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The West as Metaphysical Muse @ BAC

Installation view, foreground: l to r:  "Sun Makes Moon Brown" by Chris Duncan;  "Sky Orb and Stones," Amber Jean Young; and pieces from the "Woodrock" series by Victoria Wagner.  
 
by Lawrence Gipe

Organized by independent curator Heather Marx, I Look for Clues in Your Dreams, is a compelling and remarkably cohesive exhibition. The artists hang together naturally, like kindred spirits; and the Berkeley Art Center, with its late-60’s modernist tree house vibe, functions as the ideal site for a show addressing metaphysical aspects of the western landscape.
 
The main title proposes an ephemeral premise, but the subtitle, Six Bay Area Artists Explore the Intrinsic Mysticism of the American West, aims at a theme that has a long history in the region. In his recent essay about Enchanted Modernities: Mysticism, Landscape, and the American West, an exhibition at Utah State University focusing on the many accomplished artists and musicians who moved west in the early 20th Century, Paul Eli Ivey notes that as early as 1875:
Jenny Sharaf, Untitled, 2015, acrylic on found paper, 11” x 9”
Theosophists in New York recognized the potential of the American West as a site for a rebirth and re-enchantment of humanity”.  The metaphysical muse promised by the American western landscape and climate attracted bands of earnest and creative people over the last century, many of them artists seeking a profound connection to nature that differed from their dreary East Coast urban existence.  Along the way, the term “mysticism” opened up beyond its original definition as a religious vision, to describe most any transcendent adventure, from New Age to psychedelic experiences. 
 
The six artists in I Look for Clues in Your Dreams don’t explicitly demonstrate how “re-enchantment” arises from the Southwest landscape; but the visual allure of their works as an ensemble might give viewers a mild case of synesthesia (which was a highly sought-after mystical manifestation).  Several of the artists combine the retinal excitement generated by lively color combinations, with Kristin Farr’s psychedelic medallions at the show’s entrance leading the charge.  Vibrant colors merge onto literal, terrestrial elements in the sculpture of Leo Bersamina (who stencils onto stones and driftwood) and Victoria Wagner (who paints directly onto redwood burl), but these pieces don’t transcend the decorative.
 
Jenny Sharaf re-visits the cusp of the 1970’s in her untitled paintings and collage works, which combine the pioneering pour-painting technique of Lynda Benglis with nostalgic fabrics and soft porn images. The latter makes for humorous dichotomies, as organic gobs of fluorescent paint
Amber Jean Young, Kaleidoscope Sky, 2016, linen canvas, thread, batting, muslin, 27 x 21.5”
intermingle with old Playboy magazine pages, a battle of over-saturated colors and lurid content.  Sharaf groups these works in a salon-style tableau with larger abstract works, creating another dialogue between narrative and non-objectivity. Underneath the colors, she seems more concerned with feminism than with things mystical, and this gives the exhibition a little conceptual heft.
 
 Amber Jean Young constructs quilts of fabric printed with photographic fragments that capture the bright blues and crepuscular oranges of the California landscape; her buoyant wall hangings fit the thematic (Clues in Your Dreams) bill perfectly. In Kaleidoscope Sky, she assembles a funky pentagon from triangular facets, each printed with details of skies taken at her former rural home. By using quilting, Young invokes a ritualistic and communal craft; and, in the practical sense of making a bed cover, there is an implication of touch, comfort and domesticity. Young makes a gentle commentary: the same fragile sky blankets us all.
 
Victoria Wager: Woodcock, Winter's Light, 2016, redwood burl, oil paint, steel
Chris Duncan’s work also emerges from domesticity and a spirit of place. His contribution to the exhibition, Sun Makes Moon (Brown) 6 -month exposure, summer-winter 2015 (2016), was produced on the roof of the artist’s family home.  Duncan posits the California sun as an “eraser” and the seasons as a durational guide; he stretches a large swath of fabric over a round tabletop, and over time the circular form is bleached-out, leaving a moon-shaped orb glowing in a field of sepia. The project’s charming lack of technology summons up the spirit of Rudolf Steiner, who was no slouch in the mystic department (and took great stock in lunar cycles).  Duncan’s brand of holistic conceptualism is an antidote to our quick-fix culture, and stands out as the compelling nexus of I Look for Clues in Your Dreams.
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“I Look for Clues in Your Dreams: Six Bay Area Artists Explore the Intrinsic Mysticism of the American West,” curated by Heather Marx @ Berkeley Art Center through July 17, 2016.
 
About the author:
Lawrence Gipe is an artist, art professor and writer living in Oakland.  His painting and drawings have been shown in more than 50 solo exhibitions in the U.S. and Europe.
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