UNEARTHED: Found + Made

Review

UNEARTHED: Found + Made

By Vivian Sming January 26, 2016

In the late 19th century, anthropologist Franz Boas rejected the methods of museological display that grouped objects by their typology. Boas dismissed the practice of creating an evolutionary progression between disparate cultural artifacts—an approach susceptible to scientific racism—and instead favored a contextual approach that placed objects together by their location, history, and culture. The Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) is a rare instance of a museum that takes such an approach toward art. The works in the museum’s collection are not displayed through a linear understanding of art history, but rather are arranged by their cultural concepts. Here, contemporary works are treated as a sliver of Californian history, positioned next to landscape paintings from the days of the Gold Rush. By using this methodology, OMCA reveals the timeless fixations that continue to preoccupy the region’s inhabitants and artists, highlighting the Californian landscape in particular, which has ceaselessly captured the public's imagination.

Currently on view at OMCA, UNEARTHED: Found + Made looks toward the ground as a source of meditation. It’s the first in a series of future exhibitions that pair contemporary artists with niche cultural organizations around the Bay Area, furthering the museum’s anthropological approach. Curated by Christina Linden, UNEARTHED features works by Oakland-born, Los Angeles-based artist Jedediah Caesar as well as artists from two local clubs, the California Suiseki Society and the San Francisco Suiseki Kai. Largely comprising found materials from the Californian landscape, the exhibited works transport viewers to far and distant lands that simultaneously lie on the earth’s surface and exist within the imagination.

Installation view, UNEARTHED: Found + Made, 2015-2016. Courtesy of the Oakland Museum of California. Photo: Johnna Arnold.

Suiseki is the practice of collecting, appreciating, and displaying rocks. The tradition was introduced to Japan through China as scholars’ rocks—found rocks that are shaped only by natural forces. Suiseki-styled rocks have a worn beauty, weathered by the elements of nature and time. Practitioners take thoughtful consideration into their search, combing riverbeds to uncover rocks with unique patterns and colors, often in shapes that resemble mountains, cliffs, waterfalls, or animals. Many suiseki artists choose to make one single cut, usually to form a horizon line, while other artists believe that the rocks should remain intact. The rocks subsequently go through years of care, which often includes pouring water over the rocks’ surface to gradually give them a distinct luster. Finally, they are displayed on daizas, wooden pedestals hand-carved to hug the rocks’ natural shape.

Collected from riverbeds throughout California, most of the suiseki works in the exhibition serve as figurative representations of vast landscapes, functioning much like miniatures. The quartz in Felix Rivera’s Hoo-Doo (c. 1997) forms white clouds hitting the peaks of red desert spires, and the scored indentations in John Nishizawa’s Takiishi (1990) give the illusion of a waterfall flowing down a bulbous black mountain. Each piece takes its viewers out of the present and into the realm of the fantastical. It’s easy to picture oneself exploring the caves formed in Henry van der Voort’s Near Mountain Stone (c. 2001) or confronting the geometric alien landscape in Nishizawa’s Sedona Rock (1989). The rocks, shaped by metamorphic properties and further dulled by wind and water, form subtle gradients and idiosyncratic irregularities. Suiseki provides meditative worlds, evoking the introspective experience of gazing into a landscape.

Like the suiseki practitioners, Jedediah Caesar spends much of his time and consideration in the collection of materials, looking for objects in and around his environment. He selects “things that are already unwinding, already on their way to becoming material.”Gathered over time, the found objects are sealed together in a vat of resin, which is then sliced into geometric slabs to create unique pieces that are intriguing for their nauseating beauty.

Jedediah Caesar. Green(gre-y) Prologue: 5, 2015; epoxy, collected materials, hardware, 2 triangular panels (diptych); 23 x 33 x 1.5 in. each. Courtesy of the Artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. Photo: Johnna Arnold.

Green(gre-y) Prologue: 1-6 (2015) is a series of six wall sculptures comprising what appears to be detritus—sponges, mop heads, seeds, wood chips, a bouncy ball—and fossilized within the dull glow of resin. Traces of industrial cuts remain, with subtle but visible striations on the works’ surfaces. The cluttered composition of materials is frozen within the shallow and clean-cut form, making the pieces appear like congealed desserts made from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It’s difficult to identify the objects, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Any hierarchies that may have existed between the items have now been erased and flattened through the process.

Jedediah Caesar. Green(gre-y) Prologue: 4, 2015; epoxy, collected materials, hardware, 1 rectangular panel; 23 x 33 x 1.5 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. Photo: Johnna Arnold.

Caesar does not rely on figurative representation to transport his viewers. Instead, the works suggest a landscape, abstracted through the imagination of the geological passing of time. Though his sculptures have been previously compared to Abstract Expressionism in their compositions and to Minimalism in their forms,2 the work can be located in a far greater history, moving beyond art and into geological time and scale. Titled as prologues, the sculptures in Green(gre-y) conjure a future no longer shaped by humans, in which the artificial and organic have coagulated into one giant mass.

The curator’s decision to present the two bodies of work together in UNEARTHED parallels Caesar’s conceptual framework. This democratic approach of placing contemporary art and local clubs side by side compresses and erases hierarchies, providing a slice of history, place, and time.

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UNEARTHED: Found + Made is on view at Oakland Museum of California, in Oakland, through April 24, 2016.

Notes

  1. Jedediah Caesar, e-mail message from Christina Linden to author, January 6, 2016.
  2. “Jedediah Caesar: About the Artist,” 2008 Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, https://whitney.org/www/2008biennial/www/?section=artists&page=artist_caesar.

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