The first art made by human beings — shaman-artists, to be specific — honored the animal gods so as to ensure a plentiful supply of game, and, through sympathetic magic, to usurp the prey's power and prowess. In Mystical Menagerie, Laura Ball and Jillian Ludwig continue the animal-art tradition with drawings and paintings depicting aggregations of fauna and flora, realistically rendered, but with a contemporary sensibility favoring ambiguous juxtaposition and coded meanings. According to the gallery's statement, Ball paints "continuously shifting composites of animals that symbolize pieces of the psyche and the primal nature of our internal impulses" and thereby "takes us on an inward journey, crossing thresholds and boundaries of our mental landscape." Works like "Wild Rider" and "Untitled Knot" veer from whimsical fantasy to surrealist menace — the meaning depending on your mood.
Ludwig's work examines industrial culture's alienation from nature through factory farming, the horrors of which are now familiar. Sue Coe tackled this issue with visceral ferocity in her 1996 book Dead Meat; Ludwig, mercifully, takes a more appetizing approach. "Genetic modification, factory farming, as well as deceitful packaging and misguided labeling," result, she writes, "in a disconnection between customer and ... food ... wrapped in [deceptive] flowing pink ribbons and balloons." Strip away the packaging and the ugly truth of "plucked and exposed areas" emerges. Works like "Rhino" and "Chicken I" hover between the charming and the alarming.
In the Project Room, an installation by Michele Pred raises questions about art and life. Her father, Allan Pred, was a highly regarded Berkeley geography professor for more than forty years; as a memorial to him, she is displaying a collection of memorabilia including family photos, copies of his books and papers, and written tributes from colleagues and friends. I am not sure this posthumous collaboration qualifies as Art as We Know It except by the loosest of contemporary definitions, or if it even matters, but take the time to absorb the details of a rich, well-spent life, if you will. Mystical Menageries and Radical Geographer: Portrait of My Father run through December 23 at Swarm Gallery (560 2nd St., Oakland). 510-839-2787 or SwarmGallery.com.
Obi Kaufman's Thunderbird show explores "the mythic figure [situated within] ... a non-narrative dream space." The sixteen mixed-media paintings, featuring overlapping imagery, collaged elements, primal palettes (red, black, brown, and white), and archaic titles, exude ritual and power — an effect enhanced by the dim garage location and candle lighting. Thunderbird runs through December 18 at Victorian Rat (3758 Manila Ave., Oakland). 510-575-9278 or VictorianRat.squarespace.com