The idea of professional certification in the arts, as in other fields, is so thoroughly ingrained in American culture that we reflexively undervalue amateur artists. There is ample artistic talent, however, outside the art world's crystal spheres. The East Bay Municipal Utility District employee exhibition, humorously dubbed the EBMUD Biennale, is back. This year's show, the third, features 39 works by 20 watermongers by day — engineers, meter foremen, drafters, plumbers, clerks, and lab techs — who lead secret lives as photographers, painters, potters, cartoonists, and mosaic/needlework crafters.
Nature photography is again popular. Fred Etheridge combines satisfying abstract compositions with beautiful color and pattern in his macro nature shots. In "Barbed Wire, Loop," the twisted rusted metal strands and weathered, wooden fence post (its pronounced grain suggesting tattoos and totems) make for visual and emotional contrast. In "Agave," the cactus' swelling curves and seductive color are offset by a ridge of tactile thorns. Erika Gardner depicts botanical beauty as well in her floral photos with velvety black backdrops, given the sly ready-for-my-close-up title, "Glamour Shots." Allen Goodson ("Sunset Along Napali" and "Swings in Paradise") takes the timeworn clichés of tropical art — palm trees silhouetted against molten evening skies; mountains, surf and sand — and makes them work anew, spectacularly.
Dennis Kreiden-Karaim brings back formally satisfying trophy photos from local rambles; the white bird of "Snowy Egret, Heather Farm Park" is almost a hole cut into the calligraphic background of tree branches reflected in rippling water. The gray-brown rocks and veil of blue-white water in "Gorge Trail" have similar shapes and striations, freezing the eternal flow. Tony Saraiva gets up close and personal with "Wintertime (Deer)," a long-lens photo in which skill and chance paid off handsomely; the same could be said for Sean McDonnough's "Fall Hummingbird," perfectly composed, with the unblurred wings outstretched, as if in floral embrace or worship. Yet his "Point Reyes" study of a crumbling fishing boat grounded in the marshes and Todd Salerno's huge, dramatic, wide-angle freeway-overpass panorama, "Right Lane Must Exit," prove that civilization merits scrutiny, too. If I have focused on photography due to limited space, there's plenty of good work in other media here, too; trust me on that, and then pick your favorites. Employee Biennale 2011 runs through January 27 at EBMUD Gallery (375 11th St., Oakland). 510-287-1380 or EBMUD.com/art