I’ve been living in the East Bay for almost a year and never felt strongly compelled to go to downtown Oakland. Downtown Oakland is not the kind of place that inspires people to wander and look for adventure, unless it’s trouble.
It’s not that I believed the hype about Oakland being a constant war zone, but every time I’ve passed through downtown at night I was dismayed to find deserted streets and darkened storefronts.
Reporting the Oakland beat has opened my eyes to some of the gems that downtown has to offer and First Friday didn’t disappoint.
Oakland Art Murmur is a coalition of galleries that have exhibit openings on the first Friday of the month. There were 37 venues to choose from that night.
My first stop was to the heart of the first Friday action at the Art Corridor on 23rd Street between Telegraph Avenue and Broadway.
It was a hipster Renaissance Faire of sorts. The street was filled with vendors hawking handmade goods like printed t-shirts, tiny bouquets of flowers and decal stickers. There were also proselytizers from Walk Oakland Bike Oakland and Erin Allard advertising her herbivorous newsletter, Lettuce Turnip the Beat.
While chatting with Allard a four story projected vision of Betty Boop walked across the surface of a building a few blocks away. I made a mental note to investigate that later.
All of the fashion components of the freaky geeky hipster scene were present and accounted for: piercing, tattoos, skinny pants, pork pie hats, dudes wearing sunglasses at night, white people with “dreads”, hair striped with every hue of the rainbow and wacky costumes.
A man wearing a skeleton costume pushed a shopping cart with filled with random objects. He gave a friendly wave as he walked past me.
I felt right at home.
A trio on the sidewalk on Telegraph picked at their banjos and guitars while a two dude duet belted out rock tunes on the 23rd street side of Rock Paper Scissors. In the middle of 23rd street some blissed out band called Eurostache sat in a circle and beat on upside down buckets while a woman plinked notes on a sitar.
And oh the vegans reigned supreme. Signs for vegan potato burritos with roasted peppers, vegan chocolate mousse pie and vegan chocolate chip cookies enticed the hungry masses. I wondered if the Art Corridor had been declared some kind of meat free zone. Then I detected the smell of searing flesh from a hot dog vendor grilling links.
The young woman hawking peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on wheat bread for $2 intrigued me. She was stationed in front of Hatch gallery so I assumed her booth was some kind of performance art. When I inquired about her sandwiches she lowered the price to $1.
When I introduced myself I mentioned I was a cub journalist so she wouldn’t be taken aback by the rapid fire queries about to follow. She and her friend blinked. Then she offered the sandwich for free. I assured her I wasn’t angling for a freebie. I wanted to know about her project.
She laughed until she wiped away a tear. “This isn’t a joke! I’m unemployed and I wanted to make a few bucks. Nobody wants PB&J though. I’ve only made one sale.”
I excused myself. It was time for art.
I swam through the crowd to enter Johanson Projects and was immediately enchanted by the whimsical world Evan B. Harris’ created in Collections & Curiosities. Harris’ subjects are anthropomorphic critters dressed in steampunk fashions, which is clothing influenced by the Victorian Age.
The dapper fox and hare are taking their portraits seriously in “Fox #1” and “Hare #2”, brought to life by Harris’ innovative use of acrylic paint mounted on wooden boxes.
Normally acrylic is used for layered or textured effects; but Harris’ application was so smooth and creamy I had to stop myself from touching it to verify that it was indeed acrylic paint.
Sometimes humans make cameo appearances, but never without an animal accompaniment. In “Owl with Archer” a giant annoyed owl with an arrow through its wing has a man hidden in his belly. Bees had no boundaries. They showed up on several canvases.
DJ Platterpus provided the perfect old school soundtrack for the evening, literally spinning vinyl on his victrola. Every so often he’d turn the crank on the player to keep the music flowing. His records were 40 to 100 years old.
“I like to create experiences that don’t exist anymore,” he said
Next door there was an impromptu showing at Bloom Printing, which is not a gallery, but a screen printing business where artists send digital files of their art to be brought to life in an analog format.
When I walked in I noticed a portrait of Farrah Fawcett balancing on a skateboard while outside a boom box blasted Michael Jackson’s greatest hits. A throbbing crowd danced to Thriller in front of Mama Buzz.
Some examples of the best of customer work hung on the walls, untagged and not for sale. Once again I was attracted to the creamy texture of the colors of a trippy intergalactic puzzle that offered a different scene on each segment. Ladders that lead to nowhere were joined by snakes and faces that peeked out of the painting at the visitors. The work popped off the page and I had to keep myself from wanting to womanhandle it.
Next door to Mama Buzz was a mixed media show of paintings and installations from four artists with one name. The pieces that caught my eye were “Uh Oh Fame” by Erica. In it, a demonic Angelina Jolie casts bolts of red tendrils from her ever-wandering eyes. The other was Cocaine Introvert, a series of nose castings hovering over a line of crystal coke nuggets. Dimitri said the work was inspired by experiences he had living with roommates who were addicts.
Thanks to a recommendation from a fellow gallery goer I went to Hatch Gallery to check out Brozone Layer by Mark Inglis Taylor and Porous Walker. It’s an exhibit that has to be seen to believed. It’s not for the faint of heart or easily offended. I came fully equipped with a blue sense of humor, and it still managed a few jaw dropping moments.
The experience starts innocently enough with two colleges of plastic action figure toys arranged in two large rectangles. Between the toy collages is an orange flag with a warning, “A bunch of dicks work here.” I surveyed the pen strokes above the words for a few beats and realized it was something more than that.
It was a bouquet of penises.
That would not be the last appendage sighting of the evening. Other gallery visitors squawked and guffawed while pointing out their favorite penis drawings to friends.
The active members were interspersed by some trout mouthed two-dimensional characters whose salacious interactions and dialogs are best seen in person. The ButHer Faced lady (a pejorative used for a woman with an attractive body, but her face doesn’t match the rest of the goods) and her paramour are reoccurring characters. There’s other random naughtiness among the more then 1,000 drawings in the exhibit.
I was determined to read the captions for each and every one then a staff member announced closing time in 10 minutes.
I trotted out in to the street determined to make it to two more galleries on 25th Street, Oakopolis and The Moon, but flashing red, white and blue lights signaled that the party was over.
It was only 10:15 p.m., but the street permit expired at 9 p.m. I tried the 25th street venues anyway and they were closed.
Fortunately the ginormous Betty Boop I spotted earlier was still waiting for me. Her “Minnie the Moocher” short was part of a series of pieces collated by The Great Wall of Oakland. Every First Friday they project thirty minutes of short movies onto the side of a parking garage at the intersection of Valley and Grand. This month’s theme was comedy.
I watched the entire series waiting for Minnie the Moocher to be replayed. My favorite was “The Job” where a Mexican day laborer picks from a jostling group of suited white collar workers and carts the chosen off in the back of his pick up truck.
I stood in the middle of Valley Street with Dimitri, one of the artists from the Mama Buzz exhibit. We were catty corner from the parking garage, cameras positioned and ready, hoping to get a great shot of the giant Betty.
Then he grabbed me by my arm and jerked me out of the street in time for us to miss being run over by an 18 wheeler that made a hard left onto Valley from Grand Street. I never heard it coming.
We decided we didn’t need that shot after all.