Hauntology at Berkeley Art Museum

Today’s article is from our friends at Art Practical, where Renny Pritikin discusses the exhibition, Hauntology, at the Berkeley Art Museum.

Hauntology, co-curated by Larry Rinder and Scott Hewicker, at the UC Berkeley Art Museum, posits that the past inhabits the present in the same way that an individual’s past shapes how he perceives and acts in the present. By extension, art history and contemporary art are not so much in an ancestor-descendent relationship as they are roommates cohabiting the studio and the gallery. As roommates will, the past and present forever borrow from each other’s wardrobes; that is, the past and the present are not two things but one, participating in a constantly evolving mutual creation of meaning.

Paul Sietsema. Ship Drawing, 2009 (detail); ink on paper, diptych; 50 3/4 x 70 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York.

One of my teachers, the late Stan Rice, said that if you can’t title a work, you haven’t figured out what it is about. The flip side of this flip remark is that you can title a project and ignore the title; this practice is endemic to the stated themes of art biennials and is something that curators can do in their smaller exhibitions, as well. A provocative title can finesse the flaws in obscurely or randomly assembled objects. At the same time, it is no secret that public institutions’ collapsing budgets make relatively inexpensive shows sourced from museums’ permanent collections desirable—as are shows of recent acquisitions. Hauntology is a group show of some fifty works, mostly recently acquired objects augmented by older pieces from the Berkeley Art Museum collection. An intelligent and economical endeavor gussied up with reference to Jacques Derrida, Hauntology nevertheless contains many wonderful individual art pieces and some very touching or clever arrangements.

After walking through a photography exhibition that juxtaposed works from the history of photography in groups of twos, threes, and fours, the late photographer Larry Sultan remarked that he preferred the sets in which he was forced to ponder what exactly the curators had seen that he at first failed to see, as opposed to those in which he found the shared thematic threads more obvious. Halfway through Hauntology, two medium-size works are placed to the left and right of the entrance to the second gallery. Essentially identical at first glance, the two works, Abstract Painting #3 (1960), by Ad Reinhardt, and an untitled work (2008–09) by Carina Baumann, appear to be grayish black monochromes.

Paul Schiek. Similar to a Baptism, 2007; chromogenic print; 30 x 40 in. Courtesy of the Artist and the UC Berkeley Art Museum.

The Reinhardt contains a nearly invisible rectangle of a slightly different hue at its bottom center. The Baumann, on close inspection, reveals a face emerging from the gloom. Two artists, one living and one dead, separated by the gulf of an empty wall, collapse time by addressing the same retinal phenomenon from the point of view of two different generations.

The exhibition is at its best when the curators avoid the spooky-for-its-own-sake. As wonderful as death-drenched folk art can be—who can resist an eighteenth-century mourning embroidery for a lost-at-sea husband?—Twirling Wires (2001), a Roger Ballen photograph of a bald man, wrapped in a blanket at the bottom of the print and cowering beneath an unexplained gigantic ball of razor wire, is far more uncanny. Similarly, Okyo’s 1750 Ghost of Oyuki—the wall label suggests that Oyuki is the source for much of the manga stylebook—is great fun. However, sussing out the relationship between one of Vincent Fecteau’s always-perfect shelf sculptures and Mitzi Pederson’s large 2009 untitled floor-based mixed media is much more satisfying and moving.

Julia Couzens, an underappreciated Sacramento artist, is represented with a charcoal drawing. Being Exposed #41 (1991) definitely depicts something organic—a body part or a vegetable—but I couldn’t describe it in any other way than to say that it is inarguably luscious. Nearby is a dreamy watercolor by Laurie Reid and Nocturne (1878), a James McNeill Whistler riverscape that is shrouded in mist. D.L. Alvarez’s drawing titled Dead (2009) depicts young people at a rock concert, transfixed, in a grouping that includes Goya’s famous Sleep of Reason (1799) and explores people sleeping or swooning.

Paul Sietsema’s 2009 diptych Ship Drawing is a large drawing that suggests a found and damaged photograph of a two-masted nineteenth-century sailing vessel that evokes the (ever-creepy) legendary Flying Dutchman ghost ship. The left-hand panel appears to be the back of the same print or an erased version of it. This kind of exercise—a haunting of Rauschenberg’s 1953 Erased de Kooning—is as evocative as anything else in the show. Finally, Paul Schiek’s Similar to a Baptism (1977) is a photograph of foamy ocean turbulence in which the splashing water suggests the arms of an octopus, among which can be seen a swimmer’s head. It is a perfect metaphor for Hauntology’s argument that we are all just trying to keep our heads above water amid a flood of images, memories, associations, and histories.

Hauntology is on view at the UC Berkeley Art Museum through December 5, 2010.

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