Interview by Lucy Kasofsky
Chandra Cerrito is an art consultant and gallery owner based in Oakland, California. I went to see her at her gallery, Chandra Cerrito Contemporary, to discuss her involvement with Oakland Art Murmur, the intersections of her creative and curatorial endeavors, and the work she places in relation to spatial and social factors. We spent some time looking at the now past Cumulous exhibition, which featured the work of Leeza Doreian, Lisa Espenmiller, Danielle Mysliwiec, and Sandra Ono, and talked about her program for the upcoming months.
Simultaneously on view now at the gallery are two exhibitions. Holly Williams: Ghost features a series of paintings that evoke both the potential of photographs to serve as evidence or artifact, and the impermanence and variability of memory. Donna Anderson Kam: Datelines, an exhibition of the artists’ pastel drawings, shares a similar relationship to photography in its re-presentation of event, but employs a very different aesthetic transformation from the original photograph. Holly Williams and Donna Anderson Kam will remain on view at Chandra Cerrito Contemporary until November 29.
How did you come to open a gallery in Oakland?
That was sort of a happy accident, and I feel really lucky that it happened at this time. The reason that I opened the gallery in Oakland is due to a friend of mine who had started a gallery on Grand Avenue where I first was located. He had his painting studio on the mezzanine level. At one point he decided to move out of the Bay Area, but he still held a lease on the space. Mercury 20 is the gallery that he started– that’s a coop gallery that continues to exist. They took over the lease, but nobody was using the mezzanine level. At the time he asked me to think of any painters or other artists who would want to use it as a studio. So for a couple weeks I was thinking about who could rent this space. Then he said, you’re doing all this curating, why don’t you just open a gallery? It just did not occur to me, I just had no intention of having a gallery. But I was doing a lot of independent curating and I really enjoyed it. It seemed so easy to have the space already there and then to be able to program my own shows. Mercury 20 was already a part of Art Murmur–one of the very early galleries in the organization. He might have opened his doors a year after Art Murmur was founded, and I opened my doors five years ago. Oakland Art Murmur is officially six years old, but I think there were some precursors to it. So there was already this very popular event on First Fridays that provided an audience, and at the time we thought it was super crowded. So I thought that’s fantastic. I had a space, I could show the artists whose work I absolutely loved and there’s already an audience coming, so I don’t have to worry that nobody’s going to see the shows. So it all worked out so smoothly and easily. Since then Art Murmur has just grown exponentially so it’s even more crowded than it was then. It’s kind of shocking. I’m just really lucky to be here at this time.
Would you say that there is a certain kind of work that you are most interested in showing here?
There are a few things that drive the work, and I think part of it is my artist background. What I ended up doing at CCAC as a graduate student was sculpture and installation, and I was always very interested in the Light and Space movement, minimalism, a pared-down aesthetic, as well as great craftsmanship and beauty. So I think that is sort of ingrained in me at this point, and I’m really attracted to work that speaks to one of those things. I also really felt the challenge of showing installation art as a young artist—my MFA show was installation, which had a lot of objects in them, but it was really using space. After school there’s nowhere to go. Museums aren’t offering you their space to try out an installation, so I really have a lot of empathy for artists who are doing work that is more installation-oriented, more site-specific or reacting to the architecture, and I really like giving artists a chance to experiment and play. I’ve always liked to mix in that type of work in my programming. So those two things, the minimalism and installation / site-specific work, definitely come into play. And then certainly the craftsmanship, like I mentioned. I tend to be drawn to work that’s very laborious and meticulous, and often times created with a technique that the artist has developed on their own, so it’s kind of an innovative technique, and maybe surprising process of how they actually create the object. I’m definitely drawn to process as well.
How has running a gallery affected your own art practice?
Probably the easiest way to answer that is that it cuts into studio time. When I graduated I certainly had hopes of continuing my art practice, but not necessarily supporting myself with it because I was concerned that might make me feel less free in my creative process. Just who I am and the way that I was working, I think that is probably true, although I did feel like I was still on the path of being an artist. It is sort of unfortunate that I don’t have tons of time to be in the studio, but at the same time I realize that it actually has helped my art practice in some ways because although it’s far less frequent and not as much time, I really enjoy it so much more. I used to put a lot of pressure on myself, really since kindergarten, about the quality of my art, to the point where it became equally sort of something that I stressed about and something that I enjoy, and now I don’t stress about it all, it’s just a thing that I enjoy. So I feel really freed up about art making. And the interesting thing probably about having my livelihood involved in art, although it’s not my own art, is I get to see so much of it that I kind of feel, again, a freedom that I don’t need to tackle every idea I think of because sometimes I can see that it’s been done. A lot of people have done it really well and I can move on to the next thing. I’m less burdened for some reason. The other major change, as I said, I was doing installation work during school, and with small chunks of time that doesn’t work as well, so I’ve kind of reverted to my roots, which is in drawing. So that’s something I can start and stop, and it doesn’t matter when I get back to it. It doesn’t have a certain drying time or setting time.
What were the sculptural installations like?
I was actually doing a combination of two things that sound really different. One is cast concrete, that was architectural scale, so you could walk on them, and the other one was working with fiber and nylon in sculptures that were sort of occupying the space. They have a kind of body-like quality. Someone put in my mailbox an article from Art News or something that featured Ernest Neto—I don’t know if you know his work, but he does big installations using nylon and sand, and I felt like I discovered it on my own, but you know, somebody else was out there doing it—anyway, he’s probably the closest parallel to the work that I was doing.
What inspired the current exhibition?
The current exhibition is called Cumulous, with four different artists including I had never shown before, so that was definitely something that made me excited about showing their work. But really, I’d have to answer that by saying that for many of the shows, and this one definitely is true, it’s really more like an intuition, like an inkling, that I feel that I want these artists together and I’m not exactly sure why, but I can’t wait to see them together in the space. And then I just have that hunch, and once it solidifies and I know that I’m going to stick with it, then I start digging in and analyzing it and getting more intellectual about why they relate to each other. Certainly, in coming up with the title and writing about the work as an essay, it’s very clear that there is this cumulative process that they all use to develop their work very slowly, methodically, and with a lot of time and labor. It’s all about accumulation and process.
One of the things I noticed looking through the work in the show was a sense that while these are very contemporary works, they make strong references to the past. For example, Leeza Doreian’s paintings are like old-fashioned drapery studies, but also sort of like optical art. Lisa Espenmiller’s paintings are reminiscent of Agnes Martin, or a certain kind of drawing of the 60s and 70s, and the artist in the front room, who works with acrylic nails, dental floss—
Those are like an updated readymade.
They are readymades.
The work reads as contemporary versions of established ideas, which I found very interesting.
I am really glad you said that because I do think that’s another thing that I either intuitively or consciously work with. Knowing that the work is of today, it really feels relevant to what artists are doing today, and yet it does connect to the broader art history. My undergraduate work is in art history, and that’s again, something sort of engrained in me, and what makes me interested in art, or one of the things. So that is absolutely relevant to the work that I select.
How would you describe the service you provide to clients of Chandra Cerrito Art Advisors?
That’s the company that I’ve had longer than I’ve had a gallery. It is an art consulting company, which we’re still very active in. What we do is help clients either build their collections from scratch, or add to their collections. That may be helping them select a few pieces for an expansion of their offices, or for a new hotel, providing the art for the rooms and for the public areas. We also work with hospitals and healthcare facilities. We recently did a department store, which is Neiman Marcus, and we also work with individual clients, but probably less than we do with larger corporate clients. That is one large direction of the consulting firm, and then the other direction is in facilitating public art projects. I work with either property owners, or city staff who within their city have an obligation to place public art, so they would hire me to help figure out where the art might go, what sort of art would be appropriate, and potentially what artists they want to work with. I keep a huge database of artists of public art and otherwise, and what I do is hear quite a lot about each project and figure out what are the physical parameters, what are the programmatic goals, what are they trying to say, with not only the art, but with their design and their landscaping, if they had any particular preferences for the art. Then I would help find the artist that could work within those parameters.
What would you say is one of the most memorable corporate exhibitions you’ve organized?
That’s a hard question, you could go on and on, but certainly Neiman Marcus, which is in Walnut Creek. That is really fresh in my mind because it just happened a few months ago, but what was wonderful about that project is that it was one I could really sink my teeth into, because there were so many areas and lots of pieces that we ended up being able to place, and many of them were commissions. Some of those commissions, such as Lisa Espenmiller, were the first for the artist in some way; the largest, in a new medium. There were so many challenges that the artists were asked to step up to, and it was for them an opportunity to push their work and be really proud of something. The other incredible part of the experience was they actually have a curator who has been curating their collection for probably 20 years. She has a museum and gallery background, I mean, she’s incredible. I felt like it was probably the first corporate project in which I really felt I was somebody—I don’t even want to say on equal footing—just that she was solidly steeped in art history and knew so much about art as well as certainly what the needs of their collection were. It was much more me assisting instead of facilitating.
In relation to what you were saying about the artists having to step up to certain challenges, were they aware of the space in which the work would be placed before it was made?
They were aware that it was to be placed in the department store. In some cases we had certain specs for the wall that their work was going on. Because I was working with a curator who knew things inside and out, she could just dictate and say, I know we need this size, as opposed to me being the one to analyze what the space needs. She had all that experience, so she could just say what she needed, which is really unique. There was one really fantastic project, and that was with our artist, Esther Traugot. Esther does crocheted thread that she hand dyes first to a specific color of gold, and she crochets it around natural objects like sticks and roots and rocks and shells, and all these different things. The curator saw her work and really loved it, and they had a vision to place her work in this really large area that is surrounded on two sides by glass walls that you can see on the outside. They wanted ten foot high structures that were all crocheted, so she basically made a forest out of what looked like trees, but they were huge branches, and she had to figure out how to make them freestanding. It was just an enormous project compared to the ones that she had been working on. She’s really sort of made her leap forward in her work. So that was great.
Would you say that there are different factors that you consider when you’re selecting work for those spaces compared to what you exhibit at the gallery?
Absolutely. I never let go of what I consider quality work and work that has integrity, but it’s very important for me to understand what’s going to make it a success for the client because really, they’re going to live with it, and it’s trying to fit into a bigger picture that they’ve created. So it’s a whole different process. With the gallery, I have total freedom to do what I want. It’s not that I don’t want to do what’s right for a client, because that pleases me as well, but with the gallery—the only parameters are my own space and my own mind and imagination, so it’s very different.
I think it must be incredibly exciting to work with public art. I am curious about what you consider the limitations on the kind of work that one can put into a public space. How interactive can it be? How much of a space should it fill? How much attention should it draw?
Every project is different, but when you think about the outdoor public space there immediately are certain constraints, if you want to call it that, or parameters that challenge you. One is, especially if it’s a permanent piece, that it has to last for 50, 100 years. It has to be almost indestructible. And that means weather, that means people who want to mess with it, climb it, throw things at it; it has to somehow withstand everything that could happen in the public realm. So that is an extremely different process in making work than say, for a gallery or for some collector’s home. Now some people would make the same work for either case because they love working in cast bronze, but not everybody, especially contemporary artists, that’s not a super common medium, cast bronze. It just has its appropriate applications. Certainly, durability is really important. I’d say there’s just about no limit on scale because it could be teeny; there have been really successful projects that you have to find and happen upon. There’s that element of surprise that I think is really great in public art because it doesn’t knock you over the head; it’s sort of the opposite. And yet there are projects that truly extend, could be city blocks, it could be very integrated with the architecture. I’m working on a park right now that’s in Fremont, and the artist is doing a few major sculptures, as well as integrating his vision for what the seating should be and some of the paving elements, so the whole park really becomes part of the artwork, or the artwork becomes part of the park. There’s a lot that can be done, and I think it’s an area where it’s starting to mature and so a lot of people are aware of it now and yet, that means that it can be pushed to places that we hadn’t really seen before. And that’s always exciting.
In terms of public artwork, how do you determine a successful response?
That is actually a question a lot of the public art administrators are asking right now. Partly because the field of public art is, as I said, maturing. It probably kind of really got going in the 70s and 80s, and is sort of starting to be everywhere, and instead of just focusing on getting the work out there, now people are starting to think critically about what works and what doesn’t work. So that’s happening in the field, and the other thing that’s happening, of course everywhere else, is that everything is being scrutinized so much as to what is worth spending your money on. Something like supporting a theater or a museum, is easy to track in terms of how successful it is because people buy tickets. You can tell what the attendance is. There’s no way to track it that way with public art. So people are starting to try and get more active on cell phones, with surveys, and actively seek some sort of feedback from people who might wander around the streets and see the work. What I think is successful, on one level, successful is if you notice that somebody off the street is standing by the work and taking a picture. Because clearly, they connected with it so they wanted to be remembered standing next to it. I’m not saying that that’s always the best artwork, but it certainly was effective in the public realm. For me, what I find most interesting would be work that has as much integrity as the work that that same artist would do for a studio or for their gallery or for a museum installation, and yet somehow they actually got it out there in the world through all the bureaucracy and all the compromise and all the restrictions that they have given the type of project that that is. So if they can hold onto a really strong artistic voice and put that out in the public realm, I think that’s hugely successful. There’s an artist that I’ve worked with several times and think he’s amazing. His name is Seyed Alavi, and he’s from Iran and living here in Oakland. For a project in Walnut Creek that I worked on with him, the parameters of the project were to take an existing fountain that was downtown that had been designed in the 70s and instead of it just being a water event, to create an art piece out of it. His project was a huge bald head, that’s coming out of the water. He’s submerged up to his nose so you really don’t see anything below the tip of his or her nose. It’s sort of ambiguous as to whether it is male or female, and even the age is sort of hard to figure out. The eyes are closed. Again, it asks so many questions. It doesn’t really tell you an answer. Is he coming out of the water, is he going into the water? Is he a massive giant that’s under the ground? What does this mean? For me, when I look at it, I get the sense of deep introspection because of the closed eyes and a very sort of serene demeanor about it. And to have something about introspection and serenity in a really busy downtown corridor, I think is a really bold statement. It’s also a metallic gold that’s not really glaring, but it’s a color that’s very attractive, and people would definitely see it; it couldn’t be missed. It was really great to see him develop his ideas and actually get it out there.
Could you describe your engagement with Oakland Art Murmur and the new Saturday Stroll program?
Oakland Art Murmur is a consortium of galleries that was started about six years ago, and at the time there might have been between 5 and 10, probably closer to 5, that were mostly artist-run spaces and some co-ops, and they were all in this area of Oakland that, at the time, didn’t have as much happening in terms of development, as it does now. Their idea was to basically coordinate gallery openings so that people would feel more safe coming and would visit multiple galleries. There would be more people on the street. It was just an effort to get the word out in one message, like a consolidated marketing campaign. That’s how it began and they started closing off 23rd Street, which is where my gallery is now, and would have art events and vendors, and different things happening there. So that was the very beginning hurdle of Art Murmur. It has since grown, there could be close to 30 galleries and mixed use spaces that are officially a part of Art Murmur, and it extends now from our neighborhood here all the way to Jack London Square and everything in between. Every first Friday, which is the evening that they coordinated for the art gallery openings, is extremely popular now. It’s moved from a small art walk that had a little street element, to being a huge street element and 30 galleries being opened. It’s massive at this point. We’re thrilled that it is; it has put Oakland on the map in a really good way, and it brings attention to the fact that there’s really good art happening in Oakland. All that is fantastic, but we decided about a year ago that the fact that it was getting so crowded was actually sort of working against us in a way with people who came to the First Friday art walk particularly to see the art. They were actually starting to not show up because it was so crowded that it was just kind of overwhelming, and they really couldn’t get in to see the art well or move from gallery to gallery very quickly. We realized that we really needed to make sure that a good portion of us are open at the same time on Saturdays. Before then there were lots of inconsistent hours; some galleries were open on Thursday and some on Saturdays. We all united and decided to be open Saturday from 1 to 5, and that continues now, that’s what Saturday Stroll is. All the galleries are open during that period of time. As another element to it we are trying to host more events that take place during that time, so there’s lots of artists’ talks or gallery openings during that time. Second Saturday has become a popular day to have additional events. On the third Saturday of every month we also host a free art tour, or gallery tour, and that begins at Farley’s, which is one of our mixed use partners. It’s led by one of the gallery owners or a curator or art consultant. We each pick a theme if we’re leading the tour—it might be works on paper, or it might be something more conceptual—and then based on that theme, select the galleries that we want to tour the people through. It’s usually between four and six galleries people get to see. They get to meet the owners or the curators, sometimes the artist, along the way. It’s really been great, and they really vary in terms of how many people show up, but sometimes they’re packed. I think it’s a nice service. It’s another educational part that we can offer too. I have to point out that it’s an amazing thing to have a partnership in a way with all the other galleries that are around. We literally work together. We share ideas, we do projects together. We did the art fair together. We’ve done other coordinated events, like an annual event called Murmurama. So it’s almost like having partners in your own business. There’s a real collegial atmosphere, supportive atmosphere, and I think because of that we can actually do more. We can have a louder voice about what’s happening in Oakland, and hopefully make a bigger difference. It’s been really nice for me to be a part of it. I learned so much from everybody else’s experience and it’s just a great exchange.
NOTE: At the time of interview, the Cumulous exhibition was on view at Chandra Cerrito Contemporary. Two solo exhibitions, Donna Anderson Kam: Datelines and Holly Williams: Ghost, opened October 5 and will be on view until November 29, 2012.
What will be here at the gallery this fall?
In the fall we have two really great shows. In October and November we have two solo shows happening. One is by an LA artist, Holly Williams, and she’s a painter. Very beautiful layered oil paintings. And the other is by a San Francisco artist Donna Anderson Kam. It’s the first time I’ll be showing Donna’s work, and I’ve shown Holly’s before. It’s always fun to show someone whose work strikes you. Her work is very large scale pastel drawings on paper. Some of them literally ten feet long, they’re massive. Some, of course, are more normal scale, like 30 by 40 or something, and what she’s doing is inspired by reading the news and different news articles, and often it’s sort of a tragic experience, like maybe a drug overdose or a drive-by shooting, or somebody lost in the woods. That’s what the news is—it’s usually playing off the tragedy. So she collects these news articles, and she actually works with young actors to come in and she’ll give them some rough idea of a scene that she could imagine that happened in that episode and then they act it out. They kind of have freedom of how to act it out, and then she takes photographs of them while they’re acting, and with those photographs she starts manipulating the images and intensifying the colors to hint at the passion and the intensity of the moment. And then she uses the photograph as the basis for what she’s going to draw. She ends up drawing these beautiful drawings on very large white backgrounds so there’s a lot of negative space, but these characters, usually young women, in these really sort of disturbing situations, and yet they’re not sensationalized at all. There’s ambiguity as to what’s happening, so there’s something very under-your-skin about it, there’s something disturbing, but you’re not quite sure why. They’re really evocative. So I pair her—they’re in separate shows, but at the same time—with Holly, because Holly’s work is really evocative and sort of haunting as well. Both artists do work with photography in a certain way, and Holly’s paintings are almost a more conscious commentary on the effects of photography and film. She’s looking at things like soft focus and in film where there’s two images that might occur on the same frame, as if it were a film strip, so she’s playing with those actual effects, but doing it as scenes and paintings. Probably the person to compare her to would be Gerhard Richter when he does the sort of blurred surfaces. That technique comes into her work a lot. She’s again playing with reality and representation. That it’s so kind of ambiguous. It leaves the story open. You feel like there’s a story there, but you can’t quite figure out the details. It really draws you in and makes you imagine what might be happening. I’m looking forward to it, and we have a great program attached to that show during art gallery week. Oakland is going to be spot-lit on October 6, which is a Saturday, so for our special program that day we’re going to have an arts talk led by Jessica Brier, and Jessica is a curatorial assistant in the photography department at SFMOMA. She worked a lot on the Francesca Woodman show, which is a photography show of a young artist who tragically died young, and she did many self-portraits. There are a lot of references to the same sort of age group that both of the artists actually work with in terms of their subject matter. And the fact that she comes from a history of photo, I thought it would be interesting to have her looking at these works that have a photo connection, but aren’t actually photography. We’re really excited about that too.
December and January we have two artists. One is Amy M. Ho, who is a name that might start looking familiar to you because she’s getting lots of attention. She’s a recent graduate from Mills. She might have graduated two years ago. And we have had one show for her here, but she and Cathy, the other artist, Cathy Cunningham-Little, are both inspired by Light and Space artists, and I feel, just like we were talking about, these works are a continuation in a way of earlier works. I think their work is the same for that genre. Amy does light installations. I would say the closest correlation is maybe James Turrell; she’ll literally build out walls and change the space, and you walk in and it’s a light experience. After the show nothing exists. Just the experience of it. Cathy Cunningham-Little is from San Antonio, Texas, and she’s almost on the other end of her career. She’s probably, I would say, mid 50s and has been working a really long time, but in a very small town and never really got her work out there, so she’s accumulated all this amazing skill and beautiful installations, but nobody’s ever seen them. For our show, she’s showing somewhat new work using dichroic glass. It is very minimal in its installation. There are different shards and shapes of glass that are mounted directly to the wall, sort of slices coming out of the wall, but if they’re lit in a certain way they throw a really dramatic and really strong pattern of light against the wall. It’s similar in a way to Amy in that if that light’s not there it’s almost nothing. It has to be all arranged with the light when you walk in. It has such an impact, and yet it’s made with the most minimal amount of material. So that’s going to be really great, December and January.
Sounds like a busy couple of months— I look forward to coming back soon. Thank you.
Of Note: On my mind frequently since visiting Chandra Cerrito Contemporary is the excellent use of a smaller room within the gallery, where a varied selection of gallery artists exhibit work priced between $200 and $500. These works, typically limited edition prints or unique works from a series, constitute the gallery’s program of Collector Editions, and can be viewed online at chandracerritocontemporary.com.