Portland artists create space for galleries

Portland artists fight the rental crunch with Williamson Knight, Chicken Coop Contemporary and Grapefruit Juice

The changes in Portland’s population, zoning, and real estate have rippled through every aspect of our local culture. There’s more to come for sure, but as the dust settles on our nation-leading rental increases the arts community has been finding new places and new methods to carve out a space for their projects and their people. What follows is a brief overview of three of the more interesting spaces to emerge in the past year.

Chicken Coop Contemporary

As the name might suggest, Chicken Coop Contemporary is housed in a spacious, white chicken coop that stands next to the studio of painter Srijon Chowdhury in his backyard in deep Southeast Portland. An accomplished artist, Chowdhury splits his time between Portland and Los Angeles. In the tradition of apartment galleries and can-we-fit-a-gallery-here galleries, Chowdhury used the space he has as an opportunity to engage the sometimes-diffuse art community of Portland, and as a place to have a dialogue with some of the artists he’s interested in. As his show at Upfor last year proves, he’s able to bring the rich and considered touch he shows in his paintings to curation and collaboration as well.

The Chicken Coop Contemporary stands next to the studio of painter Srijon Chowdhury in Southeast Portland.

Most of the shows so far have featured small, intense paintings such as the haunting work of Dustin Metz, but the last two shows have included multimedia and site-specific work. The current show directly addresses the venue with text and sculptural pieces reflecting on the lives and ways of chickens and other animals. “Collection Sites by Jesse Stecklow draws on writing about livestock handling, including the work of Temple Grandin, to focus consideration on the lives of the gallery residents—the chickens.

As the Instagram account points out, the chickens that do indeed live in this coop are separated from the gallery space by chicken wire, so they don’t actually attend the openings. While it’s easy to write off the idea as the sort of thing tourists would call “straight out of Portlandia,” Chowdhury and his guest curators have put some real thought into the curation, and the work feels at home in the space. It’s neither a distraction nor a novelty to consider the pieces while standing in a chicken coop. The space itself is nearly the size of some of the smaller downtown galleries, and the whitewashed walls and barn-like stature of the coop have a charming, American-gothic feel to them. As the last two shows have shown, the constraints of curating in a chicken coop can provide a surprising amount of creative inspiration, a standout being the papier mache hammer by Jon Haddock. There’s a pleasant sense of discovery in experiencing how the selections can fit the sensation of stepping into this quiet, hay-lined space.

Williamson Knight Gallery

Williamson Knight has taken over the Pearl District space formerly occupied by Hap Gallery with ambitions to bring radical and marginalized voices to one of the city’s most monied neighborhoods. Co-director Iris Williamson became a significant part of the operations at Hap during its successful run, and when owner Judy Jacobson wanted to retire the gallery, she offered to subsidize the space for Williamson and John Knight’s vision. Even with help, running a Pearl district gallery without funds on hand isn’t economically feasible. So they’ve designed an equitable model of distributed ownership that puts the artists first. This dovetails with their curatorial vision to provide a platform to voices and radical themes that are rarely seen in their neighboring galleries.

Their hope is to provide space to artists they consider politically and socially relevant while creating a platform for social and economic capital when needed. The 2017 curatorial program includes exhibitions and projects by: angélica maria millán lozano & Laura Medina (also known as rolas in pdx), Sheida Soleimani, Alisa Bones, Don’t Shoot Portland, Derek Franklin, Raque Ford, Dru Donovan, and Hayley Barker.

Sheida Soleimani’s installation at Williamson Knight Gallery

The inaugural show, Social Learning Theory by Sheida Soleimani, was one of the more visually and conceptually complex shows of the year. The small gallery was dominated by large, blobby fabric sculptures and complex photographs of similar sculptures in constructed spaces. These used a variety of visual techniques to thoroughly confuse the spatial reading of what was being photographed. That complexity and their vivid colors led many viewers to assume the images were photoshopped rather than constructed entirely by hand. Similarly, there’s an engineered confusion to the reading of the goofy, colorful fabric sculptures. Once you understand that the images that are digitally printed on the fabric are some of the only extant images of Arabic women imprisoned, tortured and executed for political or religious views, the cognitive dissonance becomes an important, disquieting feature of the show. The material is quite heavy, and you’re compelled to look deeper.

In addition to their ambitious and intense roster of shows for 2017, W|K hopes to test their business structure in the real world this year. They’re developing a stockholder model that will allow anyone to buy dividend-paying shares in the gallery, the proceeds of which will all go directly into the day-to-day operations of the gallery and support the artist-centric business model. Contact the gallery if you’re interested in becoming a shareholder.

Grapefruit Juice

Grapefruit Juice is a nonprofit founded by Martha Daghlian with the intention of providing greater access to the contemporary art world for artists and audiences and a space for alternative education opportunities in the arts. Daghlian looked at the things provided by an expensive arts education – a creative network, skill-sharing, and critical reflection – and rose to the challenge to create alternative methods of providing these services that can be welcoming to people, like herself, without the income or free time to seek an arts degree. She envisioned “an art gallery where people are in there enjoying themselves, not one [that felt] just like a mausoleum.” The space, simply named “Grapefruits”,  takes its name “not only from a healthy and refreshing beverage, but also from Yoko Ono’s seminal art book, Grapefruit, which is full of accessible mental or practical assignments or questions of conceptual art.

Daghlian formed Grapefruit Juice in January of 2017 with her sister Libby Daghlian as president, Dennis Kaduru as vice president, treasurer Andrew McIntyre, and secretary Kirstin Johansson, after a lucky find of an available, affordable venue in St. Johns behind the Annares Infoshop. In that time they’ve curated two popular group shows and held many community events. One of show transformed the space with an immersive wall painting by Annie McLaughlin, who just closed a successful painting show at Nationale that managed to be both rough but delicate and warm but vivid.

Annie McLaughlin’s installation at Grapefruit Juice.

As part of their mission to open up access to contemporary art, they’ve published the Artist Resource Guide Book, which includes a list of local galleries with submission guidelines, and a guide to residencies and grants. They board made conscious decision to publish it as a physical zine, in the hopes that it will be a practical, used guidebook for those hoping to break into the art world.

Perhaps the greatest success that Grapefruits has had at opening up access to the arts has been its role in catalyzing the development of Freeschool PDX. Daghlian ran into Ruby Brown, one of founders of Freeschool, as Grapefruits was getting off the ground, and suggested that Brown simply start on her plans to run free community workshops and classes. Brown, with cofounder Emily Bedell, went on to make Freeschool PDX a reality within a month of that suggestion. Since then, they’ve hosted a variety of successful classes including car maintenance, botany, making ‘zines, and a popular watercolor class by local artist Jenny Vu.

Grapefruits is currently closed while they relocate to a space near the former Ouroboros Glass factory in the North Industrial district. They’ll be opening a new show in September at their space at 2119 N. Kerby with work by Daghlian and Travis Beardsley accompanied by a fashion magazine and “retail wearables from local apparel designers.”

Access to viable art space may be volatile and transitory in this town, but our community of artists isn’t about to quit trying.

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Williamson Knight Gallery, 916 NW Flanders St.

Chicken Coop Contemporary 12400 SE Knapp St. (by appointment only)

Grapefruit Juice, 2119 N. Kerby (Re-opening in September)

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