The subconscious, according to Surrealist theory, is the source of creative authenticity; it’s a reprise of the ancient notion of the artist as inspired and god-possessed, and today most artists try to balance instinct with editing, imagination with logic. In Beneath the Surface at the Float Center, the works of Liz Mamorsky and Paul Baker emerge from such complex thinking, and consequently reward prolonged viewing. This venue is ideal for such a show, since water traditionally symbolizes the subconscious: dark, formless, and dangerous, but also full of potentiality.
Mamorsky’s oils on canvas depict a mythic world teeming with animal spirits. Exuberantly colored and packed with detail, the paintings combine Cubism, Art Deco, and Surrealism (particularly Paul Klee and Max Ernst) with older folkloric traditions: the compartmentalization of larger forms, the textural delineation of scales and feathers, and the compulsive ornamentation (horror vacui) recall the animist wood-carving traditions of the South Pacific and Pacific Northwest; the serpents and birds recall aboriginal or Native-American cosmologies. Mamorsky’s totem animals both crowd the picture plane like puzzle pieces, archaically, and seem to flow transparently into each other, in modern ambiguous, contradictory space, psychic rather than physical. In “Beneath the Surface” and “Bounce,” a mass of faces confronts the viewer — like demons beleaguering St. Anthony in his Egyptian desert hermitage, or masks winking and scowling at Ensor in his Ostend studio. In “Over the Rainbow” and Purple Stocking Yellow Pumps,” assemblages of faces set into organic abstract structures have sprouted walking legs. Mamorsky’s drawings on amate bark paper also are being shown.
Paul Baker’s Machines for Living may take their name from modernist architect Le Corbusier, but they clearly aim at more than rational industrial design. These intricately wrought assemblage sculptures, fabricated from a miscellany of materials (mahogany, brass, ivory, crystal, ball bearings, artist mannequins, playing cards, roller skate, starched collar, steam engine, phonograph rolls, and semipetrified mammoth tusk), become palaces of memory and musing in the Joseph Cornell mode, but with a satirical, absurdist, Duchamp/Westermann bent. Sporting hooks, drawers, handles, labels, charts, winches, springs, and knobs, each piece is a combined dollhouse, miniature stage set, shrine, and Victorian apparatus of inscrutable intent (e.g., “Fog Machine,” “Landing Alignment Computer”). The artist, who studied medieval reliquaries, encourages viewers to tinker and explore, using his work to unlock “free association and personal memory.” His notes on the works are illuminating as well, citing Jules Verne, Sisyphus, Nicolas Poussin, acanthus leaves, and the Girl Scouts. Beneath the Surface runs through May 17 at the Float Center (1091 Calcot Pl., #116, Oakland. TheFloatCenter.com or 510-535-1702.