all photos courtesy Krowswork Gallery 2012
Friday, June 22, 2012 saw the opening of DocumentO, an extremely ambitious project at Krowswork Gallery in Oakland, California. It was organized by its Director, Jasmine Moorhead. Operating under the guise of an unofficial satellite show to dOCUMENTA (13), the massive, 100-day exhibition held every five years in Kassel, Germany, the show at Krowswork is a brief (July 1 close) overview of the art scene in Oakland. It has been noted that ‘no one likes these things when they happen’, but judging by early reviews, dOCUMENTA’s main curator, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, has put together a stellar show.
This is no small accomplishment given the potential for an enormous budget, coupled with a who’s who of international artists, to be eclipsed by the numerous biennials and international exhibitions dotting the calendar; not to mention the curator’s oversized personality and tendency toward bold, broad statements which could have easily overshadowed the exhibition, making dOCUMENTA’s mostly positive reception all the more surprising.
For a thorough, informal, but critical review/walk through, see the three blog posts at http://blog.frieze.com/archive/)
documentO found itself presaged by a bit of bold writing/framing by Moorhead, which localized Christov-Bakargiev’s theory about the current status of the artist as occupying a series of possible positions with art as sort of emergent phenomena:
“What does it mean to be in a state of siege?
What does it mean to be in a state of hope?
What does it mean to be in withdrawal, in retreat?
What do I do when I am onstage, when I am performing?”
Moorhead draws parallels to Oakland with its perpetual ‘state of siege’, its situation as a model for America, and its artists as performing Oakland. I will expand on how the show addresses these concerns later, but what sticks out most at the preview is the shear number of artists included. There were fifty, yes, fifty, in the show, which led to cramped quarters at times. The other, less obvious observation is how eclectic they are. Many engage in practices far outside the discernible boundaries of Art Murmur or classic Oakland-based art. Many, too, have exhibited internationally and/or within the Bay Area’s larger institutions.
While an interesting cross-section of the art scene, it lacked key attributes. First, space, in order to consider the individual works. Second, context to go along with the art beyond their titles, materials, et al. Within this very specific context, some pieces still managed to carve out space enough to be read, but, in general, little beyond immediate visceral aesthetic affect was offered.
It may be a result of the work itself and curatorial decisions about placement, although the work appearing on the salon-style wall was not much more than a blur–no one piece was differentiated from the others. It could be they were victims of a deficiency (many were bland photographs), choices about display, or perhaps, more candidly, my own unwillingness to look closer. This contrasted greatly with the small room facing the entry where the works felt more individuated, creating a balance that worked, despite a tedious drawing by Dean Smith placed in the center of the room.
Confirmation bias, the tendency to see evidence which confirms previously held opinions, held sway on my review of the work. I found myself drawn to works/practices I was familiar with such as Hillary Wiedemann’s excellent Trying to Remember the Equatorial Sun. I especially remember the hours absorbing the futile struggle of a camcorder attempting to capture the sun, resulting in various colored artifacts becoming simultaneously tragic and funny. Also worthwhile among this grouping was the abstract work of John Davis and Suzy Poling which included two, similarly grainy films.
There was much time-based media on display throughout the show, including Zarouhie Abdalian’s peculiar Drift, a film about debris outflow from the Mississippi. The details were so illegible that it felt like a sketch on a small screen. Also, Tooth and Moyah Pravah Newsreel’s hectic, 16 mm film, which would have benefited from a larger format (it was shown on a small screen as a video transfer), and Chris and Greg’s (Chris Vargas and Greg Youmans) silly take on the reality show ‘Work of Art’ where their versions of queer art are disparagingly critiqued by the show’s judges. A subtle video by Matthew Draving worked well on small screen. Its ambiguous content sat tilted in the frame with its mac top bar provided a sort of time and name signature and the introduction, for a brief second, the shadow of a hand, established and broke a second wall of sorts. As previously mentioned, familiarity with these artists and their work, I suspect, contributed to my preselection of the works I chose to review.
Highlights from the rest of the show include Chris Fraser’s light installation in a corner of the pew room, a subtle variation on his practice investigating projected and estranged light. Two of the painters whose work I respond to, in part due to their medium/style’s lack of a need for context, were Steuart Pittman’s small Mansio Mens– three black geometric shapes and on a hazy background and John Zurier’s strikingly similarly concerned Jenny, a simple duo-chrome work. Their works complemented each other although they are from wildly disparate art worlds and generations–Zurier received his MFA not long after Pittman’s birth, and the juxtapositions fueled excitement.
Kelly Lynn Jones’ Shelf from the Lifestyle Store, a collection of mocked objects (using what I often refer to as dumb trompe l’oeil and meant as a compliment), stood out well from the pack. So did Emma Spertus’s sculpture, fortunate enough to be situated outdoors. It was a foreshortened, ping-pong table/box object, providing relief from the main exhibition in its playfulness and serendipity. Less pleasing were Favianna Rodriguez’s posters Its My Body – It’s My Pussy I’m a Slut. Their content, confrontational counter-point to recent conservatist legislation, was forced, although, admittedly I dislike her illustration style.
The lack of context was especially awkward to some of the work by artist’s whose practice is deeply vested in a broader project. Two former Berkeley Art Museum Matrix artists, Desirée Holman and David Wilson, was a bit lost in the show with each represented by a singular drawing. Holman’s Flesh Texture (Diffuse Map), a strange color pencil drawing of a sort of flattened face was simply too weird without its video accompaniment, and David Wilson’s delicate illustration of various small plants feels precious and irrelevant separated from his broader practice which is made relevant by the shear breadth of his nature studies. Much of the show’s photography, particularly on a large salon-style wall, did not allow for individual impact, suggesting that some of these artists might benefit from placement in larger groupings or at the very least, explanatory text.
In the end, my anticipation of what the show would be like matched what I saw in person. It was an ambitious, risky, exciting project which dared to present a vision of what Oakland art is. Its potential felt hemmed in by the complicated nature of its ambitions and a lack of space and/or editing. That assessment is a harsh one, because as a curator, I am unsure I could have done a better job of incorporating so many strains and subcultures of the Oakland scene. I imagine I would have’d be hemmed in by a too tightly wound aesthetic, and I don’t really subscribe to presenting (or viewing) art through a regionalist’s lens. The contradiction here is that Oakland is an especially vital place in the Bay Area, and potentially, in the broader art conversation. There are many incredible artists here, with more migrating every year for various educational opportunities and the wide array of cultural offerings. My feelings are best reflected in my agreement (and disagreement) with Moorhead’s statement for the show:
Oakland has spent much of the last year in a state of siege. And before that, and before that.
Oakland, this sprawling urban space, has never been any more or less under siege. Traveling around Oakland before, during and after the most visible aspects of Occupy, things are the same as they ever were, with people going to and from work and school semi-oblivious to what seem to those close to the matter life/game changing experiences and events. So, before that and before that, there was distrust in the local and broader government, general segregation-lite, creeping gentrification (of which the art spaces and artists which are multiplying here are the vanguard). Can an art show promote change, political or social in a way that denies either spectacle or commodity, or must it always operate as an ‘enemy from within’?
Oakland right now is being asked to perform for the world. These artists, who either live or work in Oakland, are performing Oakland.
Who is asking? This feels unresolved, our place within a broader art historical and contemporary context is something we create regardless of outside desire. We are not being asked, yet via our projects here and away we do perform Oakland, which is to say, we reflect in our general tone and wide ranging productions this place as peculiarly vital (especially given the lack of substantial institutional, fiscal, and state support). Art is unsolicited and in surplus to the everyday; the futility of adding one more picture, one more object, one more action to the scheme of things is both disheartening and exciting.