Some complain about the state of "New Portland" but the actual art being produced in the city right now is especially strong. In fact, the current lineup of exhibitions is remarkably sharp and is perhaps being catalyzed the greater pressures of the moment? Certainly artists in Portland have a lot to discuss. As I have traveled in the state and elsewhere I keep coming back to some of my favorites, all of which have a certain dark tinge to them. It is as if contemporary art is telling dark fairy tales we wish weren't but already know to be so true so here is a series of short reviews:
Mark Smith and Maria T.D. Inocencio at Lewis and Clark College
Arguably the strongest and easily the most extensive exhibition in Portland this month is Loss of Material Evidence
by Mark R. Smith and Maria T.D. Inocencio at Lewis and Clark College's Hoffman Gallery. It is a tour de force in material as memory and pattern as personality translated via sustained activity/interaction with family members and other loved ones. This exhibition successfully goes into places where contemporary art often fails, specifically the persistence of the personal and the building of meaning. It doesn't hurt that the two artists themselves constitute a family unit but I also appreciate how they both integrate and separate their individual voices. Perhaps, one can think of this as a memorable Thanksgiving dinner? For myself that what this constitutes, an extensive extended family feast... with all the simmering conflicts and savored time spent in reminiscence.
Overall, the Hoffman Gallery serves up a meal of materials and one collaborative piece Perennial Host even served up fresh apple pies at the opening. That's pretty down home. I'll write a much longer review but this show starts strong with Time Tunnel and builds to two of the most brilliantly expressive works Portland has seen in years. This show deserves to be seen several times and is perfectly timed for the Fall season.
Loss of Material Evidence | September 8 - December 9
Lewis and Clark College
Tabitha Nickolai at Williamson Knight
Tabitha Nikolai has long been one of my favorite Portland artists and after absolutely killing it with a 3d printed version of Caitlyn Jenner's skull festooned with bismuth crystals melted into it for a show I curated called Habitats
. Since then she's been on my very short "A" list of Portland artists. Thus, a solo show has been eagerly awaited, perhaps especially because she specializes in relatively arcane geekcraft and not your run of the mill contemporary art positioning. In fact, she claims to be a "low level cyber mage" but since this exhibition, "Utopia Without You," features her first computer built into an overclockled aquarium her guild standing has risen. The geeks took over a while ago (lets say during the Y2k crisis) and pretty much run everything except traditional government and contemporary art... both of which seem to be run by dinosaurs. To see "Utopia Without You" is to view a present that has gone underground, not to be cool or in but to avoid being absorbed into the vanilla shell reality that most people live in and just doesnt feel like home. In short, it really doesnt care if you get it or seek to connect... its just one asteroid of culture out in the civilization kuiper belt, far beyond the prying eyes of the latest Hollywood sitcom, tweeting narcissists or diet fads.
You see, in general, contemporary art has more mainstream values than geek culture does and the digital worlds Geeks create for themselves online and in their basements reflect it. It's all in code, often literally, and things like; gender hacks, relentless immanent armageddons, infinite resurrections and a love for lots of arcane terminology with a high respawn rate all speaks to a parallel universes that welcome the most enlightened and curious along with the basest of troglodytes (see the resurgence of white power groups). The fact that Tabi's world is dubbed a Utopia by her is a good hint it is meant to be benign... sort of. In the gallery an oversized track ball controller steers a small asteroid or comet-like hunk of rock from the digital oort cloud. The exhibition visitor doesnt so much steer this planetoid as control its rotation to view its surface (and nothing else). One could ask, will it smack into some bigger planet becoming a K+T boundary style extinction level collision? In the back of the gallery the artist has even created a small asteroid of refuse from a hang out den space she invited others to earlier this year. Its delicate.
Apologies if my terminology regarding this is arcane, as if its all some fanboy machine language to the contemporary art crowd? I too am an old schuul geek and we have inherited the earth. I may be first edition monster manual platinum dragon old but I can see that Tabitha has something important going on here and the idea is perhaps that the refuse of reality can become an icon of new possibilities? Eh ok. Utopias are rooted dystopias and both are conceits that ask to be tested and visiting this show is to become a playtester. What Nikolai has done is an important first step for Portland's Pearl District galleries by showing at Williamson Knight. In general I think this is something too cutting edge for the likes of the Whitney Biennial but I'd really like to see where she goes with this? There is a Frankenstein aspect to all this sampled detritus and projection (like the warrior woman figurine riding atop a battle beetle) with a little plastic castle in the background for you Ani DiFranco fans. It's projection to be sure but its real enough to consider. Does it translate to others? It can and does but the art world hasnt fully wrapped its second rate scuttlebutt around it yet and it isnt a big deal as a market yet (that's coming). I think that with a bigger material budget and a large venue with the opportunity to publish an essay I think Tabitha could do more than rock the contemporary art world... that's simply aiming too low. I want to see what she does next and this is an interesting trial run at the mainstream art world.
Utopia Without You | September 6 - October 13
Works by Mickalene Thomas, Julie Mehretu, Ririrkrit Tiravanija and many others at HFMA
Witness: Themes of Social Justice in Contemporary Printmaking at the Hallie Ford Museum in Salem could not be a more timely and relevant subject. The show begins eponymously with a tiny but poignant Maire Watt print Witness (Quamichan Potlach, 1913)
, then opens into a catalogue exploring a seemingly endless look at what makes individual passions and histories relevant. Highlights include a Martin Puryear book, Cane
, Hung Liu, Nicola Lopez, Wendy Red Star, Roger Shimomura, Kara Walker...even a room featuring Mickalene Thomas
, Julie Mehretu and Ririrkrit Tiravanija and so many others that it is hard not to find something that resonates. My personal fave by Enrique Chagoya called Histoire Naturelle des Espécies: Illegal Alien's Manuscript
" is actually in the lobby and couldnt be more cutting with its intense sardonic bitedown on the meat of the moment. All of the works come from the collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation (a PORT sponsor) but dont be cynical... caring about the individual histories and understanding how they matter IS crucial to the fabric of American life.
Nobody's ancestors give them a right to be heard above one another and the great thing about Art is it can present the personal in a way that goes beyond race, demographics and every other term that is used to divide because art comes from individuals not some faceless group or agenda. Instead, art translates experience and shares it equally, without judgement... even if the artists themselves could not do the same. Justice has to be blind? If so, art can be seen but it is blind too.
Go see it, its right down the street from the state capitol.
Witness: Themes of Social Justice in Contemporary Printmaking and Photography | September 15 - December 21
Reception Lecture: September 29 | 5-6PM
Hallie Ford Museum of Art
Bruce Conkle at PCC Sylvania
Bruce Conkle's latest show, It's Always Dusty Because Everything is Falling Apart
may be simultaneously the darkest and lightest hearted show he's ever done. It is spare, yet with more skeletons per square foot of work than usual but its eerie vanitas subject matter really holds sway... like a Spring tire sale that unexpectedly sells only bones and memories. The sense of entropy is palpable and at the same time funny... much like the grave scene in Hamlet. We follow Bruce closely
and this show is one of his best but enigmatic offerings.
It's Always Dusty Because Everything is Falling Apart | September 7 - 27
Closing Reception: September 27 2-4PM
Fernanda D'Agostino at Open Signal
Perhaps no art institution is more in touch with the pulse of culture in Portland than Open Signal is and Fernanda D'Agostino's Mapping (Borderline) is a very successful example of why. The space isn't some pristine otherland... it is a studio building where multiple mapped projections of disasters (both human and natural) and surveillance overlay upon office blinds and staff signage. The feeling is one of media as a work environment. One where the weather is whipped up into a frenzy while graceful moves by dancers Jaleesa Johnston and Sophia Wright Emigh also give a sense that humanity perpetuates itself and these disasters alike. We simply dont have enough multimedia show like this, which are tailored to unique spaces and inhabit the contours of space and psyche. You have a few days to get in touch with this excellent and timely show.
Mapping (Borderline)| September 5 - 29
2766 NE Martin Luther King, Jr Blvd
Samantha Wall at Russo Lee Gallery.
I've watched Samantha Wall for well over a decade and though her popularity rises, deservedly... I can never quite shake the feeling that the very best work she ever did was her edgier MFA work. I've missed that prickly energy, which gets absorbed in making lovely work in ugly times. In some ways her most ambitious and latest solo show, Phantom Limbs
, addresses the disconnect with large space filling installation of ghostly appendages. Ok, pretty easy metaphor... people are being separated from life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness because of their skin but what I like is how it doesnt sit comfortably on a wall (or the psyche). That said, the other works dont seem like as strong a direction. They use gold along with the black ink and unlike the gold in say a Gustav Klimt, where it acts as a kind of antagonist to the figure... here it acts as attention getting ornamentation, distracting from other surfaces. Phantom Limbs is strongest when its only accoutrement is the edge it was born with. The other regalia needs to be applied in a stronger way so it doesnt dull that edge. I think Wall is best when she makes the viewer somewhat uncomfortable and this her largest work does that. All that said it is a powerful show full of anonymous human yearning and a rare presentation of 2d work in 3d.
Phantom Limbs | September 6 -29
Russo Lee Gallery
Marcelo Fontana at Arbor Lodge
One of the things that really makes Portland's large art scene work is the way coffee shops can sometimes put on very high quality shows. Add the Arbor Lodge in North Portland to that list. They have started a new series called Wave and the first artist, Marcelo Fontana, from Brazil is a very promising opening move. The works utilize black in sensuous ways and the surfaces have a lived in quality that turns the black painted areas into deep pools of texture to dive into... like lint traps for dark matter. Based in Portland but hailing from afar I want to see more of Fontana's work and wish I had more information? That said the adventure of walking into a cafe and seeing something that is pretty good is just the sort of adventure of discovery that real art scenes are built on
1507 N Rosa Parks Way