Mythos Gallery Is Going Strong

Sue Steel and Karen Zullo Sherr use their gallery, now in its third location in six years, to support artists with productive and long careers.


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Mythos Gallery.

Photo by Mike Rosati

The recent reopenings of the Berkeley Art Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, both new and improved (and in SFMOMA’s case, greatly enlarged), have brought new excitement to the Bay Area art world—and new prominence from the national art press, centered in New York. With potential new tech-mogul collectors in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, and international galleries like Pace and Gagosian establishing beachheads on the Left Coast, it is safe to predict that the Bay Area, long relegated to the lower rungs of the status hierarchy of the national and international scenes, will now be getting sustained attention. Whether this transfusion of energy and capital translates into a better art world for the majority of local artists remains to be seen: In an art world that is in many respects a microcosm of a mass culture celebrating money, buzz, and celebrity, will stylishness supplant substantive work?

The Bay Area prides itself, justifiably, on its tradition of creative independence; residents think different, or so residents like to think, anyway. Northern California artists have often felt adversarial toward the art market, and have thus unfortunately not always received the institutional support they were due. One of the galleries that does support local artists with long, productive careers is Mythos Gallery in Berkeley. Co-owner/curators Sue Steel and Karen Zullo Sherr have shepherded the shoestring-budgeted space, a labor of love, through three locations in six years, with its current location, rented from the Firehouse Collective in Berkeley, at 1790 Shattuck Ave., near Delaware Street (MythosFirehouse.com).

The inaugural Shattuck Avenue show, in 2014, Rebels, Hipsters and Visionaries (not a bad general description for the artists represented) featured work from the 1950s and 1960s by artists and artist-poets Ariel, Wallace Berman, Robert Duncan, George Herms, Madeline Gleason, Jack Hirschman, Lawrence Jordan, Joanne Kyger, William Margolis, Michael McClure, David Meltzer, and others. The latest show, Nothing Held Back, on the paintings of David Park, included a talk by the artist’s daughter, Helen Park Bigelow, author of a memoir on the Berkeley painter.

With its frequent poetry readings and its well-attended artist receptions (always accompanied by live music), Mythos aspires to be not so much a commercial gallery as a center for the appreciation and promulgation of artistic creativity. This noncommercial quality, or rather extra-commercial, i.e., not merely commercial, derives from Steel’s background and personality. A native of Southern California, Steel, an English literature major with strong interest in poetry, moved to Berkeley in 2002, finding editing work with a scientific/engineering publication, a job that paid the rent but was frustrating: “You don’t even know what you’re writing about.”

In a yoga class, she met the Berkeley artist Ariel, whose expressionist surrealism “astounded” her. “I praised it, and she said, ‘You have fantastic taste; you know what’s good.’ ” Later, after seeing that Steel had a gift for curating, Ariel encouraged her to start an art gallery, an option Steel had not considered before, but one that proved a comfortable fit. “I own a business. I do what I want to do. I go out for ice cream and nobody stops me. Maybe I’m a control freak, but I like being the boss and making all the decisions. This is my way of being creative,” Steel said.

Her “old-fashioned gallery that shows real art” may raise the eyebrows of art viewers used to dazzling museum architecture filled with “12-by-12-foot interactive things,” but it might be perfect for those seeking a more personal experience of art.

Mythos’ current show, Magnetic Fields, features the paintings of Adelie Landis Bischoff, Ursula O’Farrell, Tom Schultz, and Olga Yunak. Upcoming shows include Uncharted Territory, a 50-year retrospective of printmaker/painter Shane Weare (July 1-30); Transparent Lives, featuring watercolors by five painters to be announced (Aug. 12-Sept. 10); and Beyond Abstraction, paintings and sculptures, respectively, by partners Katie Hawkinson and Joseph Slusky, with those dates to be announced.

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