At the Edge of ‘Way Bay,’ We Stand Amazed

BAMPFA's 200-year survey of the Bay Area art scene groups nearly 200 artworks along poetic themes by Bay Area writers.

BAMPFA has opened its widely anticipated exhibit, “Way Bay,” which takes a non-linear, 200-year survey of the Bay Area art scene. By grouping nearly 200 artworks along poetic themes by Bay Area writers, the exhibit makes connections that are random and inspired — like blind dates you can’t imagine happening but, in retrospect, seem entirely sensible.

One example is Enrique Chagoya’s Codex Cosmovisionarius. A dark and darkly humorous scroll-like work, it narrates the history of colonialism and culture clashes (complete with Jesus figure and Humpty Dumpty-like cowboy), and hangs underneath Nellie King Solomon’s In Pursuit of the Blob. That, in turn, is an ink, gesso, and sticker work that calls itself “an allegorical study of ambition, success, and failure in the art world,” where art students cross mythical waters to enter a pretend temple, and where famous artists also exist (including Jackson Pollock, who’s depicted walking on water Jesus-like).

Emma Michalitschke: Yosemite Landscape, 1913; oil on canvas; 50 x 44 in.; University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive; Gift of Emma Michalitschke.

These two pieces are grouped with others in a room that’s united by this 2012 line from poet David Brazil: “All people are our potential comrades in the struggle against this decrepit order of the world.”

The revolution may not have been televised, but at “Way Bay” it’s at least a formulated idea.

In “Way Bay,” well-known artists are grouped with others who aren’t. Films are set against paintings. Sculpture stands next to photos. Funny is next to serious. It’s like entering some giant art emporium where anything goes. You can leave the seeming connections behind and revel in the tiny details of what you see, or see what is almost literally the big picture. One example: Poet Micah Ballard’s wording,

“Plenty of presences, unbelievable speed,” shadows Jay DeFeo’s mysterious ink and gouache piece from 1951 called Untitled, Paris, which is next to a newer, bigger abstract work, Kenjilo Nanao’s 2009 Boxes in Terra Rose III, which is on the same wall as Wally Hedrick’s 1965 canvas, Napalm Sundae and a selection of Sara Kathryn Arledge’s glass slide transparencies from the late 1940s. On a single wall, we get an alternative history of Abstract art, where women occupy an important place.

In an exhibit that reaches into so many corners, and resurrects so many works and artists that deserve more attention, some pieces still stand out for their ability to surprise — among them, David Park’s 30-foot scroll from 1960, which he made with a felt pen in the months before he died of cancer at age 49. Anyone who’s seen Park’s work knows his unique figurative style, which on large, painted canvases is a thing of odd beauty. Untitled (formerly Berkeley Scroll) is a tableau of scenes from his life, from his upbringing in Boston to his time as a UC Berkeley art instructor. Everyday scenes — people walking or reading or just playing in the street — are put on paper and rolled up in a way that’s like a Torah or other sacred parchment. “Way Bay” unrolls the scroll, unrolls the joy and humanity that Park was able to convey in his last year on Earth.

Park’s work is in a room where curators utilize a phrase from poet Jack Spicer: “At the edge of the known world, we stand amazed.” Art-goers don’t need words to enjoy David Park’s works, or Jay DeFeo’s, or those of Raymond Saunders, who also (thankfully) makes an appearance in “Way Bay.” These artists’ works speak loudly without formal language. But the right words are like conveyor belts. They move the art along, bringing them to a visceral place that lasts beyond the moment you see them in BAMPFA’s cavernous space.

Way Bay, through June 3, at BAMPFA, 2155 Center St., Berkeley. $11-$13; 510-642-0808 or

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