Arts & Culture » Visual Art

Back to the Future

Berkeley art historian Peter Selz reexamines the human condition.

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In 1959, during the Cold War, when the joys of consumerism and the fear of communism struggled in the American psyche, the art historian and curator Peter Selz curated a show entitled New Images of Man at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Featuring works influenced by French existentialism and American abstract expressionism, the exhibition explored doubt, angst, absurdity, and alienation, its redoubtable roster including, among others, Bacon, de Kooning, Dubuffet, Giacometti, Golub, Pollock, and the Californians Nathan Oliveira and Richard Diebenkorn. While many praised the uncompromising "tragic humanism," others found the show disturbing, and the art world soon turned away from such introspective brooding toward pop, op, minimalism, and other styles more celebratory of the arsenal of democracy and capitalism.

Now, fifty years later, amid economic meltdown and the threat of terrorist attack, 1959 looks unpleasantly relevant again. Selz and the Alphonse Berber Gallery's Cameron Jackson have curated a sequel show, New Images of Man and Woman. Oliveira ("In art there is no time, really") is joined here by Bay Area Figuration peers William Theophilus Brown and Stephen DeStaebler along with a selection of Bay Area artists committed to exploring the figure poetically: John Denning, Marianne Kolb, Frances Lerner, Michael Ryan Noble, Ursula O'Farrell, Ariel Parkinson, and Ryoko Tajiri. While the current show is smaller in scope than its illustrious predecessor and, given today's no-holds-barred aesthetic context, no longer as alarming to viewers, this resolutely unironic show will resonate with viewers who concur with theologian Paul Tillich that "modern man is in danger of losing his humanity and becoming a thing among the things he produces." (You, too, modern woman.)

Among the standout pieces: Oliveira's "Head," the portrait in hectic crimson, ocher, and purple oil paint of a elegant, mysterious woman in a headscarf, her body flattened and simplified; Brown's semi-abstract scrum of players in his early "Untitled (Football)"; DeStaebler's stoic ceramic caryatid/column, "Thorax Figure"; Denning's craglike sculpture, "Clouds Maquette," suggestive of a standing figure and a tree; Kolb's hooded or bandaged figure, abject or threatening, in "All the Pages That Have Turned"; Lerner's "Shop," one of a series of small, enigmatic, narrative paintings featuring puppets as protagonists; O'Farrell's painterly figure-in-landscape in "Uncertain Morning"; Parkinson's modestly sized yet Michelangelesque "Life Drawing"; and Tajiri's disarticulated (and disintegrating?) "Girl By Window." A catalog is available. New Images of Man and Woman runs through January 30 at Alphonse Berber Gallery (2546 Bancroft Way, Berkeley). 510-649-9492 or AlphonseBerber.com

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