Federico Fellini's 1973 film Amarcord is an affectionate, comic, and poignant memoir of his youth in the Adriatic town of Rimini in the 1930s. In one scene, bricklayers take a break from their labors to listen to and comment on a decrepit colleague's poem — a bit of doggerel about ceramics, naturalmente: My grandfather made bricks/My father made bricks/I make bricks, too/but where's my house? It's hard to imagine such a scene transpiring in America, with its remorselessly judgmental work ethic, but there are surprises. The East Bay Municipal Utility District, which nobody sees as Lorenzo de' Medici, supports a public gallery that is currently exhibiting the artwork of its own employees. This biennial show (apparently the second) may not impress art-world jet-setters used to gigantic topiary puppies and the like, but it does provide an opportunity for employees to step out of their economic roles. Less picturesque or snaggle-toothed than Mortar, Fellini's mason-poet, they're also better artists: They have, after all, spared us paeans to, say, keyboarding and teleconferencing.
Californians are nature lovers, so the large number of works, especially photographs, about the environment is not surprising. Gary Balsam ("Redwood Tree, Haunted Forest, Yosemite" and "Grinding Stone, Yosemite"), Fred S. Etheridge ("Sunrise, Mt. Sefton, New Zealand" and "Agave Cactus, UC Botanical Garden, Berkeley"), Jim Sullivan ("Crater Lake, Oregon" and "El Capitan, Yosemite Valley"), and Daniel T. Wagner ("Tunnel Trail, Sierra Nevada," "Sawtooth Weirs," and "Helen Lake, John Muir Trail") all make an elegant case for tree-hugging, as do Tom Chittenden with his oil painting, "Mt. Shasta," and Susan Wallenstein with her pieced cotton quilt, "Growth."
The built environment is beautiful as well, new or weathered. Color photographs by John Patricio ("City Under the Moon") and Andrea Pook ("Speeding Window, Toulouse, France," "Graffiti, Barcelona," "Mystery Garden," and "Red Doorway, Guanajuato") capture the lyricism of modern life, here and abroad, while Bill Jeng's acrylics ("Brace" "Sher-comm," "Cypress 01," and "Cypress 02") focus on the beauty of engineering and the dignity of difficult hard-hat infrastructure work.
More subjective are Chuck Detzel's oils ("Welcome to Paradise Lake" and "Family Tree"), Debra Haecker's drawings ("I See Dolphins" and "Outside on my Deck"), Lauren de Boer's poetry broadsides ("Three Poems") (vouching for her creative sanity), and Eric West's cartoons ("The View From My Cubicle"), with their collegial joshing of Rosemary, Marge, Tom, and Brian. Biennale 09 runs through January 28 at EBMUD Gallery (375 11th St., Oakland). EBMUD.com