Portland's art scene is having a very strong month this October (mostly in painting and photography... much of the installation has been undercooked), but of all the shows the one that I keep returning to is Abigail Anne Newbold's installation, Borderlander's Outfitter at PNCA's Feldman Gallery
The exhibition presents itself as a hipsterish quartermaster's gear dispensary or a tool library with an anthropological array of artifacts from a summer survival weekend in the project room. Everything is clothed in fairly recognizable purpose except that everything is a hair off. For example the dome tent on a cot is too narrow for anyone weighing over 90 lbs, there's a whimsical deer hoof tent stake hanger, a sheepskin glove has only 3 finger lobes... perhaps an oven mitt for Trekkies doing the "Live Long and Prosper" sign? ...and the bow and arrow seem less dangerous than a table knife. This gear doesn't seem actually available for use as much as it is suggestive of some extensive outdoor enterprise, which could happen. It's a show inherently about the potential of humans when mobilized. Good idea, but the problem is it is just too cute and adorable for its own good. Though it does make great programmatic sense for an art school beginning its school year. At least the exhibition is installed rather well (a complaint often levied on Museum of Contemporary Craft exhibitions).
Many other artists like Andrea Zittel, Fritz Haeg
, Inigo Manglano-Ovalle and even Ai Wei Wei use familiar design vernaculars to ingratiate themselves with viewers (often in novel environments) but there is something different at work here. Instead of Andrea Zittel's fetish and commentary on modernist design and human efficiency/self reliance... this show exercises itself like some massive millennial Civilian Conservation Corps, recalling the Boy Scouts and numerous other quasi utopian paramilitary wilderness expedition organizations but with a dash of an REI shopping experience thrown in. Thus, its net effect is closer to Jeff Koon's assiduously crafted Pop than Zittell's brutal jet age survivalism (which has cold war era nuclear armageddon lurking somewhere deep underneath its orderly desert dwelling self sufficiency). Instead, this exhibition is delightful and charming by comarison. Newbold's penchant for "delight" isn't a bad thing, but like Koons it means it relies on craft's wow factor and ultimately it seems like an amusing distraction from something deeper and potentially more consequential.
For example, there's pegboard galore festooned with curiously tweaked tools with functions like grabbing, cutting, pounding or cutting... a bit like what the Occupy Movement might require if they were in a logging camp rather than on Wall Steet. Perhaps some could be used as interesting existential money extraction tools? At least the pegboard tools aren't trying as hard to be charming as the rest of the exhibition and I can forgive the nifty holster for a pair of shears where the stitching mimics the device it encloses because that particular tool seems to understand its own potential threat and ability to do work.
Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss in The Hunger Games
I bring all this up because Americans have been recently beset with numerous young adult fictions like the Hunger Games series.... even the resurrection of the X-men mutants as a school scenario in mainstream pop culture. Sure, Borderlander's Outfitter is different of course but somehow Katniss' bow as wielded by Jennifer Lawrence in the movies with a soundtrack by Taylor Swift seems infinitely more potent than Abigail Newbold's archery set.
Other art camp scenarios like Fritz Haeg's various projects or even the local Signal Fire residencies (who contributed to Newbold's survival weekend part of the project) are more experience oriented and less diffused by a charm offensive that this exhibition engages in. Still, I did enjoy the nostalgia it all induced, reminding me of my youth as a scout camp staff councilor but somehow this felt too twee, especially compared to Andrea Zittell, whose work seems to be similarly fashionable but oh so tough in the end. Maybe I'm just being a cynical Gen X-er or it is the fact that Im very experienced outdoors but I think the problem isn't truly generational... it's the way the art world at the middle levels rewards quirky and cute over seriousness. I think Abigail Anne Newbold can do better, though I'm certain the students who took part in the survival weekend got something worthwhile out of it... the exhibition itself feels parochial and light.
Academy for survival
Still, in the end I wonder, was there truly a "survival" weekend or just weekend warriors without the nasty lord of the flies type survival situation? Mostly this exhibition left me with a feeling of a "My Summer Vacation" report given to parents... which perhaps is too similar to many art school's prolonged adolescence? Still, I don't want to dismiss it completely, Newbold has a deft way with altering the meaning of objects, especially tools. Perhaps if there were a more consequential target for her activity to underpin this whole enterprise it wouldn't come off as darling escapism. These are serious times and exhibiting hipster survivalism just doesn't quite step up to the task at hand.
Through October 24th at PNCA's Feldman Gallery