Signal Fire Arts

Interview: Ryan Pierce talks to Gary Wiseman, embedded artist

A Signal Fire residency allows artist Gary Wiseman to bunk with Bark, an environmental group watchdogging the Mt. Hood National Forest


Through November 21, Portland ‘Pataphysical Society is exhibiting new work by Gary Wiseman, made during Signal Fire’s Tinderbox Residency. Signal Fire is an arts organization that I co-founded with Amy Harwood in 2008 to provide “opportunities for artists and activists to engage in the natural world.” What this mostly means is that we run a nomadic artist colony and several backpacking and canoe trips every year, at little or no cost to artists, on the public lands of the American West. We have a particular interest in public lands as a forum for intellectual and cultural engagement, seeking to tease out the complexity of our landscape’s history.

Tinderbox is a new idea for us in 2015: What if we support an artist to work “embedded” with an environmental group that’s dedicated to defending public lands? The artist could have space within the group’s office, access to their staff and reports, and join them in fieldwork as well. The natural choice to partner with for this inaugural season was our friends at Bark, the watchdog group defending the land and waters of Mt. Hood National Forest from logging and development. We worked with Christine Toth, a visual artist on staff at Bark, to select Gary as our first resident. He generously agreed to be our “guinea pig” for the project.

Gary Wiseman's exhibition at Portland 'Pataphysical Society/Photo by Mario Gallucci

Gary Wiseman’s exhibition at Portland ‘Pataphysical Society/Photo by Mario Gallucci

Gary has earned a reputation as a concept-driven artist, whose work shifts from highly formal painting and sculpture, to photography, to participatory events, such as a series of 33 tea parties that he organized as aestheticized art happenings in the Portland area. Prior to Tinderbox, his most recent project was a show of all-white canvases, collectively titled The B-Painting Archive, which consisted of 81 paintings in all that had been overlaid on nine substrates. By viewing each piece through a special smartphone app, one could unearth the history accrued there, like watching the evolution of a determined but indecisive artist searching for the perfect solution.

Over the past four months, Gary has worked from a desk in Bark’s office, making work in response to Bark’s mission and methods. Early on, he seized on a fascination with the systems and maps that support Bark’s work in both the forest and in the city that adjoins it. As forest fires dominated the summer news feed, Gary explored recent burns with Bark staff and volunteers, learning that the ecological importance of wildfire contradicts and complicates the politicized narrative trumpeted by land management agencies like the US Forest Service. In the charred forests, Gary scraped charcoal into jars, which he then made into ink. He used this tiny piece of the forest to render maps of the fire perimeters.

At the same time that Gary was mapping the fire landscapes of Mt. Hood, he was thinking about the social structures of the Bark office, of the people and moving parts that operate an effective environmental nonprofit. The maps of canvass routes—the area each member of the door-to-door fundraising team would cover each day—became fascinating diagrams. Gary copied and distilled one for each member of the canvass, worked and reworked them, and printed the final series as a group of arcane glyphs. They are inscrutable without context, but each one speaks to an actual route taken by an actual person, and maybe donations to keep the organization afloat.

I talked and emailed with Gary this month to learn more about his experience at Bark and what, if any, impact it had on his artistic practice.


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