Oakland Art Murmur, First Fridays and the Saturday Art Stroll, 6-7 September 2013

12.9.2013 Nikolai Sadik-Ogli

Since 2006, Oakland Art Murmur has hosted exhibitions, artists’ receptions and special events in twenty one art galleries and nine mixed-use venues in downtown Oakland on the first Friday evening of every month. Since many of the galleries are located within only a few blocks of each other, the event provides an excellent opportunity to experience a concentrated overview and diverse cross-section of the current cultural and artistic scene in Oakland involving visual art, sculpture, photography, multimedia art, music and performance. The event has recently partnered with Oakland First Fridays, a nearby street festival described further below.

Additionally, seventeen of the galleries and eight of the mixed-use venues open again for the weekly Saturday Art Stroll, where it is possible to see the art in a calmer and less crowded setting. Some galleries host additional special events, such as opening receptions, concerts or artists’ talks on Saturday, as well. (See oaklandartmurmur.org,oaklandfirstfridays.org)

These events provide an excellent counterbalance to the unfortunate fact that Oakland continues to be in the news as a community troubled by violence and other urban problems. Fortunately, these issues have started to draw the community together in an attempt to bring an end to the senseless murders and other crimes.

Art Murmur and Saturday Art Stroll

“The New Bay Bridge” exhibition at Vessel Gallery commemorated the opening of the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge on 3 September, one of the biggest recent changes in the Bay Area. The exhibition featured dramatic visualizations of various Bay Area highway structures by Christy Kovacs and models by John Ruszel of suspension bridge-like structures that relied on tension, balance, gravity, symmetry and pattern. In the gallery’s spacious upstairs area, the Musical Art Quintet performed vigorous original pieces that displayed influences from a wide variety of sources, including gypsy jazz and operatic singing. (It should also be mentioned that another current exhibition at San Francisco City Hall explored the new bridge from a different angle through the dramatic photographs taken by Joseph A. Blum during its construction. In the pictures, welders and steel workers operate dangerously massive equipment at dizzying heights on the cables and main tower.) (See vessel-gallery.com,christykovacs.com,johnruszel.com, www.musicalartquintet.com, classicalrevolution.org)

Perhaps the most entertaining exhibition was Julie Alvarado’s “Urban Hunting: Squirrel Season” at Mercury 20 Gallery. Two clever installations, one of a female mannequin dressed in camouflage with pink trim and a pink NRA cap and another featuring a table display with an old cocktail named the Pink Squirrel, a pink hunting rifle and red pellets complemented the small and upsetting, yet humorous, paintings of troublesome squirrel invasions and infestations (the animals were even drawn into some impressive beehive hairdos). On her website, Alvarado states that she finds nature to be beautiful and wants to embrace it, but she also recognizes that it has thorns and sharp teeth. This particular series had been inspired by her trip to Cabella’s Sporting Goods store in Nevada and the stories, both good and bad, that she heard there about interactions between squirrels and humans. (See mercurytwenty.com, uliealvarado.com)

Elaine Maute’s austere pieces made up the exhibition “into silence” at Manna Gallery. The room evoked a calming, meditative atmosphere. To complement the mostly white paintings, there was a transparent mobile that cast slight shadows on the barren wall. According to her artist’s statement, the exhibition had been inspired both by a roomful of work by minimalist Agnes Martin at the Harwood Museum in Taos, New Mexico and a performance of British composer Sir John Tavener’s piece Towards Silence at St. Martins in the Field in London. Maute therefore strove to achieve a similar sense of calm in these pieces by using simple geometry and imaginary symbols to create an invented visual language that conjured the spirit of ancient codices and evoked other mental and physical states. The predominant use of white in these paintings was inspired by its subtlety, simplicity and purity. (See mannagallery.com/Elaine-Maute)

The most affecting venue was the Creative Growth Art Center, a facility devoted to artists with developmental, physical and mental disabilities. The center is now celebrating its 40th anniversary with a complete retrospective gala exhibition planned for April 2014. Its spacious building houses a small shop, gallery space and a large, well-equipped open work studio area. The current exhibition, “Departures,” featured contemporary work by affiliated artists who had recently started exploring new media. These included San Francisco’s Donald Mitchell, who has been at the center since 1986 and recently switched from predominantly black and white drawing to oil painting. In sculpture, John Martin created a whimsically oversized Nokia cellphone for the back of the facility’s outdoor sign, while Lauren Dare had made multilayered wooden pieces out of painted bits of scrap left over from other people’s projects that resemble Jean Arp’s organic work. She had thickened some of the individual components with different colors of paint applied in multiple layers. Gallery Assistant Steven Garen emphasized how the organization’s philosophy was to allow the artists to work unfettered without the imposition of arbitrary external or traditional technical expectations. Much of the work demonstrated a classic “outsider art,” or “art brut,” quality. (See creativegrowth.org)

As should be obvious by now, there was an overwhelming amount and variety of art on display, and it would have been impossible to see everything. Of course, some exhibitions were disappointing, while other venues leaned towards an arts and crafts approach that emphasized technique and popular approachability over metaphysical or aesthetic challenges and inquiry. Nevertheless, every gallery, nook and cranny yielded someone else’s studio, a shared work space or a completely different kind of exhibition. For example, Sam Vaughan (“New Drawings” at the artist-run Studio Quercus, studioquercus.com
samvaughan.com/) and Matthew Pugh (“Mythos” at Warehouse 416, warehouse416.com
matthewpughsculpture.com) have created intricately detailed drawings of unusual, and maybe even ugly, but still compelling humanoid-type creatures. The blurred lights in Dane Pollok’s kinetic photographs leap out of the frame (“Full Space” at FM Gallery

One final interactive opportunity that was unique to this particular weekend was the appearance of the Oakland Museum of California’s Oakland Rover, an interactive mobile museum that allowed anyone, even without any prior experience, to create a short stop-motion animation film. These amateur films were later broadcast along with other, professionally prepared shorts, onto the massive, 100’ x 100’ Great Wall of Oakland project installation on West Grand Avenue near Broadway. (See greatwallofoakland.org, Oakland Rover)