by Maria Porges
Is it the job of curators to have—and express, through their work — a film director’s visionary aesthetic? The extraordinary show Way Bay offers an opportunity to ask and answer this question in its presentation of nearly 200 works of art that “explore the creative energies that have emerged from the San Francisco Bay area over the past two hundred years.” Right from the get-go, the initial wall text makes clear that this is not a historical survey, but a “poetic” one in which connections are created through proximity between works that are normally non-adjacent, whether in terms of media or date of creation. Apart from this initial panel there is no explanatory wall text for the show; visitors are invited to carry around a printed guide and match up the numbers on the walls with information about each work.
Part of the fun is figuring out the connections being proposed by museum Director and Chief Curator Larry Rinder. But it’s also possible to simply absorb the parade of wonder. Drawn from the museum’s collection, the works on display range from film and video to pretty much everything else. There are paintings and sculptures by outsiders and insiders; works of craft and design, objects long held by the museum (and seldom seen), as well as pieces so recent in vintage that they must have only just entered the collection. Every single one is worth close examination, as well as a look from some distance that takes in its neighbors at the same time.
Since no chronology is specified, it isn’t necessary to view the galleries in any order. Still, viewing them from beginning to end does offer a kind of nonlinear narrative in which conjunctions arise unexpectedly between or possibly among works throughout the show. As a preface, the first thing visitors see is an undated Chalon/Ohlone basket, a fleeting nod to the art of the first residents of the Bay Area. The source for the poetic epigram associated with this first wall — each room is accompanied by a different quote – is an Ohlone song: “See! I am dancing! On the rim of the world I am dancing!” Nearby, there is a painting by Chris Duncan from 2007; three photographs by Elisabeth Sunday of Tuareg women, each capturing a distorted, elongated reflection in a flexible mirror, and a folded copper vessel/ sculpture by June Schwarcz, completed in 2013 when the artist was 95 years old.
Turning from this wall and continuing, we are confronted with an even greater diversity of media and dates, including Alice Ann Parker (Severson’s) astonishing film Riverbody (1970). A teacher at SFAI, Parker conceived of “a continuous dissolve of nude bodies,” the realization of which is hypnotic and compelling, both as art and as history. Accompanied by a sound track of lapping water, each participant is only visible for a second, an isolated naked body blurring into the one that follows. Men and women, mostly young and longhaired, stare calmly at the camera or grimace shyly, silhouetted against a vague darkness. Throughout the show, the opportunity to see such films in the context of other work is both novel and welcome (although, really, standing in place for prolonged periods can get tiresome.)
Nearby we see a view of a sparsely settled Berkeley, taken in 1874 by Carleton Watkins and a small, evocative oil painting from 1903 by Granville Redmond of a marsh in moonlight. Should you wonder who Redmond is, the text in the guide focuses on his early deafness due to scarlet fever and a friendship with Charlie Chaplin that led to Redmond playing small parts in some of Chaplin’s films. These fragments of personal history are interesting, but it isn’t always clear why some works merit long paragraphs of description/explanation while others have nothing but artist’s name, title and date. The written material in the guide seems most likely to be in support of the poetic quotes associated with each segment of the exhibition. This section carries the following quote: “When the brightening came, only the darkest survived,” though exactly what this means in the context of works like Parker’s film, Watkins’ photograph and Redmond’s painting is a matter of conjecture.
But sometimes, there’s magic of a sort. In an area designated as “seconds before sleep seem all tangled up,” we seem to be walking from Richard Diebenkorn’s Berkeley studio into the genteel, highly-detailed interior painted by Henry Alexander in 1886, then through the actual physical door offered by Raymond Saunders in his 1987 painting Passages: East West II— to
arrive at James Broughton’s lovely filmThe Bed (1968). Featuring a variety of performers on and around a bed in a meadow on Mount Tamalpais, this goofy, lovely hippie-era romp offers the chance to see Imogen Cunningham with her hair down in a long white nightgown, the philosopher Alan Watts, and many other (mostly naked) people. Above the flat-screen monitor hangs Laurie Reid’s beautiful, entirely abstract painting Up the stairs into the warm night.
Each area has anchorpieces that look great from a distance — films playing on screens suspended from the ceiling, massive drawings or paintings — as well as intimate objects that reward close examination. Spectacular large works include Irene Pijoan’s monumental painted cutout Kick Count Chart (1994) and Ben Peterson’s panoramic and astonishingly detailed drawing Ship’s Wake (2011). A vigorously brushed, colorful Oliver Lee Jackson painting from 1983 creates context for works in his current show at Rena Bransten Gallery (and an upcoming exhibition next spring at the National Gallery). On the opposite wall, a conversation in red and green seems to be taking place between Judith Belzer’s painting Half Empty Half full from 2017 and Franklin William’s psychedelic untitled 1968 composition in paint, yarn, glitter and plastic tubing, brokered by the portrait of Jerome Caja by Catherine Opie that hangs between the two works.
A film by the Miles Brothers shows a streetcar trip down Market Street, shot shortly before the 1906 earthquake. Traffic is a chaotic mix of horse-drawn vehicles and early cars. In another film, a stomach-churningly rapid trip through a deserted suburban ‘70s landscape turns out to be a simulated drive through Terra Linda in Marin County, traversing a model that looks just close enough to real that the mind struggles to evaluate what is going on as the computer-guided camera swoops along the ribbon of imaginary asphalt. The 16mm film was created in 1973 by UCB’s Environmental Simulation Laboratory, and directed by John Dykstra and Jerry Jeffries, special effects artists who would later go on to careers at Lucasfilm.
There is so much more: Nayland Blake’s 1989 Untitled (Miracled Birds), with its disembodied bird wings referencing the hallucinations chronicled by the 19thcentury German jurist Daniel Paul Schreber. Judith Scotts’ auratic untitled 2002 yarn sculpture. Erica Deeman’s striking portrait, Marvin (2015). This last appears to be a straightforward photograph, but it has a conceptual basis: Deeman made the portrait against a backdrop of her own skin color “as a
gesture of both solidarity and contrast.” David Park’s amazing 30-foot-long scroll drawing in felt pen, dating from the last year of his life, combines scenes from his childhood with images of the Berkeley campus. Just to the right of the exit, Xara Thustra’s mural-sized painting This is what we are for and this is what we’ll get (2002) is like a crashing of cymbals—a musical crescendo before the end of a dramatic performance. Detailed and sweepingly cinematic all at once, the work poetically references the 9/11 attacks.
And finally, there’s Luke Butler’s The End XXIII (2016)— literally the words “The End” superimposed over ocean waves, simulating the kind of image that precedes the credits in a movie. Like kids after a Saturday triple feature, we stumble out into the sunlight, dazed and enchanted by everything we’ve been shown.
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“Way Bay” @ Berkeley Art Museum Pacific Film Archive through June 3, 2018.
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 more than 100 exhibition catalog essays, she presently serves as an associate professor at California College of the Arts.