Postmodern theory questions not only the nature of reality, but also the enduring value of art — a much more serious infraction, in my opinion. It's reassuring, then, to see the Northern California RISD Alumni Biennial show at the Oakland Art Gallery, featuring artwork by graduates of the highly respected Rhode Island School of Design who now walk among us Left Coasters. Fifty-one pieces by 38 artists were selected by Oakland Museum senior curator Rene de Guzman. As with all group shows, the viewer does best focusing on each piece individually, an easy task in this case, with strong work across the board.
Nature is explored with varying degrees of naturalism and conceptualism. Robert Frank's oil of the Lakeville landscape and Stephen Linden's large photographs of Covelo and Bolinas are realistic, but intensely subjective. Marika Berland's clouds against silhouetted hills, Lily Marine's Klimtian flowers, and Wilma Parker's painterly hydrangeas are more stylized and improvisational, and more concerned with exploring the medium. In Grant Johnson's altered aerial photos of Nevada, the divisionist digital specking transforms these panoramas into cosmic metaphors. Adria Peterson's closely observed and rendered foliage, set against gold leaf, has a similar metaphoric intent.
The manmade world is also mined for inspiration. Christine Hanlon's realistic oils of tragedy at sea and humdrum dockside activity document the realities of marine commerce, while Dawn Revett's multipanel paintings of details of ships and scaffolding suggest a snapshot aesthetic imposed onto rough scraps of wood. Peter Belanger's classically composed photographs of rural workaday commercial architecture like gas stations and minimarkets transform the banal into the monumental, while Eric Engstrom's photocollage of a temple in Kyoto combines disparate elements into an architectural hybrid.
A humorous conceptualism constitutes the other main category. Aron Cohen's large photos find beauty in mass-market effluvia: an array of condiment packages (Mild Sauce, Fancy Ketchup) is photographed as if it were a gigantic earthwork, and a family of plastic bags seems to open mute mouths as they jostle for position. Arthur Huang makes knowing thyself (or himself) a mock science project, testing out various postulates: "There is a 1% chance that I will be on a date (False, unfortunately)." Helen Lee's "Artist's Statement: Reciprocal Typing" video shows her ink-stained fingers percussively smearing a panel of frosted glass in a parody of written artspeak, or fingerprinting — and of Clouzot's film of Picasso in action. Finally, Christopher Gray's dueling tape recordings declaim beautifully nonsensical oracular poetry: "passionate singing about durable goods," "chump change," "couches scavenged by teenagers," "children trapped in wells." Through March 29 at Oakland Art Gallery (199 Kahn's Alley, Oakland). OaklandArtGallery.org or 510-637-0395.
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