Tonight, as I drove across town to Jack London Square, I thought about a recent conversation about provincialism in local art. It turns out, the two neighboring galleries on Second Street unwittingly presented Oakland’s duality: in one gallery, ugly bangs, biker dudes, ironic trucker hats bearing insider slang. In another gallery, families dressed for a formal occasion: an art reception honoring African American musicians, and a jazz performance.
I’ve lived in Oakland for something like 14 years. The first few years, I found the cool café “finds” and warehouse parties really charming. But these days, I fear that I’m a resident out of sheer habit. So while I tend not to air unfavorable art criticism—it might not be the right time, the right venue, and so on—I had a realization I’d like to share. Inwardly-focused art that appeals to local scenes or styles bothers me because I’m over Oakland, or rather, I’m over the Oakland clichés used to self-identify among hipster-invaders: images of telephone wires, port cranes, Top Dog (YES, the one an Oakland museum staffer name-drop ped in the alt-weekly) etc. So at the exhibition featuring artists celebrating their gentrifying warehouse district, I was repelled by the self-aware marketing and predictability—finding beauty in mundane/abject urbanity, conventional materials, convenient scales of working, the privilege of claiming an outsider status. I think the primary criticism here—aligned with the general argument against provincialism in art—is that the show seemed to serve the purpose of building the cred among Oakland boosters, rather than the credibility of rigorous artists.
The show felt reminiscent of the pre-dot-com-boom Mission. For some that’s as a good thing, portending an “Oakland School.” For me, it’s unnerving. To paraphrase Lawrence Livermore, founder of Berkeley’s seminal Lookout Records, on his biggest and one of his last compilation records, by the time you read this, the scene will be long gone.
But I’ve gotten a renewed, precious sense of love for locality back — thanks to East Bay based Carol and SF-based Shelby, who performed at James Gayle’s opening reception at Swarm Gallery. I was transported within their original compositions from MSO’s Harriet Tubman suite, and a song from the Dynamic Miss Faye Carol’s forthcoming tribute album to Billie Holiday. I’ve heard about bodily harmonic resonance, and thought it was hocus pocus, but as soon as the first notes came out of Faye, I got shivers up and down my spine which lasted well after the performance ended.
Give thanks for Carol’s and Shelby’s commitment to excellence and integrity. See them and the Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra when they perform the Harriet Tubman suite at Yoshi‘s on April 2.