The UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive exhibition Way Bay is a love letter to the Bay Area. Showcasing works created by local artists, or else inspired by the bay and the artist’s journey through, it runs until June 3, 2018, with several community participation events along the way. Works will be switched out during the summer and the exhibition will continue until September 2.
When you think of Bay Area art, you probably don’t see any one style or identity. You might imagine passionate protest and experimentation. You may think of words, or music, or landscapes full of forest green. In developing the show, the goal was not to check off boxes or tell the definitive art history of the Bay Area, said Lawrence Rinder, museum director and chief curator of the show. Rather, the project focused on finding the most interesting works in the collection, and grouping them together intuitively so that their relationships tell a story and evoke a feeling.
“I tried to let the works bring themselves together—I didn’t want to be too heavy handed about creating groups,” said Rinder. “Once I had a pool of works that I liked, I began to put them into groups that were not so much—in fact, at all, about art historical categories, media, or time periods, but instead about relationships of sensibility or emotion.”
The exhibit—of poetry, paintings, film, sculpture, fabrics, and other media—explores the creative energies that have emerged in the Bay Area over the last 200 years. Curators dove deep into their collection, unscrewing crates and old boxes to unearth hidden gems. They also acquired several pieces by women and people of color so as to more accurately reflect the bay’s diversity and redress historical oversights, Rinder said.
“I did have a little bit of a bias towards more unknown artists, because I felt like this was an opportunity to daylight really deserving works that maybe had never been seen before.”
At the entrance of the exhibit, the walls are lined with a series of poems submitted to the museum for the show by more than 80 Bay Area writers. After Rinder grouped the artworks together—with input from co-curators Kathy Geritz and David Wilson—he picked lines from those poems that somehow crystallized the overall feeling of an art group. Those lines were then used as the titles for the different groupings.
As an example, Rinder pointed to the photograph Marvin by Erica Deeman, an excerpt from a series of portraits of men from the African diaspora. Each subject is shot against a soft, umber-brown background matching Deeman’s own skin color. The man featured in Marvin, shirtless and glowing slightly against the lighter brown, looks thoughtfully off to the camera’s side.
“You could totally have that piece in a show about identity and race,” said Rinder. “But there’s another quality to that work that is about a kind of contemplation, or repose, as well as a profound state of quietness…. We’re trying to look for connections that aren’t literal, but look to a deeper layer of the art.”
And so Marvin sits among stunning local landscapes and abstract work, in a group captioned with, “At the edge of the known world, we stand amazed.” Also in the grouping is Bruce Bailie’s avant-garde three-minute film, All My Life, which tracks a withered fence and bursts of red flowers along the California coast while Ella Fitzgerald croons, “All my life / I’ve been waiting for you.”
Rinder said that taken together, the group evoked for him a “sensation of sublime beauty.”
Although the show is not an art history exhibit, it does feature works from important time periods in local art. One such is the Bay Area Figurative Movement, when painters Richard Diebenkorn and David Park, among others, rebelled against the dominant abstract expressionist style. The museum recently received an important piece from Diebenkorn’s Berkeley years called Studio Wall (1963), a painting of his studio on Adeline Street.
The show also has an extensive film component. The films play on mounted screens next to paintings, as well as on screens hanging throughout the space. According to film curator Kathy Geritz, the films go back over a hundred years, the oldest being a black-and-white silent film shot from the front of a cable car in San Francisco, not long before the 1906 earthquake and fire.
Another highlight of the collection is a coiled, disk-shaped basket from the Bay Area’s indigenous Ohlone tribe, borrowed from the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology on campus (BAMPFA borrowed exclusively from the Hearst Museum and the Bancroft Library for this exhibition). The basket is in a group of art with the poetic title: “See! I am dancing! / On the rim of the world I am dancing!” According to the guide, it was used for sifting acorn meal and was probably made between 1795 and 1814, when the Ohlone people were forcibly moved to the Mission Soledad, west of Monterey.
“I gave myself a little latitude to go south on that one,” Rinder said. “It’s a beautiful basket, a circular thing, that encapsulates the kind of universe that to many of us is sadly unknown at this point.”
As an extension of the Way Bay show, the museum has also created a number of public programs included in the price of admission. On February 18, the museum will feature art created and mailed in by the San Quentin Prison Program, and will give patrons the opportunity to send art by return post. Other events include an introductory voguing class, a collage studio, and various lectures and artist discussions.
Given the organization and breadth of the show — from the community engagement programs to the symbiosis between the poems and artwork — if there is one theme that emerges, it is that art in one form can inspire and strengthen another, and that the diversity of the Bay Area has long been a catalyst for that creation.
“Although it wasn’t a conscious aim to have an exhibition that ultimately defines the Bay Area, nevertheless it will be interesting to see if there is some kind of sensibility that emerges from this aggregate, where people maybe go through the show and say, “That’s the Bay Area I know,” Rinder said.