Do I need to be saved? If you drove around my neighborhood you might think so. Check-cashing stores promise to tide me over till next payday and prostitutes offer to give me the best night of my life. Urban offers of salvation are everywhere if you look for them, in both strip mall churches and stores with limited time discounts. Berkeley artist Jake Watling knows this. In the paintings and installation now on display at the Swarm Gallery, he depicts all manner of drive-by promises, from storefront signs to used tire outlets giving them away for free.
Using a palette heavy on Bart Simpson yellow, Watling mimics the crude signs he critiques, employing bright colors and a blunt drawing style to get across his point. And his point, or one of his points, seems to be this: Even in the most secular of places, in the cement-paved and gray landscapes of our cities, we are looking for ways to both save and be saved. Our desire for grace is not limited to the sanctified interiors of churches or the idyllic pastures of outdoor Baptist picnics.
Mixed among these sites are recurring characters: messianic hand wavers, a bandana-clad biker, and a mysterious figure wearing a tan grass skirt. The latter has a cone-shaped head and features similar to those of Jack, the mascot for Jack in the Box. But he's not just a smiling face; he is meant to be a Polynesian symbol of life, death, and transitions. Watling deals more directly with these themes in a series of paintings that feels separate from his wood panels of urban signage. In the diptych Torodal, he depicts a man shielding his face in a hospital bed, juxtaposing this scene with one of crowded church pews. A man waves his hands beside a sign screaming "Save" and a pious family of three sit with bibles in their laps. The question seems to be: What is all this evangelical preaching and promising worth if we're all going to die anyway?
There are other artists on display at the Swarm Gallery. In fact, Watling's work is part of a group show called Enter, Exit. It includes sculpture and paintings by Jared Clark and a single sculpture by Joe Penrod. Clark's enlarged to-do lists merge narrative with imagery. In them, the artist charts his obligations, connecting list items with a circuit of meandering lines and sticking a pin over every dotted "i." Joe Penrod's Orange and Blue continues the urban theme initiated in Watling's work with a column of orange cones that precariously rise to the ceiling.
The show's literature asks a series of questions as its way of providing a curatorial theme: "When you walk into a gallery, what will happen in the time before you walk out? What will you see and connect to?" I guess this review's focus is my own answer to that question. Clark's and Penrod's work was colorful and intriguing, but Watling's paintings made me smile. And if preaching and promising don't do any good in the face of death, then a smile is worth quite a bit.
Enter, Exit is on display at Swarm Gallery, 560 Second Street, Oakland, through March 29, 2009. For more information, call 510-839-2787.