West Berkeley: A Hotbed Still
As the BART train rolled into Berkeley Station my mind was filled with preconceptions. Student rioters, health food stores, KPFA Radio, counter culture musicians with long hair, beat poets, and drug culture inhabited my imaginary city. Physically I thought of the the Victorian homes, Spanish stucco, and rolling hills of neighboring San Francisco. But as I surfaced from the underground, a sprawling, flat, suburban Berkeley awaited me. Other than an occasional homeowner weeding his garden or adjusting her “Free Political Prisoners” sign, there were few people in the street. Making my way past wooden homes and occasional industrial buildings, I approached the alternative spaces of a highly distinctive California art scene.
The Babilonia Wilner Foundation Contemporary Arts Program shows some of the most exciting projects by artists who are politically conscious but never heavy handed. More often than not BWF exhibitions challenge comfort zones with humor and irony. Built in 1878 for a timber shipping merchant, the home was restored in 1993 by Malou Babilonia and David Wilner using recycled and ecologically friendly materials. Malou Babilonia is a native of the Philippines, where she became sensitized to issues of environmental preservation. Together with her husband Ms. Babilonia created a foundation with Berkeley headquarters that houses Pusod Center for Culture and Ecology and Babilonia 1808 an art exhibition space. In addition, the BWF publishes BalikKalikasan, a journal to foster social change in the Philippines where it also maintains headquarters. Sherry Apostol, formerly of the University of California Art Museum, directs programming which recently included an exhibition of work by Kenji Yanobe. This Japanese artist creates suits and vehicles for the post-apocalyptic world of some biological, chemical, or nuclear disaster. The work calls to mind Godzilla costumes, futuristic moon buggies, and monster robots. But this work is partly inspired by the release of sarin gas into a Tokyo subway station at rush hour in 1995 by a terrorist. In light of the World Trade Center attacks, Yanobe’s work seems as ominous as it is fanciful. Apostol also curated an interesting exhibition of new painting by Francesca Enriquez and Kara Maria. Enriquez makes heavily glazed paintings of magazine and newspaper pages that confound viewer’s expectations of the ephemeral versus enduring culture. Maria paints delectable color fields, like one might find on a Marimekko sheet, but which include non-sequiter figuration like a warplane. Viewers are jolted from their appreciation of pattern by an agent of violence in the real world.
A staple of the Babilonia Wilner Foundation Collection is Los Angeles based artist Gorganne Deen. Deen’s work is disconcerting in its combination of religious subject matter and grotesque aberrations of the modern world. Her subjects are often framed in a halo or some kind of architectural niche, similar to a shrine. In My powers! They’re gone!!, a Hindu mantle of fire surrounds a bald, naked woman with a painted third eye. Her powers, presumably sexual mana, have vanished with age, leaving the subject with a porcine face and pendulous, drooping breasts. Mini Sampler (Anything You Want) is an icon of sexual repression, with depicts a pig-man hybrid holding his hands in prayer. The space between his hands becomes a dark vulva, and a thought-bubble to his right depicts a beleagered man who masturbates his six-foot penis.
Manuel Ocampo is a Filipino artist who lives in Berkeley and whose works figure largely in the Babilonia Wilner Foundation Collection. His work is intensely political, mixing and matching emblems of totalitarianism, capitalism, and religion. Christus Bei Gottwatter, a work from the Wilner collection, depicts a frightening hooded horseman, charging out of dark underpainting on a white steed. The rider suggests Klansmen to American viewers, but in fact he wears the traditional cloak of certain Italian and Spanish priests. To his right is the flaming heart of Christ pierced by a dagger and upheld by a cross and palm frond. A metallic ribbon, through which a crown of thorns is strung like a bead, encircles the heart and and its golden halo. Ocampo writes religious mottos on the canvas in Spanish and Latin in such a way that large text obscures obscures smaller writing. Like many of the artist’s works, Ocampo’s painting presents the dark side of religious identity, which demands individual surrender through the donning of a mask.
The Bay Area Center for the Consolidated Arts is the brainchild of artist Giordano Pozzi. Pozzi renovated an industrial building on Murray Street (it was a former olive canning factory, and more recently an auto-dismantling junkyard) to create an exhibition space for contemporary art. BACCA now includes a small garden and a living space. By making it his home, Pozzi created a gesamptkunstwerk, in which art mingles with life at every turn. At BACCA he has exhibited choice artists from Europe, the East Coast, and the Bay Area. Recently the BACCA exhibited new work by Joseph Slusky, an artist and architect who fabricates mysterious tool-like shapes in welded steel. The Rake’s Progress is a threatening piece that vaguely suggests a bear trap. Tines hover over a sharp metal tongue, so that the rake, much like William Hogarth’s anti-hero, becomes the agent of its own destruction. Another recent exhibition presented new work by Teresa Kalnoska, a Bay Area painter. Using apples as a point of departure, Kalnoska paints figuration that is seemingly devoid of structure or place. Her red forms appear closer to planets swathed in gaseous billows than any fruit.
Chris Natrop is a San Francisco artist who works with BACCA 1010. His drawings evoke a primordial landscape, dominated by bodies of dark water, reeds, and grasses. One of his drawings depicts the birth of a luminous egg born out of the water, sending ripples into the surrounding darkness. Natrop uses black charcoal and conté crayons to obtain dramatic lighting effects and subtle gradations around the egg as it rises from the depths. What could be inside? Natrop’s fascination with evolution and anxieties about modern genetics are conveyed in drawings and paintings that explore both nature and the human psyche.
Tyrome Salvatore Tripoli
Tyrome Tripoli, like Chris Natrop, creates pods and eggs. But Tripoli realizes his forms in heavy blown glass, often employing color, surrounded with wrought metal. 101 Central FWY Overpass Blown Glass and Steel Pod Installation, a recent project in San Francisco, involved mounting sculptural elements on the steel girders of a highway. He did so without permission from the city and his work was probably removed by the same maintenance workers who clean graffiti off public property. But in fact Tripoli‘s project raised interesting questions about the relationship between urban sprawl and nature. Tripoli’s pods have a strong affinity with organic forms in nature, but are produced from the very stuff of modern buildings. Steel and glass can take many forms, and what maintenance workers find so threatening is Tripoli’s irrational intrusion on the hard geometry of urban thoroughfares.
Dorsey Dunn, an artist who works with BACCA 1010, possesses many complementary interests and talents. Raised in Japan and Singapore, Dunn studied history and literature as an undergraduate at Columbia University. From 1993-1996 he published Trafika, a literary magazine out of New York. But first and foremost Dunn is a media artist, who orchestrates original electronic music compositions with projected text and images. Dunn’s compositions employ a rich layering of sounds. Synthesized percussion and electronic melodies give way to recorded sounds in new compositions. Some of Dunn’s recent media projections are organized into distinct animated panels, each of which displays an atmospheric event like clouds moving across the sky. He culls textual citations from diverse sources, including Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Dunn’s artistic influences include Chris Marker’s La Jetée, a 1962 film of still images which explores issues of memory and time travel after a nuclear cataclysm.
Ever since Giordano Pozzi was a young boy he was fascinated with dragonflies. They are among the oldest living creatures on the planet, dating back 300 million years, and seem to bridge prehistory and modern times. As a sculptor he is interested in their armor-like exoskeleton of fitted plates and diaphanous veined wings. In front of BACCA 1010, Pozzi created a 12-foot-tall sculpture in polyethelyne entitled Dragon’s Demise, which captures three stages in the death of a dragonfly. Plastic elements are tied together is much the same way as samurai armor, and like its diminutive subject, Dragon’s Demise moves in the wind. At night it is illuminated from within like certain phosphorous laden insects in nature. In a recent pen and ink drawing, Pozzi depicts only part of the dragonfly’s body, blocking it out into shapes. By painting these enclosed shapes in watercolor, Pozzi captures some the complex rapport of strength, fragility, and color that make a dragonfly.
© Daniel Rothbart, 2001.