Arts Listings

Alphonse Berber Gallery Exhibits ‘Slow Art’

By Celeste Connor, Special to the Planet
Thursday January 14, 2010 - 09:35:00 AM
Ursula O’Farrell’s Uncertain Morning evokes an intimate state of mind, representing not only a moment ripe with uncertainty and doubt but also, potentially, a powerful moment of overcoming.
Ursula O’Farrell’s Uncertain Morning evokes an intimate state of mind, representing not only a moment ripe with uncertainty and doubt but also, potentially, a powerful moment of overcoming.

On the verge of the 1960s, Mildred Constantine and Peter Selz produced a landmark catalog under New York MoMA’s tent: “New Images of Man.” At a cultural moment when hip formalists on the Right Coast were savoring abstraction to the exclusion of other trends, the pair created turbulence by featuring figurative images. Monstrous ones at that, according to the review by my painting and film teacher, the late Manny Farber. Now, on the brink of another new decade, Selz revisits the subject with a new collaborator, Cameron Jackson. The necessary postscript is spotlit in the exhibit’s title: “Images of Man and Woman,” now at the Alphonse Berber Gallery in Berkeley. 

The show is a rich mix of eight artists, three quite well-established and five emerging. Four are women, and this provoked a sally from across the great divide. The San Francisco Chronicle’s critic wrote that, initially, we “might suspect that political correctness was afoot.” Could Baker really comprehend so little of Selz’ work of half a century? Planet readers know that the P.C. moniker (a straw-dog of the neocons) could never stick to the commentary of this paper’s frequent arts writer. Selz is always the first to question purported authority, whether in national politics or in the upper echelons of the expanding art market. I’ve been following this game, closely, since 1980, and I assure you the intention has always been to make waves. So I go to Alphonse Berber with my highwaters on, which makes conceptual as well as practical sense these rainy, winter days. If Selz is true to form, he won’t illustrate his own concept (as a fashionable mode of curatorial practice dictates); rather, I expect to see visual art set free to say whatever it wants, with no hierarchy among voices. 

And I am not disappointed. My first surprise is to discover more art to give a damn about. Ariel Parkinson’s little wire and papier-maché maquette, Model for the Man Who Died compels a double-take. Her life-size, velvet Mannequins, engaged in an erotic, heterosexual danse macabre in a sequestered side room, deliver a novel tactile punch. These Comedia dell’Arte–like characters walk a tightrope between classic, unmalleable sculpture (embodied here by Stephen de Staebler’s admirable ceramic and bronze characters) and the sensuous fluidity of fingerpuppets. Parkinson’s life drawings, pleasurable color drools amid inky doodles, are caligraphs of energies that revitalize human actions. This same electricity animates both her cushy and her wire figurines. 

Even artists we think we know well offer up unexpected pleasure. Nathan Olivera, a Bay Area staple much like de Staebler, is represented in part by small watercolors to die for, dated 1999. The subject, the nude figure, is ancient yet there is a simplicity and fluid grace that is so fresh. Titled the Sante Fe Series, it could be an homage to part-time New Mexican Georgia O’Keeffe’s famed early watercolors of the same subject, but now in mestizo browns and tans rather than hot colors. I couldn’t help but feel that, by comparison with the spontaneity and confidence of Olivera’s little celebrations of human flexibility, the nudes by Ryoko Tagiri seemed over-produced. So perhaps Tagiri’s reflect a contemporary sense of female self quite well. 

In the intimate back room, where Baker appears to have malingered, we find the juxtaposition of acrylics by Frances Lerner with oils of Marianne Kolb. Lerner has taken up a rather pathetic girl puppet as her central character; Kolb’s solo female characters, immaculately lacquered, are teeny-headed and ambivalent, even in the one “head shot” featured here. The pairing conjures up thoughts about the category: “woman” per se. Here she’s silent, undefined, or (like Lerner’s doll) feckless, mouth sewn shut. These puppets haven’t come a long way, baby; nor will we ever hear them roar. But not for lack of ingenuity behind their construction! 

One of the most strident imagistic voices here is that of Ursula O’Farrell, whose work also plunges into new psychological terrain with the volatile theme of mother/daughter relations. Her small square one is a painted insight. The grander Beginning to Dance and Uncertain Morning evoke intimate states of mind yet common human situations. They represent not only awkward moments ripe with uncertainty and doubt but also, potentially, powerful moments of overcoming. While the images of the 1959 “New Images Show” were indisputably Sartrian existentialist, the current show’s marquee could read: “De Beauvoir’s ‘Ethics of Ambiguity’ Reconsidered.” 

This is what I like to call “Slow Art.” Slow Art can refer directly to tradition or be daringly iconoclastic, but (like slow food) it takes time to cultivate and, more importantly, necessitates the mindful re-attunement of an entire system of cultural production. 


Celeste Connor is an art historian, critic, theorist, visual artist and professor of visual studies at the California College of the Arts.