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Exhibitions: Berkeley Art Museum digs deep into its archives for ‘Way Bay’

A year ago, Lawrence Rinder was determined to explore the “deepest, darkest storage areas” of the Berkeley Art Museum’s collection, discovering works that hadn’t been displayed — or even seen by curators — for decades.

Now Rinder, the director and chief curator of the museum and Pacific Film Archive, has brought those works out of the darkness for the public to discover, too. Not all of them, yet — but more than 150 paintings, drawings, sculpture and other works from the collection, including film and video.

The exhibit, “Way Bay,” continues through June 3. Then other works will rotate into the show, and it will run through Sept. 2.  “Way Bay” was organized by Rinder, film curator Kathy Geritz and engagement associate David Wilson.

More exhibits, in other galleries, will be drawn from the museum’s collection this year, too.

“Way Bay,” which now includes 170 works, fills the main gallery in a format that’s a cross between an industrial-style art warehouse and the wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling salon exhibits of the 19th century. There are no labels or captions, just small numbers that correspond to details in a 28-page gallery guide available at the entry.

The exhibit, though wide-ranging, is not presented as art history. In fact, the major attraction began as a documentary, not art. It’s “A Trip Down Market Street,” a film made in San Francisco in the spring of 1906 by the Miles Brothers, who attached a movie camera to the front of a cable car for a 12-minute ride from Eighth Street to the Ferry Building.

Projected on a large screen at the museum, the film offers a cross-section of city life early in the 20th century — horse-drawn carriages and wagons, a few automobiles, men scampering through traffic, women in street-length skirts, newsboys grinning at the camera. Plus some familiar buildings — and the knowledge, for us, that within weeks, or even days, most of this stretch of Market Street will be destroyed by earthquake and fire.

Another projected film, nearly as fascinating, is a “Tribune-American Dream Picture,” a 7-minute drama from a 1924 contest the Oakland Tribune ran, offering to make a film of a reader’s prize-winning ($25) dream. The winner was Mrs. L.L. Nicholson of San Juan Street in Oakland, who dreamed that her infant disappeared from its basket on a trip to San Francisco. (The child reappeared in the dream, and Mrs. Nicholson woke up.)

“Way Bay” does not pretend to offer a parade of the Bay Area’s greatest paintings; that might be a better assignment for the Oakland Museum of California. But many of the Bay Area’s big-name artists are included, even if they’re not represented by their best-known works.

Diebenkorn’s 1963 “Studio Wall,” depicting a folding chair in the foreground and a variety of objects on the wall. In a note in the gallery guide, Diebenkorn describes his Berkeley studio on Adeline Street near Stanford Avenue, “a triangular room at the back of a tavern.”

Among the other notable artists and their work: William Keith’s mysterious, circa 1900 painting “Woodland Scene”; Chiura Obata’s 1930 color woodblock print, a forlorn “Death’s Grave Pass, High Sierra, U.S.A”; Joan Brown’s 1960 “Dog Watching Moon”; and Peter Voulkos’ untitled 1988-1989 work standing like a pot-bellied stove on the gallery floor — in bronze, rather than his usual clay medium.

There are surprises in store from familiar names, such as David Park, one of the leaders in the Bay Area Figurative movement in the 1950s. What’s on display isn’t one big painting, but a 30-foot-long scroll he detailed with felt-pen images from his Boston childhood and the UC Berkeley campus. It was made in 1960, Park’s final year, while he was convalescing from back surgery.

Ten items borrowed from UC Berkeley’s renowned Bancroft Library, including paintings, put Bay Area history (not just art history) on view.

Among these are library treasures you’d, otherwise, have to make a reservation to see. They start with drawings made in 1816 by the Ukrainian-born artist Ludwig Choris, here with a Russian expedition that sailed into San Francisco Bay.

Many of his images were published in the 1821-1823 volume “Voyage pittoresque autour du monde,” which is on display. The pages are turned to a scene of Ohlone Indians in a formation outside San Francisco’s Mission Dolores. (One version of the lithograph is titled “Danse des Californiens.”)

Another gem from the Bancroft is the “Vista de San Francisco,” a small painting from 1850 with the green hills of Marin County in the background. It’s by Augusto Ferran (1913-1879), a Spanish artist from Mallorca who journeyed to San Francisco, went on to the Gold Country, then sailed to Cuba to teach art in Havana. The stories this exhibit tells! — not just on the walls, but in the gallery guide.

On display is Charles Albert Rogers’ detailed little painting “Chinese Carpenter at Work” from 1901 — and a note in the guide that the artist lost 150 paintings when his San Francisco studio burned in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake. There’s also Beniamino Bufano’s “The Chinese Philosopher,” in glazed terracotta, and information that he studied the technique in China in 1920, long before his famous curvaceous, streamlined animal sculptures.

Although the displays can be confounding, there are discoveries everywhere — artists and subjects rescued from the archives. Among them: a familiar view of Yosemite in 1913 by an unfamiliar artist, Emma Michalitschke of Berkeley; a Cubist-influenced floral still life from 1937-1942 by Santa Rosa-born Helen Clark Oldfield; and a video of Chris Marker’s 1981 film “Junktopia,” documenting the flotsam-and-jetsam sculptures that were such a familiar sight on the Emeryville mudflats.

Image credit:
Detail from the Miles Brothers’ film “A Trip Down Market Street” (1906). (Courtesy of Rick Prelinger)
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