Steve Kaltenbach, Stephen Davis and Howard Fried

University Art Museum, Berkeley

As misfortune would have it, the beautiful, succinct show of three disparate Bay Area artists (Steve Kaltenbach, Stephen Davis, Howard Fried) at U.C. Berkeley’s campus museum is also Brenda Richardson’s last curatorial will and testament. I mention this not as social note, but because the geographic spread and regional/mainstream paranoia of Northern California’s artists require a jaundiced eye and loving mind in the same museological head. Somebody has to tread lightly among semitough Marden disciples, video troupers, and inland imagist art-farmers and pull it all together once in a while without genuflecting before the post-Minimalist priesthood or the innocents of rural groovyism. As here. Kaltenbach is a reformed Conceptualist (art-relevant words ’n stuff in lead, etc.) turned to (in the main) small oils of a sunset and maple tree through/within a superimposed arabesque of intricately faceted color patterns. Davis goes the other way: a previous soft painter between, say, Ed Moses and John Walker, his pieces are now painted box-spring sets mounted on flower pots and positioned relative to “crudely” painted drywall segments. Fried, the most consistent within his own history, is a black-and-white, autobiographically theatrical Conceptualist who’s taken 400 giant steps in overcoming his heretofore biggest obstacle—therapeutic density. All three produce art that owns up to “issues” and “quality” without becoming summer stock versions of off-Broadway heavies. Simultaneously, Kaltenbach, Davis, and Fried embody an independence approaching self-parody, indicative of the Bay Area’s finest lack of pretension.

Hard by Kaltenbach’s two landscapes (and a large, white, modular relief painting resembling a sci-fi contour map which yields, through actual light and shadow, optical flickerings) is posted a letter from a lawyer, answering Kaltenbach’s query. It suggests that the “owner-less“ paintings be loaned to museums on condition that they be publicly displayed for a year or longer then sent on, in perpetua, to another institution. Kaltenbach’s previous takes on the epistemology of “art,” his wide-eyed earnestness, and the protracted psychedelic craftsmanship (craftspersonship?) of the paintings (they look like what I saw when I took skip it) lend credibility to what.0might otherwise be ethical posturing or simple naivete. The pictures themselves are more remarkable for their installation (wistful icons in a cavernous space), tacky framing, and obsessive labor (stretching over years) than for any painterly “quality” per se. They do, however, ache with sincerity.

Davis, on the other hand, is a cold-blooded pro, taking the best in earlier work (austerity, grudgingly sensuous surfacing, a precise color sense, and a pragmatic grasp of post-Minimal devices) and pushing it forward. Egypt, for example, operates ingeniously diagonally across the show space, through and around a couple of other works; it’s like one of those slapstick scenes where the fiancés moon on the couch oblivious to the housepainters clanging and spilling around them. The work is an orange “bed” mounted on terra-cotta planters addressing itself to a black-and-white sheetrock panel mounted several yards away. Bang-bang: bed-panel, painting-object, object-theater, objects-environment, literalism-allusion, color-black, observer-participant, etc. One presumes, because of a couple of forgettable drawings involving a didactic overlaid brushstroke juxtaposed with collaged photos of indefinite architectural interiors, that the large pieces deal instructively with space in a sculptural-performance orientation; if so, they don’t need the lingering painterliness of the worked surfaces. If, however, Davis purports to deal with painting’s literalist paradox (e.g., Ryman, Marden, Gary Stephan), then he’s extended the physicality and cognition (especially the Pop banality of the box springs and pots) a mite too far. The total effect of Davis’s segment is charged, and slightly unnerving; for better or worse, his biggest talent is astuteness.

Fried is for me the chewiest item in the show. A few years back I went up north to write on the young Turks of Bay Area performance, Terry Fox and Howard Fried; only the Fox chapter (“Terry Fox: The Impartial Nightmare,” Artforum, February, 1972) saw the light of day because, frankly, Fried scared me. Or rather, his then-recent psychiatric problems coupled with the complexity/obtuseness (albeit attractiveness) of his work forced the issue of where does genius leave off and psychosis begin and vice-versa, and I couldn’t handle it. I still can’t, but Fried, fortunately, has gotten clearer, bigger, more open. Gone are the metronomical autobiographical incantations of the early films, the labored “attraction-repulsion” theory, and the bombed-out clutter of his performances—or at least they’re not applicable here, in Derelict. The “construction” consists of, in viewer’s sequence 1) a mounted copy of a Pen-Tel “touch” drawing outside the room—low, in a corner, and 2) the low-ceilinged, off-rectangle room at one end of which is a grid of those copied “touch” drawings and,taped up, a snapshot of a giant coffee cup whole, and, at the other end, the actual cup, as though halfway embedded in the wall. The room, lighted by a couple of torture-chamberish hanging clamp lanterns, ranks in ominous impact right up there with Fox’s Hospital and Nauman’s “get out of my life.” enclosure at LACMA. What does it mean? Well, “derelict” and a giant coffee cup say something about the Burroughs Beckett-Rechy axis of society, the proportions (giant cup, small photo of it, indefinite drawings) indicate a fluctuating if not hallucinatory reality, and the references/inclusions of earlier work reminds us of the small, hard-won flakes of human poetry floating around like precious Bac-O’s in life’s limp salad.

Peter Plagens