Tucked into a grove of redwood trees, the Berkeley Art Center resembles a yoga studio far more than a contemporary arts venue. But if you enter the heptagonal building expecting to find asanas and sun salutations, Rodney Ewing and Jamil Hellu’s simultaneous solo exhibitions (despite being part of an ongoing series called “Agility Projects”) will provide you with none.
Rather than stretches, the Berkeley Art Center’s Agility Projects commission new works from local emerging artists. In this two-part presentation, Ewing’s projects Fact & Fiction and Cloud Jar occupy the left half of the gallery, and Hellu’s Present Tense occupies the right. Both are personal reflections on issues of cultural identity -- tales told through works on paper, sculptural installation, photography and video.
Ewing’s Fact & Fiction is a series of eight works on paper that pairs images of important figures in Black American history with transcribed passages from works of fiction. In most, an abstract flow and pooling of pigment underlays the screenprinted faces and text. The colors splatter in large washes across the paper, connoting violence, sudden movement and irrevocable decisions. Ewing's pairings are full of famous figures and little-known histories, bringing unexpected references into shared and powerful narrative combinations.
For Ewing, the juxtaposition of fact and fiction is an opportunity for the audience to gain a better understanding of his subjects. “These classic tales of the imagination are tools that frame these individuals as human beings who made decisions and may have been forced into events that we would all find challenging,” Ewing writes in a description of the series. “The fiction is meant to establish empathy and invite introspection upon the actions of these persons.”
His installation Cloud Jars / Rituals of Water, a hanging collection of mason jars filled with varying levels of not-always-clear water, traces the presence and absence of the substance throughout the African diaspora. From the Atlantic slave trade to droughts in Africa to the current crisis in Flint, Michigan, photo transfers wrapped around the jars’ exteriors provide ghostly references to a far-flung community’s complicated relationship to water.
Leaving Cloud Jars, Hellu’s exhibition begins with a projected video tucked behind a short wall. In The Day I Googled “Homemade Bomb”, Hellu appears with a plethora of household chemicals (Pine Sol, Aqua Net) taped around his head as he holds a bunch of lit sparklers, the “fuse” to his homemade bomb.
The visual is striking -- and the rest of Present Tense follows suit. Examining his own place in contemporary society as a gay man of Syrian descent, Hellu covers his body in various ways -- from bondage leather to paper shroud to kaffiyeh headscarf -- using the diptych (and even more snazzily, the lenticular print) to propose a series of dichotomies. Before, after. Above, below. Arab, gay.
Two tiny moving image works draw the viewer into Hellu’s scenes with eerie visual effects. Shift shows Hellu positioned barefoot in a sandy cave, arms raised in stony-faced triumph. The background of the digital animation vibrates with red and blue distortions -- features that jump into 3D relief when the viewer puts on a supplied pair of 3D glasses.
The other small-scale gem is Once Upon a Time, a jerky video piece playing behind a brass peephole in a lovely walnut box atop a pedestal. Bending at the waist, viewers can put an eye up to the tiny opening for a glimpse of Hellu on horseback, parading in a circle with the rainbow-striped pride flag draped over his shoulder. The experience of looking feels elicit, but the subject matter -- in the context of Berkeley, Calif. -- is not.
In a meta-sense, the most exciting aspect of Ewing and Hellu’s solo shows is the institutional support provided to create a space for such shows. And if this excites you as much as it does me, stay tuned for the rest of this year’s Agility Projects, group shows I Look for Clues in Your Dreams and Later, Tennis and a Kathy Aoki solo exhibition.
Rodney Ewing: Fact & Fiction / Cloud Jar and Jamil Hellu: Present Tense are on view at the Berkeley Art Center in Berkeley through May 8, 2016. The artists will be in conversation with Rhiannon Evans MacFadyen on Thursday, April 14 at 6pm. For more information visit berkeleyartcenter.org.