Marion Gray: Within the LightJune 18, 2015
Oakland Museum of CaliforniaFebruary 14 - June 21, 2015 Solo Show
In Marion Gray: Within the Light at the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA), the artist presents twenty-three photographs of Bay Area performances and installations from the late 1970s to today. Without overshadowing Gray’s photographs, the exhibition’s labels nicely explain the actions or events depicted in her imagery. Gray’s work shows the spirit of experimentation of the time and the many luminaries involved; some have passed through the Bay Area, and others remain locally active. The historic aspect of Within the Light indirectly highlights the many changes in Bay Area art venues and urban geography. In capturing ephemeral artworks in a shifting art world, Gray thoughtfully uses photography as a medium that speaks to flux, motion, and time, moving her images beyond mere documentation.
In Opening of the Exhibition “Avedon 1946–1980” (1980, printed 2014), one of Gray’s most visually complicated and intriguing works, she presents two images of the opening of Richard Avedon's exhibition at the UC Berkeley Art Museum (BAMPFA). The dynamic lines in Gray’s image suggest the ways in which the museum’s architecture frames and maneuvers patrons. Gray also rephotographs Avedon’s banner-size image of a group of suited men standing while facing the camera. With Avedon’s image affixed to the building, Gray capitalizes on the ambiguous space that it creates, such that Avedon’s photographed men appear to be looking down at the crowds from behind a window. The photograph, window, and museum’s architecture become formal and metaphoric frames that explore spatial and representational divisions. As BAMPFA is currently closed while it relocates to its new Diller Scofidio + Renfro-designed building, Gray’s photograph seems to bid farewell to the 1970 Brutalist building.
Exhibited adjacent to Gray’s image of BAMPFA is Brian Goggin, “Herd Morality” (1994, printed 2014), a photograph of Goggin’s installation in the outdoor courtyard at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA). The two images resonate with one another as they both strongly feature the museums’ architecture. As with Goggin’s other work,1 he assigns anthropomorphic qualities to furniture in relation to architecture and location. With their organic-shaped legs, the wooden coffee and end tables in Herd Morality (1994–95) seem to scurry and climb a tall wall in the courtyard. What is on the other side of the wall? Are the tables escaping, or breaking in? In never revealing the larger context, Gray mines the mystery of a single moment captured in still photography. While a photograph indexically represents information, it also leaves things out or makes imaginative suggestions.
Gray’s photograph Michael Cooper, “Manta Matic” at the Artists’ Soapbox Derby (1978, printed 2014) renders stasis, potential movement, and danger. In Gray’s image, as if on a boogie board, Cooper lies face forward on a makeshift vehicle constructed from bicycle parts. The knowledge that he is poised to descend one of San Francisco’s hills on this contraption elicits fear and absurdity. Adding to the drama, Cooper appears without a helmet, with what seems to be a propane torch attached to his vehicle. In presenting a still image, Gray conjures one’s imagination in considering the physical peril and actions preceding or following the photographed moment. The Artists’ Soap Box Derby (1975 and 1978)2 was held in conjunction with SFMOMA. Considering the economic and litigious concerns that museums face these days, it seems unbelievable that any museum would undertake something so potentially dangerous and raucous. In comparison to its current Mario Botto building and the Snøhetta-designed expansion currently underway, the museum used to be rather modestly housed on the fourth floor of the War Memorial Veterans Building on Van Ness Avenue, part of the Beaux Arts–styled cluster of buildings dedicated to municipal administration.3 While SFMOMA in its early days may have been smaller and more provincial, it also seems to have taken advantage of some of the freedom it had in lying on the margins.
With historical material, it is easy to slip into a nostalgic mood. As Roland Barthes has argued in Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (1981), photographs suggest absence. While we struggle with the recent loss of many galleries and artists, a result of economic hardship, relocation, and death, Gray’s photographs are a beautiful reminder of things past. In Lea Feinstein’s art ltd. article “SF’s Gallery Scene: The Early Years” (2014), she provides an outline of the artists, gallerists, and curators who shaped the arts in the Bay Area. Feinstein reminds us that many of the galleries that became prominent champions of local artists started out much smaller—not in 49 Geary, which was for some years the anchor for gallery activity. Gray’s exhibition and Feinstein’s essay affirm that artists and those who support the arts are some of the most innovative, cunning, and dedicated individuals. Gray’s show not only depicts the history of Bay Area artists, but stands as a model of how we must support local artists in our museums and galleries, and those doing actions and installations in untraditional venues and manners.
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Marion Gray: Within the Light is on view at Oakland Museum of California, in Oakland, through June 21, 2015.