“From The Sunny Side: Six East Bay Artists”

“From the Sunny Side” is a deceptively silly title for one of the most arresting group exhibitions of emerging artists mounted by a local museum in several years. Referring to the location of the six artists’ studios in the East Bay region, where the weather is frequently brighter than in fogbound San Francisco, across the Bay, the title was evidently chosen in accordance with the concurrent Oakland Festival of the Art’s desire to promote Oakland arts. The strength of the work on view does emphasize the fact that a large number of respected Bay Area artists’ studios are located in Oakland, Berkeley, and Emeryville.

Three painters and three sculptors comprised the Oakland Museum show, each distinctively individual yet clearly partaking of the Northern California traditions of either painterly approaches to figurative subject matter or the innovative uses of non-fine art materials. Painters Squeak Carnwath, Oliver Jackson, and Pat Klein all produce imagery exuding a psychological intensity more urgent than the abstractions of such earlier Bay Area figurative painters David Park, Richard Diebenkorn,and Elmer Bischoff, while displaying an affinity for the introspective narratives of Joan Brown. Lacking the attitude of reflexive irony that characterizes much current expressionist and New Image painting elsewhere, these artists suggest less interest in investigating style as style than in conceiving imagery to express pressing psychic conflicts in dynamic visual form.

The imagery of all three painters evokes oppression by apparent or impending perils. Two of Klein’s paintings explore dualities of constraint and expression: in Choices, 1982, a self-contained, stiff, masked female stands opposite a lush, expansive palm tree; in Running in Circles, 1982, a small female frantically runs among turbulent cedars while an inert “alter ego” observes her. The sites of these psychodramas are flattened, upturned rectangles of ground and sky, richly brushed in textural overlays of moody hues, against which the bulbous foliage and reductive silhouettes forcefully project outward. Equally fervent but more fantastic in spirit, a Carnwath painting presents a vision of Armageddon with a flaming sky over a craggy skyline, rockets above echoed in the shape of a vase bobbing in a stormy flood below, and two hands stretching out of the water. With their painted borders bearing titles in rough hatch marks, Carnwath’s heavily outlined, schematic renderings project the emotional immediacy of furiously drawn cartoons.

A more optimistic demeanor is evoked by Jackson’s Untitled, No. 11, a painting of three dark stick figures crouching in a powwow. Surrounded by a dense mélange of choppy strokes and woven tones which coalesces in three areas into cheeks blowing puffs of wind, their skeletal bodies are encircled by a protective golden ring. The undulating textural complexity of that painting, from 1979, loosens into enlarged strokes of murky gray arcs in a 1982 work, Untitled, The Gift, and sacrifices compositional cohesion for shallow gesture.

The forceful visual and emotional tensions of the better paintings on view also radiate from Daniel Wiener’s Blind Spot, 1981, a striking assemblage of shards of frosted glass, rectangles of transparent glass, and fragments of mirrors held in a freeform relief by pine slats, bolts, and wires. Wiener investigates an enticing brink between perversely dangerous, spiky edges and seductive textural elegance. A newer work, Clark Kent, 1982, contains a thick hodgepodge of clear and decoratively painted glass, cheap floral and batik fabric, and a miscellany of found objects including a chunky fragment of a sink. Spilling out from the wall in a dynamic equilibrium, this current version of arte povera offers an exuberant celebration of urban sensory overload and the detritus of popular culture.

In comparison to the dramatic confrontations manifest in these four artists’ works, John Roloff’s stunning ceramics are quietly self-contained. Roughly boat shaped, subtly knobby, and punctured by irregular openings, the ivory or coral sculptures resemble mysterious geologic formations found in marine or terrestrial caverns. Lastly, Hunter Wallot’s bamboo structures and suspended sails appear timid and insubstantial, both conceptually and visually.

As a whole, “From the Sunny Side” disproportionately represents currently fashionable New Image and expressionist tendencies among East Bay artists. Also, curator Christina Orr-Cahall’s brochure note describes the artists as “younger” and implies that they are at the emerging level; the latter description is inappropriate for Roloff, and both are incorrect for Jackson. These artists’ inclusion despite their more established career status was evidently influenced by the desire to specifically promote those East Bay artists not yet represented in the museum’s collection, and thus to encourage gifts. Nevertheless, because local museums rarely provide exposure for emerging artists, but especially because of the overall high quality of the work, “ . . . Sunny Side” is an unusually satisfying group exhibition.

Suzaan Boettger