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Oakland Showcases Nelson’s Captivating Art

By PETER SELZ Special to the Planet
Friday December 05, 2003

The visitor to Keiko Nelson’s exhibition, called “Wave,” at the City of Oakland’s Craft and Cultural Arts Center, will encounter examples of her forceful sculptures before entering the gallery space. 

Three green-patinaed conical columns with spiral forms are set in square bases. They are strong sculptural statements by themselves, but they also serve as fountains with small spyras effusing from the top and covering the bronze surfaces with fine sprays of water. There are also dynamic rust-colored metal arches, appropriately entitled Arches of Energy. 

The large gallery space itself is an installation abounding with over 60 paintings that vary in size from eight by four feet to two by two inches. The whole impression is one of organic life. The titles of the pieces, such as Fire, Water, Air, Earth, and also Wind, Sand, Wave, speak of their meaning. These appellations reinforce the viewer’s feeling of seeing the elements of nature and its spirit. 

To create these paintings, the artist worked with spontaneity and with speed to build up protrusions with plaster and sand. Then, using quick-drying acrylic pigments, she took her brush and at times a construction tool to achieve the circular ridges. She put glued sand over parts of the surface and, finally, an airbrush, to complete the construction of the painting. 

These pieces seem to have been done with rapid-fire energy. The viewer may well relate them to Abstract Expressionist work, or Action Painting—described by the critic Harold Rosenberg as an arena in which the painter acts. But then we realize the close relationship of these paintings to Japanese calligraphy, which Keiko, growing up in Kyoto, has practiced since childhood. 

In Japan calligraphy has always been appreciated as an art form. One style of Japanese writing, called SPSHO, is written rapidly, exposing the personality of the writer through pictorial signs. An avant garde post-war school of painting in Japan, based on the tradition of calligraphy, preserved only fragmentary resemblance to actual words and legibility and was largely incidental. Keiko Nelson, coming from this tradition, continued her studies in a Bauhaus-related school of art and design in Hamburg, which, like the original Bauhaus, sought to find a balanced relationship between intellect and emotion. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy entitled his pivotal 1942 Bauhaus book Vision in Motion, a title which could well be applied to Keiko Nelson’s recent painting. 

These paintings were made by the artist responding to the material, the matter with which the artist was working. As we look at these pictures, we become aware of the process in which they were made by a swift hand. Little explanatory analysis is called for to respond to these sensuous organic forms which stand out against their grainy, sandy surfaces. 

At the opening of the exhibition, Japanese dancer Mary Sano-Duncan gave a graceful reinterpretation of the paintings, many of which evoke the rhythm of the dance. Our response, however, is open-ended. We may associate the canvases with topographical maps, or land seen from the air, or the sea and clouds. 

In addition to the amplitude of the paintings in the exhibition, there are also many display cases in which small hand sculptures are shown, as well as lengths of steel tubing with snake-like forms emerging. And, appropriately, one case contains actual pieces of nature such as small sticks found at the beach, sea horses, shells, corals, and sand. The total installation is held in colors varying from copper to light gold and fine grey—very much the color of the landscape and seascape in a California summer. 

Much of the art we see today is produced by computer and lives in cyberspace. Here, however, is art celebrating the earth. 

The exhibition will be on view through Dec. 26 at the Craft and Cultural Arts Center in the State of California Building, 1515 Clay St., Oakland. 

Peter Selz is Professor Emeritus, History of Art, at UC Berkeley and author of numerous books and articles.