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David Best
(San Francisco, California, 1945 - )

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Born in San Francisco in 1945, David Best attended the College of Marin in Kentfield, California. Later, he attended the San Francisco Art Institute, earning a B.F.A. in 1974 and an M.F.A. in 1975. A well-known Bay Area artist, Best has been shown extensively at venues including the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and the San Jose Museum of Art. His work is in the collections of the di Rosa Preserve, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Oakland Museum, among others. This would be the fourth piece by Best to enter SJMA’s permanent collection. (SJMA Collections Committee, 2005)

David Best’s artworks excite the eye and enter the viewer’s subconscious, leaving a disturbing, unworldly impression. His work ranges from petite, neo-Victorian box constructions, to monoprints and lithographs revealing an uncommon mastery of classic—even baroque—draftsmanship, to highly ornate art cars. His most recent collaborative projects are transient architectural structures with an Asiatic flair, built for the annual Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert and subsequently burned to the ground. Best evokes the image of artist as impresario, assembling melted plastic, circus toys, and balsa wood detritus into fantastic constructions that dazzle the eye, stimulate conflicting emotions, and adhere to a personal aesthetic in defiance of contemporary art conventions.

Born in San Francisco in 1945, Best attended the College of Marin in Kentfield, California. In his mid-twenties, he enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute, earning his B.F.A. in 1974 followed by his M.F.A. in 1975. His primarily influences are funk and assemblage artists such as Edward Kienholz and Bruce Conner, as well as outsider art. Many of Best’s works from the late 1980s, including Berlin, are large-scale paintings with elaborately crafted frames that incorporate words, portraits, and illustrations from books. Frequent use of various medieval and religious motifs in Best’s work lends symbolic content to his carefully assembled metal scraps and other found objects.

Best often addresses troubling historical events in his work, usually in an ambiguous way, to portray humans’ malevolent tendencies. Berlin suggests the tumultuous chaos of Kristallnacht, the Nazi’s first organized attack on Jewish property preceding the Holocaust. On November 9, 1938, Germany’s Third Reich initiated the mass destruction of Jewish homes, shops, and synagogues. Throughout Nazi-controlled Europe, the night of violence became know as Kristallnacht, or the “Night of Broken Glass.” Best centers his composition around the heroic image of a woman seemingly derived from a 19th-century engraving, reminiscent of Eugène Delacroix’s iconic 1830 painting, Liberty Leading the People, yet the central figure personifies an approaching menace in this context. Thickly applied black paint combines with shards of broken glass and entangled plastic vines to evoke the primal savagery of the event. Best treats the frame as an integral aspect of the artwork rather than as a separate element. Artweek critic Mark Van Proyen describes these structures as, “elaborate quasi-baroque frames that contain these disparate elements … the frames themselves are both semiotically and visually integral to the esthetic impact. Like giant pieces of gold-painted jewelry, these gaudy, almost grotesque enclosures suggest both a vernacular grandiloquence and the mysteriously arcane by an obsessive intertwining of symbol and ornament.”1 At the top of the frame, a Star of David cloaked with black plastic drapery serves as a metaphor for Jewish destiny, entrapped by Nazism. Within the large, monochromatic background, a stroke of red paint stands out as the ominous reminder of the destiny of Jews in Europe following Kristallnacht.

Although Best’s fabricated scene of this historical event does not directly document the actual horrors, it nonetheless evokes feelings of uneasiness, as if a terrifying incident is yet to happen. His aim is not to reconstruct history accurately. Instead, he discloses the sinister aspects of human nature that caused political and social mayhem. The ominous mood he creates transcends time and space and asks that viewers confront and examine the universal nature of malevolence. At the same time, in many of his recent works, Best draws attention to humankind’s beneficence and potential for transcendence. His templelike sculptural constructions at Burning Man have become the crowning events of the festival each year and have lent an ambience of ethereal splendor to the desert environment. These vicissitudes of the spirit go to the core of the artist’s work. As he once said, “Art helps—it heals, it loves, it directs us out of the darkness and shows a way out of madness.”2 —S.S.

1. Mark Van Proyen, “David Best,” Artweek, 4 July 1991, 12.

2. David Best, quoted in Collision (Houston: Ineri Foundation, 1985), 24. (SJMA Selections publication, 2004)

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