A few years ago, the media informed us all about an art revival happening in the Bay Area, fueled by the long-awaited and fast-approaching reopening of SFMOMA. In true “If you build it, they will come” fashion, the art scene has indeed been bubbling with energy, from the big institutions to the smaller galleries.
It’s no coincidence, however, that the quartet of artists we chose to spotlight in this special issue live and work in the East Bay — while the SFMOMA effect is positively felt in San Francisco and beyond, it’s the fringes that always welcome the most creative of souls. They could not be more different from one another, on canvas and in spirit, but they closely interact with the Bay’s issues, sensitivities and landscapes. Deborah Oropallo’s work, especially when it comes to her upcoming exhibition, is deeply political and true to the region’s liberal values. Chris Brown’s color palette and quirky sense of humor are every bit classic Berkeley. Alicia McCarthy draws inspiration from the area’s social gaps and contrasts, and Squeak Carnwath’s work is woven into public spaces and spheres in San Francisco and Oakland. Their work speaks for itself, but hearing them talk about it is reward in its own right.
Across mediums, years and exhibitions, Carnwath’s art is distinct and bold, a milieu that goes hand in hand with her views of the world. A recipient of an MFA from the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, Carnwath has always worked out of her Oakland studio, producing paintings where visuals and words merge to create something new. “I see painting as a philosophical enterprise — it’s about how we think, a human document of our time on the planet,” she says.
Carnwath was born in Pennsylvania and moved to Oakland in 1968 with her then-boyfriend and now-husband Gary Knecht, who has family ties in the area. The two met on the Greek island of Paros during a remote studies year and have been together ever since. “I still miss the East Coast,” Carnwath adds. “Here, our weather is like Frida Kahlo’s unibrow: There are no seasons. But I don’t like to be outside anyway. I love to stay inside and paint, because the light pours in beautifully from the skylights.”
Currently, Carnwath’s work is on display at a couple of local spaces: in the lobby of 650 California Street office tower, and at the Sloan Miyasato Fine Art gallery, both in San Francisco. In Oakland, as part of the Rollup Project, she curates changing local artists’ work, which is displayed on the buildings’ garage doors, visible to passersby. This straightforward approach to art and its place in the public arena is very much in tune with Carnwath’s dedication to her life’s work. “I paint every day. I’m painting because it’s how I keep living, and because I’m exploring what it is to be alive. I don’t need a goal or a show to keep painting.”
With his love of bold colors and knack for humor, Brown may just be San Francisco’s most relatable artist. Fittingly, the painter, who was born at a Marine Corps base in North Carolina, treats his work with a healthy dose of down-to-earth realism. “I come to the studio every day like a normal job,” says Berkeley-based Brown. “My studio is like a scientific lab, where I’m doing experiments without expectations of them to succeed.” Known for his oil paintings featuring prosaic scenes with a hint of fantasy, Brown says he often waits for the themes to emerge through uncharted exploration and doodling. “I like going back and forth between representational paintings and abstract, just waiting to see what comes out of it,” he says.
Brown graduated from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, where he majored in painting, and later attended art school at UC Davis and taught in the studio art department at UC Berkeley from 1981 until 1994. “I was lucky enough to get my studio back in the day, and to get to keep it — it’s a luxury,” he admits. “I feel for younger artists today and I don’t know what the answer is. But things go in cycles.” For his latest exhibition with San Francisco’s Berggruen Gallery, the longtime home for Brown’s art, he produced a series of semi-realistic paintings featuring a giant sweater sliding down a ski slope, a man atop a building and a bicyclist in the sky. A new collection is in the works, as Brown continues to make oil paintings exploring water, snow, buildings and ice skating (yes, it’s a theme), with the addition of “a series of water paintings on paper, mounted on wood, pretty abstract at this point.” Whatever might emerge, something tells us the result will be poignant and compelling.
McCarthy’s mixed-media works are instantly recognizable: Large-scale and graphic, they capture the eye and ignite the imagination. To create her signature images, McCarthy often uses wood surfaces, which are transformed into iridescent displays of form and color. “I think the way I describe it is different versions of bands of color interacting and intercepting,” McCarthy says. “These are metaphors of different living things interacting and influencing each other.”
The recipient of a BFA from San Francisco Art Institute in 1994 and an MFA from the University of California at Berkeley in 2007, Oakland-based McCarthy is an active member of the Bay Area artist community; she has shown her work at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the Berkeley Art Center and the Jack Hanley Gallery in San Francisco, which has relocated to New York and remained McCarthy’s closest partner. She recently started working with the Berggruen Gallery in San Francisco, and a two-person show with fellow artist and longtime friend Ruby Neri, at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, is fast approaching. “We showed together three times in the ’90s!” McCarthy notes with glee. “Curator Apsara DiQuinzio asked us to work together again.”
Another notable show is happening soon in Los Angeles, under the title Beyond the Streets, uniting artists known for their work outside the studio in the public sphere. The city is an endless source of inspiration for McCarthy. “It’s a clash of pain and beauty that’s outside. Here, you have homeless encampments and high-rise condos on the same block. It’s all kinds of contradictions trying to survive in a creative way.”
In the age of Instagram, many artists struggle with the need to make their work memorable and unique. Not Oropallo, whose prints toy with identity, reality and imagination, evoking questions without imposing them. Born in Hackensack, New Jersey, Oropallo received a BFA from Alfred University and an MA/MFA from UC Berkeley. Her signature style is layered photomontages and prints, assisted by digital aids and paint. With an upcoming solo exhibition at the Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco, Oropallo, who lives in Berkeley, had previously displayed her art at some of the city’s most beloved museums, including the de Young and the Jewish Museum. Her work moves between somewhat abstract representations of childhood objects and tongue-in-cheek mixed-media “portraits” of distorted military leaders and corseted dames (in the well-known series Guise), to obscure red-nosed figures in the series Bell the Cat and deconstructed cows in Milk Made.
The upcoming exhibition of videos and wall pieces, Dark Landscapes for the White House, Oropallo says, is related to the current, tumultuous political environment. “We’re going backward on a lot of environmental issues,” she says. “I’ve been doing portraits in the last 10 years, but this is me taking news footage for the videos, rearranged in a way that they can be more meaningful.” The process, however, is similar to Oropallo’s previous work with 17th-century portraits. “My first love is painting. Even though I’ve been working digitally since 2000, it just resonates with me as a painter. With the portraits, I had feminist motives, pairing images of men with women, but in these new works, I take paintings of a historical war and match them with images of oil rigs, because it’s really the contemporary war: Oil!”