Emeryville has bloomed into an artistic hot spot (temporarily at least!) with five exhibitions that opened this past Sunday: two in Heritage Square and three in the Hollis Street Project building around the corner. The shows feature artworks by the 59 students currently enrolled in Taking the Leap, an intensive training course that prepares thus-far-amateur artists for the professional, commercial art world. The course draws creative types from all over the Bay Area and beyond, who make the trek to Emeryville every week for six months. In any given class, most of the students will have day jobs. Some of them may have been professional artists in the past but fell out of the business for one reason or another; some will have studied art but never pursued it as a career, and a few will have no formal training at all.
Thirst is one of the five showcase exhibitions, all of which run through February 27. Most of the twelve artists in this group are, as one of them humorously puts it, "very emerging," but that doesn't mean you won't be hearing more from them if you follow the Bay Area gallery scene. For a handful, it's clearly just a matter of time. Their media of choice runs the gamut from painting and drawing to eggshells, beeswax, and refrigerator doors; they've followed their muses to some very interesting places.
Farnaz Shadravan wins hands down for the most remarkable, idiosyncratic choice of medium, although a few of the others come very close. Shadravan, a dentist by day, has lived in the United States for almost twenty years. Her artist statement tells the story of coming here, gradually losing her Islamic faith, and eventually adopting a more free-flowing kind of "interfaith" religion that embraces multiple traditions and beliefs. Over the course of this journey she found herself sticking pictures and prayers to her refrigerator; it wasn't much of a jump from there to inscribing them with her dental drill.
For this presentation she has hung several refrigerator doors directly on the wall. They are made of silver metal, probably aluminum or steel, coated with various pastel-colored enamels. Her incredibly detailed engravings include Islamic and Christian symbols, images, and prayers. The inscribed silver lines recall the very traditional artistic practices of etching and engraving, but her choice of tools makes the process much more personal and unique, establishing a truly creative unity between her work, life, and art. Shadravan's choice of substrate is pretty idiosyncratic, but it is also traditional, in a way -- not in the art-historical sense, of course, but in the way that it suggests recipes handed down from generation to generation, or shared within a common geographical or ethnic region.
The refrigerator doors also evoke the idea of ritual, both in the religious and in the everyday-life sense of the word. The daily preparation of food and taking of meals is just as much a ritual as going to church, and both practices serve to bind people together. As a dentist, Shadravan is also clearly aware of the refrigerator's other associations: healthy nutrition versus evil junk food, indulgence versus self-control, food-as-fuel versus obsessive overeating. The doors come fully loaded with all kinds of potent suggestions; Shadravan cleverly channels them to her own fascinating and complex ends.
Max Chandler's artworks are far less spiritual but just as unusual in the way they're made. He builds robots with light sensors and wheels that allow them to see lines and locomote around the surface of a piece of paper. Unlike other robot and high-tech artists such as Jim Campbell, who uses technology to probe the limits of human perception, or Bruce Cannon, for whom technology is a means to investigate relationships between people and nature, Chandler is more interested in technology as an autonomous tool -- a functional substitute for the artist's hand.
Chandler's trajectory as an artist runs exactly parallel to his expertise as a robot builder; as his improvisational algorithms become more and more sophisticated, his artworks become increasingly complex. He has complete control only at certain moments during the process: in the beginning when he lays down the initial lines and shapes for the robot to improvise from, and at the end when he decides how to crop the finished piece. The early pieces have rough-hewn lines that occasionally resolve into a familiar shape such as a dog, and it would be easy to mistake some of them for a kindergartener's early artistic efforts. But by carefully framing and placing them under glass, Chandler deliberately elevates them to the level of "fine art." The exhibition includes a video of the making of his most recent body of work.
In the adjacent corridor are Adele Louise Shaw's small sculptures: some under glass, others floating in jars like biological specimens. Each one begins as the empty shell of an ordinary chicken egg, which she cracks open and encrusts with beeswax, found objects, hair, bones, bugs, and other kinds of organic matter. The final creations are simultaneously charming and unnerving. She says she's always loved to draw beetles -- she found them beautiful for their symmetry and the perfectly compact, self-contained smoothness of their colorful shells. Now she incorporates beetles and other insects into artworks that embody a completely opposing set of ideas. Snarls of hair or old handkerchiefs, for instance, seem much more about decay -- an uncontrollable process that turns what was once whole and perfect into something not-shiny and not-symmetrical, but certainly still beautiful.
Most of Shaw's pieces suggest age-old ritual practices like voodoo; a few also evoke the more contemporary, but often still macabre, practices of science. Eye Weighted is a wax-encrusted picture of an eye attached to a small lead weight and floating in a glass jar full of clear fluid. It recalls creepy, preserved animals in a high-school lab, or maybe a Frankensteinian mad scientist saving body parts for some nefarious experiment. But the piece also is a clever play on words; maybe Shaw is hoping we'll see a baleful glance, or an accusing stare, in that single eye. Its expression is inscrutable, but the title begs us to read more into the picture.
There is much more in this show, not to mention the four other exhibitions running concurrently, that will definitely reward an hour or two spent browsing. Anne Danberg's mixed-media images of crows are colorful, but stark and haunting; like Shaw, her approach to the natural world focuses on myth and symbolism. Catherine Small's paintings examine the ideas of marriage and family as they apply to the contemporary world. Her beautiful, stylized figures play out complex, occasionally tense scenarios, inviting us to speculate on the possible background stories that led up to what we see on the canvas. K.J. Moose Wesler presents excerpted pages from her travel diaries, and Artina Morton celebrates the cosmopolitan urban world through fanciful composite portraits. The other featured artists are Aurora Fox, Andrew Juris, Nicola McCarthy, Jon Orvik, and Robert Reed.