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What's new on view at Cantor Arts Center

Bold paintings, photographs by U.S. masters and a quirky, poignant tribute to the Stanford family among current exhibitions

Paintings that make connections

Painter Jordan Casteel's "Returning the Gaze," her first solo museum show, is all about recognizing and reflecting relationships. As the title suggests, the subjects of her large, richly textured and brightly colored portraits are often staring straight at the viewer, inviting conversation and demanding acknowledgement. In some of her work, the image is a faceless, close-cropped detail, such as a hand resting on the top of a skateboard, but the effect is no less conversational. The exhibition, making its West Coast premiere at Stanford University's Cantor Arts Center, features 29 paintings from the past half-decade. The exhibition will be on view until Feb. 2, 2020.

The "Brothers" series, Casteel said at a recent press preview, explores "what male-to-male relationships look like intergenerationally; how to represent the black male as a vulnerable, intimate being, as I have known them." In "Marcus and Jace," for example, an adult man has his arm wrapped tenderly around a sleeping boy.

Casteel created the "Visible Man" series toward the end of her MFA program at Yale University. These subjects are nude, a choice Casteel made in order to further emphasize the vulnerability and humanity of black men, whose bodies, she said, have historically been villainized, marginalized and victimized. They're also shown with objects they intentionally chose as meaningful, such as in "Ato," in which the subject poses in a chair that had belonged to his grandmother, next to a photograph of his mother.

In some pieces, she pushes against stereotypes and assumptions by painting skin tones in unnatural shades of green, blue and red.

"Every time people say I only paint black men, I push them to see beyond that," she said, "because I see so much of myself within this work; the feminine does not seem absent."

After Yale, Casteel moved to New York, finding a sense of home in the "vibrancy and energy" of Harlem, chronicling the landscape of neighbors and neighborhood landmarks that make up the community. Her most recent work, a series of zoomed-in paintings inspired by moments on the subway, evolved from curiosity about how she might be able to present an engaging scene without the piercing eye-contact of many of her portraits, she said. These pieces are no less powerful at reflecting authentic human moments, such as in "Lean," in which a "Do not lean on door" train sign is juxtaposed with the figure of a child leaning in to an adult's leg.

According to curator Aleesa Pitchamarn Alexander, "What Jordan's practice is really asking of us is to stop and make a connection with a painting that is really a connection with the artist's community."

Masters of photography

Photography has a long and distinguished history at Stanford. The latest addition to the museum's impressive photographic holdings, 1,000 prints by seven notable American artists, is a gift from the Capital Group Foundation. Rather than a large scale, blockbuster-type exhibition displaying the entire gift, the museum has chosen to present the new acquisitions in a series of smaller shows that will focus on just a few artists.

For the inaugural exhibition, "West x Southwest: Edward Weston and Ansel Adams," the museum has selected two iconic photographers whose output is indelibly linked with the American West. ("West x Southwest" will be on view until Jan. 6, 2020. The second show in the series, "John Gutmann, Helen Levitt, Wright Morris," will open Jan. 20, 2020, followed by a show of work by Gordon Parks in May.)

Majestic images of Yosemite are what most people associate with Ansel Adams but he also traveled around the desert Southwest, capturing dramatic landscapes in New Mexico and Arizona. His "St. Frances Church" is a stark depiction of an adobe structure, its slab walls solidly rooted into the sand. In another image, "Aspens, Northern New Mexico," Adams invokes a chiaroscuro effect, with tree trunks appearing like streaks of light against a deep black background of forest. And while Adams is mainly known for his landscape work, two portraits of friend and fellow f/64 Group founder Edward Weston are wonderfully insightful, showing Weston looking at ease at Pt. Lobos and impishly smiling on the porch of his Wild Cat Hill home in Carmel.

Weston's prints in the show reflect an important turning point in his work when he moved away from the impressionistic style of pictorialism and became an advocate of "straight photography." A trip to Mexico resulted in a new focus on detail, which can be seen in a series of still lifes of everyday objects on a table top. Weston would take many nude photos of friends and lovers but the lone example here is quite minimal the broad back of a seated woman. Shape, whether the human form or that of a green pepper, was fascinating to the artist.

Zabriskie Point in Death Valley was visited by both men and viewers may enjoy comparing how the textures of the dunes and patterns of light and shadows were so skillfully captured by these two masters of black-and-white photography.

Stanford's cabinet of wonders

If it wasn't for the untimely death of teenage Leland Stanford Jr., who created his own museum collection in the top floor of his family's San Francisco mansion, Stanford University may never have existed.

It was the desire of his grieving parents, Jane and Leland Stanford, to honor their bright and curious son's memory that led to the founding of what eventually became the Cantor Arts Center (and, of course, the university itself).

Curated by 2019-20 Diekman Contemporary Commissions Program Artist Mark Dion, Cantor's new, ongoing exhibition (opening in conjunction with the museum's 125th anniversary), "The Melancholy Museum: Love, Death, and Mourning at Stanford," brings together more than 700 objects collected by the Stanford family, including toys, stuffed birds and other natural history specimens, jewelry, ancient artifacts and personal items, to help tell the Stanford story. It's a story of how, in Dion's estimation, the tragic loss of a beloved only child ultimately led to the founding of Silicon Valley, changing the course of history. By examining the material culture Stanford Jr. found meaningful as well as how his parents chose to commemorate his life, Cantor visitors get a glimpse into their perspective on the world, as well as a tribute to the campus museum, which was critically damaged by both the catastrophic 1906 and 1989 earthquakes.

"The museum's first century of existence was steeped in sorrow and destruction," as Susan Dackerman, John and Jill Freidenrich Director at the Cantor, puts it in her essay on "The Melancholy Museum."

The exhibition of objects, spanning two rooms, includes a specially designed Victorian-style mourning cabinet. Visitors are invited to open more than 50 drawers filled with all sorts of treasure, making it an interactive experience of discovery.

Dion, according to the exhibition's press materials, uses archaeological and other scientific means of collecting and exhibiting specimens and is known for organizing objects in unexpected ways (the mourning cabinet is organized according to the classical elements: fire, air, earth, water and ether). He'll give the 2019 Bobbie and Mike Wilsey Distinguished Lecture on Oct. 29, offering his further insights on the installation.

Stanford undergraduate and graduate students contributed to the massive project, including to the extensive, essay-filled field guide that accompanies the exhibition.

As visitors can encounter such tidbits as an eerie spirit photograph, a plaster paw imprint, confetti thrown to Leland Stanford Jr. from an Italian prince during a Roman carnival and an "imitation finger," the effect of the exhibition proves both quirky and poignant.

What: Current exhibitions at the Cantor Arts Center.

Where: 328 Lomita Drive, Stanford.

When: Open Wednesday-Sunday, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Thursdays open until 8 p.m.).

Cost: Free.

Info: Cantor Arts Center.

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Short story writers wanted!

The 34th Annual Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest is now accepting entries for Adult, Young Adult and Teen categories. Send us your short story (2,500 words or less) and entry form by March 27, 2020. First, Second and Third Place prizes awarded in each category.

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