Beloved Bay Area artists Alicia McCarthy, Muzae Sesay, and Martha Shaw come together in pt.2 Gallery’s current exhibition to create a vibrant celebration of painting as a practice, as an origin of community, and as the pulsing spirit of a place.

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As described by Essence Harden in the gallery’s press release, this is “an exhibition of paintings which is also a study on painting. The pieces of McCarthy, Sesay, and Shaw forward an interest in paint as material and its capacity to figure sensation.” The handmade quality of each piece — evident in Sesay’s swirling, textured hand, in McCarthy’s dripping paint and color swatching, in Shaw’s interpretive rendering and scratching through to the canvas — drives a sense of honesty, of raw expression from each artist.

Three exhibitions coincide here: a solo exhibition by Muzae Sesay, an exhibition of Sesay and Alicia McCarthy’s works, and an exhibition of Martha Shaw’s paintings alongside McCarthy’s.

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When We Were Here Last, Sesay’s solo exhibition, holds a monumental five-panel arrangement. Oakland residents will recognize in the titles and the works themselves the local mainstays of dining and drinking — Legionnaire, Ruby Room, Shan Dong, Maya Halal, and Happy Burrito are immortalized in Sesay’s epic compositions. Sesay harkens to real places with unique abstract sensibility. His reference to classical, semi-religious architectural features like apses, stained glass, and aqueduct forms creates a traditional representation of things that are decidedly not that. It becomes subversive in its allusion to the spirituality of community rather than spirituality as an organized imposition. Each piece functions, in scale, as a doorway to the depicted locale, a warm invitation by virtue of burning and jewel-toned hues and the softness of the painted and drawn-upon surface.

The mark of Sesay’s hand, along with the glowing reverberation of his color harmonies, is one of the most mesmerizing aspects of his work. A closer look at the canvas reveals wandering linework, clearly mapping the path of the oil stick or colored pencil used to mark shadows on different facades. Bonding Hour Balcony, shown in the duo exhibition space alongside McCarthy’s work, is a particular triumph by way of these sharp shifts in texture. Flat color fields in the bottom right provide stark contrast to the humming, more naive markmaking in the purple and blue surrounding the moon, or the swirling, looping, erratic lines that create the stark Y-shaped shadow of support beams against the wall.

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In Port City, the dimensionality of Sesay’s work shines, and the panelization of spaces and scenery becomes key. The motif of the sailboat is repeated in sequence like a stamp, foregrounded on the bay but also embedded within it as fields of perspective merge. The dramatic horizontal scale of the work allows the viewer to exist within it, to feel at home in the jagged, lapping waves beneath the burning sun.

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Alicia McCarthy’s paintings are candid and fresh, imbued with an almost childlike vibrancy and joy. She uses found paints, pigments, and panels, her materials ranging from colored pencil to spray paint and house paint. Here compositions certainly feel universal, yet they are deeply intertwined with the city for those of us who view it here. More than anything, it is a great pleasure to stand face to face with McCarthy’s pieces, to trace them with your eyes, to soak in the vivid color.

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The physicality of the work is refreshingly obvious. In her woven works, you can follow the path of her hand, from origin to completion. The pieces work from the inside out, layering lines — brushstrokes or streams of spray paint — from the center of the panel to its perimeter. The eye is drawn to the hues themselves, the connections between the colors, the negative space between them. The work is welcoming. It presents itself as what it is, with kindness, joy, and spirit.

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In the exhibition with Martha Shaw, McCarthy shows two small works that feature connecting arcs, interweaving at their point of contact. There is a celestial nature in the spray paint drips, and the colored pencil rainbows sweep over the skyline. The rainbow serves as a rejoinder between earth and sky, a liminal space between phenomena earthly and otherworldly, a mirage of light but also a feat of nature. To me, this liminal space aptly reflects McCarthy’s work — the spirit of light, the spectra of color, groundedness in material but levity and joy in composition.

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Shaw’s paintings are an intimate counterpart to Sesay and McCarthy’s grand-scale, colorful works. She paints careful figurations of arranged fish, seascapes under moonlight, necklaces resting on display mannequins, and ranunculi arranged in small vases. The paintings themselves are quiet, but the materiality shows through. They are precious, but gritty. The brush strokes leave ample evidence of the canvas underneath, and the edges of color fields make themselves clearly known. In her Ranunculus paintings, the backgrounds are rendered after the flowers, the outlines around them creating a sort of halo, and the empty space they exist in comes forward. In Manikin with Pearl, Shaw scratches into the chest of the mannequin, and brown underpainting shows through. What otherwise might be quaint scenes have a haunting charm and an unmistakable honesty. While sparse, they are evocative, almost narrative in the life they seem to describe. 

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This expertly curated exhibit presents art as it ought to be: unprotected, expressive, and communal. Part of the pleasure of this show and pt. 2 gallery as a whole is its position as creator and cornerstone of a community. Endless, a painting by Sesay, seems in this way to be the perfect punctuation to this exhibition. Here, you can see synthesized influence from Shaw and McCarthy, rendered in Sesay’s quintessential fashion. A rainbow spouts out against the stark white moonscape, arching over and out of the industrial city; an amalgamation of these three generations of painters, overlapping, infusing, breathing through each other. —Annie Dauber

The exhibtions are on view at pt.2 in Oakland through July 29, 2023.