san francisco art magazine

Seeking Out Quality Contemporary Art

East Bay - Volume II

The Horizontal and the Vertical

Turn of the Century Fine Arts
Berkeley, CA

written by Rachel S Rosen
edited by Cordelia Chadwick
Exotica - Joseph DiStefano

Joseph DiStefano
Exotica

      My quest for quality art in the East Bay did not end with the Cecile Moochnek Gallery. My travels took me to the only stretch of San Pablo Avenue open on a Friday night. As any Berkeley dweller might complain, this city goes to sleep early! Those of us wanting to stay up and frolic go to the downtown area on Shattuck. When that's played out, one can venture down to Dwight and San Pablo, where there are myriad vintage clothing shops, a sprinkling of good restaurants, and Turn of the Century Fine Arts. Open on weekends and by appointment, this space stretches all the way back to a beautiful garden with furniture made by Lewis Meyers, gallery owner and artisan.

      I had the pleasure to speak with Lewis Meyers at the reception for "The Horizontal and the Vertical" on Friday night, February 16, 2007. I learned that the gallery has been on this block of San Pablo since 1991, but has only inhabited this space since September. Meyers confided that he wanted the current locale from the beginning, but was only able to acquire it recently. Actually, the gallery has moved around on this block three times; the previous building was annexed by the Sea Salt restaurant, prompting the fortuitous third move. Meyers opened the gallery to showcase his sculptures and handmade furniture while also supporting his artist friends. Meyers added, "Plus, I like being the boss of the hot sauce."

Elegy - Mary Robinson

Mary Robinson
Elegy

      What I encountered at the gallery opening delighted me. The crowd was older than I am accustomed to (or more mature, as I like to say), but the mood was congenial. The wine flowed, friends clinked glasses, and musicians played guitar in the garden. I met some ukulele enthusiasts and D'Andre, a groupie of one year who called himself "The Burning Man Revolutionary Communist." A retired welder, D'Andre lives across the street from the gallery and enjoys the "down to earth and affordable art," as well as the lovely network of people that frequent the gallery.

      After a bit of mingling, I met artist Mary Robinson (www.maryrobinsonart.com), whose paintings had caught my attention just moments before. This is Robinson's second show at Turn of the Century Fine Arts, but she has been showing in the Bay Area for about five years. "The reason I like this gallery so much," Robinson remarked, "is that it is not elitist. I feel really comfortable here." When asked about her artistic process, Robinson divulged that she likes to work with very wet paint in multiple layers to create her flowing, geological landscapes. One of the pieces that caught my eye was Elegy, a monumental piece done with Conté crayon, thick acrylic, and ink. When the artist made this piece, she was dealing with a sense of personal loss; however, this painting was created the summer before 9/11, and thus came to have a more universal message. The artist maintained that though the piece dealt with death, the overall message was hopeful, "because, after all, the dead stay with the living, both in a metaphorical and spiritual sense."

Chrysalis - Mirto Golino

Mirto Golino
Chrysalis

      After chatting with Robinson, I wandered over to some exquisite works that I couldn't quite classify. I muttered under my breath, Sculptural paintings or painted sculpture? Sculptural paintings or painted sculpture ...? The artist, Mirto Golino (www.mirtogolino.com), must have noticed my bewildered state and offered me a seat on a plush armchair. Golino moved to Oakland from San Diego and has been living in the area for a mere six months, but has been showing her colorful work at the gallery for over a year. Golino related, "I really felt like people were afraid of my art in San Diego, whereas people in Berkeley seem to really appreciate it. I especially like the Turn of the Century Gallery. No one is trying to impress anybody here. We're all just having a good time. Openings always turn out to be great parties with a spontaneous and warm atmosphere. The gallery is quirky, the art is raw, and Lewis Meyers gives his artists the freedom to do what they want to do." She confided that it was a relief to be in the East Bay after living in San Diego, a conservative town with only a few galleries. She commented that her newfound artistic success in the Bay Area is probably due to this area's appreciation of found and recycled objects. Moreover, Golino related that there are many more places to scrounge material in the Bay Area, like SCRAP (short for Scroungers Center for Reusable Art Parts) in San Francisco or the Creative Reuse Depot in Oakland. There's even a wonderful artist residency program at the San Francisco dump, another unusual opportunity for lovers of found objects.

      Originally a painter with little experience in sculpture, Golino was invited in 1998 to contribute a sculptural piece for a show akin to The Dinner Party (1974) by Judy Chicago. Golino stated that she was "completely stressed out by working in mixed media. After much travail, I finally made a 'carnivorous' chair out of forks called Having You for Dinner, which turned out to be just beautiful. I was amazed at how my creativity manifested into the third dimension and realized that sculptural elements helped me to communicate my ideas in more complex and playful ways, open to free association." From then on, it was hard for Golino to go back to pure painting, partially because it was no longer stimulating enough, and partially because she rebelled against the "tyranny of the rectangle." A love affair with found objects and assemblage began--a richer way of working that brought her to a whole new level of meaning. She likes using objects that can be manipulated to create seamless transitions; for example, in Chrysalis 4 the artist utilizes curvilinear wooden sticks that she then shapes into extensions of her paintings, in order to break out of the picture plane. She expounded, "I explored the myth about Daphne and became obsessed with the idea of women metamorphosing into trees." The motif of fantastic transformations runs throughout Golino's colorful and compelling works, and I was thankful to have met such an exciting personality.

Winter Solstice - Mirto Golino

Mirto Golino
Winter Solstice

      One of the most vibrant artists I met that evening was Joseph DiStefano (www.joedisart.com), whose surreal plates were one of the highlights of the show. DiStefano earned his MFA from Yale, and his most recent projects have included a wall-mural at the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission and the McDonald Windows at the Presidio in San Francisco. The next day, I was able to have a telephone conversation with Rev. Paul Chaffee, the director of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio. He told me that DiStefano was the cornerstone of the McDonald show and that the artist was just a "delightful human being." I was even more flabbergasted when DiStefano told me that he created the Your Memory Columns in front of the Oakland Federal Building, one of the first public works I noticed while living in Oakland. I was captivated by his columns and have visited them often, each time teasing out more meaning and discovering more lovely moments, so in a way meeting DiStefano was like colliding with a star.

      DiStefano told me he believes in quality craftsmanship and in the power of human creativity. He also sees himself as "using the mechanical and the handmade to go forward" in his art. These intentions come together in his newest body of computer generated prints called Spirits in the Yard. DiStefano asked, "Do you see these staples on the side of the painting? Those are printed." He then gestured to another print. "Do you see the wrinkles on the paper? Look closer--those wrinkles are printed illusions." DiStefano has a playful, almost Dada-esque attitude about his work. He revealed to me, "For this show I tried to make pieces for those who don't usually buy art. I wanted to make beautiful, affordable works for the masses." This sentiment is certainly understandable coming from an artist who has done so many public projects.

      I thought that DiStefano's ceramic plates were some of the loveliest pieces in the show. DiStefano utilized decals that he appropriated, manipulated, and fired onto plates to create surrealistic dramas. For example, Exotica is a playful piece that juxtaposes two floating heads and a ship on the sea. The viewer's first response to this piece might be a visual understanding that the sea and the ship are the bodies of the two heads, a reaction that produces some cognitive dissonance a second later. One can see how the artist's work in mosaic may have informed the aesthetics of appropriation in this piece, where the minimal detail gives way to a joyful reinterpretation of ocular data.

      DiStefano invited me to his studio and home, tucked away in a quiet corner of Emeryville, and later that week I saw just how prolific DiStefano is. When I visited him on a sunny Friday afternoon, he wore a brightly patterned jacked over a yellow striped shirt and greeted me warmly. As he opened the large green doors to his studio, I had an intense feeling of anticipation; I knew that I was about to see the vibrant magic of creation. The room receded far back into space, and intense guitar music permeated the air. Everywhere I turned there was art: swirling mosaics, colorful expressionist paintings, large wooden models for outdoor cement sculptures, surrealistic figurines, and a series of porcelain sinks the artist made in 1978, during the National Endowment for the Art's ongoing project called Eight Artists in Industry in Sheboygan, Wisconsin--in short, a garden of artistic delights. DiStefano pointed to a mosaic assemblage that was in progress and remarked, "I like to work on many different projects at the same time, because my ideas are always evolving and demanding new forms of expression." Among his current projects are his printed paintings, a series he is currently showing at Turn of the Century Fine Arts, as well as large tiled pieces with marbleized glazes.

      Joseph DiStefano's partner Diane Troy, who works at Fraenkel Gallery at 49 Geary, led us upstairs. They both warned me to watch my head as I ducked under the extremely low ceiling--very dangerous if attempted under the influence, I was told--and came into the dinning room where we talked shop. When I commented on my appreciation of DiStefano's craftsmanship, Troy remarked, "There is a current trend we stand against among artists like Damien Hirst, who come up with the ideas and have other people execute them." DiStefano added, "Just about everything I do is by hand. The public mural at the convention center in Sacramento is comprised of over 900 tiles, all made and fired by hand. When I made the Your Memory Columns in Downtown Oakland, Diane Troy and I mixed all of the concrete ourselves; we never even touched our brand new cement mixer. I strongly believe in excellent craftsmanship, in the touch of the artist's hand."

Slowly Shifting Sand - Mary Robinson

Mary Robinson
Slowly Shifting Sand

      As I bid farewell to Joseph DiStefano and Diane Troy, I though about Mary Robinson's observation on opening night regarding the friendly and warm atmosphere at Turn of the Century Fine Arts. I was able to meet so many artists who make fabulous work. If you don't go to Turn of the Century Fine Arts for the art, I urge you to go for the sheer pleasure of meeting people who will invite you in--people who also aren't afraid to have one hell of a party.

-- Rachel S Rosen

Rachel is an freelance writer, artist, and educator in the East Bay. Check out her Myspace at www.myspace.com/artwrite.


Turn of the Century Fine Arts
2516 San Pablo Avenue (at Dwight)
Berkeley, CA
(510) 849-0950
www.turnofthecenturyfinearts.com

Images appear courtesy of Joseph DiStefano joedisart.com, Mirto Golino mirtogolino.com, Mary Robinson maryrobinsonart.com, and Turn of the Century Fine Arts turnofthecenturyfinearts.com.

Photos of Joseph DiStefano and Exotica by Rachel S Rosen.