Loakal, a pop-up shop and gallery in Jack London Square in Oakland, lured people in with its eye-catching, locally produced merchandise and, on a chilly Oakland First Friday night with the voice of a young Michael Jackson. “Won’t you please let me back in your heart?” the young leader of the Jackson 5 crooned from a space perfumed by fresh paint. Indeed, stepping through the partition between boutique and gallery space meant stepping into a space as wondrous as Neverland (the fictional island, however, not the ranch).
People milled about with cups of paint (or beer, or both), assessing the empty spaces on the art on the walls. Their assessments of the negative space were anything but negative — these were positive appraisals of the work to be done. This was “By the Numbers,” where the work was on display but uncompleted. It waited for the visiting artists to fill in the color. One thing, however, is utterly undeniable — this is not your little sister’s coloring book.
Organized by Eddie Colla and Loretta Nguyen of Fiftsyseven-Thirtythree, an Oakland-based apparel and design collective, “By the Numbers” is unusual to say the least. Several Bay Area artists contributed their line skills to the project, designing outlines to be filled according to a numerical guide. With little more direction than a few numbers scattered across the large pieces, visitors were encouraged to grab a brush and start doing the fills.
The show, then, is an exploration of originality and ownership. There’s an artist, there’s a viewer, there’s the art itself. What happens when the the roles aren’t so clearly defined? What happens when you color outside the lines by letting non-artist color inside them?
That was Colla’s interest in uniting Lisa Pisa, Reggie Warlock, Nite Owl, D Young V, Kelly Allen, Onedr and Chris Micro. Colla, an artist himself, was pleased with the evening’s turnout. “I was afraid people would show up and be timid,” he said as he refilled cups with paint about as quickly as Nguyen poured the booze. However, timidity was nowhere to be found: people took to the art and the minimal instructions like children to crayons, even fixing each other’s mistakes or, alternately, buffing each other out. Warlock noted a blotch of blue on his space where the painters had rebelled against the numerical instructions. “I’ll have to go over that tomorrow,” he said, noting something very curious: as much as this was an interactive show, he and his fellow outline artists would be reaffirming their ownership of the pieces by once again defining — quite literally — the terms of the art.
And yet, in liberally letting the paint flow, the art escaped the original artists’ hands. There was nothing Warlock could do in the interactive period to direct the movement of dozens of brushes. When a gang of children — seemingly escapees from the Onedr piece on the south wall, with huge block letters reading “Hell’s Playground” — wreaked wholesome havoc on the Lisa Pisa piece, a second wave of artists rectified the offending scrawls. Those smiley faces never stood a chance.
“By the Numbers” isn’t the type of show that does things by the book. It follows a different code, an artist’s code. But the artist here isn’t a single name — it’s everyone, it’s all of us, it’s anyone willing to pick up a brush and make his or her mark upon the paper. We can only hope more exhibitions seek to break down the barriers between art and audience — even if they have to do it “by the numbers.”