Mixed Messages 

The personal is political, but not polemical.

Viewers of contemporary art have it harder than the pious audiences of yore, who had only to recognize which religious story was being pictured. The artistic revolutions of the last century have played havoc with any expectations of art we had — even with the notion that we could have expectations. Thus, contemporary art often leaves us perplexed. The works by the eleven artists in the Berkeley Art Center's 25th Annual Juried Competition — Susannah Bettag, Jan Blythe, Colleen Flaherty, Katie Lewis, Stephani Martinez, Julia Nelson-Gal, Gail Postal, Lyz Preus, Sarah Ratchye, Destiny Schwartz, and Wenx'zong Lin — do reward the patient viewer, but they're about the artists working through material materially rather than communicating with the like-minded; they're vehicles of psychic/emotional transformation, not liturgical props. The issue of female identity looms large here (since all but Lin are women), as, curiously, does its opposite, a desire for emotional solidarity. I suspect that differentiation concerns the younger artists, while the oceanic feeling appeals to mature artists seeking continuity and transcendence.

The myriad of conflicting roles available to women in our media-saturated world must be truly crazy-making. Bettag's painted blobs, filaments, and other whimsical elements set free from gravity contrast with the linear depictions of young couples in flagrante delicto (or close) in the background, reflecting the "confusing and conflicting internal impulses we're forced to navigate ... daily." Martinez' "Delight" and "Oh!" process commercial cheesecake imagery through sewing and embroidery to perform a similar office. Blythe's "Step up!" is a wooden staircase set on a curved base, like a rocking horse, embodying her mother's admonitions to step up to life's challenges and negotiate an adult balancing act.

Part of that act, of course, is empathy, which uncompassionate, un-conservative America under Bush spurned until Katrina's wakeup call. Nelson-Gal's lifelong fascination with old photographs and "time, change, deterioration and mortality" is expressed in her gridded assemblages of faded, vignetted 19th-century portrait photos lying beneath spiritual symbols like mandalas and crosses or axial lines. Preus' sewn sculpture, "filling the holes of grief and loss with playful forms and textures," likewise deals with themes long neglected by modernist art in its utopian rejection of all things Victorian. Flaherty's agglomerations of wooden boxes, painted on one face with dots, stripes, and webs, marry constructivism and folk or ethnic art; they "tie the modern zeitgeist to ancient markings." Through October 12 at Berkeley Art Center (1275 Walnut St., Berkeley). BerkeleyArtCenter.org or 510-644-6893.


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