Punch Counterpunch: art & argument in the galleries

‘Art,’ Dennison, Wagner, Cleveland, Siestreem, and an Ace in the hole

Matthew Dennison, “Governing Principle,” Froelick Gallery.

I went to a fistful of Portland art galleries last weekend, and I only saw one guy get punched out. It was Jonah Weston, but it wasn’t supposed to be: Daniel Benzali took a swing at Sam A. Mowry but missed him and clipped Weston on the ear instead.

Shades of Caravaggio, the pugilistic painter with the knockout punch! The art world is filled with metaphorical fistfights, of course, a bristle of competing schools and ideologies that often comes down to something very much like “My dad’s concept can lick your dad’s concept any day of the week.” Toss a little envy and ambition into the pot, maybe add a dash of booze, and fists – or at least, hissy fits – have been known to be thrown.

Fortunately, Friday night’s haymaker at Gallery 903 was planned – staged, in fact. Benzali, Mowry and Weston are the three actors in the new Theatre Now’s production of “Art,” French playwright Yasmina Reza’s farce (in a crackling English translation by Christopher Hampton) about a long-term friendship broken on the back of an artistic argument. In a nutshell: Serge (Mowry) has just bought a painting – all white, although if you take the time to really look at it you might see layers and striations of white – for a big fat two hundred grand. His longtime buddy Marc (Benzali) takes a gander, laughs derisively (especially once he hears the price) and pronounces the painting “shit.” Yvan (Weston), by nature a conciliator, tries to soothe the ruffled feathers by agreeing, partially, with both combatants, and ends up, poor schlump, on the hurtin’ side of an angry fist.

Now, theater productions aren’t usually performed in art galleries (although Readers Theatre Repertory has been staging shows regularly at Portland’s Blackfish Gallery for several years), but if you’re going to do a play in a gallery, “Art” is an excellent choice. On opening night, at least, the three actors seem to have fully understood that they were dealing with a farce, albeit one that could cut deep, and the gallery setting at 903 gave the ruefully comic action a resonance it might not have had in a more traditional theater space. The production will jump from gallery to gallery during its run (the intimate Victory Gallery is up next), and each new space should subtly shift the dynamics of the thing.

Yet in a way that white-on-white painting at the center of Reza’s play is a straw man. It prompts an argument about theory and priorities, yes: Marc sees snootiness and an intellectual scam; Serge retorts that Marc is close-minded and doesn’t know what he’s talking about because he hasn’t bothered to learn. But underneath it all, as Yvan understands only too well, is a fierce battle over the nature of friendship and the ability to disagree in a civilized manner. At its most interesting level, what “Art” might be proposing is an anti-theory theory, which seems like throwing raw meat into a cage of beasties when it’s applied to the theory-besotted world of contemporary art. If Yvan is the closest thing to a hero in this play (and you could get a stiff argument about that), it would seem to be arguing in favor of provisionality, of suspended judgment and a willingness to consider multiple possibilities, over hard-drawn theorizing and firmly held biases.

However you come down on the checks and balances of the play itself, it was vitalizing to see that sort of action inside the gallery walls – and not just by the actors, but by the audience as well. Portland’s commercial galleries generally get all communal and party-mood once a month, for the First Thursday or First Friday or Last Thursday gallery crawl, but too many people still think of them as little temples of the high holy, places to be approached with the awed silence of penitent monks or, better yet, just avoided. In fact, most galleries are fairly friendly and approachable places, and a lot more goes on in them than most people realize. Exhibiting artists often give talks, for instance – and after hearing Reza’s entertaining if reductive view of the way the art world works, it struck me that it might be interesting to hear how a few artists themselves look at the work they do. Might they be Serges or Marcs or Yvans? Might those arguments mean anything at all to them, or would they just seem like so much babble? Once you get inside the process (as Serge suggests you must), does the whole thing look different?

So the next day I hit three galleries and heard five artists talk about how they approached their own art. No punches were thrown, but the small crowds at each gallery came away with a fair amount of enlightenment, at least provisionally. And theories, although they certainly played a role in the artists’ approach to their work, seemed to be more personal and practical than academic and intellectual. I began the day at Froelick Gallery, where veteran painters Matthew Dennison and Katherine Ace were sharing both the gallery space and the chatting time. Then I scooted next door to Augen Gallery, where Sally Cleveland and Sara Siestreem were talking about their newest shows. Finally I trekked to nearby Butters Gallery, where encaustic artist Elise Wagner was the featured attraction. The occasional cookie or strawberry, proffered discreetly at the galleries in little bowls, kept me in fighting trim for the encounters.

***

“If there’s a theme about this show it’s about encroachment,” Matthew Dennison tells the Froelick crowd. “Things that go too far.”

Sometimes the border-crossings in this new exhibit of paintings, fittingly called “A Current History of Encroachment,” are obvious, and sometimes they’re more subtle. The works are oils on panel or canvas, high-gloss and quasi-realistic, with a touch of fun-house perversity: simplified forms with disturbing undertones, like psychologically fractured visions of Little Golden Books covers from the 1950s and ’60s: even the children have curiously worn countenances. Something laconic, passive, acted-upon molds the faces of many of his characters, as if something unsettlingly magical is occurring: as the world swirls around them, these beings seem to be passing through their lives more than living. The paintings’ surface sheen, which both clouds and heightens the effect of the little dramas, is startling, and doesn’t come across in reproduction: to appreciate it fully, you have to see it in the flesh.

“Blanc de Chauny,” Froelick.

The paintings are brilliantly hued and emotionally compelling in a curiously detached way; in most of them something seems both unspoken and wrong. Often, the encroachments are environmental: people crowding into animals’ spaces; animals venturing back; balance, and even species, disappearing. “This is probably the most literal work I’ve done. Intentionally,” Dennison says. Part of what he does is to remember clash points after the headlines have disappeared and people have mostly forgotten them. A bear, for instance, that was shot last year at Bonneville Dam and becomes the subject of a painting. A cougar, from the central Oregon town of Sisters: “These six cougars came down to a housing development and they shot ’em. Because they were encroaching.” In one painting a little girl leans forward in a field, observing an extinct French rabbit. In another, a family in a speedboat meets a narwhal. The large painting “Governing Principle” is a march of men in charge, very brooding and straitjacketed and menacing, possibly as much to themselves as to anyone else: they seem captured by their own solemnity. In this show Dennison paints “this constellation of things that are happening in this world that shouldn’t be.”

How does an artist approach such a vexing subject? Straight-on, but also allusively. Compulsion helps – that, and a sense of the impermanent. Dennison’s mother died in 2005, and since January 1, 2006, he’s done at least one drawing every day. He also writes a poem daily. “The drawings are almost like crib notes,” he says. Then: “It’s like a priest who digs his grave one scoop of dirt a day. It’s my way to honor my Mom.”

One comment seemed to strike to the heart of the squabble in “Art,” Reza’s comedy, suggesting that things that seem unalike and therefore divisive and even actionable might in fact be brothers in the blood. “I think Victor Maldonado’s fence painting expresses very much the same things I do,” Dennison said, referring to a starker and more minimal series by another prominent Portland artist whose work on the surface seems very different from Dennison’s own naturalistically skewed paintings. Life and art are provisional. Things that seem not to be the same might have affinities. All is not as it seems. Things are possible. Is there an Yvan in the house?

***

Katherine Ace is well-known for her vivid still lifes, richly colored paintings that elevate ordinary objects into places of prominence and sometimes match them up in unexpected ways. Her new exhibit, “Fleeting Vista,” suggests a sense of elusiveness that is different from, but perhaps parallel to, Dennison’s. “Impermanence. Fleetingness. There’s something quite beautiful about that,” she tells the gathering at Froelick.

“Nesting,” Froelick.

Vases, flowers, fruit, newspapers, handwritten letters: it’s the stuff of traditional still life, but with a contemporary thrust. Meticulously shaped and brightly colored but without visible anchor, her clusters of objects seem to float inside the space of their canvases. Even in the paintings that include printed language, the meanings are open-ended. “Ah Love!” say the words on a crumpled paper in a painting titled “Nesting.” The paper sits beside a clear-glass bowl and goblets and a narrow vase with a white flower exploding little particles of red. The image is both familiar and unfamiliar. Whatever it “means,” it’s arresting.

One thing it might mean is, simply, color. “I am a paint geek,” Ace says with a confessional smile. “I try all sorts of combinations. … I do a lot of thinking in color.” Lately she’s been thinking of her images as consisting not entirely of discrete objects but as clusters – “heaps” or “aggregates.” She relates her thinking to a Buddhist idea of taking things away until you come to nothingness. And as technically precise as her work might be, it also comes about partly through intuition, through “the lens of my imagination and the lens of my memory.” What she paints might well be an amalgam of photographs, images from books, computer images, and real life, respun and reimagined: “That whole thing of meaning, process and content – they’re all kind of mixed up.”

Things can stand for things, at least in her mind, if not necessarily the viewer’s: a still life might be a stand-in for a volcano, or a river. Time bends. In one painting, “Extinct Wildlife,” a long-necked toy dinosaur stands on a round table with a vase, flowers, an iPhone and cord, a purple necklace, and a mechanical bird. It’s lush and playful and disturbing, all at once. One thinks of Dennison’s little girl with the extinct rabbit.

Words are important, if mysterious: “Shakespeare created a lot of new words. But now we have a lot of new words, too. Like ‘Google.’ And ‘YouTube.’ I keep a little list of those.” She also downloads calligraphic fonts from her computer, and a lot of words end up in her paintings. They might end up on images of newsprint as quizzical fragments. “GREY-COATED GNAT DERM.” “and idle themes.” “tourism offshorable.” When her paintings include printed typeface, she says, “I want it to look mechanical and dead.”

As with Dennison’s, Ace’s paintings seem to suggest little dramas. Beyond that she doesn’t care to venture: she hopes, she says, that people will make up their own stories to go with each painting. Theories? Arguments? Someone else, it seems, can punch it out over that.

***

Not too long ago, Sara Siestreem told the gallery gathering at Augen, she did a lithography workshop at Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts in Pendleton, where she got into a conversation with painter James Lavadour, who “has always been a seminal influence on me.”

“We were talking about salmon and venison,” she says, “and how when you were growing up poor it wasn’t anywhere near the treat it is for people who didn’t grow up with that.”

“Children in Cold Climates,” Augen Gallery.

Siestreem, whose new show is called “For Children in Cold Climates,” is a member of the Coos tribe, along the southern Oregon coast. She was born in Springfield, putative home of those weirdly plain-jane Americans the Simpsons and the dirt-under-the-fingernails flip side of the university-town Eugene. She’s a home-grown talent, with a degree from Portland State and an MFA from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn; now she works in Oregon and teaches art at Portland Community College and as an adjunct at PSU. Siestreem’s work is at once abstract and contemporary (you could look at her work and appreciate it without any knowledge of her life or background) and also deeply rooted in her Native American identity. She’s worked with Lillian Pitt, the Wasco/Yakama/Warm Springs artist, and “one of the things she taught me was to respect our elders.”

Siestreem’s new paintings, generally oil or oil and graphite on paper, are free, loose, gestural: “I’m trying to really just get nature out of myself,” she says. But as spontaneous as they may seem, they’re not reckless. Her shapes have meaning and recurring motifs. Fish, boats, canoes: “We’re salmon people, and canoes continue to be very important to our people.” She talks about “embedded information,” much of which comes directly from her cultural history: the bitter 80-mile forced march of her people, for instance, in 1855 from their ancestral home around Coos Bay north to the area of Yachats. And if she’s getting nature out of herself, she’s getting it onto her paper, where her palette – reds, blacks, browns, oranges, duns, sometimes blues – is the colors of the land and sky.

Like Dennison with his fraying environment and Ace with her extinct dinosaur and fragments of language, Siestreem is concerned with loss, a contemplation that invests her paintings with a rough beauty. “Things start to degrade,” she says. “Entropy happens.” She talks, and paints, about the harvesting of salmon eggs to be sold as caviar, an all too common short-term advantage with a steep long-term expense: “We get into trouble when we do things like that, because that wipes out generations of fish.”

Those may or may not be fighting words. But a regional theme begins to emerge.

***

“When I was a little girl we did road trips,” the veteran Portland artist Sally Cleveland recalls. “That’s what we did.” Mom, Dad, kids, shut the doors, start the engine, just take off. “I felt like everybody I loved was in that car, and we were on the road.”

All these years later, the car and the road are still in her bones. “My process is, I drive around and look for obscure places,” she says. “I’m not looking for beautiful places. What I’m looking for, I guess, is something acoustic. Something that resonates with me.”

“Wet/Thursday,” Augen.

When you walk into Augen and glance quickly at the mostly small and tightly framed pieces in her new exhibit, “Winter Greenway,” your eyes tell you the pictures might be photographs, or maybe photorealist paintings. In fact, they’re neither. They’re carefully constructed paintings, clearly built and arranged, although they have a documentary quality. “I know some of these look very precise,” she comments, “but believe it or not, there is a lot of action underneath.” Part of the paintings’ reportorial feeling comes from the places she’s attracted to: the untidied corners, the places of forgotten industry, the blanched or drenched territories the tourist brochures edit out of the scene. Horse trailers, horses, cows, telephone poles, grain silos, empty roads, freight cars, waterlogged clouds, rain slicks, silent shipyards. A tough lyricism rises from such scenes.  “It gives me a kind of culpable silence,” she says of her chosen industrial spaces. “That’s the feeling I get at the docks sometimes.”

Cleveland’s paintings often have a momentary sense, that fleeting captured-in-time feeling of unrepeatability that good photographs can convey. It’s no accident. “I take a lot of photographs,” she says. “I have no issues with using photography.” Studying and rearranging her photos, she says “allows me to look harder at that one moment for a long time.” She can point at a painting and tell you precisely where it came from, as with the gray and mud-puddled “Car with Hood Open/Mt. Angel”: “This is my car. And somebody had their hood up, and it was foggy.” But those are only the facts. From them, and observation, and skill, and memory, and imagination, a painting has been made.

Like most artists, Cleveland is immersed in matters of materials and technique. She loves working on paper, she says, “because I love the texture or the nap of it.” And how different is that from the obsession of the painter in Reza’s play, “Art”? What, given a certain frame of mind, could be more purely and satisfyingly tactile than to create an entirely white canvas whose variations become visible only under the influence of unforced observation and concentration? The artist creates. The viewer responds. In Reza’s tart comedy, it’s the collector and the critic who come to blows. The artist is never even seen.

***

“Particle Cartography,” Elise Wagner, Butters Gallery.

What’s so great about encaustic, the ancient painting technique that involves the manipulation of heated bees’ or other wax mixed with pigment? “It has permanence, and it has fragility at the same time,” artist Elise Wagner tells the small crowd at Butters Gallery, where her newest show, “Event Horizons,” is hanging. “You can rework it, to a certain point – and it’ll last for 3,000 years.”

That’s a long time, and yet a momentary blink in the face of some of the ideas that prompt her work: things you can see through giant telescopes, “celestial things, colors in space and landscapes and nature …” Her current show includes 14 paintings and six framed prints, most created since last fall, and many contain in their titles words like “transit” or “collider” or “spacetime.” “I’ve worked with the subject of science for many years,” she notes. Still, she’s an artist, not a scientist, and she professes that it’s tough to get her head around the concepts in advanced science. But the wonder, and the fundamental urge to explore, are there: “My work comes from a place of wonder and curiosity.” The words “unknown” and “science,” she suggests, are “kind of the same thing.”

The paintings in Wagner’s current show have that telltale encaustic quality: cloudy, but not exactly. It’s more a soft illumination, a shining as through a gauze-filtered light. And texture: layers and peels of geological texture, broken jaggedly, like shale rock. More specifically in these paintings, there are circles and planes and horizons, mapped circumferences. Some of the works have very much the feel of old parchment maps, with their gloriously improvised imaginings of unknown shores. A big painting might have seven or eight or even more layers of wax, each of which must be completed before the next can be applied, and all of which must be set before any oil paint is added – “so you have to be certain you’re ready to put the oils on, because oil and wax don’t mix.” Working with encaustic is painting, but it’s also a little bit sculpture. You scrape down, dig into the layers to retrieve what you’d put there before. “A lot of this work,” Wagner says, “is archaeological in that respect.”

For all of her hard-headed practicality, she also works intuitively: “Things come to me in dreams, too. Or when I’m running or doing yoga. Things just slam into my head, and I have to write them down.” Eventually those ideas work their way into the wax. And the wax has heft. “Some of the work is very heavy,” Wagner says matter-of-factly. “It’s not for everyone.”

Nothing to get bent out of shape about. If you don’t like what you see, just move on.

***

So, Serge and Marc and Yvan and Yasmina. Does that white-on-white painting begin to look a little different? Still worth fighting over? Did any of you think to think about what the artist thought about his painting, what might have been behind it, how he might have got from there to here? Is it nothing but a trophy? Does it mean anything by itself? Is it nothing but a mirror? Is it a mirror, and something more? Is its power only to divide, or can it also unite? Is it shit, or Shinola, or something of a different texture entirely? Why didn’t the artist get to make his case? Is that another play, still to spring from the playwright’s head?

For all its elisions and stackings of the deck and cynical manipulations, I like “Art,” the play. It’s funny, and it has more than a shard of truth, and if its true target is human nature, it finds a fertile fighting field in the world of art. Yes, the squabbling can be both fierce and ridiculous. But there’s also something deeply and intentionally provisional in the thinking of these five Portland gallery artists, a quality that is singularly lacking in the hardline aesthetic and moral certainties that separate Serge and Marc and slap them down into opposite corners in the boxing ring. Each of these artists, I suspect, would understand the process that brought the painter in the play to his white-on-white, even if they might not particularly care for the result. In a way, the play’s true subject may be the calcification that comes with age: Marc and Serge, older but not wiser, turning all brittle and crustacean because they’ve forgot how to be flexible. Loosen up, guys, or you’re going to die sooner rather than late. Go out to dinner. Have a few drinks. Laugh a little, accept a lot.

Fist bump. OK?

 

One Response.

  1. First time I’ve been to the site but Bob Hicks- you’re awesome!

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