VizArts Monthly: February lights

Lighten your February load with the Portland Winter Light Festival and an abundance of visual arts exhibitions

Nearly everyone within earshot of these words already understands that one of the implications of the dramatic uptick in the cost of real estate and rents we’ve experienced lands directly on artists and the arts.

At City Hall, it’s apparent that Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioners Chloe Eudaly and Nick Fish understand it, too. “Nothing is inevitable about what we’ve achieved around the arts and culture,” Fish said at a January 9 public workshop on the issue of artists space. Fish, the commissioner responsible for the Regional Arts and Culture Council, has been working on a set of proposals—23 separate items were on his list as of January 9—to address the problem.

That plan will hit city council on February 28, and we’ll be writing about it both before and after that political event. None of the 23 items on the list require any capital expenditure by the city, which makes their passage more likely. Why the city budget is always tight is the subject for a vast treatise on political economy (I’d recommend Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire) and an analysis of where tax money goes. Don’t worry: I’m not going there. The pressing question for artists and arts groups priced out of Portland right now: how soon and how effectively can they alter the market and demographic forces creating the rent squeeze. So, we’ll have LOTS to talk about.

That’s one of the backdrops for this month’s First Thursday and First Friday art openings. The other is the passing of Portland’s Ursula K. Le Guin, a very great artist of the word, whose books did what every great piece of art does: connect us mind, body and spirit to our present reality and propose, directly or indirectly, alternate ones for us to consider. All of this while engaging us so completely that we aren’t thinking about any of this as we experience the work. Le Guin is a model for the artist in all of us.

OK, then, death and government policy: Not such a jolly way to enter the month’s art openings, maybe. I assure you, though, there’s less bread and circus and more serious grappling with our current dire political condition in the shows of our art galleries these days.

Let’s start with the circus!

The Portland Winter Light Festival runs February 1-3 at locations all around the city. I hesitate to advise any particular course through the festival, which includes more than 100 artists and groups. OK, I confess that I am drawn to Ryan Ramage’s Flamethrower Chandelier at the OMSI Esplanade and Tyler Fuqua’s roaming The Cosmic Space Worm, but now we’re just diving into depths of my subconscious that even I am afraid to plumb.

And anyway, I have a feeling that the ones you come upon accidentally will have the biggest effect. If your camera is up to the task of capturing them on film, sent images you don’t mind us posting and we’ll put them up on ArtsWatch, if they meet our oh-so-exacting standards for publication. That means if the files are large but not TOO large and the image is reasonably clear. Exacting I tell you, exacting. So, put on your layers, slip your poncho in your pocket, consult the website and the PDF of the program, and get out there Portland!

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Photo by Intisar Abioto/Courtesy of the Ori Gallery

Dear Portland, We have a new art gallery!

The Ori Gallery emerges into the light on Thursday. Maya Vivas and Leila Haile “seek to reclaim and redefine “the white cube” through amplifying the voices of Trans and Queer Artists of color, community organizing and mobilization through the arts.” That sentence is from their About page, and I’m excited about several elements of it. The white cube needs reclaiming and redefining; the voices of trans and queer artists of color should be amplified, in Portland of all places; and the arts are excellent forum for community organizing and mobilization, no matter what the board of the Queens Museum in New York thinks.

Ori’s first show, “Elements of Reclamation,” features work “full and pregnant with narratives ripe in complexity, joyousness, the playful, the nonsensical, the bothered and unbothered ways of being,” as the text on the website says, by Vivas, Melanie Stephens, Lisa Jarrett, Intisar Abioto, and sidony o’neal. I happen to love the idea of “bothered and unbothered ways of being”—I just spent five minutes thinking about it, and I intend to go back!

The description continues: “These elements of reclamation expand beyond the single unit of body and ideas of possession. It encompasses place, culture, community, past, present and future. It is a coming together of a body of bodies conscious of their context. It is a body thinking of itself.”

Ori Gallery is at 4038 N. Mississippi Ave. The grand opening is 6-10 pm Thursday, February 1.

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Christy Wycoff, Bed of Stones 3, detail, weaving from a lithograph/Courtesy Blackfish Gallery

At Blackfish Gallery, the city’s oldest artist cooperative (founded in 1979), sculptor Kanetaka Ikeda “unveils the latest iteration of his Cosmic Tree this month, a subject that sprang from a vivid, cosmological dream experienced 30 years ago. ‘Imagine invisible lines of gravity and dark matter as branches and trunks of a cosmic tree.’ Ikeda suggests.”

The Cosmic Tree this month also includes new Blackfish artist Monica Mitchell, Seattle artist John Lau’s mixed media works on rice paper. “Quiet Days,” and Christy Wyckoff, a central figure in the state’s printmaking community through his long service as chair of PNCA’s printmaking department. I’m especially drawn to Wyckoff’s combination of printmaking and weaving in “Bed of Stones.” The weavings arise from the lithographs; both are intricate, deft and respond directly to something we’ve all seen.

Monica Mitchell, “Freya’s Vortex of Expectations” (vertical view)
2014
installation, materials variable
installation, dimensions variable

I recently had a conversation with a Portland artist whose inclinations lean in a post-minimalist direction—clean and sharp as a shark tooth. When I asked her what she’d seen recently that was rumbling around her brainpan, she laughed and said, “messy things.” Mitchell’s work is actually quite exacting, too, but it SUGGESTS chaos by hinting at the forms within the maelstrom

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Henk Pander, “Ride in the Alvord”, 2015, ink on paper, 38 x 50 inches

The speculative aspect of Ursula K. Le Guin’s work? In Portland, the nearest visual equivalent, to my eyes anyway, is found in the work of Henk Pander. A drawing show of Pander’s incredible pen and ink work is on display at the Augen Gallery. They practically force the viewer to become a speculative fiction writer: What possible narrative contains them? Warning: The stories are going to get pretty dark. For a little background on the Dutch-born Pander, you might consider a short essay on him that I wrote on my old blog, Arts Dispatch.

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A couple more shows to encourage you to venture forth into the dark and dank that February often can be?

Elizabeth Malaska, “Star Gazers”, 2017, oil, Flashe, charcoal, pencil on canvas, 50 x 42 inches

How about the combination of G. Lewis Clevenger and Elizabeth Malaska at the Russo Lee Gallery? Clevenger’s acrylic abstract paintings lure the viewer with layers of shapes and lines and color that lead deeper and deeper, pulling on the viewer’s own looming memories of forms and lines. Malaska’s work combines various media, textures and patterns, somewhat reminiscent of Matisse, except in her paintings, the female models are often armed and dangerous.

And later in the month at the Portland Art Museum, “Common Ground,” A traveling show organized by the Denver Art Museum, draws from eight separate series of photographs by Fazal Sheikh, from 1989 to 2013. Sheikh was born in Kenya, though his father’s ancestors are from Pakistan, and he has documented the people and life in refugee camps all over Africa and the Middle East. He’s also spent a lot of time in Pakistan and India, often working with Afghan refugees. He allows his subjects to collaborate in setting up the photographs, and they provide their own first person accounts of their stories. This process delivers a different sort of image of the refugees—not the downtrodden, suffering victims we usually see. The show opens on February 24.

Feel free to add your picks and accounts of your experiences in the comment section below. Hey, we need to learn from each other, right?

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