THE OAKLAND Art Murmur — the opening of exhibits at a cluster of galleries on the first Friday of each month — has grown from a murmur to a commotion, at least.

It's a chance for the scattered galleries on the northern fringe of downtown Oakland to create some buzz about Bay Area art — with one gallery even named Buzz, next door to the Mama Buzz Cafe.

And it's an opportunity for the public — if last Friday's casual but lively scene was a typical — to check out decidedly contemporary art and connect with the artists at meet-and-greet sessions.

Some of the galleries are open odd hours, just two or three days a week, so the first Friday evening of the month may be the best chance to do more than peer through the window.

It's all free, of course, and easily accessible. Many galleries are spotted along familiar Grand Avenue, Telegraph Avenue and nearby streets. After offices in surrounding buildings close, adequate parking is available on the street. BART's 19th Street station is three or four blocks away.

In this free-form art scene, with several more venues right downtown and farther out Telegraph Avenue, galleries close and galleries open. A new one, Chandra Cerrito Contemporary, opened Friday on the balcony of another gallery on Grand Avenue.

As the little symbol in Michelin travel guides always suggests, these are "worth a detour." They're the place to see vibrant, sometimes edgy, almost always innovative work, mostly by East Bay artists.


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Chandra Cerrito Contemporary is one good place to get a fresh point of view — up a short flight of stairs (each riser painted with verse by poet Geri Digiorno) to the balcony of the Mercury 20 Gallery.

"Inscribere," the upstairs inaugural exhibit, combines text with art in a variety of ways. They range from Emeryville painter Catherine Courtenaye's big, red canvas silk-screened with fragments of Victorian penmanship, to Donald Farnsworth's photographs of animal specimens from the California Academy of Sciences, carefully placed on enlargements of passages from Darwin's "Origin of the Species."

Just as intriguing, and also amusing, is Oakland artist and microbiologist Arthur Huang's riff on chemistry charts. His "2002 Diet as Period Table" includes such elements as "Mgs," Mango Salad, and "Tmk 3," 3 Musketeers bar.

If writers and artists live on coffee, Oakland artist (and librarian) Mary V. Marsh decided to paint with it, too. And she didn't throw away the paper cups, turning 327 of them into "The Coffee Diary," with notes about her day's activities written on them in Sharpie pen.

Her installation at Mercury 20 Gallery includes several paintings (in coffee and gouache) on obsolete library checkout cards, pulled and discarded from inside books' front covers. These are evocative, not-quite-complete little paintings that let portions of book titles and book borrowers' names come through.

Among the galleries clustered around Telegraph Avenue, the extensive, rambling Esteban Sabar Gallery represents 42 East Bay artists.

Sabar's current exhibits focus on three artists worth noting. Scott Courtenay-Smith's abstract urban environments include bright blue cityscapes and imposing but precariously placed male figures. Tracy West, who was introduced to plaster, concrete and wood when building houses, now produces frescos on canvas, with ancient-looking peeled and scratched layers. Vivian Prinsloo's more traditional paintings silhouette trees, utility poles and overhead wires against glowing but moody skies.

The Johansson Projects gallery is featuring an amazing variety of works in an exhibit titled "Thread," including Alex Case's futuristic collages that look like furnaces and boilers in space, and Devorah Sperber's construction of 500 spools of thread, with a surprising image visible when it's seen through a viewing lens.

Tucker Schwartz's stitched neighborhood images on muslin leave long, loose thread drifting across the frame, making street scenes look either forlorn or hopefully under construction.

The oldest established gallery on the Oakland Art Murmur scene is Creative Growth, which has helped develop an astonishing reputation for many of its disabled artists. The current exhibit, "Sampler," curated by Melissa Feldman, is a delightful collection of knitwear as sculpture, intricate but expressive stitched pillows, and such stuffed figures as Jackie Frank's floral-print dragon. Alan Lofberg's colorful, pointy-eared monster on burlap recalls Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are."

Bringing it all back to the street, Buzz Gallery features Julie Plasencia's series of photographs taken in West Oakland, detailing the new and old homeowners on Chester Street. The neighborhood is nicknamed "the Lower Bottom," but it's clear that the residents are proud of what they'd done to keep their row of 1870s Italianate houses alive.

Contact Robert Taylor at 925-977-8428 or rtaylor@bayareanewsgroup.com.