To get to the Enrique Chagoya exhibit at the di Rosa Preserve, turn off the highway at the flock of wooden sheep. Don’t ride the jitney up the main gallery, don’t get lost in the sculpture meadow and don’t walk around Rene and Veronica di Rosa’s former home, a converted grain barn crammed with art from ceiling to bathroom. If you see a peacock, one of the 30 that roams around the 200-acre preserve, you’ve gone too far.
On a recent Wednesday in the gatehouse gallery, past the car with a rhino head on its grill, Philadelphia transplant and new curator Robert Wuilfe sits next to a slightly sinister-looking slot machine. The machine is one of the centerpieces of “Surviving Paradise – Sobreviviendo el Para’so,” Wuilfe’s first show at the di Rosa, an exhibition of Mexican-born painter and printmaker Enrique Chagoya.
Chagoya’s work uses familiar iconography to skewer and satirize social, political and economic realties. Pieces in the exhibit include an electronic dollar bill that continually updates the national debt, a colorful map titled The Illegal Alien’s Guide to Somewhere Over the Rainbow that depicts effects of man-made pollution and 1988’s When Paradise Arrived, a charcoal drawing that shows Mickey Mouse’s giant gloved hand, inscribed with the phrase “English Only,” about to flick away a young Hispanic girl.
“Enrique is one of the best living artists, I think, at appropriating pop culture and things that are in the news. There’s definitely a humor that draws people in, and I think that’s important when you’re tackling really tough issues. Like the slot machine,” Wuilfe says, inserting a custom coin and pulling the lever as the machine cheerfully beeps. “It’s sort of this crazy fun thing, but at the same time it’s definitely serious about the idea that everything revolves around money. It’s a very bittersweet humor.”
Wuilfe was appointed curator of the over-2,000-piece di Rosa collection—the largest collection of contemporary Bay Area art in the nation—last July. Already a fan of Chagoya’s work, he knew that Chagoya had pieces in the permanent collection and lectured at di Rosa, but never had a solo show at the gallery.
Wuilfe says that he decided not to include Chagoya’s religious satire pieces in “Surviving Paradise” for fear that the closeness of the satire would overwhelm the other works. He sees the violent attitudes against some of Chagoya’s more provocative works as part of a cultural misapprehension about art’s role in society.
“I think over the past 10 to 15 years, people have started thinking that the culture wars were something from the early ’90s and thought, ‘OK, we’re past that.’ And we’re not,” says Wuilfe. “What happened to Enrique, what happened to the Wojnarowicz video being pulled from the National Gallery, these are things that indicate that there’s still a strong misunderstanding of art and a really strong feeling of people on the radical right that art is an easy target and a luxury that society doesn’t need, which is totally opposite from reality.”
Wuilfe was the founding curator and artistic director of Philadelphia’s Landmarks Contemporary Project, a project that brought contemporary art, mainly site-specific works, into historic sites. Coming to di Rosa, with a large permanent collection and focus on Bay Area contemporary art, was a definite shift from working with 18th-century house museums, as he did on one project.
“I was ready for a little less context,” he says. “I wasn’t necessarily looking for a classic white cube, but I feel like this place provides a happy medium between an interesting site and blank slate.”
The new job has also meant acquiring a crash course in the di Rosa collection, a sprawling collection of more than 800 artists in all media, most acquired by Rene di Rosa, founder and namesake of the preserve, viticulture pioneer and art collector, who died last October.
Wuilfe and di Rosa met only once, at a picnic last summer soon after Wuilfe was hired. As the two were introduced, Wuilfe said he was honored to be there and said how much he loved the collection.
Di Rosa was quiet for a minute, and then looked up at Wuilfe from his wheelchair. “Well,” asked the 91-year old, “what don’t you like about it?”
Wuilfe laughs when he tells the story of his three-minute interaction with di Rosa, who combined a lifelong passion for art with an irreverent attitude toward the typically staid art world, often wearing a gorilla suit to formal exhibition openings. “[The conversation] really put into focus that he was still sharp and wasn’t looking for people to be a yes-person to him,” says Wuilfe. “He liked being challenged, he liked artists that were sort of out of the mainstream.”
Di Rosa—who got his start as an art collector at Yale when he commissioned a nude portrait, covered the salacious bits with foxtails and then charged his friends to peek under—loved supporting new and emerging artists, a passion that Wuilfe shares.
“What really sold me [on the job] was that there’s a huge openness to working with living artists, working with emerging and midcareer artists, and doing things like developing site-specific projects and the artist’s residency program. We really want to make it an experimental laboratory for artists to come here and play.”
Wuilfe’s next project, coming in June, is “Zombie Proof House,” an exhibit addressing societal anxiety, fear and our culture’s obsession with the apocalypse. Although he speaks excitedly of the possibility of filming a zombie movie as part of the exhibit and acknowledges that the title is somewhat of a joke, the message is a serious one.
“Zombies keep popping up in political, economic and philosophical theory. There are certain zombie ideas that have been proven not to work, like trickle down economics, and they’re these dead ideas but they won’t go away,” Wuilfe says. “I think every exhibition here is going to ask people, in some way, to look at the world around them in a more critical way and think, ‘OK, what is that we’re doing to each other? What is the potential for a better world?'”
For Wuilfe, who thought he wanted to be an artist but who says he was incapable of finishing anything, curation has served to combine his interests of practical and artistic organization, working with artistic theory and interacting with people.
“You’ve got the artist, you’ve got the audience and you’ve got the institution, and the curator is the one who is responsible for making sure that these three really different groups come together for an exhibition to be successful,” he says. “It’s a lot of work but it’s really satisfying. It’s something that I feel really lucky to have found because for a long time I wasn’t sure what would make me happy. As I started doing curatorial projects, I said, ‘This is it.’ To find what you feel you were meant to do is a great privilege.”