Barbed in Berkeley

The art of Jos Sances -- each piece is a mini-demonstration all its own.

Jos Sances has lived in his house in the West Berkeley flatlands since 1983, when you could still buy a fixer-upper for a song. Some bees have recently started building a hive in the garden. He points this out, proudly explaining that it’s very unusual to have wild bees choose to settle in one’s backyard like this. Then he mentions the crack years, when the drugs and shootings made life on this street not nearly so peaceful. But his devotion to the house has been very much like his lifelong commitment to art and progressive causes: unswerving, and willing to take the (occasional) bad with the (mostly) good.

Sances is a cofounder of Alliance Graphics, a ten-year-old Berkeley screen-printing shop that has grown from a tiny startup into a ten-person, multimillion-dollar business. It is unionized and nonprofit, and it works mostly for unions, nonprofits, and other progressive groups. All of its proceeds support the Middle East Children’s Alliance. “We made a lot of the shirts for the demonstrations that just happened in San Francisco,” Sances says. “They sell thousands of shirts, which for them is a really big part of being able to pay for demonstrations. I see that work as just as important as the other artwork.”

By “the other artwork,” Sances is referring with typical modesty to his own art. His new solo exhibition opens today at the Richmond Art Center and runs through November 8 (with a reception on Saturday, September 20, from 3-6 p.m.). Most of his recent pieces are interactive painting/sculptures that are structured a little like advent calendars. On the surface they resemble peaceful Thomas Kinkade-esque landscapes, but open their little doors, and inside you’ll find a variety of imagery clearly intended to rankle conservative souls — mostly barbs directed at militaristic patriotism, organized religion, and corporate culture. Sances exhibited several of them a few months ago at Vacaville’s Fetterly Gallery and caused quite an uproar in that fairly conservative burg.

Fully explaining a Jos Sances artwork can get pretty involved. Most of his creations require quite a bit of historical and political cartography to map out their meanings: Cotton Mather, Big Daddy Roth, prehistoric rock art, Spy vs. Spy, and Ptolemy’s universe are just a few of his multitudinous sources. A Marine recruitment poster served as the basis of one painting/digital print entitled Christian Soldier, an uneasy commingling of a cross, crosshairs, nooses, and a baby Jesus; another canvas is based on Norman Rockwell’s famous painting of Richard Nixon but includes visual references to all the other postwar Republican presidents. Yes, Virginia, J. Edgar Hoover was a cross-dresser, and he may have ordered the killing of Martin Luther King Jr. — wow.

In a gallery setting, Sances doesn’t believe in providing too much in the way of written explanation for his works, but looking at his art is a little like starting a crossword puzzle. Once you’ve figured out one part, you have some clues to the rest and can begin to piece together a broader understanding of his overall project. It’s complex, certainly, but it profoundly rewards the process of careful looking. Sances knows not everyone will like it, but he doesn’t want everyone to like it; if they did, he figures, he would be doing something wrong.

“Jos Sances: Inter Bellum” runs September 10 through November 8 at the Richmond Art Center, 2540 Barrett Ave., Richmond. Open Wednesdays through Saturdays, noon-4:30 p.m. Free. Call 510-620-6772 or visit

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