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Di Rosa has finally found its name, and with it, a new, vibrant role in the Bay Area arts scene.

The di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art reopened this year, after a hiatus partly caused by the October wildfires. And its first show has boldly taken on the challenge of fathoming our interesting era: “Be Not Still: Living in Uncertain Times.”

For years, di Rosa was a quietly extraordinary place. From the highway heading from Napa to Sonoma, it appeared to be a quirky, barn-like structure on a hillside where metal sheep grazed nearby. Exploring the world beyond the gate disclosed a landscape of serene, natural beauty, 217 acres of rolling hills, a pristine lake, and, inside and out, an immense, eclectic, and visionary art collection amassed by the late Rene and Veronica di Rosa.

Rene di Rosa, the journalist son of a diplomat and an heiress, bought a 460-acre Carneros property in 1960. He planted grapes, but studying viticulture at UC Davis brought him in contact with the dynamic art scene at Davis. He and his wife, an artist, also began collecting art from Northern California artists that highlighted the experimental work of Bay Area artists from mid-20th century to the early 21st century.

In 1982, Rene di Rosa sold 250 acres of his Winery Lake vineyards and used the profits to establish the Rene and Veronica di Rosa Foundation. Their vision was to build an “art park” for the public. After Veronica di Rosa died in an accident in France in 1991, Rene di Rosa continued to collect art. Di Rosa opened in 1997.

The question for the foundation, especially after his death in 2010, was how best to share both the art and the place with the rest of the world.

And it was a glorious collection, whimsical, magical, and outrageous: everything from a vintage “art car,” studded with just about anything you can weld to metal, to a lightshow recreating stained glass windows from Chartres cathedral, to a glass house where Tibetan monks once staged an all night vigil.

But access was difficult. The county, fearing traffic, limited visiting hours. The Gatehouse gallery by the lake gradually was able to expand hours to invite visitors to shows that shared marvelous glimpses of the collection, but tours were required to get to the other buildings higher up the hill, a gallery and the art-filled home of the di Rosas.

The changing names reflected the quest for its identity: Di Rosa Preserve, Di Rosa Arts and Nature, and finally just di Rosa.

Last year, however, di Rosa acquired a new director, Robert Sain, who has been firmly guiding the di Rosa to its new debut. Sain came to di Rosa from the Alabama Contemporary Art Center in Mobile where he made he made his mark with a large-scale thematic exhibitions, like “History Refused to Die,” the largest show of African American artists ever presented in Mobile. Sain’s vision for museums puts education, public engagement and social responsibility front and center.

And all of this comes together in the new show, which unfolds in two parts in 2018.

“We want to be a place that engages people in topics that matter,” Sain said. “I said, ‘Let’s do something extraordinary.’”

‘Be Not Still: Living in Uncertain Times’

Sain describes “Be Not Still” as “a launchpad for a future that dares to make art essential to the human experience.”

And for the confused, uneasy, alarmed and anxious among us, it is also an invitation to look for answers.

The show introduces the new configuration of the gallery space which has transformed the Gatehouse in to Gallery 1 and the redesigned upper exhibit hall into Gallery 2, which now includes a meeting space for the many public events that have been created around “Be Not Still.”

“Surveillance” is the theme of show in Gallery 1. For this exhibit, two writers, Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian, were asked to select works from the di Rosa collection.

Bellamy, a novelist, poet and essayist, describes herself as specializing in “gender-bending work that focuses on feminism, sexuality, cultural artifacts both high and low, and all things queer.” Her latest book is “When the Sick Rule the World.”

Killian is a San Francisco poet, novelist, playwright, art critic and essayist and the husband of Bellamy, with whom he has just released an anthology, “Writers Who Love Too Much: New Narrative Writing.”

In an essay titled, “There’s a Dark Secret in Me: Precarity, Exposure and Camouflage,” they write: “Amid the upheaval of a divided nation, we all feel vulnerable and uncertain. Working through di Rosa’s permanent collection, we were continually struck by how many of the 1,700 works collected by Rene di Rosa from 1950 to 201 involved images of menace, foreshadowing our current ‘reign of precarity’, which theorists Fred Molten and Stefano Harney see as the result of the arbitrary violence of capitalist violence.”

What did they find? The first piece visitors encounter is Jacob Coulter’s installation, “There’s a Dark Secret in Me...”, in which he turned a poem (from Killian’s “Action Kylie”) into a three-dimensional house, that was part of an Mission District art tour in San Francisco. The work was disassembled by an disapproving neighbor and recreated for the show.

Their 58 choices include an image by Judy Dater of the photographer Imogen Cuningham encountering a nude model by a tree, “Imogene and Twinka at Yosemite, (1974),” which they describe as “youth and age startle each other (into recognition?).” There’s also, George Hermes “Gigolo” (1980) is “a fantastic parody of Cold War information retrieval systems” that the authors liken to the golden astrolabe “in the Citadel, the heavily secured infodump of all knowledge in “Game of Throne’s Westeros.” Roy de Forest’s “Drawing #476.72” is a “bug-eyed house,” resembling a human head, staring back at viewers.

Looking for mementos of Cold War surveillance, the authors note, “We stopped cold at Doug Hall’s small, blurry ‘Meeting of the Politburo’ (1994).” The product of spy cameras trained on secret chambers in the Kremlin, they observe, it might have been greeted with amusement by 1990s viewers but headlines of recent months “make the photo a thing of fear again — if not fear, at least shivers.”

All in all, this show is a journey with many stops.

Gallery 2

The debut show for the new Gallery 2 presents works commissioned by di Rosa from three artists on three themes: “The Rise of White Nationalism” by Allison Smith; “American Exceptionalism” by Rigo 23, and “Citizenship” by Ala Ebtekar.

For each exhibit, a pod has been created where visitors can learn about the artists and their works.

Smith, a Virginia-born artist who lived until recently in Oakland and is now teaching at the Carnegie-Mellon University School of Art, said her work, “Untitled (blunt instruments) (2018), grew in part from her concern over the 2017 events in Charlottesville, Virginia, when white supremacists marched with Tiki torches and a counter-protester, Heather Heyer, was killed. It is a stark white pedestal, without a monument, with metal-cast Tiki torches at its base.

Rigo 23, a Los Angeles-based, Portuguese-American artist has created “American Exceptionalism,” a monumental, three-dimensional rendering of the American flag, in which visitors can wander between giant red and white stripes, reading provocative graffiti that questions the actions and role of a country born from the concept of a manifest destiny.

The third and final artwork from Iranian-American artist Ala Ebtkar, titled “Luminous Ground,” provides a matchless perspective: the universe. A year-long project “a ceramic tile experiment in direct conversation” with a skylight, his work is an assemblage of tiles made from California soil and paper, onto which he has transferred the the first wide field image from the Hubble Space Telescope, GOODS/ERS2, which depicts 12 billion years of cosmic history. The project combined cyanotype, UV light photographic processes with centuries-old enamel and tile-making processes. The result is a breathtaking expanse covering the floor with shimmering blue and white creation, the universe.

Thus the show concludes with an eerie, but uplifting, note: a wordless comment on shared humanity.

The exhibits in Gallery 1 and 2, part one of “Be Not Still: Living in Uncertain Times, Part 1” run through May 27.

But that’s not all

Reflecting the transformation of di Rosa, the center has launched an extensive series of activities including a book club, conversations with the artists, workshops and collaborations with the Boys and Girls Club, The Napa County Library and Napa Valley College and Napa Bookmine.

They are doing all of this while still recovering and cleaning outdoor art installations from the wildfires last October that came close to the the center.

In an invitation to the public to get to know the new di Rosa, Sain writes, “As we collectively try to make sense of today’s polarized culture, conflicting values, distortions of truth, denials of science and pervasive strains of anti-intellectualism, now all heightened in California by the trauma of devastating wildfires, we at di Rosa feel compelled to show why art matters.”

“Be Not Still: Living in Uncertain Times Part 2” will be on view June 23-December 31, 2018, with new commissions by Victor Cartagena on the topic of immigration, Ranu Mukherjee on the topic of health, and Lava Thomas on the topic of solidarity), and a presentation of works from the permanent collection selected by artist Lexa Walsh around the topic of assembly.

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Features Editor

Sasha Paulsen has been features editor at the Napa Valley Register since 1999. A graduate of Napa High School, she studied English at UC Berkeley and St. Mary's College and earned a Masters in Journalism from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.