Museum Proper: The Cemetary Gates





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Never mind that he can see the Golden Gate Bridge, symmetrically, from his front door.

He's done something in his Golden Gate series even more difficult than mortgaging a home in the hills.

Envy Richard Misrach because he has managed to create works that the critics and average museum-goer will appreciate alike.

To take a cue from a work by conceptual artists Komar and Melamid, this series statistically must appeal to more people than either a Rothko painting or an Ansel Adams print alone, because he has literally captured the beauty of both.

Most prints in "Berkeley Work" on view at the Berkeley Art Museum until Oct. 13 are color fields Rothko would have died for, with rarified hues and transparent shifts. Compositionally, they also look like Rothko's 1950s paintings with two to three registers within each frame.

And then there are those tumultuous skies that recall 19th century landscape painting, particularly the work of J.W. Turner and John Constable.

Misrach's series is of the Golden Gate Bridge, but not about it. Here in his "Golden Gate" series, the bridge is sometimes not the famous landmark we know. The photo "3.3.98 4:25 p.m." is as much of the bridge as it is a view of earth from a satellite, where low-lying bay fog becomes earth's outermost atmosphere.

And in a photo like "3.19.99," the ocean and sky have that flat white look of a typical foggy day on the San Francisco streets, with nothing spectacular about the otherwise russet bridge.

Like place, time here is not always visually discernable. The seasons are arbitrary labels for Misrach. He is not even comparing days to days, night to day, or dawn to dusk. He is comparing minutes to minutes as the exact time handwritten on each print testifies. Notice the way that the exhibit is arranged chronologically, and ask yourself whether it needed to be arranged this way.

Though the atmosphere of each particular photograph will transfix you, allow yourself to step back and compare it with the series as a whole. Consider that Misrach has captured three years worth of the same scene, in the obsessive way that Giorgio Morandi painted his bottles, fascinated with the innumerable shifts in formal qualities and the task of capturing them. There must be god-knows-how-many unpublished prints, none of them alike.

It is refreshing to see contemporary work that is provocative, but doesn't just mean to be cryptic, or appeal to your intellect before being visually interesting. Misrach's "Golden Gate" does not present for the viewer any moral dilemma like the bomb craters series of 1990 for which he is better known.

Rather, he allows you to wander around the scene, letting you associate the colors with places or times in your memory. It is only after you've been amazed by the colors and the strikingly modern compositions that you consider the specific times Misrach has written on each print. That's when you realize that the sky can change from midnight blue to garnet red at dusk in 5 minutes flat. As it does in Misrach's "3.3.98 4:25 p.m." and "3.3.98 4:30 p.m." And then you begin to wonder what else you do not pay attention to in your life, and what you could know.

It's inevitable.

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