Create, an exhibition curated by Larry Rinder and Matthew Higgs at the University of California Berkeley Art Museum (BAM/PFA), is an astonishing exercise in line and pattern. Work has been culled from three groundbreaking arts organizations supporting artists with developmental and physical disabilities: Creativity Explored, in San Francisco; Creative Growth, in Oakland; and the National Institute of Art and Disabilities (NIAD), in Richmond. The exhibition, which generously fills three of the museum's galleries, gives these artists the space and contextualization they have rarely received in past exhibitions.
The exhibition layout and curatorial decisions allow wide space for reflection, and each artist is well represented. Their work is not arranged by organization; in fact, it is not explicitly clear with which of the spaces individual artists are associated. Instead, the show is arranged to communicate the modes of art production perpetuated in the three partnering organizations. Abstraction, the exploration of masking both physical and metaphorical layers, repetitive images, and text are present in the various groupings in each gallery.
For example, Evelyn Reyes depicts abstract renderings of one shape or object in multiple colors and orders. James Montgomery paints clocks and watches in tight and frenetic molecules of movement, while other artists, including Bertha Otoya, William Tyler, and John Patrick McKenzie, use text and repeating phrases to create graphic narratives of depth. A viewer has the opportunity to learn a great deal about the artists by seeing multiple works and to understand their practices as a relevant part of current art dialogues happening today.
The three arts spaces at the center of Create are independent nonprofit organizations founded by one couple, Florence Ludins-Katz and Elias Katz. Creative Growth opened in 1976, NIAD in 1982, and Creativity Explored in 1983, with its gallery opening in 1995. Although each of their histories and missions are unique, they are all committed to providing support and instruction to enhance the creative endeavors and professional art practice of artists with physical and mental disabilities. The artists who participate in these organizations often show and sell their work in the centers' galleries as well as in exhibitions around the country. In the accompanying catalog, Rinder further describes what makes the philosophies the Katzes brought to these art spaces and their artists so special: "Their approach focused on a group studio environment, professionalism, and engagement with the broader art community. The progressive, inclusive social environment of the Bay Area facilitated the Katzes' vision by providing many opportunities for involvement with practicing artists as well as a welcoming audience -- and collectors -- for the work made in each studio. The artists at the three Bay Area centers work alongside one another, create new works specifically for exhibition and sale, make frequent visits to local galleries and museums, and have regular access to artist mentors who assist them in developing new approaches and techniques."
Aurie Ramirez. Untitled, 2000. Collection of Dave Muller and Ann Faison, Pasadena.
Jeremy Burleson's abstract paper-and-tape sculptures resembling cages or light fixtures hang from the ceiling to create an enchanting pattern of shadows against the wall. Underneath, his piles of paper needles, handcuffs, and ventilators are nearly too real to be dismissed, effectively conjuring up the unknown but eerily recognizable histories and experiences surrounding these objects that produce emotional or physical restraint.
Michael Bernard Loggins' enormous numbered list, Fear of Your Life, is installed on the wall in vinyl lettering based on Loggins' handwriting. His fears include #8, Fear of Strangers; #21, Fear of spiders and roaches and mouse raccoons and rats too; and #35, Fear of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is simple, honest, and funny -- who doesn't have Los Angeles fears (#31)? Higgs and Rinder made a brilliant decision to install it on such a large scale, as it invokes an overwhelming response. To Loggins' list, I add my own fear: all of my fears written out for the world to see.
Aurie Ramirez opens up a terrifying and inviting imaginary universe complete with costumed, posturing, and masked androgynous figures whose genders are distinguished only by color: red for males and green for females. They lounge around in either tony houses or under streetlights, in a world that is both soothing and spooky. Ramirez is inspired by the band KISS, and the layers of theatricality and performance as evidenced by both the band and her drawings play on the desire to exist freely in pretend environments while using them as a means of escape from the real world. Either way, these are not paintings that easily leave your mind.
Indisputably, the work in Create is stunning. The layout and pacing of the show allows a viewer to deeply enter the complexities of individual bodies of work and artists' practices. It also conveys a tone of being explicit about art-making. The exhibition does not blur the boundaries between artists with or without disabilities, but instead sharpens them. It is made clear that these artists were and continue to be supported by organizations that successfully recognize their needs both personally and professionally. These artists would not have been able to articulate through these visual tools without the kind of support they received by the partnering organizations, nor would we have been able to experience the cavernous depth of what it means to create.
Create is on view through September 25, 2011 at the UC Berkeley Art Museum. For more information visit bampfa.berkeley.edu.