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Signs of Life

'Amazing Luminous Fountain' marks new era for di Rosa

By Gretchen Giles

Like so much else at Napa's di Rosa Preserve, this began as a sly joke among artists. Filling a suitcase-sized box with personal correspondence, various arcana, a bag of dust and the artist Bruce Nauman's forgotten detritus, Woodacre artist William T. Wiley pronounced it the Beatnik Meteor, and in 1970 proposed a swap with the late artist Ed Kienholz. Whoever bought the Meteor would be privileged to barter it for a watercolor painting by Kienholz. Nauman's castoffs were just part of the fun; the artist had borrowed Wiley's studio and untidily left some of his stuff behind.

Always game for a good joke, avid collector Rene di Rosa purchased Meteor and stowed it among his thousands of other pieces of California art.

Imagine di Rosa Preserve executive director Jack Rasmussen's delight, then, to open Meteor some two years ago and discover the 34-year-old time capsule that Wiley had gleefully created. In addition to the bag of dust once swept up from the Whitney Museum by conceptual artist Terry Fox (part of a "dust exchange" the two men agreed upon) were Upson board letters that Nauman had dictated were to be his contribution to a 1968 exhibit at Oregon's Portland Art Museum that, when hammered up over a portico per his directions, spell out the marvelous incantation "The True Artist Is an Amazing Luminous Fountain."

Looking for some way to organize and showcase the sprawling di Rosa collection, certainly the largest privately held aggregation of California art available for public perusal, Rasmussen realized that Beatnik Meteor was "emblematic of the collection" and organized a touring show of di Rosa's treasures around Nauman's glimmering title. Just returned from a well-received exhibition in Washington, D.C., where East Coasters fairly gawked at the freedom of the California aesthetic, "Fountain" has briefly alit home. After a fair winter at the di Rosa, the exhibit travels to Palm Springs and Santa Cruz before landing in Miami Beach just in time for the international Basel Art Fair next year.

In conjunction with the Preserve's exhibition, its sister space, the downtown storefront gallery Off the Preserve, hosts a benefit auction of work donated by artists collected in the "Fountain" show, some of whom will speak about their art on Saturday, Oct. 9

Standing in the Preserve's Gatehouse Gallery recently, Rasmussen directs the visitor to pieces that, gathered together for the exhibit from the Preserve's boisterous collection, signify a certain place and time that won't come again. "I set out to identify the love of the collector," he says rather poetically.

Rasmussen also set out to identify the rambunctious spirit that informs the work of Rene di Rosa's very spirited group of favorite artists. A former San Francisco Chronicle reporter whose inheritance allowed him to buy prime Carneros land before anyone thought to plant vineyards there, di Rosa, now a robust 85, enrolled at UC Davis to study viticulture in the early '60s and quickly grew bored. "He hung out in the art department instead," Rasmussen explains.

Lucky him. Boasting a roster of art stars, Davis easily had the most vital art department on the West Coast at the time. Freed by the ease of cash, di Rosa purchased exactly and only what he liked, artwork that has humor, word play and fun. He and his late wife Veronica filled their home--now part of a public tour--with the fruits of their idiosyncratic tastes.

Di Rosa continues to collect new work, but "Fountain" shows art from a particular time, one that nicely hails the late funk daddy, Wally Hedrick. Writing in the accompanying exhibit catalogue, Rasmussen salutes Hedrick as "the embodiment of the independent, nonconformist spirit" that imbued Bay Area art. Isis by Jay DeFeo, Hedrick's former wife, is displayed, as is a surprising amount of ceramics, most notably by the late Robert Arneson, whose War Head Stockpile sculpture of dead bodies formed into a familiarly shaped waist-high male object remains sadly relevant. Rasmussen chose the plethora of ceramic work in order to help inform. "I felt that people didn't know abut ceramics on the East Coast," he explains," and it's such a part of the Bay Area scene."

Other work ranges from that of Petaluma artist and Burning Man collaborator David Best, early efforts by Squeak Carnwarth and Deborah Butterfield's emblematic mud and hay horse to the late Viola Frey's huge Picasso-informed sculpture, West Marin artist Clayton Bailey's fantastically endowed Male Chair and Ray de Forest's whimsical dogs and summer-art-camp fantasies. Nauman's Cocoon usually hangs in the di Rosa's former home, rather overlooked among the jumble. Now it's in a plastic box to keep hands and dust away, but its origins remain humble, Rasmussen relating that DeFeo used to hang her wrapped Christmas gifts from the ceiling, something that her former roommate Nauman thought to be, simply put, pretty neat.

Entirely accessible, the "Fountain" exhibit marks perhaps a new era in the di Rosa Preserve's lifeline.

"We've been perceived as being secretive and private, and we don't want to be either secretive or private," sighs marketing director Judy Daniels, entering the Gatehouse Gallery.

The di Rosa's conundrum, as Daniels sees it, is that this local jewel is currently only available to the highly organized. Located smack on the side of Highway 12 in Napa, visitors cannot currently just pull over on a whim to visit the 217-acre parcel laid with a private lake and studded with whimsical sculptures, two galleries and an art-filled home. Only those who reserve time in advance may see the galleries and take a guided tour of the grounds. All of that is about to change, as a new permit allows the di Rosa to welcome drop-in visitors Tuesday-Sunday, beginning on Nov. 9. Admission will be just $3 to those who wish only to view the collection housed in the Gatehouse Gallery.

"Fountain" arrives home just in time to help mark this new phase at the Preserve. Having sifted through literally thousands of artworks to compile the collection, Rasmussen sighs with pleasure. "You could do 20 different shows here," he pronounces, "without a problem."

'The True Artist Is an Amazing Luminous Fountain' continues at the di Rosa Preserve through May 2005. By appointment only until Nov. 9, then open Tuesday-Saturday, 9:30am-3:30pm. A conversation with Preserve artists is scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 9, at 6:30pm at Off the Preserve, 1142 Main St., Napa. Free (reservations required). 707.253.8300. The benefit auction is scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 30, from 6:30pm at the Preserve itself. $150. 5200 Carneros Hwy., Napa. 707.226.5991.

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From the October 6-12, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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