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JULY 11– AUGUST 23 2015




JULY 11– AUGUST 23 2015


Berkeley Art Center 1275 Walnut Street Berkeley, CA 94709 berkeleyartcenter.org







On behalf of the staff and board of Berkeley Art Center, I would like to congratulate Lava Thomas on a stunning exhibition, Looking Back and Seeing Now (July 11 – August 23, 2015). This exhibition represents a big step in the history of Berkeley Art Center. In the past year, Berkeley Art Center has entered a new chapter of programming. Our community has broadened to include the greater Bay Area, and our mission has been strengthened by our new program, The Agility Projects which supports emerging and mid-career artists as they create new bodies of work and experiment with new approaches to their practice. Berkeley Art Center is proud to be able to engage in these open-ended dialogs with participating artists. Looking Back and Seeing Now is the second exhibition in the inaugural year of Agility Projects. This new work by Lava Thomas is a culmination of multiple studio visits, emails and phone conversations between Ms. Thomas and myself. I am inspired by Lava Thomas’ overall practice. She is a thoughtful, insightful, and methodical artist. She approached this show as a conceptual investigation of how history infuses objects and images. In addition to her extremely large, masterfully rendered graphite portraits on paper, Ms. Thomas pushed the boundaries of sculpture and installation to transform the entire gallery space into a site of reflection and mediation. I would like to sincerely thank Lava Thomas for creating such a special exhibition. Berkeley Art Center is honored to have been a part of this experience. I would also like to thank Trish Bransten and Rena Bransten and the entire staff at Rena Bransten Projects. Thank you for offering so much support to Lava Thomas as she completed this exhibition; and thank you for your generous and longstanding support of Berkeley Art Center. Your dedication to community-based arts organizations and to experimental work helps make what we do at Berkeley Art Center possible. Lastly, I want to extend my gratitude to the board, staff, members, and Berkeley community. Your contributions and participation make all of this possible.




Lava Thomas is a native of Los Angeles, California. She was educated at UCLA’s School of Art Practice and California College of the Arts, where she received her BFA. Her diverse artistic practice includes drawing, painting, sculpture, printmaking and installations. Her work has been exhibited at various institutions including: Museum of the African Diaspora, Print Center in NY, the Betty Rymer Gallery at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, the California African American Museum in Los Angeles, the Riverside Art Museum, Paulson Bott Press, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Boulder, Colorado, Wight Gallery at UCLA, the San Francisco Art Commission Gallery, the San Jose Institute for Contemporary Art, and in the collection of the United States Consulate General in Johannesburg, South Africa. Thomas is a Djerassi Resident Artists Program Fellow. She is a former board member of the Djerassi Residents Artists Program and the Alliance of Artists Communities. 




A few years ago at my grandmother’s house in Los Angeles, I unearthed something previously unseen in all my time there as a child. Buried underneath a pile of sheet music in her piano bench was an album containing photographs from the late 1880s. The women in the photographs are most likely related to me, but I can’t be certain; there’s no one left to ask. As I looked at them from across four generations, I had the unnerving sense that they were looking back at me. Drawing the women in my studio over the past year and a half, the intensity and defiance in their eyes was palpable and real. I wondered what their lives must have been like— these black women living in the south more than a hundred years ago—and mused sadly at how some things hadn’t changed. With reports of brutality against black people streaming from my computer while I worked, at times the women’s gazes seemed like an indictment of the present; despite the gains of the civil rights movement and a black president in office, the black body remains a target for hatred and violence.   Meanwhile, the tambourine installation that I was working on began to assert its strength and take on a life of its own. What I had first conceived as an elegy was instead evolving into a boundless eruption of forms, a manifestation of something irrepressible. As the tambourines’ mirrored faces reflected the observer’s gaze, I glimpsed the possibility of transcendence—and hoped, as we strive to realize the potential of our humanity, that this sense of infinite possibility could be closer than we know.

My sincere gratitude goes to executive director Aimee Le Duc for her invitation to embark on this project, and to the board of directors of Berkeley Art Center for supporting her vision. Thank you as well to the Berkeley Art Center staff and to the city of Berkeley. I would like to thank Jacqueline Francis for the thoughtful insights and observations in her essay. I am grateful to my team—studio manager Jennifer Noland, studio assistants Melissa Bolger, Tyler Noland, and fabricator David Andersson. To my editor Nicholas Stone, I thank you for making my words sing. A special thank you goes to Rena and Trish Bransten of Rena Bransten Projects for their generous support of the exhibition. Finally, a debt of gratitude goes to my husband, Peter Danzig.








LIST OF WORKS Looking Back 2, 2015 (left side of installation) graphite, conte crayon and watercolor on paper 72"” x 72"” $22,500 Seeing Now, 2015 tambourines, lambskin, monofilament, ribbon, acrylic mirrors, digital prints on paper, s-hooks, wood, steel 12'’ x 15'’ x 20'’ $75,000 Looking Back 1, 2014–15 (left side of installation) graphite, conte crayon and watercolor on paper 72" x 72" $22,500




Many years after the death of her maternal grandmother, Lava Thomas found a photo album belonging to this beloved woman. This rich visual record was not something Thomas had seen before, and yet the circumstances under which she came upon them were entirely apropos. On a visit to Los Angeles to attend the funeral of her best friend’s mother, Thomas, who lives and works in the San Francisco Bay area, stopped by her late grandmother’s home. There, she opened the piano bench upon which her grandmother, an accomplished musician who was her Pentecostal church’s choir director, would sit when she played the instrument at home. As an active churchwoman, she was a respected community leader. Still, Thomas’s grandmother had a private side, for she had created this photo album and had not shared it with anyone during her lifetime. It existed for her alone, as a curated archive of meaningfully arranged imagery. Most poignantly, the album’s first two photos were portraits of women whom were unknown to Thomas; she did not recognize them nor could she identify them by name. Nonetheless, it’s likely that these women, whose photos held places of prominence in the album, were related to Thomas’s grandmother, and by extension, to Thomas. In Looking Back and Seeing Now, Lava Thomas not only engages an aspect of her family’s history, but also seeks to understand a past era and connect it to her own. Riveted by the photos of the two women, Thomas spent countless hours studying the sitters’ expressions, postures, and clothing of the women in an attempt to know them and to respond to their serious and unblinking gazes. The haunting cameo images that Thomas has produced, Looking Back 1 and Looking Back 2, resemble the photos in her grandmother’s photo album, but they are not replicas of them. Much larger in scale than the album photos, Thomas’s drawings establish their own authority that is grounded in their unerring realism: they offer details and precision far beyond what the human eye could discern in a single glance. Thomas depicts finely combed strands of hair and flyaway wisps, shows the light reflecting off buttons’ facets,


and delineated the wrinkled creases in the figures’ lips. Features are rendered with great refinement by Thomas’s skillfully assured hand, for her acknowledged perfectionist nature would not allow otherwise. Without access to her subjects’ autobiographies and biographies—their own accounts of their lives, the written facts about them recorded in legal annals, their descendants’ memories of them—Thomas sensitively represents them. Looking Back 1 and Looking Back 2 portray the strong moral character, knowing sensibility, and successful mien that the women, doubtlessly, wanted the commissioned studio photos to capture and communicate. But Thomas’s tour-de-force drawings also must be recognized as thoughtful and deeply invested artistic interpretations, ones that enhance and supplement the photographs the artist found in her grandmother’s album. As a result, Looking Back 1 and Looking Back 2 doubly assert self-revelatory power—the artist’s and the depicted women’s—and fill Berkeley Art Center’s exhibition space with a palpable vitality. The project Looking Back and Seeing Now is multimedia and multisensory. As a site-specific installation, it reveals itself as a transformative experience in many senses of this phrase. Consider the exhibition’s locale. Berkeley Art Center is in the city’s Live Oak Park, the Codornices Creekbounded space that was once home to native peoples. Later, in the mid-nineteenth century, the white settler Napoleon Bonarparte Byrd claimed ownership of the land, having traveled by covered wagon from Missouri with his family and the African-American couple Hannah and Pete Byrd he once had enslaved. Since 1914, Live Oak Park has been a public recreational space, and BAC, a city-enterprise turned private non-profit gallery, was built there in 1967. A meditative, outdoor area, Live Oak Park is a calming respite from city din; its resolute quiet is occasionally broken by a dog’s bark or the muffled thwacking of tennis balls from nearby courts. Visitors enter BAC from Walnut Street via a wooden bridge, a pathway which makes it hard not be aware


of the sound of one’s footfall. Inside BAC’s Arts and Craftsstyle building, the tinkling of Seeing Now’s tambourine bells is simultaneously a welcoming and mysterious sound: one hears this work before actually seeing it. A room divider mediates between the BAC atrium and gallery; once around it, the viewer needs a moment to make sense of the environment. Hanging between the portraits Looking Back 1 and Looking Back 2 is Seeing Now, a curtain of mixed elements. More than a hundred tambourines are wire -tied to a stable lattice frame, installed high above the gallery floor. Some of the small, framed drums have warmly colored surfaces; some are decorated with mirrors that capture parts of the visitor’s body and of Looking Back 1 and Looking Back 2; others proffer a Surrealist effect with print details of eyes from the Looking Back portraiture. Attempting to track the origins of the audible jingling, the viewer’s looks upward to discover that small fans are key components of the installation. Thrumming air currents gently turn the instruments and activate, ever so slightly, their small metal cymbals. However much the visitor’s movements contribute to the animation of Seeing Now, the work, even in the absence of a human presence, would generate an improvisatory composition of treble clef notes. Of course, nothing about Looking Back and Seeing Now is happenstance. The tambourine is a significant object for Thomas: she recalls playing it in her grandmother’s church as a child and the expressed ecstasy of Pentecostal worship is a vivid memory. The tambourine’s visual and cultural history also resonates with the artist, who has studied its appearance on ancient Greek pottery and its role in African-American musical traditions, including the protest songs of the Civil Rights Movement. Overall, the form and content of Looking Back and Seeing Now evoke the past and engender reflection about its relation to the present. Thomas presents myriad fragments and perspectives, and invites her audience to sit with them. In this way, the installation’s open structure mimics the narration of history, which is never a completed project.



Berkeley Art Center serves the diverse and creative citizens of the greater Bay Area through the presentation of visual art exhibitions and related programs that are relevant, engaging, and inspiring.  The Agility Projects is a series of exhibitions and public programs that seeks to engage diverse audiences with new and commissioned art by outstanding emerging artists from the Bay Area. The program provides artists with time, a stipend and support to create new bodies of work that will push their own artistic practices in new directions. For more information, please visit  berkeleyartcenter.org.





Looking Back and Seeing Now: New work by Lava Thomas would not have been possible without the generous support of Rena Bransten and Trish Bransten of Rena Bransten Projects, San Francisco. Thank you for your thoughtful insights and passionate support of Berkeley Art Center and the Bay Area arts community. This exhibition was also supported by: the City of Berkeley, Lava Thomas, and the members of Berkeley Art Center. BOARD OF DIRECTORS Marianna Stark, President

BAC STAFF Aimee Le Duc, Executive Director

Dennis Markham, Vice-President

Ann Trinca, Programs Manager

Lucille Freeman, Treasurer Ernest Jolly, Secretary Shiree Dyson Susan Roth Anna Schooley Elizabeth Sher Larry Stefl

2015 Interns Kayleigh Locastro Jaymie Orogo Kate Rose Natasha Shompole Smith Koy Smith Stephanie Wu


Published by Berkeley Art Center, 2015 Design by Studio 1500


Lava Thomas images courtesy of John Wilson White and Rena Bransten Projects, San Francisco All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without written permission from the publisher. Printed and bound by Solstice Press, Oakland, California



Profile for Berkeley Art Center

Lava Thomas: Looking Back and Seeing Now  

Presented by Berkeley Art Center July 11 - August 23, 2015 featuring a site-specific work by Lava Thomas as part of The Agility Projects ser...

Lava Thomas: Looking Back and Seeing Now  

Presented by Berkeley Art Center July 11 - August 23, 2015 featuring a site-specific work by Lava Thomas as part of The Agility Projects ser...