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Local Treasures @ Berkeley Art Center

Katherine Sherwood (detail), “Mansur Nurse from the Yelling Clinic”, 2010, mixed media on canvas, 98 x 30 x 12”

Pairings of big-name artists, especially those of disparate sensibility, are always fraught propositions.   One always wonders how and why such combinations appear and what the connections might be.  In the case of Local Treasures: Six Extraordinary Artists, there are some obvious clues.  One is that co-curator, Richard Whittaker, who collaborated on this show with BAC Executive Director Suzanne Tan, interviewed all of the artists at length for his magazine, works & conversations, copies of which are stationed throughout the exhibit.  The other is that all of the artists have deep roots in the Bay Area art scene. 

By themselves, those are fairly slender pegs on which to hang a show.   However, if you scratch beneath the surface of this one, you find that most of the artists, divergent though their styles may be, deal with two issues: healing and transcendence.  

Berkeley painter and UCB Professor of Art, Katherine Sherwood, examines the workings of the human brain, a pursuit that’s been central to her work ever since she recovered from a cerebral hemorrhage that debilitated the left side of her brain and paralyzed the right half of her body.  The event, which occurred in 1997, forced her to not only relearn language and basic motor skills, but also to paint with her left hand.  Her pictures combine healing symbols that were once employed as seals by King Solomon and photo transfers of her own angiograms – both of which are united pictorially by congealed globs of poured paint that look like frozen-in-time geological events.  

Robert Brady, “Area 51”, 2010, freestanding wood sculpture, 112 x 27 x 32

Two of the works on view here point toward even greater dimensionality.  In Mansur Nurse and Burgundy Nurse (both from the Yelling Clinic series), the artist appends skirts to a pair of vertical canvases to create figures that are practically animate.  Where she once focused exclusively on what was going on inside her head, she’s now creating bodies and accessorizing them with dotted, Indian-looking details accompanied by text that appears to be Sanskrit or Arabic. 

Robert Brady, another long-time Berkeley resident and a former Sac State professor, also traces his beginnings as sculptor to a debilitating illness – one that struck twice: once when he was a teenager and again in adulthood never to return.  Though his work has never been about sickness, the experience pushed him to explore life’s essences, using the figure as a malleable template for wide-ranging explorations of what can be wrought from wood.  His best-known works are emaciated, long-limbed figures whose inscrutable, totemic features call to mind Cycladic sculptures.

They’ve always been highly abstract, but in recent years they’ve become even more so.  Area 51 is a good example.  It’s an outsized piece named for the U.S. Air Force base in southern Nevada, long been rumored to be harboring the remains of space aliens and their conveyances.  With its rocket-shaped, nose-cone of a head set on a platform held aloft by four skinny legs, and with its oval-shaped feet adorned with painted-on polka-dot “eyes”, it gives palpable form to the rumors.

A bigger surprise for Brady watchers, though, may be his drawings.  He’s made them for years but rarely shown them.  Unlike the informal sketches that we are accustomed to seeing from sculptors, Brady’s are exacting, detailed works that incorporate the full range of his iconography, illustrating a world view that could function as a backdrop for a theatre performance – a desert epic, perhaps — that has yet to be staged. 

Jim Melchert, “Untitled Rubbing of Verbs #1”, 1993-4, graphite and black lead on paper, 60 x 49”

Ceramic sculptor Jim Melchert, another celebrated Bay Area figure, gained fame by firing and then painting assemblages of smashed tiles to create wall-mounted sculptures that were at once Conceptual, Op and Minimalist.  The work he exhibits here is markedly different, and as a result it fits neatly into the theme of the show.Two oval-shaped “rubbings” (of graphite and black lead on paper) emit an inner glow through an epidermal surface texture, evoking ancient spiritual and fertility symbols.  There are also two ceramic boxes (Words in an Unknown Tongue) filled with serpentine forms that hit the eye like a kind of visual glossolalia, squirming incomprehensibly while remaining resolutely still.

Livia Stein, who’s traveled extensively in India and whose retrospective opened last month at the Triton Museum in Santa Clara, has for years worked with images of Ghandi, a healing figure if ever one existed.  One of them, a monotype simply titled, Ghandi, has an almost reliquary feel, as does the etching called Airplane.

Together, they sound the themes of flight and transcendence that echo throughout the room in works by Brady and by Gale Wagner.  Wagner, who was wounded in Vietnam and used art to self-heal, makes exquisite rubber band-powered model airplanes that dangle from the gallery ceiling, activating the airspace.  His works deserve permanent museum space. 

Squeak Carnwath, “Hours”, 1990, dog tracks, charcoal, graphite, paint stick, acrylic on paper, 72 x 68” framed

With Squeak Carnwath, who last year wowed the Bay Area with a 15-year survey at the Oakland Museum, the curators tried to go beyond the tried-and-true.  She’s best known for lushly painted word and number-filled canvases that function as illuminated diaries.  What we get here are more words than pictures.  They appear in two drawings and in seven framed notebook pages.

The notebook pages I read reluctantly because they seemed too intimate.  But two outstanding drawings– Hours and New Rule – demonstrate the central premise of her work, which is that our thoughts, however small or seemingly insignificant, are worth examining.  For Carnwath that process is the essence of consciousness, validating her own existence and affirming that of viewers as well.  While the absence of her oil paintings is lamentable, oil does show up in an unexpected form: cigar boxes overflowing with raw pigment.  The meaning of these Dada-like objects is hard to fathom, but whatever the intent, they’re a great tactile pleasure.

Flight is the show’s one visible through-line, but the idea doesn’t really fly.  The pictures and objects that relate to flight generate a certain synergy amongst themselves, but they don’t always relate meaningfully to the rest of what’s in the room.

No matter.  The act of bringing artists of this stature together in a community art center setting is commendable.  Each artist has a long history of delving into life’s mysteries and hitting hit pay dirt wherever they choose to strike.  Local Treasures proves it yet again. 

–DAVID M. ROTH

Local Treasures: Six Extraordinary Artists @ Berkeley Art Center through August 8, 2010.

Cover: Squeak Carnwath: Partegas Londres Finos #6, 2001, paint, cigar box (paper covered mahogany), 6 x 8 x 4”.

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