The Mercury 20 Gallery in Oakland defies ubiquitous stereotypes of the art world. While the white walls and austere furnishings of the gallery appear indistinguishable when compared with its neighbors, the gallery’s hyperlocal approach and cooperative ownership differentiate the organization from its counterparts. Visitors may be surprised that the gallery staffers themselves are the artists whose work is exhibited; depending on the date of one’s visit, they may benefit from access to the artists who offer unparalleled insight into the works shown. While an aesthetically pleasing exhibition, though, the current works showcased fail to fully engage the viewer, with cogent philosophical perspectives missing from the exhibition’s displays.
“Good Coffee, Bad News”
At first glance, Elizabeth Sher’s “Morning Joe” mural wows the viewer with its magnitude. Sher’s mural is more than 50 square feet large, comprising almost 150 images of a sunrise arranged in order. Sher’s sunrise pictures are surrounded by a boundary composed of news headlines reporting on climate disasters in the US, and four pewter cups which appear to be full of coffee beans. In addition to “Morning Joe,” Sher also presents three drawings of words selected from natural disaster terms drawn inside oblong shapes called “Three Bags Full”; this is accompanied by a three-minute short film about food insecurity in the Bay Area.
Each of Sher’s works offer an interesting message and demonstrate her strong aesthetic sense, but are poorly arranged and selected. While “Morning Joe” is a strong composition with a sharp message about the climate crisis, it’s difficult to relate it to her neighboring works on food insecurity, abstract watercolors on the sunrise and headlines about disasters. Each work exhibits a wildly different medium and message, and when considered as a group, Sher’s “Good Coffee, Bad News” show is a confusing comment on world phenomena.
While the most technically ambitious of the three works showcased, Sara Lisch’s “Dream Garden” lacks a coherent message. Lisch’s works are collages, layering cut selections from drawings and photographs upon each other, each interspersed with blocks of color. Lisch’s work demonstrates strong technical skills as she nimbly alters and assembles the components of her collage, allowing the viewer to discern varying patterns from alternate perspectives. Each element of the college is subtly cut and arranged so that the eye observes slight circular patterns within the larger collages from afar, while closer views contribute to a surrealist, dreamlike perception.
The selections superimposed in Lisch’s collages, however, lack a clear unifying theme or narrative, blunting her intended message. From afar, the images used in Lisch’s collages cannot be distinguished from each other; up close, most elements are bizarre or wildly unrelated to each other. Only one collage, “Equalibrium,” had a lucid message — it was described as an exploration of colonialism and resistance. Nevertheless, “Equalibrium’s” collage components were a poorly selected array of pictures that largely lacked this theme. Lisch’s purported exploration of colonialism seemingly contradicts the surrealist elements of the collage; as such, her work appears to lack a reason for its existence.
In “Eulogy,” Pantea Karimi repurposes symbols from Persian history to challenge the Iranian regime and support the Woman, Life, Freedom movement. Karimi’s first work — a banner composed of mirrored and screen printed lettering upon a velvet square — transforms imagery adopted from ancient Iranian artworks to reflect on the continual nationwide fight for women’s rights. In this work, mirrored tiles form words in the Square Kufic Arabic script overlaid upon other words screen printed on the velvet banner. Karimi’s second work features a series of strips of red and white cloth, upon which are printed patterns of black ink. It is only upon closer observation that these strips of cloth are headbands similar to the martyrs’ headbands worn by Shia Revolutionaries in Iran during the revolution and 1980 war; Karimi’s strips are similarly printed, with the titular lettering instead reading “Fearless Woman.”
The scaling and arrangement of Karimi’s works prevents viewers from understanding the narrative she attempts to impart. Each composition is of a different size and shape and are arranged apart from the other. “Shir-Zan,” Karimi’s headband composition, incorporates two photos of individuals wearing the aforementioned headbands, yet they are much smaller than the main hanging headbands and placed to the side, minimizing the impact of her message. Nevertheless, Karimi’s adoption of motifs commonly used by the Iranian regime connects the readers’ understanding of current events, compellingly advocating for Woman, Life, Freedom.