Is there room for art in Silicon Valley’s Democratic Forest?

Into the teaming pool of aesthetically malnourished wealth that is modern Palo Alto – our left leaning, self-proclaimed ‘City of Trees’ – this week descends a line bated with the tasty morsel that is Sotheby’s presentation of William Eggleston’s helpfully-titled pop-up show ‘Democratic Forest.’  For what are we, if not that? Well, that and a city of people legendarily too busy to even furnish their cash-purchased million dollar bungalows, let alone put something on the walls.

Sotheby’s is fishing here for just three days, it turns out, taking over the Bryant Street Gallery between shows and unsure if the prize shoppers among us will bite. And that’s canny, too. Because who knows what anyone here thinks about art, least of all those in possession of the money to buy it at the rarified levels at which this exhibition is playing.

“Have you been busy?” I asked today at lunch time, already half way through the show. “We hope to be,” the nice gallery staffer replied. It’s debatable whether that leaves enough time for the Valley’s generally over-committed citizenry to flock by. Understandably, but somewhat incongruously, Sotheby’s is hedging its bets by also offering fine wines (with a heavy emphasis on French reds) at the show as well. I suppose you do what you think it will take.

I was discussing just this very question – what it actually takes to show, share, and sell art in the Valley – the other day with my friends Pamela and Mitchell, a knowledgeable local collector and distinguished local artist, respectively. None of us were sure about what you can really say about the economy of art here. I’ve written about our community’s troubled relationship with architecture and much the same goes for the objects you might put in it. Certainly, we have a long way to go with public art. And we’re as keen on collecting Pez dispensers and Panzer tanks as Pollocks.

It’s also true that things are changing. As Mitchell noted in a blog post last week, the arrival of the magnificent Andersons at Stanford is a truly world class event. And the appearance of pop-ups like the Eggleston show and those at the new Pace Gallery outpost in Menlo Park tell us that the major art world sharks, to shift piscine metaphors, are circling.

But I hope we don’t just create a copy of what you can find elsewhere. I think there’s a way in which our nerdy appreciation for mechanical invention and design can converse with more traditional and patrician high art sensibilities and recalibrate a little, perhaps, what is interesting and worth celebrating – and buying, even.

The Eggleston pictures, meanwhile, are fantastic. And they fit an aesthetic that does, indeed, have a history of science and engineering side to it (read Mitchell’s blog for an artist’s insight into Eggleston and the color process), although I’m not sure how the fact that these are contemporary digital prints (by the artist) from the old-fashioned color negative impacts that story. Still, there’s plenty here to engage the various levels at which the Valley thinks.

I appreciated the seventeen photographs most as documentary pieces, and for an approach to composition that achieves balance without either being boring or falling prey to the overt showy-ness to which many documentarians of the American underbelly are prone. Ironically, the project from which these prints (priced at $30,000 to $300,000) are drawn focuses on the relentlessly ordinary in some of the nation’s least affluent corners. But in the land of the $22,000 bicycle, price will be far less of an issue than persuading people that a deeply engaging but static image is worth their time.