A Shipping Container Painting and a Pandemic

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Berkeley artist Dewey Crumpler (L); 'Deep Memory,' 2019, Acrylic paint collage, graphite and pastel, 30 x 22 inches. (Courtesy of the Artist and Jenkins Johnson Gallery, New York and San Francisco)

To Berkeley artist Dewey Crumpler, shipping containers are symbols of authority, monuments to economic and geopolitical power wrought from steel and stacked like ramparts. They’re metaphors for turnover and migration, closely associated with multicultural port cities. They sometimes seem to represent spiritual transit and the painful reverberations of history. In Deep Memory, graphite rubbings of rectangular shapes suggest a cell-like container beneath diffuse pink and yellow pastel. The top half of the canvas has a cruelly menacing, saturated lash of black. With our movement restricted and the air a threat, its symbolism is growing more rich and pliant.

Crumpler probably didn’t anticipate a deadly new coronavirus when he created Deep Memory last year, but the specter of the COVID-19 pandemic is certainly coloring artwork about globalization. The contagion has also derailed Crumpler’s professional life in 2020, postponing an exhibition at Cushion Works gallery and a 15-year survey at Richmond Art Center. The San Francisco Art Institute, where Crumpler has long worked as a painting professor, is coming undone. Yet I encountered Deep Memory through Crumpler’s support for another institution, in a context that calls on the past and present of global commerce. It is one of dozens of artworks donated to an online auction benefiting the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco.

The Museum of the African Diaspora's auction closes May 5. Read more about the auction here, and see the nearly three dozen works on offer here.