Patrick Collier


“The Nature of Things”: Go with the flow

Sarah Knobel and Melanie Flood consider the "natural" world at Newspace Center for Photography

The first thing that popped into my head when I saw the title of this exhibit was “On the Nature of Things,” written by the Epicurean poet, Lucretius, in about 50 BCE. Drop the preposition at the beginning of the title, and I am then reminded of the long-standing and still-running Canadian Broadcasting Company television series hosted by David Suzuki. The former is an exegesis on Epicurus’ physics and the finite soul; the latter is soft science about how the natural world (humans included) manages to survive.

It was immediately apparent upon entering Newspace’s gallery that science has little place in this exhibit, and instead what is very much in evidence is the equally complex and perhaps more mysterious emotional nature of our being. As I let go of any theme based on the above two references, even the overall title for the exhibit faded away, for these two bodies of works each have their own, separate titles. Sarah Knobel’s photographs are from her “Icescape” series, and Melanie Flood’s are each listed, albeit parenthetically, with the title “Suggested Experiences.”

Although each artist’s photography is studio-based and uses color for effect, and both bodies of work share a thingy/found-object quality in content, Flood and Knobel work toward different ends. Knobel has taken an assortment of items (hair, feathers, moss and lichen, aquarium gravel, balloons and weed wacker plastic string), immersed them in water (sometimes colored), and frozen them into somewhat geometric shapes. She then photographs the objects as they melt and begin to dismantle, and an ecological subtext emerges. Flood takes a rather different approach to arranging the objects she uses in her images. An inflatable toy, craft and party supplies, and even cotton candy all provide a sense of play and humor to the work. These are both, of course, cursory reads, and while one may still find the photos rewarding on this level alone, both artists provide more to ponder.

"Icescape - 11" Sarah Knobel

“Icescape – 11” Sarah Knobel

If there is an ecological component to Sarah Knobel’s photos, it has a decided melancholy tone. Against their white backgrounds and despite the bits of bright colors contrasted against earthtones, the items in the forms seem a bit grimy, and the melted ice, oily. I am reminded of winters in Chicago where snow would be plowed into huge white mounds, and as those artificial drifts melted away, they turned into gray piles of mush and garbage. Gutters would flow with this effluence and refuse. Another freeze would come and the litter would be encased in “icescapes.” Not nearly so picturesque as Knobel’s images are and resistant to memorialization, yet the effect and even the end are similar.

Knobel reconfigures her initial gathering of items, all of which could easily have been found on the ground or in the trash somewhere and therefore were already displaced, into a form. This is a process: accumulating materials, fixing those materials into a solid (congealed, if you will) object, leaving them to chance (as much as the ambient temperature of the studio lights dictate), only to become more distributed like they all once were yet still together, and somewhere along the way there is a decision to make a photograph. Something is made, then allowed to become unmade, only to become something else as a documentation of remnants in a “state.”

I presume that Knobel takes several photos of each object over a period of time as each object melts apart, and so the choice of one print to represent each “icescape” must become paramount. Even so, I cannot detect a specific strategy. Some seem to have all but completely melted though components somehow remain attached to each other; others seem to be almost fresh from the freezer. One of the latter, “Icescape – 7,” is perhaps my favorite, not because of its solid state, but for the way the whiteness of the ice partially blends into the white background, reinforcing its ephemeral nature in a completely different way.

"Icescape - 7" Sarah Knobel

“Icescape – 7” Sarah Knobel

Can the breakdown that happens in these objects be seen as a metaphor for entropy? Perhaps, except for the emotional component that comes through the materiality in the images. The frozen masses seems precious, something we might “cling to” were they not so cold to the touch, and maybe even painful if we were to hold them for any period of time. Instead, as Knobel freeze-frames a moment, she suggests we contemplate demise. A melancholy arises like a beautiful memory that also accepts of a certain fatalism.


Memory seems to play a role in Melanie Flood’s photos as well, yet, like Knobel, it is not as simple as a look into the past. In Newspace’s press release, Flood says she is exploring “the passage of time with questions around cultural notions of youth and aging.” There is certainly room for melancholy in such a quest, yet I would not necessarily know that looking at her photos.

In fact, Flood’s photographs, if observed as one might typically approach a series, are first and foremost a bit perplexing. There is a definite feeling of whimsy; but then again, the flip side of whimsy is frenzy.

"Untitled (Rainbow Spandex) Melanie Flood

“Untitled (Rainbow Spandex) Melanie Flood

I will admit to being a little confounded by the images of fabric. They run counter to the other photos (themselves divisible into a couple other categories as images), that is, unless I look more closely at the content in each photo and then begin to draw lines between all of the images. Containers of glitter form the base for a tower that looks as if it is about to fall in “Untitled (Tada!).” This glitter may have been used to create the surface in “Untilted (Glitter Line),” so establishing some syntax for it and the other photos of fabric. Using this same formula, other associations between photos begin to be made. One of the balloons in “(Tada!)” may have been used in “Untitled (Squeaking Balloon).” That particular balloon is lit in such a way that it seems to have two glowing eyes, turning it into a head. We can then approach the two enigmatic self portraits (especially the blurred one) as equal parts in the overall series’ parenthetical title, “Suggested Experiences.”

Why depend upon such a structural approach as a viewer? We are coached in that direction, for otherwise, how else to construct a narrative for ourselves? Then again, is the narrative necessary?

Think of it this way: There are utensils in the silverware drawer you will need in order to eat dinner. Nevermind the food. (Why? Just do and bear with me.) After eating, the plates, knives, forks and spoons are put in the sink, washed, dried (then a little TV viewing) and put away until the next time they are needed. Well and fine. Yet, feet, hands, eyes, mouth and who knows what other aspect of one’s physical self were involved in the procedures. And so was water, a floor to walk across and the aforementioned drawer. Yes, the drawer that squeaks. Oh, and the sun was shining while doing the dishes; birds were at the feeder outside of the window; and your spouse left in the car (that needs gas), and although he didn’t say where he was going, everything seemed fine at dinner. Little Joey didn’t eat all of his dinner and is now upstairs doing his math homework in red ink because he broke his pencil. This will inadvertently affect the boy’s grade because his math teacher moonlights as an bookkeeper.

And on and on and in myriad directions until you get old and die. But before that end, there’s no reason to go through life semi-comatose, plus, there’s all of those memories. Maybe you will get to a place where you can rest easy in the knowledge that “it is what it is,” plus, there is much more you don’t know and things you’ll miss entirely, and that’s okay.

"Untitled (India Airplane)" Melanie Flood

“Untitled (India Airplane)” Melanie Flood

In the case of Flood’s “Suggested Experiences,” one might develop a similar scenario around a child’s party. Some of the images may not make a lot of sense or be as engaging as others unless this effort is made. But that’s not necessarily bad. The best thing about Flood’s photographs is that they further erode the conceit, relativization or absurdity that photography is somehow a purposely empirical art form. And this is, if I may, good enough reason for Flood to make the photographs, for they duck our expectations.

That said, both Knobel’s and Flood’s work heavily depend upon metaphor. The things they have photographed are stand-ins that move along an order/disorder continuum. And in that both bodies of work are studio-based, it is perhaps not surprising both reference other visual art forms. Knobel’s work is very sculptural, and for Flood, we are reminded of performance, installation, and even painting. While not new, this way of working continues to stand in strong contrast to more traditional —pervasive— photographic practices. To the consternation of some, one might even suggest that the fact these artworks are photographs is secondary to what the artists wish to express.


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On the forced closing of Place Gallery

Or: How can you be in two places at once when you're nowhere at all?

Four years ago, Pioneer Place Mall did a very groovy “Portland” thing by beginning to provide and subsidize some of the empty spaces on the third floor of its Atrium Building to people and organizations wishing to open art galleries. Last month, the owners of the mall, General Growth Properties (GGP) rescinded that agreement with, Place, the first gallery that took them up on their offer way back when. Seems there was bad blood.

Oregon ArtsWatch’s Barry Johnson wrote about the closing shortly after Place Director, Gabe Flores, made it public on the gallery’s website. Since then, other arts writers have weighed in on this abrupt end to the gallery’s lease agreement, including Alison Hallett for The Mercury, Richard Speer for Willamette Week, and Jeff Jahn on his site, There was also a short segment on the local FOX affiliate, KPTV.

An appropriate sentiment/Gabe Flores

An appropriate sentiment/Gabe Flores

I won’t go into all of the details of the dispute between the building’s management and Flores (that’s what the links are for) ), but it seems to stem from the content of the art from the final show in the White Gallery portion of Place’s two spaces, and then Flores’ response to the objections by the powers-that-be. It’s worth a read. (link) Flores adds that the reason given for his eviction was that GPP had found a tenant to pay full rent for the space (Place was only responsible for paying utilities), yet he remains convinced that this was nothing less than a bum’s rush. The only response from GPP that I know of (GPP evidently did not respond to requests for a statement for any of the above listed articles) is a rather cursory and noncommittal written statement given to KPTV: “We do not publicly discuss tenant lease agreements, but please know Pioneer Place is very much a fan and in support of the arts,” GGP General Manager Bob Buchanan’s statement read. “Our goal is to create a unique and enjoyable shopping experience for all our customers.”

Before I get too deep into this opinion piece, I should disclose that I had an exhibit of my own work at Place last year. I have also written about the gallery on a couple of occasions, for both and Oregon ArtsWatch. (One review was less than glowing.) I have had many conversations with Flores over the years and have grown to admire his fertile mind and enthusiasm for the local art community, even though sometimes both can get the better of him. Sometimes it is hard to keep up with his torrent of ideas, and his desire for inclusiveness has resulted in more than a few half-baked exhibitions (more often than not due to the presenting artist). The first couple of years of programming did not give me much hope for his ambitious little start-up, yet Flores and the gallery persevered, and the programming gradually improved.


About this time every year our neighbor calls to gently complain about the noise coming from our pond at night. The frogs, in their throes of passion, disturb his sleep. Curious. The frogs have the opposite effect on me. They lull me to sleep, the perfect white noise machine. Yet, every once in a while, because of some kind of full agreement I don’t understand or out of caution, they’ll stop chirping. And in these quiet moments, if there’s any wind at all, I can hear that same neighbor’s numerous wind chimes.

Before visiting “The International Invitational Triennial of Contemporary Wind Chimes” at Rocksbox Contemporary Fine Art last week, I anticipated I would find myself in some sort of calamitous cacophony (sorry) of sound. Instead, in the absence of a breeze, it was only visually so.

Sixty pieces of art are scattered about the two levels and stairwell of the gallery. Most are hung on a continuous line of parachute cord latticed and woven a foot or so from the ceiling, sometimes lower. This in itself makes it rather hard to navigate some parts of the show; other times difficulty in passage is more a matter of the proximity of one piece of art to another or several pieces blocking one’s way. There is little if any perceptible wind in the space, yet manual manipulation is allowed if one wants to hear any “chiming.” Some pieces I was not inclined to touch at all, such as Gary Robbin’s chime, “Ding Dong,” which consists of a collection of black dildos.

True to the “no holds barred” approach to curation we have come to expect from the gallery’s director, Patrick Rock, the overall tenor of this exhibit is raucous, yet also imaginative and smart. Truly international, there are artists from Canada, Austria, England, France and Iceland, although the majority of artists hail from the West Coast. The chimes are organized into several categories: “Conceptual Assholes” is in a room upstairs; “Witchcraft” fills the hallway upstairs; “Show me the Money” is laid out in the stairwell; wandering the first floor space will take the visitor through “Sausage Party” (where “Ding Dong” is front and center), “Bad Habits,” “No, It’s Cool, You Can Trust me, I Am a Feminist…” and “Dirty Smelly Hippy Types.” Equally distinct is the success some pieces have over others in inventiveness and/or construction.


Disjecta’s third go at a biennial, Portland2014

Not all that new is not all that bad.

The Portland2014 biennial is in full swing. Headquartered at Disjecta, and dispersed throughout the city in other galleries and on the streets, this third iteration distances itself from previous ones with the intervention of a curator from outside the region. Amanda Hunt is based in Los Angeles and selected 15 artists from 300-plus applicants.

The artists who emerged are not entirely a PDX who’s-who (nor are all from Portland proper) but they come close: Most of the names are very familiar in the visual art community. Although some may level the criticism of “same-ol’ same-ol’” or even suggest a degree of cliquish nepotism, outside eyes made the selection this year. In fact Hunt’s selections may force critics of the biennial to consider the possibility that these artists might fit into another, larger context, one neither regional nor the product of a personality cult. Instead, we are afforded a look at how these artists have chosen to represent the progression of their art making for this special occasion.

This does not mean I didn’t hope for a few surprises.


As the title suggests, John Brodie’s exhibit, “Versus Artifacts” at Linfield Gallery in McMinnville, presents a challenge to the viewer, a call to decipher what may be contrary/adversarial within this elegant display.

The gallery itself is a well-lit, big cube with generous wall space. A white couch, white coffee table and white stool, all arranged on a large oriental-style rug, sit at the back and remind me of a very modern living space one might see in an “Architectural Digest” spread. I could imagine a pleasant fundraiser being held here, or keeping with the likeness to a private residence, a cocktail party where I would find myself out of my league. All because of the very white furniture.

In fact, the furniture arrangement was listed as “The Lounge,” and while the couch, stool and rug were the real objects, the table was a fabrication by Brodie. Had things been different, I might have then asked, “Now, who’s out of place?”

Placement plays a big part in this show. It creates a syntax that exists within and between pieces. The vocabulary is fairly restricted in the repetition of materials and motifs, but there is a certain generosity toward the viewer in this, meaning I was able to develop a story Brodie might be trying to tell us.


Getting to know you: Whiting Tennis at Hallie Ford Museum of Art

And a little extra for the sake of contrast

It is sometimes difficult to look at a particular artist’s exhibition and not have a cascade of forerunners’ names wash through one’s mind. Of course, whether readily perceptible or not, every artist has been influenced by someone who came before; likewise, a viewer’s appreciation of said art may rely on and benefit from a knowledge of that art history. Yet, much like this writer trafficking in the comfort of truisms, that influence resonates louder and longer in the work of some artists than it does in others.

The Whiting Tennis exhibit, “My Side of the Mountain,” is at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem through March 23. The title for the show comes from Jean Craighead George’s book of the same name. The book tells the tale of a young man who leaves his city home at a young age to make a new life for himself on some family acreage, where he proceeds to make a living off the land. Written for a young audience, it comes from a time when this country was still making the dramatic shift from a largely agrarian to urban society, and the skills the main character develops to survive were becoming lost to the larger culture.

When Jenni Sorkin reviewed Tennis’s 2008 exhibit at Derek Eller Gallery in New York, she made mention of this book. I also find some comfort that Tennis’ work reminded Sorkin of the artist David Smith’s work. But Tennis’s drawings, paintings, and in some instances, his collages at Hallie Ford brought Smith to mind for me, not his sculpture. Then again, it wasn’t just echoes of Smith; a whole generation of artists sprung to mind, from Picasso to Smith and even the Northwest’s very own Louis Bunce. Nor would I be too far out of line to suggest that Tennis’s sculpture echo some work by his contemporary, Cris Bruch, or owe a debt to the likes of Martin Puryear, but only in Bruch’s and Puryear’s more architectural pieces.


Year-end indulgence

This arts writer’s version of a sculptor’s requisite bed piece

I have a number of reasons I don’t like to do year-end reviews or best-ofs; or rather, I have written them in the past, shouldn’t have, and would avoid doing so if I could kick the overriding need to reflect and make an accounting that comes with December.

The Art Center in Corvallis

The Arts Center in Corvallis

First of all, my art viewing, like my arts writing, is a some time thing, which makes me considerably less than an authority. I’m mostly a stay-at-home guy who hangs out in my low-residency (formerly referred to as my dungeon) basement working on other projects and occasionally scanning Facebook for updates from other artists, writers and friends in general. That said, I guess I do look at a lot of art because I follow links. (I suppose if I was a serious info junkie I’d hang out on Twitter instead, but social media = social contract and who has the time?) What I don’t do often, but should, is make the trip to larger cities within fifteen to seventy miles of my home to look. I know I’m missing a lot of worthy, non-virtual exhibits. For instance, there’s always Ditch Projects in Springfield, and Disjecta has considerably improved their programming over the years, as has Corvallis’ The Arts Center. I do regret not getting to these and many other venues more frequently.

Secondly, I want to find it prudent to avoid superlatives, which a summary “grading” of the previous year’s events surely implies. While this may make me a poor (reluctant) critic, admittedly, I have my favorite artists and have opinions about what galleries show consistently good work or are not afraid to push the envelope, but there’s this little voice in my head that asks “Who am I to make such pronouncements?” (See above paragraph.) It has the faint odor of boosterism, self or otherwise, which oddly enough becomes exclusionary. (As my mother says, “Don’t interrupt your work if it speaks for itself.”) To my mind this can quickly become the drugged teat from which malcontents suckle their spew. I’ve seen it happen. The hunger. The horror. The hunger.


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