Thursday, September 2, 2010

Hauntology at the Berkeley Art Museum

When is a painting supposed to be more than a painting? When it's a loose rift to represent a philosophical idea - in this case a VERY loose rift - on a theory proposed by Derrida based on a comment by Marx. Made up of recent acquisitions to the museum, the exhibit mixes these with a number of other works representing a wide range of periods and styles. 

Paul Sietsema. Ship Drawing. 2009.

The term "hauntology" was first used by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida in a 1993 lecture delivered at UC Riverside concerning the state of Marxist thought in the post-Communist era. He described it as a philosophy of history that upsets the progression of time by proposing that the present is simultaneously haunted by the past and the future. His reference was to political theory, how the post-Marxist world was haunted by the failure of Marxism to create a Utopian paradise. Since all the members of the European Socialist parties enthusiastically volunteered for duty in WW I, their failure to create a worker's state shouldn't have come as a surprise but trust a philosopher (French or otherwise) to make a banquet out of a bagatelle.

Speaking of a bagatelle, the weight of Derrida's obscure theory encumbers the exhibit with an unnecessary philosophical burden. A focus on haunting images would have been more fair to the works on display insteand of combining them in an attempt to fit a a particular theory and then, framing the show with a lot of jargon -- as in "the enigma of place and placelessness, memorial and longing, transitional beings, displacement and disappearance, demonic manifestations, auras, elegies of nature, and the translucency of the psyche."

Curated by Berkeley Art Museum director Lawrence Rinder and local artist Scott Hewicker, the 52 pieces that comprise this collection testify to their fascination with ghostly images, spirits that evoke the past and current works that evoke a sense of loss and a dream-like world that can segue into a nightmare.

Bernard Maybeck's 1910 frontispiece for the Greek play "Circe: A Dramatic Fantasy"

Among the first pieces on the wall is Bernard Maybeck's 1910 frontispiece for the Greek play "Circe: A Dramatic Fantasy" by Isaac Flagg. The delicate watercolor is exquisite - Ozymandias without the grandeur, a delicate vision of a fairy tale world in which the central figure could be a snake, a fountain or a palace out of a long vanished world.  Carina Baumann's untitled 2008-2009 piece was the favorite of the young man "guarding" the exhibit from the possibility of journalists run wild (heaven forbid that we write with a pen, instead of a pencil).  A piece of translucent white film placed over a large piece of aluminum looks blank at first and then, when the light is right, you see a the ghostly shape of a face with the eyes gleaming in the blackness of the background.. At first you don't see it, and when you do, the eyes seem to follow you around the room.

Paul Sietsema's "Ship Drawing" from 2009 is the centerpiece of the exhibit. The diptych portrays two masted sailing ship, the "Museo Nacional." It's drawn on ink on tattered parchment and paired with a blank piece of tattered, stained parchment.  Japanese painter Takahashi Sakunosuke, attempts a contemporary recreation of the late 12th-century "Gaki Zoshi (Hungry Ghosts). Ghosts are ubiquitous in Japanese art and folklore but do yourself a favor. Walk up one floor to the exhibit of the Clark Collection to see the real thing.

Miller Updegraff's "The Enigma of Kasper Hauser" (2010)

The exhibit hosts works by recognizable names like Diane Arbus, Fernando Botero and Francis Bacon; alas for the donors' intentions, not all of the works by the famous are first rate. But there is one very striking work on display, Miller Updegraff's "The Enigma of Kasper Hauser" (2010).  The dark oil painting sprinkled with glitter is one of the truly haunting images in the exhibit. Kaspar Hauser was a real person, a 19th century German who was reportedly locked away in a basement for the first 17 years of his life before being released. He was taught the ways of the world by a group of men who took him in, only to be mysteriously killed shortly thereafter.

"One of the wonderful things about this show is that it's something that can appeal to everyone, from an 8-year-old child who loves ghosts to an intellectual or art historian," said Lawrence Rinder, museum director and co-curator of the show. "I think it's very open-ended," he said.

But the best part is that it's sandwiched between two truly magnificent exhibits - one on Tibetan art and the other Japanese art from the Clark Collection, one of the finest private collections  of Japanese art in the United States. Now, the work in that exhibit will haunt you with its timeless beauty and it doesn't need any philosophical jargon to do so.

Through Dec. 5. 11 a.m.- 5 p.m. Wed.-Sun. Berkeley Art Museum, 2626 Bancroft Way, Berkeley. (510) 642-0808.

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