lumber room

Lynne Woods Turner: In defense of small art

At the Lumber Room, Lynne Woods Turner, Sol Lewitt and co. teach the importance of looking closely

By SARAH SENTILLES

WITH A CLEAR MIND, you can move the truth–the latest exhibit at the Lumber Room–is not to be missed. The brilliantly curated group show must be experienced in person (a screen won’t do) and features work from the Miller Meigs collection by Tacita Dean, Sol LeWitt, Agnes Martin, Chadwick Rantanen, Dorothea Rockburne, and Lynne Woods Turner. If you’ve ever been afraid of abstract art, if you’ve ever thought you don’t understand it or don’t like it or just don’t get it, this is the show that will change your mind.

I spent Saturday afternoon at the Lumber Room with Lynne Woods Turner, a Portland-based artist, and I made us spend most of our time looking at her art–21 gorgeous drawings, each measuring three inches by three inches. Because the drawings are small, all 21 of them can be hung in a single row on just two walls. As I walked along one of the walls, the drawings seemed animate, in motion, alive. There is tension within each drawing, places where lines almost touch, where the negative space becomes the positive space, and there is also tension between the drawings, as lines disappear, or shapes are turned upside down, or straight lines curve, or new lines materialize. The drawings feel like a dance, or like directions for a dance, choreography.

Turner has, in fact, been thinking about dance. Symmetry and balance shape the drawings in this show—forms double and multiply, mirror one another–but in dance, Turner noted, you can be asymmetrical and still have balance in the body, an idea she’s been engaging in her more recent paintings and drawings. “I’m thinking about the curve of the spine,” she said, “the shift of hips and shoulders.”

During our conversation Turner offered what she called a “defense of small works.” By working small, Turner can investigate how to make something expansive without resorting to “throwing materials at it.” She works in her studio every day, and the small size allows her to make a lot of work, to explore ideas fully without space or material limits. (In an earlier conversation at her studio, Turner confessed to having no patience for artists who feel blocked–Just stop talking about it and make something, she said–and I now hear her words in my mind every day as I sit at my desk to write, or as I don’t sit at my desk and don’t write.)

For her drawings, Turner uses scraps of old paper and very sharp pencils (.003), often sharpening her pencil after each line drawn. Turner has mastered mark making. When I commented on the perfection of her technique, she told me that she once spent so many days in a row drawing ellipses using a precise measuring system of dots and lines that she can now draw a perfect ellipse by hand.

The size of the paper Turner chose here (three inches by three inches) is connected to the size of her palms, and the colors–reds and pinks, the green hue of the paper–also allude to the body, to blood and chlorophyll, what Turner calls the primary forces of life. Turner’s work is precise and rigorous and yet remains organic. Nature works this way, she said. If you look at a branch and stem and leaves, their arrangement is precise, but there is immense variation and interest.

Turner1

Lynne Woods Turner, Untitled. Pencil and colored pencil on paper. Approximately 3″ x 3″. 2013.

Turner2

Lynne Woods Turner, Untitled. Pencil and colored pencil on paper. Approximately 3″ x 3″. 2013.

Turner3

Lynne Woods Turner, Untitled. Pencil and colored pencil on paper. Approximately 3″ x 3″. 2013.

Turner is interested in the constraints of the body and said she understands art as a process of moving something from the body into the world. In her book The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry calls this transition from inside to outside “work.” By “work” Scarry is referring to the process of moving an idea from the “self-contained loop” of the imagination to an “equivalent loop now projected into the external world.” For Scarry, the expression out into the world–the making of a painting or sculpture or drawing–breaks the privacy of the imagination, so that what was once in your head is now shareable. Though the created object may not measure up to how you imagined it, the fact that it can be seen by others makes community, relationship, and collective action possible. It is, Scarry insists, world changing.

To call Turner’s 21 untitled drawings subtle or quiet would be a mistake. They are demanding. They are about the need for careful seeing, the imperative to look again and again. The longer I looked at a single drawing the more I could see, but then the drawing would change, become something else entirely, and I would be confronted with the limits of my sight. Turner’s drawings make me think that maybe I haven’t ever looked at anything carefully enough–not this drawing, not the one next to it, not the person standing next to me, not the bird singing on the branch outside my window, not the faces of the people I love. For me, now, in this time of drones and racially charged killings, anything that challenges sight–its dependability, its veracity–is a political act when sight is being used to kill. Turner’s abstract works remind me that art does not need to engage explicitly political content to have political effects.

Because the drawings are minimal, every line feels intentional. When I asked about the red lines in one of the drawings, Turner explained that she’d first drawn the line with a sharp graphite pencil, pressing down hard enough to score the paper. She then erased the graphite and filled it in with red colored pencil. Another drawing contains a pink color that Turner made by first filling the shape with red and then erasing it. Some of the drawings contain small dots seemingly made with a pencil tip, representing energy, pollen, light, and movement.

WITH A CLEAR MIND also includes Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing #109, which was drawn by Turner, Nobuto Suga, Storm Tharp, and Sarah Miller Meigs over several days and is magnificent. There are 10,000 five-inch lines on the left wall and 10,000 ten-inch lines on the right. The walls seem to vibrate. Our shadows change the room. Though the walls are painted white, they appear slightly yellow then blue, due to sky and building and light. The walls were made according to LeWitt’s instructions and were supposed to have the texture of a fine orange peel to collect the graphite of each mark. I want to stay in that room for a long time. I’d sleep there if I could, watch the light shift, meditate on the lines. Developing a conceptual idea for an artwork and then having other people make it is alien to Turner’s own creative process, but Turner loves that LeWitt came up with a simple idea that could be executed with humble materials (a pencil, a straight edge, a wall) with minimal instruction by a group of people who learned to pay attention to each other’s bodies, to collaborate, to create something that doesn’t belong to them–and that will, soon, be painted over.

I could go on because there is so much more to see. Thirty screenprints by Agnes Martin. Two drawings by Dorothea Rockburne in which she uses blue carbon paper. A loop made with medical tubing by Chadwick Rantanen held in place by the room itself, columns and floor and ceiling. And a film by Tacita Dean. Like Turner’s drawings, all of the works assembled here–their lines and colors, their forms, their references to time and fragility and mortality and possibility–require careful viewing. They ask the viewer to stay awake and attentive, to look again and again, not just for the sake of art, but for each other.

This is the final week of WITH A CLEAR MIND. The Lumber Room will be open Friday, May 1 and Saturday, May 2 from 12-5. Don’t miss it.

Photography as an all-terrain vehicle

The lumber room's "Terrain Shift" photography show finds the art form in transition

"Terrain Shift" at the lumber room

“Terrain Shift” at the lumber room

By PATRICK COLLIER

As hard as she may have tried, Susan Sontag’s “On Photography” did not take all of the fun out of the practice. Yes, photography is fundamentally nostalgic in its temporality and purpose, and in its ubiquity, sometimes unavoidably banal.

Still, like junkies on an IV drip of our vice of choice, we pour through images in magazines and scroll websites. We expeditiously and efficiently document everything from breakfast and family gatherings to our surroundings and even of other people taking photos. And some of us call this art. We cannot help ourselves in the looking and doing, for as Sontag also knew, on either side of or away from the camera, photography is a mighty powerful medium.

Thirty years ago, a young painter was applying to MFA programs. She had, if you can believe it, never before used any camera besides an Instamatic. All of the schools to which she was applying required 20 images of her work. A photographer friend of hers agreed to document her paintings and some drawings for a modest fee. It would take a week before 35mm slides of the work would be available to view.

Despite the usual doubts any artist worth her salt carries, the painter was not without talent and she was (and is) aware of this and remained confident and hopeful that her work was strong enough to get her a slot in a good school. She anxiously awaited the photographer’s call to come over and cull through slides to select the best 20. Yet, when the call came, she was unprepared for what she saw on the photographer’s light box.

The images of her work were wonderful, better than she could ever have imagined, and in some ways better than the paintings and drawing were in real life. Or so it seemed. It was this last thought that confused her. While the photos certainly did not do justice to the texturing and layering of paint, the transparencies carried a weight of importance. Her work seemed more valid, as if it was being readied for a feature in an art magazine. This is what Sontag might term “the preponderance of veracity,” and I suspect it is in part why a good many photographers started out as painters.

Whether the intention is there or not, lumber room’s “Terrain Shift” is very much about this transition, at least as a point of departure, for this exhibit largely explores photography as art in light of other art forms.

***

A case in point is Corin Hewitt’s expansive “Weavings: Performance #2,” a documentation of a 2007 residency at Small A Projects (a Portland gallery that, I am sad to say, I didn’t have a chance to visit before its owner, Laurel Gitlen, left for NYC). The project seems to have primarily taken place in a kitchen where the artist made pasta and then wove it into basket shapes. These weavings pair nicely with other objects such as clay (or dough?) replicas of half-eaten pears alongside the model for the sculpture. (The real bitten pear might also be considered a sculpture?) Everything that occurred in that kitchen, such as burning a cauliflower with a butane torch, along with anything else lying about the room, was fair game for the camera. The photographs are hybrids of art activities, made out of necessity as much as an aesthetic choice, referencing (presumably) non-extant sculpture and the ephemeral nature of performance.

Leslie Hewitt’s (not related to Corin) two untitled works (“Altogether Now”) and (“Holding Still”) continue this theme. Both pieces are very much about sculpture and painting in the way she has arranged the materials she has chosen to photograph. The same holds true for her “Riffs on Real Time (5-10) – quilt,” a patchwork of a photograph and fabric transformed into a C-print.

Elizabeth McAlpine's "The Map of Exactitude (#12)"

Elizabeth McAlpine’s “The Map of Exactitude (#12)”

INSTALL_017Elizabeth McAlpine expands on this mixing of media by giving us both photographs of architecture and sculpture that makes photographs. While architectural photography might be a celebration of the skill and vision of the architect and the craftsperson, and might attest to the photographer’s eye that appreciates these forms and structures, I put it in the same category as landscape photography as art: pretty to look at but little more than a guilty pleasure for the photographer. (Feel free to flail away.) What distinguishes McAlpine’s architectural photography from that of others is that she imposes her own forms onto the surfaces she is documenting by demarcating it with tape. This has the effect of adding another dimension for the viewer yet also reinforces the fact that the photograph we are looking at is, after all, a two-dimensional image.

The above pieces are situated in one of lumber room’s bedrooms. With them is another photo by McAlpine, entitled “The Map of Exactitude (#12),” which is a larger, stark, abstract and irregularly shaped black and white image made with a pinhole camera. The camera, which shares the same title as the print, is also part of the exhibit; yet, if one misses the multiple pinholes in its surface, it isn’t identifiable as a camera. The photograph is considerably larger than any one surface of the sculpture, and for the life of me I could not figure out how the print was made and had to ask. The paper had been carefully folded into the interior to cover the bottom and four side walls. The photo “conforms” to the sculpture, an idea I particularly like.

***

Of course, if we are to speak of photography for any length of time, we inevitably return to Sontag, so it should not come as a surprise that there is at least one artist who references her, or at least the first chapter of “On Photography,” “In Plato’s Cave.” In his two pieces, “Unknown Caves,” Will Rogan overlaid a book’s pages that have images of tribal or prehistoric handmade figures. Perhaps the objects are talismanic stand-ins, but are the pages of photos still photos or shadows of photos?

Similarly ontological, Evan LeLonde employs what he calls a “sheer veil of otherness” in his two photos, both called “Untitled (A Shard of Glass).” The shots are identical except for the lighting and/or Photoshop techniques used with the end result being that one cannot be entirely sure if they are photographs or colored pencil drawings. And to round out this thread of how we come to “know” objects, Erin Shirreff uses association and likeness to title her photograph, “Knife,” for the image appears instead to be a piece of wood that looks a bit like an Exacto blade in its handle. It might cut mustard.

***

There is a lot of work here, and to take in the whole show requires time. From the standpoint of how this exhibition is arranged in the space, it is clear a great deal of consideration went into the art selection and installation.

The placement of the McAlpine’s camera so far away from her print adds another dimension to the exhibition, for there are other sculptures in this exhibit (two of Corin Hewitt’s sculptures are in the main room), and videos that stand alone as well as reference photography. Jennifer West’s “Nirvana Alchemy Film” greets visitors in the foyer, but I am thinking more of Erin Shirreff’s “UN” on the outside wall to the bathroom and her “Roden Crater” on the lavatory side of that wall. Both have running times listed but neither seems to be more than a still image. Surely there must be some change, some shift, if you will, so one looks more for any movement rather than at the building or crater. One presumes an intentional subverting of our expectations for the moving image, as well as the frozen moment in time of photography, by concentrating on the monumental presence of both the building (and its purpose) and the geologic feature.

Some changes come very slowly.

With the invention of photography came the nearly instantaneous proclamation that painting would soon be killed off by its imitator. While such histrionics persist for painting, a new chorus has emerged within the photographic world: the proliferation of the medium via digital cameras of all kinds and their software counterparts is destroying photography.

While this observation may not be totally germane to this exhibition, it does point to a lack of imagination—or a fear of competition for eyeballs—on the part of the naysayers. While clichés abound in all art forms, it is quite possible for the less literal-minded practitioners to rise above the surface of appearances or concerns about their market. After all, these concerns have gone unchanged since the onset of the Modern Age, yet we still manage to find a fresh outlook emerge in the work of a steady percentage of artists: I’m going to posit five percent.

What is remarkable about “Terrain Shift,” is that this percentage is considerably higher.

Note:

Corin Hewitt will be giving a talk, “The Studio Pressed Flat: The Metaphysical Interiors of Georgio Di Chirico and Kurt Schwitters Merzbau” at lumber room Saturday, January 26 at 3:00 PM.

Interior Margins installation view | Midori Hirose, SQFT, 2010 | lumber room, Portland, OR | Photo Dan Kvitka

Interior Margins installation view | Midori Hirose, SQFT, 2010 | lumber room, Portland, OR | Photo Dan Kvitka

 

Abstraction is real. Probably more real than nature.
Joseph Albers

Part of being an artist is wanting to hold things down for a minute, make it real.
Lynne Woods Turner

What happened last Saturday? Three hours after it began, what was my take-away from the epic-length gallery talk at the Lumber Room (419 NW 9th), essentially eight mini artist talks in which most of the artists in the Lumber Room’s current exhibition, Interior Margins, answered a question (or statement) apiece from curator Stephanie Snyder?

Interior Margins, which runs through January 30, is a show of abstract work by women, all but one from the Northwest, and most from Portland. Of the responses by Heather Watkins, Blair Saxon-Hill, Judy Cooke, Midori Hirose, Michelle Ross, Lynne Woods Turner, Linda Hutchins, and Nell Warren, one can say that each was thoughtfully considered and illuminating about the artist’s practice and propensities. Lynne Woods Turner for example, emphasized her responsive nature (“as in gardening, things tell you what they want to do”). Few of the women addressed either the ideas behind the work or to put it another way, what was going on in the work. And I was hungry for that.

Whatever it was beyond process that Snyder was trying to get at in her questions, most of the conversation returned to process. So we now know that Warren’s little paintings are the result of her scraping used paint from her palette to create reliefs, that Watkins holds the paper and tilts it to guide the ink to make her drawings, and that Turner draws on the back as well as the front of the paper. There was a lot of this kind of thing about doing which may tell us something about abstraction, that there is a kind of sweet luxury in the doing beyond the thinking about the doing that is a sanctuary and a near-meditative practice. (I may be inscribing my own experience onto that of these artists…with your indulgence.)

Leonie Guyer, Victoria Haven, and Kristan Kennedy were absent, which is a shame especially because Kennedy’s “E.G.S.O.E.Y.S” (2011) is the piece de resistance of the show.

The most interesting moment was when the senior artist in the group, Judy Cooke, noted that the work she was seeing around her in the room—specifically the draped fabric works of Ross and to a lesser extent Kennedy and Saxon-Hill—takes her back to the ’70s, to women artists working at their kitchen tables, to incorporating everyday materials into their works. It was also great to hear about the thinking behind Saxon-Hill’s works, concrete-impregnated burlap draped on a white plinth leaned up against the wall…she’s been inspired by the photogravure documentation of  mid-century sculpture and interested in the draped backgrounds common at the time.

And Snyder gave Hirose the opportunity to answer those who would situate her colored sand-filled acrylic cubes in a Minimalist tradition, with Midori noting that certain polygons represent each element, the cube representing earth. She also framed her work as incorporating a childlike playfulness and of course spoke about the soft-meets-hard moment of the sand and the acrylic. Cooke talked about extracting a shape from a composition to make a shaped work. Turner talked about symmetry in her forms being the “path of least resistance,” with anything else being “too assertive.” Ross talked about moving away from the figure because she, “didn’t want to rely on the easy familiarity of the figure.” That her “intense engagement with material” is her response to “culture that is etherealized through technology.”

The printed piece we received in conjunction with the talk featured a number of quotes regarding abstraction and an excerpt from an essay Snyder had written for the exhibition “Abstract” she curated for the Cooley Gallery at Reed College (where she is John and Anne Hauberg Curator and Director, Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery), which also featured artists Turner and Guyer. In that excerpt Snyder quotes Martin: “The line doesn’t have to describe anything. It focuses you, beyond it and beyond yourself.” And for line we could substitute any mark or field. Snyder writes, “Abstraction, commonly misunderstood as a reductive response to life, is in fact an intersecting embrace of the interconnectedness of all things.”

It’s a beautiful and powerful statement, and I think certainly in the case of work like that of Martin, that is appropriate. But this aspect of abstraction is only one of very many, and I’m not sure that the works in Interior Margins all can be housed under this notion. Though Linda Hutchins’ comment on one of the more important aspects of the series of drawings in the exhibition nearly was lost in the process talk, the idea of allowing the line’s imperfections (“natural undulations”) reminded me of this other aspect of abstraction, that of allowing, of abstraction opening up space for the viewer to co-create meaning in the work.

As much as I think these conversations may point to the productive (and conversely disjointed) space between the work and intention of the artist and the project of the curator, it’s a complication I appreciate,  this creation of a constellation of independent stars (both object and idea) with multiple possible links between them.

See this show. The installation of Watkins series of black on black drawings is stunning. And the trip up the stairs is worth it for the work of Saxon-Hill and Kennedy alone. Through January 30.

What is Practice Based Criticism, by Max Winter begins:

I have been looking at a certain cup for many days
The cup has revealed little of itself, in fact nothing
The cup cannot be blamed, I have asked nothing of it
If asked myself, then, I could say little about the cup
It is white, it is large, yesterday it contained, today nothing
It is not animate, it moves when I move it
It is mine, no one owned it before me,
and I will not relinquish it until it is broken
All I can say of the cup is what I have inscribed upon it
in my self-serving yet also cup-serving manner…

I recently attended a dinner Storm Tharp and Sarah Miller Meigs hosted at the Lumber Room in conjunction with Reader on a Black Background, an exhibition curated by Tharp from the collection of Miller Meigs. The conversation at dinner, spurred by an essay, “Equivalence,” by Tharp was meant to get at the question of when you strip everything else away—what you know, what you think you’re supposed to think when you look at art, what’s left? So Winter’s musing on looking and reacting that I stumbled upon was very timely.

 

Storm Tharp. The Decorator, 2010 ink, gouache, colored pencil, charcoal and gold leaf on paper 57.5" x 85". image via pdxcontemporaryart.com

 

“When you look at the art object — what do you recognize? What does it say? Or rather, what do you say to yourself? Can you explain what you say to yourself? Are there words?”

Storm Tharp, “Equivalence”

I think I may use this metaphor too often. But maybe only in my own head. I imagine one of those faceted spheres, the crystal prism that hangs from the rearview mirror. It does two things. One, it fractures light that enters it into the thousand tiny rainbows it brightly projects like a disco ball. And, if you look closely into it, you can see little aspects of what it sees, the kaleidoscope of the real.

This fracturing mirrors the individual nature of the experience of art. But I want you to think of the light source. Simply, very simply, the light that enters the crystal mind is the retinal information about the work the viewer sees. But you know and I know it’s not that simple. Rather the light is the seen, the light is the web of things we have felt and known and think about those things. All of it enters the prism and is fractured into a million rainbows. My job then as well as my way of seeing and experiencing art is to capture some of those rainbows and put them in words. For me, writing is a way of thinking through. It is a way of looking, understanding, making meaning. I will write the retinal then cross my mind’s eye and see again allowing in all of the associations and questions that arise, the little aspects of the real.

One thing I will note about the cup
is that it acts upon you – MW

Storm asked what we recognize when we look at art. It’s only by checking what we see against what we’ve seen or know that we can recognize. And he asked, “What does it say?” And I suspect that what he wanted to get at is what does it say when one quiets one’s mind and allows oneself to see in an unmediated fashion.  But that’s just the beginning.

 It is almost as if you had a “thing” for the cup,
as if you didn’t feel quite yourself in its presence
Which is acceptable, in the main
because what we learn through talking about the cup, through writing about it,
through living with the cup in its exquisite plainness,
is that all things said about it are all right,
fine for now, fine perhaps for eternity
provided the right readers are awake – MW

 

 

 
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