portland2012 biennial

By Graham W. Bell

And once again, I am late to the party. A lot of the hubbub surrounding Disjecta’s Portland2012: A Biennial of Contemporary Art has to do with aspects of theme, coherence, curatorial choices, and groupings. Let’s take as a given that there could have been more thematic structure, that some pieces did not play well with others.

As an entity, Portland2012 is a nebulous one at best. Without a physical touchstone save for Disjecta’s homebase far out in Kenton, the threads are stretched taut as each venue tries to link itself to the other. The slightly staggered opening/closing schedule did nothing to help this, even if it did make for an ongoing reason to keep the exhibition on your radar.

All of that said, curator Prudence Roberts picked some artists who are making intriguing work, getting at multiple sides of Portland’s art scene, varied as it may be, so I’m going to focus on strong works by deserving artists who were a part of the biennial.

At the Art Gym (further out than even Disjecta), Dustin Zemel and Cynthia Lahti operated in different modes of presentation, and stayed within themselves, neither brash nor assertive.  Zemel’s videos (four in all) are conceptually rich and let you chuckle along with them. The strongest work was Ke$ha (Tik Tok), a four channel video that saw different individuals listening to, then trying to learn and recite a Ke$ha song they are hearing through their headphones. Issues of convergence and human memory are immediately apparent as each person’s monotone recitation of the pop lyrics comes closer and closer to what the actual song sounds like. By displaying four synced videos of different attempts, Zemel can show not only an individual reaction to the project but also a group reaction that gradually merges into one. An interesting note: Zemel says he originally gave the participants a Dada gibberish poem to learn, but the lyrical structure of Tik Tok was easier to figure out.

Cynthia Lahti, "Black Hair One," 2012/Photo courtesy the artist
and PDX Contemporary Art

Lahti’s work at Marylhurst trod the line between paper and ceramic sculpture works, two of her mainstays in recent memory. The magazine clippings of her collage works meld with the abstracted, playful forms of her ceramics. Black Hair One and Long Black Hair are at times heavy and bold, enforcing their objecthood; but the crinkled paper is light and freeform, giving an airiness to work that, if ceramic, would be more dense. On that same plane, Lahti says about her work:

“The source for the ceramic sculptures are images of the figure from old books and magazines. The paper sculptures use the same process to come up with ideas, finding evocative images and seeing how they can most effectively become sculpture. They are really different from the ceramic pieces because they are paper, a material that evokes really different emotional response. It is fragile and art historically references DADA and Surrealism in their use of the ‘found’ object.”

The use of such a ubiquitous non-traditional art material as crumpled paper lends itself to a more thorough conversation about the differences between how we, even subconsciously, perceive materials.  And the use of fashion magazines adds another layer of complexity that makes links to printed images of the past.

At PDX Across the Hall, Ben Buswell and Akihiko Miyoshi formed an aesthetically pleasing pair. Miyoshi’s photographs explore the line between digital and film, making paper on mirrors behave like pixels on screens. Each self portrait of the artist and his camera is offset with various arrangements of colored squares and halos. Some use the nature of focus to blur our perception, while others rely on digital post-processing to further muddle how our minds make sense of the picture plane.

Buswell’s sculptures (photo-based and otherwise) complement Miyoshi’s pieces in their uniform palette and textural intrigue. The strongest works, the photo-based sculptures, cut up or mar the virgin photo plane with, in one case, a multitude of imperfections on the surface, mimicking the waves in the picture; and in the other, by segmenting a photograph of water into a three-dimensional wave form that seems to undulate just slowly enough on the floor so as not to scatter on the floor.

Akihiko Miyoshi, Abstract Photograph, 2011/ Photo courtesy the artist

The flagship of Portland2012 is Disjecta’s gallery space, housing the works of nine different artists that range from slyly conceptual to extravagant objecthood. I’ve always found Disjecta’s space hard to navigate from a curatorial standpoint. What do you do with a giant open spot and no moveable walls? What do you do when there is more than one artist to show? Recent installations, like Peter Halley’s Prison, focus on emphasizing the emptiness or making you forget about it.

The biennial, in both of its iterations, has so far taken neither of those tacks, instead filling up the space with an unevenly placed smattering of huge installations (Crystal Schenk and Shelby Davis’ West Coast Turnaround last time and Brian Gillis’ On Failure and a Prospect this time), wall-hung works, sculpture, and video in some form.

Groupings and installation strategies aside (which are really a part/problem of every biennial), there are some excellent works in the exhibition. Those who have seen pieces in Arnold J. Kemp’s Don’t Make Friends series before (and those who haven’t) will be struck by the power of his new, like-minded series of custom-framed photoworks on paper. Titled Who’s Afraid of Something Real?, each piece is a close-up depiction of crumpled aluminum foil that has been pierced thrice and manipulated. The holes that reveal the stark white background make the whole work decidedly mask-like. One by itself exhibits the luscious matte texture of the unglazed paper paired with the crinkly black and white of the aluminum in the image. Multiply that and you get a solid line of visually imposing and intriguing works. (Kemp was also recently named one of the 2012 Guggenheim Fellows.)

Paired next to Erik Geschke’s sculpture, these two artists make, as was noted by Will Elder for the Mercury, a “lovely post-minimalist space.” And it’s true: there is a level of craft and perfection in these pieces that seems to be lacking in the dizzying number of newer works being produced. Geschke’s artwork is finished with a deft hand. It is obvious that hours of work went into these smooth, organic forms. Kemp’s framed works are more objects than framed photographs, having been carefully mounted on aluminum and framed just so. It is a welcome change from the “we found this stuff outside and then did very little to it physically or conceptually” school of thought.

Continuing on into the space, past Gillis’ enormous construction, one is met with two immediate choices: 1) the history-painting-sized abstracted interior/exterior of Grant Hottle’s Facing North, promising a deep investigation into the notion of paintings that size or 2) Anna Gray + Ryan Wilson Paulsen’s Giants in the Earth, a sequence of photographs that flourish as physical documents of an elaborate thought process on the part of the artists.

Disjecta installation View (L to R): Gray + Paulsen, Hottle, and Gillis/Photo: Mark Stein

Hottle’s work has been consistent in the past, exploring the juxtaposition of more traditional painting modes with the subversion of space and form. Facing North is no exception. Grand in scale, it seems at first to depict an interior scene that is subsequently melded with an exterior one. The mountain in the distance, while less appealing than the foreground, nonetheless draws you in as you recognize Hottle’s indebtedness to landscape and history painters of the past. The swooping color and skewed perspective, as well as the depictions of more modern accoutrements of daily life floating uneasily in the foreground, make this piece satisfying both to look at and to travel through.

Gray + Paulsen’s ongoing Giants in the Earth chronicles the artists’ journey to various gravesites of the notable deceased. At each spot, they plucked grass samples and staged photographic portraits. Richard Speer’s recent exposé on the collaborative duo elaborates on the specifics, noting: “This is exactly the manner of earnest art project legions of recent grads would kill to take on.” Gray and Paulsen are a perfect example of the utter melding of life and art. The things they think about, writing, art, theory, political ideals, are all manifested in some way in their pieces. Understanding that the creative process is continuous for an idea-based artist, they are ever-evolving from one group of work to the next.

The White Box at the UO White Stag building is a little space that offers up a fair medley of works. Foremost among them is Vanessa Renwick’s video installation Medusa Smack. Situating itself in the Gray Box (the darker portion of the White Box used for video work), Renwick’s work looks like a tiny circus tent with a living roof. Interaction is key, for by lying down on the soft floor pillows and looking upward, the artist transports you to a gently rippling cross between a music visualizer and the organic forms of the jellyfish tank at an aquarium. Accompanying the jellyfish video is a haunting, calming soundtrack that, along with the video, transforms your experience into something much more meditative than could be realized upon first setting foot in the gallery. Renwick’s use of an all-inclusive installation experience here is similar to her piece Full On Log Jam (which was more about watching a video about wood in a woodpile), but Medusa Smack reminds me more of the work of Pipilotti Rist combined with a waking dream at the Oregon Coast Aquarium.

Vanessa Renwick, "Medusa Smack," 2012, installation view/Courtesy the artist

The other video in the White Box is part of Wendy Red Star’s Crow Masquerade Dancers. As a more documentary mode of art making, this piece makes more sense when you ask about context. The photos printed on canvas next to the video screen show various figures dressed in Halloween masks and a mixture of traditional Crow Indian garb and modern day clothing. These figures can then be seen dancing in a gymnasium to ZZ Top and Michael Jackson, shedding false bellies and belts while they twist and gyrate in a take-off on traditional Native dances. A customary event, the youth of the tribe dress up like the elders to perform; as the years have gone by the music, masks and dances have gradually been supplanted by contemporary cultural objects. While presented in a rather vague manner, Red Star’s work does invoke an important conversation about the merging of cultures and the evolution of tradition.

Sang-ah Choi’s work furthers this investigation of cross-culture meldings with a number of wall-mounted sculptural works backed by colorfields. On first viewing, the geometric forms are quite striking in vibrant hues and white spaces. Taking a closer look, one gets the sense that a manga artist went back in time and started making Delftware. The fine blue line work of figures and bubble shapes contrasts with the bold color cubes and flecks of gold, creating a dizzying visual cacophony that is endlessly complex.

As much as people like to bemoan certain choices made in the Portland art scene, I will give Disjecta this much: it takes a lot to put together such an endeavor, and right now it is one of the most expansive art events on our calendar (along with TBA). Let’s hope that in two years the constructive criticisms leveled will be taken to heart and Portland2014 will be a rousing success. Until then.

Times and Locations:

Basic biennial information

Helzer Art Gallery, PCC Rock Creek
March 5 – April 14
Mon-Fri 9am to 5pm; Sat 10am to 4pm

[Ariana Jacob]

March 11 – April 28
Fri-Sun, 12 to 6pm

[Erik Geschke, Brian Gillis, Anna Gray + Ryan Wilson Paulsen, Grant Hottle, Hand2Mouth, Arnold J. Kemp, Matt McCormick, Mack McFarland, Susan Seubert]

White Box
April 1 – May 19
Tue-Sat, 12 to 6pm

[Vanessa Calvert, Sang-ah Choi, Daniel Duford, Wendy Red Star, Vanessa Renwick]

Well, THIS is interesting. We can expect a very different Portland 2012 Biennial next year from Disjecta. Why? Because the 2010 Biennial was curated by Cris Moss, curator of Linfield College’s gallery, and the 2012 will be curated by Prudence Roberts. As the press release puts it, “The curator’s vision is a key component of Disjecta’s Biennial. Each incarnation is a fully realized exhibition that speaks to the strengths and interests of an invited guest curator.” And this is interesting because it is honest and up-front about the fact that ANY selection is subjective (in spite of protests to the contrary that one hears). So the selection of the curator, then, becomes all important. Is it ever otherwise? Did anything Bonnie Laing-Malcomsen selected for the CNAA’s surprise you given her background (especially at OCAC)? Maybe the selection of Susie Lee surprised me. A little.

I’m reminded of an episode in Portland art history when critic and writer and curator Lucy Lippard was asked by the Portland Center for the Visual Arts to curate a show. An open call was put out and Lippard viewed hundreds (probably thousands) of slides, then came to the Northwest and visited dozens of studios all over Oregon and Washington. Paul Sutinen, artist and at the time critic for the Willamette Week, recalls that anticipation on the part of artists in waiting for her final selection, was high. The expectation was that Lippard would embrace the kind of art that she’d been writing about and thinking about in New York and elsewhere. But she came to the Northwest looking for something different. And in many ways, she found what she was looking for for In Touch: Nature, Ritual and Sensuous Art from the Northwest (does the title give that away?).

While we’re talking about history, it is worth mentioning that the Oregon Biennial was, for many years, the project of the Portland Art Museum, as befits the main visual arts institution in the region. The museum dumped the Biennial project in favor or the Contemporary Northwest Art Awards, focusing on a handful of artists rather than a major survey, and topped off by the Arlene Schnitzer prize for one of those artists. Was this to extend its reach and relevance beyond Oregon? Was it too much work (requiring too many resources) to curate and hang a massive survey show? Regardless, the net result was that there was no more biannual survey and it was missed by artists and art watchers.

Along came alt-space Disjecta who lined up Moss to curate the Portland2010 Biennial that I (and I wasn’t alone) thought was a pretty good picture of what this year’s Biennial (in its press release) claims to aspire to, “a major survey of work by artists that are defining and advancing the visual arts scene of Portland.”

I do wonder, transparency about subjectivity aside, if rotating curators won’t just give a wildly divergent view every two years of just what kinds of artists are “defining and advancing the visual arts scene of Portland.” And I’m grappling with whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

Roberts as former curator of American art at the Portland Art Museum (1987 to 2000), was around for many an Oregon Biennial. She has continued to curate and contribute essays for exhibitions at the Center on Contemporary Art, Seattle, the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, and The Art Gym at Marylhurst University.

Meanwhile, this is your call, artists, to be afforded one of those studio visits from Roberts for your chance to be included in the Biennial. Here’s the info:

Interested artists who have lived in Oregon as a primary residence for the past two years may submit qualifications through CaFE™ (www.callforentry.org). The deadline for submissions is 11:59PM, MDT (Mountain Daylight Time), August 12, 2011. All materials must be submitted through CaFE™ to be considered. Roberts will conduct studio visits with artists and announce her selections in early Fall 2011. Selected artists will receive a stipend, which may be used to create new work for the exhibition. Disjecta anticipates that Roberts will view and consider the work of more than 300 artists.
Portland2012 is supported in party by The Ford Family Foundation and the Oregon Arts Commission.

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