REVIEW When it comes to the negative impact that economic recession has upon the art world, there are as many problems as missing dollars. Yet among contemporary artists, such times tend to skew various views back toward those whose work isn't epically expensive to begin with, a development that can be welcome. Moreover, careful budgeting can inspire reflection rather than a mad dash to acquire the newest, most expensive, and trendiest work.
At least two significant survey shows in 2009 follow this impulse in search of revelation. Next month, SFMOMA is opening "Not New Work," for which artist-curator Vincent Fecteau has selected art owned but rarely-to-never shown by the museum. Currently, Berkeley Art Museum executive director Lawrence Rinder taps into his curatorial insight with "Galaxy: A Hundred or So Stars Visible in the Night Sky," a multifloor epic exhibition that reveals the breadth of that institution's art collection, and allows elements of it to ricochet off of each other in provocative ways.
Rinder is no stranger to such huge undertakings, having curated an installment of the Whitney Biennial and also co-conceived the landmark 1995 queer art survey "In a Different Light," one of the Berkeley Art Museum's largest undertakings and banner shows of the previous decade. With "Galaxy," Rinder's playful and subtly lively sensibility might even use a recent contemporary BAM exhibition as a trampoline of sorts. Last year, the site played host to Trevor Paglen's "The Other Night Sky," a present-day photographic installation that provocatively muses on literal presences up above. With "Galaxy," Paglen's literal stars and spy satellites are traded for the metaphorical celestial brilliance of artwork by Rembrandt, Rousseau, Dürer, Klee, and Rubens. One of the exhibition's strongest facets is its tremendous array of remarkable etchings and engravings. Blake's 1825 With Dreams upon My Bed and Behold Now Behemoth Which I Made with Thee are pettily awesome worth an afternoon worth's of scrutiny on their own.
While this excavation of canonical treasures tiny and large might be a new endeavor for Rinder, whose focus has primarily been on contemporary art, his selections and their arrangement are designed to trigger unpredictable associations and make a case for some comparatively-undiscovered contemporary local artists, such as Todd Bura. Thus a 2008 ink-on paper piece by Ajit Chauhan who recently had a terrific show in a small side gallery at the de Young holds its own and takes on added resonance next to works by Bruce Conner and Barry McGee, who might or might not count as Chauhan's kin. In Chauhan's A Mid Summer Night's Cream ... and McGee's Untitled (2008), patterns of lettering and faces metamorphose into one another. Conner is one of a handful of recurrent artistic presences within "Galaxy" his reappearance a testimony to his strong but varying presence and his influence upon Bay Area art.
Louise Bourgeois is another signature personality within "Galaxy," an impish creative force that darts in and out of different eras, styles and materials without ever seeming out of place. Rinder's curatorial freedom allows for elliptical echoes that span centuries and floors of the museum. Bullfighting stampedes into the show in two different galleries, via an 1815-16 etching by Goya and a 1986 geutf8 silver print by Zoe Leonard. Etchings of village life congregate on one wall, landscapes and seascapes occupy a different area, experiments with color join up in groups of three and four. There are wave-like rhythmic patterns to the shifts between large-scale and miniature pieces.
A great sense of detail or flair has been given to the matter of framing many of these works, and Rinder's use of framing extends to the show itself, which begins and ends with metallic or kinetic sculptural works that evoke Peter Selz's 1966 Berkeley Art Museum exhibition "Directions in Kinetic Sculpture," while making a case for the tactile today. "Galaxy" begins with spinning metal discs and white button of Harry Kramer's 1966 Jorg's Chair, and closes with Edward Krasinski's well-titled 1964 Perpindiculars in Space and Vassilakis Takis' 1962-63 Tableau magnetique. In between these, there is a sense of queer flirtation and enjoyable perversity, thanks to the Caravaggio-esque crotch-pointing of Guiovanni Caracciolo's 1610 oil-on-canvas The Young Saint John in the Wilderness, the eerie singed fringes of David Dashiell's Dionysian 1992 Study for Queer Mysterties, the deathly delicacy of D-L Alvarez's 1992 "In a Different Light" contribution Shawl (a net made of hair that likely degrades or is at least altered each time it is shown or moved), and a 1947 foam breast by Marcel Duchamp which asks to be touched.
Associations aside, "Galaxy" also is remarkable simply for exposing works so powerful that they stand alone. Such is the case with a 1955 untitled painting by Clyfford Still that takes the visceral and mortal concerns of the show into its deepest sense of experience. Gazing at this work is like passing through a threshold of elemental muck. In Still's colors, beauty and horror entwine.
GALAXY: A HUNDRED OR SO STARS VISIBLE TO THE NAKED EYE
Through Aug. 30
Berkeley Art Museum
2625 Durant, Berk