Slanted and enchanted

Not a step stool but, rather, the exalted Slant Step.

Not a step stool but, rather, the exalted Slant Step.

Photo courtesy of the richard l. nelson gallery

Catch Flatlanders on the Slant on display through Friday, August 17, at the Richard L. Nelson Gallery at UC Davis, 1 Shields Avenue in Davis;

This is the story of a single step in the ’60s that changed everything. No, not Neil Armstrong’s; rather it’s a worn-looking step, covered in green linoleum with a triangular tear in the middle. Long story short: In the mid-’60s, famed artist and UC Davis professor William T. Wiley found this step in a thrift store and gave it to another artist and UCD student, Bruce Nauman. The slope of the object rendered it useless as a step, and, over time, it took on an absurd, Duchamp-esque significance for a whole generation of Northern California artists. The object—now known as the Slant Step—became a muse, celebrated in painting, film, sculpture, verse and even books, including the appropriately titled Slant Step Book.

And now, the step is back in Davis, gifted to the Richard L. Nelson Gallery by Art Schade and Frank Owen, inspiring a whole new generation of artists in the group show Flatlanders on the Slant. Curated by Joy Bertinuson, it’s the fourth annual Flatlanders survey of established and emerging area artists—and the first organized around a theme.

On a recent stiflingly hot afternoon, more than 100 people gathered for the show’s opening, including many of the exhibition’s 50 artists, each of whom riffed on the Slant Step.

Jose Di Gregorio created one of his characteristic spacey, geometric paintings, with the addition of a Slant Step-shaped wooden protrusion—on which, incidentally, a kid gave himself a terrific knock on the head with while running by. Chris Daubert crafted a luminous, tiny Slant Step suspended in air, constructed of green beads and fishing wire—a task so complex, that he described its creation as “17-day battle within 1-square foot.”

Gale Hart constructed a step that could be used as a skate ramp; it was accompanied by a video installation with filmed scenes of skaters grinding on it. Artist Gioia Fonda, whose works are also on display at Bows & Arrows in Midtown this month, created a back story for the Slant Step and used it as her inspiration for a Victorian-style portrait of the object called “She Has Seen Better Days.” Fonda says she views the step as a feminine muse because “she has curves and inspired mostly male artists.”

At the opening, a man using a cane approached me while I was scribbling in my notebook in a corner and asked me what class I was taking notes for. He turned out to be Phil Weidman, the author, of the original Slant Step Book, published in 1968. He said that he had heard rumors that someone once offered to buy the Slant Step for $240,000, but that the object is “not about money; it’s about fun and invention.”