Fresh Work 

Kala Institute's annual exhibition showcases realism, abstraction, and everything in between.

December is the cruelest month for art writers: galleries offer up holiday shows showcasing their artists, but these agglomerations, lacking any theme or focus, can exude a potluck air. The writer on deadline is faced with a dilemma: impose a false unity on the miscellany with some verbal sleight-of-hand (and live with that for the rest of his life), or beat a hasty retreat to seek easier prey? The solution: heed editorial folk wisdom: pick a few pieces to discuss, and hope that will somehow be representative. Ninety artists are represented in this show at Kala Art Institute, so only a few of the 91 drawings, prints, photos, paintings, and mixed-media works can be discussed here. Still, it's a fine show with a wide variety of artwork, and it's very nicely installed in the foyer and gallery. This is the last show in this gallery, so sentimentalists may also want to return one last time before the opening of Kala's new, larger gallery around the corner on San Pablo Avenue this spring.

Among the realistic pieces were Dennis Johnson's nostalgic yet vivid color photo etching, "Ronnie's Drive-in Theater;" Stella Kalaw's moody pigment print, "First Lamp in Somerville;" Jenny Robinson's powerfully energetic monoprint, "Rollercoaster;" Ron Moultrie Sanders' lyrical floral photogram, "Pincushion Seeds;" Kyle Rand's mock-heroic photograph, "Icarus;" Mary K. Shisler's surreal pigment print, "Castle in the Ripples;" and Susan Spann's sober, eloquent photo-etching, "Slaughterhouse I." Abstractions that caught my eye were: Susan Belau's etching triptych, "Echo from 9;" Jamie Brunson's oil, alkyd, and wax on polyester, "Sway;" Theodora Varnay Jones' poetic abstract wall relief, "Transparency #3;" Amanda Knowles' stylized floral mixed-media drawing, "Swarm V;" Julie Nelson's meditative encaustic relief, "Untitled (Nothing to Recall);" Katherine Warinner's subtly colored monotype, "Buoy;" and Seiko Tachibana's delicately beautiful intaglio, "Origin Fiore — Nucleus #7." Pieces memorably mixing figuration and abstraction included: Lauren Davies' conceptual print on canvas, "From inside the house only a relentless dripping could be heard;" Julia Nelson-Gal's mixed-media postcard mosaic with painting, "Isn't She Lovely?;" Inez Storer's mixed-media painting, "Untitled"; Peter Tonningsen's elegiac avian-themed pigment print, "Fallen: 163554, Baryphthengus martii 11/18/1972;" and Sylvia Walters' Japanese-themed feminist woodcut, "Women's Work is Never Done." A special mention goes to Molly Bradbury's videotape, "Valley, Part I," which proves that the most unpromising landscape (here, the Sacramento Valley, probably), can be made thrilling and hypnotic. Artists' Annual runs through March 29 at Kala Art Institute (1060 Heinz St., Berkeley). Kala.org.

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