There's a There There
By Lou Fancher
Curators at the Oakland Museum of California say Oakland is an argument, or at least, a conversation. “Who is Oakland?” they asked, and tasked ten artists with finding the answer.
Wedged in a corner gallery, the video, photography, painting, sculpture, and multimedia installations point in multiple directions as if to say, “Headlines and homicides are not who we are. Here’s what we’ve been, are now, someday will be. Here’s our glory, here’s our shame. Here is our messy, marvelous humanity.”
Lead artist Chris Johnson’s previous OMCA exhibit, the 2012 trans-media project “Question Bridge, Black Males,” used video to spawn a nationwide conversation between black men and boys that has continued through an ongoing, interactive website. Johnson is a professor of photography at the California College for the Arts and the recipient of grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, AICA Mellon Foundation and others. For “Who is Oakland?,” which runs through July 12, he invited nine artists to share their experiences as they turned their attention to issues including gentrification, food culture, social justice, immigration, and the natural world.
“Oakland is a vital place to be,” Johnson says. “The vibe is funky. You wouldn’t say race as much as class ghettoizes Oaklanders. I didn’t want to be a leader to the black community, especially as someone coming from a “white elite” education and training. I wanted contributions from people who are really from the areas immediately near the museum.”
John McCoy collected the materials in his Oakland at a Crossroads sculpture from Oakland streets and freeways. Like a modern day totem pole framed by an abstract United States flag represented by a fragmented red-white-and-blue-paneled wall, the towering construct is an American narrative, telling an urban legend with discarded items. Scorched plywood, a partial sign reading “black matters,” abandoned picture books, stuffed animals, and clothing are bound haphazardly with rope, torn fabric, yellow “caution” construction tape and other materials. The impression is both tortured and secure: Ties bind and blindfold, but also keep things from unraveling.
“Originally, I had five tables as a base,” McCoy says. “But eventually I thought Oakland is rebuilt out of chaos. The materials had to be weathered or burnt, like things foreign to themselves.”
Progress sits next to pain in Favianna Rodriguez’s Food Migration offering another internal Oakland argument. Placed on shelves underneath colorful piñatas, Asian and Latino food products from chips to sauces to essential cooking ingredients represent authenticity taking a stand amid Oakland’s increasingly upscale restaurant environs. Rodriquez gathered the items from mom-and-pop markets in Oakland’s Fruitvale and San Antonio districts.
“The piece is an homage to the powerful and emotional role of food as a cultural symbol for migrant families who strive to hold fast to their home countries,” Rodriguez says, in display notes.
Peril is a theme in a number of the artists’ work, including Johnson’s. Developing The Best Way to Find a Hero, Johnson threw darts at a digitally manipulated map composed only of Oakland’s “bad” neighborhoods. Going door-to-door, he interviewed people in the targeted, troubled neighborhoods, creating a video pendulum that oscillates around resilience and fragility.
More subtle danger is expressed by Adia Millet’s crow installation. Scattered throughout the gallery in defiance of gentrification, the birds peer menacingly at visitors as if to say, “You are no better or worse than we are. We are all migratory animals.”
Chris Treggiari and his team worked in collaboration with The Center for Investigative Reporting to gather citizens’ reactions to surveillance cameras. Video interviews, 3x5 cards, and fact sheets reveal wide-ranging responses and frightening information about license plate readers and other “spy” devices available to law enforcement and residents.
Oakland’s uplifting side — as presented by the exhibit — lies in nature and in a certain theatricality. Susan Felter’s large-scale, surreal photographs celebrate local animal-filled landscapes; dramatic characters in Kim Anno’s photo collages are backed by images of the remains of the historic Tea House on Oakland’s estuary.
The artists’ divergent responses derive energy largely from friction. Taken as a whole, they present Oakland as a barbed-wire macramé city, mounted on a topographical matrix made of a fabric not unlike felt. Knotted into a mesmerizing, twisted pattern and set atop a boiled, agitated, and compressed landscape of interlocking lifelines, the exhibit is unafraid of its own conflicting
Evelyn Orantes, OMCA curator of public practice, says the exhibit was ambitious from the start.
“Defining a city is enormously complex. Because Oakland as a subject is fluid, it took ten artists to galvanize the conversation,” she says. An unspoken question — where is Oakland headed? — requires a dialogue, not just concerned news flashes.
“You might hear ‘murder’ in the media,” Orantes says. “That’s a fixation. What we’re saying is that there are other forces, things to celebrate. Our artist community is certainly one of them.”
If “Who is Oakland?” incites an argument, it’s an exuberant one without winners or losers. And if the answers strike too narrow a channel, leaving gaps of beauty, bounty, and badness (the city’s rich, music or sports history, just two examples), the artwork at least drives a shovel deep enough to unearth provocative profiles.