Sixty-five years later and Oakland is still intent on proving Gertrude Stein’s infamous dismissal of her childhood city wrong. “Being There” is the Oakland Museum’s celebration of the local art scene and features 45 artists who live in the city. Judging by the title, the exhibit plans to demonstrate that there is indeed a “there” here — but the Oakland it shows isn’t always abuzz with life. Its sister exhibit, “Scene in Oakland, 1852-2002,” on the other hand, is jumping with glimpses of a lively Oakland over the past century and a half. Both shows are currently on display at the Oakland Museum to honor the city’s 150th anniversary.
“Being There” is as dark as “Scene in Oakland” is light. It shows the city’s gloomier corners, like deserted buildings and street-side junk. Its artists reveal a vision of urban life that’s sometimes beautiful and sometimes decrepit — or both simultaneously.
Katherine Westerhout’s exquisite architectural photographs “Wards VI” and “Sears I” emit a luxurious feeling of buildings rich in color, sunlight, and spaciousness. At the same time, they unnervingly depict those same buildings as empty concrete shells with broken windows and murky green water pooling on the floor.
Mark Luthringer’s black-and-white photos of bars, department stores, and movie houses speak volumes about the slow, depressing process of wood rotting and metal rusting. A sense of mourning pervades his images, but they also have a kind of mystery and allure. Viewed through Luthringer’s lens, something as mundane as the Sears building takes on a new romance, like an old ghost town.
Several “Being There” artists make sculptures out of trash and other found materials, giving us a different view of urban life by showing us what our neighbors throw away. Susan Liebovitz Steinman is responsible for the largest work in the show: an installation of wooden doors she calls “Ekos.” Some of the doors’ glass panels and doorknobs are missing, and all are covered in dust, cobwebs, and peeling paint. It’s as quiet as a tomb in this corner of the gallery; peeking through one of the panels gives the feeling of wandering through an abandoned house or a forgotten garden. Steinman says her art is about recycling and environmental activism. But it’s also an opportunity to stop and take a quiet moment to relish the pure aesthetic beauty of the aging process.
Maria Porges and Margaret Herscher also love the aesthetics of the old, seeking out objects that have been thrown away and transforming them into sculptures. Porges casts wax replicas of antique bottles and arranges them inside a medicine-cabinet-type display on the gallery wall. She labels each one according to the ailment it cures: “To relieve media saturation,” “For fear of commitment,” “For the shock of the new,” and one cure-all labeled simply “Anodyne.” The bottles look old-fashioned, but Porges is clearly thinking about the complex problems of modern life. The idea that a pill could cure boredom or overdependence on automobiles is just as ridiculous, she seems to be saying, as our grandparents’ belief in the powers of Hadacol and hair-growth tablets.
Margaret Herscher uses old sewing-related items, like wooden thread racks and pre-war dress forms, to create bronze sculptures. Her finished pieces have the same shape as the original objects, but the bronze’s greenish-brown color and gritty surface texture make them look like mummified relics from some ancient culture that she excavated and donated to the museum.
While “Being There” includes a broad range of styles and media, it would benefit from more interactive features and moving parts; the show doesn’t include a single video screen or computer monitor, and only two of the sculptures have any movement (and neither is very exciting).
Also helpful would have been a show catalogue, or at least a few sentences on the wall cards. Otherwise we’ll never know, for instance, that A. Leo Nash’s weird and amazing photos were taken at Burning Man. Nash patiently waited to get people-free shots of the spontaneously built sculptures for which the desert festival is so well-known. The structures must have been enigmatic to begin with, but in Nash’s panoramic prints they are transformed into something truly bizarre or even sinister: lonely, post-apocalyptic ruins à la Mad Max, constructed by some unknown tribe for who knows what destructive purpose, and then mysteriously left to disintegrate in the hot desert air.
Juxtaposed against the morose backdrop of “Being There,” “Scene in Oakland” feels like a tromp through a park. Grouped more or less by neighborhood, this collection of paintings and photographs gives a pictorial overview of Oakland’s history from its rustic, small-town beginnings through the present day. An 1880 painting of Lake Merritt shows a peaceful, pastoral scene of cows, chickens, ducks, and, notably, not one city building.
Bernard von Eichman’s “West Oakland, 1928” reveals a little piece of what used to be known as the Harlem of California: a vibrant, thriving community where shipyard jobs were plentiful and 7th Street was a regular stop on the national jazz circuit. Some of the most surprising images in this show are the earliest ones, from the 1860s and ’70s — back when you could paint a picture of a grassy meadow and title it 7th and Adeline or Madison and 8th.
“Scene in Oakland” is mostly a booster’s history of the city. Except for a couple of photos of the earthquake of 1989 and the fire of 1991, nearly every image depicts Oakland’s growth and prosperity. Several artists paint the city’s piers, shipyards, and railroad tracks as evidence of booming local industry. Others show people strolling through bustling downtown streets, or recreating in beautiful parks, or looking studious in front of Mills College and Oakland Technical High School.