Since the mid-1970s, Marion Gray has steadfastly photographed performance-based art in exhibitions and public settings, mostly in the Bay Area. Engaging in an uncommon commitment to this artistic milieu, she has captured historic moments with a degree of poignancy that befits the tone of each subject. The 23 pictures in this exhibition at the Oakland Museum of California, on view through June 21, were mostly shot in the 1980s (though many were printed more recently), and they comprise a small sample of Gray’s vast archive of performance documentation covering a golden era of performance work. Included are shots of Karen Finley, Guillermo Gomez-Peña, Joan Jonas, and a late work by Marina Abramovic and Ulay. The selections, which balance international performance figures with those working in the area, point to the breadth of Gray’s subject matter, as well as her presence at seminal works by important artists, in venues that have closed and become legendary art historical locations.
Gray’s position in these pictures is active; she treats each shot as if she were an art-world photojournalist. The best works seem almost collaborative, in that the photographer harnesses the energy of the artists and works she depicts. In a wall text, she describes her approach as akin to dance, of “being in the right spot, ready for the moment.” A black-and-white shot of a 1985 performance by the kinetic iconoclast group Survival Research Laboratories presents what appears to be a war zone, a cannon decimating a house structure. Gray’s composition excludes the audience and thereby takes on an ominous gravity. There is a more impressionistic, dreamy quality to a color image of an Ann Hamilton/Meredith Monk collaboration that magnifies the unique nature of the architecture, which was designed by Hamilton. In other works, Gray shows an affinity for how architecture accommodates human presence: a powerfully geometric image represents the opening party of a 1980 Richard Avedon retrospective at the Berkeley Art Museum, and a view of anthropomorphized furniture in a 1994 installation by Brian Goggin contrasts the playfulness of the artwork with the rigid courtyard of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. This compact sample of Gray’s work manages to communicate the commitment and richness of her practice, as well as a slice of San Francisco’s artistically adventurous recent past.