Curators Elizabeth Mitchell, left, and Aleesa Alexander discuss “The Baayfalls 2017,” a painting by Jordan Casteel in “Returning the Gaze” at Cantor Arts Center through Feb. 2. (Caroline Ghisolfi/ Special to S.F. Examiner)

Stories from Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center

Three exhibitions showcase American life, past and present

Three exhibitions at Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center tell stories about the human experience in the Bay, North America’s West, and New York.

The ongoing “Melancholy Museum: Love, Death, and Mourning at Stanford” by Mark Dion resurfaces the gruesome story of a premature death which dramatically shaped the course of history. One floor up, “West x Southwest,” on view through Jan. 6, is the first chapter of a three-part story of the 1920s American West, exploring artistic epiphanies of photographers Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. Across the hall, on view through Feb. 2, is the West Coast debut of emerging painter Jordan Casteel, which chronicles the artist’s life in Harlem, N,Y, with two dozen larger-than-life-sized windows into her hometown community.

Mark Dion’s commissioned “The Melancholy Museum: Love, Death, and Mourning at Stanford,” which opened in September, is ongoing. (Courtesy Cantor Arts Center)

Mark Dion: The Melancholy Museum

Leland Stanford Jr., the son of Stanford University’s founders, was just shy of 16 when he died of typhoid in 1884.

His name lived on to name a university, found the Cantor museum, and, according to artist Mark Dion, transform the history of the Bay Area.

“Without the death of Leland Stanford Jr., you don’t have the museum and you don’t have Stanford University. Without Stanford University, you probably don’t have the Silicon Valley… personal computers, and phones, the internet,” Dion told Stanford News.

In “The Melancholy Museum,” Dion traces links between the Stanford family and local history with displays of more than 700 objects collected by the boy in the late 19th century and kept hidden in university storages for decades afterward.

The collection includes antique jewelry, old-fashioned toys and natural history specimens, as well as cannon balls, a piece of the Roman Colosseum and the ceremonious golden spike that marked the completion of the first American transcontinental railroad.

It’s a one-of-a-kind revelation, the artist said. But it’s meant to feel mysterious and out of reach, and “put the viewer in the driver’s seat in terms of making meaning.”

Dion scrupulously arranged the collectibles in a victorian-style “mourning cabinet,” grouping them according to their relation to ancient philosophical elements of the universe.

While some objects are visible through the cabinet’s glass displays, most are concealed inside 50 cabinet drawers, which Dion dares visitors to open.

The exhibition, which coincides with Cantor Art Center’s 125th anniversary, remains on view indefinitely.

Elizabeth Mitchell speaks about “Nude,” a 1925 photo by Edward Weston on view through Jan. 6 in “West x Southwest.” (Caroline Ghisolfi/Special to S.F. Examiner)

West x Southwest: Edward Weston and Ansel Adams

Weston, an itinerant photographer raised in Chicago, and Adams, a concert pianist in training in San Francisco, kicked off their professional careers on strikingly different paths.

In the early 1920s, while Weston ran a small photography studio in Glendale, Los Angeles County, Adams was beginning to experiment with a box-like Brownie Kodak camera he had received as a gift from his parents.

But by the time they crossed paths in 1927, both had gained a nationwide reputation for capturing the American experience with a radical and modernist sharp eye.

Exhibit curator Elizabeth Mitchell, who selected 26 prints from The Capital Group’s Foundation collection for the exhibition, says the artists owe that success to travels to Mexico and the American Southwest.

“These two photographers having their professional epiphanies not in California, not in New York, not in Paris, but in other places that have connections to (their home), allowed them to really come into their own and tell compelling stories,” Mitchell said.

The exhibit includes images that capture Weston’s early embrace of essential aesthetic forms in Mexico from 1923 to 1926, and Ansel’s dramatic landscapes in New Mexico and Arizona between 1927 and 1931.

But Mitchell said the pictures also capture and compare a wide range of American experiences.

Adams’ iconic shot of artist Georgia O’Keeffe and wrangler Orville Cox strolling on canyon sand in Arizona, hangs near his picture of a woman “winnowing grain” on the native land of Taos Pueblo in New Mexico and Weston’s boy sitting with bare feet on a Mexican “cowshed wall.”

While “West x Southwest” closes next month, it’s the first of three upcoming exhibitions of work by major photographers including Edward S. Curtis, Brett Weston, Wright Morris, John Gutmann, Gordon Parks and Helen Levitt.

In vibrant portraits such as “Galen I,” Jordan Casteel takes on stereotypes. (Courtesy Sargent’s Daughters, New York)

Jordan Casteel: Returning the Gaze

New Yorker Jordan Casteel shares vibrant oil paintings of familiar people in her Harlem neighborhood in “Returning the Gaze.”

“Benyam,” a 2018 work, pictures an Ethiopian restaurant by that name on 148th and 149th streets where she’s a regular; owners Helina, Marta and Miku look on curiously from behind a bar counter.

On 125th Street, street-vendor Fatima smiles as she sits on tire of a food truck across from the Studio Museum, where Casteel worked as an artist-in-residence.

In some canvases, Casteel’s friends — Galen, Yahya, Elijah, Jiréh, Ato — sit on stools or furniture, naked in their homes. They’re comfortable, welcoming and honest.

“They’re sort of powerful testaments to the importance of community and getting to know the folks that you see every day and those who are around you… that other people overlook,” said Aleesa Pitchamarn Alexander, Cantor’s assistant curator of American art.

Casteel shares a personal relationship with her paintings’ subjects and hopes to convey that familiarity, Alexander said. She persuades viewers to “return the gaze” of ordinary, often neglected, members of her community.

Charged with vibrant and unnatural colors, Casteel’s subjects are also meant to debunk stereotypes about blackness, Alexander said.

In portraits depicting Harlem residents, one might expect to see black faces, she said. “But the guy is painted green.” Others are in yellow-red, electric blue and lime tones.

“(Casteel’s) work is about using color as a metaphor and engaging with the full spectrum of blackness,” Alexander said.

“Returning the Gaze,” Casteel’s first solo museum exhibition, was organized by the Denver Art Museum.


Cantor Arts Center

Where: 328 Lomita Drive, Stanford University, Stanford

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except closed Tuesdays, and until 8 p.m. Thursdays

Admission: Free

Contact: (650) 723-4177,

Note: The museum is closed Dec. 23–25 and Dec. 31.Museums and GalleriesVisual Arts

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