VISUAL ART

Morehshin Allahyari at Upfor: Flux, ambiguity, the unknown

Morehshin Allahyari exhibition at Upfor Gallery explores the jinn tradition for help in understanding the present

By LAUREL REED PAVIC

Female figures in the Western mythological tradition tend to end up filling one of two roles: either they are benevolent earth mothers or they are evil seductresses who exist only to trip up male heroes. There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground or even the possibility of duality. Through video and sculpture, Morehshin Allahyari introduces two jinn that defy this dichotomy in She Who Sees the Unknown at Upfor Gallery through June 24. While the jinn, Huma and Ya’Jooj Ma’Jooj, are fearful monsters, they are necessary to survival. Allahyari proposes the rejection of easy notions of “good” or “evil” in favor of flux, ambiguity, and the unknown. Contemporary maladies demand reimagined spirits.

In the pre-Islamic and Islamic traditions, jinn are non-human spirits who have the power to affect both humans and the earth. Jinn can be invoked through talismans—written and figurative supplications. Allahyari has included reproductions of three talismans from historical texts in the gallery: one to summon jinn, another to “treat fever” and a third to “treat hallucination and madness”.

Morehshin Allahyari’s ‘Huma’, 3D printed resin/Courtesy of Upfor Gallery, photograph by Mario Gallucci

Huma is the namesake jinn of the exhibition. Immediately opposite the gallery entrance is a figure of Huma and three abbreviated talismans. All are products of a 3D printer. The three-headed female figure is made of black resin; she looks menacing and dangerous. The talismans are clear resin arched shapes with intertwined symbols and script: an alpaca of sorts, a figure with a magic square body, a head with outstretched arms.

Two video works help to explain Huma: one shows Allahyari’s formulation of the figure, and the other the digital construction that resulted in the physical object in the gallery. The video She Who Sees the Unknown: Huma incorporates images of the figure with a spoken account of Huma’s appearance, raison d’etre, and areas of expertise. Allahyari’s version of Huma is an anti-earth mother. She is responsible for fever and madness, both of humans and of the planet. To the left of the narrative video is a 3d Scanning Screen Capture Performance of the technical process Allahyari used to model and digitally manifest the figure. This is identified as a performance because it is a record of the digital scanning process.

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A bigger, bolder Jewish Museum

The Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education takes over the old craft museum space with a broadened vision and a vibrant Russian art show

In a crowded second-floor gallery at the corner of Northwest Davis Street and Park Avenue, the joint was jumpin’. Television cameras whirred in the new home of the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, a small jewel of a museum location that had been sitting vacant for many months. Reporters cornered curators and scribbled notes. Early birds wandered up and down the stairs of the 15,000-square-foot space’s two stories. The Russian artist Grisha Bruskin, outfitted in black from his close-cut coil of hair to his sleek sneakers, was talking about his new exhibit, ALEFBET: The Alphabet of Memory, which was spread like a giant quilt across the main-floor gallery below. Preparations for Sunday’s free public grand opening were in full swing, and the mood was jubilant.

Bruce Guenther, curator of inaugural exhibition, and Judy Margles, director of Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education. Photo: Palma Corral

It was Wednesday in the prime Pearl District space, which had been home to the Museum of Contemporary Craft until that museum was abruptly shut down by the board of the Pacific Northwest College of Art more than a year ago, shocking both the city and a tightknit national craft art scene that had considered MoCC a pacesetting institution. After several months of hammering, sawing, painting, and reshaping spaces, it’s been reborn as the new home of the Jewish museum, which has moved from a space half its size and far less strategically located. Judy Margles, the museum’s longtime director, addressed the preview-day crowd. The designers took a bow. Bruce Guenther, the former chief curator of the Portland Art Museum who is curating the museum’s first season of exhibitions, introduced Bruskin, whose ALEFBET he praised as taking “its place with the tapestry masterworks.” And if the bubbly wasn’t flowing (it was a Wednesday morning, after all) the coffee was: Suddenly a space that had housed an important cultural center that had died before its time seemed alive with hope and possibilities again.

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Lee Kelly just turned 85. Through June into mid-July he is showing new work at Elizabeth Leach Gallery. Over a career of almost 60 years Kelly has completed dozens of public and private sculpture commissions. He has major works on the Portland Transit Mall and the Rose Garden in Washington Park. He lives and works on what was a dairy farm in Oregon City; the barn is now a shop/studio. What was pastureland 50 years ago is now reforested and populated with Kelly’s sculpture.

You grew up in Idaho. Did you go to high school there?

No. I came out here.

Where did you go to high school?

Roosevelt, but I went back there and did ranch work in the summer.

Why? Because you couldn’t find work in Portland?

I loved the idea of horses and doing all that.

Lee Kelly in his studio/shop. Winter Garden at Muktinath in process at left. Small
maquette for the sculpture at right in the background.

So now you got a sculpture farm next to horses. When you were at Roosevelt High School did you do any art there?

I tried to, but I got crossways with the teachers.

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Robert Frank’s ‘San Francisco’: Questions and confluences

A great Robert Frank photograph from 1956 takes the measure of our progress

By PAUL MAZIAR

I first saw Robert Frank’s book of photographs of 20th century America, The Americans (1955-1957)—many of which are presently on view at the Portland Art Museum—when in the throes of reading Jack Kerouac. I’d then been casually acquainted with the poetry and jazz culture of the 1950s and ‘60s, and I was making amends by reimagining what American life was like then, relative to the beauty and meaning these artists were able to summon up.

Frank’s photographs astonished me—they had the congenial spirit you get from poets like Allen Ginsberg, partly because of their everyday vernacular and spontaneity—but also because, maybe more subtly, of their keen eye to the plight of marginalized people. Frank’s photographs give us the America of that specific time, when car sales skyrocketed and TV dinners were all the rage. It was all Disneyland, McDonald’s, and The Seven Year Itch. On the other hand, 1955 also marks the beginning of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the onset of the Civil Rights movement, when Rosa Parks and others refused to obey bus segregation laws.

Formally, Frank’s photographs depict people in urban and other environments, often on the move. This is part of Frank’s expressive panache: He’d apparently snap a photograph from the window of a moving car, sometimes through a dirty windshield, and the outcome seems just perfect.

Robert Frank, “San Francisco” 1956

Of all the photographs from the museum’s American Photographs exhibition, on display through June 4, San Francisco (1956) might most aptly be called quintessentially American. The picture is of a black man and woman reclining on a grassy hillside, trying to look out over San Francisco and enjoy a sunny afternoon together. They are presently interrupted by some white creep with a camera—Frank. And they give him a look.

To appreciate this photograph is to enlarge the moment: What happened right before this photo was taken; or maybe more interesting, what happened just after Frank’s shutter slammed shut? In this moment, Frank captured an encounter between two worlds, and it makes the photograph so keenly, and tragically, American.

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Quintana, Crow’s Shadow, big day

Art notes: A legendary Native American gallery returns, an innovative eastern Oregon art center comes to Portland, and the Jewish Museum prepares for a grand reopening. Oh: and First Thursday, too.

The innovative Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts has been a boon to the worlds of art and Native American culture in the Northwest since it was established twenty-five years ago by artists James Lavadour, Phillip Cash Cash, and others on the Umatilla Reservation near Pendleton. Its nationally known printmaking center draws artists of all sorts to eagerly sought-after residencies with master printers. The Institute actively boosts economic development for Native American artists and students via classes, workshops, and other programs. And not coincidentally, over its quarter-century Crow’s Shadow has had a hand in the creation of a wealth of vital contemporary art.

Jim Denomie (Ojibwe), “Blue Mountain Portraits,” 2011, print monotype on Somerset satin white paper, 20 x 15 inches; Crow’s Shadow at Froelick

For forty-two years until its founders retired and closed up shop two years ago, Quintana Galleries was a national and even international force in nurturing and selling mostly traditional Native American and First Nations art. Several other Portland galleries represent excellent contemporary Native artists, but no new gallery has sprung up to take Quintana’s place.

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Oregon Symphony review: a ‘Persephone’ redeemed by puppetry

Non musical elements help flawed Stravinsky music drama succeed

by BRUCE BROWNE

Persephone lends itself wonderfully to interdisciplinary artistic collaboration. Called a “melodrama” by its composer, Igor Stravinsky, it is a ballet, with a tenor soloist, a choir, an orchestra and a grandiose mythological melodrama out of which visual effects can spring.

Persephone was the final production in the three-part SoundSights series mounted by the Oregon Symphony this year, the previous two being the Bartok opera Bluebeard’s Castle and Messiaen’s Turangalila (click titles for Oregon Arts Watch reviews).

Saturday evening’s supersensorium included fabulous optics, impeccable singing, a superb orchestra, solid acting and imaginative and colorful costumes and puppetry. For this gesamtkunstwerk, the best were engaged: Carlos Kalmar and the Oregon Symphony, Pauline Cheviler (Persephone the narrator), Anna Marra (Persephone the dancer) and the choirs (Portland State University Chamber Choir and Pacific Youth Choir). The visual concept was handed over to Oregon theatrical designer Michael Curry.

Michael Curry’s puppetry enhanced ‘Persephone.’

In choosing Curry to join Washington glass master Dale Chihuly and Portland media artist Rose Bond as the third SoundSights collaborator, the orchestra again nurtured the tremendous pool of talent in the Pacific Northwest.

Curry’s bold theatrical designs have been captivating audiences worldwide at Olympic events, in theaters, at the Metropolitan Opera and in Disney productions. He and his team toiled in their studio facility in Scappoose, Oregon to offer visual genius to the production.

It’s clear that the SoundSight initiative has drawn many new ears and eyes to the concerts, a generous portion of them younger, as we saw lots of children Saturday night, buzzing about upcoming sightings of flying goddesses, animated trees, a graceful deer and a Brobdingnagian, roseate King of Hades. Ghostly kites, tree human roots morphing into hairdos, and eerily human puppets were stunning, bringing the mythology to life.

And thank the Greek gods, because the non musical elements are absolutely essential to making Stravinsky’s Persephone relatable and digestible.

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Photography review: Photographs from the cold and wet

Corey Arnold's depictions of life at sea and Aleksey Kondratyev's ice fishermen contain a sublime shiver

By LAUREL REED PAVIC

Cold and ice were not the first things that I wanted to ponder mid-May, especially not this one, coming after a cold and rainy spring. But Blue Sky Gallery and Charles A. Hartman Fine Art both scheduled “cold and ice” shows before they could have known what we would be facing, so the perception of mockery with a late-arriving spring is probably unintentional. Neither Aleksey Kondratyev’s Ice Fishers (Blue Sky) nor Corey Arnold’s Aleutian Dreams (Charles A. Hartman) indulges springtime escapism. Instead they demand begrudging weather optimism: There’s always someplace colder than here.

Corey Arnold’s photographs are mesmerizing in their figuration of another life, one far more dramatic and dangerous than my own. Arnold spent eight seasons as a commercial fisherman in the Bering Sea. Though he no longer works in the industry directly, the current body of work was shot in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, in the Aleutian Islands. Aleutian Dreams returns to the subject of fishing and the sea while also chronicling life in a place with little division between “civilization” and the “wild.” Bald eagles rummage through garbage bins or patriotically adorn flagpoles (Dumpster Diver and Bald Freedom) and foxes roam the streets (Roadside Friend).

Corey Arnold, “Tad and Octopus”, 2017, Archival pigment print/Courtesy Charles A. Hartman Fine Art

Arnold’s approach to human subjects has changed in this series. Earlier photographs confirmed stereotypical expectations: the bearded man in waders (Ben and King (2009)) or the sea-hardened, turtlenecked figure in The Irish Skipper, Rossaveal, Ireland (2010). Aleutian Dreams includes no faces. In Rob and Skate, Rob’s face is entirely blocked by the fish, and in Tad and Octopus Tad’s head is covered by his orange hood so that all we see is his apparently gentle cradling of a limp octopus: an awkward pieta for the ocean set. In Pedro Mending, the hood of his outerwear shadows his face so the figure becomes an apparition in yellow against black net. People are named but faceless, subsumed by the enormity of the sea life and gritty necessities of the task at hand.

The experience is beautified and sanitized, expunged of visceral realities such as biting wind or stench of fish. The way dreams should be—all of the nice parts, the adventure without the discomfort: The Deadliest Catch translated from reality television to the art gallery, more beautiful and poignant and without the foul language or acerbic personalities.

*****

Aleksey Kondratyev’s photographs have less apparent drama. All are untitled. Most are single figures in billowing plastic bags against a snowy backdrop. Honestly, my first thought was the parental injunction against putting plastic bags over one’s head. This only confirms my coddled and well-mitttened upbringing. The Ishim River is in Kazakhstan, where it is cold. Not Portland “when is the snow going to melt” cold, but horrifically, brutally cold, up to 40 degrees below Fahrenheit cold. These makeshift plastic shelters are the only protection from these temperatures as the figures bend to the business of ice fishing.

Aleksey Kondratyev, Untitled, 2016, archival pigment print, 24″ x 30″/
image © Aleksey Kondratyev/Courtesy of Blue Sky Gallery

The shelters have a strange geometry, some are human-shaped ovoids while others are more directly reminiscent of their rectangular bag origins. Some appear sturdier than others, a blessing in the form of thicker-ply or even woven plastic. A few are patched with yellow tape. All are ingenious adaptations of the idea of “shelter.”
The figures inside the bags are vague forms hunched over unseen portals to the river below. Far more visible are the necessary tools: a plastic bucket, a hand-cranked drill, a can of Nescafe, a folding chair (at least some nod to comfort?). Particularly curious are the images of two or three fishermen right next to one another, but in their own shelters: a telling depiction of isolation in community.

Kondratyev includes several close-up images through the plastic. These are enigmatic. Condensation and ice mar the undulating plastic surface. Without the context of the shelter images, I would have no idea how to read these smaller works and yet their intimacy and draw is undeniable.

*****

Both Arnold and Kondratyev make photographs dealing with fish and ice, but the real parallel here is the venerable artistic tradition of the sublime. The sublime has many meanings in philosophy, but the one most familiar in art is Edmund Burke’s 18th century definition: the sublime is equal parts awe and terror. The sea has always been a favored subject in the consideration of the sublime, beautiful and dangerous. It was especially popular subject when people were dependent on it for transportation, trade, military protection, even light. Caspar David Friedrich and Joseph Mallord William Turner both painted several churning sea images. Arnold’s Dark Sea and Shifting Sea link directly to these predecessors.

Corey Arnold, “Colliding Sea”, 2015,
Archival pigment print/Courtesy Charles A. Hartman Fine Art

Kondratyev’s embrace of the sublime is less obvious but offers a fitting commentary for the contemporary world. Ice fishing is a traditional and historic practice on the Kazakh steppe. Plastic bags are a modern invention. The shelters represent a marriage of tradition and convenience: they lend a modicum of control in an unforgiving landscape.

Control, however, is an illusion. A plastic bag doesn’t protect against sub-freezing temperatures. The way we talk about climate change implies that we have some control over nature. We made the mess; we can fix the mess. But nature doesn’t care about us. Weather isn’t benevolent or malevolent. We are always outmatched. Our best efforts and most fervent attention, while urgently necessary, amount to little more than a film of plastic held together with some yellow tape.

Be in awe. Be terrified.

And be glad that it isn’t actually that cold.

NOTES

Corey Arnold’s Aleutian Dreams continues through May 27, 2017, at Charles A. Hartman Fine Art, 134 NW Eighth Ave.

Aleksey Kondratyev’s exhibition continues through May 28, 2017, at Blue Sky Gallery, 122 NW Eighth Ave.