By Patrick Collier
Editor’s Note: On his travels around Portland’s galleries and museums, Patrick Collier often sees a narrative or a common theme develop between individual pieces of work from different exhibits. “Spot On” is a new feature that will explore these stories and notions.
In her book, “A World of Fragile Things,” Mari Ruti writes, “It is impossible to love life…without loving transience.” As the pink flower petals that filled Portland’s curbs last week decompose and give way to light brown seeds floating down from other trees, this particular moment in the Cycle of Life seems easy to embrace, though the human conceit is that we are both part of and apart from the source, from nature in both its lower and upper case “N” incarnations.
Of course, transience contains permanence, for as things change, there is no turning back to the way they were: Alterations are a kind of death as much as something newly born. And so artists both celebrate and issue dire warnings about it. I offer four current examples:
Augen Gallery is showing Mary Wells in its middle room.The title of the exhibit, “Renaissance Expressionism,” is every bit as ambitious as her paper mosaics are meticulous. Her “Four Seasons,” displayed together on one wall, reveal her investment, heart and soul, in nature’s splendor, an overabundance she wishes to share so much that beneath these pieces she has mounted a small MP3 player and headphones with corresponding movements from Vivaldi’s Baroque violin concertos of the same name. She even provides rather expensive-looking magnifying lenses should one wish to more closely examine her abundant detailing.
The Bible asserts that Man shall have dominion over Nature, but Ryan Pierce’s latest paintings at Elizabeth Leach Gallery portray a world where our efforts to prosper from the soil have gone awry. Post-apocalyptic and allegorical, these works suggest a time of hunger, chaos and extinction (even our own) that already exists in many parts of the world. More disturbing than these paintings, Pierce also presents us with three discrete sculptures, each a cut crystal bowl containing a small number of seeds and a silver spoon. Surrounding these bowls is an arrangement of small white envelopes, much like the ones in which garden seeds are sold.
I saw this work on opening night and visited again seven days later, only to be horrified to find that two of the three bowls were nearly empty. Why my reaction? The sculptures are titled “Pathogen I – III,” and each gallery label describes the plants the seeds might become. They are all prolific weeds that have been genetically modified to resist the herbicide commonly known as “Roundup.” If Pierce has indeed altered these seeds and they have been scattered by gallery visitors, idyllic suburban and urban lawns and gardens are now in peril, for efforts to make them pristine through chemistry may be nigh impossible, as we have learned from the cross-pollination of genetically modified crops. I knowing just how prolific these weeds are from my time as an organic vegetable farmer: Gardeners, prepare for more time on hands and knees!
Which brings us to the hunt. Disjecta is hosting the University of Oregon MFA exhibit this month. I travelled to Kenton to see one artist’s work in particular, for I had seen Brooks Dierdoff’s exhibit, “Harvest,” a couple months ago at Ditch Projects in Springfield. As I expected, much of the same work was in his MFA Thesis exhibit, minus a few pieces I missed seeing again. And while his work benefitted from the expansiveness of Ditch for his solo, I was glad to see that his video, “Game Bag (Headlights),” had a wall to itself at Disjecta.
Dierdoff took up deer hunting (referred to it as “harvesting” by serious practitioners) while studying in Eugene. Much of his art following that experience demonstrates an ambivalence toward the activity, perhaps none more so than “Game Bag.” The scene is lit by two headlights shining out from the dark background. In the foreground we see Dierdoff inside a semi-transparent game bag, very much the womb until he begins to hoist himself with a pulley mechanism, replacing the deer, becoming the vanquished and leading to a meditation on life and death ripe with potential for a psychoanalytic reading.
I don’t know if any animal other than humans can experience remorse; however, I have witnessed what might be a form of grief when a calf dies and is taken away from the mother cow. I have also experienced what I want to interpret as that same cow’s anger as she chased me into the woods the next morning. Although we are warned about our tendency to anthropomorphize, ultimately, we gain empathy (and experience remorse) based only on what we have felt and learned from our experiences, which include experiences with animals. The rest of our “understanding” is merely a guess, and to that degree, we are alone, unsure and separated from our herd.
This may be the overarching theme of Heidi Schwegler’s exhibit at Chambers@916. The shivering little pink lamb front-and-center in the gallery, while giving one a chuckle, slowly turns into a remonstrance, for we remember times in our life, perhaps from our earliest melancholy memories, that we have been that forlorn little animal. But all is not lost. Take a look at Schwegler’s video, “Sadly Optimistic,” in the back kiosk to remind yourself that we continue to engage with the hope that something worthwhile and remarkable lies ahead that can then be made into art.
Patrick Collier is an artist who has been writing about the arts for more than 15 years. He has written for the Midwest journal “The New Art Examiner,” and most recently for “UltraPDX” and “PORT.” Collier came to the art world by an indirect route, via degrees in Philosophy and English Literature, later receiving an MFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Prior to moving to Oregon in 2003, Collier and his wife operated the Chicago gallery bona fide to critical but not financial success. The same can be said for their organic farm located outside of Salem. When not in his studio or visiting galleries, Collier is likely aboard his trusty tractor Tragedy turning compost.