BERKELEY, CA — Over the last decade, Bay Area artists have become increasingly prominent subjects for major exhibitions on both coasts. These shows have largely singled out the most iconoclast representatives of the region, such as Bruce Conner, his Rat Bastard Protective Association, William T. Wiley, Roy De Forest, and Franklin Williams. Way Bay, this year’s tentpole exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, continues this trend, yet it expands the subject matter considerably.
At a glance, Way Bay is a massive, even chaotic experience. The show began in January with roughly 200 artworks and historic objects. Early 20th-century newsreel footage accompanied 18th-century crafts by Chalon-speaking artisans, as well as grimy assemblages, bulbous mid-century pottery and other eclectic items, culminating with a gargantuan plywood mural referencing 9/11. In July, the exhibition’s curators switched out about half of the works for an equal number of new pieces, commencing Way Bay 2. The differences between the two iterations are minimal. The chaos of 1 carried into 2, and the vision of Way Bay lives on.
That chaos was by design, and it might even be seen as the ultimate point of the show. Museum director Lawrence Rinder sought to visualize for gallery-goers the currents of unbridled creativity that have coursed and flowed throughout the San Francisco Bay Area over the last two centuries, beginning roughly with the Spanish colonization of the peninsula. Rinder based his arrangement of Way Bay on a method he picked up from his collaborations with artist Nayland Blake (Blake’s mixed-media piece “Untitled (Miracle Birds)” (1989) was featured in Way Bay 1). Sections of the gallery space are discrete, macro-compositional units; the individual artworks composing each were chosen and arranged by how their inherent aesthetic qualities seemed to play off of and question each other.
Rinder and his team chose to exclude essays, placards, and any other forms of analysis that could influence the viewer’s own interpretations of the macro-compositions and their various components. A gallery guide is available online for Way Bay 1 and Way Bay 2 and as a pamphlet at the exhibition, but its contents are minimal. There’s a brief introduction and maps of each wall, with the locations of specific works. The guide also contains poetry fragments that accompany each macro-composition. Their words describe the essence of each section, if obliquely.
There’s a sweet poetry in what the exhibition attempts. For decades, artists have made pilgrimages to the Bay Area to take risks, abandon boundaries, and find their voices. The urge to categorize, though understandable, goes against the currents of the region’s greatest artistic and countercultural achievements.
The interaction of pieces separated by centuries and sharing little to nothing in terms of philosophical background or intent strained a few of the macro-compositions to the point of being inscrutable. At their best, however, they inspire a lively dialogue. An arrangement included in Way Bay 1 and described in the guide with the verse “I did go out to look at the moon,” from the 1985 poem Candyland III by Kevin Killian, was improved in 2. Both iterations of the exhibition are anchored by “Dog Watching Moon” (1960), a painting from the incomparable Joan Brown, which portrays a yellow dog staring at a sickle-shaped sliver of golden moon in a gloomy sky. It’s a little on-the-nose when paired with Killian’s line, but the other works in this space realign the conversation toward the action of looking at something mysterious, even divine. Linda Connor’s photograph “The Patient One, Lamayuro Monastery, Ladakh, India” (1988) was brought into this section for Way Bay 2, and is one such welcome work that helps to hone the overall readability of the macro-composition.
Near “I did go out to look at the moon” is a wall section the guide titles “seconds before sleep/ seem all tangled up,” from the 2017 poem from for the fact finders by Steffi Drewes. It’s one of the larger groupings, and, collectively, demonstrates the unevenness of Blake’s model. “Teete’s House” (1886) by early San Francisco painter Henry Alexander and “Studio Wall” (1963) by Richard Diebenkorn bring a synchronicity that the rest of the wall lacks, meditating on and contrasting the spaces of rest and work, excess and labor.
Further down the wall are George Herms’ assemblage “All I Wanna Do Is Swing n’ Nail” (1961) and Judith Scott’s “Untitled” (2002), which appears to be a mass of yarn shaped like a big rock. These last two take Drewes’ verse literally, tangling up disparate items in a state of artificial repose. The other macro-compositions, similarly, succeed in one or two paintings, but stumble in generating a total synthesis.
Way Bay is an astounding curiosity, but could have been an absolute juggernaut. The aim was admirable, and necessary in our current climate. The San Francisco art scene is, easily, one of the least explored and ill-defined in the country. Way Bay is one of the few shows to approach it with the respect and imagination it deserves. While it appears that innovation was, in this case, placed before reason in the same way that carts are often placed before horse, there’s too much beautiful and rare art on view to pass up a visit.
Way Bay continues at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (2155 Center Street, Berkeley, California) through September 2.