The Berkeley Central Arts Passage, Kala Art Institute's newest exhibition space, is not your typical white cube. Frankly, it's uglier. The open-air (but gated-off) tunnel between Center and Addison streets just west of Shattuck Avenue is an institutional run of grey speckled tiling and multi-paned vitrines. With an exhibition as good as In Formation, the space's inaugural show, it's enough to make one wish the art had found a more appealing home. But then, one knows that public art always requires compromises; much better the containing space than the work itself.
For In Formation, program coordinator Amanda Curreri has brought together six artists whose work engages overtly with questions of formalism — generally abstract investigations of color, form, interdependency, and so on. But to speak only of "formalism," the works' most general commonality, would not do justice to how sharp and coherent an exhibition this is. More granular areas of aesthetic overlap grab the viewer's notice first, and from there, points of connection between the works proliferate.
Automation, for example, is one such common streak; many of the artists included set up some sort of intermediating structure or device that withdraws the presence of the artist's hand. For Jesse Houlding, it is his pickup truck: he allows a shot to roll around its bed over a sheet of carbon paper, making markings that in effect index the turns, accelerations, and decelerations of his journey. Jesse Kauppila rigs up something he descriptively refers to as an I.O.P. I.E.D. (Inside Out Printer; Improvised Explosive Device), from which he blasts toner onto large glass panes at varying distances to produce bursts reminiscent of nebula-enshrouded galaxies.
Crystal Roethlisberger's intermediating device is the grid, and through this she plunges into one of the show's other permeating concepts: that of incremental variation (as also seen, for instance, in Kauppila's placing of his blast plates at increments of six, twelve, and eighteen inches). Roethlisberger presents one hundred sheets of paper bearing grids of 36 squares, each bisected diagonally. With an assortment of graphite and earth-tone-colored pencils, the artist fills in the spaces with marginal variation, producing differing patterns that, in turn, evoke letterforms, 3D Op Art figures, and even pixilated faces.
Anthony Ryan, too, presents grid-like arrays in the form of, on the one hand, brilliantly colored screenprints of overlayed geometric shapes and, on the other, woven paper tapestries and baskets. Ryan restricts himself almost entirely to the primary colors of the CMYK model (cyan, magenta, yellow, and key [black], plus white) — a nod to the color printing process and another tie to Kauppila's toner explosions and Roethlisberger's pixel-like grids.
This is only to speak of four of the six artists included. With that in mind, set your decorative sensibilities aside and come prepared to spend a good, long while in Central Berkeley's new passage. It pays off.
In Formation runs through January 18 at the Berkeley Central Arts Passage (2055 Center St., Berkeley). Kala.org/exhibitions/current_arpeggio.html