"He did not think of himself as a tourist; he was a traveler. The difference is partly one of time, he would explain. Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler, belonging no more to one place than the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another. Indeed, he would have found it difficult to tell, among the many places he had lived, precisely where it was he felt most at home."
Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky
That passage from the Sheltering Sky remains the penultimate dissection of the varied perceptual vortex of travel. It also provides a good deal of insight into Heidi Schwegler's purposefully disconnected solo show The Known World at Chambers 916
. All of which is is poetic because it marks her return to the Pearl District after a long silent period and then a series of uneven non profit exhibitions. I've been watching her closely since she was the star of the 1999 Oregon Biennial (the most influential group show in the Portland Art Scene's history because it also showcased/introduced; Storm Tharp, Kristan Kennedy, Brenden Clenaghen, Tom Cramer, Nan Curtis, Jacqueline Ehlis and Sean Healy).
(FG) This is You, (BG right) Popular Delusion
Before I dive in, it is important to understand that Schwegler's unevenness is part of her way of achieving the flashes of brilliance that this show sparingly brings (and other recent ones by her haven't so much). There's something about her work that isn't comfortable in its own skin and compared to all of the other work in the Pearl District right now that hallucinatory awkwardness feels edgy and honest in a way that is unfortunately rare this month.
In The Known World there is no escape and that's the point. The literal centerpiece of the show is This is You, a vibrating lamb tchotchke (ewe/you pun) that evinces a chuckle partly for its behavior similarities to a sex toy and in a not unrelated kind of solipsistic behavior that tourists seem to traffic in... namely the hurried glance and move to the next thing on that day's list. It's a series of self fulfilling prophecies.
The rest of the show follows the self fulfilling disconnect theme by choking on Schwegler's recent travels to China, Iceland, Argentina and Southern California and it's that weird touristy gag reflex that is interesting. The exhibition dwells in indeterminate kitsch but by doing so reminds me of every touristy moment I've ever experienced because they are so universal and difficult to place. Think of it as Music For Airports
as an art show. It is more than a little dull and yet oddly compelling in a POMO/relational aesthetics kind of way?
It also asks us to tease out her process in a way that most Pearl District shows simply spoon feed us.
For example the first photo titled Distant Relative, depicts a fly and echoes that sense of vulnerability that tourists have while evoking a creature that all travelers inevitably encounter and do not like. All of those who travel become flies on the wall and it also echoes the viewer themselves in the exhibition. The piece shows just how sophisticated Schwegler can be. Yet that illusion of sophistication is only to be dashed by the next piece, Popular Delusion, a handcrafted white birch simulacra of a mattress.
Simulacra of mattresses are perhaps some of the most hackneyed of all postmodern art objects and the title indicates that Schwegler knows it. It's another bad pun on the object, which is a literal illustration of the popular tourist nugget, "it's like sleeping on a board." Adding the "handcrafted" in the image description also gives it an additional wink since Schwegler teaches at the Oregon College of Art and Craft and needlessly calls attention to its origins just to say, yes this is art. It is a double blind that knows it was unnecessary. Still, it is the worst piece of art I've ever seen her make and I get the distinct feeling that was Schwegler's goal.
Other purposefully horrible Gordon Matta Clark ripoff moments like the holes in the drywall homages to Holmes and Rahe
are also emphasize a point... instead of a great show Schwegler is merely shooting for an overall good one with two flashes of brilliance that indicate she can do better if she wanted to. I've already discussed the first piece "This is You" but at this halfway point the balance for the show is in the red (probably scaring anyone who isn't a careful observer away).
still from Sadly Optimistic
But I persevere because I enjoy Schwegler's perverse plot thread here. Which is rewarded by her video Sadly Optimistic (what an appropriate title for this part of the show). It features a series of singular moving objects in a stationary world. There are poetic ribbons flapping in the breeze off a car's side view mirror, a workman working and an oscillating fan, you guessed it oscillating. It is a study in the solipsistic gaze... and of expectations being met and nothing more. But my favorite part is when the scooter/bike/car is driving alongside a long mural with mountains and the camera shakes uncontrollably the whole time, just like the This IS You sculpture. It is a great tie-in even if the video as a stand alone isn't that strong.
Then there is Augenblick, droopy red safety cone enameled with white and shredded. It's glossy whiteness and ready made aspect calls Duchamp's urinal to mind. Augenblick translated from German means in the blink of an eye, which is all the longer these cones stay in our sight on the road. It's a weird tourist's souvenir and another play on the tourist's short attention span.
The Known World No.1
But the real payoff of the show is The Known World No.1. Unlike every other piece in the show I'm not sure what I'm looking at. Is it drapery or a funerary accouterments? It is elegant, mysterious and very finalized. If it were a figure I would say it radiates confidence. It is also rather small, once again reifying the solipsistic sense that we as viewers only know what we know and nothing else, which leads to misreadings. There is a reason the show is titled after this piece and the rest of the show is keyed off it, possibly to make it's presence stronger than it would be otherwise. Sometimes the first "No" tells us as viewers all we need to know about the world.
The last images in the show, The Known World 2-6 and Diasthesis are simply more refuse and unidentifiable places and make me want to leave this show and not play its too cleaver by half game anymore. But I feel that "disconeccted fetish" is its game. By this point the viewer turns to the This is You sculpture one last time and I feel like it's simply shaking its head really fast..... as if to say nnnnnnnnnnnnno. Perhaps one final denial, till I remember that there is another Popular Delusion piece (this one made of concrete and blankets) to navigate. Ah one last popular MFA strategy to reaffirm my feeling that I've just witnessed a good show by a very good artist who makes OK and intentionally horrible art to highlight her most accomplished works and method.
Problem is the best work I've ever seen her do is still from the 1999 Oregon Biennial. Time to up the game and stop gaming the viewer at every turn. Time to stop being a tourist and become a traveler, not that I didn't enjoy most of this effort. It is her best solo show to date.