Heaven and Hell 

Derek Weisberg's icons get metaphysical.

Paul Klee said he lived with the dead and the unborn, beyond time; it is even his epitaph. Today we consider such Romantic pantheism passé, and even embarrassing: it's America — we've got a lot of living to do! Exploring instead what art can become in a technological, consumerist society is what we do, so art is now a constantly moving target, which is bracing, of course, but also exhausting: everyone occasionally hankers for the simplicity (imagined or not) of unchanging shared values. The Renaissance painter Fra Angelico saw his Dominican monastery frescos as embodying communal beliefs and transmitting them to a future brotherly audience — nice work if you can get it! No artists today can aspire to such timelessness, but perhaps the current market stumble may lead us back to a more considered art appreciation (in the aesthetic sense, not the pecuniary one) — at least until we get back on our happy feet.

Derek Weisberg's ceramic-sculpture installation at Rowan Morrison Gallery, "Echoes Illuminating the Darkness," grapples with magic, mystery, and metaphysics. The figures he made previously — lugubrious androgynes, bald and depilated, with wide eyes, large ears, and tiny mouths that suggest the feline — could, with their pale complexions and impoverished physiques, be interpreted as people who spent too much time indoors. For this show, Olam Haba, "the world to come" in Hebrew, Weisberg transforms his cast of characters into monks or saints inhabiting bust-length plaques or slabs simulating stained, mottled, cracked, and eroded marble, porcelain, bronze, and stone. They're determinedly archaic: the hairless closed eyes, like soft, smooth oyster shells, denote introspection and ecstasy, suggesting Madonnas, buddhas, and enraptured saints, and classical/medieval elements like rosettes, columns, and arches fill the backgrounds. With its arrays of busts facing each other, the gallery become temple/crypt/catacomb exudes an elegiac atmosphere that is only slightly relieved by occasional flashes of anachronistic humor (big feet, hoodies in "May the Stars Welcome Without Judgment").

Despite the humor, though, Weisberg's intent is serious. The figures are "emotional and psychological self-portraits" that perform a ritual farewell to his late mother. "While still philosophically closer to a secular point of view, for my mother's sake, I want to believe in an afterlife. In traditional Jewish thought, the voyage of the soul is dependent upon the actions of the ... living ... Making this work became a ritual to continue the existence of my mother or at least a spiritual existence. The [physicalized] actions ... bless, help, and accompany the deceased on its journey." Through March 28 at Rowan Morrison Gallery (330 40th St., Oakland). RowanMorrison.com or 510-384-5344.


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