Last week an artist friend returned from her annual visit to New York looking depressed.
“All I saw at museums and galleries were rediscovered drawings by old masters or the latest thing tossed off by a bored 20-something—like a row of video monitors, all with the same image of a seated man, grunting, and pretentiously titled ‘9/11 Attack’ or something,” she said. “Nothing but old masters and bored, boring beginners.”
Fortunately for us, Robbin Henderson, director of the Berkeley Art Center, has taken a different approach to celebrating the 40th year of the center. She has scheduled a series of four exhibits featuring mature Berkeley artists “who have made and—for the most part—are still making significant cultural, civic, and pedagogic contributions. That’s why the series is titled ‘Berkeley Treasures.’”
Berkeley Treasures, Series I opened last month, featuring paintings, drawings, and prints by three Berkeley artists of widely varying styles, but with some traits in common: all three are native Californians (two born in the East Bay); all three have been active in the Berkeley community for most of their lives; all three are in their 80s and still going strong.
Lewis Suzuki did his first paintings as a prize-winning schoolboy in 1930s Japan, where his widowed mother had moved from Los Angeles. At 19, he was secretly shown illegal photos of the then denied Rape of Nangking, and warned, “Stay here, and you’ll be drafted and forced to do such things.” He borrowed money and fled back to America, where, under suspicion as a Japanese American, he could still, with his dual language skills, be useful in the struggle against the rule of Nazi and Japanese militarism.
“Ever since then, my life has been a struggle against war,” Suzuki says. “But I kept on painting. Art and activism, back and forth. I couldn’t give up either.”
For the most part Suzuki’s landscapes and seascapes depict his ideals and hopes, in pure, sunlit, natural beauty, rather than directly reflecting his political and ethical convictions. But occasionally, the two sides of his life merge, as in his “Smoky Mountain,” depicting crowds of the poor living and foraging on an infamous dump in Manila or in his poster commemorating Hiroshima. At 86, he continues to work—lately doing more craggy seascapes. “As long as I can paint and work for peace, I’m happy.”
The paintings and drawings of Ariel, born in Oakland—“like Gertrude and Isadora,” she laughs—express more directly her moral outrage at the horrors of the 20th century. The influence of German Expressionism can be seen in the depictions of a diabolical Richard Nixon and the harsh satire of other leaders—ala George Grosz.
“People say my work leans toward fantasy,” she said, “and they’re right, but not airy-fairy escape fantasy,” more like a nightmarish heightening of the horror she sees.
One wall-hanging on exhibit reminds us of her many years of work in theater, creating hangings, masks, life-size puppets. “The three goddesses I made for Cal Shakes’ Tempest were up at Zellerbach on the 28th for some public radio program,” she said. “I can’t think why—to get the live audience in the right mood?”
Ariel calls her greatest inspiration, not artists, but the classic San Francisco poets, “the pre-beats—Duncan, Rexroth, Spicer,” all friends of her late poet/professor husband Tom Parkinson, all subjects of a memoir she is writing. “I thought I wanted to be a writer, but knowing them convinced me I am a visual artist.”
Lately, her work “gets bigger and bigger” like the half-mile long “‘Banner of Hope’ carried by children in Moscow, Hiroshima, through the Berlin Wall,” and the single huge drawing inspired by 9/11 that recently filled the Berkeley Art Commission’s 70-foot-long window on Addison Street. She is working now on an anti-war piece she calls “Torn Flesh.”
Karl Kasten has expressed his opposition to the status quo by exploring a variety of media and styles. Like Ariel, he is, he said, “charmed by the fortuitous, unintended things that happen while I’m working.” He has passed on this playful but informed daring to generations of his students in the UC Berkeley Art Department.
“I actually started the first printmaking classes there in 1951,” he said. “Hard to believe that, at the time, many established artists still saw printmaking as a craftsman at a machine, rolling out an ‘illustration’ to go with text in a book, or making an ephemeral advertising poster, not as a ‘real’ art.”
The abstract planes and figures of his painting, “F Train,” (1938) remain a strong, minimalist evocation (for those old enough to remember) of the station levels and the rushing passengers of this vital transport, crossing the Bay Bridge and running straight up Shattuck Avenue to the west entrance of the UC campus. His later mixed media pieces feature a recurring, sometimes ghostlike campanile thrusting its way up through various complex scenes.
His most recent work “Crew,” a large painting of athletes awash in their exertion, shows his new interest in sports. “And in numbers,” he adds. “Numbers are so pure!”
Kasten has a story he likes to tell.
“Two children—one very young, one a bit older—are looking at the illustrations in a book,” he recounts. “The younger child points to the text beside the picture and asks, ‘What is this?’ and the older child answers, ‘That’s writing—for people who can’t read pictures.’”
BERKELEY TREASURES, SERIES 1
Noon-5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday through May 20 at the Berkeley Art Center, 1275 Walnut St., in Live Oak Park. Free. Donations welcome. 644-6893.
Ariel Parkinson next to her work, “Nixon at the Trough,” part of the Berkeley Treasures Series I at the Berkeley Art Center.›