A contemporary art museum with a long history and big ambitions, since the 1950s the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art (SLOMA) has grown, evolved, and thought about the future — but it never lost sight of its founding mission to support and anchor the arts community of California’s Central Coast. From its downtown perch on the west end of Mission Plaza’s cultural district, in its galleries and on its exterior walls public-facing grounds, SLOMA’s programs, classes, concerts, films, lectures, and exhibitions combine a variety of voices, genres and issues.
As Leann Standish, SLOMA’s executive director, tells L.A. Weekly, “The museum is at a really exciting moment of engagement with our community. We are both able to curate exhibitions with artists of national and international acclaim while bringing them into our community, and present thoughtful collaborations with local, regional artists.”
The San Luis Obispo Art Association was founded in the 1950s by a close circle of artists and educators to provide a community creative space for artists and creatives. Later known as the San Luis Obispo Art Center, the organization began offering student classes and a modest exhibitions program. In 2011, the art center became the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, with the ambition to become a full-fledged regional museum, with a curatorial outlook of celebration and growth.
“The San Luis Obispo Museum of Art has really leveled up,” Standish says. “You can spend 15 minutes or an hour and you’ll almost always see something new. Every First Friday evening, SLOMA is a magnet for the community’s most eclectic residents from students and faculty to tourists and families.” The three gallery spaces offer rotating and overlapping exhibitions throughout the year. And every Second Saturday, afternoon art activities bring out the next generation of art lovers to the museum’s lawn, where both long- and short-term rotations of sculptural installations and murals are installed.
On view now, Lisa Solomon’s Cellular Memory investigates intertwining conversations about state and family history, layers of identity, the winds of geopolitics, and the endurance of tradition, employing a range of materials, narratives and formats. As a first generation American, deeply impacted by the cruel chapter of Japanese internment, and also engaged in carrying honor for imparted ancestral tradition, Solomon’s work reflects her life experience — inhabiting multiple points of view simultaneously. In self-portraits wearing traditional national costume, a circle of over 100 gold-leafed stone pagodas in remembrance of the unjustly imprisoned, a study of racist propaganda and policy language, and in a large-scale sculpture based on the geometry of traditional fishing nets, the artist weaves together a multivalent, emotionally poignant answer to and rejection of the question, “But where are you really from?” Through Aug. 28.
Light sculptures and works on paper by Anila Quayyum Agha in their way also deal with the complexities and contradictions inherent in everyone’s psyche, but made all the more visible and manifest when it comes to the divisions we face in society. Liminal Space draws on the visual language of her own Pakistani heritage, and fusing these motifs with modern Western narratives in a reflection of the immigrant experience of resilience and shifting milieux, Agha’s work creates a shared space of light, shadow and pattern in which all are invited to safely gather. Her mixed-media compositions using reflective materials and intricate embroidery and beading further merge approaches and references to create unique and transcendent objects that are both beautiful and saturated with meaning. Through Oct. 29.
The dialogue around how the past informs us in the present continues in the sculptural and mixed-media installation by Vanessa Wallace-Gonzales: I Am Medicine. She, too, looks to the long and storied cultural legacies of her ancestors to generate a somatic environment of “visuals, scent, sound, movement, touch and taste” centering acts of healing with a joyfulness of which a supply of artist-made handmade sugar candies are emblematic. Paper collages, ceramic figures, wafting aromatics, a soundtrack created with Emilio Morones (who also worked on the candy) all combine in a healing embrace of nostalgia and folk magic. Through Nov. 12.
On the SLOMA exterior, San Francisco artist Leah Rosenberg’s SLO(W) Rainbow wraps the entire structure in every direction in an exuberant, color-forward love letter to the city. From its coastal sunsets and other rulers of the night sky, to the beauty of the surrounding natural landscape across the seasons, the mural announces the institution as a welcoming place, bringing its intentions outside for the whole world to enjoy whether or not they come inside — but also to help get them to come inside. On view through Summer 2024.
Other public art in the SLOMA orbit includes another project from Anila Quayyum Agha, whose related exhibition is on view inside. The Greys in Between uses similar techniques to her ornate cut-out/light projection piece on view in the gallery, and like that work, takes on issues around race, class, religion and immigration by creating a warm and welcoming space. Installed as a freestanding sculptural beacon whose energy of presence shifts from day into night, the work prompts spontaneous gathering and poetic flights of thought.
Adam Parker Smith’s David sculpture is like if the famous 17th century Bernini got the full John Chamberlain treatment in a car crusher, as the iconic piece of art history is compressed into a cubic meter square with all the irreverence, art historical wit and psychological metaphor such a gesture entails. Through April 2024, during which time Parker Smith has an exhibition planned inside SLOMA, as well. Nearby, Maria Molteni‘s magnificent Seven Sisters (Celestial Subduction) mural interprets the phenomena and mythology of the Pleiades constellation and its relationship to the geological time of the region.
Besides Parker Smith’s exhibition of elevated sculptural follies next Spring, in the coming year SLOMA mounts a retrospective of the late Central Coast painter and provocateur John Barrett and his incendiary post-punk dark Pop vernacular, a show of mixed-media works by emergent artist Alisa Sikelianos-Carter exploring the symbolic power of Black hair, and an interdisciplinary exhibition by April Banks on the fraught topic of water use in California especially with regard to BIPOC communities.
When you juxtapose this exciting roster of local and international voices taking on urgent and timely issues from the discourse zeitgeist with the more conventional holdings of the SLOMA permanent collection, you approach the paradox and potential at the heart of an institution like SLOMA. On the one hand, the primary duty and legacy mission of the place is to chronicle and enshrine the practices of the current and historical local and regional art community — and the panoply of eclectic but conventional landscapes, portraits and forays into abstraction by the most talented of the old SLO guard — is a testament to that foundational heart. At the same time, it’s both a college town and a good size city and thus the mission of such a place becomes dual — to not only advance the local, but to bring the global to the table alongside it, so that each may come to inform the other and continue to grow the culture.
Admission is always free; for more information, visit: sloma.org.
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