In Praise of the Strangest Painting I’ve Ever Seen

Keith Hale, 'Accepting the Duck,' 1996–97. (Sarah Hotchkiss/KQED)

When you title an exhibition Strange, as the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive has, you’d better be able to deliver some pretty odd fare. What’s strange to one person, era or culture may not be at all unusual to others.

Take, for instance, Nancy Grossman’s Head, included in the show. In the context of a fine art space (or in the absence of a BDSM space), the black leather-wrapped head-shaped form is indeed strange. But come September, close approximations of this sculpture won’t seem at all out of place roaming the Folsom Street Fair.

Can an object or image exist that is well and truly strange, regardless of context? The Surrealists thought so. So, apparently, do BAMPFA curators and exhibition organizers Lawrence Rinder, Stephanie Cannizzo, Lynne Kimura and Kate MacKay. Taking its cue from the preoccupations of the Surrealists, Strange looks before and after the movement’s heyday (roughly, 1924–1945) for unsettling, surprising and hard-to-pin-down things in the museum’s collection.

Installation view of 'Strange,' with Frank C. Moore's 'Jacques and Tyrone,' 1997 at left. (JKA Photography)

There’s plenty of strangeness to chew on. A Japanese woodblock print of an old woman being devoured by monsters and demons, Frank C. Moore’s extremely odd painting of a fantastical underwater scene and Robert Arneson’s ceramic Typewriter (with fingers in place of keys) all fit within the exhibition’s parameters. But the strangest piece in Strange is Keith Hale’s 1996–97 painting Accepting the Duck.

While other artworks get hefty blocks of contextualizing wall text, the label for Hale’s oil-on-wood painting reveals nothing but its barest identifying facts: artist’s name, artwork title, date, materials, size. Placed in the “Funny Strange” section of the show (there are several zones in Strange, including “Juxtaposition” and “Myth and Magic”), Accepting the Duck is not only a standout within the exhibition, it’s also one of the weirdest artworks I’ve ever experienced.

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The scene: Two figures fill the foreground against a dark field of what could be either lava or scorched earth. Behind them, surfers hang ten across waves of fire; the sky fills with acrid smoke. A 1950s-looking boy roasts a hot dog over the flames, another boy watches. The word “atomic” comes to mind.

Against that background, sweat drips down the forehead of a boy with neatly combed hair and blue eyes. He smiles (nervously?) into the face of ... a duck. The duck (could it be Howard the Duck?), wears a wetsuit, carries a surfboard and rests its right hand (not wing, mind you) on the boy’s shoulder. Their equal-sized heads are very close to each other.

Oh, and to make matters even more interesting-slash-strange, the frame for Accepting the Duck bears at its apex a tiny painted figure of another duck, this one more closely resembling Donald of Disney fame, who holds his hands, seemingly in embarrassment, over his bare feathered body. Cartoonish lines of distress emanate from either side of his head.

Installation view of 'Strange' at BAMPFA, with Nancy Grossman's 1968 sculpture 'Head' in the vitrine. (JKA Photography)

What the hell is going on?

An inquiry to BAMPFA yielded no clues, not even an explanation of the anthropomorphic, human-sized duck in the room. What little evidence of Hale’s work exists elsewhere on the internet appears much less hallucinatory, featuring landscapes and architecture, and no sign of ducks.

After I left BAMPFA and for days afterward, I thought about Hale’s painting. Is it about ecological crisis? Mid-20th century expectations meeting late 20th-century realities? Is it about welcoming outsiders into an insular, bro-heavy surf scene? Who’s giving whom the board and what the heck does that mean? Can surfboards catch fire? Is that hot dog safe to eat?

To be well and truly strange, something must remain strange after the shock of initial encounter. It must be inexplicable, or at least hard to explain. For me, Accepting the Duck achieves this, stupendously.

In an era of how-to videos, insufferable know-it-alls, instant Google searches and very little mystery, genuine strangeness is rare—but even more necessary. Like the bolt of lightning that strikes every time Marlene Kos looks away from the horizon in her 1976 video made with Paul Kos (also on view), strangeness destroys the illusion of human control, of tidy, easily digestible happenings that occur in an orderly manner. We need strangeness to train our senses for real chaos, which the year ahead will likely hold. The good news is, you still have time to find your own strange talisman at BAMPFA.

'Strange' is on view at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive through Jan. 19. Details here.