A Murmur, then a Rant!

one night in Oakland's hot art happening

By Laurie Kelsoe

In the Heart of Darkness
Artists are having an identity crisis, but apparently not Oakland artists. Oakland is on the rise and is fast becoming a twenty-four hour art happening. As an Oakland artist, I’m usually keen to stay in doors and work instead of being one more cog in a happening. Sure I like seeing my fellow artists are up to, sometimes it’s even inspiring, but I never seek it out. So last weekend I thought, why not, let’s give it a try and see what’s going on. Be a part of the scene! Get inspired! Go to Oakland’s biggest art event! The art murmur! And it worked, I did leave with a passion to create art, but it was with a passion and a heated anger to create art that isn’t crap, which was all I saw. Artists are having an identity crisis and the crisis is art. Perhaps it is just in Oakland or maybe this is a nation wide epidemic.

The Real

I decided to murmur with my best friend and fellow art critic, Lizzie Porter-Roth. We visited Manna Gallery in uptown Oakland. Manna Gallery was featuring artist Elaine Maute, whose show consisted of small canvases with little images of signs, curly lines, hash marks, triangles, all arranged in horizontal and vertical lines, evenly spaced to allow the viewers eyes to shift from one image to the next. I listened to Lizzie’s ranting about the paintings nonsensical qualities while trying to pinpoint what it was about the paintings she detested so much. Her anger was simple: we weren’t looking at anything original, but were instead being served pale replicas of Wassily Kandinsky. Maute’s compositions mimicked the same structural layout as Kandinsky’s. In color, line, shape, and form, the two can hardly be distinguished from each other, except that Kandinsky is good and Maute is, well, kind of not.

The False

It seems as if stylizing or “compositional copying” is the exciting new thing for today’s Oakland artist and Maute’s results are pretty much what you would expect from such a sad practice. As long as the artist reframes the concept and context, then all is fair game, at least according to Manna Gallery. In her artist statement on the Manna Gallery website, Maute states, “Abstraction can command subtle nuances of meaning that reach far beyond the everyday, mundane reality most of us live in. I am drawn to primal shapes, iconic forms and the intricacies of geometry.”Maute’s artist statement is a dry, textbook, Wikipedia definition of abstraction. Still, perhaps we should be easy on her since her work is showing in a commercial gallery that focuses more on selling rather than artistic inspiration or advances. After all a faux Kandinsky might just be what the office park needs. But this was just our first stop on our wonder journey through the murmur and what we found next made Maute look like a rebel and a genius.

At Slate Contemporary’s exhibition, “Paint & Pool” we are confronted with this raison d’etre: “This exhibition highlights these artists’ unique approach to painting by showcasing their modern techniques of pooling, dripping, and scraping the paint onto the surface as opposed to the traditional method of using a brush on canvas.” Among these escapees from painting are Lola’s epoxy resin paintings. They represent innovation’s last desperate cry and so does this show. The similarities to Rothko’s abstract paintings are disheartening to both the memory of Rothko and contemporary painting.

Rothko: the real
Of course that shouldn’t bother us, since Lola believes she has abandoned painting. That her pieces are displayed, structured and presented to the viewer as paintings is conveniently sidestepped. You have to laugh since most of the paintings are so conventionally pretty and I guess one could claim that they’re nice to look at, but the essence of art is the ability to move people, a community or a society and not to just be pleasing. The artist must be accountable for everything and to pretend that you aren’t painting when you are is just a horrible hipster miscalculation, somewhat akin to dressing like an idiot in order to make fun of the notion of dressing like an idiot. In the end, you still look like an idiot.

In this sense, Lola’s medium is a prefect metaphor for her work. Resin is a horrible product that’s become popular for its “cool effect.” Artists like to use resin because it creates the illusion of depth: fish underwater or really anything underwater. Pour a layer of resin, let it dry, paint on top, pour another layer of resin, let it dry, paint on top, repeat until you’ve got that special three dimensional goldfish look. What tinted resin leaves is a cold, hard, plastic surface, which discounts the importance of the brushstroke, the very thing that makes art human. Instead, you get hospital painting, grey and sterile, and little chance of anything human curling into the fibers of the canvas. It’s mass market and inhuman. Resin should become the flagship product of the Oakland art murmur.

The False

Another theme is the dictionary/Wikipedia definition. At Mercury 20, Kerry Vander Meer’s show, “Syzygy” begins with this statement, “Kerry Vander Meer offers definitions of syzygy from the dictionary and Wikipedia: 1.The configuration of the sun, the moon, and Earth lying in a straight line. 2. An archetypal pairing of contra sexual opposites, symbolizing the communication of the conscious and unconscious minds. 3. A term used by Carl Jung to mean a union of opposites.” Most people don’t understand what they are looking at when visiting a gallery. I support the artist statement if it’s done in a creative, tactful, and engaging way. No one wants to read a novel length statement, but thoughtful ideas or explanations are always welcome. However, it shouldn’t stand for the work itself. Vander Meer uses Wikipedia to define her work, and when definitions define the work what you get is an idea of art, not art. Good work requires experience. It is about understanding something from a personal level, something you lived, witnessed and felt in your body. It is not an explanation. If she said she wanted to make wall decor, well then, yes, her work would be a true success. But she’s creating art and these stale compositions, totally lacking in energy, are exactly what you would expect when you use Wikipedia as your aesthetic guide. We left the gallery feeling dull, unfulfilled, and questioning our own morals and values as art goers and people.

The Really False
So what’s happening with our Bay Area artists? What’s going on with the galleries and the choices these establishments are making in educating the public about contemporary art? There is no reason for pointing a finger at either artist or gallery for showing such atrocious art. Both should be ashamed. It is encouraged that artists always be on the front line of innovation, of pushing the norm and pointing out to its public what they choose not to look at. It is also encouraged to create art that brings beauty and richness to the world. I believe that defining what art is is contrary to what art stands for. Innovation is done by researching and studying the past, becoming motivated and influenced by it, but for God’s sake, not reproducing it. What I expect from my fellow artists and myself is integrity. And within integrity you will find authenticity, a trait I have found 98% of artists being shown at the Oakland Art Murmur lacking along with the establishments exhibiting them.

The Super False
©Laurie Kelso and the CCA Arts Review

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