BAM exhibit creates visual wonder from unlikely sources

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Fear is like this: Someone like a woman that you grab ahold of her hand and going down the escalator when of a sudden you happens to be holding a stranger hand not realizing that she isn’t your mother is scary.”

This is just one of the many fears in Michael Bernard Loggins’ wall-sized list-art “Fears of Your Life,” one of the highlights of CREATE, the Berkeley Art Museum’s new exhibit running until September 25. Despite a developmental disability, a condition all the showcased artists share, Loggins taps into a universal feeling that we all understand but don’t know how to express, distilling it into a chicken scratch manifesto. This is the frame of mind that CREATE primes you to enter.

This startling, strange and entirely mesmerizing new exhibit culls from three of the nation’s leading centers for artists with disabilities, all located in the Bay Area. Featuring the work of 20 artists from San Francisco’s Creativity Explored, Oakland’s Creative Growth Art Center and Richmond’s National Institute of Art and Disabilities, CREATE displays the development of disabled minds in medias res. These are artists perpetually coping with the world, and such ontological labor finds its place in the BAM.

A couch with stuffed animals and balls of yarn sewn to its arms is the exhibit’s preamble. It is as colorful as a bowl of Fruity Pebbles. This kitschy, almost alien attachment of inanimate objects to a piece of furniture we’d otherwise never notice captures the spirit of CREATE, where the ordinary is colorfully turned on its head.

And, wow, there is color here. The paintings of Mary Belknap, whose sprawling technicolor mosaics are as enticing to the eye as an optical illusion, contain spectral bands of hues that seem inclined to drip out of the canvas. Marlon Mullen’s paintings have a similar physicality, where layers of paint create an embossed effect.

The watercolors of Aurie Ramirez, at once feminist and feminine, look like David Lynch’s lost prototypes. Ramirez, whose paintings are all called “Untitled,” uses the iconography of Venetian masking and macabre doll faces (think KISS) to imagine a world of camp and pretty cadavers.

Equally disturbing and iconographic are Dwight Mackintosh’s felt pen frenzies, which subvert ordinary notions of anatomy drawings. “Untitled” shows a trio of bushy-haired men making masturbatory gestures. We can see straight through their bodies as if through X-ray.

But not all the artists stick to the canvas. Judith Scott’s wrapped sculptures bring 3-D texture to the exhibit. These mixed media cocoons ordinary objects like a chair or a tire in variegated string, scarves, high heels and broken Christmas lights, to name a few. Scott’s sculptures are like packages from a living, breathing junkyard, where stuff begets more stuff.

There’s nothing derivative about these works. Still, anytime we look at art, we can’t help but think of what we’ve seen before. Though Mullen looks something like Matisse, and Belknap perhaps like Lee Krasner, it’s hard to say if these artists knew the canon at all. Free from the archaic forms of institution that ended in the ’70s, these savants made their work in Bay Area centers where developmental disability is never a hindrance. And it’s certainly not a hindrance at the CREATE exhibit.

Through these numerous visionary paintings, sculptures and art objects, we can see artists seeing the world as no one has, and that is phenomenologically and phenomenally, as if for the first time.