Claire Perry of Woodside raises a lot of topical questions in “California: The Art of Water," her latest exhibit at Stanford's Cantor Center for the Arts.
“And I didn't even talk about the drought. This is just the latest (drought); there are always droughts," she said.
As a guest curator she has collected more than 50 works by artists such as Albert Bierstadt, Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams and David Hockney to illustrate how they have depicted and influenced the state's water story from the Gold Rush to present day.
The blurbs she wrote for the show provide a narrative about early artists coming west and creating iconic images of the natural beauty found at Lake Tahoe and Yosemite in paintings and albumen prints which in turn may have lured more settlers.
William Keith's oil painting dating from 1907 to 1910, for example, presents Hetch Hetchy Valley as a green haven with snowcapped mountains in the background. (He fought unsuccessfully with John Muir to prevent the valley from being flooded to serve as San Francisco's reservoir.)
The colorful canvas contrasts with the nearby display of Ansel Adams' 1961 gelatin silver print, “Shasta Dam and Mount Shasta," one of several works that captures man harnessing water to meet a growing population's needs.
Then there's Peter Goin's color photograph circa 2005, “Irrigated grid, new peach orchard; Sutter Buttes in background, Sutter County," a desert landscape dotted with verdant fruit trees. “It's about field irrigation, a very generous, extravagant use of water," Perry explained.
She quoted statistics about agriculture using 80 percent of the water in California yet representing just 2 percent of the gross state product.
“I wanted to have a balance between the idyllic abundance in water in the wilderness scenes in the 1900s versus Owens Lake images that say we've done badly ... they show some poor choices," she said.
Perry grew up in Southern California, where diverting the Owens River into the Los Angeles Aqueduct over a century ago made urbanization possible. The subject is immortalized in the movie “Chinatown."
Today the dried-up lakebed causes high levels of dust pollution. The desolation is palpable in “Owens Lake #1," the 2009 Edward Burtynsky black-and-white photograph Perry selected.
The one video on exhibit is Nicole Antebi's 2007 “Tilapia Jetty," where buckets of dead fish on the Salton Sea signal another environmental disaster.
“Between agriculture and urban communities, the problem is we can't sustain the ecosystems," Perry said.
“With 39 million people, we don't have enough water. It's about water rights that were established during the Gold Rush; it's something we need to figure out," she added.
Perry began pondering the subject of her exhibit three years ago, then started research the next year, including meeting with water experts at Stanford. She has worked on the project full time for the past year with help from assistant Jeanie Lawrence.
Perry earned her doctorate in art history at Stanford and served as curator of American Art at Cantor from 1999 to 2008. She has also been a guest curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
She has always has been interested in works of art about California and ended up “cherry picking" from many lenders and private collectors she has gotten to know over the years. She said she could have easily added 30 more pieces to her current show had space allowed.
She lobbied to have the rooms painted a swimming-pool turquoise and pre-planned mounting the exhibit by using a software design program that mocks up displays.
Getting the lights, signage, and positioning right took only a week, leading to an on-time opening of July 13.
One of Perry's favorite pieces is hanging near the exit. It's a privately owned oil painting by Ernest Narjot from the 1880s entitled, “Leland Stanford's Picnic, Fountain Grove, Palo Alto, California." The former governor, founder of Stanford and railroad developer is drinking wine with a geologist, sociologist, poet and John Muir “in what may have been an imaginary place."
The exhibit is only showing at the Cantor and on display until Nov. 28.
The Cantor is open Wednesday through Monday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. except for Thursday when closing time is 8. Admission is free.
The Cantor is located on Museum Way at Stanford University.