Meat Donuts and Ceramic Gold Teeth: The Yo-Yo Reporter Takes the Oakland Art Challenge

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Meat Donuts and Ceramic Gold Teeth

The Yo-Yo Reporter Takes the Oakland Art Challenge

by Elka Weber
illustration by Trish Laguna

WHEN MY friend Heather and I arrive at Bootling Gallery, the keg is pretty much gone. Crystal Morey and Ben Belknap’s ceramic pieces shine in the small but nicely organized space, winking at us behind the shoulders of people milling around sipping their foamy beers, glancing at the art. I nod at my plastic cup, and then at Heather. “It’s all head, man.” Heather elaborates: “Going to an art gallery enables you to have a cultured feel to the night even if you’re drinking swill.”

Tonight, Heather and I are trying to hit as many galleries involved in the Oakland Art Murmur as we can. Established in 2006, Art Murmur is a collective endeavor in which local galleries host their openings on the first Friday of every month, spreading the word together, bringing a communal sense to Oakland’s art scene. Which neither Heather nor I know much about.

We are in awe of Crystal Morey’s ceramic teeth. I squint at the price and realize that this is the only piece of art I could buy for under 20 bucks. I want a tooth but I have no money on me—I had no idea I could actually afford to shop at an art gallery.

I look behind us and notice that the crowd is moving in a rough circular pattern, slowly milling, sipping and sleeping by each piece. A band of onlookers halts next to one of Ben Belknap’s untitled works: an image of a woman from the ’20s playing a record, ringed with ornate, gold detailing. My friend Kelsey nods at me straining to see the piece from across the room. “You know, the average viewing time of a piece of art is 7 to 12 seconds.”

Dirty Mops and Riot Cops

Auto 3321 doesn’t have beer; it keeps to the classic combo of wine and Chex Mix. Heather and I chow down while looking at the group show, featuring members of the Thin Ice Collective. I am drawn to Serena Cole’s watercolor portraits. One is a woman’s face, staring out at the viewer as if she was caught thinking about something just before she was about to speak.

Tracy Timmins, Auto 3321’s co-owner, mentions how Art Murmur has been really great, “because all of the spaces in collaboration have different aesthetics and attendees, so people are able to experience totally different exhibitions and environs within a matter of blocks.” I am about to agree, but then my eyes lock in on a strange-looking dog belonging to a middle-aged woman—one of the few in the gallery—wandering by Uri Korn’s photograph of policemen in full riot gear, lined up casually in front of a Versace window display. The dog has dreads.

I question the lady thoroughly about her Welsh terrier named Utka because I am obsessed with other people’s dogs, unable as I am to have one of my own. It’s like baby envy, but canine. The lady’s name is Ingrid, and I ask about the dog’s name. “Utka means ‘duck’ in Russian. Because she goes bananas over water.” But does her hair naturally grow into dreads like that? “Any dog whose hair doesn’t shed—if you stop combing and cutting—this is what happens.” We shift our wine glasses in our hands and watch Utka strain towards the Chex Mix. The dog warms up to me and starts licking my hand. I can’t even see her eyes through the dreads; she looks like a giant dirty mop. Her owner, Ingrid, gestures at the gallery walls. “This was my first time out tonight. I went to other galleries further down Telegraph, but I like this stuff better.”

It’s All Telegraphed up, Man

Mama Buzz is packed with hip 20-somethings. I wander into Lisa Ostapinski’s solo show at Buzz Gallery: mixed-media squares of brightly colored pastiche hang on the wall across from the entrance. Discussing process with friends, I listen to myself chatter about how the encaustic resin looks a bit like frosting, and decide to stop talking for a while.

Beered, Heather shows up next to me and we zoom in on the cluster of 5-by-5-inch squares of what appear to be animals flying in space amongst swirls. “Look at the turkey! Somebody bought the turkey.” But nobody bought the unicorn one. Apparently the unicorn is passé now? Heather croons, “Yes, much like heroin, the unicorn is so passé!” I notice Heather’s owl ring. So owls are still in? “Yes! Owls are still in. Especially owls with flames on them,” she says, gesturing to one of the pieces. We pause and execute our 7 to 12 seconds. There’s a lion roaring over an iceberg, and grizzly bears covered in glitter. I ask Heather how she thinks the squares were made. “Since I don’t know how things are assembled, I’m just like… it was magic!”

What do you think the crystals and the baked ham over here mean? “I think that means An Isolation at Thanksgiving Dinner With Your Family?” Especially the yellow seaweed-grape-like things. “Yes, those represent your family members, asking questions about your life.” We squint at the shapes; they look like intestines. Possibly after a big meal of ham. Heather emphatically agrees. “We definitely know what the artist was going for.”

Heather has another beer. She starts humming a little.

The gallery at Rock Paper Scissors collective is by far the most crowded space we’ve visited tonight. I am impressed by the multi-tasking survival skills of the galleries we’ve seen: Auto 3321 is open every First Friday, 7 to 10 p.m., and then by appointment, with occasional weekend hours. The rest of the time the space is divided into painting studio and woodworking shop. Down the avenue, Mama Buzz is primarily a café, with events, music performances and art shows, which draw a mixture of people to the space. And RPS has a large boutique aspect to its storefront, enabling the collective to showcase local artists as well as designers, writers and artisans.

Even with all the people packed in, RPS makes its exhibition accessible: the space has lofty walls peppered with wooden cutouts by Nathaniel Russell, placed in front of mural works of ghosts and bearded men. Nate Crane’s motorcycle and swirl paintings round out the high walls.

I locate Heather in the mass of people; we wander down the block to Ego Park, but by this point we are tipsy and hungry so we simply admire the intricate wooden structures from outside. We head to that elusive fourth gallery: Taco Bell. Because we have spent the night in galleries, I look at the Bell with a critical eye.

The white plastic and purple highlights invoke an installation piece about mass taco consumerism, with “A Whole Lotta Love” piped over the intercom system. A bombastic drunk woman in line behind us asks Heather and me if we are sisters. Heather is a head shorter than me, with a heart-shaped face that looks nothing like my oval features. Heather placates her, “Well, we’re sisters in the eyes of god.”

Heather orders a steak Chalupa and we talk about how Chalupas are basically meat donuts, and Taco Bell burritos are rehydrated logs. I’m classy, I announce, as if it isn’t obvious. I take a big bite of my log.

“Now that’s a fine meat donut.” Heather pauses and pecks at the corners of her mouth with her napkin. “To be honest… I was really enlightened by the experience tonight. I never go out anymore, and I didn’t even know that one of the galleries was right around the corner from my house. “

Heather looks at me, her face suddenly serious. “I’ve never seen something like that in Oakland before. I’ve never seen people coming together for a common interest that had to do with something other than a kegger. Or bands, which is also great, but everyone was so involved tonight. I was feeling it. Everybody else seemed to be feeling it too. It’s a real sense of community, and I haven’t felt that way in Oakland for a long time. So it gets an A+ from me. And a Chalupa.”

For more information on the Oakland Art Murmur, go to oaklandartmurmur.com.

Elka Weber sometimes wishes she never dropped out of art school, but she may go back one day to learn to sculpt giant likenesses of mop-dogs dipped in gold enamel, ideally placed outside Versace storefronts in riot gear.

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