Within and Without

Emerging artist Sasha Kelley photographs relationships within Oakland's African-American communities, but her mode is more nuanced than simple documentary.

Headspace, Sasha Kelley’s inaugural solo exhibition now showing at Krowswork, divides the local artist’s recent work along a distinct axis. One side is inward-looking, inviting the viewer into the artist’s private life, which generally appears in muted tones or black and white. The other side looks outward, photographically capturing relationships in Oakland’s broader African-American community, in vivid color. Together, the two sides delineate the terrain that Kelley calls her “headspace.” For most people, this compound term will likely carry pre-established associations having to do with private mental experience, perhaps specifically as it relates to the feeling of sequestration from the flow of life beyond. Indeed, the term appears at the conclusion of one of Kelley’s displayed poems in the line we were caught/in that headspace. It would be unwise, however, to approach the exhibition with too many preconceptions. The works on display, even in the inward-looking section, do not suggest any of the anxiety one might expect from Kelley’s mention of being “caught.”

Beside the poem is a replica of the artist’s desk space, at which she thought through much of the show. Arranged — but not cluttered — on the artist’s writing surface is her diary (“handy dandy notebook”), several independent art publications, a lamp, and a small CD stereo playing a mix of pleasant, jazz-inflected tunes. In the adjacent room, a projector and a stack of video monitors play looping .gifs that feature the artist and her partner in a bedroom, silently capturing an array of intimate and playful gestures. These visual repetitions, in conjunction with the artist’s workspace ambience and her beguilingly opaque poetics, give a sense of quiet assiduousness — not the stereotypical artist’s violent strokes but rather a gradual, honest elucidation of a specific viewpoint.

This gentle mode carries over to Kelley’s outward-facing photography, which gives form to the objects of her view: a lip-locked couple; a family congregated on a pink and yellow porch; a painter and perhaps his model in a heavily graffitied studio; girlfriends outside on a sunny afternoon; and myriad other strangers and acquaintances. Even the more voyeuristic snapshots possess the intense, quiet intimacy characteristic of the show as a whole.

“Conversations about balance manifested themselves in the three-room split,” said Kelley with regard to the distinctive aesthetic of each room. There may have also been other motives at play. The gallery’s director warned me against viewing Kelley’s photographs as mere documentary, which can be a way for critics to dismiss the work of non-white artists. While a documentary impulse is undeniable to an extent, the organization of the show adroitly sets up an alternative point of entry to the artist’s often stunning photographs, situating them with regard to a particular viewpoint that is “engulfed,” as Kelley put it, “within a consciousness connecting to one’s history, memory, & perception” ­— that is, a headspace.

Headspace runs through July 13 at Krowswork Gallery (480 23rd St., Oakland). 510-229-7035 or Krowswork.com


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