She took three years of drawings, held in scholastic white and black speckled notebooks whose empty covers now lean on a gallery shelf. She mulched and recycled the work to create lumpy sheaths of paper. These pieces of paper do not serve as backgrounds to new drawings. Left blank, they are drawings -- three years' worth -- stripped of their representational qualities and repurposed as physical material. Blue and black dashes of color show up in the weave of the new paper, the afterlife of crosshatching and shading, three years spent getting a Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of California, Berkeley. Contained in hard cover bindings, this collection by Renee Delores serves as a fitting greeting to These Canyons, the UC Berkeley MFA graduate exhibition, on view at the Berkeley Art Museum through Sunday, June 8, 2008.
As with Delores's piece, each of the seven artists' work is an archive of their time spent pursuing their degrees. And as with Delores's, each body of work needs to be considered slowly, so that the layers of meaning come to the surface of their own accord. The exhibition's layout is conducive to this sort of viewing. Unlike larger MFA programs, in which many worthwhile artists are necessarily displayed together in too-small spaces, the artists in this one aren't on top of one another. There's a message implicit in this floor-plan: take your time, the work needs and deserves it.
Indira Martina Moore's large white canvases remind me of moonscapes. An intricate system of graphite dashes and dots, circles and lines create a gentle network of trails, directions, and off-center compass points. The tension between her attempts at navigating this white expanse and the unintelligibility of the mark-making system is exciting. The canvases are large -- 60 by 84 in. -- and the pencil lines are etched like skin cells into the white background. It is enough to just look at the canvases. Like windows that let in the sun, I just want to absorb them, not analyze them.
Rosalynn Khor's film, In Your Hawaiian Way, is a commentary on the commodification of Hawaiian culture, presented in the form of a self-aware documentary of a tropical vacation. We watch Khor at her computer on the mainland, as she researches the Polynesian Cultural Center, clicking on the icon that allows her to chat with a "real Polynesian!" We go to the center itself, located on the island of Oahu; the camera lens positioned as the tourist gaze. From her vantage point as a visitor to the center, Khor films the awkward tour guide, dressed in sarong and flowered shirt, as he paddles a canoe full of tourists, confessing that it's his first day and he's still learning how to navigate the boat. "Aloooo-ha," he greets the passengers exaggeratedly; it feels like parody.
My father grew up on Hawaii, and I remember visiting the Polynesian Cultural Center on one of our frequent trips to Oahu. I also remember my father sternly directing our family to make a U-turn shortly after entering the center, handing our still-good tickets to a family of "locals" walking through the parking lot. "It's a tourist trap, it's a joke," he complained to us. Khor's video successfully captures the theatricality of the Hawaiian tourist experience and the elusiveness of authentic Hawaiian culture, whatever and wherever that may be. Her filmmaking techniques mimic the tour guide's failed performance of authenticity. Deliberately amateurish, her camerawork never creates a convincing fiction. Both performances have obvious holes that invite the viewer to consider all that has gone on behind the curtain.
In the center of the gallery, concentric circles of slip, or wet clay, rise from the floor, the imprint of an earlier performance by Adrianne Crane. Wet Slip Angels involves Crane laying in a wet pool of slip and flapping her arms and legs as you would to make a snow angel. Her playful actions have serious implications, drawing attention to clay's materiality and tactility, possible reasons for its historical and unfair exclusion from the world of "serious art." Crane's artist statement, included in the exhibition brochure, shares another facet of her practice: guerrilla interventions. Crane writes, "The project is similar to street tagging, but made of wet slip imprints left behind on walls and on the ground. The images will disappear with time and weather."
Wenhua Shi's What's in your Suitcase? is a piece of psychogeography, consisting of cardboard structures fashioned to resemble suitcases or chairs. Passing a piece of plastic over each structure unlocks a recorded narrative hidden within each form. Strangers' voices animate the space, sharing stories of travel and everyday life, reminding us that physical spaces are composed of stories as well as structures.
Emily Prince uses a 19th-century viewing machine, the zoopraxiscope, to display altered 20th-century photographs. Although one of the three machines was broken on the day of my visit, the two functioning zoopraxiscopes worked like crude slide projectors. I cranked a handle, and a circle of images rotated before a shining light, creating momentary projections of family memories on the wall. Prince has physically cut the images, erasing backgrounds and surrounding details, preserving only faces and folded arms. Both the images and the obsolete viewing apparatus create a feeling of temporality. Our memories disappear, seemingly before our eyes. And our methods of viewing these memories change as well, just as quickly and unpredictably.
I stood a long time before Sunaura Taylor's 96-by-25-in. Chicken Truck, the largest of her luminous oil paintings depicting factory farming practices. The work is monumental, its details nuanced and delicate. Broken and twisted metal separates each column of cages; thin wire contains chicken bodies. We see their feathers and their forms press against the cages' frames. White chickens spill beneath bent wire; other cages are dark except for the red flame of a rooster's comb. The work juxtaposes the mechanic mentality of factory farming with the animals' sensual fragility.
Taylor's work reminds me of Danny Keith's. Keith, a recent graduate of the MFA program at California College of the Arts, makes oil paintings reminiscent of John Singer Sargent's. He depicts tried and true masculine pastimes -- hiking, camping, horsing around. Yet he injects subtly homoerotic overtones into the images. Keith plays with viewers' expectations of paintings done in this particular style, and calls attention to potentially hidden subtexts in his predecessors' works (See the CCA-MFA 2008 episode of Gallery Crawl for an interview with Keith).
Taylor also plays with viewers' expectations. Her paintings jolt us from our comfort zone as we realize her beautiful images depicts something atrocious and inhumane. We must consider the familiar and limited ways we are comfortable viewing animals in art: usually as innocuous symbols of nature or innocence. Taylor's work lures us in with its beauty, and forces us to witness the other side of our society's relationship with animals.
I was charmed by most of the work in These Canyons. But unlike a mysterious romance whose allure you can't explain, I know why. Conceptual, the work managed to be both accessible and well executed. I never scratched my head, aware that some esoteric inquiry produced what I saw before me, but baffled as to what that inquiry was. Quite a bit in life is enigmatic enough, and I appreciate art that doesn't try to be too clever. I want it to give away enough of its secrets that I feel smart, but keep enough to itself that I'm still filled with a little wonder. Because I'll be honest: I'm tired of being confused.