A shout suddenly echoes through the gallery: "Blah! Blah! Blah! Blah! Blah!" It's Rene di Rosa's characteristically direct way of getting attention as he welcomes us to his creation, the di Rosa Preserve outside of Napa.
Were di Rosa’s opening remarks a comment on the hubbub we’d been making? More likely they were a quote from one of the first works you see on entering this most unusual presentation of a most unusual array of art. Ambiguity is central and part of the fun.
The work is a column of boxes. Each box has "Blah" silk-screened on it; some of us thought it a comment on the banality of chitchat. To others it was a just criticism of the blandness inherent in a stack of boxes.
Whatever it means to youis what counts. There are no labels by the works, not even to tell titles and creators (information that is available at central locations in each gallery). Although guides lead visitors from gallery to gallery, lectures are brief orientations. Visitors discuss works, determining meanings, if any, for themselves. Intellectual interaction among the group is a big part of the experience, and itself a potential collective work of ephemeral art.
Di Rosa began collecting art in the ’60s, eventually turning his home into a 53-acre "art and nature preserve" over which he presides. His collection includes 1,700 works by contemporary Bay Area artists; its dominant school has been called "funk." The array of works is eclectic, comprehensive, controversial, obvious, obscure, individual, and provocative.
There are no labels or explanations because di Rosa wants you to concentrate on the art and contribute your own interpretations, arrived at in the light of your companions’ ideas.
Galleries feature minimalist concrete construction expressing "high-tech rural vernacular" and "architecturally intensive simplicity," according to curator Richard Reisman. Peafowl roam the grounds. A lake reflects rural elegance. Yet the lake has a metal cow floating on it; metal sheep graze on its banks. A car hangs from a tree. A glass gazebo and other works dot the grassy valley behind the buildings.
All the art is participatory from the interpretive point of view; some is from a physical aspect as well. Activate the electronic love machine, which whispers come-ons until you get too close, when it begins to threaten you. Raise the gravity-operated boot that kicks a shirt in the stomach. Ring the bell in the house’s tower.
Some works have humorous intent; some inspire humorous comment even from the serious-minded. Others are somber, and there’s one in particular that inspires reflection: Chartres Blueby Paul Kos. It’s a collection of TV screens recreating a day in the life of a stained glass window at Chartres Cathedral. Each of 12 daylight hours is compressed into one minute; you experience the play of light during a day’s worth of window watching in 12 minutes. Like the entire preserve, it’s a participatory change of pace that leaves visitors feeling they’ve seen, and contributed to, an Occasion.
For a preview, try Local Color: The DI Rosa Collection of Contemporary California Art(Chronicle Books). It illustrates and discusses 105 works ($35/paperback; $60/hardcover at bookstores).
Tours ($10) are by reservation. The di Rosa Preserve, 5200 Carneros Highway (Hwy. 121), Napa. Information: (707) 226-5991.
Photos by John Goepel and Richard Reisman
This article was first published in November 1999. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.