By JENNIFER RABIN
The unidentifiable sound in the Royal Nebeker Art Gallery at Clatsop Community College in Astoria comes from Julia Oldham’s 55-second video “Captured Yeti.” Oldham, dressed in a faux fur yeti costume to match her platinum hair, screams at us from behind the crooked muzzle strapped to her face. Bars in the near background keep her from the forest beyond. Oldham’s movements—lurching and twitchy—have both human and animal qualities, creating an unsettling hybrid that communicates a universal fear of captivity.
The yeti’s cries come from a soundscape of the artist’s own screams mixed with with the high-pitched whine of an electric guitar and the screech of a metal door opening and closing. Oldham shot the video one afternoon on her porch, scrapping together pieces of white muppet fur, black lipstick, and a dog muzzle. This is the sort of thing Julia Oldham does in an afternoon.
“The Bearwife,” playing on an adjacent wall in the gallery, part of Disjecta’s Portland2016 biennial, features a woman in a white dress, played by Oldham, who is out for a walk in the woods. She looks through her binoculars as she wanders the countryside, snacks on flower petals, and then, suddenly, gets devoured by a bear. The bear lies down for a postprandial nap and, cued by a color shift in the video, the woman emerges from the bear suit, her body streaked with bloody claw marks. She convulses through a zombie death dance before the video reverses and her emergence is undone, putting her back inside the bear suit.
It is difficult to know whether this period represents the bear’s fever dream after a fresh kill, which I think was the artist’s intention, or a cocoon-like metamorphosis of a woman who, surviving her own death, has transformed into a bear. The latter interpretation may have something to do with my impression of Julia Oldham herself.
It should be noted here that I have always had a strict policy about not discussing an artist’s personality, appearance, or private life because it is important to separate a person from their work. But in the case of Julia Oldham, this is an impossible task because there is no separation between the two. Her whole life is a piece of art.
The first time I met her she was carrying a purse shaped like a chicken in her left hand. Above it, on her left forearm, an illustration of a Least weasel is tattooed at actual size. Oldham is diminutive and ethereal, her eyebrows so fair that they disappear from her face. She looks like a creature that exists in multiple realms: a wood nymph in mint green cowboy boots.
You need only follow her on social media to glimpse her hybrid nature. Leading up to the biennial, she shared photos of herself wearing a yeti mask, walking in clawed bear feet—before or after her mauling, who’s to say?—and roaming the woods with a mud-painted face, all mixed in with snapshots of her one-eared rescue cat, her dog that looks a wolf, and bouquets of animal bones lying around the house. My favorite example is a video she made of herself on the edge of a forest mimicking a raven’s call. I was watching it on my computer in the living room on full volume. “Quaw! Quaw! Quaw!”
Hearing it from the other room, my partner, who had seen Oldham’s work at the biennial, asked what the noise was. “Julia Oldham!” I called back. His only response: “I had a feeling you were going to say that.”
Longing for a coyote playmate last year, but realizing they were hard to come by, Oldham drew one for herself. “Winter Is When I Love,” which was screened at Portland Art Museum shortly after the biennial opening, is a live-action video in which Oldham has an encounter with an animated coyote. She soothes the snarling animal by singing to him, and they take turns following in each other’s paw prints across a snow-covered landscape.
As a show of their connection, the coyote sings her song back to her after howling his own. Eventually, realizing that they are of different worlds, the coyote scampers out of frame, leaving her alone. No words are spoken in the video, so it is left to the power of Oldham’s performance to convey her deep longing to join him. In tears, she pulls from her chest the coyote spirit that lives inside of her, the only part that can follow on four legs.
I wept at the ending, as I did at the ending of “Laika’s Lullaby,” Oldham’s animated short about the real-life voyage of the first dog launched into space by the Soviet Union. Contrary to sanitized reports of her humane euthanization before her oxygen ran out, Laika died from overheating a few hours into the mission, her body left in orbit for months.
As the daughter of a physicist and the wife of a physicist, Oldham extends her attention and caring from the terrestrial to the theoretical and from the animate to the inanimate. In “Farewell Brave Voyager,” she plays a character who delivers a tearful memorial about a black hole research probe that never makes it back from the event horizon. During the Q & A after the screening, Oldham mentions the heartbreak she feels whenever a space probe or rover is decommissioned, abandoned in orbit.
Oldham describes the video “Infinitely Impossible” as “the story of unrequited love between a woman and infinity.” In one scene, she lies on the floor, face up, her body covering the vertical line that splits the frame—the left side light, the right side dark. She holds up a strip of paper and cuts it in half. She then takes one of the halves and cuts it in half again. And cuts one of those halves in half, testing the principle of infinite divisibility.
When the halves become too small to cut with scissors, she works with a straight razor under a magnifying glass. Once those halves become too small, the title overlay speaks directly to her unattainable goal:
But even if I could gain on you,
the universe would be
expanding ever outward,
and all points in it would be moving farther apart,
and so you and I would be moving
farther from each other too.
Oldham sits in a dark room under a portal to the stars, contemplating the nature of infinity, which stretches in both directions, from the indivisibly small to the incomprehensibly vast.
Oldham is the embodiment of our seeking, our longing, our looking to figure out our place in both the known and unknown worlds. You can spot a person in love with life because they tend to look to the biggest and the smallest phenomena—from the nature of the cosmos to the qualities of the Least weasel—to find answers about their own humanity.
Julia Oldham is an artist in love.
Julia Oldham’s films at Clatsop Community College run through September 18 with the paintings of Jack Featherly.