Category Archives: Oakland Museum

New Oakland Museum pt2

My trip to the Oakland Museum also allowed me to check out the new Gallery of Natural Sciences.* Unlike with the California Academy of Sciences, while I visited the Oakland Museum a lot as a kid, I do not really remember the old galleries here. Looking through the new galleries though I can see that there must have been a lot of dioramas and taxidermy animals. The new galleries use and repurpose a lot of the old material into displays that are often nothing like the static dioramas.

*The Oakland Museum has been updating its galleries over the past few years. The other new galleries opened  in late 2010 at which point the Natural Sciences one closed for these renovations.

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There are birds all over the gallery—both flying overhead and perched on things—in ways that bring museumgoers into the exhibit. There are still some free-standing glassed-off displays but because most of the exhibits are more immersive, those are the exceptions and can highlight specific things now.

The galleries go on a tour of California, visiting 7 key regions,* and highlighting the ecology of each area and why they’re important, distinct, and how we’ve used them. The bird and animal displays are especially notable in how they’re wildlife which is local to those areas yet is completely different than anything I ever see at zoos. I don’t know why the only place I can expect to see local wildlife is in Natural History museums** where the wildlife is dead, stuffed, and posed. Zoos almost never have pens of local animals where you can learn about animals that you might be lucky enough to see in the wild.

*Well, 6 plus Oakland. Which I’m fine with since seeing the natural history of where the museum is—and the home of who’s most likely to visit—is in many ways the most interesting part for me. I loved seeing how many oaks really used to be there and looking at all the ways that waterways have been diverted into underground culverts as the city developed.

**Well, also kid-centric junior museums which also function as wildlife centers.

I’d love to see zoos take this approach and had a section devoted to the local wildlife and ecosystems. I’d love as a local to be able to bring my kids to the zoo and and really teach them about the animals they might see in the wild. And I’d love as a tourist to be able to actually learn about an area through visiting a zoo. Right now, it’s the science museums and aquariums which do a better job at teaching me about where I am. And that makes me sad.

So many of the images here are about what we’re doing to the landscape. And who in particular is doing it. It’s up to us to see these images and ask the questions about whether we’re doing the right things or if the right people are doing them, and if not, what the right things are and who the right people should be.

—My review of Inspiration Points

The land use, land management thread also continues through the whole natural sciences wing. Every display mentions how we’ve used a place, how we rely on it for some resource, and what our impact has been on the plant and animal life there. The displays also get into discussions about what we should do with places in the future as our resource needs change or as the existing resource becomes stressed or as the ownership of the place changes hands.

And the ownership question is especially interesting. Tejon Ranch and Sutter Buttes in particular have fascinating displays about the ownership issue and the points of view of Indians, private owners, and State Parks—and how public ownership may not always considered the best course of action by people who you’d think of as being anti-private ownership. Public ownership often means public access, which is not always the best thing for preservation.

Other highlights

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One, more old-style display needs to be mentioned since it was my favorite thing in the whole museum. The egg drawers are awesome. The display is just a file cabinet full of boxes of eggs, each box containing a clutch of eggs from a specific bird. But opening each drawer and comparing everything—sizes, colors, shapes, number—is not only great fun to see all the varieties but is also an exercise in thinking about species vulnerability, location on the food chain, nesting habits, etc.

It’s a shame that this collection hasn’t been digitized since this kind of typology is just fascinating to look through. It’s not just the sheer variety of options, it’s that, while we’re familiar with eggs as a concept, we never actually see them in the wild unless something’s gone horribly wrong.

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Speaking of horribly wrong. When we get out into the ocean habitat, they have this display of an albatross from Midway island. Which is awful but also looks somewhat staged. I had to pull up Chris Jordan’s work to show that things are actually worse than this looks.

I found myself wondering which came first, Jordan’s photos or this display,* and if it’s this display, if perhaps that’s why Jordan’s photos seemed oddly familiar to me when I first encountered them.

*Well, not this display but the the albatross specimen.

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I also took a quick walk through the California History Gallery. Not enough to comment on it in general but just to see it again and check out anything that I didn’t remember seeing before. I like the gallery but have never had the time to really give it a good looking over. In this visit though I did see the technology “garage” for the first time. It’s part of an exhibit on how California has influenced the current world and is more of an exhibit on what is currently trendy* than being actual history.

*e.g. Burning Man

In the technology garage, while there were lots of computer artifacts* what caught my eye was the interaction board which asked how our lives have changed because of computer technology. As expected, there were a lot of positive comments. I found myself enjoying the negative ones. And the ones which buy into analog fetishism,

*Worth looking at but nothing like visiting the Computer History Museum in Mountain View.

The idea that computer technology is antisocial always amuses me. One of the amazing things I’m seeing with my kids is how they’re able to videoconference with their family members. We live in New Jersey, everyone else is in California, but we can talk and see each other daily, if need be. This is normal to my kids. I think it’s life-changing to my parents who, without the videoconference, wouldn’t be able to see and interact with their grandchildren for months at a time. It’s so much easier to interact and talk to people now that it amazes me how people have become so blasé about it.

Similarly, analog fetishism is one of those things that comes up in photography* all the time. I get it. Old technology** is cool. Mechanical technology which doesn’t succumb to bit rot is especially cool. But we’ve been talking about the digital vs analog thing for decades now and have gotten to the point were old digital technology has become outdated to the point where still using it is a bit of a statement as well.*** This is going to happen more and more. It’s not a magical analog/digital thing as much as a technology evolution thing. After a while, old technology goes from being merely outdated to something that reminds us how the world used to be.****

*And music and movies.

**Sufficiently old.

***I’m thinking of things like CD collections and classic NES games.

****For example, Jim Golden’s Relics of Technology. It also may be worth reading my thoughts upon viewing Dieter Rams’s 1970s design work.

With specific regard to cameras, I’m curious which digital cameras will become the retro-fetish cameras. We hit the point a year and a half ago where digital cameras were coming out that had been optimized toward specific kinds of shooting. I don’t think people will be nostalgic for VGA images. But for things like the GoPro once other kinds of wearable cameras hit the market? Maybe.

Inspiration Points

Ted Orland, One-and-a-Half Domes, Yosemite

Ted Orland, One-and-a-Half Domes, Yosemite

I’ve never liked how photography is in its own distinct wing. I don’t even like considering it distinct from “the other arts” and much prefer seeing it in conversation with painting, sculpture, etc. This isn’t an “equal status” thing but instead recognizes how photography is a tool for communication. Fixating on what is or isn’t photography misses the greater point that these images exist and interbreed with other images, photographic or non.

My post here introducing Hairy Beast

My last museum trip of the summer was to the Oakland Museum. This was partly to get my Fenton’s fix but I was also interested in the Inspiration Points exhibition since it promised to mix photography, painting, and drawing in the galleries. One of my continuing interests with photography is how it can get out of the photography wing and be exhibited alongside, and in conversation with, other artworks. This doesn’t happen often* so I like to keep an eye out for those cases where it does and go see the show with an eye for how the show itself guides the conversation.

*Why I was so excited by SFMOMA’s Flesh and Metal. And the Jay DeFeo exhibition before that.

The Oakland museum show is a little bit of a mixed bag here. It breaks the concept of California Landscape Art into distinct views and themes, some of which end up being heavily biased toward specific media. So no conversations in those room although there is food for thought about why some themes may be tougher for certain media to handle.

Since each theme ends up being somewhat distinct in character, it makes sense to go through the themes. First, the themes which resulted in galleries which were mixed media.

Anne W. Brigman, The Heart of the Storm

Anne W. Brigman, The Heart of the Storm

Mystic

While being mixed between paintings and photography, a lot of the works in this gallery were heavily biased toward pictorialism—or the paintings that those photos were trying to evoke. This isn’t a complaint as it’s quite nice to see those two concepts mixed together so we can actually see how they inform each other.

At the same time, it feels like a somewhat limited take on what mysticism can mean as it biases more toward early-20th-century concepts of myths and the “unspoiled” land in the west rather than looking at the different ways people have developed the landscape for spiritual reasons over the past century.

Exploitation

This theme is of course the flip side of the mystic landscapes. How California is full of natural resources for us to use or conquer is the real state mythology. Documenting the land as we impose out will on it is something everyone—from artists to corporations*— does here. In this case, the method of documentation doesn’t really matter. I don’t get the sense that these works are in conversation although it is interesting to see how commercial both photography and painting can go in terms of serving corporate needs.

*Sigh.

What’s more interesting is how all these works can be read in multiple ways now. Many of the exploitation artworks originally glorify the men or companies which were taming nature. While this reading is still valid, that they’re now displayed under the heading “Exploitation” means we’re looking at them differently. What was originally optimistic is instead something we’re supposed to reflect on and think about how to change—both our actions with the landscape and our readings of corporate propaganda—moving forward.

Recreation and Tourism

It’s interesting that Recreation and Tourism is a distinct theme outside of exploitation. Not all of the exploitation of California’s resources is through using them up. Recreation and tourism is just as important a part of land management and just as important an industry to the state. Big trees. Big water. Big mountains. These are the landscapes which sell the California image as tourist destination for seeing and taking in and exploring nature.

These are also the landscapes that photographers and painters tend to consume and emulate the most. Where the exploitation artworks are clear what industry they’re depicting, many of the recreation ones end up pointing the finger back at the viewer and the artist and make me think about the fine line between how our desire to see and use these places both allows for their preservation as open space and risks degrading them through overuse.

Beth Van Hoesen, Point Richmond

Beth Van Hoesen, Point Richmond

East Bay

There’s also a gallery dedicated to East Bay landscapes. This is nice to see because it’s local—both the views and the artists—and while the exhibition is about California, it’s also always nice to see items of specific local interest included too. There are a lot of stereotypical nice landscapes on the East Bay but I prefer seeing the depictions of things we typically don’t think of as being picturesque.

Locals have a tendency to undervalue what’s interesting about where they live even while being triggered with intense senses of home from things that non-locals won’t ever understand. It’s those local-specific details which I enjoy seeing the most.

Now, on to the themes which were heavily biased in favor of a specific medium.

Pastoral

This section was all paintings* and pretty much all a nostalgic** view of California as an agricultural paradise. Not really a style of painting I like though it is interesting that there weren’t any photographs present. It’s not like photography can’t do the nostalgia thing.***

*Except for one Edward Weston photo. Oddly enough.

**Making the Weston inclusion even odder.

***Off the top of my head I’m thinking Pirkle Jones would be a good fit here. Or possibly Ken Light.

Between how we also react to old photos as inherently historic and nostalgic documents and how so much of the current trends in photography have been centered around faking and mimicking nostalgia as a reaction to the ubiquity of images and our loss of our lazy-man’s editor, there’s plenty of opportunity for photographs here.

All that said, I think there’s an element of nostalgia which requires things to be kind of made up. Photography, while not real, trades on reality in a way that paintings do not. Looking at nostalgic paintings comes with the understanding that things don’t actually look like that in real life. Looking at photos, especially landscape photos, still comes from a place where we expect the photo to be real.

Yes we should know better here.

Joe Deal, Front Lawn (Watering) Phillips Ranch, California

Joe Deal, Front Lawn (Watering) Phillips Ranch, California

Urban vs. wild

Meanwhile this theme was all photos, many of which were New Topographics type work. And while this made some sense to me since one of photography’s specialties is highlighting incongruent elements such as this urban vs wild theme, it’s not like people stopped painting or drawing the California suburbs.

And the urban vs. wild theme is in many ways about “California style” developments* which are meant to bring the outside in or incorporate controlled wilderness in the midst of suburbia. This isn’t an exclusive to photography thing at all.**

*Something that I wasn’t fully aware of until I moved East and saw homes listed as “California style” which look nothing like anything I’ve seen in California but instead feature more open floor plans and bigger windows and try to seem like they’re closer to nature.

**A lot of Hockney paintings (one of his joiners was in this gallery) seem to fit here. As does a lot of Bechtle.

Still, as with the nostalgia images, the difference in how we approach paintings compared to photos I think is a major reason why this gallery is photo-biased. The fact that the photos are “real” makes the incongruity more believable here.

Robert Dawson, Private Property, Lake Tahoe, California

Robert Dawson, Private Property, Lake Tahoe, California

Dystopia

This was also all photos. Which, didn’t surprise me at all. The dystopia photos, more than anything else here, are treated as evidence of landscapes taken to illogical extremes. You could create images like these in paintings but something about finding these in the wild makes the point better.* These photos are often wry and funny just as often as they’re sad. They’re also the images I liked the most in the exhibition.

*Sandow Birk’s drawings are pretty dystopian but even when referencing specific things, they’re pretty clearly made up.

Many of the dystopian photos revolve around land use and the weird juxtapositions between private and public. Looking through the rest of the galleries in this show, it’s clear how this idea is a constant issue in all the different themes and as such is really the dominant concept in the California landscape.

So many of the images here are about what we’re doing to the landscape. And who in particular is doing it. It’s up to us to see these images and ask the questions about whether we’re doing the right things or if the right people are doing them, and if not, what the right things are and who the right people should be.

Best of 2012

My top-ten list of best/favorite exhibitions I saw this year. These are shows which got me thinking and which I recommended, without reservation, to anyone (and everyone) I knew.

10. Looking at the Land

Looking at the Land by Flak Photo shows suburbia all grown up. The suburbia I know. The photos feel right to me. Also, this is the best example of our new world which recognizes curation as a creative act. The promise of more of these online exhibitions is very exciting.

9. The 1968 Exhibit

The 1968 Exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California reminded me of how far we’ve come and provided me with context and information which helped me understand my parents’ generation better. This was a very ambitions show which came very close to achieving everything it set out to do.

8. Rineke Dijkstra

Rineke Dijkstra at SFMOMA was a textbook example of a show which was more than the sum of its parts. And how art isn’t always supposed to be nice to look at. This was art which is hard to look at, but worth seeing. Very powerful. Very raw. Very true.

7. South Africa in Apartheid and After

South Africa in Apartheid and After at SFMOMA was beautifully timed to open right after election day. This show was a gentle, but powerful, reminder of how what looks respectable and desirable can mask enormous injustice. And how mistreating a population of workers to achieve that society leaves long-lasting wounds.

6. Walker Evans

Walker Evans at the Cantor Arts Center showed all of Evans’s work and not just his FSA depression-era photos. It was great to see and a nice reminder of how talented Evans was. As a design major, Evans’s consistent search for the functional in his photography excites me. As a photographer, his crisp composition and eye still stand out.

5. Mark Bradford

Mark Bradford at SFMOMA was a bit of a surprise for me. I didn’t know what to expect and was very please to find fantastic work which revealed new things no matter how close or far away I stood. Individually they’re all great. Together, they’re even better. So many layers of history and personal reinvention in them.

4. Monuments of Printing 2

Monuments of Printing at the Stanford University Library showed all kinds of rare/fine books. Catnip to this typography nut. A Kelmscott Chaucer? A Doves Bible? Excuse me while I geek out.

3. Less and More:
The Design Ethos of Dieter Rams

Dieter Rams at SFMOMA meanwhile was catnip for this design nut. While his products are starting to lose relevance, Rams’s design principles have not. It’s always great to see the actual objects when talking about good design.

2. Richard Misrach:
Oakland-Berkeley Fire Aftermath, 1991

Richard Misrach at the Oakland Museum of California presented photos which are powerful, beautiful, and personal. Ruin porn without being voyeuristic. That it was local images presented locally means everyone in the exhibition was probably affected somehow too.

1. Mexicanismo

Mexicanismo at the San José Museum of Art was my favorite of the year by far. Cool and obvious while also being smart and subtle. Extremely insider-friendly while also being accessible and descriptive of the culture to outsiders. I only wish there had been a catalog available so I could show it to other people.

Other notable artwork this year

Dora García’s Instant Narrative in SFMOMA’s Descriptive Acts exhibition was probably my favorite single piece I saw. I also gained a newfound appreciation for ceramic art through David Gilhooly’s work in San José’s Renegade Humor show and SFMOMA’s acquisition of Robert Arneson’s Portrait of George.

1968

During my visit to the Oakland Museum where I saw Daniel Clowes and the Social Justice Posters, I spent most of my time in the 1968 exhibition. It’s an ambitious project and one which I’m not entirely sure works on its own—too much to cover and too many things to tie into it. At the same time, it’s a great first step and start of discussion which will make a big impression on most visitors. It’s well worth the trip to see it.

The biggest impression it made on me was how much it helped me understand where my parents came from. It’s not like I didn’t know about any of the stuff which was on display. It’s just that the examples and stories reminded me of items I was already personally familiar with and so my parents’ stories fit into the bigger context in a way I had not fully understood previously. As someone who felt reasonably versed in the events of the 1960s, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I learned.

This is definitely an exhibit worth attending as a family with the intent of telling stories, discussing what happened, and relearning the past.

Where it fails is that it never really steps out from the past and into the present. There’s no sense of current-day applicability to the events. No references to how things turned out and no questions about whether the fuss was worth it. This was most apparent to me when I was watching the Chicago Convention footage. I don’t think anyone protesting the Democratic platform wanted Nixon to win the election. But look what happened. Nixon won. The war got worse. It’s still not clear that the Democrats have recovered.

I also can’t watch scenes of the riot in Grant Park without thinking about Obama’s victory speech in 2008. I think it’s important to remind viewers what happened to these places and what they’re like now. The Ambassador Hotel is demolished now but Grant Park still exists as an important gathering point where the world still watches.

The concept of “where are we now?” is also completely relevant to the portions on the Women’s Movement. There are some tremendously good accomplishments which are noted* but other things like the concept of throwing away bras, girdles, heels, etc. tell a different story than they’re meant to. The story is always how throwing those away was empowering. Yet today we have cosmetic surgery which accomplishes the same thing. Is it really an improvement to go from an age where everyone knew what was accomplished by shaping undergarments to one where your body is supposed to be perfect before you put your clothes on?**

*Especially the increase in college attendance.

**This realization came to me while I was in a Vivienne Westwood exhibition. There’s a reason why almost every woman now chooses a wedding dress with a corset in it. It’s not the corset which is the problem.

Which brings me to the other big impression I got in this exhibition. I was very stuck by how simple the issues appeared and the ease of achieving protest action. It was almost quaint. Today, we seem to get sidetracked by the complexity of things. It’s hard to focus on a complex issue yet at the same time, people who focus too much on simple issues are now perceived to be missing the point. Movements today—assuming they get off of Facebook and into the streets—are criticized for either being too narrow-minded or too unfocused.

Other thoughts as I wandered through the displays:

War has changed an awful lot since Vietnam. It’s news now when one soldier dies. It’s also completely okay now to be both anti-war and supportive of the troops. I think those are both positive developments.

It’s nice to see César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, and the United Farm Workers included. All too often the 60s are portrayed as white/black/women issues and the rise of the UFW is hugely important to note.

The treatment of black rights and black power is interesting. The exhibition marks the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the foundering of the Poor People’s Campaign but doesn’t really call out anything else. You have to be alert to see things like Aretha Franklin on the cover of Time or Arthur Ashe winning the US Open woven into the general timeline.

The only other time black issues are explicitly featured is Tommie Smith and John Carlos* at the 1968 Olympics. Which brings up another interesting point. The 1968 games are not just about the black power salute. I saw no mention of Bob Beamon or Dick Fosbury or the phenomenal legacy each of them left on the games and sport in general. Nor was it mentioned that the games arguably shouldn’t even have been held at all—Tlateloco** shows up in the timeline but is never tied to the Olympics.

*I also always feel bad that Peter Norman always seems to get overlooked.

**What is it with museums assuming Americans know about Tlateloco? SFMoMA did the same thing.

There is also a silent majority section. Which is great. We do often get the sense that 1968 is full of conflict and that everyone was involved. Yet there was also a constituency which was powerful enough to elect Nixon.

I would like to see more about the presidential campaigns. The McCarthy to RFK to Humphrey transition is presented as something which just happened (well, besides the assassination thing) rather than an evolution in support. And Nixon’s campaign isn’t covered much at all.

I’d also like to see more about sports. Felt kind of like an afterthought. Sports is a different kind of common-culture which runs orthogonal to the rest of the movements on display. If anything, it’s the closest Americans have to an agreed-upon shared history which cuts across the rest of the divisions.

The comparison of television to movies is shocking. TV in 1968 is horrible and only worth watching today for kitsch sentimentality. The movies meanwhile represent the beginning of New Hollywood and are as important and impressive today as they were then. From what I can tell, the most important show on TV was the news.

The music, clothing, or industrial design displays are all very very familiar. The items are either still cool* or completely in-keeping with the myth of the 60s.

*Especially with the retro-cool trends we’re in the midst of right now where anything 1950s–1970s is cool.

I love the amount of ashtrays that they had scattered around. It’s going to be very weird explaining the omnipresence of cigarette smoke to my son.

And the glass grape sculptures. Total flashback to grandma’s house.

Ending the show with Apollo 8 and Earthrise. It still blows my mind that we hadn’t known the Earth that way until then. And the poignancy of seeing the hope for the moon during that time while we’re shipping the space shuttles to drydock now wasn’t lost on me.

Social Justice Posters

Also at the Oakland Museum with the Daniel Clowes exhibition is an exhibition of Social Justice posters. The exhibition itself kind of skips a lot of historical context. Since it’s about local history, I was able to fill in the gaps. But I’d still like a bit more context as to what the poster is about.

What I found really interesting though was the craft and aesthetics of these protest posters.* In the 1960s and 1970s, the posters designs and graphic styles were mandated by the limitations of cheap printing technology—no screening, two colors, hand-drawn type, etc. Despite the fact that the printing world has completely flipped now to where process-color printing is super cheap, heavy-coverage spot-color printing is expensive, and everyone has more fonts than they know what to do with; the style of what protest posters are supposed to look like hasn’t changed much.

*Surprise surprise, I geeked out on printing yet again

That silkscreen is still a cheap point of entry for making personal posters helps a lot with this.* But more and more people have access to computers and laser printers now. I’m surprised and disappointed that I didn’t see any toner-based posters. It doesn’t seem unrealistic to expect people to be printing these on a Fiery at FedEx Office now.

*As does the fact that merchandising on tshirts is still alive and kicking.

Though at the same time, I’m not so surprised. The ease of access to printing has resulted in people who have no idea how to design being able to print anything they want. Whereas the higher barriers of entry required to create non-process offset of silkscreen work mean that those posters still look better.

There’s also the fact that nowadays, people are more likely to publicize an event on the web* than through postering a city.** I get the sense that the posters of today are more likely to be art pieces for purchase to support a cause than for any large-scale distribution. And that digital printing using cheap toner-based printers is not making it into museums yet.

*It’s been a dozen years since I was in college. Do people even flyer on campus now?

**Something Mark Bradford has noted as he has discussed how his raw materials are disappearing.

But enough about digital. The exhibition does show a lot of good silkscreen and offset work. I especially liked the blue on blue Earth Day poster which shows how much an abstracted globe still reads as home. It’s also always fascinating how few lines and colors you actually need to define faces and emotion. And it’s somewhat sobering to see that a lot of the protest posters are decades old and still as relevant as ever.

Daniel Clowes

It’s always interesting to see exhibitions consisting of the original artwork for book illustrations. Between my photography and printing backgrounds, I’m very sensitive to the distinction between the initial creation and the finished piece. It’s nice to see the behind-the-scenes nature of pasteups and contact prints. Yet very rarely can those components overshadow the intended final printed piece.

The Daniel Clowes exhibition  at the Oakland Museum is the third such exhibition I’ve seen in the past year.* Clowes’s work in particular is worth seeing in the museum. His drawings are super-precise and are served well by being seen in their original larger size.** It’s also instructive to see how he pastes fine details like faces and highlights on top of the base drawings and how he uses pre-printed fill patterns to give texture to things like clothing and hair. The results are almost computer-generated, even in the large paste-up versions.

*Previous two are Robert Crumb’s Genesis and Sandow Birk’s Commedia, both at the San José Museum of Art.

**roughly twice the dimensions of the printed pieces.

Yet, as much as I can appreciate the craft, over and over again I found myself just reading the panels and getting into the story—generally a good thing for this kind of art but frustrating in a museum where not all panels are present. I’m not familiar-enough with all the comics to fully appreciate the panel artwork—unlike Genesis or the Commedia, each of which I’m somewhat familiar with storywise. Many of the panels though did stand on their own so it’s not all frustrating.

To be fair, the museum has provided samples of the various graphic novels and bench to sit on while you read them. But that’s a much longer-term commitment to the museum than I had available to me last weekend.

I just wish they were selling prints of the “Oakland” panel from Wilson. Any exhibition which can produce a laugh-out-load moment like that is worth seeing.

Richard Misrach: Oakland-Berkeley Fire Aftermath, 1991

My grandmother’s house is at the base of the Oakland hills.* We drove through the hills to get there for holidays and visits and there’s always something very comforting about that area as a result. It’s not where I grew up, but there’s a similar comfort in knowing and seeing where my father grew up.**

*Even though someone else has lived there for over a decade, it will always be my grandmother’s house.

**I have similar feelings about Kane‘ohe even though I visited there far less frequently.

I still remember the fire in 1991—both in terms of watching the news and then driving through the neighborhood soon after for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Watching the fire was scary and worrisome. Even though we knew she was okay, we were watching to see if our roots survived. While the house and immediate neighborhood did (being surrounded by the Claremont Country Club), we still had no idea what the greater area would look like until we drove through it later.

We didn’t drive through the area so soon after as Richard Misrach did but his photos of the aftermath still ring familiar to me. It’s easy to dismiss photos of devastation and disaster as ruin porn but when those photos become personal, it’s quite a bit different. That Misrach sat on these for 20 years before publishing shows that he understands the difference too. He’s thought through what these photos are for—they aren’t voyeuristic photos intended for people to gawk, they’re personal and intended for people to remember.

That they’re being displayed first in Oakland and Berkeley sort of forgives the one major fault of the exhibition. There are no pre-fire or post-reconstruction photographs available so we have to rely on our own memories or commit to driving up Broadway after the museum visit. But by being displayed first to locals, it’s likely that there will always be someone in the exhibition who can make it personal.

There is a memory wall which does alleviate some of this, but I still found myself directly comparing this exhibition to Gohlke’s work with either the aftermath of the Wichita Falls tornado or the Mt. St. Helens eruption. Gohlke is great about demonstrating a lot more of the cause and effect both in single frames as well as multiple frames from the same location over the years. The most I get a sense for this in the Misrach exhibition is the noticeable motion blur in a number of the frames—the wind which fed the firestorm was still whipping through the area.

I also, as a Bay Area native who expects to be wiped out via earthquakes, couldn’t help but appreciate how fire takes all of the house except the portion which earthquakes take first. Wood rides out earthquakes pretty well, stone and brick chimneys don’t. And yes, I know that the chief danger during an earthquake is still fire.

Two photos which struck me most. The car at the edge of the world. There’s always something striking about what remains in a landscape when everything else is taken away. In this case, you can also see how precariously those houses must have actually been on the hillside and you can see how the view must have looked before we began building there. There’s also a much closer shot of just the burned-out car showing how everything flammable has been consumed. I prefer this shot with the context but the two together* work well.

*And really, how often do you see two shots of the same subject taken at the same time presented together?

The melted tricycle. This one gets to me on many levels. It’s probably the most ruin-porn of the photos. But then the subject matter is also the most emotional. We’re always going to react strongly to a kid’s toy. It also reminds me of William Eggleston’s tricycle and the idea that these kind of photos can be art.* Plus this photo is one of the few which still maintains any sense of color. Everything else is neutral. It’s all been burned or covered in ash and soot. But the tricycle still pops.

*That it’s also the cover of the exhibition catalog suggests that I’m not the only one to make this connection.