are women from marginalized communities and lower castes, are displayed with detailed descriptions that illuminate a pantheon of arcane gods, religious myths and otherwise indecipherable symbols as well as providing background on the lives of artists. The subjects of the show’s paintings are primarily traditional, conjuring events in daily life, magical animals, wedding celebrations and beloved gods such as Ganesha, a Hindu deity with an elephant’s head. But there’s also room for current events and politics. In Dulari Devi’s cartoonish “Prime Minister Modi arriving in a village via helicopter” (2015), the candidate and his retinue, aboard an aircraft resembling an oversized fish, wave from its windows to a throng of cheering female supporters gathered on the ground below.

Through Dec. 30

200 Larkin St., San Francisco

Worlds away from Mithila, the Oakland Museum of California presents a survey of the careers and multi-media practice of the influential Southern California-based husband and wife design team Charles and Ray Eames, who formed their lifelong partnership in 1941. Embracing new technologies, imaginative problem-solving strategies, a sense of discovery and play and a “take your pleasure seriously” credo, the Eameses created furnishings and objects that were stylish and functional. Even their home in Pacific Palisades became a laboratory for experimentation and collaboration. As part of the Case Study House program, an exploration of modern living commissioned in 1945 by Arts & Architecture Magazine, it was designed and built by the Eameses in 1949 with found objects; the process is chronicled in a section of the exhibition titled “At Home with the Eameses.”

“The World of Charles and Ray Eames” is a comprehensive traveling show that includes over 380 works: prototypes of oddball chairs, a selection from over 100 short films investigating new ideas, numerous photographs, toys the Eameses collected and invented and re-creations of the immersive environments and multi-screen presentations they developed for corporate and government clients, including the IBM installation at the 1964/65 New York World’s Fair. Perhaps their most iconic and famous creation is the Eames lounge chair and matching ottoman, whose origins are detailed here. The luxurious chair, manufactured by Herman Miller in 1956, was forged from exotic woods and upholstered in sumptuous leather; Charles hoped it would have the “warm, receptive look of a well-used first baseman’s mitt.”

Through Feb. 17

1000 Oak St., Oakland

In San Francisco’s Presidio, the Walt Disney Family Museum shines a light on the animated characters conceived and brought to life by Walt Disney’s fabled “nine old men.” The contributions and backgrounds of these Disney Studios artists are celebrated in the well-researched exhibition “Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men: Masters of Animation.” The show features hundreds of objects: sketchbooks, caricatures, paintings, sculptures, flipbooks, snapshots, mementos, video interviews and original artwork from “Pinocchio,” “Bambi,” “Peter Pan,” “Lady and the Tramp,” “Snow White,” “Sleeping Beauty” and other films.

And who were these largely unheralded artists behind the scenes? Tutored by the famed
Ub Iwerks, Les Clark served as directing animator on 20 Disney features. He worked on Mickey Mouse’s first on-screen appearances and cartoon debut, “Steamboat Willie,” in addition to a memorable scene in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” where Mickey, in a borrowed magician’s hat, attempts to animate a broomstick. The accomplished draftsman and notoriously irascible Milt Kahl redesigned Pinocchio, transforming the mendacious wooden boy of Carlo Collodi’s book into the endearing child movie audiences have come to love. Marc Davis’s 43-year career at Disney was notable for his development studies of Bambi, considered the most accomplished renderings of an animal produced by the studio. Davis was also instrumental in character animation for such goodies and baddies as Cinderella, Tinker Bell, the evil Maleficent and wretched Cruella de Vil. If you want to learn how Bambi came to be, or how Cruella got her wicked on, don’t miss this show.

Through Jan. 7

104 Montgomery St., Presidio, San Francisco