Last Saturday marked the start to Disjecta’s fourth biennial survey of local art, Portland2016, and for the first time in the contemporary art center’s history as a biennial maker, galleries and alternative spaces outside of Portland have been enlisted to host satellite shows. In total, 25 galleries are participating in Portland2016—fifteen located outside Portland—and the exhibit is being billed as the biggest art show to ever occur in the state. The aim is to expose more people to local art, exchange talent between cities, and “activate” new communities.
This time around, interdisciplinary artist, educator, and writer Michelle Grabner took the helm as curator. She comes credentialed with an extensive background in the arts, currently teaching drawing and painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and recently serving as co-curator of the 2014 Whitney Biennial, one of the art world’s most prestigious surveys of contemporary American art.
Filling 25 galleries with content is no small task, but Grabner rose to the challenge, selecting 34 artists and artist teams from the initial 400+ who applied—dedicating certain sites to single makers and other locations to smartly cherry-picked groups.
Other ArtsWatchers will be chipping in reports on those out-of-town shows. I’ll be talking about the local shows, a few locations at a time. Last Saturday, I hit up the opening reception at Disjecta—and over the following week, University of Oregon’s White Box in Old Town and the c3:initiative in St. Johns.
Heading north on the Yellow Max toward Disjecta’s Portland2016 kick-off party, I think about a computer program called the Brainwave Generator that I used as a kid.
BWGen claimed to enable its users to physiologically modify their brainwaves by listening to particular combinations of ambient, computer-generated sounds. Binaural audio, it was called, and the promises attached to the technique were too enticing not to explore: Have a headache? Dial in the audio file for headache, put on your headphones, and away goes your cranial pain. Feeling anxious? Let the synthesizers in your computer defuse the stress. Drowsy? Here’re some sounds to keep you awake.
I can’t say I definitively believed in BWGen’s results, but I certainly wanted to, and so I’ve revisited binaural audio from time to time over the years—hitting up YouTube to see what kinds of mind-altering sounds are out there.
Belief or not, when I saw that Portland2016 included a binaural sound piece by artists Chi Wang and Jack Ryan, my interest was piqued.
Arriving in Disjecta’s courtyard where Wang and Ryan are slated to perform during tonight’s reception, I find a different sort of audio: that of a hundred conversations, of momentarily feral children playing impromptu and invisible games—darting between packs of scruffy and debonair art students and the cleaned-up industry professionals that those students may aspire to become.
Entering the gallery, an auctioneer is almost audible through the crowd’s vocalizations, and I weave my way to the main gallery space where “Salon: Portland2016 Biennial, The Studio Visits,” is being held amid an increasingly dense rabble of gallery goers.
“The Studio Visits” brings together all 106 artists that curator Michelle Grabner visited while considering whom to include in Portland2016’s main program. According to Disjecta’s website, the inclusive gesture is offered as a “curatorial index that celebrates the broad spectrum of art-making in Oregon and illuminates the research and selection process of the curator.” In the style of the big group show, two-dimensional works are arranged in a patchwork spanning the east and north walls. I admire an Ellen McFadden painting’s eye-catching bands of color, making room for a ‘tween to pose for a picture with a grandly abstracted portrait painted by Storm Tharp. On the west wall is a presentation of video works on a big screen TV. Nearby, sculpture and three-dimensional objects are clustered on a platform.
Though a bit overwhelming, bringing everyone together in one place seems to be a practical remedy to the geographical largeness of this year’s exhibition—which presents a sizable travel ask of any one person who wants to see everything. So, this bouquet of artwork serves as an invitation to find something you like and, perhaps, explore it further at a satellite location.
Away from the clutter and crowds, in its own room, the centrally featured project here at Disjecta proper is Rick Silva’s “The Silva Field Guide to Birds of a Parallel Future,” presenting digitally rendered, 3D animations of imaginary avians that are projected in a loop at wall-large dimensions. (More Silva can be seen a Reed College’s library.)
Musician and writer Claire Evans (of synth-pop band YACHT) penned an accompanying piece of fiction that tells of a female scientist who, while cataloging the indigenous wildlife of an unnamed coastal Oregon landscape, finds a strange nest and an even stranger lifeform that hatches from within it:
“Coiled like a snake inside is a humming geometry. A warped, mechanical thing with opalescent planes where its wings should be. It undulates like a manta ray, and the planes shatter into shadows, ghosting trails of probability in spirals around its body. It seems to exist in several states at once. She sits up, and as she moves the thing blinks in and out of sight, like a one-sided coin, disappearing with a glint as it’s tossed.”
Silva’s renderings of birds from a parallel universe don’t try to fool anyone with realism, but rather, they opt for the slope before the uncanny valley: crude planes of color work geometrically into representations of eggs or cubic masses of feathers, swans with jelly for bones and doves leaving time-trails in the sky. At times, Silva’s creatures appear to be formed from animated, iridescent plastics, while their backdrops seem to exist as something of an afterthought, keeping close to the default settings of whatever software Silva uses to create his animations.
The overall effect is that of a digital plane of existence attempting to cross over into the physical, glitching in and out of phase with the humanly observable world.
After a few cycles of Silva’s sci-fi taxonomy of birds, I return to Disjecta’s courtyard, searching for Wang and Ryan’s sound performance, but to no avail: Did I miss it? Will it happen later? Or is it happening right now—imperceptibly taking place not on a stage with visible performers, but through a more subversive, installation technique?
With an hour left before the reception’s conclusion, I reboard the Max and set my sights on exploring Portland2016’s nine additional hometown host galleries.
I opt out of Sunday’s openings to skip the crowds, and it’s Tuesday before satellite locations begin to reopen.
My next stop on the Portland2016 circuit is University of Oregon’s White Box. The empty weekday gallery vibe is a welcome change, and I’m greeted by the works of Anya Kivarkis, an artist whose installed jewelries have caught my attention in the past.
This particular collection of work focuses on ornate silver wearables—objects of human adornment presented outside the context of the body. Rather than draping necklaces over the collars of mannequins or protecting them within shiny glass display cases, Kivarkis employs installation techniques, affixing works directly to the gallery wall or in assemblages with items unrelated to jewelry and the human body.
The big aesthetic achievement here is a collaboration with artist Mike Bray titled “Intervals of Time,” which displays variations on a necklace design, each attached to a pane of two-way mirror and held in the air with a tripod—stuttering across space and, following the title, representing the object across time.
In the presence of “Intervals of Time,” I found myself thinking back to Rick Silva’s birds and Claire Evans’ fictional account of their origins; in particular, a passage accounting for the birth of an interdimensional creature:
“The thing makes an alien screech and flies away into the forest; each wing flap lasting a century… It had been the size of an apple; now it aged as it flew, molting and transforming around an invisible mold. By the time it’s only a few feet away, it has the wingspan of an albatross, an airplane, the universe wrapped around a feathered heartbeat.”
With two-way mirrors arranged in a tidy arc across the center of the gallery, it’s as if we’re invited to see back and forth across the hours and the days—the necklace, apple-to-albatross, leaving slices of spacetime across its creation.
In an adjacent room, portrait photographer/retoucher Whitney Minthorn documents the commercial photography process, adding the female body back into the equation in the form of the socialized fantasies that grace the covers of fashion magazines.
Minthorn shows examples of impossible women—those with beads affixed to their lips like sugar on the rim of a glass; with faces aglow in studio light and makeup so thick as to lift a person from nature entirely—and then he illustrates via video how these women are transformed with Photoshop retouching. In another collection of prints, Minthorn removes the models from his commercial works completely, and instead accounts for each retouch he’s made using a visual record of brightly colored smears and lines. These swaths of color accumulate to human faces, highlighting the vast amount of visual manipulation that goes into the images of women that are presented on the covers of magazines and advertisements.
Also relying on removal to make a point is the third artist featured at the White Box, Ryan Woodring. Woodring presents a four-channel video installation composed of ISIS propaganda films that were shot at the Mosul Museum in Iraq. Each film documents ISIS loyalists destroying sculptural artifacts from Assyrian and Hatrene cultures. Suggesting that the destruction of these statues serves as a metaphor for ISIS’s attempted destruction of the Iraqi people, Woodring erases the sculptures from his chosen videos, leaving an empty space into which viewers can insert the actual people who are targeted by ISIS’s violence. In one example, a man apes around with a sledgehammer, banging away at an invisible statue, swinging into and against the empty air.
Considered together, the artists at the White Box are all playing with the human body: how it’s adorned, how it’s manipulated to sell impossible beauty, how it’s destroyed over and over for selfish political reasons.
At Portland2016 satellite location c3:initiative, it’s impossible not to recall a famous study that was conducted at the University of Washington back in 2006, when wildlife sciences professor Dr. John Marzluff had a blossoming theory about crows.
He’d noticed that the ominous black avians tended to become wary of him after he’d captured them for study. Not only did the crows he’d tagged seem to recognize him despite time apart, but they’d go so far as to alert their neighboring brethren of his presence, inciting mobs of angry birds. This reaction made it more difficult to study the species behaving as they would when nobody is watching. He felt like the crows remembered him. That they were talking about him. Joining forces against him. Him and him alone.
To see if crows could indeed remember specific individuals, he sent students out to various locations in the Seattle area to capture and band (tag around the ankle) local crows. While tagging the crows, students wore a Dick Cheney mask, exposing the subjects to a standardized aggressor. It wasn’t long before the birds began acting defensively toward anyone wearing the Cheney mask. Other masks of different faces didn’t elicit much of a response. But Cheney made a quick pariah of its wearer. Crows, Marzluff and his team discovered, not only possess the ability to recognize faces and recall them over months and years, but also to alert other members of their species to known enemies. Clever little guys…
Born from this experiment is artist Carla Bengtson’s collaboration with biologist Peter Wetherwax, “Species Calling Out Liars and Deniers (S.C.O.L.D.),” which bills itself as a “guerilla-style intervention partnering with crows to target climate-change deniers for public scoldings.” Just like in the experiment described above, local crows will be conditioned to perceive a specific mask as a threat, but this time that mask features the face of none other than Donald Trump.
In order to condition such a response, the artists and any willing participants will come together “at crow gatherings wearing masks of climate-change deniers while holding taxidermied crows.” A little macabre, but I’m not sure how else you’d get a bunch of crows to hate Donald Trump.
Though this “public intervention” will take place on September 10 at c3:initiative and other locations yet be announced, Bengtson introduces the project’s visual language with two sculptures and a video piece featuring the visage of Donald Trump, calling attention to the “S.C.O.L.D.” project’s larger intentions. Simultaneously, Bengtson introduces an element of protest that continues throughout the work of the other artists showing at c3 for Portland2016.
Following the protest thread is outsider artist Bruce Burris, whose paintings, mixed-media works, and sculptures commemorate decades of service as an activist and community organizer. Most tellingly, Burris submits a series of picket signs—flower-child designscapes, thick with acrylic paint and collaged photos, statements of discontent and hope—that frequently reference “Stoner Creek,” a 99-mile stream located in Central Kentucky that Burris took up as his cause some decades ago.
Other pieces by Burris follow suit, including a sculpture depicting a violent interaction between tiny army men and equally tiny protesters. Most notably, “Ye Are One With Stoner Creek,” a mixed media on paper improvisation spanning roughly 11 feet-by-6 feet, intricately marries blips of text with doodle-quality ink illustration and photos clipped from magazines. The result feels equally lifted from the margins of a high school stoner’s math book and the same stoner’s poster-covered bedroom wall. But Burris is a 60-year-old man. So, go figure.
In addition to Bengtson and Burris, Colin Kippen’s concrete castings of found objects occupy the c3 courtyard. Objects given the Kippen treatment—scraps of a baby pool, unidentifiable food containers, full-sized doors—are unified by signature-unique color treatments, plasticy blues accented by dusty pinks and greens that come together to suggest artificial shadows and invisible sources of light.
Though the label protest art doesn’t neatly fit Kippen’s practice, it’s hard not to read found object sculptures as an inherent act of protest, given that these works derive form from the waste generated by daily life. Maybe Kippen’s sculptures aren’t so much acts of protest as acts of environmental awareness. (Kippen’s work can also be found at Project Grow, 2156 N. Williams in Portland.)
Following that line of thinking, it’s easy to see Bengtson’s armies of climate-denier-shaming crows and Burris’ activist artifacts through the same lens. Whatever it is you decide to do about the mess we’ve made of the earth—picket the polluters, train birds to poop on irresponsible politicians—we have to first accept that there is indeed a mess, and that each and every one of us are responsible for some portion of its creation.
Stay tuned for more!
Disjecta’s Portland2016 continues through September 18 at a variety of locations around the state.