Helen Mirra and Sean Thackrey at BAMPFA: Seeing overlooked beauty in the everyday

1. 1-21 May, Overlook—Green Gulch—Redwood Creek—Heather Cutoff—Overlook 2017, Linen, silk, wool, 22 ¼ x 10 in. (56.5 x 25.5 cm), Courtesy of Galleria Raffaella Cortese, Milan

On display in one large gallery at Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) is No Horizon, comprising the recent works of two contemporary Bay Area artists, Helen Mirra, and Sean Thackrey. Their ethos has been influenced by Zen Buddhism and, coincidently, both live and work in West Marin County.

Whereas Mirra’s art consists of small-scale, hand-woven works in subtle and delicate irregular shapes and patterns, Thackrey’s presentation is of close-up photographs of sections of weathered, decaying walls in Venice, Italy that are handsomely mounted on large rectangular specially dyed wood panels.

Both artists, who didn’t know each other before being introduced by BAMFPA’s Director and Chief Curator Lawrence Rinder, share a remarkable similarity of sensibility, based in part on the Zen philosophy of seeing overlooked beauty in the everyday. Mirra and Thackrey create quiet pieces of art worthy of contemplation. The works have neither splashy color nor recognizable shapes. Instead, they subtly reflect the understated and elusive beauty of time and space. The apt title of the exhibition, No Horizon, was inspired by Without Horizon, a series of works created by the artist and composer John Cage.

Helen Mirra is an award-winning, internationally known artist, who recently moved to Muir Beach, in part to be close to the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center. Her last exhibit at BAMPFA was as part of the MATRIX program in 2003-04, and, although quite different in media, also reflected her Zen Buddhist philosophy.


Her currently displayed works are interpretations of her “somatic experiences” — her sensations in reaction to her Marin environment. Each of her small hand-woven pieces, in faint colors of mixed cotton, silk, linen and wool material, is named for the month in which it was created. Each commemorates the significance she found in her long walks and encounters with nature and the elements. One piece, which is distinct in appearance from the rest of her weavings is December (Pylos), 2018. It refers to an ancient image of a labyrinth incised on a clay tablet that was found in Pylos, Greece. The tablet, dated to 1200 BCE, is the earliest securely dated image of a labyrinth. The artist has mirrored the image of the tablet using strands of mushroom-dyed yarn for the path.

San Michele I, 2016, Archival pigment on rag paper, 41 ⅛ x 23 in. (105 x 58 cm), Collection of the artist

Primarily known as an award-winning winemaker, and the photography gallery owner of Thackrey & Robertson, Sean Thackrey has not widely exhibited his photographs. But Rinder came across a display of them at the Bolinas Museum and said that they presented “a mature vision, were incredibly accomplished, with a fresh perspective and use of photography that I had not seen before.”

Thackrey’s photographs are close-ups of Venetian walls of Istrian stone, without any noticeable light or shadow. They appear to be abstract and nearly three-dimensional. Some take on an almost poignant aura; others have vertical dissecting lines. The extended vertical wood frames on which the photographs are mounted create the effect of an Asian painting on a scroll. It is interesting to note the differences between two of the pieces, Cannaregio V.III and Cannaregio V.IV, which Thackrey shot at the same location two years apart, in 2014 and 2016, respectively.

Rinder fittingly summarized the art in this exhibit as “… wonderfully calm and profound reflections on the beauty of everyday life. They are not about spectacular things. They are not themselves spectacular. They are quiet, gentle reminders to pay attention.”

‘No Horizon: Helen Mirra and Sean Thackrey’ is on view until Aug. 25, at BAMPFA, 2120 Oxford St. in Berkeley. BAMPFA is presenting a reading on Friday, Aug. 23, at 12 p.m. by Lyn Hejinian and Frances Richard, both Bay Area poets who respond to Mirra and Thackrey’s work with original compositions that grapple in language with wordlessness.