Oakland's Gallery Scene is Exciting, But Does Exciting Sell Art?
In Oakland’s evolving art gallery scene, achievement is defined more by community and expression than by commercial success.
Photos by Pat Mazzera
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Oddly shaped beasts ranging in mood from ominous to creepy fill one of Oakland’s most prominent art galleries. In another gallery, you’ll find tree-like structures fashioned of chicken wire festooned with paper.
On the sidewalk in front of a third, wearing an Iron Maiden tank top, artist Bud Snow is painting a folding chair to be auctioned off that evening, drawing creatures that suggest an ancient civilization on an alien planet.
Oakland has had an arts scene for more than a century, from the Arts and Crafts designers of the 1900s through, in more recent years, Peter Voulkos, known for rough-hewn, abstract ceramic sculpture, and Jay De Feo, famed for canvases so large and thickly encrusted with paint they are more like vertical landscapes than paintings. There are prominent arts schools, such as California College of Arts and the Crucible, which teaches glassblowing, ceramics, and more, and the Oakland Museum of California.
But commercial galleries are something different, something needed, for an art scene to really take hold. “A good gallery owner,” says Pat Lynn Stroud, a veteran sculptor who shows at Gray Loft Gallery in Jingletown, “is someone who really watches out for you.”
Oakland has developed a burgeoning gallery scene over the past few years, centered largely in Uptown but dispersed throughout the city, from Jingletown and West Oakland to downtown and Temescal.
“It seems like things are blossoming,” says Donald Fortescue, a sculptor and painter, arctic explorer and furniture maker, originally from Australia but today living in Oakland and showing at Uptown’s Vessel Gallery. “There are all sorts of individual spaces, independent spaces, all sorts of gallery spaces.”
Such galleries, which generally split sales 50-50 with their artists, can provide a way to make a living, or a portion of a living, for both artist and gallery owner.
Or can they?
The aforementioned beasts by artist Misako Inaoka that were shown at Johansson Projects; the chicken-wire trees by Renée Carriere at Gray Loft; that painted chair—do any of these cry out to the casual gallery-goer, “Take me home with you?”
The art in Oakland’s galleries ranges widely, from oddball installations of hanging objects, string and wire that it is hard to imagine fitting into the typical house, or those “fractured fauna” that might fracture some collector’s marriage were he or she to bring them home. Some of what you’ll see is in-your-face political, often scabrous, while other work is so puzzling as to confound understanding. Assemblages made of recycled material are popular, and so are small works—paintings, prints, photos, tabletop objects, art jewelry, that even a typical renter could afford.