As a resident of the East Bay for the past seven years, I’ve enjoyed watching a small and vibrant contemporary art scene emerge independently and gain some polish. Johansson Projects in Oakland remains among my very favorite spaces. Dynamic founder Kimberly Johansson has built a gallery on the corner of 23rd and Telegraph that would be as much at home in San Francisco or New York, but which keeps a certain East Bay DIY spirit deep inside. Johansson’s sensibilities range from delicate works on paper to kinetic, mechanical and electronic art, all of which is on display this month.
Through June 20, The Echo Fields features the work of Berkeley’s Val Britton and Oakland’s Michael Meyers in the main gallery. Brooklyn-based artists Jennifer and Kevin McCoy are in the Project Space. Britton works by cutting, painting and pasting onto large sheets of paper. Her images are abstractions of maps, that could also be read as skyscapes. She has explained the origins of her imagery as a personal investigation into the life of her father, a long-haul trucker who spent much of Britton’s childhood on the road. Though emotive, the works are fundamentally structural, and so fit well with Meyers’ sculptures.
Michael Meyers takes Michael Fried’s proscription against theatricality in art as a directive, in the genuine Minimalist sense. Meyers’ sculptures made of blond wood, vellum, string and plaster are very much specific objects. Finely crafted and simply formed, they assert themselves within the physical space of the viewer. They may gently move, buoyed by air currents. That presence is meant to inspire phenomenological awareness in the viewer. The resolution of the work happens within the frame of reference of an audience rather than in pure form, rooting it in a real world context. Though perhaps not as controversial an approach as it was 40 years ago, the strategy remains powerful. Meyers has also designed sets for dance and opera performance, which seems logical given the lyric movement of his constructions.
Jennifer and Kevin McCoy have made a career out of self-reflection. They may be best known for turning episodes from their courtship and marriage into miniature sets for robotic movies, which are captured using small video cameras and a real-time imaging database. These are represented at Johansson Projects by two small works, Show Me and and In Mind. Perhaps prompted by exhaustion from raising two young daughters, the artists have recently looked to outsource their responsibilities as artists, teachers and spouses. Their project of hiring actors to give improvised Artist Talks results in some insightful comments about the archetype of the artist and the social role of culture.
A media critique which began with organizing and analyzing every shot of the television show Starsky and Hutch (2001’s Every Shot, Every Episode) has evolved into a subtle riff on reality television and self-portraiture in an ongoing body of work which has also seen the artists audition replacements for one another (Jen and Ken McCoy/Jessica and Kevin McCoy, 2008). The Artist Talks project belies the McCoys’ discomfort with their role as international artists, expected to present practices as academic that they are viscerally engaged with inside the studio. They are interested in the idea of the artist as a pseudo-celebrity, as much as or more of a focal point than the work, but more ambivalent about living it.
The McCoys’ history with the Bay Area includes the San Jose Museum of Art‘s Superlight exhibition during the 2008 Zero1 Festival, a residency at Headlands Center for the Arts this past April, and a concurrent lecture at the Art, Technology and Culture Colloquium of UC Berkeley’s Center for New Media. Though they have touched down in the South Bay, Marin and the East Bay in the past year, their work has still not been seen in San Francisco. That they are showing at Johansson is indicative of the new energy in Oakland and how it’s shaking up the Bay Area.