Local Exhibit's Pieces Are Bizarre But Hardly Art

Photo: Taking flight. Valerie Raven's exhibit 'Urban Casualty' focuses on the theme of birds. Her work is on display at South Berkeley's Garage Gallery on Wheeler St. until March 22.
Anna Vignet/Photo
Taking flight. Valerie Raven's exhibit 'Urban Casualty' focuses on the theme of birds. Her work is on display at South Berkeley's Garage Gallery on Wheeler St. until March 22.

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"Urban Casualty" Exhibit
Photos from the exhibit





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A few blocks off of Southside's Ashby Ave.-lined by urban sprawl and congested with boisterous car commuters-is a quiet alcove of eccentric homes overrun with wild flora. Nestled within this community is a quaint hut quirkier than the rest: Inside it is a collection of digitally chirping crickets, bird skeletons and a deranged clown portrait. Welcome to the Garage Gallery, a small local art gallery in South Berkeley.

The strange menagerie of skeletal animals on display is part of a local exhibition ending on March 22, titled "Urban Casualty Little Known and Seldom Seen Birds," by Valerie Raven of Napa Valley. With some of the pieces listed for $8 and $20, it seemed like there was finally a gallery within a college student's budget. At last, you could replace that Salvador Dali or Andy Warhol poster you bought on campus because you wanted your romantic interest to think you were "cultured."

You might want to keep that poster up, however, because although the art is affordable, it's far from being the kind of Rembrandt you can display at home: The $20 "cricket box"-featuring small, photosensitive cricket figurines that digitally chirp whenever the lid is opened-is more of a cute souvenir than a work of art. Not to mention, they might break easily: One of them chirped incessantly despite the lid being closed. The $8 note-cards, which feature awkwardly-painted birds adorned with glitter, are art, insofar as you can call your 5th grade arts and crafts collection "art."

Although the exhibition's title seems to be about the urban plight of birds, much of it strays away from birds, focusing on a macabre obsession with death and the grotesque. Many of the drawings effectively capture disturbing, phantasmagoric scenes: a businessman pulling an oversized bunny-doll or a malicious clown clutching an amorphously-shaped child. Vitality and innocence are drained and replaced by something nightmarish and corrupt. It was like someone confiscated the deranged drawings of a madman from the local asylum and pinned them to the gallery's wall.

A few of the pieces did stay true to the "plight of birds" theme, though it wasn't clear what the viewer was supposed to take from the art, besides that city birds have a horrible life. A black metallic statue featured what appeared to be a dead bird hanging from a clothes-hanger noose. A box-shaped translucent frame housed a crafted bird carcass, formed with bits of skeleton, feathers and indiscernible miscellanea. Another had a cockroach, bee and dragonfly hanging on wires with taxonomic labels pinned next to them. But the display felt kitsch, brittle and tacky, like looking at insect figurines for sale in a plastic 25-cent vending machine at a Chuck E. Cheese arcade.

The most impressive piece was, unfortunately, not for sale. Raven found an abandoned encyclopedia, shredded its pages and converted it into a semi-cylindrical nest for crafted birds (who were, unlike many of their kin, alive and happy). The gallery host said their bodies were made from painted fruit and their heads sculpted from porcelain.

Throughout the exhibit, Raven seems to sporadically hit and miss her mark: assembling our discarded junk-the abandoned stuff of flea markets and yard sales-and reconfiguring it into something meaningful and new. With a few of her pieces, she seems to get near that goal, but never quite does. Unless you are a die-hard aficionado of local art, Raven's exhibit at the Garage Gallery is not worth the walk.


Take a stroll somewhere else with Matthew at [email protected]



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