Minimal Aesthetic 

Group show in Berkeley.

The East Bay has always been better known as a home for museums, art schools, and artists than as a destination for art buyers. You could probably count on one hand the number of commercial fine-art galleries in Berkeley and Oakland; there's certainly no equivalent here to the many spaces all located at San Francisco's 49 Geary Street. Katrina Traywick knew exactly what kind of place she wanted when she opened her art gallery five years ago. She'd been working at Paulson Press and curating art exhibitions for the Berkeley furniture store Zia Houseworks, and she realized there was a niche for a serious commercial gallery in Berkeley, just waiting to be filled. "It was a dismal time for art in the Bay Area," she says. "There weren't enough places to show, especially in the East Bay. So I knew it would be a challenge, but I also believed really strongly that I could do it over here."

Traywick's new group exhibition features recent works by 25 artists who have been integral to the gallery's programming thus far. Almost everything in the show was made just this past year, so it's not exactly a retrospective -- more like a five-year anniversary celebration. Fully two-thirds of the artists are from the Bay Area. Local artists have been a big part of the gallery's identity since it opened; besides including them in her regular roster, Traywick hosts an MFA show each summer that highlights East Bay art-school grads.

As you first walk in the door, the incredible variety of artists and media is a little overwhelming. Processing a few works apiece by 25 different artists is a lot harder than taking in a roomful of art by a single individual. It also requires a little extra mental exertion to wander around deciding what to think about everything without any wall cards to bail you out with background info.

But there is a definite logic to the show's setup. Movable walls subdivide the space into smaller compartments housing three or four works apiece, and these are loosely arranged into thematic groups. As you enter, three pieces greet you on the left: a group of glass megaphones by Steve Briscoe, an acrylic-on-paper drawing by Dennis McLeod called "Untitled (Green/Yellow/Black)," and two photos by Alisa Heller titled "Las Vegas, NV #15 and #21." Although they employ completely different media, they all have a graphic element in common, ranging from Briscoe's use of actual words embedded in the glass to McLeod's abstract and almost scarily obsessive mark-making.

Traywick keeps her roster balanced between established artists and "emerging" ones, and Briscoe is somewhere in the middle: a mid-career artist, living and working in Oakland, who has pieces in the Oakland Museum collection. His trio of weighty glass megaphones inscribed "Buy/Sell," "Work/Play," and "Good/Evil" reveal the same elements of edgy humor and satire that are characteristic of his previous work with photography, sculpture, and paper, but they are his first-ever glass creations. He made them very recently at a Public Glass workshop in San Francisco; the idea was to work with expert technician glassblowers to create something in a medium he wasn't already familiar with.

On the right, another visual and thematic grouping emerges: a studied interest in nature and landscape, momentarily captured and pared down to its essential elements. Amanda Marchand's "Untitled (Park La Fontaine/Water Break)" is a photographic diptych from her "415-514" series. The numbers stand for the area codes in San Francisco and Montreal. Marchand, a recent San Francisco Art Institute graduate, took pictures in both locations and then strategically juxtaposed the prints to reveal all kinds of unexpected visual "rhymes." Here, echoes emerge between snow and sand, an icy river and the California surf, twisted leafless branches and a vast Western sky.

Two silverpoint drawings ("Snowdust 1 and 2") and one painting ("The Bather") by East Bay artist Amy Kaufman might seem easy to dismiss as a bunch of dots and stripes, respectively. But Traywick explains them in much the same terms that she uses for Marchand's work -- as part of an ongoing fascination with patterns in nature. Kaufman used to paint landscapes and figures, and she is still interested in those, but now likes to depict them pared down to their barest, most fundamental elements. Johnna Arnold, also local, contributes three black-and-white digital photographs of birds sitting on telephone wires ("Birds-Hwy. 84/I-880 Intersection"). Enlarged to enormous, ominous dimensions, they are a little blurry and grainy -- not so much birds on wires as blobs on lines -- and would be totally abstract if not for the universally recognizable patterns they make against the cold gray sky.

Almost all of the art Traywick shows has this kind of minimal aesthetic. Most of the painting and even a lot of the photography she exhibits are fairly abstract, referring to the real world but not really resembling it. When figures do sometimes show up, they appear in the service of some other idea entirely, as in Dennis Begg's fabulous mixed-media work "Sampler." To create it, Begg digitized old-fashioned portrait photos and handwritten letters, layered them on top of one another, then cut them up and inserted them into the slots of an old-fashioned postcard salesman's sample book. Traditional photography may be one ingredient, but the finished product seems more about questioning the usual function of a photograph as a stand-in for the real world or a real person. His manipulations of the vintage portraits transform them into something fabricated or commodified -- inventions instead of memories.

Traywick also likes work that emphasizes the means over the end, process over finished product, and Marco Breuer's contributions are perfect examples. Rebelling against his rigid, rule-oriented photographic training, Breuer has always been interested in unconventional ways to make marks on photographic paper. This show includes "Untitled (C-99)," a piece of color photo paper that he exposed through an air-conditioning filter, and "Untitled (110)," three pieces of white paper that he "zapped" and burned with a live electrical wire. Hanging over the very outlet he used for zapping during his solo show earlier this year, this latter work seems almost like a piece of police evidence, as if the black blotches are incriminating electric fingerprints or bullet wounds. Each of Breuer's marks is clearly the direct work of a person's hand, as opposed to the "touchless" product of traditional photography.

Traywick says the most satisfying thing about this exhibition has been the opportunity to see, all together, works by so many of the artists who have helped define her gallery. To some it might seem like a contradiction: a serious commercial art space that welcomes both emerging artists and emerging art-buyers. But for Traywick, this difference has played a crucial role in her business strategy. The minimalist styles she espouses aren't necessarily for everyone, and it can be hard to appreciate process-oriented art when it's hung on a bare wall with no accompanying explanation of how it was made. But her willingness to answer questions makes it a lot more accessible, and her enthusiasm is contagious. Watching her run around the room, talking to potential buyers, explaining things, alternately waxing poetic and getting down to business, certainly made me appreciate some works I might not have appreciated otherwise.


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