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Friday 11.11.05

« Performance Art as Cover | Main | Excellent things to check out »

Teach Me Your Wildness

Elizabeth Leach gallery currently features a show of drawings by sculptors, entitled 2D from 3D. Immediately upon entering the gallery, one encounters a huge Kiki Smith drawing of a wolf. It is a clumsy drawing in ink on a large crumpled sheet of paper which has one corner cut out of it.


The proportions of the animal make no sense. Its front legs are entangled in a nasty perspective problem, the left fore leg should be closer to the viewer but instead ends up behind the right fore leg. The hindquarters of the animal are properly foreshortened but inexplicably larger than the rest of the body. The wolf has no background but the crumpled, creamy paper on which it is drawn. Above its wedge shaped head is a single, graphic, five-pointed star, which the animal seems to contemplate. The ink hatch marks which render the fur of the animal are regularly spaced and patterned.

The piece is brutal, clumsy, awkward, fiercely and naively executed. It is almost as though the artist herself is a wild animal akin to her subject. One pictures Kiki living on the outskirts of town, brewing potions, sending her familiars into the city to accomplish arcane tasks. She brings to mind Josef Beuys, who approached art as a magical practice and looked to the animal world as the nexus of creative energy. Commenting on his piece Explaining Pictures to a Dead Hare, Beuys said "There is more creative potential in the very tip of the ear of a dead hare than there is in an entire living human being."

How strange it seems that we here in Portland need to import these ideas from the "legitimate" art world in order to see them as significant. Aren't all the artists here Kiki Smith? Isn't this city the outskirts of American art and culture? The rain-soaked wilds where the witches and sorcerers brew their potions and weave their spells and pass them off as art? Hasn't this always been the same wilderness Sacajawea guided Lewis and Clark through? We are the ones who live with the wolves, who contemplate single stars on the horizon.

What is radical about Kiki Smith is that she unapologetically explores the kitsch of magic and shamanism and the relationship between the body, the spirit, and the animal world. But here in Portland, magical kitsch is our territory, our birthright. We are the liminal forest dwellers. Yet somehow, our local artists cannot seem to explore the territory we completely own with the same un-self conscious brutality employed by Kiki Smith. We apologize for our mysticism with humor, with imagery from cartoons, with the veneer of self-criticizing irony, with caveats designed to attach us to the larger art world. We assert the excellence of craftsmanship to disguise our collective embarrassment over a simple, undeniable fact: All of us living here, we are mystics.

2D from 3D • Contemporary and Historical Drawings by Sculptors • October 6 - November 23, 2005
Elizabeth Leach Gallery • 417 NW 9th Ave • Portland, OR • 97209 • 503•224•0521

Posted by Isaac Peterson on November 11, 2005 at 8:50 | Comments (3)


I think part of it is that the west coast is conscious of its youth as an outpost of civilization.

That said I think Eric Stotic, Tom Cramer, Christine Bourdette, Laura Fritz and James Lavadour have a more than a bit of the mystic in them.... I am not convinced there is a dearth of this here.

In the recent past there was Twin Peaks and very recently Gus Van Sant's Last Days film as well... so the tradition lives in many forms. I do agree, with Rothko, Lynch, Van Sant and some of the artists I just mentioned, the Pacific Northwest does possess a strong claim to the mystic impulse in contemporary US culture of the last 50 years. It goes way beyond Mark Tobey and I think it is why Brooklyn artists who make cheesy forest scenes do not go over here.... We have mountains that blow up and nature really lets us know how even grand majestic things are ephemeral and full of change. Irony for irony's sake seems like a cheap parlor trick by comparison.

As far as Smith goes, I love her work... my early classical music background (& Jimi Hendrix) cured me of any fetish of technique (for technique sake) and I like the subtle distortion, although her sculpture on the whole is a lot better than the drawings. We may deserve the mystic tag but nobody owns it and Smith does great things with the genre.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 11, 2005 10:53 AM

I love Kiki too! I just wanted to make a point that it isn't the quality of the drawing that matters with her, it is her fearlessness! I don't think any region owns an issue to the point of exclusivity, like you can't make anything wild or foresty if you aren't from portland. I just like that she trusts her instincts, is unapologetic for these things. I wish sometimes that Portland artists would stop trying to "legitimize" their activities in the context of the art world at large and just make things that are fully and truthfully what they are meant to be. We should just do our own thing and know that it is going to be strange and new. There should be a meditation for letting go of New York envy. It seems like every young artist I know is aspiring to move East, but it is great to be an artist here! Cheap rent, cool studio spaces, lots of show opportunities for emergers, lots of interest and patronage, it's great to be an artist here!

Posted by: Isaac [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 14, 2005 09:25 PM

Amongst the older young artists in town (age 29-40) that kind of envy doesnt exist so much because they already know New York pretty well (it's natural to think that location is a magic bullet but really it is self knowledge and experience that makes the biggest difference in an artist's work). Of course I know you know all this already, Im just stating it here for public consumption.

A Portlander like Bruce Conkle did his stint in NYNY working for Castelli and work like in his La La Zone Expedition show really did explore myth and the forest in a way that an artist working in New York or LA would have trouble doing without more kitch and slapstick humour... instead Conkle went for dark history, evoking videogames, and a familiar connection to genocide.... similar artists at the recent Greater New York show were too caught up in the quotidian shock of the midieval, and old west to really explore the vernacular they put forth. It is an issue of maturity, yet not losing one's edge.

Conkle made medieval battles current and genocide as close as your playstation. He's also sharing a double bill with David Lynch in Iceland in March.

Both are from the Pacific Northwest but their experience translates broadly.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 14, 2005 10:37 PM

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