Peak Experiences at Johansson Projects

Two artists explore mountains and climbing.

Mountain peaks are deemed sacred in traditional societies; in modern ones, their supernatural fascination endures, as the near-suicidal exploits of recent alpinists testify. In the visual arts, the mountaineering metaphor — intrepid explorers venturing beyond comfortable flatlander convention seeking exaltation and enlightenment — has been invoked by critic Clive Bell (“the austere and thrilling raptures of those who have climbed the cold, white peaks of art”); Georges Braque, who described himself “roped together [with Picasso] like mountaineers” for the assault on Mt. Cubism from Montparnasse’s slopes; and Kasimir Malevich: “The ascent to the heights of nonobjective art is arduous and painful. … The familiar recedes ever further and further into the background … until finally the world, ‘everything we loved and by which we have lived,’ becomes lost to sight.” Artistic rhetoric is less grandiose these days, but Alex Case and Dan Grayber explore Parnassian aesthetic risk-taking as well in their two-person show, Humming Summit.

Case takes on a new medium, subject, and approach in his new mixed-media works on paper and canvas/wood. His previous work was in a cool, dark pop-surrealist vein, with flatly rendered figures composed of stitched collaged materials. Here, he employs traditional gesso, acrylic, and oils, but adds asphaltum, that ancient bitumen, still used for caulking ships, road-building, and some printmaking techniques. (Smilodon-trapping, too, in ancient southern California.) Case exploits its distinctive texture and appearance to good effect in his monochrome mountainscapes, high-contrast studies of peaks that loom over their surroundings, massive and tenebrous. In “Lahar,” meaning a type of mudflow, the central volcanic cone, still fuming, emerges from a forest of shard-like wooden sticks — blasted trees. The twin mountains at sunset in “High Desert” suggest the Sonoran Desert — and Saharan pyramid tombs. The jagged peak in the tarry night of “K-2” might almost symbolize mute, inorganic malignancy.

Grayber’s ingeniously designed sculptures, meticulously fabricated mechanisms that resemble engineering cranes and hoists, examine climbing, verticality, and “holding oneself up.” The artist: “My sculptures are invented only to sustain themselves, functioning as self-resolving problems. The … object … has been invented only to compensate for the complications created by its own existence.” Grayber’s gravity-powered arthropodal Rover bots, elegant contraptions of steel, springs, bicycle cable, winches, pulleys, and counterweights, climb up walls (“Self-Installing Mechanism”), into architectural niches (“Parallel Walls Mechanism,” “Interfloor Mechanism #1”), or into glass bell jars (“Bottle Mechanism #3,” “Cavity Mechanism #6”), then hold themselves there, “autonomous” and rigid. Humming Summit runs through March 5 at Johansson Projects (2300 Telegraph Ave., Oakland). 510-444-9140 or


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