Interview: Steven Barich and Kerri Johnson

After a presenting a successful new approach to his popular “Logic Stone” style, one which involves color,  at a  last year’s auction at SoEx, Kerri Johnson approached Steven Barich about a solo show at Branch Gallery. “Zen with a Kickstand, and other New Work” debuted May 27th and will close following July’s Art Murmur, First Friday event. I sat down with Kerri and Steven and a bottle of cheap red wine to discuss what the hell is going on. Normally I do interviews via email but I am now going to present some recorded conversations to probe a little deeper, thus the wine.

Obi: Kerri, do you show a particular kind of artist at branch?

Kerri: Oh, like emerging versus established? I would say they are mainly mid-career. Not quite established, that generally means that the rent is getting paid through the art. Is there something between emerging and midcareer?

Steven: I would say there is the title, working artist. You are working to establish your art, pay your rent and find connections and a community. When you are mid career you are getting praised by the establishment beyond just working at it. Then, beyond that, the established artist is on a true road, accepted by the institution.

Obi: Is there any establishment or institution in Oakland beyond, say, the museum?

Steven: Well that is the thing about Oakland, before even the scene took off there were more established artists then I could count living in Oakland but showing in San Francisco and LA and even around Europe. They just lived here because it was cheap and they could be incognito. The museum was California and Bay Area art, they didn’t just look to Oakland. They just happen to be in Oakland. I would say there is no institution to validate anyone in Oakland.

Obi: We kinda like it that way though too.

Steven: That is what I was about to say, that is what makes it nice. You have to have far reaching goals, that is what makes you provencial or not.

Obi: But that is not you, I wanted to almost think of this show as a homecoming, but you showed last year at Rowan Morrison. You love Oakland.

Steven: Yes, I grew up here and I went to school here. Then I left and went to Europe and felt like I had my real education there. I became an emerging artist there. Then, by forces beyond my control, I ended up back here and just kept doing here what I had been doing there but by then the whole scene here had changed. I met people like Kerri and Jason of Blankspace and Matt and Lena of the Compound and Pete and Narangkar of Rowan Morrison and yourself, Obi, and other artists who were promoting it like John Casey and Derek Weisberg. There were all new players from before when I was here trying to do the same thing around 1999. They were all way more organized than I could ever have been. It was all better than I could have expected. I decided to stay. But the question is then what happens to all the players, both as gallerists and as artists? We hope that everyone who made the scene, succeeds and is recognized. Take for instance, Blankspace had a huge and great run but I noticed that you, Kerri, as a gallery did not get as much press as I thought you deserved only because of others, who arrived after you, got more.

Obi: Did Artopic arrive out of that? Your own frustration? Become your own press in true DIY Oakland fashion?

Steven: Yes, that was part of it. I wanted there to be a place where those who were developing the scene would have a chance to think and write about it. Establish the scene with words as much as actions. I believe you have to self-document yourself. Especially here where we don’t have Robert Hughes or Clement Greenberg or big art critic players. I don’t know, to make a long story short, I think of my work as able to move in a worldly global fashion and to be exhibitable anywhere beyond my friends, colleagues and peers. Beyond my local scene. But, I also have now realized in my age and experience that you really need to start where you are and develop the ground work with those around you, working the same scene, and to be reciprocal in that. To identify developments and only then will you have something to really talk about.

Steven Barich and Mable

Obi: Kerri, Did Steven show at Blankspace before you closed in 2010?

Kerri: He didn’t actually, we didn’t get a chance to show him. He has always been on my list of artists I wanted to show. At Blankspace, we were showing a lot of installation based work, a bit of a different track than here at Branch Gallery. Our big installation shows back then were the likes of John Rogers and Pete Nelson.

Obi: Blankspace was your first gallery, right?

Kerri: It was. I had curated here and there, but Blankspace was my first.  When we closed Blankspace a year ago, I had already started BAYVAN with Nicole Neditch and Brooke Baird. We are coming on our two year anniversary at Branch.  BAYVAN came from us talking to the Ellington in Downtown Oakland. They had asked us to find local artists for them. They ended up buying thirteen floors of local art. This gallery was the natural progression from that launch. A branch, so to say, of the larger network.

Obi: How has the mission statement evolved from Blankspace to Branch?

Kerri: It is very similar. At Blankspace we were already paying rent there because we were living there and it therefore we were really able to show more installation artists. A lot of our friends happened to be installation artists too back then. We haven’t had any installation work here yet but I am in talks with some artists to transform the space. We have 200 artists in our registry at BAYVAN and at Branch, we show artists from that registry. To become a BAYVAN artist, we do an open call and we also curate artists into it.

Obi: This a three month show, that is contrary to the norm here where you get your four weeks and you are gone. What was the intention there?

Kerri: We made the show run longer because we have limited hours. We wanted to make sure people had a chance to see it. We are open Fridays, eleven to two and then every First Friday, and then by appointment and we have had many people do that.

Kerri Johnson

Obi: Okay, let’s talk about Oakland. Steven, do you think your work is some kind of reflection or reaction to Oakland as a thing?

Steven: No, I don’t think art has to be a reflection of place at all. I would say that because I have had over twenty years of art making in Oakland, it has certainly influenced the choices of what I want to make work about. I think this body of work is particularly different than all my other bodies of work. I, myself, have become the reflection of where I live, of what I do.

Obi: I would say that your work is certainly influenced by multiculturalism. The Asian influence is strong in your work. The big one is called “Dragon’s Claws,” isn’t that a mediation of violence somehow?

Steven: Depending on what mythos we are talking about. For me, when I am making these works, based on scholar’s rocks, they are considering meditation on aesthetics. A dragon is a powerful thing. We are talking about powerful aesthetics. I am using the Dragon title as a strong thing, not a violent thing.

Obi: Do you identify with this kinda Neo-Op we see in such awesome local talent as Brian Caraway, a Branch artist, or Steuart Pittman, a Blankspace artist?

Steven: Funny you mention Brian. He and I have been talking a lot lately about art and issues like optics in our art. I would say neither of us think of ourselves as Op artists or post-painterly abstractionists or whatever. Both he and I, do though, think about marks with very specific ways of making them and if you deviate from that path, you ruin the image.

Obi: Kerri, I know you are an artist too. How has being an artist influenced your decision of who to show?

Kerri: Most of the artists I show make work that is radically different from my own. I enjoy that. I would never surround myself with artists who make work exactly like me. I appreciate people’s individual vision. When I am looking for an artist to show, there is usually one piece that really resonates with me.

Obi: What is the one piece in this show?

Kerri: Visual Blockade, the big color one. Similar to the one I saw at SoEx last year. I wanted to see where it could go.

For more information, visit Steven Barich’s website, Kerri Johnson’s art website, and BAYVAN’s website

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