Antarctica Photograph by Michelle Ott
Part of what makes Portland such a vibrant art city is the massive # of venues, which isn't hurt by its massive # of cafe's and coffee houses. As public meeting places and zones of bohemian elan
they are big part of why Portland is more European and civic minded than other US cities. It also gives artists a way to develop in public in a way that MFA programs cannot. Both have their place but there is something about the harsh indifference and poor viewing circumstances in cafes that is more than just some cliched romantic notion.
This month, North+South, a duo show by Gretchen Vaudt and Michelle Ott at the Albina Press (AKA the best coffee on the West Coast) really illustrates how cafe's although often painfully uneven, can outshine more dedicated spaces if allowances are made. As a nice twist both photographers present visions of isolation and open space, the one thing one doesn't get much of at a super busy coffee house.
Michelle Ott's photographs of Antarctica are austere in a fugitive, ghostly way. The various manmade objects in the pictures have been removed and replaced with a white void. For example, the encampment at the base of the active volcano Mt. Erebus seem tenacious, almost vain, in a typically human way that ignores the fact that the immediate landscape wont support them. The encampment is shown as a ghost town already. One could ask, why are there people here at all? Certainly, there are reasons like scientific study, but Ott's photos don't really document science, they document a presence of volumes and it's inherent impermanence. It's like Ahab beholding "the whiteness of the whale
," man is simply outclassed and left scrambling to define what is overpowering in its tacit force.
Many of the photos are presented on light boxes and this gives the photos a pale yellowish glow and the desaturated nature of the work lends an air of nostalgia and possibly tragedy to the scene, not unlike like a bunch of old national geographic. This desaturation might be a cheap ploy and it is rather hurt by the busy space but in a gallery setting it might really shine if refined.
Yes, there are some technical problems to be sure, some light boxes are scuffed and the prints aren't always pristine but I think this work deserves to be fleshed out with a larger solo show at a more dedicated venue anyway. There are tens of thousands of good photographers who deal in desolation; can Ott focus on a solo show that argues why she deserves to move out of the cafe?
Panorama of a lake in Bouandary Waters, Minnesota by Gretchen Vaudt
Gretchen Vaudt is also a nostalgic photographer. In fact, her work appeals to me because its subject matter goes back to my Boy Scout days when canoe trips in the "Boundary Waters" of Minnesota was a big deal. Here a sense of serenity replaces the foreboding that was found in Ott's work but without big light boxes framing the work the hang seems scattered. The work is good but lacks something that Ott has. Actually, in Vaudt's earlier shows a wry Ozymandian sensibility gave the work more teeth. This is more subtle and gets eaten alive by the cafe, that said I was left with a certain longing for a canoe, a bunch of trail mix and a paddle. There is something incredibly soothing about non-motorized watercraft, it provides a quiet reflective space that can't be beat, not even by a long drive down I-5 through the San Fernando Valley. Seek this show out.
Through August 31st, The Albina Press, 4627 N. Albina Ave.