It’s fitting that Marion Gray: Within the Light opened on Valentine’s Day. Gray’s photographs are love letters to a community of performers and artists whose works have come and gone, as ephemeral as those small paper notes. At the Oakland Museum of California, at the far end of the Gallery of California Art, two rooms hold 23 photographs by the Bay Area artist and photographer known for capturing decades of performances, dance and installations on film. Gray’s photographs (many exhibited for the first time), combined with snippets of background information, provide exciting glimpses into both legendary and relatively obscure moments in the local history of these transitory artistic forms.
Curator Christina Linden notes, “The creative communities portrayed in this exhibition have fueled Gray’s work, and her work has, in turn, contributed to the vitality of these artistic worlds.” This exchange is tangible within the exhibition: Gray captures both small details and the larger social conditions of the time, positioning her camera to pull in the audiences, performers and atmosphere of each moment.
Spanning four decades, the exhibition begins with a floor-to-ceiling wall vinyl of Ice Car Cage (1997). Three dancers commissioned by the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Dance Festival launch themselves from and across a driverless fastback as it moves through an empty lot near the Brady Street Dance Center. A giant speaker hangs off the left side-view mirror. Gray’s flash throws the figures into reverse silhouettes of curved, bent and springing figures in the 12 sequential photographs. Their dance appears exhilarating and frenetic, a clandestine “you had to be there” moment to which Gray provides privileged access.
Other images in the show present just one or two select moments from a performance or installation. The earliest piece is a close-up from Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison’s Sacramento Meditations (1977). One of the artists, dressed in a denim coat with fabulous ceramic eye buttons on both lapels, holds a poster with the text “WHAT IF ALL THAT IRRIGATED FARMING ISN’T NECESSARY?” The photo is tightly cropped, limiting visual information to the bare minimum, and yet it’s clear the figure is in conversation, engaging the public in questions about farming and industrialized agriculture.
Gray’s most recent photograph on view is an overhead shot of Ann Hamilton at the base of the tower she designed at Oliver Ranch, enacting Songs of Ascension (2009), a collaboration with Meredith Monk. She walks through calf-high water as she moves from one set of spiral stairs to another (they loop, double-helix style, up and down the structure). It’s a magical, blue-lit moment.