Oakland Art – The Top Ten shows of 2011

Below are my choices for the ten best art shows of 2011 in the City of Oakland and its art spaces. I tend like work that is illustration-based and site-specifically resonant. Most of the exhibits below involve the community somehow, either by direct engagement or by challenging aesthetic conventions and all of it somehow deals with Beauty, as a formal and stylistic concept. I have tried to choose galleries and art spaces that are off the main drag, although many Murmur Galleries are honored. I have also excluded all (except for one, see below) of the shows I was personally involved in. Cheers. Happy New Year. Here’s to 2012! – Obi Kaufmann

10. David Gregory Wallace at Krowswork “This Means War is Personal”

I applaud Jasmine Morrhead and her continued efforts to present a different kind of gallery experience for the Art Murmur crowd. This show blew me away with its simple display and it complex narrative. War is a very difficult subject to touch with out being preachy, Wallace does it with a resonant sensitivity that is gorgeously transformative.

9. Alison Tharp at Peter Thomas, “Short Walks on the Beach”

Alternative art spaces are rad. Alison showing in the shop she works at reminds me of Pecker‘s art show from the movie, remember? It’s Fun, with a capital F. Lovely, colorful, disarming, beautifully imaginative and superbly rendered…I am describing Alison’s art and I guess, her. Oh, and crap, broke my first rule, this place is in Berkeley, right?

above, Alison Tharp

8. Nathaniel Parsons at The Hive “Season’s Over”

Nathaniel Parsons has the singular ability to transform a space into a pitch-perfect environment full of a particular brand of nostalgia for an Americana that has yet to exist. His blend of craft and formal composition is inviting and warm yet always challenging and a little bit painful.

7. Jon Carling at Pretty Penny “Magic Country”

The clear voice emitting from Jon Carling’s illustrations is so pure and intense that the drawings become kind-of exercises for the fairy tale dreams of youth we are collectively starving without. From the statement, “Guiding spirits and misleading tricksters weaving together intuitions and instinct to help humans, animals and plants form the ideal future.  Imagining the Ether as forms and figures, rather than an unknowable mist.” He takes you there and you are proud to go.

6. Christopher Thomas Haag and Martin Webb at the Compound Gallery “Making the Road by Walking”

These two seemingly disparate young artists came together seemlessly in this show that presented a prolific amount of art, all strikingly consistent in theme and timbre. Haag, an artist who has made great waves this year with a bevy of colorful murals on Piedmont Avenue, works with free-form hieroglyphs that are shockingly original in their graphic essence and freedom. Webb, an artist who uses political allusions to infuse his texture-rich paintings with a subtext that is rarely found in contemporary East Bay galleries, meets Haag half way in this amazing confluence of talent.

Martin Webb and Christopher Thomas Haag at the Compound in North Oakland 

5. David Seiler at Zza’s “California Dreaming”

I did break one of my rules by putting David Seiler’s show on this list, after all I did organize this show, but you know what, it is exactly the kind of show I always want to see: technically masterful with an intense energy that if was containable, could supply all the world’s energy needs for a hundred years. Seiler’s use of classical figuration and indigenous reference is blended together in a way never seen before, nor could ever be again.

4. Cyrus Tilton at Vessel “The Cycle”

The horror of those millions of insects moving as a parable for the overpopulation of the world is burned in my mind. Lonnie Lee has built a wonderful little gallery on 25th Street this year by presenting show after show of brilliantly executed exhibits and this one tops my list. Tilton’s work is preternaturally tremendous – his sculpted figures are full of a kind of animus, a spirit of prana, where we could hardly be surprised if they moved and lived on their own after his touch.

Cyrus Tilton

3. Steven Barich at Branch “Zen with a Kickstand”

Steven Barich continues his inquiry into wisdom and truth in a dramatic, straightforward and refreshing manner in this deceptively simple, beautifully arranged collection. With the hand of a master draftsman, Barich employs simple media to meditate on philosophy and the value of, well, value. Although we lost Branch Gallery this year, Kerri Johnson and team continues to fight the good fight with their BAYVAN project.

2. Yvette Molina and Michael Meyers at Johannsson Projects “Circle Saints”

As if touched by some divine energy, the subtle wave of beauty that exude from these works left me feeling like I had just heard a violin for the first time. Molina’s paintings on glass of natural forms, rot and growth touched something deep and metabolic in some shadow piece of my psyche – an ancient piece of a puzzle that was not yet completed, until snap! there it is. Add to that, the wonder of Meyer’s monuments in wood that defy conventional Newtonian ways and you have one of the best looking gallery presentations in the world, ever.

1. John Casey and Friends at Swarm “Tall Tales”

No artist I have ever met is as true to his own inner vision as is our own John Casey. Lucky for us, his vision has room for all of us – in this epic show he herded 60+ colleagues and did a collaborative drawing with each of them. This wasn’t just any collection of folks with a pencil, mind you, but a roster of brilliant talent that read like a Who’s Who of Bay Area artists. Then, from each, he was somehow able to invoke the signature motif from us all (yes, okay I was one of the artists – I broke the rule again, sue me) to present a surreally perfect snapshot of Art. now. here. That’s John though – a pillar of this strange little community…we were all dying to give him our best. The show didn’t end there, he also presented an entire body of new work that he made in collaboration with his writer-wife, Mary Kalin-Casey, entitled “Call and Response.” This series offered us an inspiringly intimate view into the creative process of a very public artist, by 1) merely switching to pencil from his signature ink-based work and 2) offering an amazingly candid vista of an artist with his wife, and equally as interesting of course, a writer with her husband. Juxtapose all that with an honorably mentioned Jake Watling “Four Directions” in the project space at Swarm Gallery and you have my, hands down, choice for the very best Oakland had to offer in 2011 art.

John and Mary and their little boat, and hat too. 


  1. I am deeply honored! Thank you Obi for the recognition.

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