Image caption: Visitors at the Pence Art Gallery, top, examine “Presently Untitled,” a visual take on tweets supporting Donald Trump’s candidacy, by Jiayi & Shih-Wen Young.

“The idea that art is pretentious is crazy,” John Natsoulas is saying. “Art should never be pretentious or intimidating.”
Natsoulas is standing out in front of his John Natsoulas Gallery in Davis. It’s safe to say that this gallery is anything but pretentious. It’s a cute little bungalow, somewhat expanded. Its immediate neighbor is a UC Davis frat house: There is a frat barbecue going on as Natsoulas speaks. Dominating the gallery’s front yard are two gigantic animal sculptures, “Roy the Dog” and “Calico Cat,” brilliantly colored, whimsical and not intimidating in the least.
But that is Davis and surrounding Yolo County for you. Famed first for farming, then for UC Davis’ cutting-edge research programs, they have another trick up their sleeve: They are a rich and very user-friendly destination for art lovers, with some intriguing galleries, first-rate public art and a terrific new museum.
See the Shrem
A good place to start your Davis/Yolo art tour is at that new museum, the $30 million, 30,000-square-foot Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at UC Davis, which opened last fall. Set on the south edge of campus, the Shrem at a first glance resembles a Sacramento Valley agricultural building hybridized with a spaceport — a low-slung gray rectangle gracefully draped with an elegant perforated aluminum “Grand Canopy.”
Step inside — and you get to enter without paying any entrance fee, making this one of the great art bargains in California — and you discover that the museum is airy and welcoming. Many visitors make their first stop in the interior courtyard, where Yoko Ono’s installation “Wish Trees for Peace” invites them to write notes on pieces of paper and attach the messages to the work’s living trees. The wishes are revealing and heartfelt: “I wish that we could speak from a place of kindness and civility” and “I wish my dad could be at peace.”
From here, you can venture into the main gallery. Through next Sunday, March 26, the museum will be exhibiting “Out Our Way,” celebrating the astonishing constellation of young and soon-to-be-famous artists (among them Wayne Thiebaud and Robert Arneson) who gathered at UC Davis in the 1950s and ’60s.
The museum will be closed from March 27 to April 13. It will reopen with exhibitions of recent gifts to the museum and works by Oakland-born artist Sadie Barnette. Whichever show you see, on your way out be sure to admire William T. Wiley’s 4,000-pound steel, wood and bronze “Gong,” which is the very definition of interactive art: You get to bang the gong.
Explore the gallery scene
From the Shrem, head into downtown Davis. You can park in the hulking concrete structure known as the Art Garage, or just find on-street parking. Then make your way to First Street and the John Natsoulas Gallery, home of “Calico Cat,” “Roy the Dog” and more.
“I was a faculty brat,” Natsoulas says — his father taught at UC Davis. After high school, the younger Natsoulas left town, went overseas, played jazz, studied botany in England and worked for a time for Amnesty International. Somewhere along the way, he says, “I realized I never wanted to do anything except be involved in art and music.” Returning to Davis to visit family, he thought he might be able to make that dream come true here.
He bought the little house — “I had to pawn my saxophone,” he says — and opened a gallery. Today, a couple of decades later, it’s a spacious four-story affair with a large gallery displaying contemporary paintings and ceramics, a bookshop (Natsoulas has himself published a number of art books) and a rooftop sculpture garden.
The gallery also hosts Friday night jazz sessions and poetry readings. One big annual event is coming up April 28-30 — the California Conference for the Advancement of Ceramic Art. Artists such as Arneson helped make Davis became a nationally known center for ceramic arts; this conference continues the tradition, drawing artists from all over the country, and hosting special exhibits at the Natsoulas Gallery and elsewhere in town.
A few blocks away, the Pence Gallery is ambitious and so urbane that it gives you the sense that you’ve wandered from Davis into SoMa, until you remember how little you’ve paid to park here.
Discover art in downtown Davis …
The other thing you notice about Davis is that art has spilled into the streets. One of the most innovative programs is the Transmedia Art Walk, which Natsoulas helped put together. Pick up a brochure and map at his gallery and you’ll be guided around downtown public art pieces. Many of these contain a computer chip: Scan the artworks with your cell phone and you’ll see interviews with the artists.
Downtown also contains dozens of murals, some painted by the Natsoulas-led Davis Mural Team. One of the most improbably sited is in the Davis Art Garage — an ordinary parking structure whose interior has been enlivened with public art. Another standout: “A Tribute to Pieter Brueghel, the Elder,” featuring portraits of Natsoulas and his mural team.
… and beyond
Davis isn’t the only art center in Yolo County. Two very appealing small towns nearby have galleries worth seeking out. In Woodland, Gallery 625 offers monthly shows of established and rising artists, with meet-the-artists receptions the first Friday of each month. And the Blue Wing Gallery (which doubles as a framing store) shows mostly Northern Californian artists and photographers. In Winters, RootStock Gifts is a gallery plus wine store and tasting room, a winning combo.
Catch a concert
Finally, if after spending your day appreciating the visual arts you want to enjoy a different art form, you’re in luck. Back near where you started — in fact, right across the street from the Shrem — is the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts. Glamorous where the Shrem is more circumspect, the Mondavi has two venues that host musical performances and fascinating talks by fascinating people. Upcoming performers and speakers include actorsinger Alan Cumming (March 31), a talk by Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh (April 12) and folk singer Arlo Guthrie (April 15).

By Peter Fish, San Francisco Chronicle www.sfchronicle.com

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