by David M. Roth
Visitors to the Catharine Clark Gallery may wonder how 14 ducks came to descend on a long table strewn with pomegranates and how other equally engaging but wholly different displays wound up nearby. Answer: They’re exercises in exquisite corpse, a surrealist parlor game in which participants, operating serially, make works of art in response to clues from those who preceded them, creating, en route, what amounts to an artistic relay race.
For this iteration of the game, Anton Stuebner, the gallery’s director, asked eight artists to create “dinner tables” that would be unveiled over seven weeks ending March 18. None were slated to involve meals. Nevertheless, the exhibition, titled Sobremesa – Spanish for post-prandial lingering — inspired three professional Bay Area chefs (Gillian Tyrnauer, Loretta Keller and Orchid) and one home chef (Rosalba Correa Valencia, mother of the artist Arleene Correa Valencia) to create meals and cocktails based on what they saw. Significantly, none were invited to do so; they prepared those meals voluntarily and served them free of charge to anyone who showed up, a testament to the power of this still-evolving exhibition.
Over the years, in an effort to build a sense of community, the gallery has explored many ways of expanding programming beyond the usual white-wall fare. This exhibition, undertaken to celebrate the gallery’s expansion into the adjoining space previously occupied by Brian Gross Fine Art, ranks among its
most elaborate and ambitious efforts yet. Activating sight, sound, taste, memory and history, it reminds us that the communal table is the bedrock of family life, the place where values are taught, stories are told, myths propagated, debates engaged, habits ingrained and loved ones remembered.
The exhibition opened on January 26 with FOWL WEATHER, an installation created by Deborah Oropallo and her husband, Michael Goldin. The couple live on a farm in Novato where they grow fruit, make cheese and nurture livestock. From that perch, they command a unique view of the troubles that have long beset California: drought, fire and flood. All, as it happens, have figured prominently in Oropallo’s art over the past few years. And while those concerns converge in this installation, the genesis of it, the artist says, was seeing Last Supper in Pompeii, a 2021 exhibition at the Legion of Honor, which displayed a carbonized loaf of bread excavated from a baker’s oven after Vesuvius erupted. Having grown up in a bakery, the image of that charred loaf lodged in memory, as did visions of ducks, which, after this winter’s atmospheric downpours, returned to the couple’s property in greater numbers than in years past. In response, Oropallo united the two images – bread and ducks — by using decoys to mold dough into fowl-shaped loaves. Their egg-yolk yellow beaks, ash-dusted bodies, and heads pointed in multiple directions make them look more like actual decoys than meat on the wing. Dried-out pomegranates and the gnarled root balls of three plum trees, uprooted by wind and rain, complete the tableaux. The latter, festooned with marble eggs, make for haunting sculptural centerpieces. In addition, the gallery is re-screening, in a separate room, a video by Oropallo and Andy Rappaport called Blazes (2018), a montage of burning houses set to Johnny Cash’s 1967 rendition of Green, Green Grass of Home to devastating effect. It is not part of Sobremesa, but it’s an ideal companion piece, touching, as it does, on the same environmental themes as the installation.
Amy Trachtenberg takes the baton from Oropallo and runs it up a literary tree that branches off in multiple directions, not all of which are easily navigated. A guide can be found in a handsome chapbook (Rose Madder Lake) dedicated to her grandmother, Rose, whose last glimpse of Europe came during the artist’s stay in Paris, when the older woman recalled her forced emigration from Warsaw. Her route to America, as it happened, ran through Paris, affording Trachtenberg an eyewitness recollection of her family history. A snippet from the poem recounting that bifurcated experience reads: “She saw me seeing her youth/before/she was a widow/her/youth/The window overlooking/the garden behind/the museum.” With that tale in mind, Trachtenberg chose not to take Oropallo’s image of ducks as a literal jumping-off point. Instead, she alludes repeatedly in the text to “sitting ducks,” a reference to Jews who, unlike her grandmother, failed to escape pogroms in Poland and Ukraine. These familial memories form the conceptual template for the table piece, called I have two names and at least two languages – for dreaming, a title derived from Mahmoud Darwish’s farewell to Edward Said.
It consists of four framed collages set on brick risers that form two peaks, a structural gambit that encourages viewers to see them as portals into that dark era. One shows the image of Franz Kafka (“a reluctant Jew”) next to a poster, ripped from a wall in Padua, advertising “Intellectual Jewish Life and Culture in Europe, 1880 to 1930.” To this, the artist affixed bits of a weather-related phrasebook used by
people of her grandparents’ generation who were immigrating to Israel, a sly nod to Oropallo’s FOWL WEATHER. The installation also includes, in addition to three other collages, a plum branch suspended from the ceiling and a pair of benches made from lashed-together chunks of yellow foam rubber whose bulky shapes mirror those of bundles shouldered by refugees everywhere.
Arleene Correa Valencia, who hails from the Mexican state of Michoacan, also speaks of the immigrant experience. Her installation, Table: Mother Earth, consists of place settings for four, anchored at the center by a bowl of dried-out corn cobs and a clay statue of Centeocihuatl, the Mesoamerican god of maize. Compared to the two installations that precede it, this one feels underworked and undernourished — until you catch sight of four heads (the artist’s and those of her three sisters) floating on vintage embroidered tortilla napkins, repurposed here as placemats. Rendered as faceless outlines, they indicate that those represented may be dead or absent, an ever-present possibility during the worst days of the pandemic. Whether that is what Correa Valencia meant is difficult to say, but the installation’s elegiac impact, its summoning of missing persons, far outweighs any perceived shortcomings.
By contrast, Wanxin Zhang’s installation, Excavated Dumpling Platters in 2203, is positively ebullient – a table packed with extravagantly decorated ceramic objects (dumplings, plates, teacups, smartphones) onto which the artist applied decals showing erotic scenes, political events, selfies, recipes, pieces of his portfolio, and bits of text in English and Chinese. It may well be Zhang’s crowning achievement, one that invites favorable comparisons to Robert Arneson for its handling of materials and tongue-in-cheek humor and to Richard Shaw, who famously employed decals to create trompe l’oeil ceramic sculptures.
Like Valencia’s installation, Zhang’s revolves around place settings; in this one, however, the dominant image is of a cargo ship disgorging 500 ceramic dumplings across a world map. It’s a testament to how culinary traditions cross borders, a fact borne out by the seeming explosion of dumpling outlets. (Two such restaurants, for example, operate within walking distance of the gallery.) Thus, the portion of the installation’s title that reads “2203” may be no fantasy. The dumpling’s circumnavigation of the globe may already be complete.
What viewers may not know is its history. Zhang tells us it was invented 1,800 years ago by a village doctor named Zhongjian Zhang, “a likely relative” who employed it “as part of his medical practice,” asserting that it “not only provided sustenance and cured ailments but also increased physical strength and sexual vitality.” With the latter claim in mind, Zhang fashions teacup handles out of limp ceramic penises, implying that tea and dumplings cure impotence – an assertion that Arenson, a practitioner of ribald humor, would surely have loved.
Still to come: installations by Sandow Birk and Elyse Pignolet (opening March 2) and one by Reniel del Rosario and Johany Huinac De Leon (opening March 9).
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“Sobremesa” @ Catharine Clark Gallery through March 18, 2023.
About the author: David M. Roth is the editor, publisher and founder of Squarecylinder, where, since 2009, he has published over 400 reviews of Bay Area exhibitions. He was previously a contributor to Artweek and Art Ltd. and senior editor for art and culture at the Sacramento News & Review.