pdx contemporary art

D.E. May: In praise of care and precision

At PDX Contemporary Art, D.E. May keeps the fuss to a minimum

There are some mysteries in D. E. May’s works now at PDX Contemporary Art through November 28. The first question for many viewers will be “why is this simple little stuff taken seriously?” Second, for those who will take it seriously without hesitation, is “how does this simple little stuff manage to work?”

Take a work like Dutch Furlong, 2015, 2 inches tall by 7 ¼ inches wide. It is just a piece of gray cardboard cut into a backwards “L” with a fat upright. There are a couple pencil lines on the upright, one at a diagonal across the upper left and one vertical at the right quarter. There’s another vertical line at the far left. A few little scars mark the surface, perhaps tracks of previous use. And this little piece is held to the wall by three carefully placed small nails through the cardboard—the nail heads are not driven home, they remain just proud of the surface, little careful sculptural details.

D.E. May's "Dutch Furlong"/Courtesy PDX Contemporary Art

D.E. May’s “Dutch Furlong”/Courtesy PDX Contemporary Art

May’s materials are modest—with Dutch Furlong there’s a little piece of cardboard (perhaps found) three pencil lines and three nails. They don’t have the aura of the fine art supply store. Instead they have the aura of old stationery stores (in the pre-Office Depot days) or the junk shop. But these works are not about nostalgia: They may embody some kind of appreciation for things past, things used, things utilitarian, but not wistfulness.


The book I read was in your eyes

Anne Hamilton at Elizabeth Leach, Anna Gray and Ryan Wilson Paulsen at PDX Contemporary Art

When I first thought to write this essay for ArtsWatch, the artists for the 2014 Whitney Biennial had not yet been announced. I mention this because now I cannot consider the Portland exhibits I wish to write about without contemplating the tenor of the Whitney curators’ choices for the upcoming Biennial. Much of the art chosen is by artists who also write about art, or artists who often use text in their work, or artists who only use text in their work, and to fill out this line of thought, publishers of texts. (See the breakdown here.)

Not that I want to make claims for being prescient or any such thing, but the art that caught my eye in Portland the last two months also had much to do with writing and reading. Never mind that I am often creatively geared this way and that my own predisposition may guide me toward this type of work—I have seen a lot lately. In the last year or so I have written essays about artists who use text as a central focus of their work: Lisa Radon’s sublime ἐπί ἡμέρα (epi hemera) and Sue Tompkins’ typewritten works at Portland Museum of Modern Art and part of this year’s TBA Festival.

Now, Elizabeth Leach has an exhibit by Ann Hamilton that runs for ten weeks through January 11, plus Anna Gray and Ryan Wilson Paulsen were around the corner at PDX Contemporary Art last month. Then there is an ongoing curatorial thrust of Yale Union. While I hesitate to call it a trend, I cannot brush it off as a coincidence. Something is afoot.

Whether text (and I mean this in the broadest possible sense) is finally getting its due as the inspiration for and an element of a fair amount of art we see these days, or that the worlds of the poet, philosopher, curator, critic and artist have irrevocably melded into a Leviathan of practice, it nevertheless has me thinking.

Does building a richer inner life, namely by reading, run the danger of becoming a form of hermeticism, thereby leaving something or someone behind?


Spare. Sparse. Space.: Deft hands and dense details

Three artists showing at local galleries ask for your attention, please

Quiet, minimal and softly alluring, the unassuming compositions at three neighboring Portland art spots can flit by you with a second notice. A cursory look around these art exhibitions reveals a couple simple shapes here, a few recognizable objects here; perhaps there’s nothing to hold your attention. It’s the second look, the closer inspection, that really opens your eyes. Amorphous shapes in frames become fervent beadwork. A photo of a sink involves more detail than your eye has ever seen. And through a hole in some rather innocuous fabric, a personal universe expands.

This month, three artists at PDX Contemporary Art, Elizabeth Leach Gallery, and PDX Window Project all create a shroud of simplicity under which some serious substance lies.

Kristen Miller: “Passing Through,” PDX Contemporary Art

A mainstay of PDX’s quietly conceptual roster of artists, Miller’s small-scale work is a testament to subtle visualization of hours spent working. Her meticulously sewn compositions (often white or off-white) waver in the ether at first, relying on the viewer to investigate further in order to fully appreciate them. Once you get up close, though, the realization that each miniscule bead is hand applied and stitched in exacting detail transforms a piece such as “Without Gravity” from a two-tone composition to a multi-faceted visual arrangement. And, while this has been Miller’s trademark, new pieces like “Rising/Settling” move her practice into new territory.

Introducing more visual complexity, “Rising/Settling” and “Untitled” look like before and afters of Buddhist sand paintings: intricate handling that has been scattered to the wind. The added layers of pattern and fabric help to drive home what “Without Gravity” and the other, softer works are getting at; the seeming chaos of “Untitled” is a happy departure from the safe shapes of previous outings.

Kristen Miller, 'Rising/Settling', 2013, silk fabric, glass beads, glassine, organdy and nylon thread. Photo courtesy of the artist and PDX Contemporary Art

Kristen Miller, ‘Rising/Settling’, 2013, silk fabric, glass beads, glassine, organdy and nylon thread. Photo courtesy of the artist and PDX Contemporary Art

Isaac Layman: “Funeral,” Elizabeth Leach Gallery

Known for his large, incredibly detailed digital photo compositions, Layman has ditched the images of cabinets full of glass and the giant Otter Pops this month for a meditative look at emptied shelves, bare cupboards and the remains of the kitchen.

“Funeral” is a fitting title for this show; there’s a certain sense of loss heavy in the air. That-which-once-was-but-is-no-more leaves behind a hole, a stain and a space. A simple single-focus photo of a cupboard might seem trite in this context, but the way Layman creates a plane of infinite clarity brings the viewer into these oversized renditions of everyday objects. Particularly striking is “Sink,” in the back gallery. Slight reflections on its porcelain surface read as imperfections, while the closed drain dares you to turn on the non-existent tap.

“Cutting Board” is equally uncanny, fooling your eye into seeing a frame where there’s a divot in the polyethylene, a hazy umber cloud where in actuality there are slices and stains (of the fish in “Untitled,” perhaps, although that piece doesn’t follow the same aesthetic as the rest of the show).

Although in line with the subject matter of “Funeral” (the photograph), the works Layman has constructed from framed archival foamcore, MDF, and rubber midsole (and all titled as such) seem like one-liners or sketches that detract from the quiet complexity of the rest of the show. Perhaps it’s the disconnect of the camera that imbues something more to humble packing materials (although Joe Thurston proved in 2012 that crates can embody so much more than just containment), but a photograph of foam like “Funeral” brings more humor and layers in this context than a piece of foam on its own.

Isaac Layman, Cutting Board, 2013, photographic construction, archival inkjet print, edition of 3, 2AP. Photo courtesy of the artist and Elizabeth Leach Gallery

Isaac Layman, Cutting Board, 2013, photographic construction, archival inkjet print, edition of 3, 2AP.
Photo courtesy of the artist and Elizabeth Leach Gallery

Jessica Hickey: “Resemblance Between Carl Sagan’s Statement and Lord Krishna’s Miracle (Performed 5000 Years Ago),” PDX Window Project

Where Miller’s work rewards close observance and Layman’s photos enhance our appreciation of the everyday, Jessica Hickey’s obscurely-titled installation in the PDX Window Project is like looking through a peephole or peering behind the magician’s curtain.

A 24/7 streetside exhibition space, PDX Contemporary Art’s Window Project has played host to a wide variety of artists. Attached to, but existing separately from the main gallery, the window is a testbed for experimental works and unrepresented artists. Pregnant with pseudo-mystic ritualism and personal associations, Hickey’s work is one of the better uses of this space since Von Tundra’s “Tint” and Karl Burkheimer’s “In Set.”

Because the Window Project is only viewable from the street, the artist has the ability to manipulate the audience’s sight-line, something “Resemblance Between…” does quite well. Using the box not just as a place to put things but rather as a container for her “miraculous objects,” Hickey pulls the the viewer in and makes them want to peer inside (and bonk their head on the glass in the process, of course). The white lipstick print on the inside of the window teases the viewer (looking a lot like the kisses on the now glass-encased tomb of Oscar Wilde), while the banner proclaims like a circus sideshow what mysteries may be found inside.

The printed images of the cosmos, tacked to the wall in a stack, are at once small and flimsy as well as vast, infinite and hard to see. Perhaps our understanding of the universe is the former and the truth of existence is the latter. But, although imperative to the installation, the white walls and the bright lights that surround the objects and universe(s) kill some of the mystery and mood, making one wonder if a darker enclosure might benefit the endeavour. Explaining the science of the universe through observation and rationalism rather than overt mysticism might kill the mood too, although I’m sure Carl Sagan (and Hickey) would have to disagree.

jessicahickey 2

Jessica Hickey, Resemblance Between Carl Sagan’s Statement and Lord Krishna’s Miracle (Performed 5000 Years Ago) [detail], 2013, 9 miraculous objects, sugar, water, car battery, universe, universe, Sagan’s mouth, Krishna’s mouth, hand dyed silk velvet curtain and light

Kristen Miller: Passing Through
July 30 – August 31, 2013
PDX Contemporary Art
925 NW Flanders St.
Portland, OR 97209
Tue. – Sat. 11-6

Isaac Layman: Funeral
August 1 – September 21, 2013
Elizabeth Leach Gallery
417 NW 9th Ave.
Portland, OR 97209
Tue. – Sat. 10:30-5:30

Jessica Hickey: Resemblance Between Carl Sagan’s Statement and Lord Krishna’s Miracle (Performed 5000 Years Ago)
July 30 – August 31, 2013
PDX Window Project
925 NW Flanders St.
Portland, OR 97209
On view 24/7 from NW 9th Ave.

Oregon ArtsWatch Archives