By Patrick Collier
The catalogue that accompanies the group exhibit marking the 25th anniversary of Nine Gallery lists all 22 artists who have been members over the years. (The gallery was started with a group of nine artists, and while that number has remained consistent throughout most of its history, there are now eleven members.) Some have come and gone, some have gone and come, and an intrepid few have been with the loose-knit collective since its inception in 1987. Following the roster are short bios and artist’s statements for each, some a sentence long while one is nearly a page in length. Three members are relatively new, and one, Mary Catherine Lamb, has died.
Jeremy Kassen’s entry is the shortest. A member from 1987 until 1990, from what I can find, he is teaching young children at an alternative school in Brooklyn. I did a web search but couldn’t find samples of his art. Michael Bowley, a member from 1989 to 2011, who still lives in Portland, gives us barely more information than Kassen, yet includes an old black and white photograph of a young boy and a dog in a yard. Judging from the shadows, it is late in the day in days gone by.
John Weber, a member from 1987 to 1993 apparently isn’t making art any longer, yet long-time Portlanders will remember him as the curator of contemporary art at the Portland Art Museum. His career has taken that trajectory. Similarly, Greg Ware, a member from 1991 to 2008, while still a practicing artist, now has the responsibilities that come with being the Provost at PNCA. Perhaps not surprisingly, a good number of past and present members are faculty in college art departments.
All might be considered stalwarts of art.
“Suppose time is a circle, bending back on itself. The world repeats itself, precisely, endlessly.”
― Alan Lightman, “Einstein’s Dreams”
In fact, one does not get to be considered stalwart without putting a considerable amount of dedication and energy into an endeavor. And while one cannot presume that any of the members of Nine Gallery consider themselves to be heroic or epic in their practice, time, understood as enduring, must certainly enter into their frame of self-reference, at least from the evidence of a number of pieces in the present group show.
On the left side of the door jam, Maria T. D. Inocencio has painted a series of flowers, the title for which is “Each Bloom Lasts for Just One Day.” Its meaning is readily evident: Appreciate beauty when it occurs, for it may be fleeting. Her piece continues to the opposite jam on which she has embedded a digital clock, and above that, couched words of advice: “Welcome to the present moment.” Yet this is a participatory piece as well, for below the clock are the words, “Please sign in,” and many have obliged by covering the jam with names, dates and times. If only for that moment, or continuing on into viewing the whole exhibit, time slows down to allow for some degree of contemplation.
Michael Bowley’s “Timepiece” marks time much like a clock would, but as duration. A standard, black office clock has had its numbers and hands removed. In their place is a blank, white, face and a piece of spring metal where the second hand would be. As it rotates, the metal marks the paper. Designed to perform a specific function, the metal leaves some trace of itself on the paper, yet how long will it be before the metal wins out and etches through the paper?
Following in a similar trajectory, Ellen George and Jerry Mayer have collaborated on another kinetic sculpture, “Time Remaining,” only this time a wooden ball attached to a mechanical armature leaves its marking of a circle upon the top of a pedestal. I can’t help but start to get depressed, for even though we may find a way to make the perfect circle and the mechanics for doing so are of our own making (the spectre of Walter Benjamin), to what end when it would otherwise seem perfunctory? Together, “Timepiece” and “Time Remaining” may be the most somber pieces in the exhibit.
Gary Boswell’s “Glyphticket: Azure” compounds the question of futility of purpose. Instead of numbers, Boswell’s sundial uses the alphabet to establish time, except that the ABCs are interrupted; some letters have been pulled from their sequence. Three quadrants of the dial contain all of the letters that are not used in the fourth, and those in the latter spell out a word.
It would be one thing, and simplistic at that, to replace the circle of numerals with one of the alphabet. To remove the letters from sequence runs contrary to our notion of time, and also linear thinking. Yet, perhaps I make too much of all of this, for when there is an azure sky the dial is both most easily “read” and the more reason we have for a word for that color. It is how we compartmentalize the world. This idea for the piece might supercede an ability to wholly represent that idea spill beyond Boswell’s actual device, which makes the “glyphticket” a matter of convenient, if incomplete consolidation/representation, and in this case, make it conceptual art.
Although it might not seem like it at first, perhaps because we are not quite sure what we are looking at, Paul Sutinen’s “Meeting Note” is very much about time, too, as in not wasting it. We’ve all been there: Minutes drag by as a petty issue only tangentially related to the agenda gets beat into the ground. That is when I doodle. Sutinen looks into his empty coffee cup, makes note of the marks left behind by the beverage. He then takes the cup back to his office to trim away all but the base and side seam of the cup. The meeting was not a complete loss if this simple, enigmatic and elegant little sculpture was the result.
I have a special place in my heart for Gallery Nine, for I wrote my first Portland-based art review about Bill Will’s work there in 2010. Relatively new to the city’s art scene, I was surprised to find this little gallery tucked into the much larger Blue Sky Gallery. At the time I did not take that idea any farther than “How nice of this big organization to provide this space for others.” It seemed to fit the vibe I was getting from the art community at large. Little did I realize the enduring relationship between Blue Sky and Nine, and how much the spirit I felt in Portland sprung from their cooperation.
1987 may mark the beginning of Nine Gallery, but before it came groups such as the Portland Center for Visual Arts, Northwest Artists Workshop, The Video Access Project and Blue Sky. All had some part in the establishment of Nine, for as some of these organizations dissolved, members reconvened as Nine. And, it may be argued, as these artists found a way to endure together, they also laid the groundwork for the strong art community that has developed in the years since.
Another twenty-five years? Stephanie Speight joined the group in 2004. Ellen George joined in 2009, as did Inocencio and Renée Zangara. Turnover happens slowly in this group, which may work to their advantage. So might their laid-back approach to the use of space itself.
The literature accompanying the exhibit makes much about the independence each artist has in their exhibition decisions, and besides some friendships between artists, keeping the space active is the primary, binding factor. Meeting just once a year as a group, there is little to distract them from their art and lives (yet the lack of better documentation from the last twenty-five years is a loss). And unless Blue Sky closes its doors (unlikely) or needs the space now occupied by Nine Gallery (again, unlikely, as Chris Rauschenberg, the President of Blue Sky, is a founding member of Nine), the group has little reason to cease doing what they have done for the last quarter of a century.