It’s the final week of February, which means we’re entering last-chance territory for a lot of gallery shows, even with that bonus leap day tagged to the end. So like the White Rabbit trying to catch up on a few very important dates, last week I hit the streets. For starters, I walked into the artist-run Waterstone Gallery for the first time since it recently moved into the old Quintana Gallery space at 124 Northwest Ninth Avenue. The gallery is long and lean and crisp and clean and welcoming, with a side opening into the Annie Meyer Gallery next door: in its heyday, the late lamented Quintana occupied both spaces.
Shu-Ju Wang was handling the gallery that day – the members take turns – and her own show, Imbue/Imbuere, was installed in the gallery’s front half, where it will remain through next Sunday, the 28th. In the back half was a selection of work by other gallery members, many of whom reside at that fertile intersection where craft and art meet. There were carved pieces by R. Keaney Rathbun and Stan Peterson that were appealingly reminiscent of folk art, for instance, and a big brawny mixed media piece by Ann Lindsay. The move’s been good, Wang said, maybe because Powell’s City of Books is that much closer, and because the gallery now has a couple of popular daytime eateries, Pearl Bakery and Fuller’s Coffee Shop, on either end of its block. At any rate, people are stopping in, and if the number of red dots on the wall labels is any indication, they’re doing some buying, too.
The word “imbue” comes from the Latin “imbuere,” which means to saturate with water, and water is a theme that’s been flowing through Wang’s work for some time. About a year and a half ago I went to a talk she gave in the John Wilson Special Collections room of the Multnomah County Central Library about her new-at-the-time handmade art book, Water. (By “art book” I don’t mean a book with pictures of art. I mean a book that is itself the work of art.) Poet Emily Newberry was there, too, reading her pair of poems that are embedded in the book, an intimately scaled folding work built on hexagons. Water is a combination of poetry, art, and engineering, and Wang was, in fact, a computer engineer before switching full-time to a career in art.
There are hexagonal paintings in Wang’s current show, too, including a cunning one with octopus tentacles reaching around, and another with a platypus curled up at its marshy center. And there are several cut and sculpted paper works, all in watery hues: Wang is fond of paper as a three-dimensional medium. What really drew my attention, though, was the small and intricate paintings in her continuing series The Future Dictionary of Water. Wang has a gift for combining large ideas with the particularities of detail, and it’s in full evidence here. The paintings are illustrational in the sense of old manuscript paintings, with ornate circular patterning and stylized evocations of seascapes, landscapes, and beasts of the sea and sky; each one includes an invented word having to do with water. “Annuvadah,” for instance, refers to the annual flooding of populated areas (Latin “annum” for year, Russian “vadah” for water); “Sinagua” defines a bioregion that once supported human life but can no longer do so because it now lacks water. The latter word and definition are by C.J. Shane. The future dictionary is something of a public project; Wang has invited friends and colleagues to contribute invented words. Anyone can participate, by visiting the dictionary page of Wang’s web site here.
“I know no more about our water future than you do,” Wang notes in a statement, “but I hope The Future Dictionary of Water will engage and provoke us to consider what that future is; and by doing so we may have an impact on where we’re taking our future.” Close to a dozen dictionary paintings are completed. Wang hopes eventually to have at least thirty, and as many as fifty. But definitely not, she replies to a suggestion, twenty-six: the completed project will be a dictionary, not an alphabet. She couldn’t have spelled that out more clearly.
At the nearby Blackfish Gallery, I caught up with James Luna’s Performagraphic, which continues through Saturday, February 27. Luna, a Luiseño and Mexican American performance and installation artist who lives on the La Jolla Indian Reservation near San Diego, was in town early this month for several performances and talks. I’m sorry I missed them, but the photos and three-dimensional pieces in the Blackfish show give a good sense of his cultural edge and provocative wit. Luna’s exhibition is a neat fit with the Portland Art Museum’s current show Contemporary Native American Artists and the Edward Curtis Legacy, which also looks at old and new images of Indian culture and attempts to upend traditionalist thinking. Luna’s 2000 photographic series Petroglyphs in Motion, in which he strikes old petroglyphic poses and then takes off in a very human run, make the wry point that what’s old is far from dead. His 2001 sculpture High Tech Peace Pipe plops a length of plumbers’ pipe, wrapped in beading, atop an old push-button telephone. And his 1991 photographs Half Indian/Half Mexican neatly make the divide, right down the center of his face, giving “bicultural” a sly and pointed meaning.
At Froelick Gallery, meanwhile, Gail Tremblay’s Unweaving the Colonial Discourse also continues through Saturday the 27th, featuring several particularly elegant examples of her long-running series of traditional-looking Native American basketry woven from film stock. The film she uses is from old Hollywood cowboys-and-Indians movies; she reweaves the narratives, unraveling the old colonialist-dominated storylines and re-creating the stock in Native patterns. A longtime Northwest artist and poet, Tremblay is of Onondaga and Micmac heritage, and has been represented by Froelick for many years. Her baskets have both subtlety and wit: they are beautiful objects, and they carry a potent subliminal message that surfaces most obviously in their titles: After the Conquest of America It Became a Garden of Good & Evil Filled with Grumpy Old Men, for instance, or What Happens When Civilization Melts the Ice?
This show, too, fits neatly with the Luna at Blackfish and the Curtis & company exhibit at PAM. Froelick represents several leading Native American artists from the Northwest, and a few other regulars have work up right now, too: some good Joe Feddersons from his recent exhibition, a wall-size scroll of a work on paper by Rick Bartow. All three are very contemporary artists who, like Luna and the contemporary artists in the PAM Curtis exhibit, rework traditions. Those traditions, of course, were well represented at Quintana before the Quintana family retired and closed the gallery down. It remains a big loss. But others are carrying Native American art into the future.