Shrem Museum: a new home for contemporary art at UC Davis

As I entered a gallery, I was greeted by a ceramic toilet with towering boobs sprouting from its water tank. Nearby, a urinal with footprints, more boobs and a vagina for a drain. I couldn’t keep from smiling. The founder of the funk figurative ceramics movement, Robert Arneson, took potty humor to new heights by referencing Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, art history’s most famous urinal. Arneson celebrated the human body in all of its grossness and glory.

Just before the public opening of the new Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at UC Davis (254 Old Davis Road), I explored the rebellious roots of the college’s art faculty on display in the opening exhibit “Out Our Way.” The museum—the largest in the area that specializes in contemporary art—swells from the earth with a roof textured like the nearby patchwork fields.

“Our architecture calls attention to the specialness of the valley,” said Rachel Teagle, the founding director, inside the museum on Thursday. “Our highest aspiration is to have this place become home to mavericks today. We need a place for real discussion of the critical issues of our day.”

For the ribbon-cutting ceremony, an enormous and colorful ribbon draped across the canopy. Its foam chain links—decorated by students and residents throughout the region—made the museum’s intentions clear: Everyone is welcome to play here. The galleries are free of charge and open to the public. It was heartening to see commitment toward the common good on the eve of Donald Trump’s America.

Not only that, but the exhibit “Out Our Way” shows what agrarian America could look like in a better world—not close-minded, but community-minded. Teagle says the exhibit revives the “spirit of defiant provincialism” that flourished within the UC Davis art faculty in the 1960s. Away from the dictates of the New York art scene, Central Valley artists didn’t entertain dreams of making big sales, so they had the creative latitude to be really fucking weird. They supported that strangeness in one another by bartering for each other’s art pieces.

Besides Arneson’s grotesque latrines, other founding faculty member shared their playfulness. In the same exhibit, I found a multimedia piece of a vomiting bulldog by William T. Wiley, who once called the art department too “square.” Diner pies and a dessert carousel were on display, painstakingly painted by Wayne Thiebaud, who predated and influenced the pop art movement. Ruth Horsting sculpted nightmarish wisps of trees or bodies out of metal, which was a “man’s medium” at the time.

Down the hallway, Pia Camil’s participatory installation “A Pot for a Latch” displays tchotchkes in a room layered with metal grids. The random stuff transformed from ordinary to enchanting as I peered through the many rows. In a nod to the Native American ceremonial potlatch, Camil asks visitors to swap a personal object with the items on display on specific days.

In this way, the museum kicks off with an invitation for exchange from anyone. As our days become more uncertain, I hope it remains an open forum for students and the public to get playful, weird and real.