Art finally blooms

Museum of Northern California Art unveils its colors

“Moo-ssoloni,” a found-object sculpture by Paul DiPasqua at Monca.

“Moo-ssoloni,” a found-object sculpture by Paul DiPasqua at Monca.

Photo by Jordan Rodrigues

Museum of Northern California Art (Monca) grand opening, Sunday, April 23.
900 Esplanade

The season’s volatile weather swung back toward light and breezy with clear blue skies to create an appropriately picturesque backdrop to the public unveiling of the Museum of Northern California Art (Monca) on Sunday.

The 90-year-old former Veterans Memorial Hall on The Esplanade has been partially renovated, with 4,000 of the large building’s 17,000 square feet transformed in this first stage of Monca, a museum dedicated to the preservation and exhibition of fine art created in California’s northern region. The gorgeous neoclassical exterior invites visitors up sweeping brick-red steps and through columned arches to the spacious foyer, where graceful Tuscan columns create a grand yet airy atmosphere. Four high-ceilinged, naturally lit galleries welcomed a large crowd during the opening, and a celebratory sense of community contrasted with the quiet personal focus of visitors appreciating the individual pieces of what proved to be an impressive and varied exhibit.

In the small Dr. Lowell and Claudia Steel Gallery, Claudia Steel’s 1968 etching, “The Barbecue,” caught my eye with its sketched black figures highlighted with bold green, red and blue accents that made the expressionistic images pop from the composition. Equally striking, but nearly opposite in style, was Heather Larson’s enigmatically titled painting, “Incandescent Four,” in the adjacent, much larger, Maria A. Phillips Gallery. The life-size piece depicts a sculptural fabric-draped figure; each crease, shadow and highlight rendered in near photographic detail using a subtle palette of bronze tones.

I particularly enjoyed the pieces in The Headley Gallery, which had the theme “The Humor in Art.” The exhibit includes Lars Rasmussen’s small, black-and-white scratchboard drawing, “Walking Out the Door,” depicting the cartoonish figures of a topsy-turvy man and cat tumbling down a set of stairs before a background of stylized clouds, ocean, architecture and what might be a cannon firing trees or weather. The late Chico master printmaker and graphic humorist Paul Feldhaus is represented by a linoleum-cut print from his trademark warthog series, titled “You Have to Keep Your Feet Up When the Warthogs Go Marching By.” And adding a very colorful, 3-D presence in opposite corners of the room are two found-object sculptures by Paul DiPasqua. On one side is a silvery warrior with the title “It’s My Way or the Highway,” and on the other was my favorite in the exhibit, “Moo-ssalini,” a cow-headed, high-heel-clad figure atop a rather despondent- and overburdened-looking purple rhinoceros.

In calm contrast to the exuberance of the Headley room, the smaller Ginochio Gallery presents “A Sense of Place,” where Ann Pierce’s 1991 watercolor “Sea Pool, Penzance” conveys a placid serenity composed of orange deck chairs and round, white tables casting shadows on a brick floor, and a soft-blue sky and gently rippling pool divided by a deep-blue ocean and sand-colored wall.

My only minor quibble with the museum is that it took a bit of figuring to ascertain that the artist and title information in the printed guides corresponded to a sequential clockwise viewing around the walls of each exhibit. Perhaps adding tiny numbered labels near the pieces and on the list would alleviate the need for visitors to have to backtrack to get information for a particular piece.

But this was a soft opening, after all, just an introduction to what the museum will have to offer. Monca will remain closed until the construction of ramps at the front of the building is complete, and during that time they’ll likely be fine-tuning things in preparation for what’s hoped to be a May opening for this grand new space.