san francisco art magazine

Seeking Out Quality Contemporary Art Volume 1

Cecile Moochnek Gallery
1809D Fourth Street (at Hearst), West Berkeley, CA

written by Rachel S Rosen
edited by Cordelia Chadwick
Bejahung #3 - Mel Davis

Mel Davis
Bejahung #3

      The current art scene in Oakland is beginning to get the attention it deserves (Not enough of course--Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' show Oakland: East Side Story is just a beginning,) but I asked myself: What about Berkeley? What gem of a gallery is hiding in Berkeley town, a gallery that may be a happy medium between the more established (and expensive) San Francisco galleries and the hip new galleries in Oakland? On a rainy day in post-Christmas gloom, I braved the nasty weather and holiday hang-over to answer this very question. After much searching, I stumbled onto Fourth street, abuzz with people exchanging gifts or generally milling about in the trendy shops despite adverse weather conditions. The Cecile Moochnek Gallery is on the second floor above Hear Music, located in a district close to the Bay, the Aquatic Park, and the beauteous Marina.

      For over twelve years Moochnek has been hanging the work of local Bay area artists with taste and care. During my visit The Cecile Moochnek Gallery was home to a well balanced show (running Nov. 17 through Jan. 7, 2007) displaying works by over 15 artists, using media that range from encaustic, gypsum, intaglio prints, and sculpture made of concrete, ceramic, and fabric. Despite the wide range of artists and materials, there is a grounding continuity to the show that is aesthetically pleasing. Upon first glance the collection appeals to modernist sensitivities: the love of the orthogonal--the 90 degree angle, or square--and geometric, precise compositions; simplicity; abstraction; and the emphasis on material. All are dominant motifs that run throughout the show. However, closer inspection reveals that the works go well beyond modernist clichés; the artwork is unique and contemporary, drawing upon modernist inspiration to comment on current situations.

Blue and Red Continuum - Judith Williams

Judith Williams
Blue and Red Continuum

      The Gallery sells artworks made with integrity at affordable prices, ranging from $125-$2,500 with everything in between, to accommodate the most novice art appreciator to the expert collector. Single prints or drawings can cost as little as $300. Cecile Moochnek herself confided that she feels everyone should be able to afford beautiful works of art to nourish the soul. Cecile conceptualizes the gallery as a political space, fighting contemporary fear and dread with refinement. For Cecile, her work as curator and gallery owner is to inspire both artists and viewers, whose lives she hopes to enrich. It is truly rare to find a gallery whose main motto on their web page states, "The experience of truly seeing art can reawaken a sense of beauty that nourishes, refreshes and transforms everyday life."

      Speaking of experiencing art, I'd like to give the reader a small taste of the artworks one might encounter at the gallery. One of the artists that Moochnek represents is Judith Williams, whose series in encaustic and mixed media on panel exemplify the artistic sensibilities of the gallery. Her paintings are comprised of multiple translucent layers that impart an exquisite dreamlike quality. The artist is sparing with her brush strokes, describing objects as succinctly as possible. Her series deals with interiors and the ceremonial aspects of drinking tea as inspired by her recent visit to Japan. The paintings exude a feminine warmth due to the gentle pastel colors, the soft brush strokes, the collaged patterning that resembles dress material, and the domestic space she depicts. Her collaged elements are sparse and carefully planed, seamlessly blending into the painting. Williams uniquely expresses the themes that run throughout the gallery: simplicity, geometric compositions that nevertheless contain organically flowing elements, and sensitivity to symmetry and balance.

      Indeed, Cecile related her interest in Zen Buddhism and how it informs the gallery's organization and content. Additionally, the gallery represents many local Asian artists, who oftentimes display unique and minimal sensibilities, including Seiko Tachibana. One of Tachibana's intaglio pieces called Scene of Memory 4 was especially intriguing. Seemingly erratic marks march across the horizontal lines running across this long composition, reading almost like music or an abstract and rapturous landscape. In actuality, intaglio is a form of printmaking which is very precise, so Tachibana's lyrical marks, reminiscent of Sumi brush strokes, are just as thoughtfully chosen as her uncommon pallet.

Totem I and Totem II - Carol Lee Shanks

Carol Lee Shanks
Totem I and Totem II

      Some of the most remarkable works in the gallery are by Carol Lee Shanks, an artist known for innovative fashion, but who created three psychologically complex sculptures for this show. Her Sea Urchin, reminiscent of work by artists like Eva Hesse and Lee Bontecou, is comprised of sharp bamboo sticks and Chinese fiber. The Sea Urchin seems to come alive as the bamboo sticks create geometric spirals that interact with the form of the fabric and with each other. The artist writes in her statement that through "stitching and piercing techniques ... cloth reveal[s] a resemblance to the same forms and textures that mark or scar our skin." As a clothing designer, Shanks is most interested in the body, and the visceral effect of Shanks' work, so similar to the experience of works like Vinculum I by Hesse, are also present in Shanks' two other sculptures. Above the Sea Urchin sculpture float Totem I and Totem II, hanging from the ceiling. Made from fiber and twigs, these wonderfully strange figures hover like spirits that impart a surreal yet corporeal experience to the viewer.

      One of my favorite pieces in the show was painted by Mel Davis, a well published and represented artist in her early 30's who recently received her MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute. Her piece is entitled Bejahung #3, a curious German title which literally means "saying yes," or meeting experience without preconceived notions. This title is appropriate, as her paintings are constantly changing hue due to the time of day, lighting, and position of the viewer. This particular Bejahung (there are many variations on this theme) is an exquisite, seemly minimalist painting. It is as glossy as a newly polished car, and it is extremely "clean": its edges are unpainted wood that reinforce the primacy of the picture plane, and its seamlessly undulating blue surface imparts a fresh metallic feel. The artist has created dozens of glossy layers in this painting, inspired by the Renaissance technique of Sfumato--think of the delicate, smoky shading in Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa--to create a mesmerizing field of blue. The viewer gets lost in the variation and depth of the piece, entering into a reverie of light. It is the kind of feeling one might have reverently viewing a Rothko, but more contained, precise, clean and concentrated.

Cecile Moocknek in the Cecile Moochnek Gallery

Cecile Moochnek

     Here's my favorite aspect of the Moochnek Gallery, even more pleasing than the Zen-like simplicity of the gallery space echoed in all of the work on the walls: part of the Moochnek Gallery's progressivism is the amount of female artists the gallery represents. So many galleries and museums disproportionately focus on male artists, and it is an important statement that the Moochnek Gallery makes in supporting female artists. The Gallery is a space charged with positive energy: it is warm, intimate, and inviting to artists and audiences dealing with the issues of contemporary life, including the female experience. My recommendation for a hot date: pick a Sunday to visit the Berkeley Marina and rent a kite, go to a free Sake tasting at Takara brewery at 708 Addison, then mosey on over to the Cecile Moochnek Gallery and hobnob. It will be worth it, and you just might impress your partner who is always complaining you two never do anything.

-- Rachel S Rosen

Rachel is an artist, freelance writer and educator in the Bay Area.

Many of the works by artists mentioned in this article can be purchased from Cecile Moochnek Gallery.

Cecile Moochnek Gallery
1809D Fourth St. (upstairs)
Berkeley, CA 94710
(510) 549-1018
hours: 12-5pm, Wednesday-Sunday
Cecile Moochnek also offers eight-week long creative writing classes (see website for more information).

Images appear courtesy of Mel Davis, Judith Williams, Carol Lee Shanks and Cecile Moochnek Gallery, Berkeley, CA.

All photos by Rachel S Rosen except Bejahung #3 photographed by Mel Davis.