TROUBLE IN MIND
(floor) (all photos Jeff Jahn)
With all the attention on mass movements, the toppling of tyrants and an ultra polarized political climate in Congress it reminds me why I ultimately trust art more than people. Somehow art shrinks the world, giving greater freedom and agency to the individual's existential plight and perceptions (though it ultimately takes freedom to make art possible). Perhaps no exhibition in Portland illustrates that dynamic better than Philip Iosca's lastest show, "Hopefully I Become the Universe,"
at PNCA's often influential Manuel Izquierdo Gallery.
The show is powerful, restrained and ultimately heartbreaking through how it respectfully poses tough but poetic questions about bullying and suicide (perhaps the most loaded of existential decisions) by creating a series of open ended memorials for a handful of young men under extreme pressure. Individually, these young gay men decided to end it all in a string of deaths last year that shocked the nation. One year later, Philip Iosca noticed how these victims had begun to fade from the 15 minute news cycle and the national consciousness and just couldn't stop thinking about them.
The resulting effort is probably the most emotionally moving visual art exhibition I've encountered since moving to Portland 11+ years ago. I've never seen anyone tear up at an art show, like I observed at the opening on First Thursday, but that is an indication of the strength of this show. It is truly beautiful, very well considered and deeply sad memento mori.
HOPEFULLY I BECOME THE UNIVERSE
The show's title piece greets us with some of the last words of one of these young men, HOPEFULLY I BECOME THE UNIVERSE
, in appropriate white neon on a black background. Considering the fact that Americans hardly ever discuss death (contemporary art being no exception) this piece sets the correct poetic but melancholy mood.
True, neon is a contemporary art staple for famous artists like Joseph Kosuth and the more diaristic Tracey Emin but Iosca adds something to Emin's existential expletives by turning this into a memorial where flowers are left for the departed. It isn't just art or a memorial... it exists as both and therefore it's success depends a great deal on the rest of the show. Iosca is considered one of the most talented designers in Portland (former cultural engineer for the Ace Hotel, etc.) and the complete installation of his art here shows just how he's grown to be just as good, or perhaps even better fine artist.
Youtube videos by Jamey Rodemeyer
Next viewers encounter a video monitor playing 3 videos of 14 year old Jamey Rodemayer who passed away just last month. In the videos he discusses his faith in things getting better, how anti gay bullying wont define him and how he is inspired by Lady Gaga's lyrics as a kind of mantra of strength. Ultimately he cracked under the additional pressure of becoming an internet spokesperson at such a young age. Once again these 3 videos wouldn't work if every other aspect of the show werent incredibly poetic and respectful. They bring an air of sad personal urgency here and in the case of the videos, they bring the desperate plight of being different and isolated home.
Which brings us to the main room of the exhibition. It features 8 prints titled after the Billie Holiday song, "Trouble in Mind." Each fleshtoned print denotes a different young man whose color is determined through the date of their death being translated into CMYK code (Month Day Century Year). Each print is framed in simple raw pine, subtly referencing coffins (making this a wake). Each piece is impeccably installed and this reverence pulls the project through. It both evokes the person but abstracts them as they "become the universe." Every so often someone gets on a soapbox and states how impersonal abstraction is, but this show provides an unbeatable riposte. Sometimes abstraction becomes the only bridge between the personal and the sublime, beauty and sadness.
(FG) TROUBLE IN MIND
The last piece, a stack of Norman Mailers's Marylin Monroe books is where Iosca pulls it all together. Titled, M.M. The stack is the height of the famed actress, who also supposedly committed suicide. Was it the public pressure, or was she killed by outside forces? These are pregnant questions when applied ton these young men. The question doesn't diminish the fact that she was fabulous and her influence has only increased with time. It's sad the same hasn't held true for the other subjects of this show as much as they should be. Nobody should be pressured into killing themselves simlpy because they are gay or different in any other way.
Overall, it is the way all of the elements of the the show constantly shift the discussion from tragedy to respect that makes it so uniquely successful.
I particularly like how the objecthood of the books imply physical stature and the way the name and image of Monroe's face on the cover is simply bigger than life. Perhaps that is what Iosca is trying to achieve here, an attempt to redirect the facts of these similarly tragic deaths into something other than a series of forgotten stories and thereby achieve that somewhat higher goal, of "becoming the universe" or a sublime memento mori?
It is an extremely powerful show, both sad and beautiful, completely unlike anything I have experienced in Portland before. It's a heartbreaker but this show gives the young men some of the dignity the bullies denied them in life.
PNCA, Manuel Izquierdo Gallery
Oct 6, 2011 – Oct 27, 2011
1302 NW Kearney St (ring the buzzer for entry)
Portland, OR, 97209