Perambulating the Bounds

Friday, August 11, 2006

Albany Waterfront Park

Albany is the town next door to Berkeley in the Bay Area, and among its other landmarks is a park that used to be something like a cement factory that was then abandoned and became a big squat camp for homeless people. The city or some other level of government has reclaimed the area, right on the bay, but it retains the remnants of the self-organizing culture that thrived there. The park is filled with art made from junk and cast off material, much of it elaborate. There are sculptures fabricated from twisted sheets of metal, branches, and wood scraps, including a person riding a dragon, a huge woman who seems to come out of the bay, strange giant figures sitting by the water. You find little shrines in cavities in the underbrush, a few objects arrayed on the branches of a bush, or an enclosure of concrete and metal scrap decorated with mirrors that could have been a work of art or someone’s self-fashioned living room.

My friend Paul and his son Liam took me down there today. The section of the park with the heaviest concentrationsof art is on the backside of a point of land that faces on a calm arm of the bay. In addition to a bunch of these sculptures, there is a series of paintings done on large pieces of scrap wood or other materials, propped up on impromptu easels and lined up along a path like the corridor of a museum. The paintings are heavy on images of violence and decadence, mixing elements from circuses and religion. Many seem to be from one guy, who signs himself as Sniff and makes work with strong recollections of Max Beckmann, only a little bleaker and more violent. It looks like he may still be at work.

On the immediate level, this park is a collection of interesting art works presented in a completely unexpected setting. Part of the impact comes from the density of the work, when you look for these human inventions and start seeing them everywhere. It also goes to say something about the impulse for art. A group of people, left on their own to develop some sort of society, end up naturally inclined to make art in proliferation. The urge for self-expression comes to fore, as one of the most important activities the society, in this case the homeless society of the Albany waterfront, can undertake. Art making shows itself as an essential activity.


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