Art of Sociology/Sociology of Art


The opening of the brand-new, sleek, and beautifully-designed Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive building has been long-awaited. Berkeley residents and out-of-town visitors alike flooded the museum at its opening to the public at the end of January. Some students might not have wanted to brave the long lines snaking around the block at the museum’s opening, and perhaps still haven’t had the chance to check out the prominent new addition to downtown Berkeley in the weeks since. Luckily, students in Berkeley Connect Sociology got the opportunity to go on private tours tailored to their interests, led by museum curators and educators Sherry Goodman and Lynne Kimura.

On a recent tour, Kimura began by showing students a quilt by Rosie Lee Tompkins, an internationally acclaimed African-American quilt-maker. Kimura described her quilts as “a riff on traditional quilts” – whereas traditional quilts are very carefully crafted geometrics, Tompkins’ quilts are patterned erratically, like mosaics rather than quilts. They are vibrantly colorful, and crafted from a variety of materials, ignoring the traditional boundaries between cultures and mediums. Kimura compared Tompkins’ style to the improvisational approach of a jazz musician.

Another notable work Kimura talked about was by San Francisco-based artist Chris Johanson. He grew up skateboarding and immersed in punk culture, and began creating graffiti-inspired art with no formal training, often using found materials. In the piece displayed in the museum, “Cityscape with House and Gray Energy,” busy blocks of color with crudely-drawn figures within them represent a vibrant urban environment buzzing with energy. Two small houses, painted on separate canvases, are connected to the main painting. They represent the artist’s childhood home in the suburbs and the ambiguous “unknown weight coming into the mind.” The tiny figures inside the cityscape are connected by thin black lines, some with tiny speech bubbles. This connection of city dwellers to each other as well as to the artist himself portrays the interconnectedness of humankind, a sort of “social network.”

Kimura and the students also discussed “Portrait of My Father” by Stephen Kaltenbach, which is both the largest piece in the museum and one of the most popular with museum visitors. Inspired by caring for his father while he was suffering from Alzheimer’s, Kaltenbach’s painting is stunning, galactic in both its scale and intricacy. It features an old man’s face, his wiry white beard coming alive with electricity. Tiny threads sparkling with light and color weave indiscriminately into the man’s beard, and the bright, rainbow-colored pattern underlying his face illuminates the power of the human bond and the complexity of human life.

Many of the striking pieces students were shown along the tour seemed to bear similar themes of human experience, and the ways in which humans interact with each other in society—exactly what sociology is all about. Touring BAMPFA allowed students to examine artists’ works through the lens of their sociological studies—and also to reflect on issues they have studied through the lens of art.

Posted by Madeline Wells, Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant