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Unearthed: Found + Made @ OMCA

Jedediah Caesar, detail: Green(gre-y?) prologue: 4, 2015, epoxy, collected materials, hardware, 1 rectangular panel, 23 x 33 x 1.5”
Once upon a time—some five centuries ago, give or take a few decades—collections that encompassed art, science and cultural history were the norm rather than the exception. These proto-museums were known as wunderkammern, or chambers of wonder. The objects within them were exquisite, rare, beautifully made, or all three, asserting not only their singularity, but also the taste and education of the collector.
Fast forward to the Oakland Museum of California, a 21st century institution that, if not unique, is surely wondrous in that it houses and presents collections representing the cultural history, science and art of this state under one roof.  In such a place, a show like Unearthed: Found+ Made seems at once extraordinary and logical, bringing together as it does the work of Oakland-born Los Angeles artist Jedediah Caesar and a selection of rocks found, chosen and presented by members of California suiseki clubs.  By conjoining these two practices—one based in contemporary art ideas and materials, the other in a highly-developed appreciation of nature’s effects and processes—curator Christina Linden helps visitors think and see in a way that enhances our appreciation of both worlds. For such a seemingly quiet, modest exhibition, Found+Made packs a wallop, its ideas reverberating through the visual experience of daily life in unexpected ways.
John Nishizawa, Takiishi, collected stone and made daiza, 1990 Klamath River. Stone and wood, 7.5 x 10 x 5 "

Suiseki are relatively small rocks that are deemed by their finder to be in some way extraordinary.  Their shapes may reflect the landscape in which they are found—a mountain, or waterfall—or perhaps evoke an animal. Some are just beautiful forms, but all are as much about the finder’s eye and taste as the chance moment that places such an extraordinary natural creation in the path of the seeker.  Plucked from rockfalls or mountain rivers, these mysterious, beautiful creations of nature are displayed, largely unaltered, on specially shaped wooden bases (daiza) or in metal trays.

In this exhibition, suiseki are identified by title, finder, date, location and rock type
(i.e. igneous, metamorphic etc.) An informational panel on the wall shows the image of a practitioner bent over the edge of a mountain stream or lake, considering the possibilities.  Some titles are poetic (Golden Autumn, Chrysanthemum Stone); others suggest place or landscape (High Sierra, Fuji-san). Most of the rocks in the show are metamorphic, meaning that at some point in the unimaginably distant past, they were subjected to high heat and pressure, causing physical and/or chemical changes.  The only change permitted to practitioners is a single cut to give a stone a flat bottom for display purposes.
Robert Gould, untitled, collected stone and made daiza, finished 2013 collected 2013 Black Butte Lake. Stone and wood, 7 x 6.25 x 5.5"

For over a decade, Caesar has experimented with a process in which the detritus of his life and studio — garbage and leftover scraps, essentially—are imbedded in a matrix of clear or colored resin. The resulting mixture becomes a new material, which, when cut into rectangular or triangular slices and hung on the wall or presented as freestanding minimalist blocks, evokes mineral or fossil-laden stone. Seen in cross section, the imbedded materials recall objects in the novella  Flatland, in which a sphere passing through a plane is visible only as a series of larger and then smaller circles. Close examination reveals some of these objects to be identifiable–the remains of an eviscerated plastic pen barrel, or knitted material. The cloth is coiled in on itself and folded like something vegetal, split and fixed in a way that it could never have been had it not been petrified into its present shape.

There is an extraordinary time span represented here, between Caesar’s poetic evocation of a dystopian future in which these objects could belong, and the deep past contained in each rock nestled on its form-fitting pedestal. In a way, both sculpture and suiseki are found and made, which is surely what Linden, the curator, intends us to understand.  By doing so, she also helps to create a connection between different worlds and constituencies, reminding us that, in the big picture, it wasn’t that long ago when art and science were seen as co-equals, presented by one inquiring mind, in one collection.
While most of the soberly hued examples of suiseki in the show seem attractively familiar, a single rock, collected by Robert Gould at Black Butte Lake in 2013, suggests that kind of curious mind, in its peculiar, fascinating singularity. Gould’s rock, with its vivid yellows interspersed with blotches of red, like a jammy core

Jedediah Caesar, One corner one cap stone/ Butyl benzyl phthalate + 4,4’ Methylene bis (phenylisocyanate)+curcuma longa (terra merita(turmeric)): (800+60)lbs and again (80+6)lbs, 2015. Urethane and turmeric. 

breaking through to its surface, looks good enough to eat. It has no title, but on its card this text appears:  “I call this stone Jasper, and think of it as a sunset. I also think of cutting it up into little pieces and serving it for dessert.”

This poetic, peculiar invocation of something closer to alchemy than to art or science is also suggested by the largest, newest work in the show. Caesar’s stacked blocks of turmeric and resin offer a moment in which any difference between found and made is improbably suspended.   The piece’s contents are revealed in the long title: one corner one capstone/ butyle benzyl phthalate + 4,4”Methylene bis (phenlisocyanate) +curcuma longa (terra merita)) turmeric: (800 + 60) lbs and again (80 + 60) lbs.  It is, in other words, a mixture of turmeric and resin, which when
conjoined in a moment of almost metamorphic violence, resulted in this golden, turbulent-looking mass, polished like stone on some sides and roiled on others.  Like Wolfgang Laib’s piles of pollen or Anish Kapoor’s pigment-covered abstract forms, one gets the sense that this is something impossible, perfect and magical. But Caesar’s work pushes beyond wonder; it reaches toward a place that so little contemporary art seems to want to go, that being the place where the boundaries of meaning are expanded rather being simply recycled for amusement and profit. Considered together, the works in Unearthed offer a path to that place.
“Unearthed: Found + Made” @ Oakland Museum of California through April 24, 2016.
About the Author:
Maria Porges is an artist and writer who lives and works in Oakland. For over two decades, her critical writing has appeared in many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Sculpture, American Craft, Glass, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications. The author of nearly 100 exhibition catalog essays, she presently serves as an associate professor at California College of the Arts. 
Photo credit: Jedediah Caesar, "One corner, one cap stone…": Maria Porges

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