Space Oddities at BAMPFA

Strange is a vast exhibition that draws on the Berkeley Art Museum’s extensive collection with a surrealist take.


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A Nancy Grossman figure in the show.

Photo courtesy BAMPFA

“The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine,” said biologist J.B.S. Haldane.

Strange, a vast exhibition that draws on the Berkeley Art Museum’s extensive collection, ratifies his aperçu, while extolling creative subjectivity and the artistic imagination, both disparaged in recent years as, respectively, illusory (since individuality is a myth) and compromised by its ostensible service to power. Postmodernist groupthink had a good run — until it collided with the iceberg of global capitalism and climate change. (Welcome to surrealist hell, eggheads.)

Surrealism, long considered by formalist critics a deplorable aesthetic misadventure, has regained credibility in our stranger-than-fiction, mad-Tea-Party times. Strange postulates that the surrealist impulse predates and postdates the movement’s glory years from approximately 1920 to 1940; that the human psyche’s embrace of the mythic, fantastic, and dreamlike — le merveilleux, in Surrealist terminology — even the nightmarish, is eternal.

Two Berkeley artists set the tone. A bronze sculpture by Stephen De Staebler evokes an excavated archaeological find, barely recognizable as a winged human, symbolizing the soul’s freedom, broken but unbowed. De Staebler exemplifies the “tragic humanism” that BAM’s founding director, the late Peter Selz, championed in the late 1950s. A haunted melting landscape by Ariel Parkinson, The Inner Wilderness Shaman (Forest) depicts the subconscious mind as a riot of tendrils and creepers, with life finding a way. (Sara Kathryn Arledge’s Stellar Garden might almost be a pendant.)

Divided into thematically organized galleries — Myth and Magic, Inside/Outside, Dreams and Visions, etc. — the show’s very size causes it to lose focus when it considers contemporary artists, some of whom prioritize sociopolitical aims and/or artistic eccentricity over personal vision. (I take issue with some of the curatorial editorializing, too.) But the museum’s vaults’ treasures more than compensate for a few aesthetic divagations. Don’t miss, amid the embarras of celebrity-artist richesses (Arneson, Bellmer, Blake, Bourgeois, Conner, Cornell, Doig, Dürer, Goya, Hesse, Hogarth, and Magritte), works by Lesley Dill, Sylvia Fein, Ernst Fuchs, Robert Gonzales, Nancy Grossman, Higgs and Ranson, Anton Lehmden, and Jill Sylvia.

Strange runs through Jan. 5, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, 2155 Center St., Berkeley, 510-642-0808, BAMPFA.org.

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