BAMPFA’s ‘Way Bay’ exhibits what Bay Area thinks about itself

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Aslesha Kumar/Staff

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The Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive’s new exhibit, “Way Bay,” is an exploration into the collective unconscious of the Bay Area. The collection boasts of art pieces by Bay Area artists, ranging from 19th-century depictions of the Ohlone people to on-location films from the early 20th century to contemporary poetry by local writers.

The process of curating the “Way Bay” exhibit began with artistic excavations into the depths of BAMPFA’s archives, led by Chief Curator Lawrence Rinder, Film Curator Kathy Geritz and Engagement Associate David Wilson, who is also a local artist. The exhibit resurfaced art pieces from the dark corners of the archives, placing them next to more recently acquired paintings and sculptures from nearby or foreign collections.

Rather than grouping them in a historical or temporally organized manner, Rinder searched for poetic resonances between the pieces when compiling them. He described putting them together like assembling a group of children, placing and readjusting based upon which ones liked each other and which fit in with one group better than another.

Meanwhile, Wilson reached out to local writers and asked for samples of their work that they felt captured their unique perceptions of the Bay Area. He also asked each for a piece from Bay Area literature that inspires them as a writer. With this collection of poetry, photography and stills from local films, BAMPFA printed a series of postcards with poetry and visual art from different decades featured on both sides. These postcards are at the entrance to the exhibit, made freely available to visitors to send the Bay off to a loved one or old friend.

Rinder used lines from the poetry to title the different groups of art. For instance, there is a series of paintings from artists Daniel Higgs and Kyle Ranson, where one would mail a painting to the other, who would reply in turn with a piece inspired by the previous one. This series is bookended by two landscape oil paintings from 1890 and a 1979 photograph of two men posing with pet cockatiels. This collection is coordinated with the accompanying program’s quotation, “Man is a false window through which his double walks to the truth,” from Philip Lamantia’s 1952 poem, “Man Is in Pain.”

The art pieces that serve as temporal cross sections of the Bay are juxtaposed films curated by both Geritz and Assistant Film Archivist Jon Shibata. Two of these pieces capture the Bay Area’s imagination incarnate.

One, a 1924 silent film, was the result of a contest the Oakland Tribune conducted, in which readers were asked to submit their dreams. The most unusual dream — featuring a baby and fish — was made into a film, starring the dreamer, Mrs. L.L. Nicholson from Oakland, who also won a prize of $25.

The 1981 film “Junkopia” by video essayist Christ Marker documents the Emeryville mudflat,  where junk would be unceremoniously dumped and eventually erected as sculptures — modeling race cars, kangaroos, fish and trains — until these structures would eventually collapse and become forgotten.

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Aslesha Kumar / Staff

These films of Nicholson’s dreamscape and the anonymous driftwood sculptures are unconscious reflections of the Bay, delving into the subjective perspectives of the dreamers and artists and their view of the land around them. Over the next several months, these films will be replaced by other film and video visions of the Bay Area from local artists.

All of the pieces are mounted for exhibition without descriptions of their title, artist or year. Instead, each is given the article number that refers to the exhibit guide, made available at both the entrance and online. This allows the viewer to see different angles of the Bay without the dimension of historical time. “Way Bay” makes no attempt to tell a history of Bay Area art. Instead, it seeks poetic resonances through and beyond time.

With its emphasis upon Bay Area art compiled by Bay Area curators and titled by Bay Area writers, the exhibit provides the feeling of being inside the emerging mind of the Bay. How does the Bay see itself? This exhibit gives one answer, inviting viewers to step inside and appreciate their vantage point within its small, unique section of human experience.

Contact Bryan Nashed at [email protected].

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